The Moment of Myth


Close proximity to a majestic mountain is a mixed blessing — one is at once graced by the magnanimity of its pastures and the bounty of its slopes, and yet one can never see where one is sitting, under the shadow of what greatness, the embracing comfort of what assurance. The splendor of mountains — Himalayas, Rockies, Alborz — can only be seen from afar, from the safe distance of only a visual, perceptive, appreciative, awe-inspiring grasp of their whereabouts.

A very happy few — now desolate and broken — have had the rare privilege of calling Edward Said a friend, fewer a colleague, even fewer a comrade, only a handful a neighbor — the closer you came to Edward Said the more his intimate humanity, ordinary simplicity, the sweet, endearing, disarmingly embracing character — his being a husband, a father, a father-in-law, an uncle, a cousin — clouded and colored the majesty that he was. Our emails and voicemails are still full of his precious words, his timely consolations, anecdotal humor, trivial questions, priceless advice — all too dear to delete, too intimate to share. We were all like birds flying around the generosity of his roof, tiny dandelions joyous in the shade of his backyard, minuscule creatures pasturing on the bounteous slopes of the mountain that he was.

The prince of our cause, the mighty warrior, the Salah al-Din of our reasoning with mad adversaries, source of our sanity in despair, solace in our sorrow, hope in our own humanity, is now no more.

In his absence now it is possible to remember the time when you were and he was not part of your critical consciousness, your creative disposition, your presence in the world — when he did not look over your shoulder watching every single word you wrote.

If remembering the time that you were but he was not integral to you is not to be an exercise in archeological futility, then it has to account for the distance, the discrepancy, between the bashful scholasticism of the learning that my generation of immigrant intellectuals received and the confidence and courage with which we can stand up today in face of outrageous fortune — hand in hand with our brothers and sisters across races and nations, creeds and chaos — and say, “NO!”

Today, there is a solidarity of purpose among a band of rebels and mutineers — gentiles are among us and Jews, Christians and pagans, Hindus and Muslims, atheists we are and agnostics, natives and immigrants — who speak truth to power with the voice of Edward Said the echo of our chorus. How we came here — where we are, hearing with his ears, seeing with his eyes, talking with his tongue — is a question not for making an historical record but for taking moral courage.

Now in the moment of his myth, when Edward Said has left us to our own devices and joined the pantheon of mythic monuments, is precisely the time to have, as he once said, a Gramscian inventory of our whereabouts — once with, and now without him. Today the world is at once poorer in his absence and yet richer through his memory — and precisely in that paradox dwell the seeds of our dissent, the promise of our future, the solemnity of our oath at the sacred site of his casket.

I come from a generation of immigrant intellectuals who mark the origin and disposition of their critical intelligence from the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978). The shape of our critical character, the voice of our dissent, the texture of our politics, and the very disposition of our courage, are all rooted in every nook and cranny of that revelatory text. It was in the year of the Iranian Revolution, 1979, less than a season after the publication of Orientalism, that Samuel Klausner, who taught us theory and method, first introduced me to Edward Said’s spectacular achievement in an utterly prosaic manner. I was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, finishing a dual degree in Sociology of Culture and Islamic Studies. By the time I read Orientalism (inhaled it rather, in one deep, satisfying swoop — drank it like a glass of freshly squeezed lemonade on a hot summer day), I had already read Karl Marx, Max Scheller, Max Weber, and George Herbert Mead on the sociology of knowledge. What Said had argued in Orientalism was straight out of a sociology of knowledge angle — and yet with a globality of vision, a daring, defiant imagination, and with such an assured audacity that I remember I could not believe my eyes — that I was reading these words in that particular succession of reason and rhetoric.

By the mid-1970s, my generation of sociologists at Penn had already started reading Michel Foucault in a systematic and rather unusual curriculum given that the discipline of sociology was then being rapidly sold out to federally funded policy research and demography — a downward spiral from which a once groundbreaking discipline never recovered. But at that time at Penn, Phillip Rieff, Digby Baltzell, Samuel Klausner, Harold Bershady, Victor Lidz, and Fred Block were serious theorists with a relatively universal approach to their sociological concerns. I wrote my doctoral dissertation with Phillip Rieff advising me on the sociological aspect of my work and with the late George Makdisi on the Islamic aspect. But the seed that Orientalism had planted in my critical consciousness never left my thoughts after that fateful Fall semester of 1979 when we read it with Samuel Klausner in that dimly lit, tiny room on the fifth floor of McNeal Building off Locust walk on the Penn campus — smack in the middle of the hostage crisis in Iran, when I could hear a chorus of Penn undergraduates shouting in unison, “Nuke Iran, Maim Iranians!”

Take Orientalism out of that curriculum, Edward Said out of our consciousness, and my generation of immigrant intellectuals would all be a bunch of dispirited souls susceptible to chronic melancholy, or else, horribile dictu, who would pathetically mutate into native informers of one sort or another — selling their souls to soulless sultans in DC or else to senile patriarchs in Princeton.

I had no clue as to Edward Said’s work in literary criticism prior to Orientalism, and for years after my graduation I remained entirely oblivious to it. It was Orientalism that would not let go of the way I thought and wrote about modern or medieval Islamic or Iranian intellectual history. From then on, I began a journey, at once professional and personal, moral and intellectual, that brought me literally to his doorstep on the campus of Columbia University — where I now teach. To my dying day, I will cherish the precise spot next to Miller Theater on the corner of 116th and Broadway where I met Edward for the first time and went up to him and introduced myself — the gratitude of a liberated voice in my greetings.

I discovered Edward Said first from Orientalism then his writings on Palestine, from there to his liberating reflections on the Iranian Revolution, and then from there I began an almost Jesuit training in every single book he ever wrote and the majority of his essays and articles, reading and re-reading them like a dutiful student preparing for a doctoral exam, long after I was giving doctoral examinations.

Today, of the myriad of things I have learned from Edward Said, nothing matters to me more than the rhapsodic eloquence of his voice — the majesty, confidence, courage, audacity, and poise of his diction, without which my generation of immigrant intellectuals would have been at the mercy of mercenary academics and embedded journalists who have now flooded the gutters of the mass media — uttering their pathologies with thick Arabic, Persian, or South Asian accents and yet speaking with a nauseating “We” that sides with the bankrupt architects of this predatory empire. In Edward Said’s voice, in his princely posture and magisterial air of confidence, the fragile tone of our almost silent objections and the frailty of our say in the matter suddenly rose to the occasion.

Through Edward Said we suddenly found comrades we never knew we had, friends and families we never suspected in our own neighborhood — Asia, Africa, and Latin America suddenly became the extension of our home away from home. Jose Marti I discovered through Edward Said, as I did Kojin Karatani, Chinua Achebe, Eqbal Ahmad, Tariq Ali, Ranajit Guha, Gayatri Spivak, Seamus Deane, Masao Miyoshi, Ngugi wa Thiongo. Everyone else we thought we knew he made new sense of for us — Aime Cesaire, Frantz Fanon, Mahatma Gandhi, Mahmoud Darwish, Nazim Hikmat, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Faiz Ahmad Faiz.

As the color of our skin began to confuse the color line drawn tyrannically between blacks and whites in the United States — segregated in the respective corners of their misplaced confidence about their races — we Asians and Latinos, Arabs, Turks, Africans, Iranians, Armenians, Kurds, Afghans and South Asians were instantly brought together beyond the uncommon denominator of our origin and towards the solidarity of our emerging purpose, the nobility of our handshake with Edward Said.

For years after I had come to Columbia, I could not quite reconcile the public, mythic, iconic Edward Said, and the immediate Edward of my increasing acquaintance and friendship, camaraderie and solidarity. It was as if there was an Edward Said the Magnificent for the rest of the world and then another Edward for a happy few. The two were not exactly irreconcilable; they posited a question, a distance in need of traversing — how could a mortal so fragile, frail, and accessible cut a global figure so monumental, metaphoric, parabolic?

When two years ago an infamous charlatan slandered me in a New York tabloid and created a scandalous website to malign my public stand against the criminal atrocities he supports, my voicemail was flooded with racist, obscene and threatening messages by the lunatic fringe he had let loose. Smack in the middle of these obscenities, as if miraculously, there was a message from Edward — a breath of fresh air, refreshing, joyous, re-assuring, life-affirming: “Hamid, my dear, this is Edward . . .” Life was so amazingly beautiful. I kept listening to those obscenities just for the joy of coming to Edward’s message. There was something providential in his voice — it restored hope in humanity. Today at Edward’s funeral, the heartbroken few who could look over the shoulder of the pallbearers of Edward’s coffin were witness to yet another sublime restoration of hope when Daniel Barenboim played Bach’s Prelude in E-Flat from Part I of the Well-Tempered Clavier as a musical tribute to his deceased friend. Those in the vicinity of this miracle saw and heard that the Maestro’s loving farewell was no longer just a virtuoso pianist playing a beautiful piece of music– but that they were privy to Daniel Barenboim speaking with Edward Said for the very last time, in the common language of their choice, privilege and transcendence.

Edward Said was the walking embodiment of hope — one extraordinary incident that sought and detected an extraordinary sparkle in otherwise very ordinary people who happened on his watch. Years before, when I had open heart surgery and my dear, now departed, friend and colleague, Magda al-Nowaihi was just diagnosed with ovarian cancer, Edward was extraordinary in his support: calling on us regularly, sending us his new books and articles, reading our manuscripts, making fun of what he called our postmodernisms — he was the sound of our laughter, the color of our joy, the shape of our hope. Magda fought her malignant cancer for years until her young children became teenagers; I defied my congenital fate and lived — Edward, the model of our endurance, the measures of our truth, the meaning of our daring to walk into a classroom.

The closer I became to Edward the more impossible it seemed to tell what exactly it was that went into the making of his heroic character in such mythic measures — by now I was too close to the mountain, embraced by its grace, oblivious to its majesty. But even in public, the account of his life that Edward Said published is no different. One reads his Out of Place (1999) in vain looking for a clue, a succession of historical or psychological causes and traits, as to what great or consequential events make for a monumentally moral life. Everything about Edward Said was rather ordinary, and yet an extraordinary adventure was made of the prosaic occurrences of this very life.

Born in Palestine in 1935, named Edward after the Prince of Wales, he lived a life of exile like millions of other Palestinians in the Arab world. Sent to Mount Hermon High School in New England, and subsequently to Princeton and Harvard for his higher education, Edward Said reports of no extraordinary event that one can identify, analyze, theorize as the defining moment of the mythic figure that he cut at the time of his untimely death. Edward was an ordinary man. Edward Said was a giant. The distance was covered by nothing other than the glory of his daring imagination.

Knowing Edward Said personally was a study in how heroes are made from the flesh and blood of the most ordinary and perishable realities. A Palestinian, an exile, an academic intellectual, a teacher, a scholar, a husband, a father, a friend: none of this common and abundant evidence of a disjointed world can account for the sum total of Edward Said as a towering figure measuring the very definition of a moral life.

“Did you know Professor Said,” I asked Chaplin Davis here at Columbia when looking for a place for Miriam Said to receive the flood of visitors who wanted to pay their respects last Friday. “I never met him,” she said, “but I know he was a warrior,” and then she looked at me with a bright set of shining eyes and added “. . . for justice.” “It was just like a light going off on campus,” another colleague said of Edward’s death.

If one is to begin anywhere to place the particulars of Edward Said’s moral and intellectual life together it is not in the prosaics of his exilic life that he shares with millions of others, Palestinian or otherwise, but in the poetics of his creative defiance of his fate — where he was able repeatedly to give birth to himself. At his death, Edward Said was the moral mandate, the volcanic outburst of a life otherwise wasted in and by accidents that accumulate to nothing. Exile was his fate and he triumphantly turned it into the fruit of his life — the gift he gave to a world now permanently cast into an exilic departure from itself.

We can find few places in Out of Place that reveal the creative concatenation of such moments better than the concluding paragraph of the book. Like his life, Said’s autobiography has to be read from its endings and not from its beginnings. “Sleeplessness for me,” he says, “is a cherished state to be desired at almost any cost” (295). He stayed awake when the world went to sleep — the insomniac conscience of the world, conversant with Minerva, observant with his eyes wide awake, like a wise owl, all-seeing, all-hearing, vigilant. “There is nothing for me as invigorating as immediately shedding the shadowy half-consciousness of a night’s loss, than the early morning, reacquainting myself with or resuming what I might have lost completely a few hours earlier.”

It is here, in the twilight borderline of repeated promises of a dawning light against the assured persistence of darkness, when it appears that the darker moments of our despair must yield to brighter hopes, that we always find Edward Said waiting for the rest of us to awake, to arrive. “With so many dissonances in my life I have learned actually to prefer being not quite right and out of place.” Right here, I believe, Edward Said has rested his case and left his indelible mark on the rest of us, trying, as we are, to learn from him how to complement fatefully while remaining humanly incomplete. That, in my judgment, is the principal reason why such a multitude of people ordinarily at political and ideological odds with each other deeply loved Edward without contradicting themselves or him. His was a spontaneous soul — he generated and sustained good will and moral purpose on the impulses of the premise he was given, not on the projected idealism of some metaphysical certainty.

What was paramount about Edward Said is that in his utter solitude he was never alone. He always spoke for an otherwise muted possibility of living a moral life against all odds, a graceful David swinging his sling and launching his stones against the Goliath of a world so mercilessly cast in the logic of its own madness — to be the moral voice of a people, and to turn the tragic fate of that people into the tragedy of a global predicament in which we have all become homeless Palestinians. His virtue was to turn the vices of his time into momentous occasions for a more universal good that went beyond the specificity of one wrong or another. There was a catholicity to his liberating knowledge, a generosity to his moral rectitude, that easily transgressed boundaries and put to shame all territorial claims to authenticity. He was, as he rightly said, always slightly out of place, but that only brought out what was wrong with that place that could not completely accommodate him in the entirety of his character and culture.

In his legacy, Said has made a universal virtue out of the particular predicament that the world handed him at birth. Born in Palestine but denied his ancestral claims on that land, raised in Egypt but schooled with a British colonial education, dispatched to the United States by way of his father’s claiming a more permanent part of his American dream but constantly driven to speak the truth of that lie to the powers that hold it, Said turned the inevitability of his fate into the defining moment of his stature as the iconic figure of an entire generation of hope — against a whole culture of despair.

Edward Said’s life has its most immediate bearing as an eloquent testimonial of a people much maligned and brutalized in history. His life and legacy cannot and must not be robbed of that immediacy. It is first and foremost as a Palestinian — a disenfranchised, dispossessed, disinherited Palestinian — that Edward Said spoke. The ordinariness of his story — particularly in those moments when he spoke openly, frankly, innocently of his early youth, adolescence, sibling rivalries, sexual maturity, etc. — is precisely what restores dignity to a people demonized by a succession of purposeful propaganda, dehumanized to be robbed of their homeland in the broad daylight of history. No assessment of his multifaceted achievements as a teacher, a critic, and a scholar, no laudatory endorsement of his universal humanism, no perfectly deserving appreciation of him as a musician, an essayist, a subaltern theorist, a political activist, etc. — nothing should ever detract from his paramount significance as a Palestinian deeply wounded by the fate of what he repeatedly and wholeheartedly called “my people.”

But Edward Said was not just a Palestinian, though a Palestinian he proudly was. Edward Said also became an icon, a moral paragon in a time when taking desperate measures have cast doubt on the very possibility of a moral voice, and here the ordinariness of his life makes the extraordinary voice that he was even more enduring. Said was not just a Palestinian. But he made every one else look like a Palestinian: made homeless by the mad logic of a brutal game of power that has robbed the whole world of any semblance of permanence.

How to remain an incessantly moral voice in a morally impermanent world, how to transfigure the disfigured mutations of the world into a well-mannered measure of truth, how to dismantle the power that false knowledge projects and yet insist that the just is right and the truth is beautiful — that is the legacy of Edward Said, right from the mountain top of his majestic peak visible from afar, down to the slopes of his bountiful pastures which few fortunate souls were blessed to call home.

HAMID DABASHI is the Chair of the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) Department, Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies, and the Director of Graduate Studies at the Center for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University.