Celebrating the Life of Clovis Maksoud (1926–2016)

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By: KHALIL E. JAHSHAN

ON 15 MAY 2016, the Arab-American community lost one of its most prominent and admired members, the renowned diplomat, academic, journalist, and intellectual, Clovis Maksoud. Ambassador Maksoud’s death in Washington from a cerebral hemorrhage was not only mourned in the United States, where he was born in 1926, but also throughout the Arab world, where he enjoyed widespread recognition and respect among political leaders and the general public alike.

Much has been written about Maksoud in the months since his passing at age eighty-nine: the man was a celebrated maverick with a keen political sense. But he was also an original thinker who was frequently unconventional and even contrarian.

Maksoud’s career revolved around three central themes: nonalignment, Arab nationalism, and the cause of Palestine.

Espousing the principles of nonalignment soon after the movement’s official birth in 1961, he quickly became one of its staunchest advocates, particularly in the Arab world, which he strongly believed should never align itself with or against any of the dominant power blocs. He accurately predicted the political potential of the movement and became as enthusiastic about it as its founders, all of whom he knew well and worked with: independent India’s first premier, Jawaharlal Nehru, independent Indonesia’s first head of state, President Sukarno, and Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Maksoud’s name was also synonymous with Arab nationalism, a cause to which he remained committed literally until his dying day. In recent years, nothing frustrated him more than what he saw as the implosion of the movement and the weakening of its impact as Arab politics fell victim to an era of division and sectarian infighting. He refused to accept defeat in this regard and always argued that Arab nationalism still had the potential to rise from its comatose state.

Palestine never left Maksoud: it was part of his DNA at every stage of his career. Some called it an obsession, which he considered a compliment. His diplomatic tenure as Arab League ambassador both at the United Nations and in Washington gave him a unique vantage point from which to understand the complexity of the Palestine problem; it also gave him repeated opportunities to urge Arab and Palestinian leaders to uphold the question of Palestine in the international arena. He was always ready to help but continuously frustrated with Arab leaders’ stale and timid approach and their halfhearted support for Palestine, as he saw it. He was extremely disappointed by the failure of Arab leaders in general, and the Palestinian leadership in particular, to take his Journal of Palestine Studies Vol. XLVI, No. 1 (Autumn 2016), p. 65, ISSN: 0377-919X; electronic ISSN: 1533-8614. © 2016 by the Institute for Palestine Studies.

All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Reprints and Permissions web page, http://www.ucpress.edu/journals.php?p=reprints. DOI: 10.1525/jps.2016.46.1.65. Autumn 2016 || 65 Celebrating the Life of Clovis Maksoud (1926–2016) advice and declare Israel “the occupying power” prior to engaging with its government in political negotiations over the occupied Palestinian territories.

Maksoud was unrivaled as a diplomat, prolific as a writer, and both a fine journalist and professor. Few people knew his self-deprecating sense of humor—one of the most effective and surprising weapons in his arsenal—but it endeared him to all those with whom he had close contact. He loved making fun of his own deployment of diplomatic parlance, which he referred to as “semantic acrobatics,” delighting in the fact that a verb had been coined in reference to his verbal prowess: to “Clovisize,” used by both friends and foes alike, was to take a simple topic and use rhetorical flourish and verbal sleight of hand to render it too complicated to understand.

I vividly remember his answer when a reporter asked him whether the Camp David Accords signed by Egypt and Israel in 1978 constituted a violation of the Arab League Charter. Without a moment’s hesitation, Maksoud responded, “The accords did not constitute a violation of the charter, but they were not in harmony with its provisions.” When I confronted him about this later, he retorted with a smile, “I Clovisized it, didn’t I?”

Clovis even joked about his own homely looks. His favorite childhood story related his father’s answer when asked if the newborn baby was cute. “Not necessarily,” he quoted the elder Maksoud as saying, “but he has prestige!” He attributed a similar response to his mother-in-law on their first meeting.

His eloquence and unrelenting dedication to Arab and third-world causes over the past six decades earned Maksoud deep appreciation and goodwill worldwide, and across several generations. While he enjoyed his broad popularity tremendously, he did not take it for granted, and he never let the accolades get in the way of his enthusiasm for Arab unity or the cause of Palestine.

 

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