Edward Said

Scholar of formidable erudition and eloquent spokesman for the Palestinians

Saturday 27 September 2003 00:00 BST

Edward Wadie Said, literary critic and political activist: born Jerusalem 1 November 1935; Instructor in English, Columbia University 1963-65, Assistant Professor 1965-67, Associate Professor 1968-70, Professor 1970-77, Parr Professor of English and Comparative Literature 1977-88, Old Dominion Foundation Professor in Humanities 1989-91, University Professor of English and Comparative Literature 1992-2003; married 1962 Maire Jaanus (marriage dissolved 1967), 1970 Mariam Cortas (one son, one daughter); died New York 25 September 2003.

Edward Said was one of the greatest intellectuals and public activists of our time.

One way to describe the life of Edward W. Said is through his physical movement from colony to empire. He was born in 1935 in (still partly colonised) Jerusalem, grew up in Cairo, whence, having been expelled from Victoria College - an attempt to create the "Eton of the Middle East" - in 1951, he was sent by his father to complete high school in an American boarding school, Mount Hermon in New England.

From the Cairene Eton of the Middle East Said did not proceed to the Oxbridge of the vanquished empire, but to its equivalent in the new empire. He studied at Princeton (AB 1957), and Harvard (AM 1960, PhD 1964). His working career was spent from beginning to end at Columbia. He went there in 1963 as Instructor in English, serving from 1992 till his death as University Professor of English and Comparative Literature.

Perhaps the movement's correct direction was indicated by self-awareness: from "Edward W." to "Said". Most faithful, however, would probably be the metaphor of an oscillation in which the pendulum can never be brought to a halt in mid-air. Said put it best in his 1999 memoir, Out of Place:

I have never known what language I spoke first, Arabic or English, or which one was really mine beyond any doubt. What I do know, however, is that the two have always been together in my life, one resonating in the other, sometimes ironically, sometimes nostalgically, most often each correcting, and commenting on, the other. Each can seem like my absolutely first language, but neither is.

The gist of his infinitely rich life and work may also be conveyed by highlighting Said's fascination with the life and work of the German-Jewish intellectuals of the Weimar era (and slightly before and after). In many ways Said was the last representative of this illustrious tradition and identified with it. Tongue in cheek, perhaps the instinctive proximity began with the German- Jewish midwife, Madame Baer, who had delivered Said in Jerusalem.

His work on intellectuals in exile, and on exile as a state of being, is a good illustration. In his last visit to the University of California at Los Angeles, less than a year ago, Said graced us with a revealing talk at the magnificent Villa Aurora, home to numerous German writers and artists who had fled the Nazi horror. He shared with us the long hours in hospital during his most recent chemotherapy (he fought leukaemia for more than a decade), which he had endured by rereading Erich Auerbach's 1945 book Mimesis, rediscovering how fascinating philology can be, thinking about Auerbach in exile in Istanbul, and constructing in his mind the introduction he would write for a new edition of the book from Princeton University Press. It was quite evident that the way Said related to Auerbach was not only cerebral.

Said was the conscious pariah par excellence. Another outstanding German-Jewish scholar whom Said read and liked, Hannah Arendt, coined the notion of the conscious pariah. She used the term to explain Bernard Lazare, the first true and undeservedly forgotten Dreyfusard; he himself had resorted to the pariah as a social type, and Arendt included him in her inventory as one of four pariah "prototypes", together with Heinrich Heine, Charlie Chaplin and Franz Kafka. "As soon as the pariah enters the arena of politics, and translates his status into political terms, he becomes perforce a rebel," Arendt wrote. "Lazare's idea was, therefore," she went on, "that the Jew should come out openly as the representative of the pariah, 'since it is the duty of every human being to resist oppression'." Said was a rebel who, whether directed against his own people, the Palestinians, or any other human group, resisted oppression indefatigably.

The parents of Edward Wadie Said were Christian Palestinians. His maternal grandfather was the Baptist minister of Nazareth, and his mother, Hilda, was educated in a boarding school and then junior college in Beirut. She apparently loved Beirut, but in 1932 had to return to Nazareth to fulfil a pre- arranged marriage to William A. Said, formerly Wadie Ibrahim, a Protestant Jerusalemite who was already a successful businessman established in Cairo.

Wadie was sent in 1911 abroad, presumably to avoid recruitment into the Ottoman army to fight in the Balkan wars. He came to America via Liverpool, where he became William, and, after serving in the US Army in the First World War, he gained citizenship but returned to Palestine in 1920. He immediately became an equal partner of his cousin Boulos, who had owned the Palestine Educational Company in Jerusalem. Wadie/William's business acumen made it possible for him to venture into Egypt in 1929, where he founded the immensely successful Standard Stationery Company, which within three years could boast two stores in Cairo and Alexandria, and several smaller branches in the Suez Canal Zone.

Edward - named after the Prince of Wales - was born to rather wealthy parents. Although already settled in Cairo, his mother and father none the less travelled to Jerusalem to make sure his birth would be given there. He grew up in the affluent neighbourhood of Zamalek, and attended privileged, if oppressive and colonially condescending, schools.

It was in the Cairo of the late 1930s and 1940s, guided by his mother, that Said's interest in and immense talent for music and literature began to develop and flourish. Said tells the story of his expulsion from Victoria College in 1951 in his memoir with much wit and candour. One of the high points is the description of his running into trouble with one of the school's elegant bullies, "the supercilious head boy" Captain Shalhoub, who would win fame a decade later as Omar Sharif.

The simultaneously political and intellectual transformation of Said occurred as a result of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the overwhelming Israeli victory militarily but also, increasingly, in domestic and foreign US politics, and the concomitant racism against Arabs, Muslims and Palestinians. The awakening of his self-awareness as Palestinian and pariah endowed with reinvigorated meaning his last (until 1992) visit to Jerusalem in 1947, the 1948 Nakbah (Palestinian catastrophe), which he remembered through the refugees in Cairo whom his aunt had nobly aided, as well as what was currently taking place around him.

Out of this transformation emerged a spirited and outraged intellectual, a critic of colonialism with unique impact and inspiration, and a "native" who talked back with special poignancy and knowledge of European culture so intimate and erudite that most of his opponents could only wish to attain it.

There can be little doubt that Said's most influential text, an explosive expression of that transformation, has been Orientalism (1978), a book that has appeared in several editions and been translated into 35 languages. Orientalism is a powerfully - indeed forcefully - written attempt to retell the story of European Enlightenment and modernity. The crux of recasting the story was that the modern knowledge produced in Europe on "the Orient" and "the Orientals" was neither innocently scientific, for it underlay colonial expansion and ruling, nor separable from the story of the Enlightenment and Progress. It brought to the fore the presence of the colonised peoples in what the colonisers and their historians wished to preserve as the independent provenance of their culture, cleansed from colonial subjugation and exploitation, which supposedly belonged in another story.

In Orientalism Said masterfully undermined Orientalism, because he irrevocably exposed the pretence of an objective science that merely presents the object of study - the Orient and the Orientals - as it really is on the basis of linguistic and other expertise.

The forceful and unyielding register of the argument was, on the one hand, the book's inspiring and even rallying appeal, but, on the other hand, it could occasionally test the tolerance of sympathetic readers. Thus the late Albert Hourani, in a perceptive and on the whole favourable reading in The New York Review of Books (1979), characterised Orientalism as "powerful and disturbing". Said's writing elicited the remark that "[it] is forceful and brilliant (sometimes too forceful for comfort, sometimes too brilliant to be clear)".

The very same characteristics stimulated and inspired many scholars and gave rise to new fields of enquiry, which are incomprehensible without Orientalism, other works by Said that issued from it (The Question of Palestine, 1979, and Culture and Imperialism, 1993, are obvious examples), and as importantly the charisma and strength of Said himself. Among those whose imagination was ignited by Said and his work were scholars of and from the ex-colonies, who acquired a twofold critical perspective for their colonial past and national past and present. Thus Partha Chatterjee revealingly reported on the first time he had read the book, at the end of 1980:

For me, child of a successful anti-colonial struggle, Orientalism was a book which talked of things I felt I had known all along but had never found the language to formulate with clarity. Like many great books, it seemed to say for the first time what one had always wanted to say. The force of the argument made its impact in the first few pages, and halfway through the book I found my thoughts straying beyond the confines of Said's discussion. I was struck by the way Orientalism was implicated in the construction not only of the ideology of British colonialism which had dominated India for two centuries, but also of the nationalism which was my own heritage.

With his transformation, Said also became the most eloquent speaker on the plight of his people, the Palestinians, their disastrous dispossession by the Zionist colonisers and their continued oppression by the state of Israel. He was for some time a member of the Palestine National Council, but his prophetic warnings about the fate of the Oslo process distanced him from the established leadership, though never from the fate of his people.

Typically, Said never was one- dimensional with regard to Palestine/Israel and the Middle East in general. He was an uncompromising critic of the sorry state of the Arab Middle East, of its lack of democracy and corrupted governments. He did not hesitate firmly to censure expressions of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial among Arabs and Muslims. And he relentlessly sought to interact with Israelis, most prominent of which search was his deep friendship with Daniel Barenboim that yielded several musical and political projects.

For me, as a non-Zionist Israeli, a historian and an individual, the loss of Edward Said's intellectual and moral guidance, of his friendship and warmth, in a word his absence, create a void that I shall never be able to fill. I shall consider the following words from his 1988 article "Identity, Negation and Violence" Said's bequeathed message:

In education, politics, history, and culture there is at the present time a role to be played by secular intellectuals, call them a class of informed and effective wet blankets, who do not allow themselves the luxury of playing the identity games (leaving that to the legions who do it for a living), but who more compassionately press the interests of the unheard, the unrepresented, the comparatively powerless people of our world, and who do so not in "the jargon of authenticity" but with the accents of personal restraint, historical scepticism, and consciously, politically committed intellect.

Gabriel Piterberg

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