Blogs > Cliopatria > In This Manner I Knew Them: The Writings of Jaafar Al-Khalili

Jun 8, 2004 2:04 pm

In This Manner I Knew Them: The Writings of Jaafar Al-Khalili

Several weeks ago, I met Farida, the daughter of the famous Shiite reformist writer, Jaafar Al-Khalili. Al-Khalili was an institution in Iraq. He had written six or seven volumes on Iraq and the Arab world, all under the same title, Hakadha ‘Araftuhum (or In This Manner I Knew Them). His first two books traced the contours of his relationship with Shiite shaykhs and intellectuals in Najaf, Karbala, and the country in-between. He later on successfully replicated that model by examining his relationships with other personalities throughout the Arab world.

Farida Al-Khalili now lives in Amman, Jordan and works at a Jordanian Ministry. She told me the horrific story of how the Baathist authorities had destroyed her father’s library, and burned all its manuscripts. This had happened several years before the now infamous looting and burning of state libraries and archives after the American occupation of Iraq. The only difference seemed to be that the destruction of Jaafar Al-Khalili’s library collection went unheralded at the time, and now is all but forgotten. The tragedy is all the greater if one remembers that the National Library as well as the House of Archives in Baghdad relied, to a large extent, on the holdings of rare and historic private libraries for the mainstay of their collections, and that Jaafar Al-Khalili’s own collected works were reportedly among the best in the country.

The copy of Al-Khalili’s work that I have in my hand is the first in the Hakadha ‘Araftuhum series, and, perhaps for that reason, may be among the most ambitious. In it Al-Khalili describes his meetings with several different personalities over the early span of his career as a journalist, editor and literary personality. Most of the articles are taken from the journal, Al-Hatif, published in the 1940’s. Among the most fascinating portraits are those of shaykh Muhammad Hussein Haidar, the shaykh of Suq Al-Shuyukh, a declining tribal market town in southern Iraq that still managed to compete with Najaf as a cultural hub of Shiite society; the lawyer Abdul-Muhsin al-Qassab, an ambitious young man from Nassiriya (southern Iraq) who bent his principles to pursue a lawyer’s career to such a devastating degree that he lost his literary “soul”; and with different members of the Kashif Al-Ghita scholarly family in Najaf. Al-Khalili’s style was fluid and supple; he did not write hagiographies, but absorbing accounts of peoples’ lives, warts and all. Among his most animated recollections are those that describe the relationships between Shiite scholars and the rest of society, and the unexpected wit and humor that enlivened those exchanges. Iraqi society is known for its mordant sense of humor, but the sometimes hilarious anecdotes found in Al-Khalili’s book are as delightful as they are unpredictable.

Most of all, in describing a society that was in the throes of an uneven form of modernization, Al-Khalili’s book is almost unique in its examination of the different influences on the Shiite social order, and the underlying context for changes in the ideological, religious, literary and cultural movements in the greater region around Najaf and Karbala. Unlike today, where there is a desperate polarization between religion and secularism, Al-Khalili’s book details an age in which the heady currents of modernization mixed with the still pervasive influences of religion and ideology, to produce an entirely local dynamic corresponding to local needs.

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neda hussin - 6/6/2008

I would very much like to order the series, but i couldn't find the book online. Any idea how i can do this

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