A commemoration meeting to celebrate the life of Syrian writer and intellectual Motaa Safadi (Damascus 1929 – Beirut 2016) was organized by the ACRPS (Beirut Branch) together with the Arab Network for Publishing and Distribution. Hosted at the recently opened ACRPS bookshop in Beirut, the event was well attended by the Lebanese capital’s cultural luminaries, with speakers including George Zeinati, Georges Maalouf and the writer and poet Rabee Chalhoub.

In his opening remarks, Khaled Ziada, Director of the ACRPS Beirut office, welcomed the opportunity to remember the life and work of “one of the most prominent Arab intellectuals of the present age, one whose contributions spanned six decades and crossed the fields of literature, political thought and philosophical methodology”. George Zeinati, a contemporary of Safadi, remarked on the work of his former colleague and noted that “[Safadi] would never accept the easy way of doing things, and refused to use ineffectual slander and insults in his critique of Western philosophy”. Safadi, he said, believed that “remaining frozen in the past was futile, because it prevented youth from playing their true role”. What also made Safadi unique, continued Zeinati, was that while he was a devotee of Western philosophical tradition, he never lost sight of the fact that violence was the backbone of contemporary Western civilization.

Zeinati was followed by Georges Maalouf, who reflected on Safadi’s role as philosopher of structuralism and deconstruction, and who went on to give a brief exposition of his many contributions to Arab philosophy, as well as his devotion to freedom of expression. According to Maalouf, Safadi had discovered early on the causes and sites of frailty within the Arab nation. He dismantled established taboos and sought to reexamine long held accepted beliefs. Insulated from flattery, choosing instead to adopt a critical approach to life, Safadi strongly believed that the West was able to overtake Arab civilization precisely because of the way in which it internalized a critical approach—something with which Safadi always sought to infuse the culture of the Levant.

Maalouf went on further to describe Safadi’s understanding of Western modernity, something which he saw as a never-ending, continuous process. In Safadi’s view, the West never shirked from self-criticism, a feature he believed was found in all existing institutions in the western world. One other critical distinction he observed between Western and Arab philosophical approaches was that the latter never broke free from its connection to theology—for Safadi, this was a uniquely Western achievement. Notwithstanding this, said Maalouf, Safadi still believed that Western philosophy was also immensely ethical. The Arab world, however, remained an object of Western philosophical imagination, and the site where the West’s academic disputes were played out. For Safadi, the aim was for Arab philosophical enterprise to adopt a critical approach to its own culture, overcome some of its own strictures—and only then, he believed, would the Arab world be free from attempts at Westernization or Americanization.

A harsh critic of organized religions, Safadi denounced the ways in which the supposedly sacred realm of religion came to dominate the temporal power invested in institutions such as mosques and churches. Ultimately, said Maalouf, Safadi’s main aim was to drive forward Arab philosophy. A thinker who insisted on being an interlocutor of the West on an equal footing, Safadi drove home the fact that the West’s quest in philosophical tradition was not based on knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but rather aimed at subjugation of the Other.

The third and final speaker at the commemoration was Rabee Chalhoub, who discussed the evolution of Safadi’s thought. Reflecting on his earliest work, Chalhoub noted how the Syrian thinker was initially concerned with political affairs, mirroring the author’s own Baathist and Nasserist politics. During that period, his work belied a mixture of Arab nationalist influences blended with existentialist thinking of the 1950s and 1960s. Titles of Safadi’s books authored in that period include The Philosophy of Anxiety, The Revolution of Praxis and Essays on Existential Philosophy. By the 1980s, commented Chalhoub, Safadi had moved on to more abstract and rarefied academic pursuits, and was given over to discussions of Western philosophy, and criticism of Western thinking.

To conclude, Chalhoub offered the audience a somber reading of Safadi’s own conclusions on the state of affairs of Arab philosophy, which the late intellectual described as “responsive but not creative” when it comes to philosophical production. Safadi also, according to Chalhoub, understood that there was a stark difference between “identity as an ontological need versus a political demand”. Finally, Chalhoub closed with an observation on the paucity of literature examining the work of Motaa Safadi, postulating that this was perhaps a result of the internal complexities of Safadi’s texts.