Hashem Saleh

Despite the fact that I do not enjoy at all a rock-solid memory, I do recall the first time I met with Lafif Lakhdar. It was round about the year 2003, that is, I got to know him in the last phase of his life, during his last decade. The meeting was his initiative; he contacted me by phone, at which I was delighted, and we immediately decided to meet in the Luxembourg Gardens in the centre of Paris.

There we sat on adjoining chairs overlooking the Council of the French Senate and went on to discuss all manner of things. From the very outset I felt that we belonged to the same intellectual, nay, psychological climate despite, naturally, many differences. For both he and I are very alone. Both of us have been cast by chance into this world and we have no true connection with things or have any overriding preoccupation with anything at all.

Lafif was deeply concerned about the state of the Arabs and Muslims

What I mean by this is that it makes one permanently celibate, shorn of furrow or issue, without an origin, disconnected, without career or office, rootless, seedless – yet this is something that grants you a great freedom and an unparalleled strength. Your office is nature in its entirety: the banks of the River Marne or the shores of Lake Creteil. For what can they do to you? Kill you? So be it! You have no regrets about anything, nor do you have children to fear leaving orphaned behind you. This is a basic point of strength that allows you to overcome all the foes that lie in wait for you, and which might overtake you at any moment. This is a luxury unavailable to married men who have sired children and loaded upon them all and their cares and woes. Many may think that I envy them, but I swear that every morning I envy myself for this priceless luxury. Yes, I envy myself for not having committed to date this historical mistake.

Everyday I say to myself: how did you escape from this tangle, from this trough? How did you save your skin? I praise the Lord for this trophy, because more than once I have come near to falling into the trap. And every time I rescued myself at the last moment. I managed to wriggle out of it one way or another. I am perhaps one of the greatest wrigglers in the history of mankind and perhaps one of the greatest traitors, in the Nietzschean sense of the word. My life is a series of fragments, an attempt to outrun fate, but then from time I suddenly turn back to stand upon the abandoned ruins, to weep for those I loved and who loved me. I think that Lafif Lakhdar’s legendary childhood, and my own nightmarish, hellish childhood permanently shielded us from committing this fundamental, well-nigh criminal, sin:

This wrong was by my father done

To me, but never by me to one

as al-Maʽarrī put it, a poet whom we be extolled and genuflected to without debate. I should say that Lafif Lakhdar was the first to alert me to these timeless verses which I have since learned off by heart. This was during one of our very long telephone conversations which I have no idea how they ended – that’s if they ever did since they would soon enough start up all over again. They were highly enjoyable intellectual, cultural discussions of the highest order. They were public lectures in the literal sense of the word, in which he was the principal if not the only speaker. During one of his conversations he recited the following verses of the sage of Maʽarra. Such was my astonishment at these that I asked him to let me hear them again so I could jot them down on paper. From that time I have learnt them off by heart, so that I may recite them to you from memory:

Stay at home! No obligation

I account the Pilgrimage,

Lady, on thy sex in virgin

Youth nor yet in wedded age.

Mecca's valley breeds the worst of

Miscreants, who never feel

Fierceness to defend the weaker,

Never flame with knightly zeal.

Men of Shayba, temple guardians,

Standing there bemused with wine,

Shove the pilgrim-folk in couples

Through the gateway of the Shrine.

When the people throng around it,

Leave to enter they refuse

None that slips a piece of silver –

Christians jostle in with Jews.[1]

When he recited to me these ingenious verses that only one such as al-Maʽarrī could have composed, we burst into laughter and even indulged in some rather wicked guffawing. We experienced that true moment of joy that ever follows an intellectual or lyrical moment of liberation. And no wonder, for we were – both of us – Arab ‘outlaws’, deeply versed in freethinking and heresy, breathing the air of liberty solely on the other side of locked doors. We were both wayfarers with neither a destination nor reason to travel. So as for the saying that there are only three Muslim freethinkers: Ibn al-Rāwandī, al-Tawhīdī and Abū al-ʽAlā’ al-Maʽarrī – this is actually very incorrect, for it also applied to the both of us. We should be added to this list as soon as possible.

The Arabs in their entirety, from the Atlantic to the Gulf, were his family

I think that he would laugh a lot to hear these words of mine and would be delighted with all the joy that lies beyond death – which of course we do not believe in. For death is the freeing of the soul from the body’s cage, death is the transformation from one stage to another, it is truth, it is peace. And what a peace it is from the hell of this Arab life! For there is actually nothing called death or passing away. The proof of this is that I shall soon go off to the Harhoura Corniche [at Rabat], call upon him and chat with him for hours and hours as if he were with me. I shall not acknowledge his death, neither today nor tomorrow. Perhaps I shall guffaw loudly in celebration of his removal to another, less noisy and decisively less disturbing, place! Perhaps I may say to myself: “Yes, it is true that I am grieved, but at least he is at rest.” This is my one consolation, that a knight of Arab thought should get his rest!

We used to meet at the Shalālāt cafe at the entrance to the beautiful Bois de Vincennes. That is because he lived at Noisy le Grand and I at Maison Alfort, so the place suited us perfectly – or actually suited me better since his home was far away in the suburbs. There we would speak tirelessly on Arab, Islamic thought and its travails, and I admit that our fundamentalist brothers occupied their full share of our heated debate. Then, after an hour or two, we would get up and walk in the gardens and savour the view of the lake, and the little bridge, and all the other enchanting views. When he became tired (since I personally never tire of walking) we would sit at one of the chairs set up around the lake, unable to take leave of each other...

I personally think that intellectual friendship is what follows on directly from stage of passionate trysts. The most beautiful of these, naturally, is when you meet a woman you love and pass hours as if they were mere seconds. But a meeting of minds also has its particular, scarcely believable pleasure. During those rare meetings we mapped out the future of the Arab world, feeling as though we were changing the Arab intellectual map! You might think this an exaggeration, and it may well be. But that is how we felt. Lafif was deeply concerned about the state of the Arabs and Muslims and wanted them to develop, to set themselves free, to emerge as soon as possible from their backward state and catch up with the developed nations. He had no personal family, but for him the Arabs in their entirety, from the Atlantic to the Gulf, were his family. He felt responsible for them all, from Mauretania and the far West to northern Syria and Iraq, from Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, the Gulf States and, of course, Tunisia. He dedicated his whole life to enlightening and civilising the Arabs.

He possessed an inner spiritual beauty which usually only great thinkers possess

We also met several times at important seminars and meetings convened by the famous Libyan thinker Muhammad ʽAbd al-Muttalib al-Hounī, whenever he passed through Paris. We would gather around him and investigate all manner of issues relating to Arab thought and its problems. On every occasion the presence of Lafif was essential, and we felt deprived if for some reason he was unable to attend. At least, this is how I felt. His presence spelt something beautiful and joyous, and despite the fact that, like Voltaire, he was not particularly handsome in his outward form, his presence was fairer than all else besides! He possessed an inner spiritual beauty which usually only great thinkers possess, those who steadfastly brave trials and terrors. He took no prisoners in the radicalism of his thought, he brooked no hypocrisy and none had reason to fault him on this account. His intellectual audacity astounded me, and I have found nothing to match it in any other Arab thinker.

He would get straight to the crux of the matter and tell Muslims what they had to do, or not do. He sent personal letters to Arab and Muslim heads of state, telling them too what to do and what to avoid. He was concerned with the future of Islam as a whole. I think he was deeply proud of his Arab Muslim heritage. He was deeply imbued with it, right from his head to the tip of his feet. He celebrated it. In this respect I felt a strong affinity with him. Incidentally, I have inherited from him a book on al-Maʽarrī’s Risālat al-Ghufrān edited by Bint al-Shāti’. I had borrowed it some years earlier when we were meeting in the Bois de Vincennes. I never returned it, and he never asked for it back.

But at the same time he was deeply fascinated by western modernity and European civilisation. He would say to me: “their past is our present, and their present is our future.”

Despite my agreement with him on the broad lines of his standpoint, I disagreed concerning what I felt were the extremes of western culture. But in any case his close loyal friends, chief among whom was Ashraf Abdelkader, know more than me how to speak of him and his views. I deeply hope that Ashraf will give an extended account of Lafif, since one or two articles would not be enough. We need an entire book which you, Abdelkader, can do for us. We need a whole book to expound to us the life and thought of this unique thinker with precision and in all of its major or minor details. All eyes are upon you, for you remain with us, and you are our sole consolation.

My last meeting with Lafif was in Rome at the invitation of the well-known English scholar Stephen Ulph. We took part in an important intellectual seminar that for the first time united us with our English and American western counterparts. It was an enjoyable and extremely useful seminar, and was convened under the rubric: Amplifying Islamic Voices for Reason and Reform. It was the first time that I participated in a dialogue of civilisations face to face and at the highest level (I wrote of this several times in the leading Arab newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat). As far as I could tell, Lafif was present the whole time during the morning and afternoon sessions, and made active and energetic contributions to the discussions. He offered us the necessary advice and directions to make the dialogue of cultures and civilisations between the Arab and western worlds a success.

His presence spelt something beautiful and joyous

When the seminar affairs came to an end we went to visit the Vatican. This was the first time I had seen it, and it was a really impressive sight. I was truly stirred spiritually at the sight of this lofty religious edifice standing there steadfast over the course of centuries. On the way there I said to the group: “Do you think Lafif Lakhdar is really ill? For I saw him eating heartily, I think he will bury us all!” At which Raja ben Slama burst into laughter saying: “I also have my doubts! From his behaviour he doesn’t look all that ill!”

We then resumed our walk to the Vatican harbouring one and the same wish: we did not want him to pass away and leave us orphaned. In one of our evenings out something occurred that moved me and increased my admiration for him: after a truly delicious soup I had asked for seconds, but when I was unable to finish the second helping Lafif said: “Give me your dish and I will finish it.” And he indeed finished the dish with gusto. I was greatly surprised by this; it was the first time that I had had anyone finish my plate. I personally find the idea of eating from anyone else’s plate, whosoever they may be, very difficult. So I consider this the greatest indication of the humanity and humility of this great thinker.

When the time came to bid each other farewell, one other thing caught my attention. After I said my goodbyes and kissed him, Lafif walked on a few paces with Abdelkader while I stood at the door to the hotel. He then suddenly turned round to look towards me again, and on his face were the features of a relatively wry but nonetheless very pleasant smile, as if he wanted to tell me: “This is the last time we shall meet, Hashem, so let me watch you a while. This, dear friend, is the last farewell, an adieu after which there is no further meeting.” I immediately grasped the import of the situation, but I did not allow myself to react or rush to kiss him and say goodbye to him again, as I should have. I feared that he knew the truth, that I knew deep down that he was dying. I wanted to disguise things, to keep the door open and make him feel that he would not die. Later on, I regretted what I did.

So, in the end, what can I say, Lafif? I suffer agony so deeply for you, as indeed for many things, even for my own self!


[1] From the Luzūm mā lā yalzam of the medieval Syrian poet Abū al-ʽAlā’ al-Maʽarrī (973-1058 AD). The translations are taken from R.A. Nicholson, Studies in Islamic Poetry, The Meditations of Maʽarrī, p.192. (Ed.)