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Remembering Edward Said, the author of Orientalism

Edward Said, a Palestinian Christian and an emancipated soul, always found himself out of place between the East and the West. He never buried his Palestinian identity despite being called names

Prem Anand Mishra

Updated: 30 Sep 2019, 3:38 PM in

The Six-Day War in 1967 forever changed the skyline of the Arab world. The predicament and the humiliation at the hands of Israel was also the official entry of American exceptionalism in the region and without fail the cause of the early death of Arab nationalism.

Since then, America’s unconditional support to Israel under the garb of Judeo-Christian heritage of the West is in a constant battle with ‘Islam’ and the ‘Middle East’. For Arabs and particularly for the Palestinians, the defeat of 1967 war deposited a historical amnesia.

Edward Said, an intellectual, a humanist and above all the most soulful voice of the Palestinian cause in the West was also the product of this predicament. Born in Jerusalem, grew up in Victorian reminiscent of Cairo, and found its intellectual realm in the United States at first Princeton and later to Harvard before teaching comparative literature at Columbia university till his last breath.

Edward Said, a Palestinian Christian, an emancipated soul searching for the last sky, always found himself out of place between the East and the West. He never buried his Palestinian identity despite an army of disgruntled hostile academicians and alike conferred him the titles as ‘Professor of Terror’.

The year 1978 changed Edward Said and so did the objectification of the relations between the imagined geographies of Oriental East and the Occidental West. The publication of ‘Orientalism’, a critique of western understanding of the East made him the superstar academician in the exclusive circle in the US.

He was celebrated and equally vilified by progenitors of neo-conservatives and the new world order; Bernard Lewis Fouad Ajami, Samuel Huntington and list of warmongers shaping US foreign policy in the Middle East.

His unpleasant exchange of orientalism with Bernard Lewis (The most influential voice in Washington DC), his rancour of demystifying Huntington’s prophecy of Clash of Civilization as ‘Clash of Ignorance’ and his Sharpe censure of media coverage of the Arabs and people of Middle Eastern origin in Covering Islam made him the meaty adversary of the orthodox pantheon of American foreign policymakers across universities and think-tanks.

If one makes a catalogue of his works spanning since his first book on Conrad to Humanist & Democratic Criticism, Said was a rare intellectual, who delved into a realm of passionately detached scholarship from any biasedness despite being put on trial for maligning the western knowledge.

Said never came out from the shadow of Orientalism and his other major works on literature hardly receive any attention despite they were an important lens to understand his epistemic inquiry on orientalism and beyond. In the last half a century, no other major work has influenced the disciplines across social sciences as Orientalism.

His works opened the gateway of post-colonial studies and profoundly influenced other disciplines from History to Anthropology. His trilogy, ‘Orientalism, Question of Palestine and Covering Islam’ was a critique of western political knowledge. His reference to Palestinians as ‘victims of the victims’ (the reference to holocaust) made him the most powerful voice for the Palestinian cause in the West.

He was a member of the Palestinian National Council and also a co drafter of its Palestinian statehood declaration in 1988 in Algiers along with most renowned poet in the Arab world, Mahmoud Darwish. He later, however, became a critique of Arafat and Palestinian council for their total surrendering to US and Israel on Oslo peace process in 1993 which overwhelmingly favoured Israel.

The Oslo peace process changed his tryst with political activism besides his writings. He found his first love back: Music. Edward Said, a dandy was also a quintessential Piano Player.

He collaborated with a Jewish pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim to whom he credited a lot and later opened a school for Arab and Israeli people to join on music despite carrying his sharp criticism of Israel’s Zionist project and US unconditional support of Israel. With Barenboim, he wrote ‘Parallel and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society’. He borrowed heavily from Foucault but also criticize him in his later work.

His only genuine criticism came from his friends like Sadik Jalal al Azm, Albert Hourani, Maxime Radisson and Indian Marxist scholar Aijaz Ahmad besides other scholarly takes on his work particularly Orientalism.

He was criticized for being pro-Arab and an apologetic for Islam but Said never shied away from in offering his sharp criticism of the Arab despotic rulers, his support to Salman Rushdie and Israel’s right of a separate state under the two-state solution.

In later years, however, he did favour the one-state solution. Said always found himself a prisoner between the English name ‘Edward’ in the name of Prince of Wales and Arabic name Said. Perhaps that was his struggle for life between the east and the west. He was truly a cosmopolitan beyond any binary or categorization.

His influence has remained in the psyche of academia and beyond. Hamid Dabashi, his friend and colleague at Columbia once referred him as a university. Said indeed remained relevance to the present day.

As the persistence of orientalism still present in the western imagination of so-called orient world, his critical humanist inquiry still helps in questioning those productions of political knowledge which he was astutely critical. Noam Chomsky once called him one among the three most important intellectual of the last centuries.

Said was diagnosed with leukemia in his early 50s and since then he never recovered. His only regret was he couldn’t able to speak his mind as he wished. His fondness for music remained his only solace.

At the age of 67, on September 26, 2003, Edward Said Passed away but his legacy still remains as relevant to this day and more so one witnesses the language of violence and persistent binary on the line of the state, society and culture.

His life and works were a living example of a true cosmopolitan to whom the locus of his identity was human without any biasedness or hatred. He will be remembered as the same.

(The author is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for West Asian Studies and did his M.Phil. on ‘Islam in Western Discourses: Perspectives of Edward Said and Bernard Lewis’.)

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