Barbara Harlow

by Kamran Asdar Ali
published in MER280

I first met Professor Barbara Harlow (1948-2017) in the autumn of 1992, while conducting field research in Egypt, when she gave her talk at the American University in Cairo on her new book, Barred: Women, Writing and Political Detention (Wesleyan University Press, 1992). This book examined the struggle of female political prisoners in different parts of the world through memoirs, novels, poetry and documentaries. In that lecture Harlow framed her book as an experiment that brought together history, criticism and journalism. She argued that scholars should pay critical attention to journalistic writings and subject them to close readings as they do literary texts. Similarly, fiction should be read, she stated, to raise historical, sociological and political questions. Harlow’s writings on political prisoners, and her later work on biographies of literary figures who were also political activists in South Africa, Palestine and El Salvador, have guided many scholars toward the possibility of contesting the boundaries of the political and the aesthetic.

Harlow earned her bachelor’s degree in French and philosophy from Simmons College in Boston in 1970 and a master’s degree in Romance languages and literatures from the University of Chicago in 1972. She continued her studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études and the École Normale Supérieure in Paris as well as at the Free University in Berlin. She completed her doctorate in comparative literature in 1977 at the State University of New York-Buffalo. She wrote her dissertation on Marcel Proust and was an early translator into English of Jacques Derrida’s Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles. Harlow accepted her first teaching post, at the American University in Cairo, in 1977. While there she became immersed in Arabic literature and became an ardent supporter of the Palestinian cause, for example by producing a pioneering translation of Ghassan Kanafani’s Palestine’s Children: Returning to Haifa and other Stories.

After returning to the US, Harlow taught at Wesleyan University and at Hobart and William Smith Colleges before joining the University of Texas in 1985, where she was the Louann and Larry Temple Professor of English Literatures in the Department of English. In her long association with Texas, she taught and trained students who have now become leaders in the field of post-colonial studies and teach in English and literature departments around the world. Harlow was also the founding member and coordinator of the Ethnic Third World Literatures Program, in which students read the literature of recently decolonized nations alongside the writings of ethnic minorities in the United States. For the last 15 years of her life, Harlow collaborated with faculty and students to organize the Sequels Symposium that showcased the work of students researching literature from different parts of the world. In her last years she was also closely affiliated with the Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice at the university where she championed an interdisciplinary undergraduate program on literature and human rights.

Harlow was a scholar who bridged many genres and disciplines. Her book Resistance Literature (Routledge, 1987) was one of the first works in English to examine the fiction produced during national liberation struggles in the global south. Writing about the struggles and defiance of the oppressed and the marginalized in After Lives: Legacies of Revolutionary Writings (Haymarket Books, 1996), she examined three assassinated revolutionary figures of the late twentieth century: Ghassan Kanafani (the Palestinian writer murdered, presumably by the Mossad, in 1972), Roque Dalton (the Salvadoran poet assassinated by fellow revolutionaries) and Ruth First (the South African anti-apartheid activist assassinated in London in 1982). Harlow was also an editor of several key post-colonial texts. With Ferial Ghazoul, she edited The View From Within: Writers and Critics on Contemporary Arabic Literature (American University in Cairo Press, 1994) and along with Mia Carter edited Imperialism and Orientalism: A Documentary Sourcebook (Wiley-Blackwell, 1999), Archives of Empire: From the East India Company to the Suez Canal (Duke University Press, 2003) and Archives of Empire: The Scramble for Africa (Duke University Press, 2003). In her last years, she dedicated her time to the study of Ruth First’s biography, to issues of human rights and to African literature. She was a long-time supporter of Middle East Report and served on its editorial committee from 1992-1997. She often wrote for the magazine in those years, mostly about literature but on other topics as well. In 2003 she contributed a moving remembrance of Edward Said.

Harlow was dedicated to traveling and lecturing in various parts of Africa and the Middle East. She often traveled to South Africa for research, to lecture and to mentor younger scholars. At the University of Texas she was constantly attending talks, serving on committees, organizing conferences and workshops and mentoring junior faculty and students. In the past two years, she even traveled twice to Pakistan as a participant of the university’s exchange program with a women’s university in Rawalpindi. Those of us who accompanied her fondly remember her joy at being in South Asia and looked on with amusement as she tried to decipher Urdu written on signboards through her deep knowledge of Arabic. She was a champion of human rights and justice issues; in her final days was focused on teaching and writing on the culture of drones.

Harlow was a true scholar of the world who combined her scholarship and teaching with a deep faith in the human energies that could transform society. Her loss is irreplaceable on multiple levels. One of her last messages to me was, “Fight the good fight, Kamran.” In these coming days, we will need her insight and courage more than ever. Barbara Harlow passed away on January 28, 2017, after a brief struggle with esophageal cancer. She was 68. She orchestrated her final moments with family and friends who had assembled in her room. We raised our plastic glasses filled with vodka and tonic to resistance. She left us that day with courage, conviction and with a sense of profound dignity.

Donations in Harlow’s memory to the American Civil Liberties Union or to the Center for Constitutional Rights will honor her lifelong fight against injustice.