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December 1, 2020

Presidency of a centrist

Opinion

December 1, 2020

I sat down with Obama’s book, with a cup of my reassuring tea in tow, thumbing through its pages. I looked at the glossy pictures inside, read the acknowledgements, the preface, the dust jacket blurbs and even the photo credits. Then I went up and down the index.

All these seemingly secondary elements are actually crucial to any book, as they make up what the French literary theorist Gérard Genette calls the “Paratext” – material that frames the main text and shapes the way it is received and interpreted by the public.

The carefully crafted paratext of this 768-page memoir, from the front cover featuring a handsome and ageing photograph of Obama to the back cover showing him looking towards the Washington Memorial through a window in the Oval Office, emits an august presidential aura. When you take the book in your hands and glance through its pages, you immediately know that you are in the presence of a mighty commander-in-chief, as the saying goes, with his own kill list and squadron of drones to boot.

The index is perhaps the most important part of the paratext, as it tells the reader what names and subjects matter the most. So I dived in there to have an understanding of Obama and his editors’ priorities.

I first looked for the words Palestine and Palestinian. I could not find these words in the index, despite there being several discussions on Palestine in the main text. Obama tells us, for example, that he wanted to go to Tel Aviv in 2009, on his way back from Cairo where he delivered a speech calling for a “new beginning” in US-Muslim relations. The Israelis apparently declined his request, as they did not want him to create the impression that the Palestinian question was “the primary focus” of his Cairo speech or that “the Arab-Israeli conflict was the root cause of the Middle East’s turmoil”.

While such revelations were not deemed important enough to get the word Palestine included in the index, there are plenty of items under Israel and the Israel-Palestine “conflict”. It seems it is only the Palestinians and their homeland that do not exist in Obama’s index.

Out of curiosity, I also looked for Al Jazeera in the memoir’s index. It was there pointing to a segment complaining about Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s refusal to take part in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political chicanery.

While criticising Abbas for dismissing a promise by Israel to briefly halt the construction of illegal settlements as “meaningless”, Obama blames Al Jazeera for convincing other Arab leaders to take a similar stance.

“Other Arab leaders quickly echoed [Abbas’] sentiments,” the former president writes, “spurred in part by editorialising from Al Jazeera – the Qatari-controlled media outlet that had become the dominant news source in the region, having built its popularity by fanning the flames of anger and resentment among Arabs with the same algorithmic precision that Fox News deployed so skillfully with conservative white voters in the States.”

Wow! Just wow! One critical voice in the entirety of the Arab and Muslim world not beholden to Obama’s liberal imperialism and he compares it to the nastiest racist outlet in the United States!

Then I looked for the word Iran. It was there, though the Index got the date of the CIA-MI6 coup in Iran wrong. It was in 1953, not in 1951 as the Index says. Imagine, the army of researchers, editors, speech writers and presidential staff that helped Obama put this book together could not even get one crucial date that changed the lives of millions of human beings right.

After going through the entries in the index for some time, I eventually began reading the book itself.

The book, in the end, does not disappoint or surprise. It is what it is: an overdose of Obama’s endearing liberal chumminess, packaged nicely to appease millions of his admirers. A Promised Land is an autobiography of his innocence, his best intentions, his political enemies, his immoral dilemmas.

Excerpted: ‘The unbearable lightness of being Obama’

Aljazeera.com