Remembering Edward Said ten years after his death

by Nov 13, 2013Magazine

On 19 March 2003, the United States declared war on Iraq. Six months later, on 25 September, Edward Wadie Said passed away at the age of 67 in New York City after a decade-long struggle with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia. The loss of one of the most elegant minds of the 20th century was all the more acutely felt given that the war with Iraq was being justified and framed by the most crude stereotypes about Arab and Muslim people.

By 2003 the dominant representations in North America and Western Europe about a diverse region of the world, stretching from the eastern and southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, was steeped in the same set of prejudicial stereotypes that Said had convincingly debunked in his seminal and most enduringly popular work, Orientalism. The less than loquacious President George W. Bush and the assortment of various talking heads and lackeys willing to speak for power rather than truth were relentlessly reinscribing the false dichotomy between East and West. This division between East and West really gained legitimacy with the first Christian invasion of the Holy Lands just under a thousand years ago.

In fact, Bush, in one of his more articulate moments, when he actually managed to read the teleprompter correctly, announced that his war would not be over soon, and that ‘this crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while’. His reference to the Crusades cast this war, legitimated on false premises, into a war of biblical proportions, a war of us against them – good against evil. Progressive intellectuals mounted a real resistance to Bush’s rhetoric and, outside of the right wing media, it did not become dominant. Said’s work was a luminous resource in dark times. The true intellectual weight and measure of the legacy of the beautiful Palestinian was put to the test and it came out punching.

In Orientalism, Said traced the history of how Europe, through the mobilisation of a set of both subtle and overt prejudices against Arab and Islamic people, their religion and culture, set up negative stereotypes about a diverse region. Europe and, increasingly at the close of the 20th century, the United States, could justify acts of war, exploitation and colonialism against the diverse people living in a vast geographic region based on these orientalist narratives.

Orientalism wove together the theoretical work of both the French radical Michel Foucault and the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci. Said used their theoretical innovations to reveal how orientialism – a set of discourses or concepts – was used to legitimate a set of prejudices about the East that functioned to justify European and American domination and was constructed and authorised by the powerful states of Europe and the United States.

Said developed a detailed inventory of how the dominant currents in the West had come to view the Arab-Islamic world through a system of discriminatory stereotypes. He further demonstrated how various aspects of discourse from literature and art to popular culture reinforced and maintained these bigoted views of a diverse and vast area of the world. The political success of Said’s intervention lay in the fact that he did not write Orientalism as a stolid, jargon-filled piece that attracted only a small audience of academic specialists, or the initiatives of a small political sect. This was a compelling intervention into the public debate – and what an intervention it was!

Since its publication in 1978, Orientalism has been translated into more than 25 languages, and it continues to get translated into new languages every year. This work, for which Said initially struggled to find a publisher, went on to transform the fields of literature, cultural studies and history and to reinvigorate the waning field of post-colonial studies.

Orientalism joined Frantz Fanon’s Les Damnés de la Terre, published in 1961, as a canonical post-colonial text. In his afterword, written for the 1994 edition, Said noted that the book was meant not only to lift the veil from our eyes about the various forces that had thus far shaped the historical discourse on Arabs and Muslims, but also to ‘liberate intellectuals from the shackles of systems of thought like Orientalism: I wanted readers to make use of my work so that they might then produce new studies of their own that would illuminate the historical experience of Arabs and others in a generous and enabling mode.’

Said personified the ideal of the enagaged public intellectual. He was a thinker and activist who always sought to engage, and to develop work and conversations, in a manner that was both generous and enabling. Importantly, while Said was wedded to a life of radical politics, while always a man of the left, he was never wedded to any dogmatic political ideology. His humanist orientation to the world meant that he stood up to injustices, corruption and authoritarianism even when they came from within the political alliances he made. For example, Yasser Arafat came under heavy criticism from Said when he negated Palestinian refugees’ right to return to Palestine, and Said was an early and trenchant critic of the corruption and degeneration of the Palestinian Authority.

Said’s political work included a variety of core issues relevant to post-colonial society but was mainly concerned with the oppression, exile and indignity suffered by Palestinians, himself included. Although Said lived most of his life in exile from Palestine, he always carried the trauma of the nákba – the partition of Palestine and the expulsion of Palestinians from their land – with him, even to the last days of his life.

Said was born in Jerusalem in 1935 to an Arab-Christian family in the then British Mandate of Palestine. From a young age, Said lived in Palestine but went to school in Egypt. This meant that even as a child, Said always felt ‘out of place’ and had ‘no certain identity’, as his recalled in his memoir. However, his experience of being out of place and then later exiled gave Said the ability to straddle a variety of social and cultural contexts. He developed a deep and intimate understanding of people from diverse backgrounds and it was this ability to humanise the ‘other’ that became the foundational strength of Said’s work.

Like Fanon, Said’s humanism meant that he put the well-being of human beings before theories and, again like Fanon, his humanism was not an abstract concept to be invoked theoretically. It was a matter of solidarity and of political engagement to give life to that solidarity. In Humanism and Democratic Criticism, he remarked that humanism was, for him, ‘a critical practice’ that ‘informs what one does as an intellectual and school-teacher of the humanities in today’s turbulent world, which is now brimming over with war, with belligerency, actual war and all kinds of terrorism.’

If we take Said’s words seriously in this world of war, terrorism and a variety of daily struggles against powerful and often rapacious forces, it becomes clear that, as Akeel Bilgrami has pointed out, Said’s legacy has and will continue to be primarily political. A commitment to Said’s legacy means that we should, as intellectuals, activists and human beings, seek to understand and unravel dominant representations of power, but all the while attempting, like Said, to create generous and enabling contexts within which we can flourish.

I never met Said, but his work fundamentally shaped my intellectual and political path. These lines by another great post-colonial theorist, Gayatri Spivak, from the pages of her unfinished memoir, capture some of the beauty, sadness and hope that move me when I think about the spirit of Edward Wadie Said:

… I chant that wild hymn, from the time when Hinduism was nearly indistinguishable from animism: as the ripe fruit bursts its skin, so immortality bursts out of death. In the love of family and friends, the intellectual journey of students. But also, harshly, literally, pushing up the daisies. In the face of that harsh immortality, the heart must break. (‘Thinking about Edward Said: Pages from a Memoir’, Critical Inquiry 31, Winter 2005, p. 525)

Vashna Jagarnath

Lecturer, Rhodes University

History Department

Vashna Jagarnath currently lectures at the Department of History at Rhodes University. She writes and researches on Indian Cinema. Her PhD looked specifically at the various ways Gandhi shaped and impacted upon early 19th and 20th century South African public spher

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