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Edward Said and Me
In September 1999, Commentary magazine published an article by Justus Reid Weiner, a scholar-in-residence with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, which demonstrated that the autobiographical references of Edward Said, a University Professor at Columbia University, were fundamentally inaccurate. In a September 20, 2000 discussion at the Middle East Forum in New York, Mr. Weiner spoke about repercussions of his widely publicized exposé.
In my article, I showed that contrary to his depiction, Said was in fact not exiled from Jerusalem by the Haganah in December 1947. Nor was there any basis to his claim that he "spent most of his formative years" in Jerusalem and that he "left with [his] family for Cairo" by "the end of 1947." Similarly Said's assertion that he lost his "beautiful old house" in the Talbieh neighborhood was revealed to be false. Actually, this avatar of the Palestinian refugees was the scion of a wealthy Cairene family. His father was an American citizen who moved to Cairo from Jerusalem a decade before Edward was born. Living in Cairo until his departure to attend prep school in America in 1951, Edward Said resided with his family in luxurious apartment buildings in the exclusive Zamalek neighborhood where he was attended to by maids and a butler, he played with childhood friends in the manicured private gardens of the Aquarium Grotto, he attended private English and American schools, he was driven around in his father's large black American cars by a chauffeur, and he enjoyed the facilities at the exclusive Gezira Sporting Club as the son of one of its only Arab members.
In 1952 a revolutionary mob burned Said's father's flagship store (and a branch) to the ground, and several years later within a decade the nationalization program instituted by Egyptian president Nasser ultimately forced Said's father out of the country. Thus, the truly devastating financial losses suffered by Said's father were in no way connected to Israel, the country from which Edward Said demands reparations.
My Interest in Edward Said
Early on in the Oslo peace process, I was researching an article dealing with those who opposed the peace process, among whom Edward Said was an intellectual leader. In the course of my inquiry, I became fascinated with the way Said employed his childhood travails to advance his political argument, especially as I had lived in the Talbieh neighborhood of Jerusalem, a two-minute walk from the building Said had described as "my beautiful old house." Further, my former office overlooked the playground of Saint George's School in eastern Jerusalem, the very school Said said he attended before being driven out by Haganah forces in 1947.
Inquiring about Said's Past
To better understand Said's background, I began to conduct on-site research into his childhood. First, I went to St. George's School to inquire about Said's days as a pupil there. The headmaster showed me the pre-1948 student enrollment records, and I spent hours going through three leather-bound enrollment ledgers, page by page. To my astonishment, I found no mention of Edward Said. A second time page-by-page through the same records, and I found no evidence he was ever enrolled there.
This got me hooked. I located and interviewed six former residents of the "beautiful old house," none of whom had any recollection of Edward Said or his parents ever having lived there. Going through nine newspapers over a six-month period (November 1947-May 1948) I found that Said's claim of being driven out by a Haganah sound van in mid-December 1947 was without any support in these contemporaneous records.
I then located scores of who's who books, telephone directories, and business directories for Jerusalem and Cairo during the relevant years, which enabled me to ascertain that Edward Said and his parents had lived in Cairo, and where his father's business was located. I consulted the Jerusalem registry of deeds, sent Arabic-speaking researchers to interview Said's relatives, did researched in the declassified public records of the British Mandatory government in Palestine and the map and aerial photographs department at Hebrew University. I located Said's birth and baptismal certificates. I interviewed some eighty-five individuals. I discovered many interesting points: that Said was in fact "born in Jerusalem," but only because his parents feared hygienic conditions in Cairo hospitals after their previously born son died of an infection within days of his delivery. Thus, Edward Said's birth certificate bears no entry in the box marked "local address," but it does list a permanent address: "Cairo."
Several months of extensive research made clear that there was something fundamentally wrong with the picture Said presented of himself - that of a Palestinian exile/refugee deserving of reparations from Israel. When I began discovering discrepancies in Said's frequent autobiographic references, I telephoned his office at Columbia University to request an interview, but Said did not return the call.
Triggering a Media Controversy
The publication of my exposé detonated "one of the nastiest rows of its kind to rend New York's intelligentsia in years," according to the Observer of London. More than 150 articles appeared about my research, from Finland to India. A dichotomy emerged.
On the one side were dedicated journalists took the trouble to examine my evidence. On the other side were pro-Said responses by him and his network of friends (i.e., Salman Rushdie, Christopher Hitchens, Alexander Cockburn); they did not refute my evidence but attacked me and my work, often in similar ways and even using the same words. But Said's supporters faced an unenviable problem - a month after my article was published, Said's memoir Out of Place arrived in the bookstores, confirming the essence of what I had uncovered. Perhaps the 85 interviews I conducted alerted him to the urgency of fixing the record about his Cairo childhood.
Repercussions of the Exposé
Said's fraud continues to be important a full year later because it raises larger questions than simply the myth-making and selective memory of one person.
First, Said is a leading intellectual light in left-wing and Palestinian circles. People who never saw fit to scrape at Said's teflon surface have now begun to question his credibility. In just the last two months, for example, six major articles appeared in the Columbia Spectator, the university newspaper, dealing critically with Said's shenanigans. One article, "Said's Shameful Summer: Rocks and Terrorists," noted Said's having met with Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah the same day he was photographed heaving a stone at the Israeli side of the Lebanon-Israel border. The Columbia Spectator's criticism of Said culminated inincluded a staff editorial entitled "Said's Affinity for Fiction."
Second, Said's Palestinian supporters remain in complete denial. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and other groups have only hugged Said tighter after his exposure. This suggests that such groups take a rather callous attitude towards truth when it concerns matters close to their hearts.
Third, Palestinians and the Israeli Left have urged Israelis to reevaluate their country's formative experiences. Said has been touting Israeli post-Zionists, or New Historians, and tries to make it seem as though they are all in full agreement with him, which is not true. Why, I wonder, as Israelis give up their historical myths in the interest of moving closer to the Palestinians, do the latter clutch their myths ever tighter.
The Intellectual and the Truth
Edward Said writes in his book Representations of the Intellectual that the goal of the intellectual is to speak truth to power. Although in some ways a post-modern figure, in matters of truth - at least with regard to himself - Said insists on holding to a traditional standard of truth. This is particularly ironic because Said conspicuously does not live up to his own standard. Worse, even when he does use actual facts, Said deploys them in a way intended to deceive the reader.
Thus, he mentions a number of dates - occasions when he was present in Palestine between his birth in 1935 and 1947, then repeats them endlessly, suggesting to the listener or reader that he was continuously in Palestine during this twelve-year period. As it turned out, however, Said spent his entire childhood - except for a few summers and other visits abroad - living in a prestigious neighborhood in Cairo, surrounded by butlers, maids and the like. This was his life, and it had almost nothing to do with Palestine.
Summary account by Assaf Moghadam, a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.