A university professor of literature at Columbia University has died. He was witty, elegant and powerful, passionate about his field of study and a man of aristocratic bearing. He loved opera and art and wrote lovely, erudite books. What made him especially important, however, was none of the preceding. Edward W. Said was one of the architects of all reasonable discussion on the question of Palestine and commanded the moral authority to discuss the subject honestly and outside the rhetoric of hatred and violence.
He was a brilliant man who sought to improve the world through the power of reason and beauty and truth. Now he is gone and we mourn the loss because his passing leaves in us an absence where the source of Arab-American identity once lived.
Being born to privilege does not a great man make. However, using the gifts of privilege, the education, travel, perspective and information of a fortunate youth, gave Edward the opportunity to put his experiences to the service of the underprivileged. Where many chose to flee and seek comfort in “the good life,” Edward Said made himself a witness to the lives of the Palestinian people. He understood the oppression that comes from simply lacking the means to articulate your own circumstances. He found great purpose in speaking for and about the Palestinian cause because he felt uniquely suited for the job.
History simultaneously smiled upon and cursed him.
He was a pioneer on the issue of Palestine and his perceptions and inquiries still frame the debate even as the constant unfurling of history has altered the specifics of the discussion. His passionate pursuit of justice inspired so many of us to mature in our political arguments.
He was the first Palestinian to ask Arabs to delve into the painful history of the Holocaust in order to understand the suffering that Jews endured. And in this way, he was able to clarify in the minds of many Palestinians the way in which clinging to their historical grievances would merely lead to a showcase of wounds.
Edward was harshly critical of the shortcomings of the current Palestinian leadership as he was of Israeli occupation. However, he was extremely careful to separate leadership from the population at large. In his work and in his person, Edward Said made the Palestinians human to the rest of the world. He gave voice to mute suffering, for where many heard the din of violence and hatred, Edward made our concerns lyrical. He gave us faces and names. He put words in our hearts, souls and minds. And that was just his hobby.
In the minds of many, Edward helped create the discipline of comparative literature. With the publication of “Orientalism” in 1978, students of English literature and art history were suddenly able to see a global and historical context for the canon which they revered. He made it possible to both passionately love these works and simultaneously understand the vast assumptions they made about the East.
He liberated thoughtful students from both sides of the divide to consider their own colonial history as a tool in comprehending the other perspective. And though the field of comparative literature has evolved and it may be fashionable to turn upon the early texts, it is undeniable that Edward Said made it possible for these further, more elaborate discussions to even exist. He discovered words for what some readers had merely felt and that revelation of the inchoate was so valuable to scholars that it has transformed many of the texts about which he wrote.
His career as an academic would have been remarkable even if “Orientalism” were his only contribution. He could have been one of those eminences grises who lectured from yellowed notes on the groundbreaking work his younger self produced. He was far from that picture, writing on subjects as varied as opera and religion, and writing introductions to the works of such luminaries as Rudyard Kipling, Henry James, Sigmund Freud, and E.E. Cummings not to mention Chopin and Faulkner.
He also collaborated with noted conductor Daniel Barenboim on “Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society.” There was no aspect of the arts about which he had not cultivated a deep interest and a thorough understanding.
On a much more personal note, he contributed greatly to Arab America’s comprehension of itself. Edward Said’s personal grace stood in living defiance of the stereotypical images of Palestinians as thugs and terrorists. How could a person believe those things after having met the worldly, charming, elegant man that Edward was?
Never was his grace so much in evidence as in his last few years in the face of his final, indefatigable enemy. His personal heroism in illness was remarkable as he continued to teach, write, travel and speak even as his physical condition deteriorated. He continued to work on four books simultaneously in his final year. Although he was a man of many passions, he maintained profound dignity in the face of death. In fact, dignity and justice were of such importance to him that one of his last articles to be published was an essay on the nature of dignity.
Edward Said will be remembered as the model of integration for Arab Americans. His fluid comfort in both cultures was astounding to behold and it came from a very simple source.
He was born a Palestinian and being one was a wellspring for his unique perspective on history, art, music, philosophy and many other subjects. He was an American and being one gave him personal and political freedom, a fully functional model of the rule of law and the opportunity for success in his chosen profession. He was both because each fed him and contributed to his integrity as a human being as much as having two arms or eyes did. And Edward Said’s commitment to a full identity freed us all.
Because he chose not to be merely Palestinian or only American, we were granted permission to choose the best of both and create the identity which gave us dignity. And because he refused to be defined by history’s accidents, we were liberated to seek our destiny and rise like many bright phoenixes from the ashes of our former selves.
Ziad Asali is president of the American Task Force on Palestine. The ATFP is a not-for-profit corporation that aims to educate the American people about the national security interests of the United States in establishing a Palestinian state. Specifically, ATFP seeks to promote the awareness of the far-reaching benefits that Palestinian statehood will have for the United States in the following areas: (1) enhancing national security, (2) proliferation of American values of freedom and democracy, and (3) expansion of economic opportunities throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds. For more information, see www.americantaskforce.org.