Book Review – Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab. Contemporary Arab Thought

(H-Levant, September 2010)

Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab. Contemporary Arab Thought: Cultural Critique in Comparative Perspective. New York Columbia University Press, 2010. Reviewed by Yoav Di-Capua (Department of History, University of Texas at Austin) –

Arab Thought and the Obsession of 1967 – Here, we have a book that seems inspired by conversations around a kitchen table, somewhere in Lebanon, following the 1967 war contemplating the magnitude of the defeat and the relevance of cultural heritage to the Arab experience of modernity. Indeed, Elizabeth Kassab retrieves the topic of this stimulating book from her childhood memories, tying scattered conversations to invoke concerns about the meaning of modernity (_hadatha_) and Enlightenment  (_tanwir_) in today’s Arab world.

For more than a century, the quest to understand modernity has dominated public discussions, and the relentless and constant search for solid cultural grounding, selfhood, or for lack of a better word, orientation, is a hallmark of Arab modernity. This has included hundreds of Arab intellectuals writing thousands of books, convening dozens of conferences and symposia, and giving birth to a full-fledged intellectual tradition. Though politically disenfranchised, the intellectual output of this network can be easily identified in reflections, debates, and deliberations in most Arab news organizations, periodicals, journals, newspapers, and blogs. Kassab, a Lebanese intellectual historian and a research fellow at the German Orient Institute in Beirut, proves capable of making sense of these academic exchanges. (Read more)