Remembering Fred Halliday in Chicago

3 May 2010
By Danny Postel

It was Monday morning, April 26, at a little computer repair shop and internet café on the corner of Touhy and California in Chicago, that I learned of Fred Halliday’s death. Just one building south of that computer repair shop is one of Rogers Park’s best kept secrets, a Middle Eastern tea house and restaurant called Venus, which is my home away from home. I have very fond memories of an evening with Fred in the autumn of 2005 that started out at Venus and ended at the Left of Center Bookstore in Edgewater.

I had organized a pair of events for Fred in Chicago that November. Fred, who lived in London (he taught international relations at the London School of Economics), didn’t voyage across the Atlantic often, finding it increasingly burdensome with time. So when he told me he’d be speaking at the Middle East Studies Association’s annual conference that fall in Washington, I jumped on the opportunity to have him in Chicago. I persuaded John Mearsheimer to have Fred lecture at the University of Chicago (not a hard sell – Mearsheimer had never met Fred but respected his work was eager to have him on campus).

Piggybacking on this, I had Fred speak at the late Left of Center Bookstore on Granville about his book 100 Myths about the Middle East, then just out. Back in 2005-2006, we had weekly author events and readings at the Left of Center. That series quickly turned into a sacred ritual for many of us, featuring writers from all over the world and vibrant conversations and debates that usually spilled over into dinner at the Ethiopian Diamond on Broadway.

An hour or so before the reading, I took Fred to Venus for some tea. A group of my friends met us there, three from Iran and one from Peru. The owners of Venus are Assyrians from the north of Iraq. The cook – like cooks at innumerable restaurants of virtually every kind in Chicago – is Mexican (Fernando still works there). It was vintage Halliday: our cause célèbre held court, in his near-perfect Persian with the Iranians, his near-perfect Arabic with the Iraqis, and his gorgeous, lyrical Spanish with the Latin Americans. (There may have been a little English thrown in here and there too.) The polyglot flavor of the occasion is what sticks out most. Rare is the bird who can speak all of those languages, and speak them well – let alone discuss the histories and politics of the countries in question, based on extensive travel, reading, and engagement. (In fact only half of Fred’s languages were on display that evening – he also knew Russian, German, French, and Portuguese.)

None of us wanted to leave the tea house quite yet, savoring the experience as we did. But the crowd was gathering at the bookstore a couple miles away. Fred’s talk was characteristically brilliant, ranging from the geopolitics of the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy to the state of the Left and – maybe the theme dearest to his heart – the legacy and fate of internationalism, which was to be the subject of an ambitious book Fred was planning. Among the casualties of his premature death is that book, which I – and others – looked forward to eagerly. I discussed that project with Fred many times over the last few years. I kept something of an informal file on it and sent him e-mails on anything and everything I came across that I thought he would find useful for the book.

It was a momentous and memorable evening. The historian Janet Afary, the sociologist Kevin Anderson, and the political scientist Nader Hashemi were there, among myriad others. We continued the conversation over dinner at a nearby Persian restaurant (Café Suron on Pratt just east of Sheridan – now sadly closed as well). Janet and Nader wrote me upon hearing of Fred’s death to say how fondly they recall that evening.

Now that I think about it, I really took advantage of Fred’s being in Chicago: in addition to the University of Chicago gig (which made everything else possible – Mearsheimer secured the funds to fly Fred in from DC) and the bookstore event, I made sure to block out several hours to conduct an in-depth interview with him. The journal Salmagundi (based at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York) had commissioned me to have a wide-ranging conversation with Fred about his oeuvre as a whole and to probe his thoughts on an array of current topics.

Fred agreed to it a few weeks out. Preparing for that interview was one of the most stimulating, and rewarding, intellectual experiences of my life. It was, as I described it to a friend, "all Halliday all the time" for me: I had a stack of Fred’s books and a pile of his articles with me wherever I went, and I pored over them virtually nonstop for about a month before his arrival. I had already been an avid follower of the column Fred wrote for the London-based online magazine (where I was an editor at the time, based in Rogers Park). Like many others, I always looked forward to the next one, and almost invariably found them illuminating (with a special interest in his thinking on Iran). But I hadn’t read more than a chapter here or a section there in his books.

That fall, I lived and breathed Fred’s ideas, digging deeply into Iran: Dictatorship and Development (1978), The Ethiopian Revolution (1981), Rethinking International Relations (1994), Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (1996), Revolution and World Politics (1999), The World at 2000: Perils and Promises (2001), Two Hours that Shook the World: September 11, 2001 - Causes and Consequences (2001). I didn’t just read the books, but read them the way one reads in preparation for an interview: with a hyperactive pen underlining choice sentences and filling up my notepad with ideas for questions.

The interview appeared in the Summer 2006 issue of Salmagundi, and I was thrilled with the buzz that it generated. I received e-mails from people all over the world asking for permission to reprint it. It was translated into Persian and Serbo-Croatian, appearing in the Tehran-based reformist newspaper Shargh (which was shut down shortly after the interview’s publication), and the Belgrade-based review Alexandria Biblioteka. It’s been widely read, posted, discussed, and debated. And Fred was deeply pleased with the whole thing. We discussed the prospect of reprinting it in book form. I urged Fred on several occasions to collect a bundle of his openDemocracy columns into a book and add our interview to the mix. He was enthusiastic about the idea but didn’t quite seem to have the time, or the focus, and never got around to it. I hear that a volume along these lines is now in the works. Sad though I am that it will be posthumous, I look forward to its publication.

What began as a primarily intellectual and political bond between me and Fred developed very quickly into a close friendship and passionate comradeship. I was fortunate to visit him in Barcelona, where he spent half the year toward the end of his life. He hosted me for two days and introduced me to a fabulously interesting group of his friends there from all over the world. I count my friendship with Fred among the most significant in my life and will miss him terribly.

He left his mark on Rogers Park and Edgewater that evening. When I told Fernando, the cook at Venus, the sad news of Fred’s death, he immediately recalled that evening in vivid detail and with visible fondness. He pointed to the exact table where we sat that night, and remembered Fred’s magnetic presence. Laments and tributes for Fred have issued from across the globe, from London and Barcelona to Iran and beyond. Chicago will forever bear Fred’s global footprints, and are richer for it.