SAID, Edward

Literary critic, scholar, theoretician and Palestinian activist born in 1935 in Jerusalem (then part of the British-ruled Palestine) from a Christian prosperous family. He spent much of his youth in Egypt and Lebanon. He studied and lived his adult life in the US: he received a bachelors degree in Princeton (1957) and a master’s (1960) and a PHD (1964) from Harvard. Most of his academic career was spent as a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York. He was also visiting professor at other leading institutions as Yale, Harvard and John Hopkins. He was also music editor in the magazine The Nation and a recognised pianist.

His most famous book, Orientalism (1978) exposed the ideological biases behind western perceptions of the Orient. In his book, he argued that the entire Western academic discipline of oriental studies presented the Arab existence as static, passive and backward, facing a superior West, thus implying a reinforcement of Western imperial rule over the Orient. Despite many criticism (from the right but also the left), the book is widely credited with inaugurating the Postcolonial Studies movement in the humanities and it is still very influential today.

His interest into politics arose in 1967, following the Six-Day War, at which point he became identified with the Palestinian cause. He denounced the failure of the post-colonial Arab nationalisms, which “abandoned their people to misery”, living on nepotism and corruption.

He was a prominent member of the Palestinian National Council (1977-1991) where he avoided to take part in the factional struggles. Rejecting the policy of armed struggle as impermissible he was an early advocate of the two-state solution, thus implicitly recognising the right of Israel to exist (this policy was adopted at the PNC meeting in Algiers – 1988). As the peace process gained momentum, however, Edward Said adopted an increasingly critical stance and in 1991 he resigned from the PNC. After the signing of the Oslo Agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation in 1993, Said publicly criticised Yasser Arafat “for collaborating with the Israeli military occupation”. He paid dearly for his critics on the Palestinian National Authority –a combination of corruption and dictatorship- and the leadership of Yasser Arafat. His writings were banned in Palestinian territories for certain periods.

Later on he accepted the idea of a “two state” solution, only as a transitional measure, the goal being the installation of a bi-national state. This solution would avoid the displacement of both the Palestinians living in Israel and of the settlers living in Palestine. Edward Said would affirm that the reality of an already mixed population could serve for the creation of the first Laic state in the Middle East.

He came under fire in 2000, following the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon. During a holiday visit to the border fence he was photographed throwing a stone in the direction of Israel. This brought calls for academic demotion but Colombia University stood by him.

In 1999 he found the “Western Eastern Divan” orchestra, with the Israeli musician, Daniel Barenboim on the belief that art transcends political ideology. The “West Eastern Divan”, gathering Arab, Palestinian and Israeli musicians gave joint recitals in the West Bank and elsewhere as part of a campaign to get Arab and Israeli musicians playing together.

The professor died on the 25 September 2003 at a New York hospital from Leukaemia, first diagnosed in 1991.

Some bibliography:

  • – Orientalism. 1978
  • – The Question of Palestine. 1979
  • – Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World. 1981
  • – After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives. 1986
  • – Culture and Imperialism (sequel to Orientalism). 1993
  • – The politics of dispossession: the Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination, 1969-1994. 1994
  • – Peace and Its Discontents: Essays on Palestine in the Middle East Peace Process. (Peace and Its Discontents: Gaza-Jericho, 1993-1995). 1995
  • – Out of Place: A Memoir. 1999.