Edward Said and the Contours of Palestinian Identity

Edward Said has traced the contours of the modern Diasporic Palestinian identity through his writings, political engagement, and passionate dedication to peace, and it is with great sadness that I write this eulogy to him. On September 25th 2003, the Palestinian people lost a man whose seminal work has allowed them to define themselves as a people with a history and culture, despite concerted and systematic efforts by many to erase them from popular consciousness and human geography.

For Palestinians born in the Diaspora, Said’s writings stand at the centre of their attempts at making sense of the world and of their place in it as a dispossessed people. I am one such Palestinian. I discovered Said’s work as an undergraduate student at McGill University in the mid-nineties. Majoring in Political Science and Women’s Studies, my intellectual growth as a human being, a Palestinian, a Canadian, a writer, a committed peace activist, and a staunchly secular feminist, were all deeply impacted by his work.

I would anxiously await Said’s latest essay on politics and society every month, because I knew that I would not be able to fully carve out my own thoughts on the issue of the day before I hear what Said had to say about it. Although I did not always agree with him -indeed, I often found myself sharply criticizing him for his near silence on women’s issues and gender as a category of analysis- Said’s writings armed me with a larger paradigm through which I have come to define my often uneasy relationship to the world as a Palestinian-Lebanese-Canadian-Woman-Citizen. I delved into his writings on the relationship between culture and power, a subject that deeply fascinated me and that eventually became my academic focus during my graduate studies.

Edward Said remained flawlessly faithful to his morals and values throughout his entire intellectual career. This was clear in his diverse body of work, which includes literary criticism, music theory, politics, and philosophy. He consistently called for an independent and universalistic intellectual tradition that privileges speaking the truth to power over cozying up with the establishment.

Through his fiercely angry yet deeply humane work, Said’s writings acted like a compass for the Palestinian in me — as it did for countless other fellow Palestinians and conscientious human beings. The crux of his brilliance lay in his ability to theorize — and practice — a multi-faceted and progressive Palestinian identity. True to his tradition of always standing on the higher moral ground,

Said channeled his pain and anger away from hatred and towards a universalistic, inclusive, and secular Palestinian identity based on justice, equality, and reconciliation with the Jewish people. He called for the Jewish state to publicly acknowledge the pain that its creation and continued colonization has brought upon the Palestinian people, and for Palestinians and Arabs to invest in understanding and engaging Jewish history and Israeli society. He remained consistent with his politics and never compromised his beliefs over his entire 25-year career, despite countless attempts by right-wing Jewish American groups and prominent members of the Palestinian Authority establishment to silence him by any means necessary, including violence and censorship.

This summer I had a chance to attend a 4-hour-long unedited documentary interview with Edward Said at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. The interview was conducted in March 2003 while Said was a guest lecturer at Cambridge University. It opened with recollections of his childhood in Cairo and Jerusalem, followed by a lengthy discussion of his academic work and political engagement, including his ground-breakingbook ” Orientalism”, his stormy relationship with Yasser Arafat, his friendship with internationally acclaimed Israeli composer Daniel Barenboim, and his thoughts on the Iraq war.

The interview closed with an intimate and painful discussion of his battle with leukemia. Said revealed that it was his “sheer will to live” which has allowed him to survive 10 years of a debilitating and rare form of leukemia. Lately, however, he was finding that his will to fight the disease was fading under the pressures of chemotherapy, long commutes to his doctor’s office, and constant body aches. He was no longer able to do the very things that give him his raison d’être as a thinker and writer, namely, reading and writing. When the interviewer asked him why then, he still hangs on to life, Said became animated and his eye grew wider. He explained that nowadays, when he feels exhausted and hopeless, he opens his eyes and pictures the ugly image of Ariel Sharon’s face flashing before him, a sight that charges him with boundless energy and a renewed determination to get up and resume the fight.

I managed to laugh, along with the rest of the audience, at Said’s uncanny humour, despite the fact that his wit could no longer mask that he was in the process of readying himself for death. Goodbye was written in between the lines of his Sharon anecdote. The interview ended with a close-up of Said’s battered and aging face, which grew increasingly somber when unexpectedly, church bells began to toll in the distant English country.

I knew that it would be the last time I would see Edward Said speak, and I was thankful to the powers that be granting me the privilege of bidding farewell to the giant who provided me with the tools to construct the contours of my Palestinian identity.