Edward Said: The Loss of an Irreplaceable Mentor

Picking up a work by Edward Said is never intellectually or emotionally easy. Following Said through one of his thrusts into the meaning of the intellectual, of being an Arab or a Palestinian, or exploring with Said what it truly meant to be political is an experience so deep, at times, so painful, so unflinchingly honest that one emerges from it reborn, enlightened, and often on fire. I speak from experience as a young student set aflame by Said’s work in the mid-1990’s. I did not know Edward Said personally. I saw him lecture at Harvard and in Southern California, and I met him once at a conference in Boston. I talked to him about the challenges of being sympathetic to the Palestinians in academia. He responded, with real compassion and even a flash of anger in his eyes, “keep fighting.”   

I first encountered Edward Said in college where I picked up “The Question of Palestine”. Before this point, as a student of literature and philosophy, I had come to unconsciously associate the pursuit of the humanities with the West, specifically with ancient and contemporary white men of distinction. In addition to persuading me to turn my moral and emotional energy toward the Palestinian issue, this book introduced me to beautiful man worthy of emulation — an Arab and an American, a lover of art in every culture, a voracious reader, writer, thinker and creator who did not allow his tremendous intellectual achievements to shield him from fighting on the forefront of the rhetorical war over Palestine. To read “The Question of Palestine” was to become angry, morally indignant, inspired and equipped with a priceless intellectual guide to the Palestinian question. Edward Said was a human being who fought, yelled, coaxed, and persuaded the history of his people from suppression into the light. He did this by applying wit, elegance and brilliance to his writings and lectures. As young students dedicated to the Palestinian cause, we were, in addition to being star struck and enlightened by Said, deeply proud of the man.

Said was a giant, and equipped his supporters, students and admirers with a sense of largeness. His ability to characterize and critique centuries of Western writings on the Middle East was a breathtaking stroke of the pen, a work that fundamentally redefined how the Arabs were to be represented in the halls of academia. A Christian by birth, his intellectual integrity and unfailing moral commitment led him to produce “Covering Islam”, one of the first works to systematically critique the American media’s coverage of Islam. Said’s continuous transcendence of racial and religious lines in an unfailing struggle to discover a deep and enduring common humanity — not an empty platitude, but a difficult position to arrive at, one based on true understanding of the other and real justice — offered many who struggled with the question of Palestine essential intellectual and moral guidance. 

In addition to the grandiosity Said graced us with, he gave us detail, nuance and contradiction. I’ll never forget the experience of searching in vain for Said’s latest collection of essays, “The End of the Peace Process”, in the dusty bookstores of Ramallah, only to be told that Arafat had banned Said’s books from the Occupied Territories. As I made the journey to West Jerusalem, where I bought the book in an Israeli bookstore, I thanked Said for preparing me, in part, for that experience, for setting the stage for me to expect these inanities, irrationalities and contradictions, and despite them all, keep fighting.  

At times my love for Edward Said would be irrational. To hear a criticism of Said’s work, no matter how sound, felt like a blow to Palestinian self-determination itself — even an attack on my own right to express myself as an Arab and a Muslim. To witness the kind of vulgar attacks against Said by Justice Weiner and his ilk was somehow personally injurious, tremendously hurtful, an offence against decency itself. But Said seemed to had come to expect attacks and had even invited them, in keeping with his understanding of the role of the intellectual. In the introduction to the collection of his Reith lectures Representations of the Intellectual, which where broadcast on the BBC in 1993, Said wrote of true intellectual pursuit:

“It involves a sense of the dramatic and of the insurgent, making a great deal of one’s rare opportunities to speak, catching the audience’s attention, being better at wit and debate than one’s opponents. And there is something fundamentally unsettling about intellectuals who have neither offices to protect nor territory to consolidate and guard; self-irony is therefore more frequent than pomposity, directness more than hemming and hawing. But there is no dodging the inescapable reality that such representations by intellectuals will neither make them friends in high places nor win them official honors. It is a lonely condition, yes, but it is always a better one than a gregarious tolerance for the way things are.”

Said’s spirit and example gives the rest of us the strength to keep fighting “the way things are”. He will be painfully missed. 

Sarah Eltantawi is Communications Director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.