Sunday, January 08, 2012

The Last Book of Christopher Hitchens

The last published book of Christopher Hitchens, who died on 15 December, 2011 at age 62, is titled "Arguably." It is a collection of his previously-published essays, a fitting coda to a polemicist and a literary polymath. You don't have to agree with Hitchens, and there was much to disagree about - his support of the Iraq War, for instance - to recognize that his opinions were provocative, well-argued and always a great read. "Boring" is a word you will never associate with anything Hitchens wrote.

I read some of the essays in "Arguably" when they were first published in The Atlantic, Vanity Fair and the online magazine Slate. But what I found remarkable in the book is the content of the dedication page: "To the memory of Mohamed Bouazizi, Abu-Abdel Monaam Hamadeh, and Ali Mehdi Zeu."

Unless you were living in the woods as a hermit for the past two years, at least the first name - Mohamed Bouazizi - should ring a bell. He was the Tunisian vendor who set himself afire and launched the Arab Spring last year. But the others?

Well, here is Hitchens: "The three names on the dedication page belonged to a Tunisian street vendor, an Egyptian restaurateur, and a Libyan husband and father. In the Spring of 2011, the first of them set himself alight in the town of Sidi Bouzid, in protest at just one too many humiliations at the hands of petty officialdom. The second also took his own life as Egyptians began to rebel en masse at the stagnation and meaninglessness of Mubarak's Egypt. The third, it might be said, gave his life as well as took it: loading up his modest car with petrol and homemade explosives and blasting open the gate of the Katiba barracks in Benghazi - symbolic Bastille of the detested and demented Qadafi regime in Libya."

Why did Hitchens dedicate his last book to three Muslims who became known only after their death? Because, "in preferring a life-affirming death to a living death-in-life, the harbinger of the Arab Spring hoped to galvanize their fellow subjects and make them aspire to be citizens. Tides will ebb, waves will recede, the landscape will turn brown and dusty again, but nothing can expel from the Arab mind the example and esprit of Tahrir. Once again it is demonstrated that people do not love their chains or their jailers ..."

The faith of the three, Islam, was, of course, of no significance to Hitchens whatsoever. He railed against religion all his life and even wrote a best-seller reveling in his unfaith. What moved Hitchens was obviously the extraordinary courage of three nameless and faceless citizens who answered the calls of their conscience, a rarity at any time and in any age. For Hitchens, if anything could move mountains, this was it.

I always read Hitchens expecting to be provoked and entertained by his though as well as by his use of the language, and I was never disappointed. In fact, his polemical writings against religion, and, in particular, against Islam, only strengthened my faith because he forced me to dig deep and find answers to his charges and attacks with reason, study and yes, belief in the Unseen.

There is a silly tendency to anoint people with this or that title after they pass away. "He was the best essayist of his generation," was a refrain we heard after Hitchens' death. It really doesn't matter whether or not he was the best essayist, or whether that title belongs to Gore Vidal or to someone else. The point is that Hitchens brought a fresh point of view to everything he wrote, even when he was wrong, and in doing so, he always strove to fulfil the primary responsibility of a writer: provoke, excite, entertain, and expand the scope of readers while skewering the tyrants, the corrupt and the powerful, without pandering to anyone or to any ideology.

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