Hassan Abdullah Hamdan, more commonly known as Mahdi ‘Amel, was an Arab Marxist intellectual and a political activist. Today is the twenty-eight anniversary of his assassination and a perfect time to reflect on his life and remember his work.
/Mahdi ‘Amel, photo via sierra.mmic/
Mahdi ‘Amel joined the Lebanese Communist Party in 1960, at the age of twenty-four. Some years after, he received a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Lyon in France. In 1963, he traveled to Algeria and worked in education in the teachers’ bureau in Al-Qustantiniyah city. He also wrote several articles for The African Revolution magazine (published in Algeria), examining education and its methods.
In the mid 70’s, he returned to Lebanon and soon joined the Institute of Social Sciences as a fulltime professor in the Lebanese University, teaching philosophy, politics, and methodologies. He started to work in Al-Tareeq magazine under the name ‘Mahdi `Amel,’ which he used in all his writings later.
Mahdi ‘Amel was also a member the Union of Lebanese Writers and he wrote poems, which he signed under the name ‘Hilal bin Zaytoon.’
As it is very well pointed out on his Jadaliyya profile, ‘Amel’s “struggle was not limited to writing but he practiced what he said by travelling in cities and villages, lecturing, discussing and explaining several causes, like nationality and liberation, to the people in a simple clear language. He was known in these discussions as ‘comrade Tariq.’ ”
The essential question he asked was one asked by many other Marxists and leftists living in non-Western societies: How can Marxist principles be implemented and work within realities that were not European or neo-European? In his Frontline article about ‘Amel, Vijay Prashad relects on this aspect of Amel’s work:
“In one of Mahdi Amel’s early essays, ‘Colonialism and Backwardness’, published in al-Tariq (1968), he wrote, ‘If you really want our own true Marxist thought to see the light, and to be capable to see reality from a scientific perspective, we should not start with Marxist thought itself and apply it to our own reality, but rather start from our reality as a foundational movement.’ If one starts with the historical development of a society and its own cultural resources, ‘only then can our thought truly become Marxist’ (translated by Hisham Ghassan Tohme). Marxism could not be adopted whole cloth. The reality of colonial ‘backwardness’ (takhalluf) had to be explored and Marxism elaborated to take this into account.”
Since Mahdi Amel is almost unknown outside the Arab world (his work, except some tiny bits, is also not been translated from Arabic, unfortunately), Prashad said he wanted to write about ‘Amel because of his interest in innovative Marxism. Mahdi ‘Amel tried to put Marxism to the service of the concrete conditions of their society – to understand the social forces and constraints and the motive forces and possibilities of their politics.
Prashad, who met the family of Mahdi Amel and was fascinated by their story, writes:
“As the struggles emerged out of and alongside the Communist movement, Mahdi Amel travelled across the tobacco farmers’ bases, giving lectures about Marxism and its relevance to Lebanon’s contemporary problems. He spoke in homes and mosques, remembers Evelyne Brun, and was listened to ‘with religious silence’. He explained how backwardness worked, and what were the intentions of Lebanon’s right wing (the Phalange) as representatives of outside forces. Years later, Evelyne Brun learned, he was known as ‘the man with the green beard’ and had attained a legendary status amongst the farmers.”
Mahdi ‘Amel was assassinated on 18 May 1987, near his house in the area of Al-Mulla in Beirut, while on his way to the Institute of Social Sciences in the Lebanese University where he used to teach. After his martyrdom, his articles and educational books which he wrote between 1968 and 1973 were gathered and published in 1991 in a book entitled Issues of Teaching and Educational Policies. In these articles, he analyzed the Lebanese state’s educational policy of the Lebanese State that works to destroy the official educational process and deepen sectarian loyalties in order to reproduce the political-class-sectarian system.
The Left in the Arab world suffered gravely over the past two decades. However, there seems to be a great interest in ‘Amal’s work again, a sort of a revival, a search for alternatives. Where it will lead, we’ll see.
For more on Mahdi ‘Amel, I recommend reading the Frontline article by Vajid Prashad, Al Akhbar article by Yazan al-Saadi, and ‘Amel’s Jadaliyya profile.
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Previous Remembering… sessions:
Remembering Samir Kassir: Life as Courage, Death as Silence
Remembering Hassan Fathy: To Build With The People
Remembering Assia Djebar: I Write Against Erasure
Remembering Howard Zinn: To Be Hopeful in Bad Times