This is a tribute piece to Edward Said considering the recent 15th anniversary of his passing. I first discovered Edward Said, from memory, in my early 20s (I’m 42 now). While reading for my Masters, I explored Said further. Although I was studying International Relations, it was difficult not to come across Said’s concepts, and writings; particularly since much of it was cross-disciplinary. It was at this point that I became familiar with Orientalism (a book I feel that everyone should read). It remains a seminal, bold and pioneering work which revolutionised the discourse on Empire.
As a minority of colonial heritage, it struck a powerful chord. Yes, it was dense and somewhat esoteric, but I felt for once I had read something that seemed to understand the deep racial, multi-faceted and systemic nature of Empire. Orientalism was an attitude, it was a mindset, it was an industry that encouraged, maintained and rationalised Empire and imperial conquest. In Said’s own words;
“Orientalism can be discussed and analysed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient—dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.”
Before Orientalism, most discourse focused on the political and economic aspects of Empire: Said drew attention to the cultural aspects of Empire. Orientalism empowered people; it empowered Anti-Imperialists, it empowered students, it empowered academics, and it challenged Western society to introspect on long-held deep-seated attitudes, preconceptions and prejudices that underpinned its perspective on the Orient. Orientalism-at least in academic circles-became a movement.
Said’s academic background was in English and comparative literature; being of Palestinian heritage it proved impossible for him, however, not to embrace the Palestinian cause; (In his biography he recollects how his mother suggested he should just focus on English) after all Israel and the Zionist project embodied the very colonial attitudes that he conceptualised in Orientalism.
Over time, as he gained a wider following his writing became more lucid and less esoteric. It was in his writings on the Palestinian cause that one saw the genuinely inspired, intense, passionate and eloquent Edward Said. He fast became the most outstanding authority on the topic. Although an emotive issue for him, his arguments were invariably powerful, compelling and substantiated. It was the strength of these arguments that earnt him the ire of many in Israel (including at elite levels) and those of its supporters outside: a sign of respect. It was Said’s writings on this issue that inspired me to read about and follow it.
Said, however, was more than just an armchair critic; he lived his words and was a political activist who demonstrated exemplary courage. His thinking on the Palestinian cause was once again ahead of his time; whilst most people including some of his friends such as Noam Chomsky-advocated a two-state solution Said could see that ultimately there would only be one right and practical solution: for Jews and Palestinian’s to live together in one democratic state with equal rights and equal representation. In his own words;
” The alternatives are unpleasantly simple: either the war continues…or a way out, based on peace and equality (as in South Africa after apartheid) is actively sought, despite the many obstacles. Once we grant that Palestinians and Israelis are here to stay, then the decent conclusion has to be the need for peaceful co-existence and genuine reconciliation. Real self-determination.”
I was lucky enough to see Edward Said about 18 months before he passed. He carried himself with aplomb, dressed in typical academic garb, as he spoke his vast erudition, knowledge and intellectual genius were very apparent. He was a most fascinating and remarkable human being. He saw the role of an intellectual as one who ‘spoke truth to power’ even at the risk of ostracism or imprisonment. He was that intellectual. Said may be gone but his legacy, his activism, his books and most of all his passion will never be forgotten.