We mourn the passing of Samih Farsoun on June 9, 2005 and offer our heartfelt condolences to his partner Katha Kissman, his daughter Rudi, and his other family and friends. A long-time professor of sociology at American University in Washington, DC, Samih was one of the earliest members of the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) collective. He brought his formidable skills as a thinker and teacher to the meetings convened to produce this magazine, then titled MERIP Reports.
MERIP’s agenda, to challenge the prevailing analyses of Middle East politics and offer views of the region that prioritized the perspectives and concerns of people living there, was a natural fit for Samih. Then and always, Samih was a committed critic of power, privilege and their human toll. His first article for MERIP Reports, “Student Protest and the Coming Crisis in Lebanon,” published in August 1973, was an uncannily prescient analysis of the troubles that soon tore apart that country. But Samih didn’t limit himself to intellectual work; he would roll up his sleeves during late-night sessions, typesetting the magazine and sticking the address labels on the covers for mailing.
Like many of his generation of Palestinian intellectuals, Samih Farsoun’s critical perspective was forged from firsthand experiences of displacement, exile, discrimination and deep frustration with Palestinian factional infighting that stymied effective redress of historical injustices. Born in Haifa, Samih was one of the over 700,000 exiled from Palestine in 1948. He spent his youth in Lebanon, keenly aware of the suffering of Palestinian refugees and other disenfranchised communities in the Middle East.
Samih played an integral role in a number of institutions, including the Association of Arab- American University Graduates and the Jerusalem Fund, which were created to educate the public and support Arab and Palestinian communities. He also was a member of the Palestinian National Council, unaffiliated with any faction but sympathetic to leftist secular Palestinian politics and devoted to the goals of collective governance. He resigned from the PNC to convey his opposition to Yasser Arafat’s increasingly authoritarian leadership and to the 1993 Oslo accords, on the grounds that they would not lead to Palestinian self-determination or improve the lives of those living under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.
Samih helped to make the sociology department at AU an intellectually exciting environment that encouraged young scholars to ask hard questions and challenge the accepted rationales of Western political hegemony, nationalism (Arab and other), and political as well as communal sectarianism. Samih was an unabashed politically engaged intellectual; his students learned from his example as, on a regular basis, he stripped the ivory off the tower. During the 1970s and 1980s, the heyday of both progressive and conservative revolutionary politics and a time of massive turmoil in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa and Asia, US-born and foreign students from all over the world came to AU to learn about and debate the paradigms of political economy and social theory. Samih encouraged his students to understand the real world without foregoing the obligation to master the canons of the discipline. In recent years, Samih lent his skills to building academic institutions in the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait: He served as a founding dean at the American University of Sharjah from 1997–1999 and subsequently as a founding dean at the American University of Kuwait from 2004 until his death. Samih’s keen intelligence and social conscience enriched our lives immensely. He is irreplaceable and we miss him very much.