Edward Said: A legacy for today

Tarek Osman
Thursday 1 Oct 2020

Nearly two decades after the death of the late Palestinian-American writer Edward Said, it is more important than ever that we adopt his thinking as a tool to analyse ourselves

Edward Said was the most prominent and eloquent voice speaking about the Arab world outside of it. The word “outside” is key, for he consistently chose to live in the West. New York was home, but Northern California, London and Paris were places he visited often and for extended periods. And when, for a short period, he chose to experience Arabness again and at first hand, he went to Beirut and lived in one of its prestigious neighbourhoods. There, as in different phases of his life, he experienced the Arab world from afar, or in a milieu in which Arabness and the West merged.

This was part of Edward Said’s exile. He was the Palestinian who grew up in Cairo, spent vacations in Mount Lebanon, was educated in an English school, went to university in New England in the US and taught and lived afterwards in New York. He nurtured his evolving self in different locations, building upon the Arabness of his childhood and adolescence new layers of experiencing life, cultures, forms of knowledge and ideas.

“Ideas” were the world of Edward Said. He was the author of “Orientalism”, a seminal book that deconstructed the West’s “colonisation of ideas and of the mind” by showing, with passion and fierceness, how Western prejudice, reductionism, fantasy and condescension had paved the way for its pillaging and occupation of the Arab world and the “Orient” as a whole.

He was also the foremost voice in the world of ideas championing the Palestinian cause. In addition to passion and charisma, he gave that cause the erudition, intellectual sharpness and eloquence of arguably the most talented professor of comparative literature in the second half of the 20th century.

His ideas also went much farther. He was one of the most brilliant interpreters of the East to the West and of the West to the East. And the texts he chose to interpret were the ones that, in his view, shaped the minds and psyches of each. His interpretations drew on politics, anthropology, history and above all, literature and how it connects with the societies from which it had emerged. This is why Said’s interpretations of the East and the West defy categorisation. Academics typically choose to confine them to literary studies. But perhaps where they fit best are in cafes, where late-night discussions amidst smoke and coffee illuminate minds and lift consciousness.

Being an exile made it natural for Said to be an interpreter. There’s an inherent duality in exile, and Said was American as well as Palestinian, Arab as well as Western, a literary critic and a pianist, an activist and a commentator. For many, this could be confusing, but not for Edward Said. His intellectual coherence, even when jumping – often in the same essay – from one role to its opposite, was always intact.

But that duality has a cost: it pushes the feeling of exile to one’s core. One ceases to belong to anything, except to abstractions. Perhaps this is why Said called the autobiography of his childhood and adolescence “Out of Place” and why in it he said that he thought of himself – or rather his self, for the self ought to have its independence, its own space on paper as much as in the mind – as “currents.” He did not elaborate, but I like to think that the currents, which often clashed into each other, came towards the end of his life to settle into a calm sea.

Internal harmony might necessitate ignoring certain questions, looking briefly rather than gazing on certain places. This is what Edward Said did with Arabness. The destroyer of “orientalist” ways of seeing the East did not really, in his published work, look deeply into that East himself.

Perhaps this is why Edward Said is the hero of many politically-engaged young Arabs. But as the young man (or woman) gives way to a middle-aged one, he or she interrogates Edward Said about what lies beneath the defences of the Arab world, and of the Orient, and finds different roads, all of which Said had trekked, but did not complete.

I think it was not Said’s mission to draw a detailed picture of Arabness. After all, he was the exile, the one out of place. His choice was always to interpret, but not to write a decisive text.

Integrity also dictated that he should refrain from drawing that detailed picture. Edward Said’s main attack against “orientalism” rested not only on how ideas had been weaponised to allow colonisation and occupation. It also rested on the fantasy that westerners viewed the East (the Orient) in terms of, for in fantasy there is escapism and deception of the self and the other as well as lies.

Said, a man of real integrity, a man who strove after truth, knew that his land, his places, had changed a lot since the days in which he had known them. Cairo, Mount Lebanon and beyond them the rest of the “Arabness” of the 1950s were no longer the same by the 1980s or 1990s. They had not only lost a lot of their glamour. They had also lost a lot of the values and meanings that underpin Said’s oeuvre. 

Edward Said knew that the second half of the 20th century was a painful time for the Arab world and for Arabness. He saw this from afar, but he did not write about it – could not, for if he had done, his piercing language would have gone, like a bullet, to the heart of modern Arabness. He, the defender, would have been fiercer than all the assailants put together. Not writing meant not lying.

Perhaps language convinced him not to draw that picture of the Arab world. He, a connoisseur of English and French, was the perfect interpreter. But in educating people about the Arab world, must not the language of instruction be Arabic? He, a man who upheld the sanctity of the land, of the places, and crucially of words, certainly sensed that it is Arabic, and only Arabic, that has the right to colour any real picture of modern Arabness.

Maybe time played a role. In the last decade of his life before his death in 2003, this man dying from leukaemia, this man who had negotiated (without success) with his self between two love stories that watered two different sides of his identity (and who ultimately was without both women), this man who knew that his cause (Palestine) was never going to materialise in his lifetime, and this man who behind a façade of charm, elegance and eloquence suffered from deep pains of abandonment – this man, while waiting for death, saw a greater priority in reconciling internal conflicts than in filling voids he had left in earlier writings.

Like the literature he critiqued, Edward Said the thinker remains the provider of a wealth of ideas that are open for revisiting and reinterpreting. What is important is that, almost two decades after his death, we – the Arabs he defended – look at his thinking not as a shield, but as a tool to analyse ourselves and our societies in the seven decades since the end of Western occupation with the sharpness, intellectual integrity, clear language, and fierceness with which Edward Said defended us.

The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).


*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.


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