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I just learned that Edward W. Said has died. Before reading how the corporate media will frame his obituary, I’ll say this: The world is far more empty place today.
Almost a decade ago, I reviewed “The Pen and the Sword,” a collection of Said interviews with David Barsamian, published by Common Courage Press. While some of the references are dated, the message remains as I would state it today. Below is that review…a meager attempt at saying thank you for the work and spirit of Edward W. Said, a true inspiration:
Thanks to popular culture, most Americans are taught to perceive Arabs as fanatical, yet inept, terrorists. Palestinians, so the conventional thinking goes, may not be the most fanatical but are certainly the most inept of the Arabs. Another equally voiceless group in this country is that of political dissidents. In a society where H. Ross Perot is accepted as an renegade outsider, true dissent is rarely discussed.
So, what can be said of Edward W. Said, a genuine political dissident who happens to have been born in Jerusalem when it was still in Palestine? An intellectual who suffered the pain of being uprooted from his home and forced to leave his homeland. Where is his voice heard? Upon first glance, Said’s status as University Professor in the Humanities at Columbia and his authorship of such books as Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism may disguise the depth of his marginalization. It is only after reading this collection of interviews by Alternative Radio founder, David Barsamian that one realizes how much of Said’s vision has been obscured. His contributions to a greater debate on culture’s role in advancing imperialism have been documented (albeit, not widely enough). Sure, Culture and Imperialism does point the accusing finger of blame at long-ignored targets like Albert Camus and Jane Austen, but it is when Said aims his considerable intellect at issues like Israel’s role in the chaos of the Middle East and the tacit complicity of the American press-and taxpayer-in that role that he provokes the most thought and emotion. Hence, what David Barsamian brings out through his insightful questioning in The Pen and The Sword is a glimpse of the heart behind the mind. With almost daily praise heaped upon Israel (and even Arafat) for “ending” the violence, it is practically cathartic to have Barsamian ask the difficult questions and hear Edward Said speak to the facts. Despite death threats from both sides of the battle, despite recently being diagnosed with leukemia, despite confronting a media that offers less criticism of Israel than the Israel’s own newspapers, Said speaks the unspeakable with impunity. When discussing the well-hyped treaty-signing ceremony, Said sees it in these terms:
“The actual ceremony itself, if one watched it, and I did, I had been invited but refused to attend because for me it wasn’t an occasion of celebration but an occasion for mourning, it was, I thought, quite tawdry. In the first place, there was Clinton, like a Roman emperor bringing two vassal kings to his imperial court and making them shake hands in front of him. Then there was the fashion show parade of star personalities brought in. Then, and most distressing of all, were the speeches, in which Israeli Prime Minister Rabin gave the Palestinian speech, full of the anguish, Hamlet’s anxiety and uncertainty, the loss, the sacrifice and so on. In the end I felt sorry for Israel. Arafat’s speech was in fact written by businessmen and was a businessman’s speech, with all the flair of a rental agreement. It was really quite awful. And since he didn’t even mention anything about the sacrifices of the Palestinian people, didn’t even mention the Palestinian people in any serious way, I thought therefore that the occasion was an extremely sad one. And it seemed to me therefore that his speech, the occasion, the ceremony, and so on, seemed to be completely in keeping with the contents of the agreement, which themselves also make the Palestinians subordinate dependents of the Israelis, who will in fact continue to control the West Bank and Gaza for the foreseeable future.”
For me, it is equally sad to contemplate a society without the well-reasoned voice of Edward W. Said. Barsamian asks him of his future and Said’s response resonates of controlled emotion:
“I try not to think about the future too much. One has to keep going. But in general, I feel much better about myself and my situation and my health. They’re synonymous with each other. I think the big battle is to try not to make it the center of your every waking moment; put it aside and press on with the tasks at hand. I’ve got a lot to say and write, I feel, and I just want to get on doing that.”
Anyone interested in fostering a more equitable social structure owes it to Edward W. Said-and themselves-to not allow his courageous efforts to be in vain. Even those who may disagree with his dissertations can benefit from The Pen and The Sword. It is a book of rare quality and importance.
MICKEY Z. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.