The day after his death, well-known Palestinian intellectual, Edward Said, was remembered by friends, admirers, and even some opponents, as a great intellectual, an advocate for peace, but at the same time, one of Israeli government's most consistent critics.
Said, a Christian Palestinian, was born in Jerusalem, grew up in Cairo and Lebanon, and moved to the US when he was in his late teens. While he was outspoken in his support of the Palestinian cause, he was just as outspoken in his condemnation of PLO leader Yasser Arafat, whom he considered corrupt and inept. As Tikkun noted, he opposed a "two-state" solution (although he once supported the idea), and argued that he saw "no other way than to begin now to speak about sharing the land that has thrust us [Israelis and Palestinians] together, and sharing it in a truly democratic way, with equal rights for each citizen."
He repeatedly condemned suicide bombings of innocent Israeli civilians. And he regularly lectured the Arab world on the evils of Holocast revisionism, which did not endear him to some Arab intellectuals who wanted to ignore that chapter of Jewish history.
The Israeli Newspaper Ha'aretz described Mr. Said as "the most eloquent and best-known spokesman of the Palestinian problem, at least in the West." Also writing in Ha'aretz, Tom Segev recalled that while Said took many controversial positions on the Palestinian issue, "Well aware of the power of symbols, he signed a petition against Holocaust revisionism."
In 2002 Said, who was also a concert-level pianist, together with Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Daniel Barenboim, was named the winner of Spain's Prince of Asturias Concord Prize for his efforts toward bringing peace to the Middle East. The two men had run summer workshops for young musicians from Israel and Arab countries. Barenboim and Said said the reason for founding the orchestra was to help Arabs and Jews to see each other as human beings amid the violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories
Said, who was also a professor at Columbia University, however, has always been a controversial figure. After the Six-Day War of 1967, he became a supporter of the Palestinian cause. Said wrote more than 20 books, many papers, and newspaper columns. But as Ha'aretz notes, it was his book "Orientalism" that made him both a highly respected intellectual figure, and a target for conservative opponents.
Published in 1978, "Orientalism" was a brilliantly written critique of the West, its academia, colonial officials, authors and artists, whose study and research of the Oriental experience, Said said, did not only serve to enrich knowledge but also assist in the occupation, the control and the subjugation of the Orient. Thus, according to Said, the Arab existence was presented to the West as static, passive and backward, facing a superior West."Of all American [literary] critics," said Richard Poirier, president of the Library of America, in a 1999 Boston Globe interview, Said "is certainly the most influential in anything touching upon the cultural criticism of literature."
But for many American Jewish organizations, and pro-Israel neoconservatives and scholars, Said was public enemy number one. Said regularly confronted other writers and academics such as Fouad Ajami and Bernard Lewis for positions that Said believed created a "colonial" attitude towards the Middle East that negatively influenced American foreign policy. Commentary, a journal published by the American Jewish Committee, dubbed him "The Professor of Terror," and a 1999 article in its pages drew widespread notice with its allegations about discrepancies in Said's account of his upbringing. (Atlantic Monthly noted that a similar account of Said's upbringing can be found in a book called Out of Place, the author of which is ... Edward Said.)
Currently Said's work is under attack by a group of influential conservative writers who make no secret of the fact they would like to see much of his work purged from American academia. Daniel Pipes, Martin Kramer and Stanley Kurtz, in particular, have led the charge. In a recent appearence before the House Subcommittee on Select Education, Mr. Kurtz attacked Said's influence.
In his regular columns for the Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram, Said has made his views about America crystal clear. Said has condemned the United States, which he calls, "a stupid bully," as a nation with a "history of reducing whole peoples, countries, and even continents to ruin by nothing short of holocaust." Said has actively urged his Egyptian readers to replace their naive belief in America as the defender of liberty and democracy with his supposedly more accurate picture of America as an habitual perpetrator of genocide.
But as his friend Alexander Cockburn of Counterpunch writes, while Said never liked these attacks, he knew that as long as he defended the Palestinian cause "there would be some enemy on the next housetop down the street eager to pour sewage on his head." And as Slate notes, regardless of one's political opinions of Said, his influence now, and into the future, cannot be discounted.
Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism are unquestionably incendiary, but they are also permanent and exemplary works of late-20th-century criticism, in no small part because they invite so much argument, because for all the intellectual authority they project they remain open, vulnerable, provisional. And they also fulfill the basic mandate of literary analysis, which is to illuminate the works they discuss: To return to Verdi's Aida, Conrad's Heart of Darkness, or Kipling's Kim after reading Said on them is to find them richer, stranger, and more complicated than you had ever imagined.