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Paying tribute to Edward Said

By Phil Gasper | October 3, 2003 | Page 9

EDWARD SAID, the brilliant Palestinian intellectual and activist, died last week at the age of 67 after a 12-year battle against leukemia. He was a man of incredibly broad learning and ability--a literary and cultural critic, a political writer, an opera lover who served as music editor of The Nation magazine, an accomplished pianist, but above all the most eloquent and persuasive spokesperson for the Palestinian people. It was this latter role that earned him, according to the Al Jazeera news service, "public enemy number one status among America's Jewish establishment."

Said was born in British-occupied Palestine in 1935. In 1948, after the newly formed state of Israel expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and confiscated their property, Said began a life of permanent exile. In the 1950s, he came to the U.S. as a student. He taught at Columbia University from the mid-1960s, eventually becoming a University Professor, the highest academic position.

Books such as Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography and The World, the Text, and the Critic established Said as one of the world's leading literary theorists. He demonstrated that literature can only be understood in the broader historical and social context in which it is written.

In one famous essay on "Jane Austen and Empire," for example, he showed how Mansfield Park reflects the assumptions of early 19th century British imperialism. Perhaps Said's most important intellectual contribution was his 1978 study Orientalism, which analyzes the set of racist ideas which the West has used to characterize and dominate the Middle East and Asia since the 19th century.

But Said refused to be an armchair intellectual. He did not just theorize about the ideology of imperialism, he became one of its most articulate public opponents. In the 1970s, Said became the most prominent voice in the U.S. defending the Palestinian struggle for justice and self-determination. The Israel-Palestinian conflict, he pointed out, "isn't a battle between two states. It's a battle between a state [Israel] with basically a colonial army attacking a colonized population, using all forms of collective punishment."

Said argued the Palestinian case with clarity and forcefulness in a stream of articles, opinion pieces and books, including The Question of Palestine, which remains the best short introduction to the whole issue. He also made hundreds of appearances on college campuses. As a result, Said became a major target of pro-Israel extremists. He and his family received numerous death threats and his office at Columbia was set on fire.

But he refused to be silenced. In 1977, he was appointed to the Palestine National Council (PNC), a parliament-in-exile established by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Said recognized the PLO as the Palestinian people's only legitimate representative, but he grew increasingly critical of its strategy and tactics, and of the autocratic style of its leader, Yasser Arafat.

Rather than futile appeals to the major world powers and Arab governments for support, Said advocated an international campaign against Israeli repression, similar to the one that helped defeat South African apartheid. The gap with the PLO's leadership widened after Said resigned from the PNC in 1991. Two years later, when Arafat signed the Oslo accords with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Said became the agreement's sharpest critic.

While the U.S. media praised Oslo as a giant step towards peace, Said called it "a Palestinian Versailles"--a reference to Germany's harsh terms of surrender at the end of the First World War. At best, Oslo offered the newly formed Palestinian Authority (PA) eventual control over a small portion of historic Palestine, broken into hundreds of tiny fragments that would remain under Israeli military and economic domination. At the same time, it ignored the rights of Palestinian refugees outside the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Said attacked the PA's corruption and abuses of power. The PLO leadership had "become willing collaborators with the [Israeli] military occupation." Arafat was so outraged that he banned Said's books from the Palestinian territories.

But Said was right that Oslo's goal was for the PA to police the Palestinian population on behalf of Israeli interests. While some PLO leaders and wealthy Palestinians benefited from the deal, it offered nothing to ordinary Palestinians, and it provided Israel with cover to expropriate more Palestinian land and expand illegal settlements in the West Bank.

In the 1980s, Said accepted the PLO's call for a Palestinian state to exist side-by-side with Israel, but he came to realize that this "two-state solution" would never offer Palestinians genuine autonomy, and that the only alternative was a single democratic state with equal rights for all its citizens, Jews and Arabs. As one small example that the divide could be bridged, in the last years of his life Said worked with the distinguished Israeli conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim to bring concerts and musical opportunities to Palestinian children.

As the 1990s progressed, Said also became a more outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy. He denounced the wars against Kosovo and Afghanistan, and the invasion and occupation of Iraq, which epitomized what he called the "brutal imperial arrogance" of the U.S. ruling class.

It will be hard to come to terms with the fact that Said's powerful voice is no longer with us. But his enormous achievements will of course survive him, and we can honor him best by continuing the struggles to which he contributed so much.

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