Miriyam Aouragh pays tribute to a Lebanese socialist whose principles, knowledge and humour touched the lives of many.
Bassem Chit is no more, and with that the radical left, and the Arab left in particular, has lost a great comrade, friend and teacher. It is hard to imagine how his comrades and family in Lebanon are coping. He was ripped out of many lives so unfairly, so soon and unexpectedly.
One thing that stands out in the many on and offline comments I have seen and heard is an acute devastation that we have lost one of the very few principled voices in what is becoming a quagmire.
Bassem spoke out very harshly against the growing racism towards Syrian refugees and the army’s recent violence. The sadness is fuelled by bitterness because his voice in particular is needed more than ever.
Here in Oxford, we were blessed to spend time with Bassem during the Oxford Radical Forum (ORF) in spring. When he was around, the discussions never ebbed and he would elevate them to a higher level.
It wasn’t always strictly serious, for Bassem had a witty sense of humour and he sure knew his punchlines. Yet what distinguished him was an ability to describe and explain the most complex and unpleasant of issues with a paradoxical combination of drama and clarity.
It was this that led to him being invited to speak all over the world, and to the tributes pouring in right now from Brazilian trade unionists, from North American comrades, from Turkish, Egyptian and Syrian activists.
Bassem could capture your imagination with a passion that forced you to rethink many existing explanations, or simply reject dominant paradigms altogether – and his dry-mannered examples often led to roaring laughter.
I asked him why he hadn’t applied to do a PhD and he jokingly replied, “Oh never, what a waste of time.” He was the most unpretentious person, who could easily have had three doctorates. A title wasn’t his ambition – struggling for a better world and the freedom to act on his own revolutionary terms was his objective.
His writings have increased in importance since the outbreak of the Arab revolutions, and the shameless exploitation of sectarian divide-and-rule in the region as a counter-revolutionary strategy. His work is widely read online. He really did shape the debate.
Wherever he went, his interventions and contributions left a mark. He told his audience at ORF that the Shia-Sunni hype is largely false and that sectarianism is the child of the present-day contradictions of modern Arab capitalist societies. And then, because a mere opinion wasn’t enough, he proceeded with empirically based arguments to underline his simple statement.
Many students left with a sense of awe, and told us it was the first time they had heard such a persuasive analysis of a situation that had seemed too complex. It helped them to take side, and some of them joined our campaigns in solidarity with Syria. That is part of his legacy.
I have many memories of Bassem in Beirut, where he was one of my main educators during PhD fieldwork more than ten years ago. I remember seeing him chant and organise in the years after. One recent memory was here in Oxford. We chatted over dinner about how strange it is that young people are currently growing up with revolution and counter-revolution as a fact of life, and how awkwardly and quickly humanity adapts to bizarre circumstances.
I asked how it was for him growing up as a kid in Beirut, and he told us a funny story about how he and his friends would play “war” on their way to school, while navigating the streets and blocks that were controlled by competing factions.
It is a funny image to evoke: Bassem chasing from door-to-door between East and West Beirut with a bunch of other kids. Perhaps this is the root of his deep commitment to revolutionary socialism, his hatred of sectarianism, his rejection of nationalism, his love of life and freedom, and his willingness to give his life for equality.
As one comrade commented online, “Why do the best go first? Salamat rafiq Bassem – we will try to continue where you left.” A special salute for Bassem’s family, and his comrades Ghassan, Walid, Farah, Helena, Rima, and many others in Lebanon whose pain is currently immeasurable.
“Peace be upon your soul, Bassem Chit in Lebanon. A comrade in a common struggle.” – tribute message from the Syrian Leftist Revolutionary Party