Edward Said, a Corporeal Dream Not Yet Realized

To me, and to many around the world, I suppose, Edward Said’s name will always be associated –above all other things — with beyond-ness … . He is (past tense can only be used with those of much humbler legacies) beyond death, as we’ve understood it, in the sense that the last tremor of his heart, normally coupled with cessation of life, or the beginning of the end of physical existence, failed in his case to introduce the next stage, the utter nothingness. It is an attribute of great men and women that their physical demise does not, indeed can not, entail their end. In our contemporary world, few will earn such a privilege as Edward Said has.

He is beyond in the expansive reach of his intellect, from opera to Islam, from literature to philosophy, and quite a lot in between.

I shall focus here on one particular domain in Said that usually does not earn headlines in the western media: the deeply transforming effect of his philosophy of oppression and resistance. For Palestinians and all the oppressed in the developing or notworld, Said has been a unique inspiration for ethical resistance, for struggle against injustice, and for humanism translated to our respective languages and our idiosyncratic cultures and modes of thinking. Knowing ourselves, freeing our minds, taking pride in our culture as well as sharing that of others were always to Said the keys to emancipation.

Although I was never fortunate enough to be an actual student of his, I learned quite a lot from him, nonetheless. Beyond Orientalism and The Question of Palestine, I learned mostly from his dignifying and humanizing approach to the dehumanized. The following two personal anecdotes will reveal a part of this special aspect of Said’s beyondness.

Remorse & Inspiration

Back in 1984, when I was president of what was then the Arab Club of Columbia University, I relentlessly sought ways to invite Edward Said to our events. He was, after all, our own, our pride, our celebrity, the unelected voice in the west of the voiceless Palestinians. I was aware of Said’s persistent refusal to speak at “Arab” events, as he loathed “speaking to the converted,” as he once explained. I tried to steel a moment from his perpetually busy office schedule to convince him that our events had attracted 95% Americans, mostly students who could not exactly be described as in love with Palestine — those familiar with Columbia will know exactly what I am referring to — but I could never get him to see me, or any of us, for that matter. And then — you knew a ‘then’ was coming — on one ordinary day I was leafleting the campus with a flier for an event we had planned, with a prominent Jewish American intellectual as keynote. I had a special style of leafleting, by the way: I taped the fliers in geometric shapes on the beautifully spacious steps leading to the Alma Mater, on the floors, and just about everywhere else where average students would not expect to see any fliers.

Edward Said happened to pass by with his early morning coffee and bagel. He saw me pacing, arranging my artwork with precision, symmetry and devotion, to attract the eyes that were not trained to see anything related to Palestine. I had a glimpse of him approaching and skimming one of the neatly arranged fliers, but I continued with my work as if I hadn’t. He came up to me and jokingly asked: “What are you doing at 6:30 am littering the steps?” Quickly suppresing my overwhelming joy at having this nothing less than an aloof god speak to me, I nonchalantly answered: “Leafleting for an event.” “Quite impressive,” was his reaction to my cold-shoulder, which he had rarely experienced, especially coming from a Palestinian student. “Thanks to your enormous help, professor, we are doing very well with our information campaign,” was my second verbal missile directed at him. We both knew that he had done nothing whatsoever until then to help us in any way or form. But only until then. In an apparent moment of guilt, he extended to me a warm invitation to meet him in his office — shrine! — that very same day. Thrilled, proud and above all speechlessly vindicated, I immediately swallowed my pride and accepted.

He had genuinely thought that we were doing classic anti-Israel events that addressed Arabs and their close supporters only. When he realized he was wrong, he had the courage to express it, in his own way. And from that moment on he played a decisive role in turning the tides at Columbia, promoting true debate on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, bringing into campus new perspectives and arguments that most students and faculty had not been exposed to.

Since then, Edward Said spoke at several of our events. In his typical charisma and distinguished intellect, Said always had a extraordinary blend of effects on our overcrowded audiences: electrifying, educating, charming, provoking, angering, engaging, and if an arrogant antagonist insisted on trying to nail him with false premises or warped argumentation (needless to say, such cases were far from rare at Columbia), he/she deserved the VIP treatment that was invariably served to them by Said: intellectual crucifixion, in public! Only one other genius in my long experience in student activism possessed such potent weapons of logical devastation: Noam Chomsky.

An unintended result of a series of our highly successful events, inspired by Said, was the skyrocketing of our organization’s stature. We even used to quip at our new image as “one of the major organizations on campus,” as other groups viewed us, not knowing that at best our highly committed and motivated membership roster hardly ever reached the two-digit territory!! In retrospect, it wasn’t just Said’s prominence that helped us, it was his spirit of resistance against all odds that profoundly inspired us, and, I must say, transformed some of us irreversibly. And I thought that only Lenin had the magic formula for transforming a handful of committed activists into an able and consequential force of change.

Principles First

After years of excellent relations, a storm was bound to arrive in our relationship with the Grand Palestinian. At the height of the first Palestinian intifada (1987 1993), some of the Zionist organizations on campus (god, we had too many!) decided to invite the head of the Israeli “legal” system in the occupied Palestinian territories, a decorated army general who was/is responsible for too many crimes to enumerate here. The Arab student association and several other progressive student organizations decided to campaign to prevent this military leader, who had “blood on his hands,” as our thorough research had revealed, from speaking at Columbia. We had an intense internal debate on whether his speech would constitute incitement to violence, justification of racism, defence of murder committed by his army almost daily in Palestine, or … simply an instant of free speech. We tried to persuade the organizers that such a speaker carried so much colonial and criminal baggage on his shoulders that his words were inherently seditious. We drew analogies to a far-right organization inviting, for instance, a former SS general. Though they were not amused by the analogy, some of them admitted that it was “a logically legitimate comparison.” Nevertheless, we miserably failed in selling them the idea of disinviting him. We shifted to Plan B. We asked for equal representation on the panel of our side, “the other side” — as they’ve often superciliously demanded in our events. We were rebuffed, mercilessly, I should add. Why should they feel any pressure from a tiny coalition of student groups who could not remotely measure up to the immense power they held and projected on campus? At that point, we were almost obsessed with trying to answer that question in a way that would surprise them, if not teach them a badly needed lesson in humility and moral consistency.

We consulted with our treasured gurus, Said, Chomsky, and the not-so-famous then, Norman Finkelstein. We had no idea at the time that the three were first-amendment aficionados! They replied in unexpected unison: no matter how criminal this general might be — they all agreed he was — his talk at Columbia could only be construed as a practice of freedom of speech, which we, the patent victims of censorship, ought to defend and promote. It was a cold shower to all of us, demoralizing and shaking. How could they not see the other side, how such a speech would in all certainty amplify the already hateful atmosphere around us on campus, how it could breathe new life into the alarming death threats that some of us had received. To them, the principle came first, above all other things, beyond emotion and transient indignation. Said even threatened to publicly criticize us if we pursued any path of censorship against the bloody general.

Of course we were compelled to change our tactics to accommodate that advice/obligation. We decided to picket outside the Law School auditorium, where the general was to speak, then walk into the hall, listen to him and finally challenge him head-on. But we decided to do it with style. We carefully hid our Palestinian flags and anti-occupation banners under our clothes and went into the hall after it was all full yes, it was revoltingly full!!and stood at the top level, all around the auditorium, awaiting the right moment to unfold them. It was a non-violent form of protest, we thought, that could not be remotely discerned as censorship. We had no plan, though, so we improvised.

When the general was finally introduced, he stood up and, fitting the image of a colonial viceroy, walked to the podium with deliberation, flanked by two massive bodyguards. We impulsively opened our banners and held them high. What would Said think of us now, I wondered. He would be angry, but proud, I immediately convinced myself. The general was particularly stung by the site of the large flag in my hands which at the time was entirely banned in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, partially due to his rulings. The very use of the combination of its colors, red, black, green and white, was enough to guarantee the perpetrator a tough military sentence. I was of course conscious of that. He nervously stepped back and whispered with the MC, a gentle rabbi who was more accommodating than the entire leadership of the Zionist groups on campus. Interpreting the general’s retreat from the podium as a sweet little victory for us, we broke into chants. He was visibly fuming.

In a daunting development, however, a small army of the notoriously insensitive New York City police was in the hall and surrounding each one of us in a flying moment — you would wish they reacted to crime with such lightening efficiency! I openly dared the MC to have us arrested thereby risking a definite breakdown in our mutual attempts at reconciliation. That desperate tactic to avoid arrest — which could mean deportation of all of us who were foreign students — surprisingly succeeded. He asked the police to stand by. After several rounds of the rabbi’s polite pleas for quiet, which included promises to give us the floor after the speech, and our unyielding, yet orderly, chanting, amidst a state of collective shock that had struck the audience — after all, it wasn’t everyday that someone could so audaciously challenge such an omnipotent alliance of Zionist groups at Columbia — the MC decided to negotiate with me to end the standoff. Since I had no mandate to speak on behalf of the group, I look from afar at my colleagues, and they instantly gave me a green light. They trusted me to reach a good compromise. What would Edward Said advise me to do in such a predicament, I asked myself. We met in the middle; the rabbi went up a few steps, I went down a few. I had every intention to stall, but at the same time I had to maintain my honesty and sense of responsibility in my negotiations with him. I did respect his integrity and occasional flurry of humanism. Ten minutes into our respectful dialogue, we reached an agreement.

The rabbi went to the small stage to inform his guest of the agreement. I crossed the hall to share with my colleagues the details.

And then, I held up my flag and went down to the podium. The rabbi announced the agreement on the microphone: “A representative of the protesting groups will speak for five minutes and then ask his group to walk out. Then, our distinguished speaker will finally get to deliver his speech, uninterrupted.” The audience was now entering into clinical shock. Unable to hide my glee, I slowly mounted the stage and stood behind the podium to give my five-minute speech, basically trying to convince as many people as possible to walk out with us to protest the speaker’s criminal record. Suddenly, the general got up and shouted: “I shall not accept this humiliation, standing next to a Palestinian carrying a flag.” He carried his briefcase and walked out with his guards. Conscious of the meaning of this windfall, we feverishly started chanting. Some in the audience cried, some just left with their heads down. We, on the other hand, felt that our heads were going to hit the ceiling. Said must be proud, I thought. I was dead wrong.

When the news reached him, he ranted and raved. He immediately accused us of hurting our own cause, and he made well on his promise, he spoke out publicly against us. When I met him after that, he had cooled down, and we had a rational debate. He did admit that our act was “courageous,” “effective” and “seemingly unavoidable,” but wrong, nonetheless. I could live with that.

Despite his unapproachable aura, he was there when we needed insightful advice. Even when he wasn’t with us, we summoned him in our minds when we needed a voice of reason and humanness to guide us. Now that he is physically gone, his voice, his words, his unfulfilled dream will literally live on, educating, enraging, provoking, enchanting and ultimately freeing us.

OMAR BARGHOUTI is a Palestinian doctoral student of philosophy (ethics) at Tel Aviv University. He is also a political analyst. His article “9.11 Putting the Moment on Human Terms” was chosen among the “Best of 2002” by the Guardian. His articles have appeared in the Hartford Courant, Al-Ahram and CounterPunch, among others.