This week marks the anniversary of Edward Said’s death. I am tempted to write about his life as an intellectual in opposition, an organic figure of dissent, as Antonio Gramsci would have put it. It is important at this time of turmoil, not only in Palestine, but also globally, to remember Said as he would have wanted us to remember him, out of place.
Personally, I communicated with him via email only twice in order to invite him to South Africa when I was studying and working there for an event organized by the solidarity groups, and before the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held in Durban to inquire whether he was attending. Alas, he replied that he was getting treatment for leukemia.
Around that time, I was challenged by a nice white South African academic in a conference where we had a great discussion about the apartheid-Zionism analogy and the Palestinian and South African anti-apartheid struggle. The discussion went on to reach the level of impressive achievements by the South African people, from four Nobel Prizes to the Man Booker International Prize…etc He had no clue about Ghassan Kanafani, Fadwa Touqan, Toufiq Zayyad, Samih El-Qasim, Mouin Bseiso—to mention but a few Palestinian giants. He then decided to throw a bomb by saying: “We have Nelson Mandela, who do you have?” And I, with no hesitation whatsoever, shot back: Edward Said! That ended the discussion.
And in February of this year, I volunteered to work with our university in Gaza to hold what is believed to be the first Edward Said Memorial Lecture in Palestine where the hall was packed by academics, cultural figures and students who listened to a fiery, well articulated lecture by one of Said’s students, Dr. Samah Idriss, editor of the highly reputable Lebanese Journal, Al-Adab.
What I, as a Palestinian and “oriental other,” have learned from Said is unmatched: the complicity of culture in European imperialism, including the Zionist narrative; ‘contrapuntal reading’ as a ‘counter-narrative’; the interrelation between ‘affiliation’ and ‘worldliness’ and ‘secular criticism’ being a strategy of intellectual interference. One thing I do in my class, where my students happen to be Palestinian, is a subversion of the role of aesthetics in colonialism as one of its most salient features. In our discussion, we look at the dialectics of knowledge/power as used in his seminal work Orientalism, to repudiate the ‘purity’ and ‘disinterestedness’ of the Orientalist scholarship. Our conclusion is that there is no ‘innocent’ European discursive field pertinent to the East. The difference between the West and East is clarified in this amazing passage from Orientalism:
With such experiences as Napoleon’s the Orient as a body of knowledge in the West was modernized … there was everywhere among Orientalists the ambition to formulate their discoveries, experiences, and insights suitably in modern terms, to put ideas about the Orient in very close touch with modern realities.
In one of the courses I teach, we study texts that deal with European stereotypical stances contingent upon a binary opposition where the ‘West’ denotes such traits as enlightenment, progress, reason and ‘civilization’ while the ‘East’ is a typical embodiment of a negative inversion of these traits. This is based on his argument that “[a]ll representation is misrepresentation of one sort or another…”
The texts we study in my classes range from the extremely racist novel by V.S. Naipaul A Bend in the River to the critical The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid’s, Njabulu Ndebele’s, Ousmane Sembene’s and Noureddin Farah’s anti-colonial, African short stories, and Ghassan Kanafani’s “Resistance Literature”—Men in the Sun, Returning to Haifa, All That Is Left to You, “Land of Sad Oranges,” and “Death of Bed 12.” Our choice of these texts emanates from Said’s emphasis on the existence of resistance to, and even within, Orientalism. Ours is a “contrapuntal” reading that manifests what he himself called “the great culture of resistance that emerged in response to imperialism.”
Hence the importance of his repeated references to “individual agency” as a substantial constituent of his critical enterprise. This is where the role of the intellectual as an oppositional figure comes in as someone who transgresses the official lines of power, as he argues in Representations of the Intellectual. The intellectual’s role
has an edge to it, and cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them) to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d’etre is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.”
This is the reason why he uses one word “oppositional” consistently along with criticism. And this is why we have decided to teach Ghassan Kanfani’s literary works. However, teaching the works of Naipaul is due to the post-colonial fact that the European imperialist project in the non-Western world was consolidated by European high culture with the collusion of rarefied intellectuals rationalizing and concealing the use of moral power to achieve what Said has called an “ideological pacification.” In his Culture and Imperialism, he argues very eloquently, in a Fanonian style, that these intellectuals had broken faith with their very own ideas when they committed themselves to the belief that there was a hierarchy of peoples, which rises serious ideological questions about the use of the term “post-coloniality”, which to some extent, is a continuation of colonial subjugation.
Like him, and Vico before him, we strongly believe that human culture, since it is man-made, can be positively shaped by human efforts. This is why, inspired by his ideas, we have started our BDS campaigns in order to ‘speak back’ to Zionism, neo–colonialism, raise moral issues pertaining to Palestine, reveal injustices and—most importantly–speak truth to power.
These are harsh times for us Palestinians what with the denial of our basic rights, Israeli elections where only right-wing parties are competing, a “deal of the century” where we are being asked to sign on our own extinction…etc What would Edward Said have said, written, and done?