In Memory of Edward W. Said
Indiana, USA, September 29, 2003 - I had the honor of working “with” Edward Said for over fourteen years. He insisted on my use of the word “with” rather than “for” saying, “You are a member of a team.” And so it was indeed. All who were part of his life felt as if they were a member of his team. This remarkable man was a mesmerizing teacher, lecturer, and prose-writer; literary, music, and cultural critic; classical pianist; human rights activist; and foremost spokesman on behalf of the oppressed Palestinian people. He was also a husband, father, colleague, and friend.
He is perhaps best known for his book Orientalism which changed the course of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies in the West, but he also wrote several books on the Arab-Israeli conflict in which he tirelessly and primarily addressed his American readers explaining that the Palestinians were the “victims” of a systematic policy on the part of the Israeli government from 1948 to the present to evict them from their homes, shattering their lives and societies. Yet he understood the fears of most Israelis given the history of Jews in Europe, but felt that nothing could justify their occupation of a people who had historically done them no wrong. This, he did most courageously in a climate in the United States that was hostile, in general, to Arabs and to Muslims. He emerged as the most eloquent spokesman in the U.S. for the Palestinian people and became a member of the PNC, the Palestinian parliament-in-exile with close ties to the Palestinian leadership. In 1993, he was horrified by the Oslo Accords and wrote a series of articles published in both Arabic and English that were highly critical of them and of the leadership that secretly negotiated its terms. He correctly predicted that the Accords would make the life of the Palestinians more difficult and that the Israelis would have more of a stranglehold on Palestinian lives leading ultimately to a state akin to South African apartheid. He even predicted that the Israelis would re-invade Palestinian towns and cities. The latter has happened, while a wall is being built separating Israelis from Palestinians while house demolitions and land confiscations continue. He also predicted that Palestinian resistance would increase and that more violence would break out as a result of the increased oppression of the Palestinians. This naturally made him highly critical of the American leadership, Yasir Arafat, Ehud Barak, and Ariel Sharon.
Edward Said also wrote tirelessly about the Arab and Islamic world. He himself felt that even though born into a Christian family, he very much was part of Arab-Islamic civilization. It distressed him that Arabs and Muslims, and that Islam itself were presented in negative terms in the mass media and he wrote many articles criticizing their portrayal in newspapers, magazines, and film. His book Covering Islam, which is somewhat overlooked despite its importance and relevance even today twenty years after he wrote it, was written as a result of the coverage of the American news media of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979. Islam was presented as the religion of uncivilized barbarians, fanatics, misogynists and killers, and these representations carried over into films and other television programs. He not only was critical of these representations but also explained why it is that these erroneous portrayals were made and why they continue to be made as an aspect of support for American foreign and domestic policy. Never has hostility towards Islam, Muslims, and Arabs been higher than at this moment despite the availability of accurate information. He would sometimes shake his head saying that “things” have gotten worse not better over the years.
Professor Said may be best known for his political works, but he made major contributions in the fields of literary and cultural criticism. He also contributed greatly to the field of music criticism. He collaborated with his close friend Maestro Daniel Barenboim (an Israeli) in a number of projects the most significant of which is, I believe, the East-West Divan which brought young Israeli, Arab, and Palestinian musicians together to play together in an orchestra. He and Barenboim appeared in public speaking about musical issues in two separate programs in New York City and that gave birth to a collection of interviews that were published in a book last year based on these discussions and other private meetings entitled Paradoxes and Parallels: Explorations in Music and Society.
This remarkable man, while producing over twenty books and dozens of articles over the years always made time to see and spend time with his friends. He was charming, eloquent, funny, passionate about matters that were important to him, and available to almost all who wanted to see him. During his office hours there would always be a parade of people, both students and non-students, who would stand outside his door waiting to see him. He rarely turned anybody away from his door. Scholars, journalists, and students from all over the world would contact him and he tried his best to accommodate all even when he became ill.
When I last saw Professor Said a few months ago at his home, I had just wanted to spend five minutes with him just to greet him in person. But he insisted that I stay, have a cup of tea, and then wanted to hear about what I was involved with rather than to talk about himself and his work. This is another aspect of him and his dear friends (may God have mercy on them all), Ibrahim Abu-Lughod and Eqbal Ahmad, that perhaps not many people know about: they spent time with younger people wanting to know what they were thinking and why. Always optimistic despite difficult times, Professor Said would always encourage his listeners and readers to never give up but to “move on, and forge ahead.”
God bless you, Professor Said. You have touched the minds, hearts, and souls of many people. You will not be forgotten.
Zaineb Istrabadi, Ph.D.
Associate Director of the Middle Eastern & Islamic Studies Program
September 27, 2003
/ Indiana / USA