Two Portraits in Resistance: Abu 'Umar and Mahjub 'Umar
The word “Palestinian” today, at least in the realm of politics, almost automatically attaches itself to the word “Authority.” This calls forth images of an entity that in fact has no sovereignty, no real jurisdiction, painfully limited authority, and precious little dignity, dwarfed as it is by its Israeli and U.S. overseers and patrons. In such circumstances, it may be difficult to recall that there was a time when the word “Palestine” spontaneously evoked another word, “Resistance,” and a far different set of associations.
In the 1960s and 1970s, “Palestinian Resistance” referred to a movement made up of men and women who called themselves feda’iyin (meaning those who sacrifice themselves), and for whom self-sacrifice for the cause of Palestine was their raison d’être. They did so in myriad spheres, from the cultural and the social to the political and the military. Many of the best among them made the ultimate sacrifice in this cause. These included several of the movement’s most prominent cadres and leaders, who from the 1970s onward were targeted for assassination by Israel and at times hostile Arab regimes. Notable among these victims was the gifted author and artist Ghassan Kanafani, who was murdered by Israeli agents forty years ago this summer.
In later years, mistakes, miscalculations, deviations, and corruption clouded and eventually dispelled the image of these early years of the resurrection of the Palestinian national movement. This is why the two short appreciations of departed feda’iyin that follow are so welcome, serving to revive our memory of a time when commitment and self-sacrifice were the rule rather than the exception in the Palestinian Resistance—or at least ideals actively to be pursued.
It is pure coincidence that these remembrances came to us at the same time, for they concern two men whose deaths are separated by almost four decades: “Abu ‘Umar” disappeared off the coast of Lebanon in 1976, and “Mahjub ‘Umar” died in Cairo earlier this year. Even among the selfless men and women who filled the ranks of the Resistance in the early years, these two stood out for their utter devotion to the cause, and the intelligence and commitment with which they served. Neither of them was well known to the outside world, but both were renowned, not only within Fatah, to which they both belonged despite their Marxist politics, but also far beyond. Both joined the Resistance at around the same time, in the wake of the 1967 war, and they knew each other through their work at the Palestinian Planning Center. Both were highly educated, both could easily have chosen more comfortable careers, and both dedicated their lives to serving others, each in his own unique way. Their most important contributions were political and intellectual, combating negative trends within the Palestinian national movement that unfortunately have since grown much stronger. Those who knew them, as I did, were always struck by the fact that for all their brilliance and wit, they were truly simple, unprepossessing, and humble men.
Their lives, then, serve as reminders of the early history of the Palestinian national movement, now largely forgotten by a generation that knows only the disappointments of the years after the PLO’s forced withdrawal from Beirut in 1982, and the tragic failed compromises of the Oslo years. Abu ‘Umar (his nom de guerre; his real name was Hanna Ibrahim Mikha’il) and Mahjub ‘Umar (his real name was Ra’uf Nazmi Mikha’il) joined the Resistance because they were committed to changing the stagnant status quo in an Arab region riddled with regimes characterized by hollow nationalist rhetoric and dominated by regional and international powers, from Israel and the Shah’s Iran to the United States and the Soviet Union. Abu ‘Umar was one of many Palestinians who returned from abroad, in his case from an academic career in the United States, to place their abilities at the service of their people. Mahjub ‘Umar, an Egyptian militant who served the Palestinian Resistance for fifteen years, was one of thousands of volunteers who joined the movement from across the Middle East and from farther afield. In this age of cynical exploitation of religion for various ends throughout the Middle East, it is worth recalling the trajectories of these two secular intellectuals imbued with Marxist ideas, but who were deeply respectful of the role of religion in Palestinian and Arab society.
These two short portraits were drawn by individuals close to their subjects. That of Abu ‘Umar was penned by his wife, Jehan Helou, his companion and comrade in the Resistance. That of Mahjub ‘Umar was written by Elias Khoury, editor of our Arabic-language sister publication, Majallat al-Dirasat al-Filastiniyya, who knew him well during his years in Beirut and later Cairo. The two remembrances are very different. Jehan Helou’s is more descriptive, more explicitly biographical, and gives prominence to her husband’s political views. Elias Khoury’s obituary for his friend is more evocative, allusive. But in evoking these exceptional—yet representative—men, they eloquently convey the spirit of an era long gone. The Journal of Palestine Studies is fortunate to be able to present them.
—Rashid I. Khalidi
Jehan Helou, was a member of the Palestine National Council from 1981 to 1983, has served on the executive committee of the General Union of Palestinian Women, directed the Tamer Institute for Community Education in Palestine, and is on the executive committee of International Board on Books for Young People. This piece was translated by Haifa Helou Ruhayyem.
Elias Khoury is a Lebanese writer, critic, and public intellectual, whose novels include The Little Mountain, The Journey of Little Gandhi, and Gate of the Sun. He teaches literature at New York University. This piece first appeared in Arabic in JPS’s sister publication Majallat al-Dirasat al-Filastiniyya, which he coedits, and was translated for JPS by Maia Tabet.