Edward Said: A lesson that will not die, a vision that cannot fail

Humanity. Genius. Passion. Curiosity. Eloquence. Talent.

All of these words, and so many more, aptly described Dr. Edward W. Said, the brilliant scholar and tireless advocate for justice who left us on September 25th. The special quality and unique amalgamation of traits that made this man both an indomitable debater and a compassionate friend were rooted not only in his considerable talents or his remarkable intelligence, but even more so in his deep and abiding courage.

Dr. Said possessed a rare kind of courage, a moral and indeed even a spiritual fearlessness, that enabled him to see beyond false dichotomies, that spurred him to say things that others found impolitic, that caused him to sputter in eloquent anger words of truth that cut through obscure rhetoric, striking notes of clarity as refreshing as water and as clean as the perfect chords of the symphonies he loved.

Dr. Said’s special kind of courage was visible to anyone who saw him during the last five years of his life. Looking painfully frail — until he began speaking and gesturing — he time and again overcame the pain, weakness and fear of living with leukemia to expound, without notes, on US hypocrisy, the Palestine Authority’s corruption, the depredations of a brutal Israeli occupation, and media’s malfeasance in obscuring the full extent and context of daily suffering in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.

The potential costs and consequences of Dr. Said’s courage and honesty were especially clear to anyone who read his remarkably candid memoir, Out of Place. Here, he turned a searching and fearless eye on himself, his parents, the dynamics of Middle Eastern family relationships, the complexities of gender, Oedipal triangles, and manipulations of authority to trace the links between the personal and the political in a way that spared no one, not even himself. He looked back curiously at the shy and bookish young man he was at the dawn of adolescence, a period that is excrutiating for all of us, but which, in his case, was magnified by the searing events of 1947 and 1948. His critiques though, whether of self or other, were always tempered by a compassion and humility that transformed analyses into lessons.

Throughout his memoir, Said displayed a disarming and admirable ability to undertake searching analyses of his own society, its assumptions, illusions, and reflexes in response to the tragic loss of Palestine and the burdens of a diasporic existence. Like the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who in a verse attempting to come to grips with the cataclysmic events of World War I stated that “if a way to the better there be/it exacts a full look at the worst,” Dr. Said understood, and wanted all of us to understand, that difficult truths will not go away. To get through them, we have to go through them — honestly, bravely, and humanely.

The courage Dr. Said displayed in facing with grace the difficult truths of his life — as an intellectual, a Palestinian, an exile, an advocate for justice, a person living with cancer — offers precious lessons for us all. As long as we try to live out these lessons in our own lives, Dr. Said cannot die. Courage of the calibre he displayed has something of the transcendent in it. Courage of this kind cannot but inspire, sustain, and guide those who respond to its power and beauty and open themselves up to its challenges.

In the week since I first learned of Dr. Said’s passing, I have heard many friends, colleagues, and acquaintances voice despair and anxiety over the loss of so charismatic, brilliant, and capable a spokesperson for the Palestinian community. I cannot help but think Dr. Said would be exasperated and annoyed by such despair.

Yes, Dr. Said’s voice was unique and special, but no, it was not just for Palestinians, or even for Arabs. His was a voice for and from humanity, a voice for the telling of truths, no matter how discomforting they could be.

Six years ago, Dr. Said was invited to give a lecture on the history and repercussions of the Balfour Declaration in Washington, DC. It is a tribute to his bravery, genius and eloquence that he only focused on the events of World War I and the roots of the Palestinian tragedy as a starting point for his real message that day, a message that transcended the usual dualistic discourses that beset the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His aim was to force his audience to think new thoughts, question old categories, re-examine ethnic boundaries, and challenge received opinions in order to envision a new era of peace based on reconciliation between Arabs and Jews.

One could have heard a pin drop as his audience, expecting a familiar recounting of all the harm done to the Palestinians over the last 80-plus years, instead heard Dr. Said make an impassioned plea for Arabs and Palestinians to study and come to terms with the Holocaust and its searing impact on the Jewish people. For him, this was not about being politically correct or intellectually balanced, but rather, a matter of utmost moral necessity. In his view, this was a crucial issue that none of us could side-step or postpone, because of the inextricable interconnections between Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews:

“It is simply remarkable,” he exclaimed “that, in the entire Arab world, you cannot find a single institute devoted to the study of Israel, Judaism, the Holocaust, or even American Studies. This lack of knowledge and interest partly explains the lack of Arab success in dealing with US and Israeli strategies in the region.”

“Like it or not, this is the historical reality,” he explained. “We must better understand Israelis, and they must better understand us. We must make clear the link between the Shoah (the European Jewish Holocaust) and the Nakba (the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948). Neither experience is equal to the other, and neither should be minimized. We must emphasize this link not for short-term political gains, but because we cannot continue to work apart as two wounded yet incommunicado communities. We have to begin to admit the universality and integrity of each other’s experience of suffering. As Arabs, we demand acknowledgement and reparations. We cannot accept that the ‘redemption of the Jews’ required the dispossession of millions of Palestinian people. We must rethink our common past if we want to have a future, and it is time to honestly state that we are fated to have a common, not a separate, future.”

If this were not enough to galvanize his audience, Dr. Said went on to say, with characteristic honesty and courage, that Israel is only part of the problem facing the Arab world:

“The current Arab situation is truly depressing. So many resources, human and otherwise, are just not being tapped. In spite of the size and potential of the Arab world, the average Arab individual feels a sense of impotence. Economically, the Arab world is a disaster area. The combined GNP of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt is still lower than Israel’s GNP. Exports are going down throughout the Arab world, and the per capita income has been declining at a rate of 2 percent each year.

“For the rich in these countries, it is a tax-free zone; the poor are the only ones paying taxes. Meanwhile, illiteracy and health problems are on the rise among children and youth. There is no excuse for this state of affairs, and it all stems from a lack of vision, leadership, and democracy in the region.”

The last time I saw Edward Said, his sunken cheeks alarmed me. He was clearly not feeling well. But instead of dwelling on that, he asked about me, my husband, the years we lived in post-war Lebanon. He was not simply making polite small talk; his eyes were warm, serious, attentive, and searching. Before he left, he squeezed my hand, patted my arm, and said in a strong voice that belied his diminished frame: “Keep on going!”

I intend to.

There is no excuse for us not to aspire to the courage and clarity that Dr. Edward Said embodied. There is no excuse for us not to envision a better future and to work with diverse Others for its realization. There is no excuse for any of us to let despair, anger, jealousy or fear poison us or slow us down. And there is no time to waste in honoring and sustaining the efforts of Dr. Said.

As an American poet, May Swenson, said about deep sorrow following a great loss: “Don’t mourn the beloved. Try to be like him.”

(All quotations above are excerpted from an article by the author, “Marking Balfour Declaration’s 80th Anniversary, Edward Said Calls for Arab-Jewish Reconciliation and Reconsideration of a Binational State,” found at http://www.washington-report.org/backissues/0198/9801019.htm )