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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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Critics of Said say "Orientalism" should not be seen as a Western phenomenon only. Chinese scholar Xiaomei Chen notes China has its own history of creating mythical images as a form of conquest, which she terms "Occidentalism."

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Then there is the Middle East.

"Palestine and its past seems to me to have a kind of universal quality to it that makes it interesting for reasons that have little to do with the actual place itself," Said says. "It is a question of justice. What happened to the Palestinians, their experience of denial and dispossession since '48, has a kind of drama to it as a tragedy...."

Said feels the current Oslo accords will not lead to a just peace. "When you go and see this 'peace' on the ground," he says, "you realize the Israelis have produced a document of genius. It has tied up the Palestinians into little bantustans, without any sense of fulfilled expectations."

In 1993, White House handlers tried to get Said to lend his presence to the Oslo signing ceremony. But he refused. Since then, "Mr. Palestine" is taking it on the chin for the first time from many on the liberal Jewish front. Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, for example, calls Said a "rejectionist" of peace, and feels his lack of support for Oslo gives comfort and inspiration to terrorists.

Said feels the issues of land and peace in historic Palestine run so deeply through the question of justice and history that silence is a betrayal. Yet the very "corruption" of the Oslo process, he says, means that basic unresolved questions like the Palestinian exile in 1948 must come up again. It is not lost on him that such issues resonate at a time when Jews themselves are making inroads in reparations, recovering Nazi gold in Swiss banks, stolen Jewish art in France, synagogues in Poland.

"One can admire the way Israelis have always reminded the world what they went through in the Holocaust and with anti-Semitism. And their persistence in making sure this history is put first on the table. Palestinian leaders have simply accepted the effacement of our history in 1948. That must be put in front of Israelis. I don't think there can ever be peace unless there is an atonement, an apology, some restitution for what they did. They did it! They destroyed a society, dispossessed a people, and have oppressed them ever since. This history must be faced, just as it was for the Jews after World War II."

Friends remember Said in the late '80s on a panel at a largely Jewish gathering at Princeton University to discuss peace. When a renowned Jewish professor said, "Why don't we forget history this evening?" Said answered, "Perhaps I will be the last Jew left in the audience, because I won't forget history."

Yasser Arafat has been an incalculable disappointment to Said. The latter ticks off one-two-three what he sees as Mr. Arafat's latest grievous actions: a slush fund of millions; a monopoly on cigarettes and gas and kickbacks from taxes on them; repression of a recent teacher's strike.

Said backed Arafat publicly during the 1970s and '80s while in private trying to change his approach - prodding him, bringing him openings from the White House, urging him to organize a strategic campaign abroad to articulate the moral dimension of the cause rather than posturing as a romantic militant, which irritated Said. Arafat's backing of Saddam Hussein in 1992 was the last straw, however.

"[Arafat's] own people paid the price for the Gulf war. What's amazing is that few people have asked for an accounting of what went wrong. I mean, 400,000 Palestinians were made refugees in the Gulf because of him. What I wish with my writing is to make him accountable by telling the truth."

What Palestinians have needed all along is a systematic lobbying campaign abroad, he feels. "Nelson Mandela told me that not until the ANC [African National Congress] devoted most of its time and energy to organizing international communities did 'apartheid' became a bad word. But there is no Palestinian information because Arafat has a vested interest in keeping things as they are. He is required in his new role to forget about the past and to accept what he is told to. He doesn't represent Palestinians, in my opinion."