Mind of Edward Said
By George Naggiar
28 September, 2003
everyone to join in and not leave the field of values, definitions,
and cultures uncontested." From
the final essay of Edward Said
Said's life and work is a story of transcendence of the cultural and
spatial barriers that so often thoughtlessly divide humanity. Born in
Jerusalem, the capital of the three great monotheistic faiths and a
city that he once called "a seamless amalgam of cultures and religions
engaged, like members of the same family, on the same plot of land in
which all has become entwined with all," he would live most of
his late life and finally leave us in New York City, the capital of
the modern world and where men and women from every corner of the earth
converge to form a modern amalgam of peoples unlike anything ever known
before. There could have been no more fitting places for the beginning
and end of the life's journey of Edward Said.
In between, Said's
journey would take him from Palestine to Egypt to the United States
and around the world. At home nowhere and everywhere, Said described
his condition as one of exile, perpetually without a home, or out of
place, to use the title of his brilliant memoir. Nowhere more, however,
than in his exile, was Said the symbol of his people, whose dispossession
his life reflected and for whom he so eloquently advocated in works
like The Question of Palestine, After the Last Sky, The Politics of
Dispossession and Peace and Its Discontents. Through these writings
and others, Said introduced the Palestinian people and narrative to
an American-and international-audience as Zionism's all-too-often unrecognized
victims. In so doing, he was widely known as one of the Palestinian
people's most passionate advocates for peace, reconciliation and coexistence
with Israeli Jews on the basis of justice and equality.
From that vision,
he would never waver, even when it was most unpopular to do so. During
the Oslo "Peace Process," he was a tireless and persistent
critic, famously calling the Accords themselves a "surrender"
by the Palestinian leadership and predicting with tragic foresight that
they would delay, not advance, the day of Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation.
Throughout the process, he called for the resignation of President Arafat
and the emergence of a genuine grassroots domestic and international
movement for Palestinian rights, which he understood would ensure progress
towards a meaningful Palestinian-Israeli peace. Nevertheless, for his
honesty and unwillingness to be blinded to Palestinian economic, political
and human realities by the distorting veneer of the language and images
of peace, he earned the derision of even many in his own community for
supposedly "opposing peace" or "being unrealistic."
But with the predictable
conclusion of the Oslo process in a storm of violence causing mutual
Palestinian-Israeli suffering, which now, at best, will only further
postpone the process of Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation, new movements
emerged within Palestine and internationally that were based on precisely
the discourse and strategy that Said had advocated all along. In Palestine,
a Palestinian National Initiative, of which he was a central part, had
been born and posed a new alternative to the failed strategy of endless
negotiations based on unequal power. It was a truly grassroots effort
that respected democracy, treated the needs of the Palestinian people
and spoke in language of genuine peace and reconciliation with Israel.
Throughout the world, including in the United States, the struggle of
the Palestinian people had become, to use his words, "a byword
for emancipation and enlightenment." In solidarity with them, divestment
campaigns had been launched, boycotts of Israeli goods had been initiated
and people from around the world had gone to Palestine to stand with
the Palestinians in the moments of their greatest vulnerability.
In a fitting homage
to him, at his final convention of the American-Arab Anti- Discrimination
Committee (ADC), the leading Arab-American organization, he received
a roaring standing ovation for a speech in which he, among other things,
lambasted the Palestinian Authority for its failure to recognize the
basic dignity, not to say moral beauty, of the very cause that its ostensible
mandate was to advance. In the turn of the course of history, in the
inspiring and humane language and vision of his speech, in his physical
position on the podium and in the applause of the crowd for him, it
was clear that Said had at last become what he had always been-the true
symbol and leader of his people.
But it is a testament
to the universality of his thought and the range of his interests as
a scholar and human being that Said was not limited in his writings
and advocacy to the one struggle with which he was both personally and
nationally affiliated. Indeed, his great influence and reputation was
based in large part on his other work, particularly on his reinterpretation
and re-presentation of histories of formerly colonized peoples of the
world, work which was foundational in the fields of both Post-Colonial
Studies and Critical Race Theory.
In his seminal work,
Orientalism, Said critically explored European-primarily French and
British-representations of "the Orient." In examining these
representations, Said exposed that "Western" "knowledge"
of the Orient was less an accurate description of the peoples and culture
of that place (if such generalities could themselves be meaningfully
understood, which they could not) than both a preface to and later reinforcement
of Western imperial rule over the Orient.
In Culture and Imperialism,
his sequel to Orientalism, Said would extend his analysis to other formerly
colonized peoples from around the world, to "India, the subcontinent
generally, a lot of Africa, Caribbean, Australia, parts of the world
where there was a major Western investment, whether through empire or
direct colonialism or some combination of both, as in the case of India."
In so doing, he would dis- (or, more properly, un)-cover the often hidden
power that lied within the culture of European-and any-imperialism,
and celebrate the resistance of formerly colonized peoples to its rule.
In both works and
beyond, Said understood and taught that despite the dehumanization of
and violence against the "Other" contained in colonialism
and other forms of willful division, human history was an intertwined
fabric, separated not by geographic, ethnic, national or religious barriers,
but by deliberate delusions of the will to power. It was this will-and
the structures of power and fawning intellectuals that are the predictable
result of its employment- that his critical posture was almost instinctively
directed against, as he himself once put it. In its place, he sought
to build a world of what the great German critic, Theador Adorno, his
intellectual hero, once called non-dominative difference. The critical
study of history, society and culture that would bring that condition
into reality was, for Said, the role of the intellectual.
And that role, he
fulfilled. In his various works, Said unified the disparate experiences
of a seemingly separate and unconnected humanity, both by showing that
no encounter between peoples, even of the most odious form, left the
other side unaffected, and by raising in our minds the universality
of so much of the human experience. It is a tribute to him that, even
as he praised the virtues of the humanism that he so eloquently defended,
his own insights contributed enormously to its depth. Would that we
would have made those insights our own.
But instead, today,
we stand at the edge of a great valley that separates humanity (particularly
Americans and the Arab/Islamic peoples of the world), cruelly dividing
us into ethnic, racial and religious categories whose basis is neither
history nor reason, but which, as Said taught us, obdurately betrays
both. This gulf is not a natural or inevitable one, but one too often
constructed for us by pusillanimous politicians and a media untrained
in the art of critical practice. And its effects are to promote and
thereby allow our consciences to accept an unacceptable violence of
human against human-and the enormous suffering that is its handmaiden-that
no just God or morality could countenance, much less sanction.
It falls to us,
disciples of the humane vision that Edward Said helped to construct,
to deconstruct the false barriers that prevent its realization, to imagine
a world in their absence and to, in the words of his fittingly final
exhortation to us, enter the contest of values, definitions and cultures
so as to bring that world to fruition. And when we do, we will have
torn down the symbolic- and, yes, in Palestine, physical-walls that
so inhumanely separate us from each other, elevated the universal rights
of all human beings to freedom and equality and built the greatest possible
monument to the life and labor of Edward Said, whose beautiful mind
helped us dream what, alas, his eyes could not see.
George Naggiar is
President of the American Association for Palestinian Equal Rights.