Friend and foe alike have wondered how Barack Obama wangled a seat next to Edward Said (pronounced sigh-EED), at an Arab-American community dinner in Chicago in 1998 on the fiftieth anniversary of the Palestinian nakbah, or disaster.
At the time, Obama was an obscure state senator and Said, according to the Nation, was "probably the best-known intellectual in the world."
It is possible that the pair had met when Obama was a student and Said a professor at Columbia University. The Los Angeles Times has reported that Obama took at least one course taught by Said.
It is possible, too, that Said and Obama ran in the same radical New York circles. Among Said's friends and allies on the America-phobic, Arafat-loving left was none other than Bill Ayers. When Ayers published his memoir Fugitive Days in 2001, Said was happy to provide a blurb. "For anyone who cares about the sorry mess we are in," wrote Said, "this book is essential, indeed necessary reading."
Whatever their prior relationship, photos of the 1998 event show Obama and Said immersed in deep conversation. As to its content, Said might have been reassuring the newly minted author that yes, if you can trace your ancestors' roots to the third world, and yes, if you toe the progressive line, you can make up your whole life story and get away with it. Said knew. He had been there, done that, gotten the T-shirt.
Twenty years earlier, Said had published his masterwork, Orientalism, a book so influential that it changed the very direction of Middle Eastern studies. The book's thesis was a bold one in 1978. Writing in full postmodern patois, then still cutting-edge, Said argued that the Western study of the Middle East was inherently corrupted by the position of power from which the observer wrote. In other words, westerners had no right to even think of writing Middle Eastern history.
Said's identity as a Palestinian and a refugee informed everything he wrote, Orientalism most certainly. "Orientalism is written out of an extremely concrete history of personal loss and national disintegration," Said observes in the Afterword of the book's 1994 edition. It is this sense of loss that gives the book its spirit of righteous certainty.
Said's Palestinian childhood became the central, compelling metaphor for his significant life work. "Mr. Said was born in Jerusalem and spent the first twelve years of his life there," confirms the New York Times in a flattering 1998 article. His family left the house and "fled" Palestine for Cairo in late 1947, "five months before war broke out between Palestinian Arabs and Jews over plans to partition Palestine."
Said set out to right past wrongs and succeeded brilliantly. His timing was impeccable. Multiculturalism was still in its embryonic stages, and by fusing it to postmodernism, Said helped to define it. For someone who allegedly did "not exist," Said did a masterful job of making his presence felt.
For fourteen years, he served on the Palestine National Conference, a kind of Parliament-in-exile alongside the likes of the PLO's Yassir Arafat and still-harder-core radicals from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the terrorist group that hijacked the MS Achille Lauro.
Although he denounced violence, Said was forever rationalizing its use and was once photographed on the Lebanese border throwing a rock at Israel as "a symbolic gesture of joy."
Throughout his career, Said returned again and again to the source of his own moral power -- his forced exile from "my beautiful old house" in Jerusalem. So central was the house at 10 Brenner Street to his identity that the Palestinian Heritage Association presented him with a portrait of it during a ceremony in his honor.
In early 1992, Said paid a nostalgic visit to this house, a visit that was celebrated in a Harper's Magazine and eventually in a BBC documentary, In Search of Palestine. One scene in the film shows Said and his son in front of the house "my family owned" while Said angrily talks about getting the house back from the Israeli authorities.
Whether Said knew it or not, however, time was running out on the compelling saga of his own life that he had gone to such pains to shape and share with the world.
By 1998, the year the documentary aired, an Israeli scholar named Justus Reid Weiner had already done two years of hard-nosed, boots-on-the-ground background research on Said's life, and he was about to deconstruct the heck out of it. "Virtually everything I learned," Weiner wrote, "contradicts the story of Said's early life as Said has told it."
Weiner released his findings a year later in the September 1999 issue of the influential Jewish magazine, Commentary. In truth, Said had better establishment credentials than anyone suspected, right down to his Episcopalian upbringing.
The son of an affluent, American immigrant father who had fought under General Pershing in World War I, Said attended the Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts and Princeton University before moving on to Harvard. It was the first twelve years of his life, however, that would truly raise eyebrows.
"I was born, in November 1935," Said wrote in Harper's in 1992, "in Talbiya, then a mostly new and prosperous Arab quarter of Jerusalem. By the end of 1947, just months before Talbiya fell to Jewish forces, I'd left with my family for Cairo." After their forced departure, he wrote in a 1998 London Review of Books, "... my entire family became refugees in Egypt."
Yes, Said was born in Jerusalem in 1935. He was born there because his mother had had a tragic experience with Egyptian health care -- her first son, Gerald, died during childbirth. After Edward's birth, the family returned to Cairo, where his father had been living for the last decade.
There, Said's father continued to expand his extremely successful office supply business and moved the family through an increasingly luxurious series of apartments. A Christian and an American citizen from birth, Said attended the best British schools in Cairo before leaving for a pricey American prep school as a teenager.
The famed house, Weiner learned, belonged not to Said's parents, but to his Jerusalem relatives. During almost all of the years Said was alleged to be living there, the Said relatives rented the upstairs apartment to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia for a consulate's use. In a truly odd twist of fate, they rented the downstairs apartment of the renowned Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, who moved there after fleeing Nazi Germany in 1938. In 1942, the Said relatives forced Buber out in a rent dispute and occupied the apartment themselves.
One would think that in all his public recollections of this house, Said might have remembered sharing it with Buber or the Yugoslav consulate, but he did not. It is possible, in fact, that he never even stayed there. The apartment would have been too small for his Jerusalem relatives to share with their prosperous Cairo cousins if they had come to visit.
Said was busted big time. Weiner had proved beyond all doubt that America's most celebrated Palestinian refugee was not really a Palestinian or a refugee, let alone a Muslim. Indeed, during the century's most turbulent years, 1935-1947, years that witnessed the death and dispossession of scores of millions of innocent people, Said had been living high on the hog in Cairo. The whole moral basis for his post-colonial posturing as a victim of western injustice seemed shot.
Although its headline suggests a nationalist bias on Weiner's part -- "Israeli Says Palestinian Thinker Has Falsified His Early Life" -- the New York Times gave his exposé decent coverage. If Said could ignore Weiner, he could not ignore the Times. His comments are instructive and all too typical. "I have never said I am a refugee," he told the Times. "Never in my life. On the contrary, I go out of my way to say I had a very privileged life, we had a house in Cairo."
Just a year earlier, remember, the Times had interviewed Said and written, "Mr. Said was born in Jerusalem and spent the first twelve years of his life there." Until caught by Weiner, this is what Said had told everyone.
By the time Said died four years later, however, the controversy had died as well. The Guardian of London does not even hint at one. Its obituary closed with a tribute from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan saying, "Both the Middle East and the United States will be the poorer without his distinctive voice."
The New York Times raised the Weiner objection, but it did so dismissively, 2,000 words into a glowing 2,600-word obituary. In the beginning of the obituary, the "paper of record" had already decided to revive Said's imaginary past.
Edward Said was born in Jerusalem on Nov. 1, 1935, and spent his childhood in a well-to-do neighborhood of thick-walled stone houses that is now one of the main Jewish districts of the city. His father, a prosperous businessman who had lived in the United States, took the family to Cairo in 1947 after the United Nations divided Jerusalem into Jewish and Arab halves.
Say what one will about Said, but at least he wrote his own fictions.