Professor Said maintained his relentless engagement with people, culture, and politics all over the world, even in the last weeks of his decade-long struggle against illness.
Said is known throughout the world as a public intellectual, and there are few fields of intellectual endeavor that have been untouched by his contributions. A prolific and path-breaking scholar whose contributions helped transform both the humanities and the social sciences, Said’s impact and engagement went far beyond the academy. Said was also an activist who worked courageously for justice, and fearlessly spoke truth to power.
When images and narratives of the Palestinian struggle were dominated by misrepresentations, caricatures and hateful stereotypes, Said was for years often the sole and most effective advocate for bringing truth and light to the Palestinian cause in the United States. Despite being the target of relentless and vicious personal attacks, Said never abandoned a vision of peace between Israelis and Palestinians based on deep mutual recognition of the other’s histories and narratives, and a reconciliation leading to complete equality. He taught and inspired a new generation of activists to speak with clarity and always search for truth no matter who it might offend.
Throughout the 1990s, Said’s newspaper columns provided a constant critique of the depradations, falsehoods and failures of the Oslo “peace process” that led only to the further alienation of Palestinians from their land and a betrayal of the vision of reconciliation and justice for which he strived. Said was among the first to understand and articulate how this process, premised on preserving the vast power imbalances and injustices between Israelis and Palestinians, would lead to the present disaster, and he never shirked from criticizing the Palestinian leaders who contributed to this state of affairs.
Said’s journey back to his birthplace in Palestine in the early 1990s, after decades of exile, helped many Palestinians to come to terms with their own experience of exile and dispossession and encouraged many Palestinians to embark on their own journeys home. Said’s books, among them “The Question of Palestine,” “After the Last Sky,” “The Politics of Dispossession,” and the memoir of his youth, “Out of Place,” remain seminal works which both personalize and humanize the Palestinian predicament and place it in political context. In his memoir, he revealed the depth of his courage and honesty by facing himself, his past, and his society with a critical eye.
Despite the worsening situation in Palestine, Said never succumbed to despair. Until the very end of his life, he was actively engaged in the Palestinian National Initiative, a movement to mobilize the energy of the entire population towards a non-violent struggle for peace and liberation.
Yet the greatest significance of Said’s contribution is not only that he was an outstanding advocate for justice and peace in Palestine, but also that he consistently located this cause within a much greater struggle for a truly universal and humanist vision, entailing a firm rejection of ethno-nationalism and religious fanaticism. He taught by eloquent example that being faithful to a cause did not require blind loyalty to leaders or symbols, but rather necessitated self-criticism and debate. This fact meant that his engagement with the Arab world, and his fierce criticism of its status quo, was as important as his work communicating with people in the West.
Edward Said was a fountain of humanity, compassion, intellectual restlessness and creativity. At a time when the crude calculus of raw power and fanaticism threatens to swamp global discourse, his irreplaceable voice never needed to be heard more.
The most fitting tribute to Professor Said’s life and work is to struggle with increased commitment for the vision of justice and humanity that inspired all of his efforts.
Arjan El Fassed
for The Electronic Intifada