The ‘conscious pariah’

There have been few more significant intellectuals in the 20th century than Edward Said, who died in Paris on 25 September.

His was a life lived in exile—a Palestinian Christian who was born in Jerusalem and grew up in Cairo, but who spent most of his adult life in America. Indeed in his biography, Out of Place, he spoke poignantly of always packing large amounts of luggage, even for an overnight stay, because of an ingrained fear that he was again going into exile and would never return home. It was this awareness of exile, his identity as a Palestinian and an outsider, that most strongly characterised his prolific output as a writer and activist.

First employed by Colombia University in New York in 1963, he rapidly rose through the ranks to become University Professor of English and Comparative Literature, a position which he held until his death. Said was also an accomplished musician, an erudite and internationally respected music critic and a man widely published in the fields of literature, international politics, philology and psychiatry. And all of this from a man who battled against leukaemia for the last decade of his life.

The work that thrust him onto the international stage was his 1978 book Orientalism. This was a true revolution of ideas, a paradigmatic shift in the way we see the world beyond our own borders. The central pillar of his book was a refusal to accept that our understanding of other cultures could ever be objective. Elegantly taken to its conclusion, Said’s argument revealed the way Western knowledge of other cultures served as a weapon in the armoury of empire—how knowledge in the service of power reduced entire cultures and religions to essences and legitimate targets of violence.

In his follow-up book, Covering Islam, Said brought the full force of this argument to bear upon US foreign policy and media coverage of events in the Islamic world. In a statement as relevant today as when it was published in 1981, he wrote: ‘What we have is a limited series of crude, essentialised caricatures of the Islamic world, presented in such a way as, among other things, to make that world vulnerable to military aggression.’

Said’s identity as a Palestinian gave his statements a forceful personal edge. It also exposed him to fierce criticism. His Israeli critics frequently pointed to Said’s former membership of the PLO’s Palestine National Council, all the while ignoring his resignation in protest against the corruption, lack of democracy and inadequate human rights commitments within the Palestinian leadership. His critics tried to diminish him by labelling him an anti-Semite, again ignoring the fact that Arabs are Semites and that his entire working life was spent fighting against racial and religious stereotypes. His opposition to Israeli government policy similarly exposed him to accusations of tacitly supporting the destruction of Israel, even as he mounted collaborative projects with Israelis, most notably the famous Israeli musician Daniel Barenboim, and argued for the peaceful coexistence of peoples.

His critics came also from within the Palestinian community. Said’s opposition to the Oslo Peace Accords lost him the ear of the Palestinian leadership. His refusal to sanction terrorism as a weapon of liberation also ensured that he had few friends among the extremists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Among his more famous pronouncements was that he had not spent a lifetime fighting for Palestinian freedom only to surrender it to another corrupt and undemocratic Arab one-party state. If that were to happen, he said, he would prefer not to see a Palestinian state.

But it was his deep sense of humanity that marked him out as a special figure. Friends spoke of his loyalty, warmth and genuine care for friends, family and all whom he encountered. His more reasonable opponents never faulted his generosity, accessibility and ability to listen even as he eloquently refused to compromise on matters of principle. Even in his most infamous moment—on a recent visit to the Lebanon-Israel border, he (somewhat self-consciously) threw stones in the direction of the Israeli border post as an expression of solidarity with the Palestinian people—it was difficult to see him as anything other than an utterly human figure who never lost touch with the frustrations and aspirations of his people.

Said’s legacy is demonstrated by the way he met his own test, which he formulated in Covering Islam: ‘the choice facing the individual scholar or intellectual [is] whether to put intellect at the service of power or at the service of criticism, community, and moral sense.’

The answer was provided by Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif, a friend of Said who accompanied him recently to a literary festival:

‘... people were coming up afterwards just to touch him. It was as though he was a talisman. He laughed it off: “You know me, I’m just an old demagogue,” he said. But he wasn’t. He was a guide and an example. In the most private conversation, as well as in public, he was always human, always fair, always inclusive. “What is the matter with these people?” he asked after a recent debate. “Why does no-one mention truth or justice any more?”’

Edward Said put such apparently outdated concepts back at the centre of public debate and transformed the world as a result. It’s just a pity that he never got to go home. 

Anthony Ham is Eureka Street’s roving correspondent.



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