The Palestinian Who Knows (or Knew) the President

Rashid Khalidi‘s most promising remembrance of his friend Barack Obama is only obliquely political. On a University of Chicago tennis court about a decade ago, when Khalidi’s regular game didn’t show, he asked law professor Obama if he played, and wanted to fill in. Naw, Obama said, he wasn’t a tennis player; had barely touched a racket in 15 years. But Khalidi, stranded, wore him down till Obama suited up and took the court — all of it, it turned out, with speed, power and grace. Zip, zip, zip. Two sets were decisive. Khalidi was huffing. Obama hadn’t broken sweat. Overperformance may be in his constitution.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Rashid Khalidi at Columbia University. (55 minutes, 25 mb mp3)

Rashid Khalidi: historian with worry beads

If you remember the name Rashid Khalidi, chances are it’s because Sarah Palin tried to make a scarecrow of him in the 08 campaign; “yet another radical professor,” Palin said, who had hung with Obama at the University of Chicago. John McCain piled on ignominiously about a writer he hadn’t read, whose name he couldn’t pronouce, whose work McCain had in fact endowed. For Barack Obama to have befriended Khalidi, McCain said, was the equivalent of McCain hanging out with neo-Nazis. At the time Khalidi said he’d led the “idiot wind” pass, quoting the Dylan song. But he’s back in character in our conversation: the Edward Said professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University in New York and a prolific contemporary historian. He’s expansive about the pain of his own Palestinian family members effectively imprisoned in Gaza – about the many dead ends facing Palestinian politics. He’s got 4 and a half million Iraqi refugees on his mind, and a long cold war ahead with Iran. And of course he’s watching his friend who’s President now – from a distance that’s safe for both of them — but with insight and expectation.

Obama remains indelibly different from any national leader we’ve known, Khalidi reminds me, in the experience that formed his core: first, he has seen and articulated the link between the colonial racism his father experienced in Kenya under the British and old structures of discrimination against blacks in the States. And second, he grew up in a Muslim society in Indonesia, had a father who was a Muslim and connects with Muslim family members in Kenya even today.

He has a certain kind of understanding … that is wholly foreign to most American politicians. I think he has a certain kind of empathy, not just for the Palestinians, but for the world and about the poor and colonial situations, which is very hard for people who have not studied it and thought about it been immersed in it to understand. You know, we don’t think about the downtrodden, the wretched of the earth, in this country. We don’t talk about the effects of the colonial era all over the world. He has some degree of empathy, I would say not just for the Palestinians but for people all over the world who are disadvantaged. Remember he worked on the south side of Chicago. The south side of Chicago is not the slums of Bombay, and it’s not Gaza. But if you have worked on the south side of Chicago you will see stuff that most Americans will never see in their lives.

Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said professor of Arab Studies, in conversation with Chris Lydon at Columbia University, February 6, 2009.

In the enforced blinkering of our politics, it is unthinkable that President Obama should deliver on his famously warm, open-hearted toast at the Khalidi going-away party in Chicago in 2003, when Rashid migrated to Columbia. The Los Angeles Times version was that Obama said then that his many talks with the Khalidis had been “consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases. . . . It’s for that reason that I’m hoping that, for many years to come, we continue that conversation — a conversation that is necessary not just around Mona and Rashid’s dinner table,” but around “this entire world.” We continue here the conversation that President Obama can’t.

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