Remembering Edward Said

David Tresilian , Saturday 21 Aug 2021

A new biography of the late Palestinian-American writer and academic aims to connect the public with the private man

Edward Said
Edward Said

The late Palestinian-American writer and academic Edward Said will be familiar to all readers of the Weekly, not least because of the regular columns he wrote for the paper between 1993 and 2003. These were later collected in books such as Peace and its Discontents, The End of the Peace Process, and From Oslo to Iraq and the Road Map, essay collections on the Arab-Israeli struggle.

However, as many Weekly readers will also know, Said’s journalism was only part of a distinguished career that also took in academic literary and cultural criticism – he was a professor at Columbia University in New York City for some 40 years – works on music, and a life-long involvement in Palestinian affairs that saw him elected to the Palestinian National Council, an independent parliament in exile, in 1977. He became one of the most prominent Palestinian voices internationally and particularly in the United States.

In the last decade of his life before his early death in 2003, Said turned to memoir writing, perhaps using the commission he received to deliver the BBC’s Reith Lectures in 1993 to reflect on his career as an intellectual much involved in public affairs (published as Representations of the Intellectual in 1994) and then writing a memoir of particularly his early years, Out of Place published in 1999, that had much to say about his childhood in Cairo.

A last, unfinished book on “late style” published posthumously in 2006 saw him in similarly reflective mood in his meditations on the works of writers and others no longer anything like in the first flush of youth. The “late style” of Beethoven, Said suggested, craggy, difficult, apparently even incompetent, could suggest a way of avoiding any temptation towards reconciliation with age and death.

Anyone setting out to write a biography of Edward Said will need to enter into dialogue with Said’s own autobiographical writing, arguably including much of his literary criticism along with the works mentioned above, as well as with the large amount of academic and public discussion that his work attracted throughout his lifetime, perhaps particularly his 1978 book Orientalism that criticised western views of the Middle East.

Different writers have produced criticisms and appreciations of different parts of Said’s career, but perhaps no one had attempted to see it whole until the publication of US academic Timothy Brennan’s full-length biography, Places of Mind, earlier this year. Brennan is a former student of Said’s, and he is well-placed to decode the ins-and-outs particularly of Said’s academic career by explaining what was at stake in debates on US university campuses from the 1970s to 1990s.

He is probably less effective in explaining Said’s interventions in Palestinian affairs and in the Arab world, and some might feel that Brennan skips over Said’s writings on Palestine, which filled more and more of his time in later years. But the book is undoubtedly valuable for the light it sheds on all aspects of Said’s career and for its attempts to connect the public figure who became familiar to so many to the private man who probably was only really familiar to a few.

Particularly in the wake of the publication of Orientalism, it became “easy to turn Said into a series of placards without depth or nuance,” Brennan writes, explaining that part of his aim in writing the biography was to restore such shading. While dozens of books have now been written about Said, he says, “none of them paints a full picture of his Arab and American selves as they come together or accounts for the ways that Said’s writings on Palestine, music, public intellectuals, literature, and the media intertwine.”

He begins by reconstructing Said’s early life in Cairo, a subject Said himself wrote extensively about, notably in Out of Place. Born in Jerusalem in 1935, the family moved to Cairo in 1947 shortly before the declaration of the state of Israel, driven into exile like so many other Palestinians at the time.

His father was a prosperous businessman and a US citizen by virtue of his having joined the US military during the First World War. Said attended the prestigious Victoria College, Cairo branch, a British colonial foundation where the language was English, but the student body could include Palestinians, Egyptians, Armenians, Greeks, and others, reflecting the cosmopolitan character of upper middle-class society in Egypt.

Writing about this period in Said’s life, Brennan captures something of the leisured, but precarious, world of the family in Cairo, swept away in the years following the 1952 Revolution. Said himself left Egypt for the United States when still a schoolboy in 1951, eventually going on to undergraduate education at Princeton University followed by a PhD at Harvard completed in 1963.

The overall impression of these years is one of gilded youth, frequent travel in Europe and well-connected friends. There was a string of academic prizes and awards, culminating in a first appointment at Columbia in the year he submitted his dissertation, an institution that he never left. If there were strains or tensions between Said’s “Arab and American selves,” it was difficult to detect them behind his faultless CV.

Even so, he was drawn to individuals struggling with “two natures,” such as the Anglo-Polish novelist Joseph Conrad, the subject of Said’s PhD dissertation, a man “good at hiding himself” and an exile writing in a language and living in a country not his own. He also showed an early interest in the new ways of thinking being pioneered in Europe in the 1960s, introducing them into his reading as a way of making up for the intellectual thinness of the United States.

Brennan may be right in saying that Said “kept his Palestinian identity to himself” during these years, but there were clearly subterranean pressures on him, perhaps at this stage manifested most clearly in his reading. This would probably have indicated, as Said later put it, an individual struggling with the idea of being “out of place”.  


WRITING IN THE WEEKLY: In his book The Politics of Dispossession, a collection of writing on the struggle for Palestinian self-determination between 1969 and 1994, Said says that until the 1967 War he had not felt the need directly to intervene in Palestinian affairs or the ways in which these were represented in the United States.

“Until the June 1967 War, I was completely caught up in the life of a young professor… All that changed forever in mid-1967. For the first time since I had left [the Middle East] to come to the United States, I was emotionally reclaimed by the Arab world generally and by Palestine in particular,” he writes.

His family had left Egypt for Lebanon in 1963, and he had grown accustomed as the years wore on to spending the academic year in New York and the summer holidays in Lebanon. He did not return to Egypt until the mid-1970s, discovering a country almost changed out of all recognition from the last time he had seen it as a schoolboy, or to Palestine until the early 1990s.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian cause had also changed following the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula in the 1967 War. “The appearance of an organised Palestinian movement of resistance against the Israeli occupation began as a critique of traditional Arab nationalism whose ruins were strewn about the battlefields of 1967,” Said writes.

There was a “new openness, honesty, and realism… After 1967, it became possible not only to become Palestinian again, but also to choose Fatah, or the Popular Front, or the Democratic Front, as one’s movement of choice,” he adds, referring to the emergence of different Palestinian factions and resistance groups.

This new spirit also affected Palestinian activism in the United States, with Said putting himself at the forefront of efforts to make the Palestinian cause more widely known. “The 1967 War and the emergence of the Palestinian Resistance Movement eclipsed the traditional role for Arabs in America,” Said wrote in 1981, previously “always politically conservative, interested in seeing themselves in a sort of harmless, folkloric light.”

“Within a year after the June War, the first Middle East teach-in took place on American university campuses, and for the first time Palestinian rights and activists played a leading role.” Said was determined, as he put it in an article in the London Review of Books in February 1984, to claim “permission to narrate” and to combat what he called “a seemingly absolute refusal on the part of policy-makers, the media, the liberal intelligentsia [in the United States] to make connections, draw conclusions, state the simple facts” on the struggle for Palestinian self-determination and the situation in the Middle East.

Said started writing his regular column in the Weekly in summer 1993, and it appeared on a twice monthly basis over the next ten years until his death in September 2003. Sometimes the columns were also syndicated in other publications, with translated versions appearing in the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, or, in a different form, in the London Review of Books.

Taken together, the columns form a record of Said’s thinking on Palestinian and Arab affairs in the crucial decade bookended by the Oslo Accords in 1993 and the US-led invasion of Iraq ten years later.

As the late Anglo-American historian Tony Judt writes in his introduction to the last of the collections in book form, From Oslo to Iraq and the Road Map, covering Said’s writing in the Weekly from December 2000 to July 2003, the columns provide a kind of running commentary on “the end of the Oslo decade, the onset of the second intifada and the final breakdown of the ‘peace process,’ through the Israeli re-occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the massacres of September 11, 2001, the American retaliation in Afghanistan and the long run-up to the US attack on Iraq – a distinctly turbulent and murderous 32 months.”

Anyone wanting to understand the development of Said’s thinking over the decade from 1993 to 2003, crammed into chapter 11 of Brennan’s book, would do well to look up the three volumes of Weekly articles referred to above.

Attending Said’s classes at Columbia in the 1990s, one remembers him cutting a somewhat remote and glamorous figure. Major manifesto pieces on the future of university literary studies had appeared some ten years earlier in the essay collection The World, the Text, and the Critic, new polemics were starting around his latest critical book Culture and Imperialism, and his thinking was running in new directions, as signaled in Representations of the Intellectual and published after his death in Humanism and Democratic Criticism.

There were also the writings on music, stimulated by a friendship with conductor Daniel Barenboim that led both to Parallels and Paradoxes, a joint book on music, and to the foundation of the East-West Divan Orchestra, a classical ensemble bringing together young Palestinian and Israeli musicians. While Said could stick rigorously to academic protocols in his classes, one remembers him as being more approachable in other settings, and it was perhaps there that the full range of his interests was most evident.

The present writer has memories of stimulating gatherings around some of the outside speakers Said brought to Columbia at this time, among them the late Al-Ahram commentator Mohamed Sid Ahmed, also a columnist in the Weekly, the Israeli rights activist Israel Shahak, and Ranajit Guha of the Indian Subaltern Studies collective dedicated to writing Indian colonial history from below.

As Brennan deftly puts it in his well-written and useful biography, throughout his extraordinary life “Said kept the critical spirit alive against difficult odds and gave it its warmest, kindest, angriest, and most honest shape.”

Timothy Brennan, Places of Mind. A Life of Edward Said. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2021, pp437.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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