Edward Said’s journey to Ithaka

“Joseph, are you still sleeping, it’s 8am already?” These are the first words I would hear upon picking up the phone three, four times a week. Edward’s powerful teasing voice on the other side goading me to emulate his work regimen: “I have been up since 5:30.” I would scramble the words to justify that I had just woken up half an hour earlier and was having my morning coffee. “I am not so sure about that. You sound like you’re still in bed!”

How is one to deal with a legacy of a great man like Edward Said? How can the life of Edward Said, that exemplary public intellectual, teach us how to continue our journey? He always seemed heading somewhere, towards an important goal. He was always on the lookout for a place with which he could identify, not necessarily a physical place, in fact precisely not a physical place, but one where he could feel at ease, even perhaps at home. Last Fall, at Cambridge, where he spent a few weeks lecturing, Edward seemed so happy to be in a different intellectual and political space, free from the arrogance of American Empire, constantly on display in the United States, and far from the increasing mediocrity afflicting intellectual life in America after 11 September. I saw him regularly there as I was spending my sabbatical at the University of London. We shared a fantasy of moving to Britain permanently where we could escape the increasingly frightening developments in the United States. At the end of the day, however, despite the temptation of a new physical place, Edward’s search was for something else, for somewhere else.

As he told us in his memoir, Edward Said felt “out of place” much of his life, but he created an intellectual place, even an intellectual world, to which he could belong and to which he called upon us to join him. The new place that Said created had a new language, a new syntax, a new vocabulary to which those of us who, like him, felt out of place in a terrifyingly unjust world, could belong. The new place he created as a resisting locale came to be populated by so many of us around the world that it became a veritable place that protected us and him from the debasement of knowledge and the injustices perpetrated in the name of identities and imperial authority.

I have been fascinated by Edward Said’s political and intellectual journey ever since I read the first pages of Orientalism. Nothing I had read before or after unravelled to me the archeology of European (dubbed Western) identity as Orientalism did. What was ingenious about Said’s book was precisely the connections, relationships, modulations, and displacements that he exposed in Orientalism’s production of an Orient that was a ruse for the production of the Occident. Orientalism was never about the Orient and its identity and culture but about producing the West and its identity and culture; that there would never be a West if the East were not invented as its antithesis, its opposite, its other. It is this role that Said ascribed to himself, as anthropologist of Europe, its cultures, arts, and literatures, that catapulted him into the forefront of knowledge production in the Western academy.

The book also enraged his half-witted enemies, appalled as they were at his presumed insolence of subjecting White Europeans to an Oriental gaze. In undertaking his study of Europe, Said, true to his method, and contrary to traditional European scholarship on non-Europeans, did not objectify the European, but held himself accountable to the very people and cultures he wrote about. Thus, unlike Orientalists, Said refused to objectify what he sought to know. This is precisely what allowed so many Americans and Europeans to engage and respond to his ideas.

Said’s intellectual journey took him from studying Conrad to his latest book project on humanism (to be published posthumously by Columbia University Press), from Vico to Gramsci to Auerbach and Foucault, from Bach and Gould to Schoenberg, Adorno, and John Cage. He wrote about European, Arab, African, Latin American, Unites States’, and Asian literatures — Mahfouz, Yeats, Melville, Genet, Austen, Flaubert, Soueif, Swift, Munif, Zola, Mann, Rushdie, Proust, Naipaul, Morrison, Borges, Achebe, Darwish, Gordimer, Maupassant, Gide, Cesaire, Turgenev, Keats, Kipling, Adonis, and so many more. He loved the arts and loved Tahiyya Carioca, that exquisite Egyptian artist, who elevated belly dancing to a new kind of art.

His journey was guided by a radical opposition to ignorance and an unwavering commitment to fighting injustice. These are the two axes around which everything he wrote revolved. As a tireless fighter for justice for the Palestinian people, Said refused to compromise with racist half measures that kept the Palestinians oppressed while freeing Israel from moral and actual responsibility. In his defence of Islam and Muslims against the onslaught of American racist pronouncements, his principled analysis was not shaken by the events of 11 September. He continued to defend Islam as religion and culture against the monstrous misrepresentations of the Western media and Western governments, insisting on humanising Muslims and Arabs in the face of absolute dehumanisation. His hostility to pseudo- intellectuals (Arabs, Europeans, Americans) who hired themselves out to the highest bidders and changed masters as often as they changed socks, was located precisely in his commitment to informed knowledge against a world dominated by jejune technicians disseminating ignorance as knowledge for the right price.

Edward Said, in contrast, marched on undeterred by the new fad of “blaming the victims”. He fought constantly with his physician, who was also a committed friend, Dr Kanti Rai. Rai would always try to force Edward to rest and decrease his public and work commitments but to no avail. Edward would not be stopped. Every trip he would take inside the United States, or more often outside it, became a protracted battle with his doctor who was almost cast in the role of a disciplinarian father. Edward invariably won and went on to lecture in London, Madrid, Paris, Beirut, Ramallah, Cairo, Seattle, Los Angeles, Johannesburg, Amsterdam, Berlin, among numerous cities that wanted to hear him. Some might say that his last trip to Seville was too taxing, leading to his untimely death. I am not so sure. I believe that Edward’s trips and lectures in the last 12 years and his insistence on continuing his strict work regimen is precisely what made him able to fight that horrid disease for so long. Had Edward stopped his lectures and writing, the disease would have consumed him many years earlier.

I encountered Edward Said’s writings 10 years before I actually met him. In the 12 ensuing years, I was his student, his friend, his colleague. He became a father to me, advising me on intellectual, political, and personal matters, and always demanding the commitment that serious intellectual labour requires. We fought about my intolerance of certain allies of the Palestinian people who did not give us their full support. He would caution (actually yell at) me against giving way to my “youthful” enthusiasm in a world in which we have few friends and numerous enemies. We argued about Chopin and John Field, and about Umm Kulthum and ‘Abdel-Wahhab. Over dinner at my house, we fought over what music I should play, Asmahan’s operatic debut in Al-Tuyur or Lisa Della Casa’s majestic performance of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs .

Edward carried the burdens of his people everywhere he went, narrating the Palestinian story of suffering and injustice, fighting our enemies in every forum and medium. He remained optimistic to the end, never wavering in his belief that justice will come to the Palestinians one day. Whenever I would succumb to depression and pessimism, watching the unceasing brutality and sadism of the Israelis, there he was affirming to me: “Come on dear boy, there is no point to intellectual and political work if one were a pessimist. Intellectual and political work require, nay, demand optimism.” He understood that the journey would be long, but he also believed that we would reach our destination one day. This is not to say that he would not express frustration; far from it. He often did, but that never took away from his solid understanding that injustice and oppression will always be resisted, no matter how long they last.

Edward Said left many heirs to his legacy. We are everywhere, inhabiting the place that he created for us, and which will always be inspired by his spirit. Following Said, we will reread Swift “contrapuntally”, against the grain, reassigning the roles of the protagonists so that we can become those numerous Lilliputians that together will pin down Giant Gulliver, who can finally be exposed as the real bad guy, no matter how big he gets. We shall together carry on with Edward Said’s work and his commitments. His example as the foremost global public intellectual will guide us all in the difficult tasks ahead. It will not be easy. But there is indeed a bit of Edward Said in all of those who share his commitments and who will continue his journey. Let us remember that at the end of the day, it was not only about reaching a final destination that mobilised Edward Said’s energies, but also and most importantly about the journey that would take him (and us with him) there. Perhaps, Cavafy’s poem Ithaka , which he loved, resonated with his own journey. Rereading the poem now after Edward’s passing, its words are haunting:

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
So you’re old by the time you reach the island,
Wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
Not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Indeed as Edward has reached Ithaka after a long journey, Cavafy tells us:

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

(Excerpted from C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems, editors Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrad, London: Chatto and Windus, 1990, 29-30.)

Now, at the time of his death, many of us are overcome with sadness and grief over our loss. But we should not brood for too long, as Edward would not be pleased. He was heartbroken when his closest friends Ibrahim Abu Lughod and Eqbal Ahmed passed away, but he did not let his sadness paralyse him. He reconfigured his grief into a redoubling of his efforts and worked assiduously to continue their legacy.

The phone may no longer ring at 8am announcing his powerful and caring voice, but Edward Said’s ideas and words will continue to echo in our hearts and minds, inspiring and informing our intellectual and political work. Let us waste no time!

Joseph Massad is assistant professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University. This article first appeared in Al-Ahram Weekly, and is reproduced here by the author’s permission.