Farouk Mardam-Bey is a Franco-Syrian author, book publisher, and gastronome. He is the director of the Arab world collections at the French publishing house Actes-Sud and the author of several books on the Middle East. These include the two-volume Itinéraires de Paris à Jérusalem: La France et le Conflit Israélo-Arabe (1992), written with Samir Kassir, as well as a book he co-edited with Elias Sanbar, Jérusalem: Le Sacré et le Politique (2000). For a long time he also wrote a column on food for Qantara, the magazine of the Institute du Monde Arabe in Paris, under the penname Ziryab. He published two books on the same topic, titled La Cuisine de Ziryab (1999) and La Cuisine du Petit Ziryab (2005). Diwan met with Mardam-Bey in early November to discuss his varied career and to hear his perspective on a Middle East that is currently undergoing radical transformation.
Michael Young: You are the director of the Arab world collections at the French publishing house Actes-Sud. What is it that you do exactly?
Farouk Mardam-Bey: I have been directing these collections since the acquisition by Actes-Sud in 1995 of Sindbad, a small, specialized publishing house founded in 1972. Sindbad had published 160 books, distributed among several series, either dedicated to the translation of classical and contemporary literature or essays in different fields of the humanities. Thorough its efforts, for the first time great names in Arab literature were published in French, including the Egyptian novelist and Novel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, for instance. Among the authors Sindbad also published were noted French Arabists, such as Jacques Berque and André Miquel.
Since 1995, Sindbad has been enriched with more than 300 new titles, comprised of nearly 200 translations of Arabic literature, among them classical texts in verse and prose, as well as mostly contemporary works. Indeed, Actes-Sud has become the most active publisher of Arabic literature in Europe. Every year it also publishes essays on the most heated political issues pertaining to the Middle East.
MY: You are also a Syrian, from a prominent Damascene family, one of whose singular figures, Jamil Mardam-Bey, was a founder of the Arab nationalist Al-Fatat organization under the Ottoman Empire, helped found the National Bloc, and became prime minister after Syrian independence. How has your family’s background shaped your own political outlook?
FMB: My family history had no influence on my political choices or my tastes in literature and the arts. While knowing and acknowledging the prominent place of Jamil Mardam-Bey, or his cousin Khalil, for a long time the president of the Arab Academy of Damascus, in the political and cultural history of Syria, I intuitively sought to distinguish myself from them, rather than identify with them. Since my teenage years in the late 1950s, I have always leaned to the left, even to the radical left, and I have been opposed to all the regimes that followed each other in Syria and the Arab world. Nothing I see or hear today encourages me to change my mind.
MY: As the war in Syria rages on, what will the country end up looking like?
FMB: Syria will not revive the radiant image of the 2011–2012 protests, with their slogans of freedom, dignity, and social justice. On the contrary, one can expect an “unstable stabilization” of the regime, under the tutelage of Russia and Iran, leading to more massacres and destruction.
Everyone now realizes how much the Syrian revolution was “orphaned,” in the sense that no regional or international party had any interest in its victory. And one also understands why it was “impossible,” as Syrian society had been banned from politics for more than 50 years, and both its ethnic and confessional components had been deliberately undermined by mutual hatred and mistrust. But while the revolution may have been orphaned and impossible, it was also inevitable, and just. I am sure that the political and social antagonisms that triggered it will only be exacerbated in the future. Our unjust and cowardly world is not done with Syria!
MY: What has your personal relationship been with the Assad regime, father and son?
FMB: I have never been attracted to the Ba‘th and I consider as illegitimate the regimes stemming from the three coups led by Ba‘thist officers—in 1963, 1966, and 1970. Besides, the Ba‘th bore great responsibility for the defeat of June 1967 against Israel, and as a consequence I could only hate the defense minister at the time, Hafez al-Assad. I was very suspicious about him later having access to absolute power. His cruelty toward his former fellow officers did not bode well and the worst did not take too long in manifesting itself, through the development of an army trained for civil war, confessional and sectarian militias, and a sprawling network of intelligence services.
In 1976 I signed a petition and took part in a demonstration against Syrian intervention in Lebanon. A decision was taken to deprive me of my passport and an order was given to arrest me at the borders. After that, and throughout the reign of Hafez al-Assad, the situation in Syria worsened, and the son followed in his father’s footsteps. Therefore, I have stayed in France all this time, with no hope of setting foot again in Damascus, my hometown.
MY: The politics of exile can often be disheartening. Do you see any hope in the expanding community of Syrian exiles, many of whom are unlikely to return home for as long as the Assad regime remains in power?
FMB: “Exile is hard work,” wrote the great Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet. He was of course referring to forced exile, like the one affecting the millions of Syrians today who have lost everything, who live in precarious conditions, and who know that when they go back to Syria, if they ever go back, they won’t be residing in their devastated cities and towns. It seems that some of them, at least those who found refuge in Europe and whose children are going to school, will end up integrating into the host societies. It won’t be easy. It will require perseverance and courage to start their lives from scratch, learning the language of the host countries, adapting to their laws and customs, at a time where the latter are themselves going through a new type of identity crisis as a consequence of neoliberal globalization.
MY: You collaborated with the late Samir Kassir on a two-volume book on France and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Relatively few overviews have been written on that specific subject. What were your major conclusions?
FMB: More than 25 years have passed since the publication of that book, but its main conclusions still seem valid to me. This might be due to the fact that we were particularly interested in highlighting the reflexes that determined the attitude of the different French political forces toward the Arab-Israeli conflict, as well as the stances of intellectuals in France.
The most pernicious manifestation of those reflexes was eurocentrism, whether it reflect a professed desire for domination on a global scale or whether it was concealed by “progressive” declarations of principle. From the earliest beginnings of political Zionism, it was this spontaneous attitude that shaped the perception of the forthcoming conflict in Palestine and the region—on the one hand, by disregarding the Palestinian population, and on the other, by granting to Zionism the characteristics of a “civilizing mission.”
To this should be added the discovery at the end of World War II of the full extent of Nazi crimes against the Jews. This fed the guilty conscience of Europeans, creating in them a belief that a double compensation was needed—material and moral. This “duty of granting reparation” was particularly urgent in France, where a third of the Jewish population had perished in concentration camps with the complicity of the Vichy government.
Finally, throughout the 1950s, deeply traumatized by the crisis of its empire, France found itself in direct confrontation with Arab nationalism, especially after the outbreak of the Algerian revolution. This explains the tacit military alliance with Israel, which reached its peak in the misadventure of Suez in 1956 and the supply to Israel of nuclear technology to build an atomic bomb. Charles de Gaulle may have officially put an end to this alliance in 1967, but old reflexes reappear at each new stage of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
MY: What was it like to work with Samir Kassir, who was assassinated in 2005 in Beirut?
FMB: I met Samir in 1983. He had just finished an article for the Revue d’Etudes Palestiniennes, of whose editorial board I was a member. By a strange alchemy we immediately became friends. I was sixteen years older than Samir. I was shy and introverted while he was confident and expansive. I would take an hour to write three lines while he was able during that time to write three pages. He quickly joined the journal’s editorial team, performing efficiently and brilliantly. When we started writing our book, after a long period of research and exchange, he had on numerous occasions to slow down so that I could catch up with him. He’d turn up at my door every night at about 10:00 p.m. to make sure I had progressed and would make cutting remarks about my slowness or my pages filled with erasures and corrections. By then he had already bought a computer and mastered word processing and layout. It is thanks to Samir Kassir, to his reprimands and encouragements, that I began to write and became cured of my writer’s block.
MY: You have also been engaged on the Palestinian question. Yet Palestinian affairs seem to be of less concern in the Arab world than they once were. Why is that the case and what will the outcome of this be, given that we’ve reached a stage were no mutually agreed solution in Israel-Palestine seems possible?
FMB: Despite past proclamations that Palestine was the “sacred cause of the Arabs,” Arab states never, or almost never, presented a united front against the Zionist movement prior to 1948, nor did they after the foundation of Israel. Their policies depended, and still depend, on their own interests as well as on their regional and international alliances.
However, and although this may seem to contradict the first observation, the Palestinian question has not ceased to be embedded in the political and social struggles within Arab countries, especially within the countries bordering Israel. That is because there continues to be what we can call an “Israeli question.” It is the question of a state that defies all norms, that is exempted from respecting international law, that has a very powerful army, and that rejects any somewhat equitable peaceful solution to the conflict with the Palestinians. This reality regularly revives popular solidarity with the Palestinians, even if the momentum is not what it once was.
I see three major reasons for the relative popular disengagement from the Palestinian cause. The first is the unprecedented social, political, and moral crisis throughout the Arab world, which is resulting in the rejection by Arab peoples of those things governments use to justify themselves, including the conflict with Israel. The second is the ferocity of these governments in repressing any opposition, which has come to exceed the horrors of the Palestinian defeat of 1948. The third is the failure of the so-called “peace process” that followed the Oslo Accords of 1993, combined with the catastrophic governance of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and Hamas in Gaza.
MY: You wrote about one former power in the Middle East, France, but are we witnessing today the decline of another power in the region, namely the United States? And what may be the long-term consequences of this?
FMB: Are we really observing the decline of the American empire? Yes, if we think of the fifteen years that followed the collapse of the Soviet bloc, when the United States no longer had a rival anymore. No, if we consider that the United States maintains several features allowing it to remain the most powerful state in the multipolar world that is being shaped.
Everything that happened in the past nine years in the Middle East, and that was considered by some as illustrating the decline of the United States, was wished for, or at least tolerated, by the Obama administration. The administration could have put an end to Iran’s stranglehold on Iraq. In 2013, after the chemical attack by the Syrian regime against the East Ghouta, it could have put an end to the Syrian tragedy. It also had the means to put pressure on Israel. If this administration did not do anything, that’s because it did not want to do anything. The result is a disaster for the Middle East, not for the United States, except from a moral point of view, but is that seen as so important in the world as it is today?
MY: Finally on a different note, you once wrote a column on food for Qantara, the magazine of the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, under the penname Ziryab. How does this passion fit into your fascination with the Middle East?
FMB: I have to confess that I am a food lover! I am also passionate about classical Arab literature, and I have always been intrigued by the importance it granted to food. It happens that I was in France at a moment when historians were showing a growing interest in this aspect of “material civilization.” That encouraged me to take a closer look at the Arab heritage in this regard.
Thus, when the president of the Institut du Monde Arabe asked me in 1992, when I was a cultural advisor of the institution, to brighten up Qantara by adding a culinary feature, I spontaneously offered to write it. I later gathered my articles in a book titled La Cuisine de Ziryab. I also co-wrote with a friend of mine a book titled Traité du Pois Chiche, which we can translate as Treatise on the Chickpea, of which I am very proud!