The Six-Day War viewed by Arab Writers and Intellectuals
It started on June 5th, 1967 at 7:10 AM, when Israeli jets took off from the airfield at Hatzor in Southern Israel and other kibbutzes, in the direction of the main Egyptian military airbases. Attacking in pairs, and in different locations, the Israeli jets bombed the runways, the long-range bombers and the Soviet-supplied MiG jet fighters. In just 30 minutes, the Egyptians had lost 204 planes – half of their air force – before they had even left the tarmac. Even the Israelis couldn’t believe it. The war lasted 6 days but the Israeli preemptive air strike established their dominance and the Israeli forces also smashed the combined armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan during the following days. Nearly 10,000 Egyptian soldiers were killed in the first 48 hours and, on the eastern front, it took the Israeli soldiers only two days to occupy East Jerusalem and the West Bank. They also captured the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula. Israel was now 3.5 times its original size and the war, waged at first to avenge the 1948 “Nakba”, ended up resulting two decades later in the 1967 “Naksa”.
Needless to say, the defeat was an utter humiliation for Arabs. Gamal Abdel Nasser, icon of pan-Arabism and fatherly figure for millions of Egyptians, theatrically resigned on national television on the 9th of June 1967. Egypt’s material and human losses were indeed the greatest, although it’s now believed that until April and May 1967, Nasser tried to avoid a war. Egypt was at the time entangled in the North Yemen Civil War and Nasser was aware that the Egyptian army wasn’t able to face a second war against Israel. Also, Egypt didn’t react to operation Samù in November 1966, launched by Israel against Palestinian villages in the Hebron area.
Naturally, the blockade of the Straits of Tiran contributed considerably to the escalation, since 90% of Israeli oil passed through it (to reach Israel’s southern port of Eilat). Historians have since pointed out the responsibility of the Baathist regime in triggering the war, and Syria ironically recorded the lowest casualty rates. (From 1965 and on, Syria was sponsoring Fatah raids against Israel, which could push Israel to plunge back into conflict.) But above all, the most tragic outcome of the war was the plight of some 200,000 Palestinian refugees displaced from the West Bank. June 1967 was clearly a watershed in the history of Arab–Israeli relations: it killed forever the Arab hopes of going back to pre-1948, erasing Israel from the map and achieving Arab unity.
On the occasion of its 50th anniversary, the importance of the event prompts me to re-examine it through the writings of Arab intellectuals. Indeed, the “Naksa” – meaning the “setback” – was a major blow for Arab morale and writers from all stripes – Islamists included – filled hundred of pages trying to understand the reasons for the defeat. Decadence, cultural crisis, disillusionment, and many themes emerged in the post-1967 texts of the Arab intellectual elite, but it seems that they all converged on the necessity of self-examination and reforms. Suddenly, the core problem wasn’t Israel anymore. The crushing defeat was humiliating to the point that Haartez even published a victory cake recipe to be baked for Israeli soldiers. Moderate intellectuals were the first to call for a reassessment of the very bases of Arab culture and politics. It was indeed a very brave wake-up call on behalf of the intellectuals, since they were still brutalized by security forces in dictatorial regimes. All throughout the Arab world, poems, plays and novels offered a profound analysis of the Arab psyche and advocated for freedom of thought and democracy in order to resolve its inner weaknesses.
Without a doubt, 1967 had a major impact on the Palestinian community, and this was clearly reflected in Palestinian literature. Writings by Palestinian authors were accorded the honorific title of “literature of resistance”. The expression was first used by author Ghassan Kanafani, but some argue this category only applies to poets living in occupied territories, for their experience is distinguished from that of Palestinians living in exile. Among Palestinian poets, Mahmoud Darwish was dubbed “the national poet” since millions identified with the rebellious ethos of the poignant poetry he wrote during the 1940s. However, in the aftermath of 1967, Darwish published the poem “A Soldier Dreams of White Lillies”, which gives a humanizing voice to an Israeli soldier. In a touching dialogue, the soldier confesses to the poet his indifference to the national cause and calls homeland “drinking my mother’s coffee”.
As might be expected, other Arab artists nearly considered this treason. In a 1996 interview with Israeli poet and literary critic Helit Yeshurun, Darwish explained that he personally knew the soldier, and was touched by his rejection of the Israeli state. Nevertheless, and despite polemics, such a poem from the author of “ID card” indicates a turning point: No praise is given to the Arab soldier, as if the military defeat was simply an indicator of pan-Arabism’s failure as well as the inefficacy of the strategy of aggression. Shedding a light on the Israeli soldier instead, shouldn’t be interpreted as traitorous but reflective of a general shift in perspective: 1967 witnessed the emergence of a reaffirmed Palestinian identity, independent of Arab nationalism.
Following the same line of thought, Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani pushes the criticism against Arab unity’s chauvinistic myths one step further. His post-1967 poetry speaks volumes about the irremediable shock provoked by the defeat in literary circles. Long known as the poet of love and erotica, Qabbani completely transforms into a poète engagé after the June setback. He wastes no time in using careful hints in order to identify those responsible for the 1967 defeat: the poet vehemently accuses the Arab dictatorial regimes and fustigates the official discourse of its leaders.
In the poem “In Speech”, the regime’s secret agents arrest the poet when he bursts out laughing during the speech of an Arab ruler. He’s then brought into an interrogation room, where the poet addresses the ruler and asks him about the “June defeat and the Six-Days War” and the destiny of “Sharm Al Shaikh, Haifa, Ramallah and the Golan”, the newly captured territories. At this point, the poem is clearly referring to the historical context in which it’s being written, even if the events themselves are fictional. The ruler answers the poet by showing him the military medals and badges hanging on his chest. Qabbani seems to evoke here the escapist attitude held by many Arab officials following the June setback, and their recalling of past episodes of glory in order to deny reality. This could also be seen as a criticism of Arab thought in general: it has rarely tried to question the domestic implications of its misfortunes.
Another Syrian intellectual, the renowned playwright Saadallah Wannous, shares the same observation about the necessity of self-examination in the aftermath of the setback. His famous play Soirée for the Fifth of June use of the mise-en-abîme technique by showing another fictional play being held in front of fictional spectators on the night of 5th June. The fictional show is never delivered and the play rapidly transforms into a heated debate between the fictional spectators and the fictional director of the play. The latter says he wanted to “to produce an artistic event that would honor the dramatic circumstances the country has experienced,” but his plans are contradicted when an old man in the audience embarks on a monologue depicting the refugees’ plight, forced to flee their home because of the war. Gradually, all spectators leave their seats and each one of them shares their opinion concerning the defeat. One spectator erupts in anger and affirms that they were all responsible for it and that if he looked in the mirror, he could see the shame within himself. Suddenly, the spectators welcome the idea of exploring their images in a mirror and insist on the importance of examining themselves before assigning the blame to each other.
Wannous, similarly to Darwish and Qabbani, doesn’t choose to blame the Israelis for the defeat. The message of the play is clearly one of self-examination addressed to the Arab people, against the attempts by state-media to obscure the war memories. In fact, the play ends when the security forces arrest the spectators inside the theater, echoing Qabbani’s imprisonment in the poem. Thus, the only way for Arab societies to restore their tainted pride is by means of individual awakening and political liberation.
The June war also inspired an important body of fictional works, and a study shows that the average number of novels published annually in Egypt after 1967 increased markedly. A lot of these novelists offered their own explanations for the defeat and Naguib Mahfouz, the popular Egyptian novelist, who won the Nobel Laureate in 1988, was no exception. Naturally, the event was hard to ignore in Egypt, and Mahfouz reaction was to give up writing novels for 5 years afterwards. His analysis of the event is given to us through the novella Karnak Café, which appeared in 1974 and was made into a movie in 1975. It raised much debate about the cruelty and corruption of the intelligence apparatus under Nasser.
The story revolves around the café where the different characters meet before and after June 1967. Prior to the Six-Day War, Mahfouz portrays a critical tableau of public opinion in Egypt, which is totally confident and certain of victory. This is also partly the result of the state of misinformation in which the population is kept during the events. The narrator, who is a regular at the café, notices one day that fewer people are visiting it. The explanation is political and the narrator condemns the authorities that must have threatened the young people in the café for the free conversations they were having. After the defeat, the main characters confess going out onto the streets in support of Nasser, despite their feeling of helplessness. The dark novella uses the café as a microcosm of the urban environment of Cairo, to reflect on the political instability and violence of the dictatorial regime that persisted well after the June war.
The echoing of the Six-Day War in the writings of so many intellectuals throughout the Arab world reveals the existential depth of the collective trauma it produced. But it wasn’t only analyzed by moderate thinkers who advocated self-examination, and the June defeat is generally regarded as the main cause of the resurgence of Islamist claims. Today, after the relative failure of the 2010–2012 Arab Spring, which asked for the same reforms as the post-1967 intellectuals, and the ongoing Syrian crisis, the efforts of self-examination must be pushed further than ever before.
Feature image: Photograph of Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Darwish & George Habash in Syria, 1980. Image provided by Syrian News Agency (SANA).