Edward Said:The legacy of dissent [Archives:2003/683/Education]

November 6 2003

By Dr. Mahmudul Hasani
Head, Department of English, University of Science & Technology,
Sana’a, ROY

In his famous poem “Ode on Solitude”Alexander Pope, the great 18th-century English poet and satirist, expressed his wish to die in oblivion:

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.

Edward Said’s death on 25 September 2003, was the exact antithesis of what has been desired by Pope in the quatrain above. The news of the passing away of this intellectual icon and phenomenon of our times spread within minutes like the wildfire—- telephone bells ringing, teleprinters ticking, print and electronic media vying with each other for catering to the clientele. Within minutes thousands of obituaries were cramming the websites. This was not because Edward Said died in full media glare. This was primarily because of his stature and integrity as an intellectual stalwart of our time who has endeared himself to the voiceless, unrepresented and oppressed peoples for his unequivocal and moral stance vis-a-vis the most burning questions of the contemporary world.
Edward W. Said (1935-2003) was a man of remarkable versatility. He was a rare combination of academic and public intellectual. Born in Jerusalem in 1935 in a successful Christian businessman family and educated at Victoria College, Cairo, where his family had to live in exile after the founding of Israel, Said went to the United States and studied at Princeton and Harvard universities. He was Visiting Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard in 1974, Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Science at Stanford in 1975-76, and Visiting Professor of Humanities at Johns Hopkins University in 1979. For decades he had been associated with the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the Columbia University.
He came into the intellectual limelight with his phenomenal book Orientalism (1978)
which continues to be his seminal and most influential and talked-about book, a magnum opus in its own right. The book is a thorough and threadbare examination of the way the West perceives the East especially the Islamic world. The book, which established a new benchmark for discussion of the West’s ‘skewed view’ of the Arab and the Islamic world, has attained the status of a modern classic. It, along with some other books by him, revolutionized the study of the Middle East and gave form to entire new scholarly areas, like postcolonial theory.
The Orient, according to Said, was “almost a European invention.” “In short, Orientalism was a Western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient.” He was not the first scholar to expose how political power controls and dominates culture and how its interests pervade even in the sphere of knowledge. This relationship between knowledge and power has been illustrated in the writings of Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, Raymond Williams among others. Orientalism was an epoch-making and formidable book full of both precepts and examples of how imperialism works to perpetuate its hegemony and how it controls and restructures knowledge to serve its interests. The book generated a debate that raged for years. Bernard Lewis, the foremost contemporary Orientalist, took up the gauntlet and retaliated with all might and main. However, Edward Said carried the day and the truth of his views has prevailed upon the Orientalist/imperialist counter-attack.
The Question of Palestine (1979) makes a study of how the imperialist powers made use of Orientalism in order to facilitate the birth of Israel in the heart of Palestine and how facts were distorted and suppressed to suit the vested interests. He also examines how the powers that be in the West have persistently and unabashedly sided with the Zionists and how the experts and the media have ignored the Palestinian viewpoint.
In Covering Islam (1981) Said examines how the media and the experts in the West determine how we see the rest of the world, particularly how stereotypes about Islam and the Muslim world are created, floated and perpetuated and how an event is covered, the news designed in a selective rather than holistic way and flashed times without number from a particular perspective in order to advance the imperialist agenda. The pun is unmistakable in the gerund “covering” which means journalistic reporting/coverage of some event. But the truth of the matter is that true and real Islam is “covered” i.e. concealed as a result of this blatantly biased and slanted media reporting and a distorted view of Islam is broadcast, telecast and printed times without number for the daily consumption by the gullible masses.
His book Culture and Imperialism (1993) is a sequel to Orientalism. The book examines the interactions between nineteenth- and early twentieth-century imperialism and the culture that both reflected and reinforced it. Said believes that the work of novelists like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens not only “reflected but also bolstered 19th –century European imperialism.” He also examines the literatures of resistance produced within both the colonies and the imperial centers by writers such as W. B. Yeats, Chinua Achebe, and Mark Twain. The book did provoke a great deal of heated debate. It was Orientalism and its sequel that awakened many of the scholars of literature to the fact that there is a symbiotic relation between the empire and the novel, both were born and grew together.
Edward Said’s has been the most articulate, unequivocal and convincing voice in the cacophony about the Middle East crisis. He has been prolific and copious in writing about the genesis and perpetuation and aggravation of the problem in Palestine. It is this articulation which made him the voice of the voiceless, the victims, the unrepresented, the occupied, of those who don’t matter and never have the ball in their court and whose fate is to be always at the receiving end. Titles of his books like the following speak volumes about their contents and demonstrate the guts and gusto with which he spoke and taught how to speak truth to power: Blaming the Victims, The Politics of Dispossession, Reflections on Exile, After the Last Sky, Peace and its Discontents: Gaza to Jericho 1993-1995.
Edward Said belonged to the now rare breed of intellectuals whose conscience compels them to voice their convictions fearlessly and who feel committed to truth come what may. He did not tread the easy and expedient path of hobnobbing with power and establishment and churning out books and articles in the cozy corridors of academia. Instead of suffering the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” with stoicism and a stiff upper lip, he preferred to take up the pen in support of the dispossessed and displaced like himself. When it was diagnosed in 1991 that he had been suffering from leukemia, he knew his days were numbered and embarked on writing his brilliantly titled memoir Out of Place which was published in 1999. What else can be more painful than being out of place, uprooted, exiled and estranged? The theme of exile and homelessness has been one of the major postmodern themes. Robert Frost has given, in his characteristic way of mixing surprise with pleasure, a very simple but exact definition of home:
Home is the place where
When you have to go there
They have to take you in.

In his death the world has lost a distinguished professor, a formidable postcolonial theorist, a great literary critic who had the sight and insight to see sinister designs between the lines, a philosopher in his own right, a dauntlessly articulate participant in public life, and, above all, a great champion of the cause of truth and justice who called a spade a spade because he was too intelligent and farsighted not to know the dynamics of power. He voiced his disillusionment with the inane rhetoric and routine officialese of the high-profile talks, negotiations and accords in his book The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After.
His death has been covered and mourned in an unprecedented way. It’s now time to learn something from his life.