Edward Said, a South African Perspective


It is a grey Monday morning. In an hour or so a funeral will start at a church a block away from where I write. Besides the scores of regular worshippers and community activities of Harlem hosted by Riverside Church, enigmatic and provocative figures like Martin Luther King and Fidel Castro have orated from its pulpit. This morning it will be the place for a farewell to an enigmatic figure who was not without a certain controversy, especially in this city to which he gave so much. It is difficult to imagine saying farewell to Edward Said. And in fact it cannot quite be a farewell since his presence escapes the finitude of his body, which ultimately after a tenacious battle, succumbed to leukemia. But it is perhaps a farewell to a future which will be without the reliable, clarifying, passionately angry, intellectually and morally demanding prose which he produced so diligently. He leaves us both edified and wanting. His words found us in South Africa, as it has so many others around the world, in so many different ways and roles- as an inexhaustible scholar, activist, artist and adversary. His world was so large and his contribution to it so varied and complex that one can but only reflect with inadequacy on fragments which come to mind right now.

‘I have been unable to live an uncommitted or suspended life: I have not hesitated to declare my affiliation with an extremely unpopular cause. On the other hand, I have always reserved the right to be critical, even when criticism conflicted with solidarity’ he noted in an autobiographical reflection. Identities interested him in as far as they were conditions of domination, subjugation, marginalization. But he was always drawing our attention to Fanon’s observation about the pitfalls of nationalism- to how easily those identities can in turn become ways of excluding, marginalizing and subjugating others. He was, afterall, a victim of that mutation. The occupation of Palestine by Israel is perhaps the paradigmatic modern case of victims becoming oppressors: ‘to be exiled by exiles’ as he put it. But that was never for him a reason to become cynical, hopeless or resigned, both in practice and in thought. On the contrary, it seemed to energise him into doing more work as a scholar and activist, to become an exemplar of a way out of this pitfall- to show us through his own way of thinking and being in the world that there are political and aesthetic alternatives; difficult, challenging, demanding as they may be to navigate. He, for instance, consistently, and sometimes unpopularly pointed to the humanity of both sides of the occupation. His pathbreaking book, Orientalism (1978) drew the complex connection between the dehumanization of an Arab world disfigured by colonialism and the ways in which Arabs were constituted by Orientalist knowledge. His friendship with the world renowned Israeli pianist, Daniel Barenboim and their collaboration–forming an orchestra which brings together Palestinean and Israeli youth to communicate through music– was but the latest, though one imagines most rewarding, recent practical expression of this work.

The South African ‘solution’ did seem to hold much promise for Said. Despite what must have been a painfully long flight, he accepted invitations to speak in South Africa, which offered him an example of a way to establish a single political community by groups of people who had been erstwhile political enemies over a long period of time. The moral, political and strategic choices of the leadership of the South African liberation movements during the anti-apartheid struggle appeared to encourage him when contrasted with the leadership of the PLO. His recent involvement in founding and publicly supporting the Palestine National Initiative, under the leadership of Mustafa Barghouthi, is a way to offer the Palestinian people an alternative. But he resisted hagiography. Even in South Africa his talks were not the superficial salutations of miracle seekers. Nestled in them were the criticisms of a comrade. The last speech in South Africa was on higher education reform, where with much delicacy he cautioned against forgetting the value of humanities in our national educational priorities by vividly invoking the sublime but sensuous splendour of worlds opened up to him by libraries of books, by the explorations of reading and of writing.

Some months ago I assisted the Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani with organizing a conference at Columbia University which would bring together Israeli, Palestinean and South African intellectuals. It was to be an academic forum which would see if any lessons from South Africa could be brought to bear on what seems like an intractable problem. Said was asked to give the closing remarks. He had completed another course of treatment just the day before. The increasingly higher doses of chemotherapy left his body extremely fragile and vulnerable since it ravaged his immune system. This necessitated a period of isolation to restore his defences against infection. It would have made perfect sense for him not to show up. But he did. Looking frail, sporting a graying beard but elegantly attired as always; hoarse although familiarly erudite and eloquent, he closed the conference with a stirring address to what had swelled to a capacity crowd.

The Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif poignantly laments that we are left orphaned by the death of Edward Said. This does express something about his place in the political present. Especially in the current United States where uniformity defines the public space. Amidst the deafening cacophony of patriotic silence few insurgent voices command attention. In between and beneath this hegemony one came to rely on the next column by Said to dismantle the official-speak of Washington, to reprimand the dangerous intellectual sloppiness of its ‘experts’, and to chart the co-ordinates of a moral-political compass which was calibrated by a deep commitment to humanism. He could be unsparingly generous with praise, and equally unsparing with criticism. And now that voice is stilled. And we can no longer rely on it to do our work for us. We are, in that sense orphaned. But being orphaned is not only a loss. It can also be a productive. It challenges us to do that work ourselves. To find our own voices, ways of being, thinking and analyzing. This, after all, is what Edward Said had been urging us to do all along in his dexterously wide- ranging teaching and writing, conducted with what those who know him closely have described as ‘fighting words’. Indeed. Fighting words. To the end.

Hamba Kahle, Edward Said

[Go in Peace, Edward Said]

SUREN PILLAY is a native of South Africa, now at Columbia University. Pillay can be reached at: sp777@columbia.edu

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