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Conversations With Outstanding Americans: Edward Said

A Christian Palestinian born in Jerusalem, Professor Said is a passionate and influential voice in literary, musical, and political worlds. A prolific writer, he is known also for his courageous expression of unpopular views on the Middle East

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 27, 1997



NEW YORK

When Edward Said recently visited his family home in West Jerusalem after 50 years, he could remember every tree, every wall, every window. He could point to the rooms where as a boy he read "Sherlock Holmes" and "Tarzan," and where he and his mother read Shakespeare to each other. He knew the road to the Sea of Galilee where the Said family swam in summers and ate roasted corn.

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What Dr. Said could not make himself do was enter the house - the home the Saids fled in a panic in 1947 when a Jewish forces sound truck warned Arabs to leave the neighborhood.

Though young Said did not know it at the time - "I was shielded from politics by my parents until I got older" - that 1947 displacement set the course for his life.

He eventually came to America and established himself as a leading thinker, teacher, and writer - author of 18 books translated into 24 languages. His literary theory of "Orientalism" has acquired "near paradigmatic status" as one scholar puts it - shaping the way a generation of students think about history and culture from Africa to the American West. His political views on the Middle East are literally read around the world.

In some ways, Said's is a classically American story: "I came here quite young, and I came alone. From the beginning I took advice from my father: Don't spend your time 'being an Arab.' That is, studying the Arab world in an American university, which I think is a tremendous mistake. I figured the best thing is to learn as much about this country and its backgrounds and traditions - to assimilate - without losing my origins. I've maintained that. To this day, I've never taught a course having anything to do with the Middle East, or even with Arabic literature ... even though I study and read in this area all the time."

As a University Professor at Columbia University in New York, the highest honor the college bestows, Said teaches across the fields of history, music, and literature. He lectures on Mozart, on opera, and practices Bach's Goldberg Variations on one of his two grand pianos in order to focus his thinking. "I've always played music. It imposes a rigor, and helps me focus.... It's something totally removed from the normal world of discourse and language. It feeds your emotions, your soul."

Yet for millions of Americans and Arabs alike who do not know this side of Said, he is "Mr. Palestine" - for years a lonely voice in the US on behalf of Arabs.

Having established himself as a brilliant young academic star in the early 1960s with his work on novelist Joseph Conrad, Said increasingly gave time and attention to the Palestinian cause after the 1967 Six-Day war. At one point he became a White House back-channel to then-Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, though today the two men are totally at odds.

Said no longer supports a "two-state solution" for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and says a "radical rethinking" of the peace process is needed.

What makes Said outstanding, say admirers, is his Renaissance nature, his passionate intellectual voice on behalf of the voiceless, and his courage in speaking unpopular views. "He's an enlightenment figure of an unusual type, and has been so under difficult circumstances," says writer and linguist Noam Chomsky, a longtime friend. "He's lived under police protection for a long time. It hasn't been easy." (He's received death threats from Jewish extremist groups since 1985.)

Said the man is in some ways an example of the rich diversity and paradox that Said the scholar says has been ignored in world history and culture.

His life has been one of the exile, never feeling quite at home. Yet as an Ivy Leaguer and member of the invitation-only Century Club in Manhattan, Said moves in a world of Lincoln Center receptions. While many people often assume he is a Muslim, he is an Episcopalian who attended Protestant schools and married a Quaker. Yet he writes piercingly about distortions of Islam in the Western press - while supporting writer Salman Rushdie, who has lived under an Iranian Shiite "fatwa" - death sentence.