Thursday, September 16, 2004

Edward Said Remembered

I am pleased and truly honored to be able to participate in such an auspicious occasion and thus to play a small part in the activities this afternoon to remember and memorialize Edward Said, truly a renaissance man.

Like hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people, I have long been captivated by Dr. Said’s charm, wit, courage, wisdom and intellect. While I have known for over a decade about his struggle with leukemia, yet when I learned of his passing away I was awe struck by the gravity of the loss. Believe me the pain was deep and profound.

Actually, one of the first things that I did last January upon my visit to my home village of Brummana, Lebanon, home also to his wife Miriam, was to visit the Friends Cemetery there where his ashes were buried on Oct 30, 2003. While he never made it back to his beloved homeland in Palestine, I had expected, unrealistically, that his final resting place would have become a pilgrimage of some sort for a grateful people who would want to pay their respect and gratitude to someone who had devoted a lifetime to their cause. That, unfortunately, did not prove to be the case. On the other hand, I was astonished by, and his family must have been gratified to see, the outpouring of love and affection from all over the world in all types of media, but in particular the electronic one. These letters and articles from all over the world were unceasing. The sheer volume prompted me to request Yahoo to cancel my subscription to one such special service.

As you have already heard many times, he was an accomplished pianist, an opera lover, a connoisseur of classical music, a world-class cultural critic, a fighter for human justice and dignity, an authority on Conrad, and above all, a story teller, a hakawati.

You see, to me, Edward Said will always be associated with the narrative of Palestine. He had succeeded more than anybody else in telling the story of truth to power, of forcing the world to take note of a people who have been abused and denied their history. Edward Said obliged the world to listen to the Palestinian story and to stop the charade that denied not only its human inalienable rights but even its existence. It is not an exaggeration to claim that the perception of and the recognition given to Palestinian identity over the last thirty odd years owes a great deal to the work of Professor Said.
Make no mistake about it; he was above all a teacher. He taught the world about the history, culture and yes, the rights of the Palestinians. He was able to construct and weave together the story of a people disinherited and dispossessed. He taught the West about Islam and the Orient and the Orient about the West.

In that regard he has fulfilled what Conrad thought was the task of the writer: “by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel- above all to make you see. That and no more”. Through the writing of Edward Said we saw the injustice, felt the anguish and saw the cruelty of imperialism in all its forms.

It is often suggested that blowback, the unexpected consequence of an action, can be strong enough to at least nullify the direct product of that action. The 1967 six day war was, to my mind, such an event. What appeared at the time to be a decisive military victory by the Israeli state and a stunning defeat to the Arab states and the Palestinians may have to be rethought. It is from the ashes of this military defeat that the PLO arose to speak for the Palestinian people and it is this same stunning defeat that I believe transformed a Professor of comparative literature at Columbia University. This event led him to marshal all his intellect and energy to establish conclusively the rights of the vanquished in that war. His interest in his Palestinian identity was enhanced by the magnitude of that defeat and the way that it was reported in the press. The blowback did not stop there. The renewed interest in his homeland led him on a search for answers that culminated in the writing of the very influential book Orientalism in 1978. In it he spoke of the tendency to advocate cultural imperialism by developing a view of the other that is self serving. Many of his ideas proved to be prescient. Take for example the following speech delivered at the House of Commons in 1910: “We are in Egypt to benefit the Egyptian, we are there to liberate and educate him, we are there for his sake and that is also good for all of Europe”. Now move forward 93 years and substitute the word Iraq for Egypt and the US Congress for the House of Commons.

The 1967 war provided the impetus to create an implacable critic of the Israeli state and a book that has changed the whole meaning of Middle Eastern Studies. Orientalism was nothing short of a paradigm shift. Those who did not adopt Orientalism as the only acceptable method to read the narrative used it as a corrective to the ideas of the old established masters such as Bernard Lewis. The establishment considered the ideas of Orientalism so dangerous that a Congressional bill threatened to reduce the funding to the Universities that espoused the radical and subversive ideas of Edward Said the “professor of terror”. However, he was more than up to the task of responding in equal measure to his critics. You see, Professor Said did not suffer fools gladly. That is evident in many of his responses to his critics. I recall that in one of his last interviews with The Guardian, he made references to the “intellectual lackies” of the US political leadership. He never shied away from a fight.

What distinguished the work of Edward Said on the Palestine Question was its objectivity. Despite his criticism of the state of Israel, he shunned the use of such verbiage as “the Zionist entity” and acknowledged the sufferings of the Holocaust. He did not give either the Palestinian politicians or the Arab regimes a carte blanche. His numerous books, lectures and articles about the Palestine Question have informed the debate for decades. His ideas lent strength to many in the field. That is evident by the difficulty of reading serious discourses on the subject that do not make references to his work and ideas. The standards that he applied were informed by universal values of human rights, dignity and justice. He berated those that denied the atrocities committed against the Jews in Europe, he opposed the logic of the suicide bomber, and he became a vocal critic of Chairman Arafat’s leadership and the undemocratic practices of The Palestinian Authority.

As for a Palestinian solution, he came full circle in his beliefs. In the 70’s he advocated a single democratic state solution but then during the 80’s he adopted the view that a two state solution was acceptable. That, however, changed again after the Oslo Declaration which he saw as a Palestinian Versailles. As a result, he rejected the view that separation was workable and adopted what he liked to call a bi-national state (he did not care for the term a single, secular democratic state). To him, Israel should become “a state of its citizens and not the whole Jewish people.”

Edward Said’s passion in his Palestine writings was clear and palpable. What might have contributed to that was a feeling that he described as “out of Place”. It was an existence similar to that of an exiled person. One is not accepted as part of the social fabric of the country of residence and is equally out of place in one’s homeland; in his case he was not even permitted to visit his ancestral home. It is a difficult existence similar to being in limbo, not totally rejected but far away from being accepted.

Edward Said was above all a thinker, a teacher, a story teller. Now that he has left us, the world in general is a much poorer place, but the Palestinians in particular are desperately in need of an equally eloquent hakawati to carry on the fight and the struggle, to speak truth to power.

Let me leave you with the lyrical words of another Palestinian intellectual M. Darwish the National Poet of Palestine:

“His family is now the world. Our loss is shared, and so is our sorrow. He set Palestine at the heart of the world and brought the world into the heart of Palestine”.


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