When Edward Said died of leukemia in 2003 at age 67, obituaries worldwide acknowledged him amongst the foremost literary critics of his generation. He was especially remembered as the most articulate and visible supporter of the Palestinian cause in the US, where it ignited antagonism. As professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University  in New York, the refinement of Said’s approach to literature and his other passion – classical music – is difficult to pinpoint given its expansiveness, but remains powerful nonetheless.

Early Days

 

Said was born in Jerusalem in 1935, into a prosperous Palestinian family. His father Wadie, a Christian, emigrated to the US before World War One. He volunteered for service in France and returned to the Middle East with an American citizenship as a Protestant businessman.  At this time his father enetered into an arranged marriage to the daughter of a Baptist minister from Nazareth.

In Out Of Place (1999), his childhood memoir, Said described his father, who called himself William to accentuate his adopted American identity, as domineering and uncommunicative. His strictness instilled in Said “a deep sense of generalized fear”, which throughout his life he tried to overcome. Nevertheless, Said credited the inner drive that propelled him to succeed to his father.

I have no concept of leisure or relaxation and, no sense of cumulative achievement… Every day for me is like the beginning of a new term at school, with a vast and empty summer behind it, and an uncertain tomorrow before it.

Said’s family eventually moved to Egypt in 1947 to avoid the conflict that was brewing over the UN’s partition of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab areas. From a prosperous background, Edward and his sisters enjoyed long summers after 1947 in Dhour el Shweir in Lebanon.  Said described his mother, whom he loved and had instilled in him a taste for literature and music as brilliant yet manipulative.

Smart but unruly, Said was a troublemaker at Cairo’s Victoria College, the British-style public school whose snobbish captain Michael Chalhoub later became famous as Omar Sharif. Said was eventually expelled so in 1951 that Said’s parents sent him to the prestigious Northfield Mount Herom School for Boys in Massachusetts.  They felt an American style curriculum would suit him best. He thrived there, finding it more stimulating than the stiff academic British approach in Cairo.

Academic Superstar And Beyond

Said’s engagement with Palestine had emotional roots. Until his 30s, Edward was too involved with his studies via Princeton and Harvard graduate school, developing his literary critical methodologies and relishing his passion for music, especially the piano, to take much interest in the politics of his homeland.

Perhaps these East-West influences were fertile ground for his most influential book, Orientalism (1978), a critique of how the Western world perceives the Orient, specifically the Arab world. One of the most prominent works of his generation, Orientalism became a seminal text for Post-colonial studies.

Said: Voice Of The Dispossessed

Beyond academia, Said also distinguished himself as an opera critic, pianist, television celebrity, politician, media expert, popular essayist and public lecturer. However, for most Palestinians, it was his tireless campaigning for Palestinians rights that earned him respect and notoriety.

One of the most acerbic critics of the Oslo Peace Process and the Palestinian leadership of Yasser Arafat, Said advocated the establishment of a Palestinian State to ensure equal rights for Palestinians in Israel, plus the right of return to the homeland. 

The resentment Said met from pro-Israeli circles in New York was unsurprising, given his incisive criticism of Israeli violations of the human rights of Palestinians and his candid denunciations of US policies in the Middle East. One the other side, he also faced opposition from some Palestinians who accused him of sacrificing Palestinian rights by making gratuitous concessions to Zionism.

For instance, as early as 1977, when few Palestinians were prepared to accept that Jews had historic claims to Palestine, he said:

I don’t deny their claims, but their claim always entails Palestinian dispossession.

He also qualified his anti-colonial critique of Israel, dissecting its multifaceted entanglements and the problematic character of its origins in the persecution of European Jews, compounded by the impact that Zionism had on the European conscience.

Said realised that the Holocaust exempted Israel from the normal criteria by which nations are judged. But while appreciating its unique implications, he did not accept why its legacy of trauma and terror should be manipulated to rob the Palestinians, a people who were “absolutely dissociable from what has been an entirely European complicity”, of their rights.

 He wrote in the Politics Of Dispossession (1994),

The question to be asked, is how long can the history of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust be used as a fence to exempt Israel from arguments and sanctions against it for its behaviour towards the Palestinians, arguments and sanctions that were used against other repressive governments, such as South Africa? How long are we going to deny that the cries of the people of Gaza… are directly connected to the policies of the Israeli government and not to the cries of the victims of Nazism?

Ultimately it was the horror of the Arab defeat in 1967, unleashing a second wave of refugees (many of them already refugees from the 1948 exodus), that roused Edward out of complacency, reconnecting him with his former self and subsequently decades of political activism.

He argued that the Oslo Declaration, was partial towards Israel; advocating that an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho before the other territories and agreement on the final status of Jerusalem, amounted to “an instrument of Palestinian surrender, a Palestinian Versailles”.

A perennial thorn in the side of the Palestinian authority, Said was the most distinguished of Palestinian exiles, yet was abhorred by the representatives of his own people. Nevertheless, he spearheaded the value of a liberal conscience in the increasingly blinkered climate of fanaticism and corruption surrounding President Arafat and his regime.

His genius lay more at clarifying distinctions rather than formulating systems. A Christian humanist with a respect for Islam, he was part of the academic elite; yet he criticized against academic professionalism.

His contrasting background – fortunate yet marginal, affluent yet powerless – made him empathize with dispossessed people, notably the victims of Zionism and its western supporters.

Over time and post 9/11 with the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, Said withdrew from political controversy and focused on music. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra he established with his Israeli musician friend Daniel Barenboim in 1999 that shared his belief that art – and particularly the music of Wagner – transcends political dogma. With Said’s help, Barenboim gave lessons for Palestinian students in the occupied West Bank, enraging the Israeli right. And giving rise to the ongoing tradition of dissent through the arts that is still alive today.