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Edward Said 1935-2003

This article is over 20 years, 8 months old
Alex Callinicos in appreciation of a fighter for truth, justice and Palestine
Issue 1871

Those fighting for justice around the world lost one of their most eloquent voices when the Palestinian writer and critic Edward W Said died last week. Said was in many ways an improbable radical. He was born in Jerusalem in 1935. His family were conservative Anglican Arabs who called him after the then Prince of Wales.

In his affecting memoir Out of Place (1999), Said described a privileged if claustrophobic childhood and youth divided between Palestine, Egypt, and Lebanon. His family home in West Jerusalem vanished when the state of Israel was created in 1948, expelling the Palestinians and seizing their land.

Said wrote: ‘It is still hard for me to accept the fact that the very quarters of the city in which I was born, lived and felt at home were taken over by Polish, German, and American immigrants who conquered the city and have made it the unique symbol of their sovereignty, with no place for Palestinian life, which seems to have been confined to the eastern city, which I hardly knew.’ Said was, however, relatively protected from the worst consequences of the Palestinian catastrophe by the wealth of his father, a successful Cairo businessmen.

He received an elite US education at Princeton and Harvard, before taking a job at Columbia University in New York, where he taught for 40 years. Maybe it was living in this great city, where every strand of Jewish opinion is vigorously represented, from ultra-Zionist fascists to secular anti-Zionists, which helped to turn Said from a conventional literary academic into a great anti-imperialist intellectual.

Defending the Palestinian cause against a fiercely pro-Israel political and media establishment must have tested Said’s mettle. From the 1970s onwards he was a leading figure in the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

Initially he was a moderate supporter of Yasser Arafat and an advocate of a two-state solution in which Israel and Palestine would co-exist. It was in his theoretical work that Said’s progressive radicalisation first found expression.

His most famous book, Orientalism (1978), is a learned but fiercely angry demonstration of how modern Western culture and scholarship portrayed the East as a passive, sensual, irrational ‘Other’, there to be dominated and controlled. Orientalism helped to launch the fashion for ‘post-colonial’ studies in the English-speaking academy.

Said included Marx in his critique of ‘Eurocentric’ thinkers, who dismissed the culture and history of the rest of the world. This was undoubtedly a mistake, as critics such as the Indian Marxist Aijaz Ahmad have shown. But Said never fell for the postmodernist denial that we can understand and change the world.

The outlook expressed in later books such as Culture and Imperialism (1993) is best described as radical humanism. He identified with the oppressed and exploited everywhere and championed their struggles for emancipation.

In 1991 Said was diagnosed with the leukaemia-complications from which ultimately killed him. In his last 12 years of life his voice became more angry and passionate. He opposed the Palestinian peace process from the Oslo accords of 1993. He argued that the deal would perpetuate Israeli domination, giving the Palestinians a few heavily policed fragments of land like the old South African bantustans.

I remember him speaking in London two or three years ago-a frail, elegant figure using a gigantic map of Israel/Palestine to expose the fraud of the peace process to a huge, overwhelmingly Arab audience.

Said’s targets multiplied in his later years. He denounced not just the thugs ruling Israel, but Arafat and the venal, cowardly Arab regimes that help maintain Western domination of the Middle East. Of course, he opposed the ‘war on terrorism’ from the start.

For all this he suffered much Zionist vilification and a traitor’s stab in the back from his friend Christopher Hitchens, the left-wing journalist turned Bush toady.

Hitchens had the effrontery to write an obituary published in last Sunday’s Observer a few weeks after attacking the new edition of Orientalism for failing to recognise that Washington is bringing democracy to the Middle East. Said also came to recognise the connections between different struggles.

He linked the Palestinian intifada to the anti-capitalist movement, writing in December 2000 that ‘it is another example of the general discontent with the post Cold War order (economic and political) displayed in the events at Seattle and Prague.’

Remembering Said in the Guardian, his friend the Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif quoted him asking after a recent debate: ‘What is the matter with these people? Why does no one mention truth and justice any more?’ Edward Said never stopped, not just talking about truth and justice, but fighting for them as well.

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