Friday, February 27, 2015

Final act - The curtain closes on journalist Eric Rouleau

The death of journalist Eric Rouleau this week, at the age of 89, was another symbolic closing of the curtain on a particular era when Arab nationalism dominated the region.

That this could be embodied by an Egyptian Jew, born Elie Raffoul, was not the least of the anomalies of Rouleau’s life. In 1985 Francois Mitterrand would name him French ambassador to Tunisia, before he would go on to head the embassy in Turkey. Not often do former journalists, particularly those considered engagĂ©, transition successfully to the world of diplomacy, where autonomy of expression is dreaded.

In reading Rouleau’s 2012 memoir, Dans Les Coulisses du Proche-Orient: Memoires d’un Journaliste Diplomate (1952-2012), one is struck by the author’s preoccupation with a world that was, by the time of publication, largely anachronistic. His discussions of Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Palestinian cause seemed drawn from a bygone era, at a time when the region had been shaken by uprisings in Egypt, Syria and Libya.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, in each of these countries the regimes in place portrayed themselves as Arab nationalist. By then they had morphed into sinister police states without ideals or ideas, their Arabism solely a vehicle to stifle aspirations for the future.

It’s difficult in reading Rouleau’s recollections not to see a direct link between the world he recalled with nostalgia and these revolts. Nasser, a man whom Rouleau admired, was the main instigator of an authoritarian regime with a DNA that other Arab leaderships would replicate in subsequent decades. While Nasser would seek to promote the idea of “Egypt for the Egyptians” and egalitarian policies, the price to pay was a suffocation of democratic political life and cultural richness.

It is interesting that Rouleau focuses on the latter point, despite his support for Nasser’s anti-imperialist message. As he wrote bitingly in his memoirs: “Although legitimate, the policy of ‘Egyptianization’ had its flip side: the exodus of several hundred thousand people from ‘minority’ backgrounds disfigured the Egypt I had known in my younger years—tolerant, rich in its creative diversity and in the communities that contributed largely to its economic and cultural life. Greeks, Italians, English, French or Jews of all nationalities, for the most part from modest backgrounds, were victims of the discriminatory measures that followed nationalization of most of the large and medium enterprises, and, more generally, the climate of insecurity generated by exacerbated nationalism.”

For those who knew Egypt before the revolution, such a verdict is familiar. Yet it is a tribute to Rouleau’s honesty that he can be so candid, despite being one of those who helped make Nasser known to the West, particularly through a famous interview he conducted with the Egyptian leader for Le Monde in 1963.

Doubtless what was behind Rouleau’s longing for Egypt’s bygone cosmopolitanism was that it allowed him to break free from the manacles of imposed identity. Though a Jew, he could write with sympathy of Arab nationalism and the Palestinian cause, while until the end his Arabic was that of a native.

No one is insensible to the passage of time, and even those critical of Arab nationalism can read Rouleau with a certain sense of nostalgia for an era that contrasts so strikingly with the disintegration of the Arab world today. In the 1950s and 1960s the region seemed a place of limitless possibilities, amid the hopes and spasms of “revolution.” That optimism was partly a sham, culminating in the ignominious Arab defeat by Israel in June 1967 and the destabilization of the region thanks to the Palestine Liberation Organization. But in his book, Rouleau, as a prime chronicler of that period, succeeds in teasing self-delusion out of us, and it’s not unpleasant.

The late Malcolm Kerr, in his classic book The Arab Cold War: Gamal Abd al-Nasir and His Rivals, 1958-1970, wrote that “[S]ince June 1967 Arab politics have ceased to be fun. In the good old days most Arabs refused to take themselves very seriously, and this made it easier to take a relaxed view of the few who possessed intimations of some immortal mission.”

Kerr himself would fall victim to such people in January 1984, when he was assassinated at the American University of Beirut. However, his comments are apt in the time of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the personification of messianic humorlessness. It’s ironic that what Kerr lamented after 1967, we can yet look back on with consideration today amid the mass murderers all around us. We have hit rock bottom in a region defined exclusively by violence, mediocrity, and disenchantment.

In his long life Rouleau was able to witness the permutations of the region into ever-lower life forms. He had come from a more promising, more civilized, time, which is why we can forgive him the mirages frequently appearing in his accounts. They are the mirages we are creating ourselves in this time of desolation.

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