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#31 [Permalink] Posted on 6th May 2020 09:16
The Worldly Exile

Edward Said’s life and afterlives.
By Rashid Khalidi
Yesterday 5:59 am


Seventeen years after his death, Edward Said remains a powerful intellectual presence in academic and public discourse, a fact attested to by the appearance of two important new books. After Said, edited by Bashir Abu-Manneh, offers assessments of Said’s vast body of scholarship by a dozen noted writers and academics. The Selected Works of Edward Said, 1966–2006, edited by Moustafa Bayoumi and Andrew Rubin, two former students, is an expanded version of The Edward Said Reader, which was published a few years before his death in 2003. The Reader offered us a full picture of Said’s breadth and influence as a public intellectual; the new collection is more than 150 pages longer and includes eight essays that didn’t appear in the earlier volume, plus a new preface and an expanded introduction. The newly included essays range from overtly political sallies to reflective meditations on the “late style” in music and literature that were published posthumously. Some of them, like “Freud and the Non-European,” reflect concerns that preoccupied him toward the end of his life and are among the most complex and subtle of his writings. Others remind us how widely read he was, how broad his interests were, and how penetrating his insights could be. Coupled with the reflections on his major works in After Said, they also give the reader a sense of the consistency of his politics, imbued with a universalist and cosmopolitan humanism that sat at the center of his literary and political writings.

It is not surprising that so many people are still reading and grappling with Said’s ideas. His extensive oeuvre includes 25 books, many of them monuments in their field, such as Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism. He was the founding father of an entire academic domain—postcolonial studies—that has thrived despite a certain critical distance toward it on the part of its putative parent. In his 40 years at Columbia University, Said mentored numerous scholars, many of whom hold prominent positions today in literature and other departments throughout the Anglo-American academy, and the influence of his scholarship also extends far, leaving its mark on the study of the Middle East, anthropology, and art history. Forty-two years after its publication, his most influential work, Orientalism, is still widely taught to undergraduate and graduate students around the world.

Over those four decades, Said became probably the most eminent public intellectual of his generation, producing a wealth of essays, articles, and long interviews (on everything from Middle Eastern politics to classical music and psychoanalysis) and writing for a broad general readership as well as his academic peers. His public involvement ranged from contemporary affairs to debates about the history of empire, but it was most pronounced where Palestine was concerned. Through his writings, his media appearances, and his activism, Said did more than anyone else to make the question of Palestine better understood in North America. Although this advocacy earned him many admirers in the United States and the rest of the world, including among Palestinians, it also earned him powerful enemies in the academy, the media, and elsewhere. Nonetheless, at a distance of nearly two decades since his death, it is clear that their enmity has done little to diminish his legacy or the immediacy and relevance of his ideas.


Edward Said was born in British-ruled Palestine and grew up in Cairo at a time when Egypt was nominally independent. He was initially schooled in an educational system deeply marked by British colonial influence. The name of an elite institution he was expelled from, Victoria College, tells it all, and struggling to fit in, he also spent parts of his youth in Lebanon and Palestine. His well-to-do family lost homes, businesses, and property in Jerusalem as a result of the Nakba in 1948, and although the young Said was somewhat cushioned from the material consequences, these events had a considerable impact on him—as did the neocolonial political, social, and cultural environments in which he grew up.

Said was sent to the United States to complete his high school education at a New England prep school, which he graduated from in 1953. Then he enrolled at Princeton, where he studied under the critic and poet R.P. Blackmur, and completed a PhD at Harvard, writing on his fellow exile Joseph Conrad. Said was, for all intents and purposes, a fairly conventional scholar at that point, winning a coveted appointment in the English and comparative literature department at Columbia in 1963 and publishing a book on Conrad and the autobiographical element in his novels. But world events—in particular the Israeli-Arab War in 1967—marked a transformative moment for him. Witnessing these developments both from afar in New York and in Lebanon during summers with his family, he came to realize the disjuncture between what was happening in the Middle East and how it was depicted in the West. This realization informed nearly all of the work that followed: first with Orientalism, published in 1978, and then with The Question of Palestine the next year.

What made Said’s writing so revelatory for nonspecialists was how his arguments broadened our horizons and constantly challenged our assumptions. He did this in person as well—in conversations with friends, in lectures, and in seminars filled with attentive students. My brother, who was a Columbia student, introduced me to Said in the years after 1967 as we all absorbed the shock and the consequences of that year’s war. Soon I discovered that as much of a pleasure as it was to read Said, it was an even greater pleasure to listen to him. One was drawn into a wide-ranging conversation about literature, music, philosophy, philology, and politics, all illuminated by the extraordinary sense of urgency that seemed to drive him from very early on. His capacious range and his application of that knowledge to history and politics was inflected by his strong personal commitments, which made his work far richer and more interesting than that of any other theorist or literary scholar then writing in the Anglo-American academy. Part of its lasting appeal, in fact, is that it continues to speak to us in much the same fashion: blending a broad, interdisciplinary humanistic knowledge with attention to pressing global concerns.

Said’s 1997 essay “On Lost Causes” in the Selected Works offers a wonderful example of this. It progresses from an extended meditation on four late novels by Miguel de Cervantes, Jonathan Swift, Gustave Flaubert, and Thomas Hardy to a coruscating critique of the Oslo Accords as a defeat for the Palestinians, one that led many to believe that Palestine was a lost cause. The essay is suffused with a sense of melancholy: The reader knows that in writing about these authors’ novels, Said was likely penning an essay that would count among his own final works. Refracting his disappointment with the outcome of the Palestinian liberation struggle in the late ’90s through the grim pessimism of Cervantes, Swift, Flaubert, and Hardy, Said provided a much more illuminating assessment of the post-Oslo landscape than any ordinary political essay could have—and he did so while shining a light on the four novels as well. Very few literary critics and professors of literature wrote like this then, and even fewer do so today.

The best articles in the excellent After Said exhibit the same combination of literary fluency and political acuity. Bashir Abu-Manneh’s introduction astutely stresses the centrality of politics to Said’s criticism and to his entire career—a judgment that is fully borne out by a careful reading of the eight new essays in the Selected Works. Abu-Manneh helps us better understand Said’s political evolution, noting the impact on him and an entire Arab generation of the 1967 war and how it spurred his turn to overtly political writing on Palestine and the Middle East. Abu-Manneh adds that this impact “marked everything Said did afterward,” leading him to become “his generation’s most influential cultural critic of empire” and “a defender of the colonized and oppressed,” all based on “his firm anti-imperial principles.”

This post-1967 awakening constituted a remarkable shift for a conventionally trained literary critic whose first two books, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography and Beginnings: Invention and Method, gave little indication of what was to come. Said’s new political orientation infuriated many of his contemporaries, in particular those offended by his advocacy for the Palestinian cause and his critique of American imperialism, as well as those who disliked his insistence that if literary criticism and, indeed, humanism were to have value, they would have to be infused with an appreciation of context, worldliness, and the political stakes of all cultural expressions. By demanding that Palestinians be allowed “permission to narrate” their own history, in the words of another of his famous essays, Said challenged a hegemonic narrative fashioned over many decades that replaced Palestine with Israel and entirely ignored or systematically denigrated the Palestinian people. In so doing, Said reopened the question of Palestine, which opponents of Palestinian rights had hoped was permanently closed. They could never forgive him for this, and their hostility pursued him for the rest of his life—and continues to do so beyond the grave.

Although the turning point in Said’s thinking was spurred by the 1967 war, it first became visible in a spate of publications in the late ’70s and early ’80s with the appearance of Orientalism, The Question of Palestine, and Covering Islam. In Said’s earlier works, one can discern some of the features that made his later writings so powerful. His early sympathy for and identification with Conrad, for example, was at least partly a recognition by one multilingual exile writing in a language that was not his mother tongue of the similarities in the trajectory of another such exile. Like Conrad, Said sensed himself to be in some way out of place, which was not coincidentally the title of his 1999 memoir. Also like Conrad, Said was intimately aware of the world outside his immediate one. This sense of alienation and worldliness proved to be a powerful combination and allowed him to inhabit a far wider and more diverse set of perspectives than his peers. He could see what others rooted in “the West” often could not—especially about Western culture.

Said’s alienation and worldliness were at the heart of the complexity and richness of his work; they lent him a sharper awareness of and sympathy for other cultures and stirred inside him a pointed disdain for the placid provincialism and monoglot lack of reflection among many leading figures in the American academy. Although he shared the class and educational background of many of his peers, he insisted that we see beyond the parochial bounds of the ivory tower and the self-referential culture of the West. While this critical attitude was expressed most saliently in Orientalism, it characterized much of Said’s mature work, both critical and political. In one of his last offerings, “The Return to Philology” (on what he called this “most unmodern” branch of learning), his erudite analysis is informed by a sense of the larger stakes of the specific political moment: the war in Iraq and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s casual dismissal in 1996 of the thousands of Iraqi deaths in that decade as a result of US-mandated sanctions.


Said deftly interlaced philosophy and literature with political critique. Although his political writings could be blunt, even scalding, he most often wielded a sharp scalpel in his criticism and did so with elegance and élan. The best of the essays in After Said do likewise, often using literary analysis to make subtle political points. At the same time, they avoid the hagiography that is unfortunately prevalent in many of the works on Said. Both Abu-Manneh’s introduction and Robert Spencer’s “Political Economy and the Iraq War” question the lack of an underpinning in political economy in Said’s writing on imperialism in general and on recent US policy in the Middle East in particular, although they do so while underscoring the lasting value of his interventions.

Similarly, Vivek Chibber’s “The Dual Legacy of Orientalism” offers one of the most acute and fair-minded expositions of the flaws in what he nevertheless recognizes as a “great book.” Although he notes the distance between Said’s “profound commitment to humanism, universal rights, secularism, and liberalism” and the disavowal or at least skepticism of postcolonial theory toward these values, Chibber writes that Orientalism “prefigured, and hence encouraged, some of the central dogmas of postcolonial studies.” While Said’s analysis brought a sophisticated critique of imperialism to the mainstream, Chibber observes, it fed an approach that undermined that very critique by excising its economic dimensions—a point that serves as one of the key subtexts in this collection. Although Said is one of this era’s fiercest critics of imperialism, missing from his analysis is a grounding in political economy, a failing that robbed his critique of some of its potential force and gave license to his postcolonial followers to move away from Marxism.

Equally penetrating is the analysis by Seamus Deane in his essay on Culture and Imperialism. Sympathetic to Said’s commitment to Palestine, to his harsh reading of the depredations of imperialism, and to his opposition to the US war in Iraq, Deane nevertheless traces some of the shortcomings in his ambiguous attitude to anti-colonial violence. Contrasting Said’s views with those of Fanon, Deane points to “a willed mystification about the question of violence” throughout Said’s writings.

Attempting to understand why he was so uncomfortable writing in more direct terms on the vexed question of anti-colonial violence, Deane notes that Said was likely “severely compromised” by living in a country where a virulent bias against Muslims, Arabs, and especially Palestinians had led (and continues to lead) many to invariably code their acts of violence as “terrorism.”

Deane is equally thoughtful in analyzing Said’s intervention in the so-called culture wars toward the end of Culture and Imperialism, arguing that by focusing on such a trivial matter, he marred the conclusion of his groundbreaking book. Ultimately, Deane observes wryly, Said’s effort to “woo the American academy by means of culture” into opposing imperialism was as fruitless as “cajoling a cat into altruism.”

If many of the essays in After Said involve a sympathetic but often critical engagement with his work, there are several that also extend the power of his insights and political vision. In “Said and the ‘Worlding’ of Nineteenth-Century Fiction,” Lauren Goodlad points out that, as even friendly critics have conceded, Culture and Imperialism often disconnects questions of empire from those relating to the globalization of capital, but she then makes a compelling case that the book still performed a major service by helping to “deprovincialize” European literature and culture. Whatever flaws exist in Said’s nonmaterialist understanding of empire—his assertion, for example, that imperialism is driven by an “almost metaphysical obligation to rule”—he still shined a powerful spotlight on a subject that had been absent from most previous studies of European novels. By doing so, he not only challenged a smug Eurocentrism that endures in the academy to this day but also redirected his readers’ attention toward a politics that can help us move past it. As Jeanne Morefield notes in her contribution to the collection, Said sought to foster “a humanism capable of escaping Eurocentrism’s yawning maw,” a liberalism that could confront its tendency to sanction “destruction and death for distant civilians under the banner of a benign imperialism.”

Like Goodlad and Morefield, Joe Cleary makes a persuasive case for what some of Said’s critics miss, with his essay “Said, Postcolonial Studies, and World Literature.” He, too, disparages a significant portion of postcolonial theorizing, siding with Said’s argument that many of its practitioners have proved “far more invested in insider disputes about the minutiae of favored modes of theory than in the worldly socio-intellectual concerns that had provoked the theories in the first place.” While Said’s peers settled “into a phase of institutional consolidation…with a fairly predictable canon of modern Anglophone writers,” Cleary writes, Said, even in the last stages of his illness, “continued to produce searing essays that testified to his undiminished abilities as a politically committed thinker.”

As After Said and the Selected Works reveal, Said was not only politically committed; he never really stopped arguing. His vision remained, to the end, both worldly and alienated. He insisted that we see past our own national or parochial cultures in order to better understand them. He called on us to expand the narrowness of our moral and political imaginations and to see the world in its entirety as our common home. As an exile as comfortable in New York as in Beirut, Cairo, Paris, or London, he infused his literary style with a cosmopolitan ease and his often urgent politics with a cosmopolitan humanism—a humanism that remains a potent antidote to the cloistered and often nationalist chauvinism that seems to be ascendant even in an age of global crises.

Said’s internationalism and cosmopolitan humanism are perhaps his most important legacies. Human life and its challenges—whether they be pandemics, climate change, perpetual war, or neoliberal policies that impoverish the many to enrich the few—force us past the confines of national or cultural boundaries. One can only imagine how Said would have responded to the malign forces that have sabotaged the effective handling of these ongoing crises. As Saree Makdisi proposes in “Orientalism Today,” “the most appropriate thing” in the face of such folly “would be to read Edward Said all over again, as though for the very first time.”

The Selected Works and the essays in After Said remind us that it is not enough to produce good ideas and generate critical perspectives today; we must expand the very horizon of our thinking both geographically and morally. Ideas and culture must be fought for not only in the cloistered precincts of academia but also out in the world, in the public arena. That was what Said, while always the consummate academic, did for his entire career, and it remains a vivid example for others—scholars, writers, students, activists, and ordinary citizens. Said wrote about the experience of rereading Freud’s essays:

That we, different readers from different periods of history, with different cultural backgrounds, should continue to do this…strikes me as nothing less than a vindication of his work’s power to instigate new thought, as well as to illuminate situations that he himself might never have dreamed of.

Much the same can be said of Said. As a literary critic, a teacher, and a political activist, he addressed the world with a passion and commitment that speak to us today.

Rashid Khalidi’s most recent book is The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine. He is the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University.

Source : The Nation
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#32 [Permalink] Posted on 6th May 2020 09:59
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... how broad his interests were, and how penetrating his insights could be.


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Forty-two years after its publication, his most influential work, Orientalism, is still widely taught to undergraduate and graduate students around the world.

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Although Said is one of this era’s fiercest critics of imperialism, missing from his analysis is a grounding in political economy, a failing that robbed his critique of some of its potential force and gave license to his postcolonial followers to move away from Marxism.

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As Saree Makdisi proposes in “Orientalism Today,” “the most appropriate thing” in the face of such folly “would be to read Edward Said all over again, as though for the very first time.”
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#33 [Permalink] Posted on 12th June 2021 07:06
A Review of Biography of Edward Said : Place of Mind : A Life of Edward Said


Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said
Timothy Brennan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35 (cloth)

On February 2, 1977, Palestinian poet Rashid Hussein died in his New York apartment. Hussein had been born forty-one years earlier in Musmus, a town not far from Nazareth. Politics for Hussein, Edward Said remembered, “lost its impersonality and its cruel demagogic spirit.” Hussein, Said wrote of his dear friend, “simply asked that you remember the search for real answers, and never give it up, never be seduced by mere arrangements.” Sharply critical of his own society and its rulers—he had a map of the Middle East on his wall with “thought forbidden here” scrawled across it in Arabic—Hussein was also a partisan of the Third World. “I am from Asia,” he pronounced in an early poem, “The land of fire / Forging furnace of freedom-fighters.”

Said’s influence was profound, but he was not alone. Any intellectual history must account for the multitude of emigres, exiles, and migrants from Africa and Asia who carried the pillars of anti-colonialism across the world.

Another of Hussein’s friends, Pakistani political scientist Eqbal Ahmad, wrote that he lived in “New York City as though it were a Palestinian town.” Born in 1936, Hussein was nearly the same age as Said. Had the dislocations of his life not burdened his soul so heavily—he died alone in his apartment, a lit cigarette setting fire to the mattress as he slept—Hussein may very well have lived alongside Said in Manhattan for a few decades more.

Though born in different milieux, Hussein and Said were drawn into close contact by the exigencies of the anti-colonial struggle in Palestine. Hussein, who was a Muslim from a peasant family, did not attend college, but he was an adept translator of Hebrew and a deeply perceptive writer. A Palestinian citizen of Israel, like better-known poets Mahmoud Darwish and Samih Al-Qasim, Hussein first encountered his other Arab counterparts in Europe, as historian Maha Nassar has vividly documented in Brothers Apart: Palestinian Citizens of Israel and the Arab World (2017). Hussein arrived in New York in 1966. He worked as a writer there, unhappily, before setting out in 1972 to find work among other Palestinians in the Arab world. First in Beirut, then Cairo, and finally Damascus. But political circumstances would send him back to New York, were at the time of his death he was a spokesperson for the Palestine Liberation Organization at the United Nations.

Said, meanwhile, an Arab Protestant, came from an urban, bourgeois family and was deeply embedded in the scholastic institutions of the Anglophone world. He arrived in New York as an assistant professor of English at Columbia, having spent a decade studying in the United States, first at a Massachusetts boarding school, then at Princeton, and finally at Harvard, where he received his PhD for a dissertation on the life and work of Joseph Conrad.

There is no doubt that Said’s influence and impact were profound, but he was not alone. Any intellectual history of the twentieth century’s second half must account for the multitude of emigres, exiles, and migrants from Africa and Asia who carried the pillars of anti-colonialism across the world. Said’s life intersected closely with many friends and comrades, fellow travelers in the Palestinian cause and the promise of Third World liberation.

Indeed, it was precisely Said’s participation in a global political movement—his regular, public refusal to abide by the dictates of the United States’ imperial way of life—that drew the ire of so many during his lifetime. Before their recent reinvention, liberal journals such as the New Republic and Dissent regularly found column inches to attack Said’s thought and personage. But the bromides of Irving Howe and Leon Wesieltier were never a match to Said, who embodied Frantz Fanon’s “final prayer” in Black Skins, White Masks (1952): “O my body, make of me always a man who questions!”

And yet, many reviewers of Timothy Brennan’s new biography of Said, Places of Mind, have taken the opportunity to domesticate the late Palestinian writer. Said is characterized as a representative of precisely those New York intellectuals who regularly derided him. In the London Review of Books, Adam Shatz goes to great lengths to argue that Said doesn’t “resemble Gramsci or Fanon so much as Susan Sontag.” The same Sontag who rebuffed Said’s (and many others) urgent appeals not to accept Israel’s Jerusalem Prize in 2001. Rather than an honest reckoning with how Said’s commitment to the Palestinian cause and conscious affiliations with anti-imperialism world-wide distinguished him from such thoroughly American figures, reviews have exhibited a resilient orientalism. Shatz, long familiar with Said’s vision and politics as one of his editors at the Nation, nevertheless lazily falls back on such tropes when he describes Said as someone who donned “Burberry suits, not keffiyehs.” In the New Statesman, Thomas Meaney breathlessly ends his review by mentioning that “along with his well-stocked shelves and formidable collection of classical music records, the Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities kept a map with the current positions of the Israeli Defense Forces.” It was precisely these kinds of efforts to juxtapose culture or refinement from the symbols and practices of political action that Said perennially opposed. To account for Said’s life, one must acknowledge his involvement in a community of intellectuals, activists, and indeed martyrs, who found their commitment to Palestine and their commitment to ideas not only unironic, but essential.

Throughout Places of Mind, Brennan is at his best when he deals directly with the themes, arguments, and circumstances of Said’s substantial oeuvre. He is sensitive to how political judgments long shaped Said’s work even before Palestine and the Third World became the causes for which he devoted most of his voice. In that way Brennan’s book is a rich intellectual history, summarizing the content of Said’s major works, tracing the conditions of their creation, and mapping their influence. In detailing how specific conversations and locations stimulated his writing, and discussing the nature of Said’s unpublished poetry, fiction, and essays, Brennan breathes new life in a crowded field of Said studies.

Many reviewers have taken the opportunity to domesticate Said, characterizing him as a representative of precisely those New York intellectuals who regularly derided him.

Said’s 1975 book, Beginnings: Intention and Method, was widely feted in literary critical circles. Careful in its reading of high modernist literature and elucidation of Vico and Foucault, one of Said’s early students described it as “a kind of teacher’s book.” Brennan writes that “even those who had never taken a class with him could witness in its pages his style of navigating the unscripted exchanges of the seminar room.” Said’s 1983 collection of essays, The World, the Text, and the Critic, which Brennan draws particular attention to, “was a teacher’s book in just this sense, but more sober and a good deal angrier.” In its essays, especially its central three on contemporary practices of literary and cultural criticism, Said mounts a lucid critique of the kinds of literary theory, like that of Jacques Derrida and J. Hillis Miller, which had overtaken humanities departments by the 1980s. For Said, embroiled as he was in the culture of the university and the struggle for Palestinian freedom, it was clear that “left” theory was “very far from playing a genuinely political role.” “A visitor from another world,” Said wrote, “would surely be perplexed were he to overhear a so-called old critic calling the new critics dangerous. What, this visitor would ask, are they dangers to? The State? The mind? Authority?”

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How does a Palestinian end up in New York teaching literature in the first place? The nakba—inaugurated in 1948 by the establishment of the State of Israel—continues to scatter Palestinians. But inhabitants of the Eastern Mediterranean had been regularly migrating to the Americas since the nineteenth century, when capital’s forced entry into the Ottoman Empire precipitated a series of profound social and political transformations in the Middle East.

The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were host to a period of intense intellectual ferment, often referred to as the nahda, or Arab renaissance. Characterized by the explosion of the periodical press, the rapid translation and interpretation of European texts, and the emergence of new genres of writing, new modes of political assembly, and new visions of social order, the nahda bequeathed today’s Arab world with its primary institutional and intellectual foundations. Those Arabs who migrated remained indelibly linked to the nahdawi efforts of their compatriots in the Levant, publishing their own Arabic journals, like New York’s al-Funun (The Arts), host to writers such as Khalil Gibran and Amin al-Rihani.

During World War I, some of the migrants heading toward the United States were doing so to dodge the Ottoman draft. Among them was Edward’s father, Wadie, who would end up in the U.S. Army, fighting the Germans in France. His wartime service earned him and his family U.S. citizenship and inculcated Wadie with a profound Americophilia. “On the Fourth of July,” Wadie’s daughter Jean Said Makdisi recounted in her 1990 memoir Beirut Fragments: A War Memoir, “we went to the picnics at the American Embassy, where we ate hot dogs and Crackerjacks and watched the square dancing.”

Born in Jerusalem in 1935, Edward Said grew up between British Egypt and British Palestine. Brennan, drawing on Said’s private papers and more than a hundred interviews with his friends and family, paints a detailed picture of the rich literary and musical life Said encountered as a young man in Cairo, a world Said describes in his 1999 memoir Out of Place. Had he been born a generation earlier, Said may very well have been an important member of the nahda’s last generation, caught up in the furies of empire and the modernity of Arabic. He would have been at home, among the intellectuals who frequented the bar at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Those Arabs—like Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, George Antonius, Albert Hourani, Musa Al-Alami, and Walid Khalidi (who narrated their milieu)—spent their evenings reading T. S. Eliot by candlelight and their working hours writing histories or novels or eloquent, if terribly ill-fated, appeals to London, Paris, and Washington for the right to self-determination. “Baudelaire said, the heart has one vintage only,” Hourani wrote in 1957. “If so, mine will be marked forever by what happened in Palestine.” After 1948, however, Hourani would resign himself from the political activity of his youth, becoming the doyen of Middle Eastern history in the Anglophone world from his position at St. Antony’s College, Oxford.

Said argued that Orientalism was an armature of empires’ political and economic conquests.

Others, like Albert’s brother Cecil Hourani, would continue to actively develop the political and academic institutions of the Arab world’s new nation-states. Brennan details Said’s engagement with some of these younger representatives of the nahda, especially those associated with the American University of Beirut (AUB), which was founded by American missionaries in 1866 as the Syrian Protestant College and is a key site in the annals of Arab thought. Among them was Charles Malik, an early intellectual influence who happened to be the husband of Said’s mother’s cousin. A philosopher by training, he studied with Martin Heidegger at Frieberg and finished his PhD at Harvard in 1937. But he was also an important Lebanese diplomat. Erudite and accomplished, Brennan recounts how Malik’s presence was extremely important to the young and ambitious Said. But Malik’s transformation into a belligerent cold warrior, chauvinist in his Christianity and rabid in his anti-communism, led Said to disavow his early mentor. Said would write that Malik was “the great negative intellectual lesson of my life.”

Also at the American University of Beirut was Syrian-born and Princeton-trained historian Constantine Zurayk. Best known for his 1948 book Ma’na al-Nakba (The Meaning of Catastrophe), which sought to account for the loss of Palestine with regard to its Arab past and future, Zurayk was also a key advocate for the development of modern methods of teaching and research in his administrative roles at AUB, as historian Hana Sleiman has recently documented. Zurayk was a close family friend of Said’s wife, Mariam. In his regular visits to Beirut after their marriage, and especially during the 1972–73 academic year which he spent there, Said regularly consulted with Zurayk. Brennan argues that Zurayk became Said’s “chief influence” at this time.

But soon Said was drawn to a new generation of Arab intellectuals who largely disavowed the reformist politics and patrician style of Zurayk and his ilk. These Arab writers—in Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s taxonomy, “the rebels, the committed, and the others”—were by no means monolithic in their attitudes and politics. In journals such as Al-Adab, Al-Tariq, Shi’r, Hiwar, and Mawaqif, Arab intellectuals revolted against the scripts of liberal political action that had been nourished by the nahda and against the formal conventions of Arabic literature, especially in poetry. Said would begin reading and corresponding with many of these thinkers, including the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and Syrian philosopher Sadiq Al-Azm.

It was in the 1970s, in midst of his deepening involvement with the political and literary revolutions of the Arab world, that Said’s intellectual and political energies were poured into the critique of imperial knowledge, culminating with the 1978 publication of Orientalism, his best known work. In that book, essentially a work of intellectual history, Said described and critiqued what he referred to as “the system of ideological fictions” that had until that point been uncontroversially known as Orientalism. Drawing on the field’s major scholarly and literary works produced from the late eighteenth century to the late twentieth in imperial France, Britain, and the United States, Said argued that Orientalism became an armature of those empires’ political and economic conquests.

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Orientalism’s publication generated furious debate. Among its harshest critics was Al-Azm, with whom Said engaged in an acrimonious exchange. To Arab Studies Quarterly, a journal Said coedited, Al-Azm submitted a sharply critical—and rather lengthy—review of Orientalism. In response, Said wrote to its author, “I am a skeptic and in many ways an anarchist who doesn’t believe as you do, in laws, or systems, or any of the other claptrap that inhibits your thought and constricts your writing.” “For you Marx is what Khomeini is to his followers,” he continued, “you are in fact a Khomeini of the Left which is one thing my heroes, Gramsci and Lukacs, could never have been.” Al-Azm responded in kind, requesting that his review be published as is or not at all. Perturbed, Said nevertheless agreed to publish the forty-page review on the condition that his response be printed as well.

In the end, Al-Azm published his review in the 1981 issue of Khamsin, the London journal of a collective of radical Israeli intellectuals. In the review, Al-Azm accused Said of unfairly maligning Marx, as would other Marxist critics including Aijaz Ahmad and Mahdi Amel. More significantly, Al-Azm argued that Said was practicing what he called “Orientalism in reverse,” essentializing the West in the same way the orientalists who were his targets essentialized the East. In the wake of 1979’s Iranian Revolution, Al-Azm feared Said’s critique of Orientalism made room for the further entrenchment of the idea that Islam was inherently opposed to Western ideas, images, and institutions.

Orientalism was only the latest example in a tradition of the oppressed defending themselves from the slanders which accompanied land robbery, labor exploitation, and political domination. Indeed, the critique of orientalism is as old as orientalism itself.

Said was not the only target of Al-Azm’s critique, however. He also took aim at other Arab intellectuals, including Syrian poet Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said Esber) and Elias Khoury, whom he accused of being too open in their embrace of revolutionary “islamanics,” as he called those partisans of Islamic revival in the Middle East.

After Al-Azm published his review, he and Said never spoke again, according to Brennan. At the end of the decade, Al-Azm would attack the entire Palestinian intellectual and political class, including Said again, in an essay provocatively titled “Palestinian Zionism,” for the German journal of Islamic studies Die Welt des Islams. He would compare Said to early Zionist ideologues like Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and Leon Pinsker. Said’s “Palestinian idea,” Al-Azm argues in that later essay, bore clear Hegelian affinities with the “Zionist idea.” To that end, Al-Azm concludes, Yasser Arafat was Chaim Weizmann, George Habash was the mirror image of Ze'ev Jabotinsky, and Naif Hawatmeh, the Palestinian Ben-Gurion.

As only a few of his legion of critics would acknowledge, Said’s Orientalism was only the latest example in a tradition of the oppressed defending themselves from the slanders which accompanied land robbery, labor exploitation, and political domination. Indeed, the critique of orientalism is as old as orientalism itself. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Arab intellectuals who traveled and studied in Europe, including Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq and Rifa'a al-Tahtawi, criticized, corrected, and even satirized the writings of prominent orientalists like Silvestre de Sacy. In the 1880s, Jamal al-din al-Afghani, an influential and peripatetic West Asian intellectual, offered a powerful riposte to French philologist Ernest Renan’s scurrilous if typical pronouncement that Islam was inimical to scientific progress. Intellectuals across the Ottoman Empire—indeed across Africa and Asia—would regularly denounce imperial knowledge and its political implications throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century’s anti-colonial revolutions, rebellions, and intifadas. For the colonized, the critique of colonial knowledge was fundamental. “For me,” Indian social theorist Partha Chatterjee recounted, “child of a successful anti-colonial struggle, Orientalism was a book which talked of things I felt I had known all along but had never found the language to formulate with clarity. . . . [I]t seemed to say for the first time what one had always wanted to say.”

As Said himself acknowledged, in the decades leading up to 1978, Arab intellectuals publishing in the West had attacked orientalism’s edifice with increasing ferocity and clarity, as imperial structures and attitudes proved resilient even in the wake of political decolonization. For example, the prolific Palestinian historian Abdu Latif Tibawi, who received his PhD from the University of London in 1948 and who would work and teach in England for the rest of his life, published a short but perceptive study in 1964, English-speaking Orientalists: A Critique of Their Approach to Islam and Arab Nationalism. A year earlier, Egyptian Marxist Anour Abdel-Malek published a long essay, “Orientalism in Crisis,” from his exile in Paris. Abdel-Malek primarily took to task the “neo-orientalism” of Europe and the United States, as well as the “europeocentrism” of the social sciences and humanities in general.

Indeed, Said’s specific critique of orientalism cannot be separated from the general assault on the established institutions and protocols of knowledge production that accompanied the mass movements of the 1960s and ’70s globally. Campuses erupted into the streets as the practical implications of imperial science became ever-apparent in the midst of endless war and underdevelopment. The editors of the short-lived but influential Review of Middle East Studies would acknowledge this fact in 1978: “it is our opinion that much of what is wrong with Middle Eastern studies is also wrong both with other social science writing and also with work on other regions of the world.” They acknowledged their debt to groups such as the Committee of Concerned Asian scholars, which would lead its own revolt against Cold War Asian studies in the United States in the midst of the Vietnam War. Said would mention these efforts of “decolonializing” knowledge with appreciation in the final chapter of Orientalism.

Although vestiges of its imperial designs remain today, the study of the Orient, as it were, shifted dramatically after Said’s dissection. Middle East studies, as a field constituted principally in the crucible of the Cold War, would become increasingly critical of its own institutions and origins. The impact of Said’s book on the academy also went far beyond the field he specifically targeted. “We feminists read Orientalism by Braille,” Sondra Hale would write in her 2005 essay “Edward Said—Accidental Feminist.” An anthropologist of the Sudan and one of the founding editors of the Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, Hale would register the profound impact of Said’s book on gender studies of the Middle East. Like Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Orientalism was largely absent of women, yet it raised a critique that would become foundational in future writing about the use of Middle Eastern women in imperial justifications for war as scholars like Lila Abu-Lughod, Laura Nader, and Suad Joseph have since elaborated.

“It is now time for us together to expose and destroy the whole system of confinement, dispossession, exploitation, and oppression that still holds us down and denies us inalienable rights as human beings. It is our job to create a genuine world culture of brotherhood and common cause.”

Said never saw his book simply in academic terms, however. In a letter to British historian Roger Owen, the editor alongside Talal Asad of the Review of Middle East Studies, Said made clear what he saw as his project’s political stakes: “I find the work on Orientalism to be a contribution to the struggle against imperialism.” In addition to his participation in Beirut’s intellectual scene, Said was increasingly involved in the political struggles being organized by Arabs who, like himself, resided in the United States. Indeed, the first draft of the argument Said would put forward in Orientalism was commissioned by his close friend, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, in 1968 for a volume responding to the disastrous Arab–Israeli War of 1967. The book was published by the Association of Arab American University Graduates (AAUG), which was founded in 1967 by a formidable group of Arab intellectuals including philologist Muhsin Mahdi, radical lawyer Abdeen Jabra, and Abu-Lughod himself. A political scientist, Abu-Lughod and Said first met when they were both at Princeton, Said in his final year of college and Abu-Lughod doing his PhD. After Princeton, both Palestinians spent time in Cairo, where their relationship would deepen. “The older Abu-Lughod,” Brennan writes, “tutored the French-identified Said in third-world political insurgency, especially the events then unfolding in Algeria.” Said became deeply involved in the AAUG, and would cofound with Abu-Lughod the Arab Studies Quarterly in 1979, which was published under the group’s auspices. While the 1967 war had emboldened American supporters of Israel, it was also the occasion of the increased political mobilization of Palestinians internationally, often in defiance of Arab governments as well as Israel’s supporters in the West. Said, his colleagues in the AAUG, and Arab Americans in general were increasingly subject to surveillance, harassment, and intimidation by the U.S. government and Zionist groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Defense League.

By the mid-1970s, Said, whilst being recruited by Johns Hopkins, Columbia, and Harvard, was considering a departure from the United States altogether. In 1974 he would write to Zurayk inquiring about a permanent position for himself in Beirut: “Whatever knowledge of the Middle East I now possess is being pressured into the service of the American Empire, and why not put it to our service?” Although Said did not in the end take the job as research director of the Institute for Palestine Studies which he was offered, his involvement with the Third World continued apace. In addition to Abu-Lughod, whom he called his “guru,” Said became close with prominent anti-war intellectuals in the United States, like Noam Chomsky and Eqbal Ahmad. And increasingly, the great theorists of anti-colonialism, especially Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire, would become touchstones of his thought, alongside the Arab humanists and European Marxists he had long drawn from. Said’s writing would leave little room for confusion as to where his thought was aimed. “It is now time,” he would write 1977, “for us together to expose and destroy the whole system of confinement, dispossession, exploitation, and oppression that still holds us down and denies us inalienable rights as human beings. It is our job to create a genuine world culture of brotherhood and common cause.”

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For the memorial service following Said’s death in 2003, Brennan wrote that Said’s “words so often expressed my thoughts that I found it hard over time to remember what I knew before I met him—what I had said and believed before knowing him, and what (by contrast) I had taken entirely from him.” A catalog of Brennan’s principal interests over the last four decades—from humanism, philology, and empire to Giambattista Vico, Erich Auerbach, and C. L. R. James—betray Said’s mark.

Like Said, Brennan’s efforts have often been extra-literary and meta-critical in character, the grammar of global politics and the life of ideas the subjects of much of his work. And Brennan, too, has not shied from political activity. As a graduate student at Columbia during the Reagan years, Brennan was among those who protested U.S. intervention in Nicaragua. Imperialism is Brennan’s primary object of critique. A close second, however, is the increasingly marginalized field of postcolonial studies, which he characterizes—and sometimes caricatures—as a post-structuralist effort to obfuscate the social and political effects of imperialism and to deny the anti-imperialist criticism that preceded it. In a long chapter on Said in his 2006 book Wars of Position: The Cultural Politics of Left and Right, Brennan argued that those who take Said to be the progenitor of the academic field known as “postcolonial studies” are gravely mistaken. Postcolonialism’s methods and motives departed significantly from Said’s own efforts to understand and critique imperialism in Orientalism and elsewhere, according to Brennan. “A good deal of postcolonial studies drew on Orientalism without being true to it,” Brennan writes. “The book’s theory traveled, and it did not travel well.”

Under Said’s tutelage, Brennan would produce a study of Salman Rushdie’s life and work, publishing his first book Salman Rushdie and the Third World in 1989 just as Rushdie was catapulted into public consciousness with the controversy over his novel The Satanic Verses. The Rushdie Affair, as it became known, occasioned a flurry of writing. A decade of rigorous thinking about secularism, liberalism, imperialism, and literature was put to the test as an Indian Muslim writer in London was attacked for blasphemy by coreligionists. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Agha Shahid Ali, Talal Asad, and many other formidable thinkers all jumped into the fray to clarify their positions on the uses and abuses of Rushdie’s writing.

Said had a nuanced view of postcolonial studies, appreciating that a leading motif of it “has been the consistent critique of Eurocentrism and patriarchy.”

In the pages of the academic Marxist journal Social Text, Brennan would spar with another of Said’s students, Aamir Mufti, over the interpretation and reception of Rushdie’s novel. For the uninitiated, the language of the debate may appear obscure. Both Mufti and Brennan opposed the cooption of Rushdie’s plight in the name of purportedly Western values against the Muslim horde in Europe and the United States. For Brennan, however, Rushdie—as a metropolitan subject writing in English and publishing in London—was himself participating principally in a Western conversation. Against that reading, Mufti argued that Rushdie was part of “the struggle over Islamic culture in the late twentieth century.” Brennan, Mufti argued, was obscuring the nature of this global fight under the guise of anti-imperialism. Brennan in turn, accused Mufti (and others, like Sara Suleri), of summoning “high theory” and the language of the Western academy to make arguments about “ethnic collectivities” and contemporary imperialism that simply did not hold. “London literary celebrities,” Brennan concluded, “do not speak for Bradford factory workers.”

Despite Brennan’s disdain for postcolonial studies in general, there is no doubt that the brief enthusiasm for work that fits below postcolonialism’s very large umbrella was crucial to making Brennan’s career. His exasperated response to Mufti, detailing the breadth of his expertise in the Islamic elements of Rushdie’s work, and his own role in first delineating them, speaks precisely to the ironies of postcolonial studies’ rapid rise and fall in literature departments. Postcolonialism, after all, never in reality congealed into any kind of doctrine, but more often simply denoted an interest on the part of its practitioners in colonialism’s myriad effects, which is more than can be said about prevailing approaches to the humanities or social sciences in general. However deficient postcolonialism may be for tackling the material realities of our colonial present, the field’s gradual disappearance and replacement in U.S. universities with geographical idioms totally untethered from the language of power and domination—whether world literature, global history, or “the global Anglophone”—can only be seen as a loss.

In contrast to Brennan’s judgment, Said himself had a much more nuanced appreciation of postcolonial studies, tempered always by his suspicion of purely academic endeavors in general. In a university that was at the time—even more than it is today—overwhelming white and male (like Brennan himself), Said identified with appreciation that a “leading motif” of postcolonial studies “has been the consistent critique of Eurocentrism and patriarchy.” At the same time, however, Said was increasingly frustrated with the literary criticism and theory that was being practiced and celebrated in U.S. literature departments and humanities journals like Critical Inquiry and Diacritics. In a 1992 interview, he admitted to not reading “lit. crit.” anymore: “It seems to me that whereas, say, ten years ago I might eagerly look forward to a new book by somebody at Cornell on literary theory and semiotics, now I’m much more likely to be interested in work emerging out of concern with African history.”

Said nevertheless found work to praise. In the afterword to a new edition of Orientalism in 1994, he singled out Ammiel Alcalay’s After Arabs and Jews: Remaking Levantine Culture (1992), Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993), and Moira Ferguson’s Subject to Others: British Women Writers and Colonial Slavery, 1670–1834 (1992) for “rethinking and re-formulating historical experiences which had once been based on the geographical separation of peoples.” Said’s own work was characterized by a patent refusal of separation. He refused to separate the literary from the historical, the material from the cultural, and, indeed, the personal from the political.

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Said dedicated his eloquent 1979 book The Question of Palestine to his late friends Rashid Hussein and Farid Haddad, a Palestinian communist and physician tortured to death in an Egyptian jail in 1959. To those two, one could add Kamal Nassir, a brilliant Palestinian lawyer and writer killed by Israeli agents in Lebanon in April 1973. Said had dinner with him the night before his assassination. That list could be expanded still, by adding Hanna Mikhail, an accomplished Arabist with a PhD from Harvard who abandoned a comfortable career at the University of Washington to join the Palestine Liberation Organization in Jordan and Lebanon, where he would come to be known as Abu Omar. He would die at sea in 1976, on an ill-fated mission from Beirut to Tripoli with eleven others. “Abu Omar,” Said would write of his friend in 1994, “embodied the prevailingly generous and unconventional principles of the Palestinian revolution.” This was Said’s world. In New York but not of it, Said’s life cannot be contained by the cliches of campus novels and parochialism of the U.S. literary establishment.

Endlessly caricatured, ridiculed, and disdained, Said never wavered in his commitment to the Palestinian people, even—and especially—when they were abandoned by their own leadership.

Endlessly caricatured, ridiculed, and disdained, his arguments regularly misconstrued and disfigured by his critics and opponents, Said never wavered in his commitment to the Palestinian people (to whom, it should perhaps be noted, Brennan dedicates Places of Mind). Even—and especially—when Palestinians were abandoned by their own leadership, Said refused to acquiesce to the status quo, or celebrate half-measures. He surrounded himself with people who respected his cause and he admired them in turn. On the occasion of Eqbal Ahmad’s retirement from Hampshire College, Said—while holding back tears—offered this tribute:

I want . . . to take this opportunity, to say on their behalf—I have no right to speak on their behalf, but I’ll try—to say on behalf of the many refugees, camp dwellers, wretched of the earth, who have been forgotten by their own leaders, and by their fellow Arabs and Muslims, that Eqbal has been one of their guiding lights, and for that no Palestinian can ever thank him enough.

Said’s world is certainly different from ours. Palestinian institutions have been turned inside out. Unlike the PLO of Said’s 1970s, today’s Palestinian Authority in the West Bank serves not as a place where Palestinians from around the world can work for their liberation, but rather serves to administer Israel’s occupation itself. The U.S. university, too, has been transformed. Most who teach at universities today, even at Columbia, are insecure in their jobs, housing, and health care. While genuinely left-wing positions remain rare in the university, more and more intellectuals on the margins—many of them young and in the streets—are articulating their opposition to the U.S. policy of endless warfare at home and abroad, to use the imperial locution.

Some things, however, continue unchanged. Israel remains belligerent in its zeal to dispossess Palestinians from Haifa to Jerusalem to Gaza. “Seventy years, but actually longer,” Palestinian anthropologist Khaled Furani observed in 2018, “of not only wanting more land but also less and less Palestinians.” On a daily basis, home by home, sometimes neighborhood by neighborhood, Palestinians continue to be killed outright or killed slowly, expelled from their lands, stripped of their livelihoods and communities. What also remains is the Palestinian will to rebel. “The greater the Palestinian insistence, the deeper the Zionist denial,” Said wrote in The Question of Palestine. While defenders of Israel appear increasingly desperate to everyone watching, public support of the Palestinian people still draws the ire of university administrators and the professional political class in the United States. Said’s work and example, then—attuned as he was to the shape of Palestinian freedom to come—remains as instructive as ever.

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#34 [Permalink] Posted on 12th June 2021 07:40
An Idiot on Edward Said and Orientalism


Disorientated: the confusions of Edward Said

The dangers of imprisoning culture in political theories
By
Sameer Rahim

May 4, 2021
June 2021

In November 1974, Yasser Arafat delivered a speech at the UN in New York. The PLO leader, viewed by the US government as a terrorist, attacked “Zionist racists and colonialists” and honoured the “popular armed struggle” to free Palestine. But he ended with a (qualified) peace offering: “Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom-fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.” Those resonant lines came from the pen of nearby Columbia University’s Edward Said. Some of his older colleagues might have been surprised that Said, an expert on Joseph Conrad, was moonlighting for Arafat. When he was first hired, it was rumoured he was an Alexandrian Jew.

Such paradoxes followed Said around. His close friends nicknamed him both “Abu Wadie,” echoing a militant’s nom du guerre, and “Eduardo,” a suave Renaissance man. At his most optimistic, Said saw himself as he described his hero Jonathan Swift, as both a “man of letters and a man of action.” Yet throughout his work runs a darker fear that his political and literary interests, which he fused in the hugely influential Orientalism (1978), were ultimately incompatible. That book argued that western writing about the east is inevitably belittling because of the unequal power relations between the describers and those being described. It is one of those rare books that founded a new discipline—postcolonial studies—and ensured the dusty term “Orientalism” became charged with negative connotations. You can still see it being used on social media to discredit western commentators on Islam.

Towards the end of his life, he elevated “intransigence, difficulty and unresolved contradiction” into a credo—these words serve as the epigraph to Timothy Brennan’s new biography, Places of Mind. But Said’s intransigence was not always admirable, and his contradictions often mere confusion. He veered from trashing European scholars of the orient to venerating their achievements; from defending Islam against western calumnies to condemning fundamentalists who had learned his lessons all too well. Finally, he returned to western high culture after making his name labelling it as complicit with colonialism. He went, as it were, from Eduardo to Abu Wadie and back again.

Edward William Said was born in Jerusalem in 1935 to a Palestinian family, delivered by a Jewish midwife. His family mainly lived in Cairo, but Jerusalem was their spiritual home: it was where Said was baptised as an Anglican—a small minority among Arab Christians. Named for the Prince of Wales who would shortly become Edward VIII, he grew up speaking English and French. (He knew local dialects but only studied literary Arabic as an adult.) Classical music was an early passion. As a boy, he attended the Khedival Opera House, which had premiered Verdi’s Aida in 1871. He learned piano on a baby grand imported from Leipzig, and took lessons with Ignace Tiegerman, a Polish-Jewish émigré. (He hated Arabic music and compared singer Umm Kulthum’s voice to wailing.) At Victoria College, the Eton of Egypt, he was a classmate of Omar Sharif. All this privilege was paid for by his father Wadie’s stationery business, which supplied the occupying British army with the paper to write imperial reports.

Wadie had moved to America during the First World War and Edward inherited the US citizenship he had acquired. Aged 15, he was sent to boarding school in Massachusetts. While Said admitted that “to call me a refugee is probably overstating it a bit,” his family had lost its Jerusalem home after Israel’s founding in 1948. There was further trouble. In 1952, anti-British Egyptian nationalists burned down hundreds of businesses, including his family’s. Oddly, writes Brennan, Said would later blame this on the Muslim Brotherhood rather than the secularists responsible.

Said tried to bury his past. He went to Princeton and Harvard before joining Columbia, where he worked with Lionel Trilling and RP Blackmur. In 1962 he married Maire Jaanus, who was, according to one of Said’s colleagues, a “ravishing” Estonian and “a cross between Garbo and Bergman.” Still, he always felt, in his own words, “not quite right” and he faced patrician racism from some of his colleagues. His repressed origins would burst out unexpectedly: on the way to a concert in New York, he crossed the road rather than face an Orthodox Jew; a roommate once heard him speaking Arabic in his sleep.

Two events shook Said up. The first was the 1967 Arab-Israeli war; the second was his father’s death four years later. He was haunted by his lost homeland, and tried to regain the Arab self crushed by his western education. By now the relationship with Maire—who called him a “knotted fusion”—had fallen apart. In 1970, he married a Lebanese Quaker called Mariam, and had become a point of contact between the PLO and the US government. He was rather embarrassed by the rougher aspects of the liberation movement: the violence, of course, but also Arafat’s scruffy appearance. Always a dapper dresser himself, he once suggested the chairman drop the keffiyeh and military garb.

References to Islam and the Arab world began to appear in his literary criticism, though they were hardly complimentary. In 1975’s Beginnings, he argued that Arab novelists were parasitic on European models: “the desire to create an alternative world, to modify or augment the real world through the act of writing,” he wrote, “is inimical to the Islamic world view.” (He often wrote as though only the Arab world was Islamic.) Sounding like a (very) old-school orientalist, he claimed the Prophet Mohammed had “completed a world view; thus the word heresy in Arabic is synonymous with the verb ‘to innovate’ or ‘to begin.’” His private writings were similarly scathing. Why have Arabs, he despaired in a letter, “no sense of efficiency, of progress… of science or cultural vivacity?” Not since the 14th-century thinker Ibn Khaldun had they produced a “theory of mind,” and even he had borrowed from Aristotle.

It is impossible to understand the conflicted, uneven and sometimes misleading nature of Orientalism without first recognising Said’s secret fear that critical portrayals of Arabs by Europeans might have a point. Partly this was ignorance. He seemed uninterested in those eastern thinkers—not all Arabs or Muslims—who had influenced the west’s orientalists, argued with them or absorbed their insights. (See Noel Malcolm’s Useful Enemies on changing European attitudes to the Ottoman Empire—a vast entity ignored by Said—and Leor Halevi’s Modern Things on Trial, an account of how 19th-century Egyptians responded creatively to new technology.) Famously, there is very little Arabic actually quoted in Orientalism.
Girl reading the Quran by Osman Hamdi Bey (1880) Credit: Alamy-girl-reciting-qu-ran-1880.Girl reciting the Quran by Osman Hamdi Bey (1880) Credit: Alamy

That fear sublimated into anger directed at the imperial writings that had formed his own mind. Orientalism argues that all knowledge of the east “is somehow tinged and impressed with, violated by, the gross political fact” of colonialism. (Note the rhetorical elevation.) Orientalism, he says, began with Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt, or maybe with Dante, or even Aeschylus’ The Persians. This confusion can be traced to competing theoretical influences. Critics like Trilling emphasised empirical facts and political context; Michel Foucault, on whom Said lectured, claimed texts did not speak to a “real world,” but only to each other in a self-referential loop shaped by power relations. If reality doesn’t matter, only historical texts, then orientalism can go as far back as Homer.

But turning his argument into a totalising theory inevitably resulted in drastic simplifications. Arabists Robert Irwin and Daniel Martin Varisco have laid out the charges: ignoring German and Russian orientalists because those countries didn’t have Middle Eastern empires; conflating philological studies like Edward Lane’s Arabic lexicon and literary works by Goethe and Flaubert; and reducing the art of western orientalists to lascivious stereotypes, while missing its influence on Muslim painters like Osman Hamdi Bey. In jittery prose, the book has some curious asides—one scholar is said to have “ransacked” the oriental archives, when all he did was consult them.

Remarkably, at the book’s close Said retracts his own thesis: orientalist “scholars and critics,” he writes, “are perfectly capable of freeing themselves from the old ideological straitjacket.” So, you might ask, what’s your point? In The World, the Text and the Critic (1983), he lavishes praise on the French scholar Louis Massignon for his biography of Sufi saint al-Hallaj. Massignon, a translator at the Sykes-Picot conference, could have been the archetypal orientalist-imperialist agent. But—the Said contradiction again—the Frenchman’s scholarship was too good.

“Said’s overstatements were designed to unleash a purifying indignation in his readers,” writes Brennan in exculpation; “he felt he had to be strong and definite for political reasons.” Singular explanations could be relied on to make an impression, no matter how impressionistic. Orientalism was a hit, and negative scholarly reviews could not derail the juggernaut. Many readers from ex-colonies responded to the explicitly personal nature of the argument: “My study of orientalism has been an attempt to inventory the traces upon me, the Oriental subject, of the culture whose domination has been so powerful.” It released something in them, as it had done in Said.

That was certainly true of me. At university, struggling with the very English study of English literature, I identified with Said’s outrage. It helped that he was a charismatic New York intellectual who spoke with righteous anger about Palestine. One of his assistants, Deborah Poole, says he taught her “the place of rage in scholarship.” Before debating his academic nemesis and Ottoman expert, Bernard Lewis, he whispered to a friend in Arabic: “I am going to fuck his mother.”

Lewis was somewhat of an obsession. In Orientalism, he quotes his essay on thawra, or revolution, which traces the original meaning of the Arabic word to the motion of a camel standing up. This lexicographical detail provokes an extraordinary outburst, Said claiming that Lewis “is patently trying to bring down revolution… to nothing more noble (or beautiful) than a camel about to raise itself from the ground.” Funny, I’ve always thought it rather a majestic sight. He goes on to read a crude insult into Lewis’s translations “stirred, excited and rising up”—“since Arabs are really not equipped for serious action, their sexual excitement is no more noble than a camel’s rising up… instead of copulation the Arab can only achieve foreplay, masturbation, coitus interruptus.” Clearly, Said had a rather old-fashioned view of what constituted “serious action” in the bedroom.

In an elegant book-length response to Said, The Muslim Discovery of Europe (1982), Lewis showed that the internally sophisticated Islamic world had, until the advent of western colonialism, considerably less interest in European history and culture than the other way round. Though since Said sometimes equated intellectual curiosity with the urge to dominate, perhaps he thought this no bad thing.

His rage at Lewis was as much for his Zionism as his orientalism. In the 1980s, as the PLO remained stuck in exile, Said became more intemperate. During the first intifada, he responded to reports that Palestinians accused of spying for Israel had been summarily shot: “Why is it somehow OK for white people… to punish collaborators during periods of military occupation, and not OK for Palestinians to do the same?” The irony was that, in 1989, Said began receiving threats after a rumour spread that he was a US spy. (He already had special protection at Columbia after his office was ransacked by militant Zionists.) Partly this was due to his efforts as a go-between. In 1988, he had met Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state George Shultz to discuss the PLO’s proposed recognition of Israel. Shultz had read Beginnings and happily chatted with the man widely dubbed the “Professor of Terror.”

Brennan wrote a thesis on Salman Rushdie under Said’s supervision, so it is curious there is nothing here about The Satanic Verses controversy. Interviewed shortly before his death in 2003, Said said he read the novel in proof after visiting Rushdie at his Islington home. (It was 4th July and they set off fireworks in the garden.) The novelist foresaw “Muslims will be very angry,” and Said recognised the “dynamite” within its distorted portrait of the Prophet Mohammed. As well he might. In Orientalism, Said lambasts William Muir for his 1861 Life of Mahomet, which portrays Islam’s founder as one of “the most stubborn enemies of civilisation, liberty, and the truth”—a strikingly similar depiction to Rushdie’s “Mahound.” The incendiary phrase “satanic verses”—though not the actual incident of prophetic doubt, which occurs in Islamic sources—first appears in Muir.

In a 1995 afterword to Orientalism, Said dismissed Muslims who had seen his book as freeing Islam from the clutches of western scholars; but he had certainly left himself open to this interpretation. Later, he would airily declare religion to be “the most dangerous of threats to the humanistic enterprise”—thus consigning Muslim scholars of Islam, say, to the periphery.
Daniel Barenboim rehearses with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra Credit: AlamyDaniel Barenboim rehearses with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra Credit: Alamy

When Said returned to the European canon, he brought plenty of heavy political baggage. In 1993’s Culture and Imperialism, he famously spots allusions to slavery in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Said was right in one sense: Austen was surely aware of the heated debate on the cruel trade going on in England at the time, and references to slavery do creep into her work. Recent efforts by the Jane Austen Museum to explore the issue are perfectly legitimate. But in his rush to apportion guilt, Said once more trips over himself.

When the heroine Fanny Price asks her uncle Sir Thomas Bertram, who owns Antigua plantations, about slavery she reports there “was such a dead silence!” From this Said extrapolates the novel’s “affiliations with a sordid history”—the slippery term “affiliations” does a lot of work here—arguing that Mansfield Park “opens up a broad expanse of domestic imperialist culture without which Britain’s subsequent acquisition of territory would not have been possible.” No Austen, no British Empire.

Said, however, burdens the author with both too much responsibility—the empire would likely have rumbled on without Austen to grease its ideological wheels—and too little credit. Fanny boldly raises the issue with her uncle because she sees parallels between her own situation as a poor relation and that of his slaves. Sir Thomas’s “dead silence,” as well as that of his complacent family, shows up their moral blankness, not the author’s. Austen’s contemporary readers might also have recalled that it was Lord Justice Mansfield who declared British slavery illegal in 1772. (Said’s argument is further weakened by the mysterious listing of Pride and Prejudice’s Lydia Bennet as a character from Mansfield Park.) Yet, once again, he diagnosed his own worst tendencies. Before publication, he fretted to a friend: “I don’t want you to think of me as treating literature only as a vehicle for my convictions.”

The last decade of Said’s life was painful. He was diagnosed with leukaemia in 1991 and two years later broke with Arafat over what he saw as the Quisling Oslo Accords. His daughter Najla thought he suffered from depression and Brennan identifies a “profound insecurity about his own identity,” that caused “a violent oscillation between boastfulness and self-doubt.” In 1995, he resumed an affair with the Lebanese writer Dominique Eddé—about whom Brennan, perhaps mindful of Said’s widow, is aggressively dismissive.

Comfort came from his early love—classical music. With Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim, he set up an orchestra for Israelis and Arabs to play together. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra—named for Goethe’s oriental fantasy—is Said’s greatest legacy. Finally, he released culture from the prison of politics and grand theories and once more allowed himself to experience its transcendent pleasures. Listening to his beloved Beethoven, Said knew that it did not matter which notes were played by Jews and which by Arabs.

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Sameer Rahim

Sameer Rahim is Prospect’s Managing Editor. His novel “Asghar and Zahra” (JM Originals) was longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize. He was a judge for the 2020 Booker Prize
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#35 [Permalink] Posted on 12th June 2021 07:42
Amazon Reviews of Edward Said Biography


"Brennan’s achievement is to do justice to the many things Said was and to articulate the synapses that connected his different worlds, so ideas that had their birth in one found their use in another. He has provided us with what you might call a manual of Said; a map of his thoughts and his positions, which, change as they did, could always be traced to a core set of ideas and drives and to do this without ever blunting Said’s subtlety or smudging the clarity of his ideas." ―Ahdaf Soueif, The Guardian

"A remarkably unhindered and often incisive intellectual portrait of its subject . . . The drama of [Said's] mind is given a good airing. Brennan concentrates on what Said most cared about in his work: a wise decision, since those are the reasons we still read him." ―Thomas Meaney, New Statesman

"Places of Mind is an intellectual biography for which Brennan enjoyed unprecedented access to Said’s private papers and letters . . . Nuanced [and] intimate." ―Avi Shlaim, Financial Times

"Brennan draws on an imposing array of material to write the first comprehensive portrait of one of America’s most distinguished postwar intellectuals." ―Ayten Tartici, The New York Times Book Review

"[An] intense and rewarding book." ―Tunku Varadarajan, The Wall Street Journal

"A sharply incisive portrait. Drawing on abundant archival sources, Said’s hefty FBI file, his published and unpublished works, and hundreds of interviews, Brennan . . . traces the evolution of a boldly transformative, controversial thinker . . . Exemplary scholarship informs [this] absorbing biography." ―Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"[A] meticulous account . . . Brennan’s work will be invaluable reading for students of Said or the postcolonial critical movement his work sparked." --Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Brennan effectively uses a range of primary sources to provide insight into what influenced Said’s thinking, and how he handled criticism of his noteworthy work . . . Brennan has succeeded in writing an account that is both an act of love and a solid study of a fascinating man." ―Library Journal (starred review)

"Given the sheer amount of writing not only by but on Said, it seems at first surprising, and then inevitable, that no one has yet managed a comprehensive biography of him: there’s too much ground to cover, too many aspects of his long and controversial career to accommodate. Timothy Brennan’s rather remarkable Places of Mind seeks to rectify this . . . What emerges is a remarkably careful and considered narrative of Said’s life from cradle to grave―an account that is both synthesis and corrective . . . The care with which Brennan attends to Said’s writing, as well as its uneven reception, is palpable on every page." ―Jane Hu, Bookforum


“Brennan, a literary scholar as well as a student and friend of Said, enjoyed broad access to his subject’s contacts and papers, allowing him to examine Said’s formative experiences and key relationships. The result is a warm and perceptive exploration of one of the twentieth century’s most compelling minds, and the passions that shaped it.” --Brendan Driscoll, Booklist

"In Places of Mind Timothy Brennan offers a portrait of Edward Said in all his complexity, revealing multiple aspects of his life and work unknown even to some of those closest to him. Relying on a remarkable range of sources, ranging from Said's private papers to extensive interviews, Brennan offers us an elegiac and nuanced portrait of one of the most influential literary figures of the past century, who was also the foremost public advocate for the rights of the Palestinian people." --Rashid Khalidi, author of Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East

"Timothy Brennan delivers a powerful and moving portrait of Edward Said, a multi-dimensional public intellectual, teacher, activist, artist, and scholar. As someone who knew the subject of this book quite well―as tennis partner, editor, and fellow traveler in Israel/Palestine―I feel on every page of this book in the presence of both confirmation and revelation. From his precocious childhood to his scholarly triumphs and critical battles, to his final struggles with illness and the intricacies of his “latestyle,” Said emerges as one of the essential intellectuals of our time, brave, inventive, incisive, and prophetic, portrayed against a historical background as complex and contradictory as its main subject." --W. J. T. Mitchell, author of Mental Traveler: A Father, a Son, and a Journey through Schizophrenia

"Timothy Brennan’s study of Edward Said is an outstanding intellectual and personal biography of one of the 20th century’s most brilliant and debated scholars. Deeply researched and erudite, Places of Mind is also written with the elegance and power of a novel that Said himself would have admired. To read these pages is to understand the enormity of Said’s often singular contributions and the profound void he has left behind. A tour de force." --Sara Roy, author of Unsilencing Gaza: Reflections on Resistance

“Edward W. Said was one of the most prominent public intellectuals of the late twentieth century. This long-needed biography by Timothy Brennan gives us a vivid picture of Said’s many passions and contradictions. The book is deeply researched, written with straightforward elegance, insightful in its psychology, and nuanced in its descriptions of Middle Eastern politics and also of the American academic world.” --Ralph P. Locke, author of Music and the Exotic: Images and Reflections

"Timothy Brennan’s biography of Edward Said is a thrilling read. It provides a critical window into the life and mind of one of the great intellects of our time. The author, who had access to Said’s private papers, proceeds elegantly and thoughtfully, with depth, intelligence and great empathy to interpret how Said came to be the great scholar and human being that he developed into going into his childhood, the emotional and intellectual influences and how he responded to them helping the reader enter Said’s world and mind and understand both. He lays bare the intellectual and political struggles as well as the emotional difficulties that Said endured in the course of his life and what he made out of them. This is not a biography that is burdened with theory and yet one that helps the reader navigate through Said’s long and impressive oeuvre to better understand and make accessible his writing. It is excellent on how Said’s convictions, both on literature and politics, developed shedding light on Said’s strength and vulnerabilities. It is not only an intellectual biography but one of the total person. Said was a monumental figure and this is a suitably monumental biography of extraordinary scope." --Raja Shehadeh, author of Where the Line is Drawn: Crossing Boundaries in Occupied Palestine

"Among literary critics who emerged in the second half of the last century, Said remains by far the most phosphorescent, a figure globally invoked alongside his intellectual heroes: Gramsci, Lukacs, Sartre, Adorno, Chomsky, Foucault. We who were his students remember a man quick to anger and to empathy; and to impatience with ideas merely expressed, not lived. He was a theoretician among aesthetes and an aesthete among theoreticians. A promiscuous love of literature and music drove him as surely as his heartbroken demand for justice in the world. Professor Brennan’s book is a sensitive, brilliantly readable piece of life-writing that captures the difficult, estimable man we cherished." --Benjamin Taylor, author of The Hue and Cry at Our House

"Edward Said, a major intellectual, prolific author, political thinker (and actor) of formidable guts and subtlety, and gifted pianist, was also a figure of infinite charm and considerable human complexity. Timothy Brennan's outstanding biography somehow does justice to these and other aspects of Said's personality and achievement, and does so in prose of impressive force and clarity. A masterly examination of a singularly rich and multiply engaged life." --Michael Fried, author of What Was Literary Impressionism?

"Brennan, one of Said's former students, offers insight into one of the foremost intellectuals of the postwar period . . .[he] has succeeded in writing an account that is both and act of love and a solid study of a fascinating man."
--David Keymer, Library Journal
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#36 [Permalink] Posted on 12th June 2021 07:46
Further Reviews of Edward Said Biography

postgrad
A fluent and informative intellectual biography


Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 22 March 2021

Verified Purchase

Edward Said is best known for his very influential book Orientalism, which resulted in the term ‘orientalism’ entering the language as a critical term, and led to him being regarded as the founding father of postcolonial studies. Said was something of a Renaissance man - a refined, highly-cultured prolific literary and cultural critic, who spent most of his life as an academic and an author. He was also an accomplished pianist with a keen interest in classical music - a facet of his life which resulted in a famous collaboration with Daniel Barenboim. But Edward Said was also a Palestinian, and his life in exile in the United States was spent as an active and high-profile campaigner for justice and equality for his people.

Timothy Brennan’s biography puts Said’s various identities into context and is written from a sympathetic and intellectually engaged liberal perspective. Brennan is a former Columbia student who knew Said and admired him as a teacher. He defends Said from his many detractors and provides a very authoritative account of his life as a writer, teacher, celebrity intellectual and political activist. He also supplies an extensive bibliography of Said’s writings, unpublished work, films and interviews.

This scholarly biography is rich in reference and will be very useful to anyone seeking to enlarge their knowledge and understanding of Said’s very substantial output as a writer. It devotes whole chapters to his major works. It also provides an account of the numerous cultural and political figures he encountered in the course of his life. Susan Sontag emerges as unprincipled and unreliable and Christopher Hitchens as an opportunist. Said was exasperated by left-wing academic radicals and Marxists whose interest in social change ended at their office door and who declined to involve themselves in even quite modest commitments to social change.

Brennan shows how as an activist and a leading Palestinian voice in the USA, Edward Said was drawn into the world of Middle East politics. He knew Yasser Arafat and at first was sympathetic to the PLO. In time he came to distrust Arafat’s wilful and eccentric leadership and the petrifaction of the struggle under the PLO’s increasingly corrupt elite. Said was the first and most prominent Palestinian to assert that the Oslo Accords involved a catastrophic surrender of the Palestinian case for justice and that the PLO had gained virtually nothing in return. Time has shown what an astute analysis this was. In return a petulant Arafat banned all Said’s books from the West Bank and Gaza.

This biography also reveals in stark detail the efforts of Zionist ‘cancel culture’ to destroy Said’s career and suppress his writings in the USA. His first overtly political book, The Question of Palestine, struggled to find a publisher. When it appeared several of his academic colleagues tried to get him fired. He began to receive hate mail from supporters of Israel. His office was firebombed. The FBI’s maintained surveillance of Said and gave him advice when Jewish extremists threatened his life. There were no arrests. The censorship continued throughout his career, climaxing with the incident when, on a visit to Lebanon, Said threw a symbolic stone across the border into Israel. The hysteria of Israel’s supporters reached stupefying dimensions and there was a concerted effort by faculty members, students and donors to get Said fired. To its credit, Columbia stood by Said.

There is one strange omission in Brennan’s biography. He says nothing about the visit of Illinois state senator Barack Obama to an Arab community event in Chicago 1998 to hear a talk by Said. Afterwards Barack and Michelle Obama dined with Said and his wife. Obama pledged his support to the Palestinians. Later, on his route to the presidency, Obama discarded that support, preferring to ingratiate himself with the powerful American Zionist establishment. Ali Abunimah has written about this episode, which Brennan should very definitely have mentioned.

This book is more successful as an intellectual biography than as a character study. Brennan does not enquire into Said’s crash in Switzerland, which resulted in the death of a motorcyclist. There must surely be a police record of this and newspaper reports, and a biographer ought to seek them out, not replicate Said’s own reticence about this episode. Brennan’s account of Said’s affair with Dominique Eddé is also tight-lipped and less than satisfactory. As a biographer he is perhaps a little too protective of his subject’s weaknesses as a human being. But these are minor blemishes. As a study of Said the cultural critic and activist this is a wonderfully accomplished and interesting book.
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