Reading with Saba

By: Michael Allan

June 6, 2018

Saba Mahmood's Legacy

One of the remarkable aspects of Saba Mahmood’s seminar was that it always began with a deliberative and collective silence. Week by week, we would gather around a large wooden table and circulate our written responses to the week’s assigned readings. After a few moments with a particular response, we would pass it along until each paper made its way around our table. As Saba read, her eyes often shuttled from the words on the page to the student who composed them—a less than subtle reminder that even in this silent reading, there was an ongoing conversation between us all. It was in this setting that I learned to read with a sense that Saba was there alongside me, and even then, as I composed my weekly responses, I composed them with this collective reading in mind. In this opening silence—in which we read, listened, and learned—there was already an intimacy to the conversation we shared.

In the two months since her passing, I have been grateful to realize that Saba will remain part of this conversation, guiding me in how I read and write. She remains vital to the connections those of us who have learned from her share with one another—and she remains alive in the connections we have to the work we do. I find comfort knowing my own thinking has been cultivated in the reading lessons we had with Saba—circulating papers around a table, reading and ultimately listening in this initially silent conversation.

And yet, silence is hardly an attribute that comes to mind when I think of Saba. She was, among many things, critically engaged, animated by argument, and never shy to challenge the intellectual merits of a claim. She loved to learn, and by addressing crucial questions and posing them to those around her, she drew us into this process. Whether on a hike in the Berkeley hills or a workshop in Irvine, Chicago, or Sonoma, I often marveled at how Saba committed herself to questioning basic principles of political life: democracy, freedom, virtue, and in her final seminars, hope. What she offered those of us engaged with her in these questions was a model of thinking, engaging, and teaching that was transformative.

When I think back to those reading lessons with Saba, what mattered was less the dynamics of silence, conversation, and engagement than resonance. It was not only that Saba listened attentively with an incredible ear for argument. It was not only that she called out irresponsible or opportunistic claims when she saw them. It was more that she cultivated an appreciation for the rare spaces where thinking itself could occur. She resented professionalization, she valued critical inquiry, and increasingly, she found her voice in the ambiguities that art and literature posed. I found in her reflections on the Danish cartoons and women’s autobiography an intriguing model for thinking about the politics of form.

But as Saba transitioned in her work to focus on hope and futures, she intensified her reading of novels, poetry, and philosophical meditations. In the work of Faiz Ahmad Faiz, she found language for dimensions of life at the edge of descriptive possibility, and in novels such as Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, she engaged the possibilities for thinking, living, and experiencing life otherwise. And with these readings, these conversations, Saba taught me, once again, how to read. On hikes, in phone calls, or over meals, her friendship became a demonstration of what it means to commit intellectually.

Two days before her passing, Saba and I spoke for what would be the last time. At the end of the phone call, as I hung up and felt an overwhelming sense of grief pass over me, she sent me a text message containing a page from Hisham Matar’s The Return. On the page was a section bracketed in pen, as though offering me an additional reading lesson:

Perhaps memories and all the sacred and secular rituals of mourning across our human history are but failed gestures. The dead live with us. Grief is not a whodunit story, or a puzzle to solve, but an active and vibrant enterprise. It is hard, honest work. It can break your back. It is part of one’s initiation into death—and I don’t know why, I have no way of justifying it—it is a hopeful part at that.

These words, like Saba herself, continue to resonate with me. She lives with me. She lives with us. And indeed, coming to terms with the grief is an active and vibrant enterprise. Much as I am heartbroken by her early departure from this world, I remain grateful for the lessons she offered, for the friendships she made possible, and for the intellectual commitment she modeled. I find comfort in the fact that she lives with us not only as we continue to process her impact, but also as we embody the critical sensibility she provided.

For those of us touched deeply by her work, her care, and her commitments, she remains vital to the connections and the intellectual life we now share with one another. “What is extraordinary,” Matar writes later in the passage Saba highlighted, “given everything that has happened, the natural alignment of the heart remains towards the light.”

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