The loss of a passionate intelligence

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The Independent Online

The last time I spoke to Edward Said, we talked on the phone about the Egyptian human rights campaigner, Saad Eddin Ibrahim. At the time, Professor Ibrahim was in prison, convicted on what were widely regarded as trumped-up charges, and I called Edward in New York for help with an article I was writing. He was characteristically scathing about the lack of public support in the Arab world for his fellow academic. "If you live by your intellect," he said, "if you get too outspoken and independent, you are going to get hit."

By this time, Edward had in theory stepped back from the combative arena of Middle East politics to concentrate on his writing. But I knew his passionate commitment to human rights would not allow him to remain silent, and that he would speak on the record when many Arab intellectuals were keeping a distance. I also realised, when I read his words again on Friday, the day after his death was announced, that he might have been talking about himself.

Few academics attract anything like the adulation, or indeed the vitriol, that Edward experienced in his tragically truncated life. I first met him one dark winter evening when he gave a lecture at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, an event that demonstrated his extraordinary popularity, both for his ideas about literature and as a symbol of the Palestinian cause. I was with

my great friend, the novelist Hanan al-Shaykh,

and we arrived to find the doors of the lecture theatre firmly closed, while a huge crowd without tickets milled around outside. Hanan scribbled a note and held it up against the glass door, declaring we were Edward's guests, and we were allowed in.

By one of those coincidences that occur in writers' lives, it was Hanan's novel Women of Sand and Myrrh that drew us all together. I spotted it on the shelves of the old Literary Review office in Soho, loved it and wrote an enthusiastic review. So did Edward, who then sought Hanan out, visiting her and her husband in London and at their house in the south of France. Years later, I stayed at that same house in Antibes, where her son's dog had just eaten Edward's straw hat. Last summer, when I visited Lebanon with Hanan and wrote about it in this column, she sent a copy to Edward in New York.

By then she had introduced us and I knew Edward was very ill with leukaemia. In December 2001, we were due to hold a conversation at a theatre in London and I was shocked to see how unwell he was. Unwilling to disappoint the audience, he insisted on going ahead. We sat on stage in a pool of light, talking for an hour like old friends - which, sadly, we were not - about Tarzan films, the importance of doubt for liberals and the impact of the terrorist attacks of September 11 on writing. When I teased Edward about his essay on belly dancing, he launched into an explanation of his shyness with women as a young man. Suddenly an alarmed expression crossed his face and, to laughter from the audience, he exclaimed: "Why am I telling you all this?"

Afterwards, he told me it was the most enjoyable interview he had ever done. I was immensely touched, because I knew that he was an anxious man - unsurprisingly, given that his office in New York had been vandalised and burnt - and I had tried to give him an opportunity to reveal the spontaneous, playful aspect of his personality that came across in private conversation. On his return to New York, he set about trying to find an American publisher for my latest book, an act of rare kindness for a man in such poor health.

He had told me he was working on a book whose theme - the late style of Shakespeare, Beethoven, Ibsen and Lampedusa among others - seemed a natural preoccupation at that stage in his own life. He also talked about death, which he said he did not fear, although he did not believe in an afterlife. Twice that year he had been rushed to the emergency room, but he had always refused all forms of sedation. "What I really treasured most," he said, "was lucidity and awareness." It is the loss of that lucidity, of Edward Said's restless intelligence, fierce loyalty and passionate commitment to humanity, which his friends feel so keenly after his death last week.