OBITUARY: Edward Said

Submitted by Anon on 22 October, 2003 - 5:38

The Palestinian intellectual Edward Said died at the end of September
Edward Said was born in pre-partition Jerusalem and later became an American citizen. He was Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He was known both for his intellectual contributions - in particular, the book which made his name, Orientalism, first published in 1978 - and for his active involvement in Palestinian politics.

The theme of Orientalism, and later work such as Culture and Imperialism, was that Western culture constructs an image of "the East", as "the other". He was anxious to deconstruct this sense of otherness, and reveal the Arab world in particular as one of real people, different to its image in the Western mind. This aim informed his politics, too. A trenchant critic of the war on Iraq, he also had a distinct voice within Palestinian politics.

More recently he was best known as a sharp opponent of Yasser Arafat and the now-defunct Oslo agreement between the PLO and Israel signed in 1993. Said wanted some kind of bi-national state in the Middle East. He denounced Oslo and the leadership who negotiated it for selling out Palestinian rights.

But before that, as a member of the Palestine National Council, Said had been an early advocate of negotiations with Israel, and was an architect of the PLO's 1988 adoption of "two states". He was a genuine liberal, appalled by the injustices of power. He was also, plainly, a Palestinian nationalist, but of a humanist and essentially moderate kind.

Orientalism was highly influential, shaping much discussion on the nature of so-called "cultural imperialism", though Said was often dismayed by the attitudes of those who claimed to be his disciples and their rejection of the "canon" of Western culture. Said's aim was not to reject Western culture but to analyse it critically.

In my view there are serious weaknesses in his argument. Orientalism - historically, a mainly European obsession with, and romanticisation of, "the East", is a genuine phenomenon, which still exists. But Said tended to counterpose to it what one critic called "orientalism in reverse", failing to analyse the ways in which western culture is treated in "the east".

But he was an important figure, both in cultural theory and in Middle Eastern politics, whose sharp mind and relentlessly critical spirit will be missed.

Edward Ellis

Mick Duncan reviews Culture and Resistance - Conversations with Edward W Said (interviews by David Barsamian), Pluto Press

This book shows that Edward Said to be an original and interesting thinker who never fell into the "smash Israel" trap that much of the anti-imperialist left falls for.

These conversations are between two obvious friends, and were recorded between 1999 and 2002. The book goes into the aftermath of the atrocities of 11 September 2000 and the emergence of a new belligerent backward-looking, reactionary, religious movement among a layer of the Middle-Eastern petty bourgeoisie. We see this consciously play into the hands of the intransigent "anti-terrorist" hawks in power - Bush, Perle, Wolfowitz and their loyal apologists in the British Government and elsewhere. The conversations in this book continue through the bombing of Afghanistan and conclude as the build-up mounts to war in Iraq.

In the book Said discusses how two states might form part of a temporary arrangement on the road to a long term solution for Israel-Palestine, but calls for a single bi-national state of Israel-Palestine.

While he is a bitter critic of the actions of the Israeli state and of the historical policy of the Zionist movement towards the Palestinians, he does not resort to the argument that, "therefore the Israelis (read Jews) can leave, this land is ours!"

His argument for opposing a long-term two state solution is that the Palestinians and the Israelis are so closely intertwined, geographically and economically, that it would be impossible to pull them apart. He points out that many Palestinians work and live in Israel, that Israelis, largely, through the policy of encroaching settlements, live in the West Bank. This, he states, "is something that can't be changed by pulling people back to separate boundaries or separate states". He has another, even more simple point - size. Israel-Palestine is a very small area..

Said was as critical of the backward and futile nature of political Islam as of political Judaism. He points out that, "Hamas… the Muslim Brotherhood… the Islamic salvation Front… simply don't have a message about the future. You can't simply say Islam is the only solution. You have to deal with problems of electricity, water, the environment, transportation. Those can't be Islamic. So they've failed on that level."

As well as discussing the policies of Sharon, Arafat, al-Qaida and George Bush, Said was deeply interested in literature and music. He played the piano. His friend, Daniel Barenboim is a world class pianist and conductor of the Berlin State Opera. Said helped Barenboim put on a recital at Bir Zeit University in Palestine. The resonance of an Israeli Jew, playing at a West Bank university made a powerful impact. Barenboim recently played in Germany with an orchestra of Palestinians and Jews. Whilst insisting that this is not a political act, "just an act of solidarity…" it is a powerful metaphor for what the two peoples can achieve when they are freed to work together.

The lasting impression is of an engaging, warm Renaissance thinker. Said lived with leukaemia for many years but never lost an infectious love of life: "I enjoy life. I'm surrounded by people I love. I love teaching. I get a tremendous energy out of the students I interact with… being a member of an academic community and a wider political community of activists and people who feel they are moving toward liberation and understanding is very exhilarating. In fact I can't think of anything better I'd like to be doing."

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