Edward Said puts the Palestinian narrative of struggle in a global context in “Culture and Resistance”

The cover of Culture and Resistance. Buy the book on Amazon.com.

What distinguishes the late Edward Said from the numerous other writers and commentators of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is his ability to place it within the global context of struggles towards social justice. Not a historian by profession, but rather Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, Said was acutely aware of how cultural exchange is necessary for understanding between two or more conflicting parties, and that understanding is necessary when trying to accomplish peace.

Nimbly shifting from topics such as the Israeli military occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem to music, Said demonstrates this rare quality of what can be called “global perspective” in his interviews with David Barsamian, compiled in the new Culture and Resistance: Conversations with Edward W. Said.

The interviews, which occurred from early 1999 to mid-2003, in the midst of Said’s long struggle with leukemia, do not provide any in-depth analysis on a given topic. But they rather serve as meditations - if one can consider Osama bin Laden, malnutrition in Gaza, and misunderstandings between the U.S. and the Arab world topics for meditation. Not intended to provide precise, detailed historical analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the book rather functions to provide a unique perspective on some of the most important problems that plague the world by one of the world’s preeminent thinkers.

Said rightly focuses on the lack of communication between the U.S. and the Arab world, and even that of the Palestinians and their Arab neighbors. Citing “the absence of initiative” as “our greatest enemy,” Said explains that Arabs from states such as Egypt and Jordan don’t travel to the occupied territories because they “won’t submit to the humiliation of being examined by Israeli policemen at the border or the barrier.” Instead of merely declaring opposition to Israel and imperialism, Said writes that Arabs and Palestinians alike would benefit from other Arabs having a taste of what it is actually like to attempt every day activities under military occupation, and “to sit down and plan something that could actually help Palestinians and actually deal with Israel, not as a fictional entity but as a real power that is in many ways negatively affecting Arab life.”

Just as problematic for Said is the absence of Israeli and Hebrew studies at Arab universities, and the failure to pay attention to “India, Japan, China, to the great civilizations of the rest of the world.” What this is a sign for, Said asserts, is “as a society, as a people, in the moment of history in which we find ourselves, of our deliquescence, our weakness, our state of intellectual quiescence, that we are so uncurious about these other parts of the world.”

And, naturally, Said discusses what the Bush administration and their mouthpieces’ cultural gaffes, during the lead-up to the war on Iraq, communicate and how Arabs receive their actions. Barsamian mentions to Said how U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, while addressing the United Nations, repeatedly stated “Sodom” instead of “Saddam.” Said responds that this is an example of demonizing and trivializing the dictator, and reducing the country of Iraq, home of what is considered the artistic capital of the Arab world, to that one man.

Commenting on news anchors “who say I-raq, I-ran … the Mooslems, and Izlum,” Said tells Barsamian, “it’s all part of the same arsenal of Orientalist cliches that are designed to alienate, distance, and dehumanize a people … That’s why most Arabs feel a tremendous animosity toward the U.S. media and government. The prevailing public discourse is so ignorant and at the same time so familiar in its contempt for these central things in our lives that we see it as a kind of assault on our culture and civilization.” Indeed, the lack of knowledge that Americans possess regarding Arabs, the Middle East, and foreign affairs in general is all too often manifested in the media, like when the Chicago Tribune, in a recent editorial, refers to Iran as an Arab country, and in another article, defines “intifada” as “holy war.”

But even more symptomatic of President Bush’s knowledge of Arab history and culture, and his sheer imperialist ambitions (Said charges “What George Bush knows about Palestine can be engraved on the head of a pin”) is pointed out by Said in the final two interviews. President Bush touts “American” values, but “what Arabs, Muslims, and Europeans more and more see is a country that flouts international law. It tears up some treaties and refuses to sign others. It thinks of itself above and exceptional in all things.”

Said later comments that the idea that the U.S. will bring democracy to Iraq “trivializ[es] the notion of democracy … I don’t think it’s ever happened in history that democracy is brought in by conquest and bombing, which this war is going to entail.” Said adds, “Bush says ‘We have no quarrel with the Iraqi people,’ and the next thing you know, there are 6,000 cruise missiles headed for Baghdad, so obviously there’s a contradiction here.”

Although readers are occasionally reminded of Said’s failing health when Barsamian asks Said how he is feeling, there is no doubt that Said remained “unsoftened” by the his sickness. His shrewd criticism of the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process,” which he describes as “in effect … a repackaging of the Israeli occupation” to his lucid explanation of how the Israeli occupation has destroyed Palestinian civilian infrastructure, point to how Said was impassioned by the “unpopular cause” of recognition and justice for the Palestinians up until the very end.

One passage that leaps out to the reader is one from a May 2001 interview. Discussing Osama bin Laden, “and the people he commands,” Said states, “They’re magnified and blown up to insensate proportions that have nothing to do with their real power and the real threat they represent. This focus obscures the enormous damage done by the United States, whether militarily of environmentally or economically, on a world scale that far dwarfs anything that terrorism might do.”

However, Said later clarifies this somewhat, in retrospect, unsettling analysis when he explains, in an interview conducted after the September 11 attacks, “even if you find Osama bin Laden, it’s quite clear that his organization has spun out from him and is now independent of him. And there will be others who will appear and reappear. This is why I think we need a much more precise, much more defined, much more patiently constructed campaign, and well as one that surveys not just the terrorists’ presence but the root causes of it, which are ascertainable, and one that can find them.”

But manipulating the very real trauma and tragedy to September 11 into a means to get Americans on the edge of their seat, perpetually embraced for another horrendous attack, can work to an administration’s advantage. “The idea that terrorism can be fought and stopped is also preposterous because it is a metaphysical concept that has never been examined. It has turned the United States, like Israel, into a victim of some terrible almost theological evil which Bush and Sharon feel they are entitled as crusaders to fight by whatever means at their disposal. So morality, proportionality, attacks on civilians, all of that goes by the board,” Said explains.

Certainly it is easier for a government to sell its public on going to war if they know nothing about the people they are bombing. Americans are unsure of where Afghanistan is on the map, and think all that Iraq amounts to is Saddam Hussein. Only when the Taliban was blowing up giant Buddha statues that date back to the 5th century in early 2001 was it useful for the U.S. government to highlight Afghanistan’s cultural riches. And it was amply demonstrated last spring the amount of care it has for world, let alone Iraqi, history when the U.S. military was guarding the Ministry the Oil but neglected to protect Baghdad’s National Museum, libraries, and cultural institutions that fell prey to looters.

The gap of understanding between what can be monolithically referred to as the U.S. and the Arab world, for lack of a better way of putting it, can be bridged, of course, by cultural exchange. And culture helps preserve identity and memory, both crucial to the Palestinian cause. Said comments, “In the case of a political identity that’s being threatened, culture is a way of fighting against extinction and obliteration. Culture is a form of memory against effacement.”

So it’s kind of ironic that the main guff I have with what Said says in the interviews featured in this book deals with the effacement of voice and history. Regarding his opponents who took great pains to get his lectures cancelled and tried to marginalize and silence him, he says, “Unless I die it’s not going to happen.” Fortunately, Said has made such a large impact that despite his death his ideas will live on. There is no doubt that his readers will keep his call for social justice alive and remind the world of the plight of the Palestinians.

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    Maureen Clare Murphy is an Arts, Music, and Culture correspondent for EI and its sister site Electronic Iraq