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
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.
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.
"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...."
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."
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."
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."
Said, who was diagnosed several years ago with leukemia, has had to limit his activities. Still, he continues to give lectures, and to live partly in what he calls a "Palestine of the mind" - a place where Jews, Muslims, and Christians can live productive and safe lives. One must live in that idea of Palestine, he says, whether one ever returns home or not. One must live "as if."
"If justice, or any kind of real lasting solution is to be imagined, it can't be done by separating the two populations. Arabs and Israelis are intertwined. That's the reality. There are 900,000 Palestinians inside Israel right now who are treated only as non-Jews, with no status, treated as subhuman, aliens on their own land. That won't work. You can't have rights for some and not others.
"In the long run, the two-state solution of Oslo is premised on a vast disparity in power and privilege. That won't last forever. I think the Israeli experience will gradually turn back towards the world they really live in, the Islamic Arab world. And that can only come through the Palestinians. It might be in a cantonal system, like Switzerland. It could be a federated system, many states. But we can't live forever in separation.
"Yes, this seems hopelessly unrealistic. Of course. But it is more realistic than what we have now. The situation is so full of dramatic contradictions you can't think on the basis of the way things look now."
On literature ...
'My generation of literary studies was confined by national boundaries. Literature then meant European literature. No Japanese, Chinese. Today it's very exciting. Students are interested in class and gender. I'm not sure the relation they draw between those issues and literature is always the best. But it is refreshing. I've been very conservative in teaching. The vogue of replacing one canon with another I'm against. What you teach students in literature is how to read. I'm still interested in Homer and Virgil. That doesn't stop me from reading Latin American, Chinese, and Arabic literature. But, and this is where I'm conservative, I do think some works of art are better than others.'
On Israeli-Palestinian relations ...
'I believe it is possible for us [Palestinians] to have a reconciliation with the Jews of Israel. But not unless we recognize their complex history. And they recognize ours. I don't think that has happened. And that is why there is no reconciliation.'
On the beauty of opera ...
'Opera is an extravagant form. An enormous amount of information is coming across. There's nothing like it! It is the last refuge of the high style.... The vitality and beauty of opera is such that people can enjoy it. But on closer examination, certain operas draw you in further and further until you discover they are not what they seem to be at all.'
On America ...
'I have a complicated relationship with America. The kind of career I've had, writing and speaking, the children I've had, could only happen here. For me, the American university is central. I've spoken at universities all over the world. But the modern American university seems the last utopian place, a liberal ideal that has helped the Middle East, in its manifestations in Cairo and Beirut. We have a great stake in preserving it, in enhancing that space. New York is also very important. It is a kind of exilic city. A lot of writers. Strange people. And the music. Insofar as that is America, I couldn't be anywhere else.'
On the Oslo peace process ...
'The whole idea of trying to produce two states is probably at an end. The Oslo peace process is really in tatters.... The lives of Israelis and Palestinians are hopelessly intertwined. There is no way to separate them. You can have fantasy and denial. Or put people in ghettos. But in reality there is a common history. So we have to find a way to live together. It may take 50 years. But ... the Israeli experience will gradually turn back towards the world they really live in, the Islamic Arab world. And that can only come through the Palestinians.'
Excerpts from Lectures
EXILE is one of the saddest fates. In premodern times, banishment was a particularly dreadful punishment since it not only meant years of aimless wandering away from family and familiar places, but also meant being a sort of permanent outcast.... During the 20th century, exile has been transformed from the exquisite, and sometimes exclusive, punishment of special individuals ... into a cruel punishment of whole communities and peoples, often the inadvertent result of impersonal forces such as war, famine, and disease....
There is a popular but wholly mistaken assumption that being exiled is to be totally cut off, isolated, hopelessly separated from your place of origin.... The fact is that, for most exiles, the difficulty consists ... in living with the many reminders that ... your home is not in fact so far away, and that the normal traffic of everyday contemporary life keeps you in constant but tantalizing and unfulfilled touch with the old place. The exile therefore exists in a median state, neither completely at one of the new setting nor fully disencumbered of the old....
ONE task of the intellectual is the effort to break down the stereotypes and reductive categories that are so limiting to human thought and communication....
The construction of fictions like "East" and "West," to say nothing of racialist essences like subject races, Orientals, Aryans, Negroes, and the like, were what my books attempted to combat. Far from encouraging a sense of aggrieved primal innocence in countries which had suffered the ravages of colonialism, I stated repeatedly that mythical abstractions such as these were lies, as were the various rhetorics of blame they gave rise to; cultures are too intermingled, their contents and histories too interdependent and hybrid, for surgical separation into large and mostly ideological oppositions like Orient and Occident.
From the 1993 BBC Reith Lectures.
Reprinted as 'Representations of the Intellectual,' Vintage Press.
Edward Said Chronology
1935-1947: Born in the West Jerusalem neighborhood of Talbiya to a prominent and wealthy Palestinian family. Father becomes US citizen after escaping Ottoman Turkish draft in Palestine in 1911; mother is half-Lebanese, born in Nazareth. Edward's early schooling is in Cairo and at St. Georges, an Anglican academy in Jerusalem. Saids leave for Cairo when Jewish forces take Talbiya, losing family home and business.
1948-51: Attends British-run Victoria College in Cairo during last years of King Farouk's reign. Summers in Lebanon. After "rowdy" spell, father sends him to Mount Hermon Academy in Massachusetts.
1952-57: Graduates from PrincetonUniversity. Phi Beta Kappa. Spends a year in Cairo giving piano recitals and concerts, but opts to study literature at Harvard.
1957-63: Focuses on new field of comparative literature; receives doctorate from Harvard where he wins Bowdoin Prize for work on Joseph Conrad; offered post at Columbia.
1963-70: Establishes himself as leading professor. Gains tenure. Begins writing on Middle East after Six-Day war in 1967. Visiting scholar at Harvard.
1970-76: Marries (second) wife, Mariam, starts a family that includes son, Wadie, and daughter, Najla. Wins the Lionel Trilling Award for his book, "Beginnings." Year as scholar in Beirut and fellowship at Stanford bring intellectual breakthrough leading to "Orientalism," his main theoretical work.
1977-82: Elected to board of Palestinian National Council. Acts briefly as Carter White House "back-channel" to Yasser Arafat. Achieves popular acclaim with "The Question of Palestine," and "Covering Islam."
1983-88: Becomes visiting professor at Yale and Johns Hopkins. Four books, one film, eight endowed lectures, including Cornell and Chicago. Seminal support of "two-state solution" for Palestine-Israel.
1988-92: Breaks with Yassar Arafat who backs Saddam Hussein in Gulf war. Writes book on classical music. Eight lectures, including Oxford, Stanford, Princeton. Made University Professor at Columbia. Calls Oslo peace accord a "sell out." Visits Jerusalem after 45-year "exile."
1993 to present: Eleven endowed lectures; seven books, including "Culture and Imperialism." Renounces "two-state" solution in favor of paradoxical "single state" with equal human, civil, political rights for all.