Edward Said: The Palestinian Intellectual Champion
BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer
With his passing, the Arabs, especially the Palestinians, and the intellectual world in general have lost one of the greatest thinkers of our age. For the past few decades Said was known as the Arab world’s most prominent overseas thinker and scholar.DWARD W. Said, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, and a much sought after lecturer died on 25 September 2003 at the age of 67, in a New York hospital, after a lengthy
Renowned for his groundbreaking research in the field of comparative literature and his shrewd political commentaries, he was one of the most prominent intellectuals in the United States. Few of the world’s eminent academics were able to draw rock concert crowds like Edward Said and, amazingly, after the lectures, like the rock stars, he was often mobbed.
Above all, Edward Said has made his mark as a Middle East analyst, a relentless critic of the Israeli policy of dominat10n, and as the foremost North American spokesman and advocate of the Palestinian and Arab causes. A man with many dimensions, he was considered to be one of the world’s best known English Literature professors and, like only a very few of his colleagues, he was able to combine an arduous intellectual life with a political stance.
And these are not all his attributes. Edward Said, besides writing extensively on music, was also a classical music and cultural critic, a scholar of opera, as well as a pianist. In J 998, he participated in a new production of Beethoven’s Fidelio for which he wrote a new English text.
For decades, the most famous Palestinian in the West, Edward Said was proud of his people and their history. When the Oslo Peace Accords were signed in 1993, he was, amid all the euphoria, a lonely voice of dissent. He denounced the agreements, calling them ‘instruments of Palestinian surrender’ and ‘a Palestinian Versailles’. These were prophetic words which in less than a decade were to come true.
Edward Said was born in Jerusalem in 1935 to a prosperous Palestinian
Christian family who were also US citizens. As a result of the l 947 partition of Palestine, his family were dispossessed and became refugees, rnoving to Cairo. There, he attended St. George’s, an American school, then later moved to Victoria College – an English colonial school. Everything about him at this stage of his life was Western. He carried an American passport, went to westernized Lebanon for holidays, and watched Hollywood films about Africa – enthralled with those about Tarzan.
At the age of sixteen, his parents sent him for further schooling in the United Sates – a country where he lived from then on. As a young man, he learned to speak several languages and was interested in reading novels and listening to classical music. After his high school education, he obtained his B.A. from
Princeton, then his Ph.D. from Harvard where he won the Bowdoin Prize for the best scholarly dissertation written by a student, the topic being a critical study of Joseph Conrad, another writer who combined two cultures.
In 1963, he was appointed as Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia University, New York, where he later was promoted to Professor. In the ensuing years he served as a Visiting Professor at Harvard, Yale, John Hopkins and Toronto Universities.
During his lifetime, Edward Said lectured at more than 200 universities and colleges in North America, Africa, Asia and Europe. He served on the editorial board of twenty learned publications, and was the General Editor at Harvard University Press of a book series named Convergences. His writings, some of which have been translated into twenty-six languages, include many books and cover an extraordinary range of subjects. Among these are: Begin nings: Intention and Method (1975), Orienta/ism (1978), The Question of Pales tine ( 1979), Covering Islam ( 1980), Literature and Society (1980), The World, the Text, and the Critic ( 1983), After the Last Sky (1986), Blaming the Victims ( 1988), M usical Elaborations (1991), Culture and Imperialism (1993), Representations of the Intellectual: The Reith Lectures (1994), The Pen and the Sword (1994), Representations of the Intellectual (1994), The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle fc>r Palestinian Self Determination (1994), Peace and Its Discon tents: F:ssa ys on Palestine in the Middle East Peace Process ( 1995), Out of Place (1999), Reflections on Exile (2000), End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After (2000), Power, Politics, and Culture (2002), and his latest book Not Quite Right: A Memoir, Reflections on Exile – a monumental collection of essays spanning his 35-year career at Columbia University.
Of these works, his most famous book is Orienta/ism in which he exam ines the development of ideas and images about the Arab world in Western European cultures. In it, he writes of how the West has stereotyped and degraded the Arab world over the centuries. To balance this bias, he calls for the promotion of Third World literature as a major cultural force within the Western world.
The book has been embraced by various cultures and intellectual socie ties in innumerable lands across the globe. With Orientalism, Said trans formed the way people looked at Islam, the Arabs, and the Middle East. This work, and his later book, Culture and Imperialism, were important studies of how artistic creation and cultural prejudices converge and made him a much sought after lecturer in the intellectual world. Said’s Orienta/ism has been attacked by many literary critics, especially in England, for forcing his facts to fit into a pre-determined thesis and for distorting the views of English writers such as Jane Austen. This was seen in the reaction of the British press to his death. His contributions were extolled by Christopher Hitchins in the left-wing and pro-Palestinian Observer while the conservative and strongly pro-Israel Daily Telegraph attacked him not only in its obituary
but in a leader. The Televaph was among those that had long accused Said of distorting some aspects of his life in his autobiographical writings.
In addition to writing a music column for The Nation and a column for the Arabic newspapers al-Hayat in London and Al-Ahram, Egypt, he had a good number of articles published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the New Statesman and The Observer. Also, his works appeared regularly in The Guardian and Le Monde Diplomatique and he was a contributor to numerous other newspapers in France, Italy, Sweden, Britain, Spain, the Arab World, Pakistan, India and Japan.
The Arab-Israeli war, in 1967, stirred hi m to political activism after witnessing the West’s distorted view of the Middle East and the Muslim world. His own identity as a Palestinian now became evident and he began to get involved with his cultural origin, which, like many other Arabs educated in Western schools, he had suppressed as a child. Affiliation with an extremely unpopular cause in North America seemed to spur hi m on. Soon, he became the chief spokesman for the Palestinian cause in the United States.
At the same time, he became intensely involved in literary scholarship and Palestinian rights, and between 1977 and 199J , served as a member of the Palestine National Council. However, after the Oslo Accords he became highly critical of the PLO and resigned from the Council. Through the years, he became a harsh critic of the state of Israel and, in the last decade, of Arafat himself.
In the U.S.A., he paid a price for his high profile on the Palestinian issue. Many of his colleagues in universities have slandered him as ‘the professor of terror’ and officials of the Jewish Defense League have labelled him a ‘fascist’. His office at Columbia was set on fire, and he, along with his family, received countless death threats.
‘Palestine’, he once wrote, ‘is a thankless cause. You get nothi ng back but opprobrium, abuse, and ostracism. How many friends avoid the subject? How many colleagues want nothing of Palestine’s controversy? How many l iberals have time for Bosnia and Somalia and South Africa and Nicaragua and human and civil rights everywhere on Earth, but not for Palestine and the Palesti nians?’ For many years, Said battled against leukemia, but at the same time, conti
nued to forge full steam ahead with his literary effort and, in the world of politics, attacking or supporting controversial world issues. As he continued to battle against illness and age, he strove to merge conrlicting areas of his experience such as the m usical and literary, private and public, First and Third World, and, the most controversial of all, Zionist and Arab. Often to Arabs, he talked about the Holocaust and to Jewish groups about the dispossession and de-huma nization of the Palestinians.
All through his life, he was hostile to practiced religion. Regardless that Edward Said’s family was Anglican, and that he had a very religious upbringi ng, he was a convinced secularist. As a youth, he had a fondness for the King James version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer and he believed that the Koran is a wonderful book, but as religious scriptures, they meant nothing to him. The first Arab to defend Salman Rushdie, Edward Said was a self-proclaimed secular intellectual. He distrusted and loathed all forms of religious politics such as Zionism, Islamic fundamentalism or the Western fundamentalism of the Christian Right.
As befitting his academic stature, Edward Said was a member of countless organizations and societies. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Society of Literature, the Council on Foreign Relations and a former member of the Executive Board of the New York Council of the Humanities. In addition, he was an Honorary Fellow of Kings College, Cambridge; a member of the PEN Executive; the president of the Board of the Modern Language Association; and from 1980-1983, he was Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Institute of Arab Studies.
In addition, Said was awarded a myriad of prizes and honours. From among these were: Honorary Doctorates from the University of Chicago, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Birzeit University and the University of Michigan; and the Rene Wellek Award given by the American Comparative Literature Association in 1984-1985. In March 1998, he was granted the Sultan Owais Prize, the top lit erary prize of the Arab world, for general cultural achievement; and in 1999 he received doctorates from the American University in Cairo and the National Uni versity of Ireland. In the same year, he was awarded the first Spinoza Prize given in the Netherlands and the California-based News Circle Magazine’ s Advisory Board selected him as the ‘Arab-American of the Year 2000’ for his scholarly and political contributions to society.
His political activism and his enormous on-going contributions to humanities, as well as his wide-ranging intellectual life for many years aroused passionate feelings, pro and con, among his readers. He appealed to a large constituency of devotees throughout the world who regarded him as a paragon of intellectuals. They appreciated the high seriousness and the perspicuous aspects of his intelligence, both evident in his books.
Yet, somehow, in his spare time, this Renaissance-like intellectual had time to relax by playing the piano or writing about music and the opera. Without question, the world and especially the Palestinians will miss this paragon of intellectuals.