Through a simple campus lecture, Edward Said precipitated a rupture at Ohio’s Oberlin College. But like many things in his life, the debate did not touch the substance of Said’s theory or politics. Instead, his enemies were obsessed by what he stood for — a Palestinian nationalism that scared them because it was not easily stereotyped or dismissed. Through this vignette, I also learnt about the limitations and myopia of liberal campus politics.
In fall of 1989, I arrived at Oberlin from Bangladesh. Through the vagaries of campus housing, I found myself placed in one of the student eating coops — Kosher Coop. A small place with thirty-plus Jewish students of various observant hues, they were happy to have a Muslim student join. Historically open to both Jewish and Muslim dietary practices, the Coop had three Muslim students that year. The campus Rabbi in particular was very welcoming. Enjoying my liberal politics, Rabbi Brand encouraged me to write a letter on the “Rushdie Affair.” The campus newspaper published it, several other Muslims wrote in agreeing with the defense of free speech, and so on.
All this changed one day with the announcement that Edward Said had been invited to give a Distinguished Lecture that semester. Overnight, the campus transformed into balkanized, opposing camps. Hillel, the campus Jewish organization, went berserk. To my total shock, people who were truly liberal on other issues were up in arms about Said being allowed to come on campus. All this controversy over an eloquent academic who composed classical music, wrote the classic “Orientalism”, and defended Palestinian self-determination. Bemused, I wondered what the campus would have done if someone truly controversial (say someone defending the practice of hijackings) had been invited.
The debate ran straight through the heart of Kosher coop. Most of it raged between Jewish students, pitting liberals against conservatives. Should Said be allowed to come on campus? Should we boycott him? Should we heckle him? Do we ask questions, or not dignify him with such an approach? All commitments to free speech were ejected (ironically, this group had encouraged my defense of Rushdie). The three Muslim students sat mutely through most of this, taken aback by the ferocity of the emotions on display. During one pitched dinner debate, one student looked point-blank at me and said, “What do YOU think?” It was the first time I had heard that word used in a way that made me conscious of my color or putative religious affiliation. Even though Edward Said promoted a secular view of Palestinian nationalism, here at Oberlin the entire debate was recast into a strange fantasy of “age-old” Jewish-Muslim tensions. I too was supposed to be tapped into this lineage by virtue of being born Muslim.
Edward Said’s fate was always to inspire heated emotions. Though he argued the case for Palestine with passion and intensity, his prose was calm, logical and factual. In fact, the polemic-heavy rhetoric of Palestinian leaders infuriated Said. In more than one essay he pointed out that Chairman Arafat had brought the crowd to its feet, but had said nothing of substance. Yet, in spite of this calm, measured approach— he seemed to inspire irrational fear in opponents. At Oberlin, charges of “anti-semitism” filled the air as his lecture-date approached. These moments illustrated that his opponents had done no original research. After all, Said was one of the earliest to argue that the Jewish Holocaust was a unique event that must be respected and understood. He vigorously attacked those who would dismiss the facts of this tragedy in their pursuit of the Palestinian cause. To call this man “anti-semitic” demonstrated only lazy rhetoric or deliberate lies.
Said’s actual speech at Oberlin was uneventful. He delivered the address in measured tones, aware of the hostilities in the audience. Ignoring the hecklers, he answered the few ambush questions with calm logic. The much anticipated event was somewhat of a non-event. Contrary to the fears being promoted, his visit did not result in any major antagonism between Jewish students and the rest of the campus. Most of the students who supported a Palestinian state were sensible enough to differentiate between the Israeli government’s occupation policy and individuals. But the anti-Said camp was not so interested in subtle differentiations. In the days before and after his visit, I kept hearing one falsehood repeated — that Said supported attacks on civilians. Although this was in the days before Google, a cursory search through library stacks would have yielded voluminous counter-evidence.
The ripple effects of this day were felt for months afterwards. Hillel seemed to mutate from a campus organization to a shrill political group. Kosher coop itself was riven by conflict. The Said debate had brought out fault lines between the liberal Jewish students and the more right-wing element. New debates started about seemingly unrelated topics. Should there be a Hebrew-language dinner table at the coop when half the Jewish students didn’t speak the language? Should we go out of our way to recruit Muslim students, to promote a more diverse image? Underneath these debates was a larger truth struggling to get out. The limitations of the coop’s liberal politics had been revealed by the Said episode. It was hard to go back to pretending everything was fine. By the end of that semester, two Muslim students had left the coop. Many of the liberal Jewish students also stopped attending. I stuck it out for another semester, but eventually drifted away as well.
Sadly, while arguments raged about Palestine, Said’s epochal work in “Orientalism” was sidetracked at Oberlin. His role as Palestinian spokesperson was the only thing critics cared about. The polymath who had composed piano pieces, analyzed Joseph Conrad, and created an academic discipline had disappeared. In his place stood a crude cartoon of a fanatical Palestinian demagogue — ready to “infect” the young, impressionable minds of Oberlin freshmen. This stereotyping continued for many years afterwards.
Years later, I returned as an alumni to Oberlin to find the campus enmeshed in another controversy over Said. In 1996, the college decided to award him with an honorary degree. But through behind-the-scenes manipulation, his critics managed to get the invitation rescinded. Outraged, students mobilized to protest the decision. When the college administration refused to reconsider, students raised funds through donation and invited Said on their own. The money raised was used to give him an “alternative” award, to parallel the Honorary Degree the college had rescinded. At commencement that year, the campus saw two ceremonies. The official graduation ceremony was muted, but the student-organized ceremony honoring Professor Said was a jubilant occasion — not least because of the accomplishment students felt at having managed to bring him to campus despite the considerable opposition.
I first learnt of Palestine in 1983 — a grainy documentary on Bangladesh television was talking about the Sabra-Shatila refugee camp massacres. As dirge-like Arabic music played, the screen flashed images of Palestinian youth dancing at a night-festival. These were in the days before the conflict catapulted to the forefront of third-world consciousness. Palestine seemed like a distant land with a sad history, but not directly relevant to my personal politics. Years later, I found a worn copy of “Covering Islam” in my aunt’s library. As I started reading about the “Princess Episode”, I felt my reality shift to a new level. As the bookstores started importing his work from India, Edward Said, along with Noam Chomsky, became the focal point for intellectual activity in Dhaka circles. By 1989, when I left for the USA, his books were routinely being translated into Bengali, reaching a wide audience.
Growing up in Bangladesh, the trinity of Said, Chomsky, and Alexander Cockburn were crucial in showing me a left, anti-imperialist politics that was neither stale Marxism nor Islamic fundamentalism (the two choices in Bangladesh). But to fully appreciate Said’s achievement, I had to witness that turbulent semester at Oberlin College.
Said inspired hysterical reaction and propaganda wars precisely because of his stature. He spoke for the dispossessed, but could not be dismissed with cliches about “fanatical Arabs”. In fact, he dismantled those very stereotypes and uprooted their sources of power in “Orientalism” and related works. Edward Said will be missed immensely, but his legacy will carry on in these debates.
Naeem Mohaiemen is a Bangladeshi living in New York, and runs the website www.shobak.org which publishes “Outsider Asian Voices”.