My Socrates Wore a Guayabera
By Divine Intervention, Saul Landau entered my life 12 years ago and taught me how to write, film, and live with dignity. We instantly bonded over having fathers from the “old country”—his father, from Ukraine, mine, from Syria—and being Semites with prominent noses. We communicated by exchanging stories and news articles, watching and dissecting films, exploring puns, and testing one another’s tolerance for salacious humor (his was particularly impressive).
Regardless of the time of day, or time zone, he delivered his pearls of wisdom in pairs: “Don’t be a victim,” followed by, “Unless you believe in reincarnation, you only have one shot at life.” Unrelenting wit, even at bleak moments, encapsulated his pearls: “If you ask the Rabbi, nothing’s kosher.” And sadly, in more recent months, “Cancer schmancer, as long as you have your health!”
I met Saul just after finishing my freshman year at the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where he taught courses on Latin America, history, and digital media. A wide-eyed 19 year-old at the time, the formation of my political consciousness had coincided with the second Palestinian Intifada in 2000. From what I could comprehend, the continued occupation of Palestinian territory seemed “wrong” and contrary to international law, but I lacked the language, tools, and platform to thoughtfully explain why.
In August 2001, I walked into Saul’s office. For the next three years, it became my intellectual equivalent of Warhol’s Factory, without the Velvet Underground, drugs, hangers-on, and troubled pseudo-starlets, but where film scripts, detective novels, and muckraking commentaries percolated at a fiendish pace. His friends would often stop by, including Gore Vidal, Alexander Cockburn, and Arianna Huffington, before giving campus-wide talks organized by Saul.
“So, are you interested in making movies and learning how to play a part in your history?” he asked me nonchalantly, during my research assistant job interview.
“Sure!” I replied, captivated by both his lofty proposition and his eyes that narrated more riveting stories than Scheherazade, radiating whimsy, strength, and unabashed soul.
“Watch these films that I made with Castro [“Fidel,” 1968; “Cuba and Fidel,” 1974; “The Uncompromising Revolution,” 1988] and Allende [“Que Hacer?” and “Conversation with Allende,” 1971] and read some of my books [The Dangerous Doctrine; Guerrilla Wars of Central America; Red Hot Radio]. If you’re interested in working with me after that, let me know next week.”
And that began my real political education, outside the stifling halls of academia, thanks to the ever generous, ever humble, Saul. On my first day at work, I prepared to bombard him with questions about Cuba, given his history of making six films there. Why did the 1959 Cuban Revolution succeed? Is revolution in the 21st Century still possible? What crossed your mind as you were sitting next to Fidel, filming him in his Jeep? And, what compelled you to show footage of him striking out while playing baseball, alongside the extreme close-up shots of dirt in his fingernails?
He answered these questions throughout our relationship. But on this particular day, September 11, 2001, Cuba took a back seat to the acts of terrorism against the United States. No sooner had Saul arrived to the office that we had to depart for the day, as the state-university closed early in the aftermath of the events. Nonetheless, he still managed to instill the most valuable lesson of my life—in a parking lot, no less.
As the hours passed and it became clear that Muslims, Arabs, South Asians, and those who looked “suspicious” would face backlash, for no other reason than their identity, Saul uttered these immortal words as I entered my car: “Do not be afraid. You have a duty to speak out.” He knew I was an Arab. And a Muslim. But for him, righting wrongs, regardless of where they occurred, always trumped narrow identity politics. How else would a boy from the Bronx go on to make documentaries exposing hypocrisy, torture, militarism, and the consequences of neoliberalism in Cuba, Brazil, Iraq, and Mexico, respectively?
It did not matter that I had never before penned an article, Op-Ed, or Letter-to-the-Editor. Or, that I feared public speaking. At a moment when the Bush administration launched its wide-reaching assault on civil liberties in the U.S. and its war on Afghanistan, my guayabera-wearing Socrates, whose probing questions always revealed higher truths about power and injustice, empowered me to play a role (however modest) in my history. He gave me my radio debut on Pacifica Network News a few days after 9/11, challenging me to write a commentary from my community’s perspective. With his literary scalpel, he rearranged my sentences, deleted extraneous words, and converted the passive into the active voice. By the end of it, my first draft hemorrhaged from his edits. He winked, delivering another Saulism that still haunts me: “Never fall in love with your own work.”
As a student of history, who studied with William Appleman Williams at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Saul implored me to look beyond the accepted version of news events, especially when broadcast by the corporate media. He reminded me of that other 9/11 in Chile, when General Augusto Pinochet, backed by the U.S., overthrew the democratically-elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in 1973. That “altered the destiny of the Chilean people,” he would say, pointing to the ensuing reign of terror targeting his own friends, like Orlando Letelier, the Defense Minister under Allende who was arrested and imprisoned on Dawson Island following the coup, and later assassinated by agents of the Chilean secret police in Washington D.C. on September 21, 1976.
Three months after 9/11, Saul wrote a ZNet commentary called “The Logic of Our Time,” where he questioned the new axioms offered by the Bush administration justifying a military response to terrorism. His still relevant conclusion merits repeating:
I plan to persuade my university colleagues to begin offering courses in the new logic so that students can compare the words officials use against what they see, hear and read. If anyone doubts the veracity of our leaders, recall Richard Pryor’s wife when she discovers him in bed naked with a naked woman.
“Hey, sugar, it’s not what you think,” says Pryor.
“What do you mean? Are you nuts? I’m seeing this scene with my own eyes,” she says.
“Hey, honey,” says Pryor, “who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?”
On the 12th anniversary of 9/11, and in the midst of President Obama’s momentary pushback on bombing Syria, I miss my mentor and friend’s shrewd analysis and penetrating wit more than ever. As I walked around the humid streets of D.C. last night, where he called home for over 20 years before moving to California, I felt limbless without my guayabera-wearing Socrates. How would he respond to Obama’s Syria’s remarks? What will he write his next commentary on? And, when will he release his next film?
I could barely make out the stars last night so instead I turned to the streetlights. In them, I saw the perpetual gleam in Saul’s eyes, illuminating the far corners of the Earth, however imperfect, disheveled, disillusioned. In the morning, the birds on my windowsill chirped in my ears, reminding me just how privileged I was to work with and learn from the best. I treasure every article we wrote together, including our film reviews and Syria pieces for CounterPunch. I traveled to Syria for the first time with my mentor just after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, allowing me to simultaneously discover my roots and the art of filmmaking. All roads lead to Damascus—and Saul.
“In times of need the living need a poem,” he once wrote.
I call mine Saul Landau.
Farrah Hassen, a Syrian-American writer and filmmaker, was the associate producer of the 2004 film, “Syria: Between Iraq and a Hard Place,” directed by Saul Landau. She is currently a first-year law student at Howard University in Washington D.C.