Death ends a life, but not our remembrances of the man who lived it, in particular an exceptional man whose energies of spirit as an organic intellectual will continue to resonate with us long after his passing.
My friend Salem Shaheen, a soul mate with whom I had, as we say, broken bread, and did so in both senses of the world, died last Thursday in Washington from Covid complications. He had been fully vaxed and boosted but, in spite of that, it seemed that his number was up.
The hour met the man too early in his life — he lived on this earth for only three days short of 57 years.
To be sure, since the outset of the pandemic, several of my friends — I hazard to guess, like yours — have had their own lives claimed by this virus, a dreaded visitation that has haunted our days over the last two years, but the death of Salem hit hard.
Zest to articulate to the world
Salem, a fellow-Palestinian, was the quintessential activist who was possessed of a dream, one that centred around his people’s cause and that he devoted all the zest in him — and zest he had in spades -to articulate to the world.
Every era chooses its own idiom to describe individuals like Salem. In Edwardian times in England, for example, he would’ve been known as “earnest” and in America in the ‘60s, the New Journalists would surely have picked the term “relevant” to describe him. In today’s argot, we know him as “engaged”. Salem’s fellow-Palestinian Americans would’ve identified him simply as “monadel”, a word from the old country that translates plainly as “activist”.
But by whatever moniker you had opted to call him, he loved playing the role — and he played it well, relished it mightily and let himself be fully defined by it. Activism was his raison d’etre.
Salem was a cultivated reader who effortlessly quoted from Martin Heidegger as from Ibn Khaldun in order to illustrate the dialectical tensions that had informed the Palestinian struggle since the 1920s, all the while eschewing pedestrian narratives about we-are-the-victims and they-are-the-victimizers, so case closed.
At lectures he delivered, in interviews he gave and even at late night rap sessions with close friends, he challenged people to go with him to places, shall we say, where no man had gone before by putting on the table seemingly improbable propositions for debate. The man’s intellectual effusions, I tell you, had a touch of both the maniacal and the philosophical in them.
Once during the Q and A period that followed a lecture he had delivered at SUNY-Buffalo, for example, Salem was asked by a student what the best course of action was open to Palestinians at the time, now that all peace initiatives had failed.
On-the-road, no-holds-barred activist
“I would urge them to learn how to conjugate verb ‘to be’ “, he responded cryptically. “Especially the future perfect, and how to find a place in it for themselves”.
Oh, yes, he was a freewheeling, on-the-road, no-holds-barred activist’s activist, who gave more lectures, had more fun and drank more booze than he cared to admit.
Till he was not.
It was probably around seven or eight years ago when Salem began to withdraw — away from the cause, into himself and toward, I suspect, what French philosopher Eluand once called le dur desir de durer, that is to say, the harsh desire by the human spirit to overreach time, to outlast despair. During our encounters at the time — and he chose to see people, including close friends, less and less frequently then — I noticed how his words had lost their snap, his voice its resonance and his vision its depth.
In our last encounter, three days before New Year’s Eve, he said to me mournfully — as he railed and railed against the excesses of a Palestinian leadership that had taken its people from one diplomatic disaster to another, one military defeat to another and one act of social grief to another — “It has all come to naught, hasn’t it?”
“So, what now?” I asked, equally mournfully.
“Don’t ask me”, he said. “I’m a former activist”.
The term “former activist”, like former president and former rock star and former heavyweight champ, has a melancholic ring to it. But those were the last words I had exchanged with him.
Salem may have passed away last Thursday as the result of a virus he had contracted. But his death — death by a thousand cuts — was in reality was a result of the alienation he felt from a cause that he had loved and devoted the whole of his adult life to and one in which he had anchored the entirety of his self-definition.
And it killed him as good as if he’d been shot in the chest by a 12-gauge shotgun.
Rest in peace, dear Salem.
— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile