Edward Said was a man of critical genius, according to Comparative Literature Prof. David Palumbo-Liu at a talk last night in the History building. At the event, which was held in memory of the recently deceased Palestinian-American professor, keynote speaker Dr. Ghada Karmi argued Said's ideas should be put to work in resolving the current Israel-Palestine conflict.
The talk was sponsored by the Coalition for Justice, the Muslim Student Awareness Network, Organization of Arab-American Students in Stanford and the Stanford Egyptian Association, and was attended by approximately 100 people, including many non-students.
Said, born in Palestine, moved to England in 1948 following the bloodshed at Deir Yassen. Educated at Harvard and Princeton, he went on to teach at Columbia University and serve as president of the Modern Language Association. He was a visiting fellow at Stanford from 1975 to 1976 and a noted political activist for the Palestinian cause, serving on the Palestine National Conference from 1977 to 1991.
Khalil Barhoum, the coordinator of African and Middle Eastern languages and literatures at Stanford, served as master of ceremonies. He was a close friend of Said's, and opened the evening by describing Said's convictions.
"His [beliefs] were those of a man who cherished justice over power, conscience over pain, and universal human rights over xenophobic and colloquial interests," Barhoum said. "Needless to say, individuals like him are quite unique, and for that we are quite grateful."
Barhoum said that the death of Said came as a shock, though Said had been battling leukemia for over a decade.
"Deep down we somehow imagined, perhaps believed, that Edward Said was virtually indestructible," he said. "It's as if we never contemplated the moment when this giant of a man would finally fall and simply vanish from our lives once and for all."
Karmi's talk, entitled "In the Footsteps of Edward Said: The Future of Palestine / Israel," stressed the need for Said's legacy not to be forgotten in the midst of a turbulent political time. Karmi, a research fellow at Exeter University in England and author, cited Said's influence of literary criticism as a professor and Columbia University, but said his final importance lay elsewhere.
"In that [academic] sense, the whole world could claim him," she said. "But it was the Palestinian people who claimed him first and foremost. He derived his passion, his animation . . . from being Palestininan, and in a very particular way, he was informed by the notion of dispossession."
Karmi said, though, that she felt some were happy to see Said go.
"In the midst of this grief that I felt, I also found myself thinking that there would be one group of people who would be celebrating Edward's demise, and that would be the Zionists," she said. "Because the Zionists . . . really fear losing the battle for hearts and minds. That is the real weapon that the Palestinians should have against the Zionists, and of course Edward had it in enormous measure."
Karmi praised the effect that Said had in changing Western attitudes about the Palestinian situation.
"He was the voice of the Palestinians in the West, and his effect was so tremendous [that] he reversed perceptions in the West, which was an enormous achievement," she said. "Edward's contributions as far as Palestinians were concerned [was that] he acted as a bridge, a cultural bridge, between the Palestinians and the West on one hand, and as a bridge between [fragmented communities of] Palestinians on the other."
Karmi said that Israel has oppressed the Palestinian people and yet seems immune to international censure.
"The Holocaust, Jewish persecution, means that the Jews deserved a refuge," she said, paraphrasing a justification for the creation of the state of Israel. "And if you criticize anything the Jews do, you're [seen as] anti-Semitic."
Karmi said that the Israelis have unjustly taken the Palestinian homeland and that their actions have created a situation untenable in the long term.
"You can't have a situation in which this kind of repression and this kind of violence continues," she said.
After explaining that she feels Israeli settlement has made independent Israeli and Palestinian states impossible, Karmi said that she supports a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. She said that the preservation of Said's ideals is of utmost importance in achieving this end.
"So what's going to happen, where are we going with this?" she asked. "Edward Said was very well aware that the fundamental problem in Israel-Palestine is in the incompatibility of narrative. What you have are two people who claim this same land, and they claim it on a basis that is clearly incompatible."
Referencing the explosive political situation in regards to the Israel-Palestine conflict, Karmi said that the only remaining option for both peoples was one of tolerance.
"Let us say, let us live together," she said. "Let us join . . . [in] a secular democracy in which we don't have people who are classified by race or ethnic basis or color.
"That seems to be the only way forward," she continued. "The idea of ethnic states, exclusivist states, religious states, is an idea that belongs to the past. There is no room for that now or in the future."
Prior to Karmi's speech, Palumbo-Liu gave a talk entitled "The Critical World of Edward Said." He focused on the way Said changed literary criticism.
"He revolutionized literary theory by politicizing it in a very grounded, very empiricist way," Palumbo-Liu said.
Palumbo-Liu praised Said's work in reaction to his book, "Orientalism."
"It's a consciousness of political culture as discrimination," he said. "In the face of such hegemonic practices, Said sees precisely the opening for such critique."
The manner in which Said empowered critical thinking and questioning of the dominant ideology was groundbreaking, according to Palumbo-Liu.
"It is the humanizing process that both names and critiques the dehumanizing process and seeks to restore humanity to those who are denied it," he said. "The idea is that human beings are not closed receptacles but instruments through which other things flow.
"For me, this particular idea of instrumentality is one that Edward Said fulfilled better than anyone else, and it is a huge part of his legacy that he inspired others to do so as well," Palumbo-Liu continued.
Barhoum, after thanking Provost John Etchemendy for attending the memorial, closed the talk with an epigram for Said: "A great Palestinian, a distinguished American and, above all, a remarkable human being."