Along with his many students, friends, colleagues and relatives, MERIP mourns the death of Hanna Batatu. He died at the age of 74 on June 24, 2000 at Winsted, Connecticut after a struggle with cancer. Batatu, a former MERIP contributing editor, was also the dissertation adviser and long-time colleague of many of the present and past members of MERIP boards and committees. His work shaped many of our political and intellectual perspectives in a profound and lasting manner.
Hanna Batatu, an unabashed Palestinian patriot, was born in Jerusalem. He went to high school there and after graduation worked in a post office. He left Palestine with his family in 1948. Batatu inspired several generations of students and political activists through his teaching, including many of the future leaders of Arab political movements while he was a professor at the American University of Beirut from 1962 to 1981. From 1982 through 1994, he taught in the Arab studies program at Georgetown University.
Batatu’s greatest scholarly achievement was his encyclopedic three-volume work, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq (Princeton, 1978), written over a period of 20 years. Based on his personal acquaintance with ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim, in-depth interviews with imprisoned political dissidents and unprecedented access to government archives, including those of the secret police, his work is still the starting point for all contemporary historical and social research on Iraq. In 1989, the University of Texas-Austin organized a conference devoted solely to the book’s legacy.
Hanna Batatu had one driving intellectual passion as a teacher and scholar — to demonstrate the efficacy of class for understanding the social structure of the Arab Middle East. He used Ibn Khaldun, Marx, Weber and even The Federalist Papers to drive home the point that disparities in wealth and property inevitably engender social divisions that under certain circumstances give rise to radical political movements. His own sympathies were consistently on the side of the common people in the Middle East who lacked wealth and property.
Batatu’s obsession with class relations dominated his everyday social interactions with students and colleagues. He was unusually shy, shunning any social situation that would draw attention to himself. Ever the consummate sociologist, he had a charming inability to make small talk. When faced with a stranger or a lapse in conversation, he would immediately bombard his conversant with questions designed to elicit the person’s family history, ethnic roots, economic position and social status. He was so devoted to his scholarly pursuits that he eschewed any personal life except for the care of his mother during his years in Lebanon and at his country house in Virginia until she died. He taught his students to be scrupulously rigorous in their scholarship; we all knew that we could never match his selfless devotion to intellectual pursuits, no matter how hard we tried or how long we lived.
Most of Batatu’s twenty years at Georgetown were spent on his second and last great work, Syria’s Peasantry, the Descendants of Its Lesser Rural Notables and Their Politics, published by Princeton the year before his death. At the end of his life, he wanted to write a comprehensive history of Palestine that would surpass both his other books in scope. Although he was not an activist, Batatu was a kind of populist social democrat who was increasingly skeptical that the United States — “a political landscape occupied by huge corporations, massive state and military power complexes and big units for the molding and manipulation of opinion” — could serve as a model for countries in the Middle East. In his book on Syria, he asked: “Is it possible at all to have a genuine political democracy in the absence of economic democracy?… Is it possible to have an authentic socialist order, that is, an economic democracy, when political power is undemocratically organized?” (pp. 204-205)
Hanna Batatu taught his students to question social inequalities and injustice. He left us with some methodological tools to help us, the right questions to ask, but most of all poetic historical narratives of people who had only his voice to speak for them.