The World of Edward Said
Attempts to cast Said as the consummate New York intellectual miss the point that his milieu was one of global, and specifically Palestinian, anticolonial struggle.
May 13, 2021
May 13, 2021
28 Min read time
Attempts to cast Said as the consummate New York intellectual miss the point that his milieu was one of global, and specifically Palestinian, anticolonial struggle.
Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said
On February 2, 1977, Palestinian poet Rashid Hussein died in his New York apartment. Hussein had been born forty-one years earlier in Musmus, a town not far from Nazareth. Politics for Hussein, Edward Said remembered, “lost its impersonality and its cruel demagogic spirit.” Hussein, Said wrote of his dear friend, “simply asked that you remember the search for real answers, and never give it up, never be seduced by mere arrangements.” Sharply critical of his own society and its rulers—he had a map of the Middle East on his wall with “thought forbidden here” scrawled across it in Arabic—Hussein was also a partisan of the Third World. “I am from Asia,” he pronounced in an early poem, “The land of fire / Forging furnace of freedom-fighters.”
Said’s influence was profound, but he was not alone. Any intellectual history must account for the multitude of emigres, exiles, and migrants from Africa and Asia who carried the pillars of anti-colonialism across the world.
Another of Hussein’s friends, Pakistani political scientist Eqbal Ahmad, wrote that he lived in “New York City as though it were a Palestinian town.” Born in 1936, Hussein was nearly the same age as Said. Had the dislocations of his life not burdened his soul so heavily—he died alone in his apartment, a lit cigarette setting fire to the mattress as he slept—Hussein may very well have lived alongside Said in Manhattan for a few decades more.
Though born in different milieux, Hussein and Said were drawn into close contact by the exigencies of the anti-colonial struggle in Palestine. Hussein, who was a Muslim from a peasant family, did not attend college, but he was an adept translator of Hebrew and a deeply perceptive writer. A Palestinian citizen of Israel, like better-known poets Mahmoud Darwish and Samih Al-Qasim, Hussein first encountered his other Arab counterparts in Europe, as historian Maha Nassar has vividly documented in Brothers Apart: Palestinian Citizens of Israel and the Arab World (2017). Hussein arrived in New York in 1966. He worked as a writer there, unhappily, before setting out in 1972 to find work among other Palestinians in the Arab world. First in Beirut, then Cairo, and finally Damascus. But political circumstances would send him back to New York, were at the time of his death he was a spokesperson for the Palestine Liberation Organization at the United Nations.
Said, meanwhile, an Arab Protestant, came from an urban, bourgeois family and was deeply embedded in the scholastic institutions of the Anglophone world. He arrived in New York as an assistant professor of English at Columbia, having spent a decade studying in the United States, first at a Massachusetts boarding school, then at Princeton, and finally at Harvard, where he received his PhD for a dissertation on the life and work of Joseph Conrad.
There is no doubt that Said’s influence and impact were profound, but he was not alone. Any intellectual history of the twentieth century’s second half must account for the multitude of emigres, exiles, and migrants from Africa and Asia who carried the pillars of anti-colonialism across the world. Said’s life intersected closely with many friends and comrades, fellow travelers in the Palestinian cause and the promise of Third World liberation.
Indeed, it was precisely Said’s participation in a global political movement—his regular, public refusal to abide by the dictates of the United States’ imperial way of life—that drew the ire of so many during his lifetime. Before their recent reinvention, liberal journals such as the New Republic and Dissent regularly found column inches to attack Said’s thought and personage. But the bromides of Irving Howe and Leon Wesieltier were never a match to Said, who embodied Frantz Fanon’s “final prayer” in Black Skins, White Masks (1952): “O my body, make of me always a man who questions!”
And yet, many reviewers of Timothy Brennan’s new biography of Said, Places of Mind, have taken the opportunity to domesticate the late Palestinian writer. Said is characterized as a representative of precisely those New York intellectuals who regularly derided him. In the London Review of Books, Adam Shatz goes to great lengths to argue that Said doesn’t “resemble Gramsci or Fanon so much as Susan Sontag.” The same Sontag who rebuffed Said’s (and many others) urgent appeals not to accept Israel’s Jerusalem Prize in 2001. Rather than an honest reckoning with how Said’s commitment to the Palestinian cause and conscious affiliations with anti-imperialism world-wide distinguished him from such thoroughly American figures, reviews have exhibited a resilient orientalism. Shatz, long familiar with Said’s vision and politics as one of his editors at the Nation, nevertheless lazily falls back on such tropes when he describes Said as someone who donned “Burberry suits, not keffiyehs.” In the New Statesman, Thomas Meaney breathlessly ends his review by mentioning that “along with his well-stocked shelves and formidable collection of classical music records, the Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities kept a map with the current positions of the Israeli Defense Forces.” It was precisely these kinds of efforts to juxtapose culture or refinement from the symbols and practices of political action that Said perennially opposed. To account for Said’s life, one must acknowledge his involvement in a community of intellectuals, activists, and indeed martyrs, who found their commitment to Palestine and their commitment to ideas not only unironic, but essential.
Throughout Places of Mind, Brennan is at his best when he deals directly with the themes, arguments, and circumstances of Said’s substantial oeuvre. He is sensitive to how political judgments long shaped Said’s work even before Palestine and the Third World became the causes for which he devoted most of his voice. In that way Brennan’s book is a rich intellectual history, summarizing the content of Said’s major works, tracing the conditions of their creation, and mapping their influence. In detailing how specific conversations and locations stimulated his writing, and discussing the nature of Said’s unpublished poetry, fiction, and essays, Brennan breathes new life in a crowded field of Said studies.
Many reviewers have taken the opportunity to domesticate Said, characterizing him as a representative of precisely those New York intellectuals who regularly derided him.
Said’s 1975 book, Beginnings: Intention and Method, was widely feted in literary critical circles. Careful in its reading of high modernist literature and elucidation of Vico and Foucault, one of Said’s early students described it as “a kind of teacher’s book.” Brennan writes that “even those who had never taken a class with him could witness in its pages his style of navigating the unscripted exchanges of the seminar room.” Said’s 1983 collection of essays, The World, the Text, and the Critic, which Brennan draws particular attention to, “was a teacher’s book in just this sense, but more sober and a good deal angrier.” In its essays, especially its central three on contemporary practices of literary and cultural criticism, Said mounts a lucid critique of the kinds of literary theory, like that of Jacques Derrida and J. Hillis Miller, which had overtaken humanities departments by the 1980s. For Said, embroiled as he was in the culture of the university and the struggle for Palestinian freedom, it was clear that “left” theory was “very far from playing a genuinely political role.” “A visitor from another world,” Said wrote, “would surely be perplexed were he to overhear a so-called old critic calling the new critics dangerous. What, this visitor would ask, are they dangers to? The State? The mind? Authority?”
• • •
How does a Palestinian end up in New York teaching literature in the first place? The nakba—inaugurated in 1948 by the establishment of the State of Israel—continues to scatter Palestinians. But inhabitants of the Eastern Mediterranean had been regularly migrating to the Americas since the nineteenth century, when capital’s forced entry into the Ottoman Empire precipitated a series of profound social and political transformations in the Middle East.
The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were host to a period of intense intellectual ferment, often referred to as the nahda, or Arab renaissance. Characterized by the explosion of the periodical press, the rapid translation and interpretation of European texts, and the emergence of new genres of writing, new modes of political assembly, and new visions of social order, the nahda bequeathed today’s Arab world with its primary institutional and intellectual foundations. Those Arabs who migrated remained indelibly linked to the nahdawi efforts of their compatriots in the Levant, publishing their own Arabic journals, like New York’s al-Funun (The Arts), host to writers such as Khalil Gibran and Amin al-Rihani.
During World War I, some of the migrants heading toward the United States were doing so to dodge the Ottoman draft. Among them was Edward’s father, Wadie, who would end up in the U.S. Army, fighting the Germans in France. His wartime service earned him and his family U.S. citizenship and inculcated Wadie with a profound Americophilia. “On the Fourth of July,” Wadie’s daughter Jean Said Makdisi recounted in her 1990 memoir Beirut Fragments: A War Memoir, “we went to the picnics at the American Embassy, where we ate hot dogs and Crackerjacks and watched the square dancing.”
Born in Jerusalem in 1935, Edward Said grew up between British Egypt and British Palestine. Brennan, drawing on Said’s private papers and more than a hundred interviews with his friends and family, paints a detailed picture of the rich literary and musical life Said encountered as a young man in Cairo, a world Said describes in his 1999 memoir Out of Place. Had he been born a generation earlier, Said may very well have been an important member of the nahda’s last generation, caught up in the furies of empire and the modernity of Arabic. He would have been at home, among the intellectuals who frequented the bar at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Those Arabs—like Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, George Antonius, Albert Hourani, Musa Al-Alami, and Walid Khalidi (who narrated their milieu)—spent their evenings reading T. S. Eliot by candlelight and their working hours writing histories or novels or eloquent, if terribly ill-fated, appeals to London, Paris, and Washington for the right to self-determination. “Baudelaire said, the heart has one vintage only,” Hourani wrote in 1957. “If so, mine will be marked forever by what happened in Palestine.” After 1948, however, Hourani would resign himself from the political activity of his youth, becoming the doyen of Middle Eastern history in the Anglophone world from his position at St. Antony’s College, Oxford.
Said argued that Orientalism was an armature of empires’ political and economic conquests.
Others, like Albert’s brother Cecil Hourani, would continue to actively develop the political and academic institutions of the Arab world’s new nation-states. Brennan details Said’s engagement with some of these younger representatives of the nahda, especially those associated with the American University of Beirut (AUB), which was founded by American missionaries in 1866 as the Syrian Protestant College and is a key site in the annals of Arab thought. Among them was Charles Malik, an early intellectual influence who happened to be the husband of Said’s mother’s cousin. A philosopher by training, he studied with Martin Heidegger at Frieberg and finished his PhD at Harvard in 1937. But he was also an important Lebanese diplomat. Erudite and accomplished, Brennan recounts how Malik’s presence was extremely important to the young and ambitious Said. But Malik’s transformation into a belligerent cold warrior, chauvinist in his Christianity and rabid in his anti-communism, led Said to disavow his early mentor. Said would write that Malik was “the great negative intellectual lesson of my life.”
Also at the American University of Beirut was Syrian-born and Princeton-trained historian Constantine Zurayk. Best known for his 1948 book Ma’na al-Nakba (The Meaning of Catastrophe), which sought to account for the loss of Palestine with regard to its Arab past and future, Zurayk was also a key advocate for the development of modern methods of teaching and research in his administrative roles at AUB, as historian Hana Sleiman has recently documented. Zurayk was a close family friend of Said’s wife, Mariam. In his regular visits to Beirut after their marriage, and especially during the 1972–73 academic year which he spent there, Said regularly consulted with Zurayk. Brennan argues that Zurayk became Said’s “chief influence” at this time.
But soon Said was drawn to a new generation of Arab intellectuals who largely disavowed the reformist politics and patrician style of Zurayk and his ilk. These Arab writers—in Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s taxonomy, “the rebels, the committed, and the others”—were by no means monolithic in their attitudes and politics. In journals such as Al-Adab, Al-Tariq, Shi’r, Hiwar, and Mawaqif, Arab intellectuals revolted against the scripts of liberal political action that had been nourished by the nahda and against the formal conventions of Arabic literature, especially in poetry. Said would begin reading and corresponding with many of these thinkers, including the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and Syrian philosopher Sadiq Al-Azm.
It was in the 1970s, in midst of his deepening involvement with the political and literary revolutions of the Arab world, that Said’s intellectual and political energies were poured into the critique of imperial knowledge, culminating with the 1978 publication of Orientalism, his best known work. In that book, essentially a work of intellectual history, Said described and critiqued what he referred to as “the system of ideological fictions” that had until that point been uncontroversially known as Orientalism. Drawing on the field’s major scholarly and literary works produced from the late eighteenth century to the late twentieth in imperial France, Britain, and the United States, Said argued that Orientalism became an armature of those empires’ political and economic conquests.
• • •
Orientalism’s publication generated furious debate. Among its harshest critics was Al-Azm, with whom Said engaged in an acrimonious exchange. To Arab Studies Quarterly, a journal Said coedited, Al-Azm submitted a sharply critical—and rather lengthy—review of Orientalism. In response, Said wrote to its author, “I am a skeptic and in many ways an anarchist who doesn’t believe as you do, in laws, or systems, or any of the other claptrap that inhibits your thought and constricts your writing.” “For you Marx is what Khomeini is to his followers,” he continued, “you are in fact a Khomeini of the Left which is one thing my heroes, Gramsci and Lukacs, could never have been.” Al-Azm responded in kind, requesting that his review be published as is or not at all. Perturbed, Said nevertheless agreed to publish the forty-page review on the condition that his response be printed as well.
In the end, Al-Azm published his review in the 1981 issue of Khamsin, the London journal of a collective of radical Israeli intellectuals. In the review, Al-Azm accused Said of unfairly maligning Marx, as would other Marxist critics including Aijaz Ahmad and Mahdi Amel. More significantly, Al-Azm argued that Said was practicing what he called “Orientalism in reverse,” essentializing the West in the same way the orientalists who were his targets essentialized the East. In the wake of 1979’s Iranian Revolution, Al-Azm feared Said’s critique of Orientalism made room for the further entrenchment of the idea that Islam was inherently opposed to Western ideas, images, and institutions.
Orientalism was only the latest example in a tradition of the oppressed defending themselves from the slanders which accompanied land robbery, labor exploitation, and political domination. Indeed, the critique of orientalism is as old as orientalism itself.
Said was not the only target of Al-Azm’s critique, however. He also took aim at other Arab intellectuals, including Syrian poet Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said Esber) and Elias Khoury, whom he accused of being too open in their embrace of revolutionary “islamanics,” as he called those partisans of Islamic revival in the Middle East.
After Al-Azm published his review, he and Said never spoke again, according to Brennan. At the end of the decade, Al-Azm would attack the entire Palestinian intellectual and political class, including Said again, in an essay provocatively titled “Palestinian Zionism,” for the German journal of Islamic studies Die Welt des Islams. He would compare Said to early Zionist ideologues like Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and Leon Pinsker. Said’s “Palestinian idea,” Al-Azm argues in that later essay, bore clear Hegelian affinities with the “Zionist idea.” To that end, Al-Azm concludes, Yasser Arafat was Chaim Weizmann, George Habash was the mirror image of Ze'ev Jabotinsky, and Naif Hawatmeh, the Palestinian Ben-Gurion.
As only a few of his legion of critics would acknowledge, Said’s Orientalism was only the latest example in a tradition of the oppressed defending themselves from the slanders which accompanied land robbery, labor exploitation, and political domination. Indeed, the critique of orientalism is as old as orientalism itself. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Arab intellectuals who traveled and studied in Europe, including Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq and Rifa'a al-Tahtawi, criticized, corrected, and even satirized the writings of prominent orientalists like Silvestre de Sacy. In the 1880s, Jamal al-din al-Afghani, an influential and peripatetic West Asian intellectual, offered a powerful riposte to French philologist Ernest Renan’s scurrilous if typical pronouncement that Islam was inimical to scientific progress. Intellectuals across the Ottoman Empire—indeed across Africa and Asia—would regularly denounce imperial knowledge and its political implications throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century’s anti-colonial revolutions, rebellions, and intifadas. For the colonized, the critique of colonial knowledge was fundamental. “For me,” Indian social theorist Partha Chatterjee recounted, “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. . . . [I]t seemed to say for the first time what one had always wanted to say.”
As Said himself acknowledged, in the decades leading up to 1978, Arab intellectuals publishing in the West had attacked orientalism’s edifice with increasing ferocity and clarity, as imperial structures and attitudes proved resilient even in the wake of political decolonization. For example, the prolific Palestinian historian Abdu Latif Tibawi, who received his PhD from the University of London in 1948 and who would work and teach in England for the rest of his life, published a short but perceptive study in 1964, English-speaking Orientalists: A Critique of Their Approach to Islam and Arab Nationalism. A year earlier, Egyptian Marxist Anour Abdel-Malek published a long essay, “Orientalism in Crisis,” from his exile in Paris. Abdel-Malek primarily took to task the “neo-orientalism” of Europe and the United States, as well as the “europeocentrism” of the social sciences and humanities in general.
Indeed, Said’s specific critique of orientalism cannot be separated from the general assault on the established institutions and protocols of knowledge production that accompanied the mass movements of the 1960s and ’70s globally. Campuses erupted into the streets as the practical implications of imperial science became ever-apparent in the midst of endless war and underdevelopment. The editors of the short-lived but influential Review of Middle East Studies would acknowledge this fact in 1978: “it is our opinion that much of what is wrong with Middle Eastern studies is also wrong both with other social science writing and also with work on other regions of the world.” They acknowledged their debt to groups such as the Committee of Concerned Asian scholars, which would lead its own revolt against Cold War Asian studies in the United States in the midst of the Vietnam War. Said would mention these efforts of “decolonializing” knowledge with appreciation in the final chapter of Orientalism.
Although vestiges of its imperial designs remain today, the study of the Orient, as it were, shifted dramatically after Said’s dissection. Middle East studies, as a field constituted principally in the crucible of the Cold War, would become increasingly critical of its own institutions and origins. The impact of Said’s book on the academy also went far beyond the field he specifically targeted. “We feminists read Orientalism by Braille,” Sondra Hale would write in her 2005 essay “Edward Said—Accidental Feminist.” An anthropologist of the Sudan and one of the founding editors of the Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, Hale would register the profound impact of Said’s book on gender studies of the Middle East. Like Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Orientalism was largely absent of women, yet it raised a critique that would become foundational in future writing about the use of Middle Eastern women in imperial justifications for war as scholars like Lila Abu-Lughod, Laura Nader, and Suad Joseph have since elaborated.
“It is now time for us together to expose and destroy the whole system of confinement, dispossession, exploitation, and oppression that still holds us down and denies us inalienable rights as human beings. It is our job to create a genuine world culture of brotherhood and common cause.”
Said never saw his book simply in academic terms, however. In a letter to British historian Roger Owen, the editor alongside Talal Asad of the Review of Middle East Studies, Said made clear what he saw as his project’s political stakes: “I find the work on Orientalism to be a contribution to the struggle against imperialism.” In addition to his participation in Beirut’s intellectual scene, Said was increasingly involved in the political struggles being organized by Arabs who, like himself, resided in the United States. Indeed, the first draft of the argument Said would put forward in Orientalism was commissioned by his close friend, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, in 1968 for a volume responding to the disastrous Arab–Israeli War of 1967. The book was published by the Association of Arab American University Graduates (AAUG), which was founded in 1967 by a formidable group of Arab intellectuals including philologist Muhsin Mahdi, radical lawyer Abdeen Jabra, and Abu-Lughod himself. A political scientist, Abu-Lughod and Said first met when they were both at Princeton, Said in his final year of college and Abu-Lughod doing his PhD. After Princeton, both Palestinians spent time in Cairo, where their relationship would deepen. “The older Abu-Lughod,” Brennan writes, “tutored the French-identified Said in third-world political insurgency, especially the events then unfolding in Algeria.” Said became deeply involved in the AAUG, and would cofound with Abu-Lughod the Arab Studies Quarterly in 1979, which was published under the group’s auspices. While the 1967 war had emboldened American supporters of Israel, it was also the occasion of the increased political mobilization of Palestinians internationally, often in defiance of Arab governments as well as Israel’s supporters in the West. Said, his colleagues in the AAUG, and Arab Americans in general were increasingly subject to surveillance, harassment, and intimidation by the U.S. government and Zionist groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Defense League.
By the mid-1970s, Said, whilst being recruited by Johns Hopkins, Columbia, and Harvard, was considering a departure from the United States altogether. In 1974 he would write to Zurayk inquiring about a permanent position for himself in Beirut: “Whatever knowledge of the Middle East I now possess is being pressured into the service of the American Empire, and why not put it to our service?” Although Said did not in the end take the job as research director of the Institute for Palestine Studies which he was offered, his involvement with the Third World continued apace. In addition to Abu-Lughod, whom he called his “guru,” Said became close with prominent anti-war intellectuals in the United States, like Noam Chomsky and Eqbal Ahmad. And increasingly, the great theorists of anti-colonialism, especially Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire, would become touchstones of his thought, alongside the Arab humanists and European Marxists he had long drawn from. Said’s writing would leave little room for confusion as to where his thought was aimed. “It is now time,” he would write 1977, “for us together to expose and destroy the whole system of confinement, dispossession, exploitation, and oppression that still holds us down and denies us inalienable rights as human beings. It is our job to create a genuine world culture of brotherhood and common cause.”
• • •
For the memorial service following Said’s death in 2003, Brennan wrote that Said’s “words so often expressed my thoughts that I found it hard over time to remember what I knew before I met him—what I had said and believed before knowing him, and what (by contrast) I had taken entirely from him.” A catalog of Brennan’s principal interests over the last four decades—from humanism, philology, and empire to Giambattista Vico, Erich Auerbach, and C. L. R. James—betray Said’s mark.
Like Said, Brennan’s efforts have often been extra-literary and meta-critical in character, the grammar of global politics and the life of ideas the subjects of much of his work. And Brennan, too, has not shied from political activity. As a graduate student at Columbia during the Reagan years, Brennan was among those who protested U.S. intervention in Nicaragua. Imperialism is Brennan’s primary object of critique. A close second, however, is the increasingly marginalized field of postcolonial studies, which he characterizes—and sometimes caricatures—as a post-structuralist effort to obfuscate the social and political effects of imperialism and to deny the anti-imperialist criticism that preceded it. In a long chapter on Said in his 2006 book Wars of Position: The Cultural Politics of Left and Right, Brennan argued that those who take Said to be the progenitor of the academic field known as “postcolonial studies” are gravely mistaken. Postcolonialism’s methods and motives departed significantly from Said’s own efforts to understand and critique imperialism in Orientalism and elsewhere, according to Brennan. “A good deal of postcolonial studies drew on Orientalism without being true to it,” Brennan writes. “The book’s theory traveled, and it did not travel well.”
Under Said’s tutelage, Brennan would produce a study of Salman Rushdie’s life and work, publishing his first book Salman Rushdie and the Third World in 1989 just as Rushdie was catapulted into public consciousness with the controversy over his novel The Satanic Verses. The Rushdie Affair, as it became known, occasioned a flurry of writing. A decade of rigorous thinking about secularism, liberalism, imperialism, and literature was put to the test as an Indian Muslim writer in London was attacked for blasphemy by coreligionists. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Agha Shahid Ali, Talal Asad, and many other formidable thinkers all jumped into the fray to clarify their positions on the uses and abuses of Rushdie’s writing.
Said had a nuanced view of postcolonial studies, appreciating that a leading motif of it “has been the consistent critique of Eurocentrism and patriarchy.”
In the pages of the academic Marxist journal Social Text, Brennan would spar with another of Said’s students, Aamir Mufti, over the interpretation and reception of Rushdie’s novel. For the uninitiated, the language of the debate may appear obscure. Both Mufti and Brennan opposed the cooption of Rushdie’s plight in the name of purportedly Western values against the Muslim horde in Europe and the United States. For Brennan, however, Rushdie—as a metropolitan subject writing in English and publishing in London—was himself participating principally in a Western conversation. Against that reading, Mufti argued that Rushdie was part of “the struggle over Islamic culture in the late twentieth century.” Brennan, Mufti argued, was obscuring the nature of this global fight under the guise of anti-imperialism. Brennan in turn, accused Mufti (and others, like Sara Suleri), of summoning “high theory” and the language of the Western academy to make arguments about “ethnic collectivities” and contemporary imperialism that simply did not hold. “London literary celebrities,” Brennan concluded, “do not speak for Bradford factory workers.”
Despite Brennan’s disdain for postcolonial studies in general, there is no doubt that the brief enthusiasm for work that fits below postcolonialism’s very large umbrella was crucial to making Brennan’s career. His exasperated response to Mufti, detailing the breadth of his expertise in the Islamic elements of Rushdie’s work, and his own role in first delineating them, speaks precisely to the ironies of postcolonial studies’ rapid rise and fall in literature departments. Postcolonialism, after all, never in reality congealed into any kind of doctrine, but more often simply denoted an interest on the part of its practitioners in colonialism’s myriad effects, which is more than can be said about prevailing approaches to the humanities or social sciences in general. However deficient postcolonialism may be for tackling the material realities of our colonial present, the field’s gradual disappearance and replacement in U.S. universities with geographical idioms totally untethered from the language of power and domination—whether world literature, global history, or “the global Anglophone”—can only be seen as a loss.
In contrast to Brennan’s judgment, Said himself had a much more nuanced appreciation of postcolonial studies, tempered always by his suspicion of purely academic endeavors in general. In a university that was at the time—even more than it is today—overwhelming white and male (like Brennan himself), Said identified with appreciation that a “leading motif” of postcolonial studies “has been the consistent critique of Eurocentrism and patriarchy.” At the same time, however, Said was increasingly frustrated with the literary criticism and theory that was being practiced and celebrated in U.S. literature departments and humanities journals like Critical Inquiry and Diacritics. In a 1992 interview, he admitted to not reading “lit. crit.” anymore: “It seems to me that whereas, say, ten years ago I might eagerly look forward to a new book by somebody at Cornell on literary theory and semiotics, now I’m much more likely to be interested in work emerging out of concern with African history.”
Said nevertheless found work to praise. In the afterword to a new edition of Orientalism in 1994, he singled out Ammiel Alcalay’s After Arabs and Jews: Remaking Levantine Culture (1992), Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993), and Moira Ferguson’s Subject to Others: British Women Writers and Colonial Slavery, 1670–1834 (1992) for “rethinking and re-formulating historical experiences which had once been based on the geographical separation of peoples.” Said’s own work was characterized by a patent refusal of separation. He refused to separate the literary from the historical, the material from the cultural, and, indeed, the personal from the political.
• • •
Said dedicated his eloquent 1979 book The Question of Palestine to his late friends Rashid Hussein and Farid Haddad, a Palestinian communist and physician tortured to death in an Egyptian jail in 1959. To those two, one could add Kamal Nassir, a brilliant Palestinian lawyer and writer killed by Israeli agents in Lebanon in April 1973. Said had dinner with him the night before his assassination. That list could be expanded still, by adding Hanna Mikhail, an accomplished Arabist with a PhD from Harvard who abandoned a comfortable career at the University of Washington to join the Palestine Liberation Organization in Jordan and Lebanon, where he would come to be known as Abu Omar. He would die at sea in 1976, on an ill-fated mission from Beirut to Tripoli with eleven others. “Abu Omar,” Said would write of his friend in 1994, “embodied the prevailingly generous and unconventional principles of the Palestinian revolution.” This was Said’s world. In New York but not of it, Said’s life cannot be contained by the cliches of campus novels and parochialism of the U.S. literary establishment.
Endlessly caricatured, ridiculed, and disdained, Said never wavered in his commitment to the Palestinian people, even—and especially—when they were abandoned by their own leadership.
Endlessly caricatured, ridiculed, and disdained, his arguments regularly misconstrued and disfigured by his critics and opponents, Said never wavered in his commitment to the Palestinian people (to whom, it should perhaps be noted, Brennan dedicates Places of Mind). Even—and especially—when Palestinians were abandoned by their own leadership, Said refused to acquiesce to the status quo, or celebrate half-measures. He surrounded himself with people who respected his cause and he admired them in turn. On the occasion of Eqbal Ahmad’s retirement from Hampshire College, Said—while holding back tears—offered this tribute:
I want . . . to take this opportunity, to say on their behalf—I have no right to speak on their behalf, but I’ll try—to say on behalf of the many refugees, camp dwellers, wretched of the earth, who have been forgotten by their own leaders, and by their fellow Arabs and Muslims, that Eqbal has been one of their guiding lights, and for that no Palestinian can ever thank him enough.
Said’s world is certainly different from ours. Palestinian institutions have been turned inside out. Unlike the PLO of Said’s 1970s, today’s Palestinian Authority in the West Bank serves not as a place where Palestinians from around the world can work for their liberation, but rather serves to administer Israel’s occupation itself. The U.S. university, too, has been transformed. Most who teach at universities today, even at Columbia, are insecure in their jobs, housing, and health care. While genuinely left-wing positions remain rare in the university, more and more intellectuals on the margins—many of them young and in the streets—are articulating their opposition to the U.S. policy of endless warfare at home and abroad, to use the imperial locution.
Some things, however, continue unchanged. Israel remains belligerent in its zeal to dispossess Palestinians from Haifa to Jerusalem to Gaza. “Seventy years, but actually longer,” Palestinian anthropologist Khaled Furani observed in 2018, “of not only wanting more land but also less and less Palestinians.” On a daily basis, home by home, sometimes neighborhood by neighborhood, Palestinians continue to be killed outright or killed slowly, expelled from their lands, stripped of their livelihoods and communities. What also remains is the Palestinian will to rebel. “The greater the Palestinian insistence, the deeper the Zionist denial,” Said wrote in The Question of Palestine. While defenders of Israel appear increasingly desperate to everyone watching, public support of the Palestinian people still draws the ire of university administrators and the professional political class in the United States. Said’s work and example, then—attuned as he was to the shape of Palestinian freedom to come—remains as instructive as ever.
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May 13, 2021
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