On Saturday, the American University of Beirut (AUB) will hold its annual commencement, and will award honorary doctorates for the first time in over thirty years. Among the recipients: Edward Said.
Edward Said is a big celebrity in Beirut, and AUB is his favorite theater. In 1999, he addressed 1,000 students there. "The atmosphere was almost like a carnival," reported Beirut's Daily Star. In 2000, he delivered AUB's commencement address. In March of this year, he spoke once more at AUB; the Daily Star likened it to "an American rock concert for the learned and the not-so." So there's nothing daring or controversial in AUB's decision to honor Edward Said. Yet there's a bit of irony in it.
During AUB's long night of war and instability, the university lost one of its presidents: Malcolm Kerr, assassinated at gunpoint on campus on January 18, 1984. Kerr had a special bond with AUB. His parents had been American educators there, and he was born in the AUB hospital. He studied at Princeton and Johns Hopkins, became a political scientist, and built an academic career at UCLA, where he became one of America's leading interpreters of contemporary Arab politics. Kerr was also one of the founders and early presidents of the Middle East Studies Association. He returned to Lebanon to become the president of AUB in 1982, at the university's darkest hour. Eighteen months later, his choice cost him his life.
Why mention Malcolm Kerr on the eve of this commencement? Kerr was the only American scholar to take a chisel to Edward Said's 1978 book Orientalism, the work that catapulted Said to academic fame. In a review published in an academic journal in 1980, Kerr described the book as
spoiled by overzealous prosecutorial argument in which Professor Said, in his eagerness to spin too large a web, leaps at conclusions and tries to throw everything but the kitchen sink into a preconceived frame of analysis. In charging the entire tradition of European and American Oriental studies with the sins of reductionism and caricature, he commits precisely the same error.