“I urge everyone to join in and not leave the field of values, definitions, and cultures uncontested.”
Edward Said’s life and work is a story of transcendence of the cultural and spatial barriers that so often thoughtlessly divide humanity. Born in Jerusalem, the capital of the three great monotheistic faiths and a city that he once called “a seamless amalgam of cultures and religions engaged, like members of the same family, on the same plot of land in which all has become entwined with all,” he would live most of his late life and finally die in New York City, the capital of the modern world and where men and women from every corner of the earth converge to form a modern amalgam of peoples unlike anything ever known before. There could have been no more fitting places for the beginning and end of the life’s journey of Edward Said.
In between that beginning and end, Said’s journey would take him from Palestine to Egypt to the United States and around the world. At home nowhere and everywhere, Said described his condition as one of exile, perpetually without a home, or out of place to use the title of his brilliant memoir. Nowhere more, however, than in his exile, was Said the symbol of his people, whose dispossession his life reflected and for whom he so eloquently advocated in works like “The Question of Palestine”, “After the Last Sky”, “The Politics of Dispossession” and “Peace and Its Discontents”.
Through these writings and others, Said introduced the Palestinian people and narrative to an American-and international-audience as Zionism’s all-too-often unrecognized victims. In so doing, he was widely known as one of the Palestinian people’s most passionate advocates for peace, reconciliation and coexistence with Israeli Jews on the basis of justice and equality.
From that vision, he would never waver, even when it was most unpopular to do so. During the Oslo “Peace Process,” he was a tireless and persistent critic, famously calling the Accords themselves a “surrender” by the Palestinian leadership and predicting with tragic foresight that they would delay, not advance, the day of Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation. Throughout the process, he called for the resignation of President Arafat and the emergence of a genuine grassroots domestic and international movement for Palestinian rights, which he understood would ensure progress towards a meaningful Palestinian-Israeli peace. Nevertheless, for his honesty and unwillingness to be blinded to Palestinian economic, political and human realities by the distorting veneer of the language and images of peace, he earned the derision of even many in his own community for supposedly “opposing peace” or “being unrealistic.”
But with the predictable conclusion of the Oslo process in a storm of violence causing mutual Palestinian-Israeli suffering, which now, at best, will only further postpone the process of Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation, new movements emerged within Palestine and internationally that were based on precisely the discourse and strategy that Said had advocated all along. In Palestine, a Palestinian National Initiative, of which he was a central part, had been born and posed a new alternative to the failed strategy of endless negotiations based on unequal power. It was a truly grassroots effort that respected democracy, treated the needs of the Palestinian people and spoke in language of genuine peace and reconciliation with Israel. Throughout the world, including in the United States, the struggle of the Palestinian people had become, to use his words, “a byword for emancipation and enlightenment.” In solidarity with them, divestment campaigns had been launched, boycotts of Israeli goods had been initiated and people from around the world had gone to Palestine to stand with the Palestinians in the moments of their greatest vulnerability.
In a fitting homage to him, at his final convention of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the leading Arab-American organization, he received a roaring standing ovation for a speech in which he, among other things, lambasted the Palestinian Authority for its failure to recognize the basic dignity, not to say moral beauty, of the very cause that its ostensible mandate was to advance. In the turn of the course of history, in the inspiring and humane language and vision of his speech, in his physical position on the podium and in the applause of the crowd for him, it was clear that Said had at last become what he had always been-the true symbol and leader of his people.
But it is a testament to the universality of his thought and the range of his interests as a scholar and human being that Said was not limited in his writings and advocacy to the one struggle with which he was both personally and nationally affiliated. Indeed, his great influence and reputation was based in large part on his other work, particularly on his reinterpretation and re-presentation of histories of formerly colonized peoples of the world, work which was foundational in the fields of both Post-Colonial Studies and Critical Race Theory.
In his seminal work, “Orientalism”, Said critically explored European-primarily French and British-representations of “the Orient.” In examining these representations, Said exposed that “Western” “knowledge” of the Orient was less an accurate description of the peoples and culture of that place (if such generalities could themselves be meaningfully understood, which they could not) than both a preface to and later reinforcement of Western imperial rule over the Orient.
In “Culture and Imperialism”, his sequel to “Orientalism”, Said would extend his analysis to other formerly colonized peoples from around the world, to “India, the subcontinent generally, a lot of Africa, Caribbean, Australia, parts of the world where there was a major Western investment, whether through empire or direct colonialism or some combination of both, as in the case of India.” In so doing, he would dis- (or, more properly, un)-cover the often hidden power that lied within the culture of European-and any-imperialism, and celebrate the resistance of formerly colonized peoples to its rule.
In both works and beyond, Said understood and taught that despite the dehumanization of and violence against the “Other” contained in colonialism and other forms of willful division, human history was an intertwined fabric, separated not by geographic, ethnic, national or religious barriers, but by deliberate delusions of the will to power. It was this will-and the structures of power and fawning intellectuals that are the predictable result of its employment-that his critical posture was almost instinctively directed against, as he himself once put. In its place, he sought to build a world of what Adorno, his intellectual hero, once called-and he later cited-a non-dominative difference. The critical study of history, society and culture that would bring that condition into reality was, for Said, the role of the intellectual.
And that role, he fulfilled. In his various works, Said unified the disparate experiences of a seemingly separate and unconnected humanity, both by showing that no encounter between peoples, even of the most odious form, left the other side unaffected, and by raising in our minds the universality of so much of the human experience. It is a tribute to him that, even as he praised the virtues of the humanism that he so eloquently defended, his own insights contributed enormously to its depth. Would that we would have made those insights our own.
But instead, today, we stand at the edge of a great valley that separates humanity (particularly Americans and the Arab/Islamic peoples of the world), cruelly dividing us into ethnic, racial and religious categories whose basis is neither history nor reason, but which, as Said taught us, obdurately betrays both. This gulf is not a natural or inevitable one, but one too often constructed for us by pusillanimous politicians and a media untrained in the art of critical practice. And its effects are to promote and thereby allow our consciences to accept an unacceptable violence of human against human-and the enormous suffering that is its handmaiden-that no just God or morality could countenance, much less sanction.
It falls to us, disciples of the humane vision that Edward Said helped to construct, to deconstruct the false barriers that prevent its realization, to imagine a world in their absence and to, in the words of his fittingly final exhortation to us, enter the contest of values, definitions and cultures so as to bring that world to fruition. And when we do, we will have torn down the symbolic-and, yes, in Palestine, physical-walls that so inhumanely separate us from each other, elevated the universal rights of all human beings to freedom and equality and built the greatest possible monument to the life and labor of Edward Said, whose beautiful mind helped us dream what, alas, his eyes could not see.
G. S. Naggiar is president of the American Association for Palestinian Equal Rights. More information is available at americansforpalestine.org