Soon after I returned to New York from a quick trip to Doha in mid-April to participate in a conference on the regional repercussions of the Iran nuclear deal, I read the sad news of the passing of Eduardo Galeano (1940-2015), the exquisite Latin American critical mind whose work has had an enduring impact on my generation of postcolonial thinkers.
The trip to Doha was quite traumatic seeing the unfortunate plunging of the regional thinking into a nasty brand of religious sectarianism and ethnic nationalism, in which alas not just the ruling regimes in Iran and Saudi Arabia partook to their own political posturing and advantage but much to my surprise so did a wide spectrum of Arab intellectuals and scholars.
The saddening news of Galeano’s passing was also the timely reminder of how it is that critical thinking can be categorically, conceptually, and epistemically liberated from myopic entrapment within regional politics and the sudden swings in thinking that can afflict it.
Eduardo Hughes Galeano was a globally celebrated Uruguayan journalist, novelist, and critical thinker whose groundbreaking book, Las venas abiertas de América Latina (“Open Veins of Latin America,” 1971), was a pathbreaking text long before the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gave it as a gift to US President Barack Obama.
[Galeano] is celebrated by a much wider circle of readers for his beautiful take on the beautiful game.
The regional reputation of Galeano goes back to the 1960s when as an editor of Marcha, a widely popular weekly, he became part of a Latin American literary and intellectual movement that included such towering luminaries as Mario Vargas Llosa and Roberto Retamar. The wide-ranging Latin American readership that these thinkers gathered eventually spread far beyond the borders of the Americas.
Galeano was instrumental, a key figure among a number of giant Latin American thinkers who transformed the historiography of their region, and with their region, the world, by becoming the creative voice of an alternative historiography, a mode of subaltern thinking and writing before a number of Bengali historians made the term globally popular.
“Weaving tapestries of sometimes obscure historical anecdotes,” as one observer has rightly put it, “Galeano’s books presented alternative histories that gave equal weight to the sufferings of the downtrodden as to grand achievements of better-known historical figures. For some, the books were rallying calls. Galeano insisted he was merely trying to ‘unmask reality, to reveal the world as it is, as it was, as it may be if we change it’.”
The beautiful game
While the literary and critical world knows Galeano primarily for his astute mind, sublime literary prose, and relentless criticism, he is celebrated by a much wider circle of readers for his beautiful take on the beautiful game. In his Soccer in Sun and Shadow he provided the most widely celebrated reading of soccer as a game with wide ranging political implications.
“Luckily on the field you can still see, even if only once in a long while,” he once quipped, “some insolent rascal who sets aside the script and commits the blunder of dribbling past the entire opposing side, the referee and the crowd in the stands, all for the carnal delight of embracing the forbidden adventure of freedom”.
Like many intellectuals of his generation, Galeano had to move from his native Uruguay first to Argentina and then to Spain to dodge successive forms of dictatorship that made life at once unbearable in one place and yet opened his critical mind to alternative horizons. His trilogy masterpiece Memory of Fire successfully experimented with a lyrical musing that enabled an entirely different mood for contemporary historiography.
It saddens me that in Arab and Muslim capitals from Doha to Cairo, the green horizons of a cosmopolitan worldliness that includes the beautiful mind of Eduardo Galeano has now been forced underground under the ghastly sectarianism of counter-revolutionary forces in which alas some leading Arab and Muslim intellectuals participate.
As I mourn the untimely silence of Galeano’s robust and triumphant voice I bask in the memory of his magnificent mind that graced an entire generation of thinking so utterly liberated from such dastardly myopic ailments and enabled a far nobler perspective on who and what we are meant to be and do in this world.
Rest in peace Eduardo Galeano, sir. Thanks for the bright sunshine of defiant joy that you cast on so much darkness in this world. Hasta Siempre, Comandante!
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.