Cultural Series: Faces & TracesEdward W. Said: A son of Jerusalem [Archives:2007/1060/Culture]

June 18 2007

Compiled by Eyad N. Al-Samman
Faces & Traces is a cultural series of concise biographies of local or international famous and obscure personalities in fields such as literature, arts, culture and religion in which these individuals contribute affirmatively. It is a short journey in contemporary history, attempting to tackle numerous effective characters in human civilization.

Edward Wadie Said was a well-known Palestinian-American literary intellectual, musician and outspoken Palestinian activist. Born in Jerusalem in November 1935, he was named Edward after the Prince of Wales. His father, a U.S. citizen, was a wealthy Christian Palestinian businessman.

While in Jerusalem, Said attended the Anglican St. George's Academy; however, his extended family became refugees during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, so they moved to Cairo where he attended the Cairo School for American Children and Victoria College.

At age 15, Said's parents sent him to the United States where he entered the Mount Hermon School, a private preparatory high school in Massachusetts. Said earned a bachelor's degree from Princeton, followed by a master's and a doctorate from Harvard.

He joined the Columbia University faculty in 1963, serving as an English and comparative literature professor for several decades. In 1977, Said became the Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia and further ascended to the rank of University Professor, Columbia's most prestigious academic position, in 1992.

He was bestowed numerous honorary doctorates from universities around the world and twice received Columbia's Lionel Trilling Award and the American Comparative Literature Association's Wellek Prize.

Said published his first book, “Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography,” in 1966. However, he didn't begin his academic career as a politicized writer until the Arab-Israeli War broke out in 1967 when he began to review his career and think about his identity as a Palestinian. At that time, his life changed and he began to get involved with his cultural origins, which he had suppressed as a child and diverted into his professional career. Thus, he became intensely involved in literary scholarship and Palestinian rights.

Said wrote his first political essay, “The Arab Portrayed,” in response to Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir's 1969 declaration that “There are no Palestinians.” By 1970, he was immersed completely in politics and the Palestinian resistance movement. His second major work, “Beginnings” (1975), was an ambitious attempt to examine the notion of the 'point of departure' in literature.

“Orientalism” (1978) is Said's most well known work and the book that made him world famous. Translated into 36 languages, it continues to prompt debate and inform argument against certain ideological and racist attitudes, which still shape ideology in the United States and Britain.

“Orientalism” has had a significant impact on the fields of literary theory, cultural studies and human geography, and to a lesser extent, on history and Oriental studies. Said concluded in his book that Western writings about the Orient depict it as irrational, weak and feminized, as contrasted with the rational, strong, masculine West, a contrast he suggests derives from the need to create a difference between East and West, which can be attributed to immutable essences in the Oriental composition.

“Orientalism” spawned a vast academic following. While Said undoubtedly was touched and flattered by the book's success, he was well aware of how it was misused and would often disclaim responsibility for its more monstrous offspring.

Despite objections to Said's conclusions by Islamic and Arabic specialists, the book became a standard text in courses on literary theory and cultural studies, praised by critics as among the most influential works of critical theory in the postwar period.

“The Question of Palestine” (1979) was concerned with the immediacy of contemporary politics and attempted to offer an account of the emergence of Palestinian nationhood in its confrontation with Zionism and Israel. “Covering Islam” (1981: revised 1997) offered yet another perspective on the relationship between the Arab-Muslim world and the West.

Said's activism exiled him from Palestine for most of his life and provoked criticism of him. Subsequently, he was called everything from “the professor of terror” to a Nazi, and his office at Columbia University was vandalized.

In addition to “The Question of Palestine,” Said's books on the issue of Palestine include “The Politics of Dispossession” (1994) and “The End of the Peace Process” (2000). In “The Politics of Dispossession,” Said discussed the shaping influence he very nearly had on the 1978 Camp David agreements.

His other major works include “The World, the Text and the Critic” (1983), which outlined some of his works' key theoretical foundations and “Culture and Imperialism” (1993), a sequel of sorts to “Orientalism,” examining the constitutive role of empire in major works of Western literature and music.

“Out of Place” (1999), a memoir of Said's childhood years in Palestine, Cairo and Lebanon, described his sense of distance from his disciplinarian father and his lonely retreat into the world of novels and classical music.

Said's other publications include “After the Last Sky” (1986), “Yeats and Decolonization” (1988), “Musical Elaborations” (1991) and “Reflections on Exile” (2000) among other books, in addition to numerous other articles regularly appearing in “The Nation,” “The London Review of Books,” “Le Monde,” “Al-Ahram” and “Al-Hayat.

In 1991, Said was diagnosed with leukemia, which he fought for the last 12 years of his life, passing away Sept. 25, 2003 at age 68 in New York City. With Said's death, the Palestinian nation lost its most articulate – and irreplaceable – voice in the Northern hemisphere, but his legacy will endure.