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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

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"My experience is one of a minority inside a minority," says Said from his book-lined Columbia University office. "Growing up, my family were Protestants in a Greek Orthodox community." Moreover, for the outsider or alien, he says, "our truest reality is expressed in the way we cross over from one place to another. We are migrants and perhaps hybrids, in, but not of, any situation in which we find ourselves. This is the deepest continuity of our lives...."

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Given the volume of Said's work in the past 20 years - 240 journal articles, 14 books, some 26 endowed lectures - some colleagues say he could have been the preeminent literary scholar of his day, had he not spent so much time on Palestine.

Said disagrees. He says his political work, involvement in foreign affairs, and the public role he took on, fed and enriched his literary work, enabling him to see the world in ways he otherwise would not.

"Mine has been the role of an intellectual involved in a movement, a witness to something - for me, the Palestinian experience - that requires commentary and expression.

"My sense of the intellectual means that certain kinds of universal values, irrespective of patronage or specialization, are articulated. Where ideas are important not because you have them, but because you apply them to public situations where injustice is committed, where the weak and helpless are without a voice. And where ... historical experiences are either silenced, forgotten, or effaced..."

Yet, "it is getting very hard to talk about these things in our society today," Said feels. That intellectuals have retreated into private languages, academia, or corporate or policy roles bothers him. "I wish I had the time to write a history of dissent, something that is totally forgotten.... Linked to that history is another serious one, of selling out your ideals, often in the name of realism."

For Said, the duty of the educated person is to constantly resist the narrowing confines of an ethnic or national identity - which leads to apartheid, racism, hatred, violence, war. His scholarship itself argues that no peoples or places are ever wholly "pure." They are always hybrids, products of cultural ferment and imitation, the interchanges of East and West, North and South.

This is not to deny one's Islamic, Christian, or Jewish roots, he says. But it means not allowing one's identity to freeze - blocking growth, the evolution of ideas, a larger sense of human identity.

Said finds patterns between his scholarly work and live issues like Bosnia. In "Orientalism" he argues that European powers colonized other regions partly by a systematic creation of myths about Africa and Asia that denied these places a "narrative" of their own in Western centers of learning. A kind of "intellectual dispossession," he argues.

"Napoleon, for example, goes to Egypt," Said notes. "He wants to conquer it because Egypt is important. Alexander and Caesar conquered it. He actually says that. But what distinguishes the modern conqueror from the old one is that you not only take over the country, but you bring scientists, scholars, and artists who 'reproduce' Egypt. Back in Paris you have a craze for Egypt. It has little to do with the actual Egypt. It is a fantasy Egypt - very creative and embellished. But underlying it all is the fact of conquest."

Even Alexis de Tocqueville, who was critical of the American treatment of blacks, advocated violence in Algeria later in life. "Tocqueville speaks of killing Algerians and burying them in caves," Said says. "He argues this is a measure of greatness. Other countries will respect it. He even calls it a 'necessity.' "

In Bosnia, Said feels, "the tolerance for massacres and mass rapes and rank injustice was all papered over with a cultural political explanation of 'ethnic feuds.' This is what happens to the so-called lesser peo ples, those not in power."

"A cultivated person who wants to understand the world of today can benefit from Said," says Francisco Marquez, professor of romance languages at Harvard University. "He embodies the best of two worlds, East and West, and such persons are not so easy to find. He has a gift for reaching people who are not specialists."