Edward Said was the most prominent and eloquent voice speaking about the Arab World outside of it. The word “outside” is key, for he consistently chose to live in the West. New York was home, but Northern California, London, and Paris were places he visited often and for extended periods. And when, for a short period, he chose to experience Arabness again and first hand, he went to Beirut and lived in one of its prestigious neighbourhoods. There, as in different phases of his life, he experienced the Arab World from afar, or amidst a milieu in which Arabness and the West merged.
This was part of his exile. He was the Palestinian who grew up in Cairo, spent vacations in Mount Lebanon, was educated in an English school, went to university in New England in the US, and taught and lived afterwards in New York. He nurtured his evolving self in different locations, building upon the Arabness of his childhood and adolescence new layers of experiencing life, cultures, forms of knowledge, and ideas.
“Ideas” were the world of Edward Said. He was the author of “Orientalism”, the seminal book that deconstructed the West’s “colonialisation of ideas and of the mind”, by showing, with passion and fierceness, how Western prejudice, reductionism, fantasy, and condescension had paved the way for its pillaging and occupation of the Arab World, and the “Orient” as a whole.
Said was also the foremost voice in the world of ideas championing the Palestinian cause. In addition to passion and charisma, he gave that cause the erudition, intellectual sharpness, and eloquence of arguably the most talented professor of comparative literature in the second half of the twentieth century.
His ideas went much farther. He was one of the most brilliant interpreters of the East to the West and of the West to the East. And the texts he chose to interpret were the ones that, in his view, shaped the minds and psyches of each. His interpretations drew on politics, anthropology, history, and above all literature and how it connects with the societies from which it had emerged. This is why Said’s interpretations of the East and the West defy categorisation. Academies typically choose to confine them to literally studies. But perhaps where they perfectly fit are in cafes, where late night discussions amidst smoke and coffee illuminate minds and lift consciousnesses.
Being an exile made it natural for him to being an interpreter. There’s an inherent duality in exile. For Said, he was American as well as a Palestinian, Arab as well as Western, a literary critic and a pianist, an activist and a commentator. For many, it can be confusing. But not for Edward Said. His intellectual coherence, even when jumping – often in the same essay – from one role to its opposite, was always intact.
But that duality has a cost: it pushes the feeling of exile to one’s core. One ceases to belong to anything, except to abstractions. Perhaps this is why he called the autobiography of his childhood and adolescence “Out of Place”, and why in it, he said that he thinks of himself – or rather his self, for the self ought to have its independence, its own space on paper, as much as in the mind – as currents. He did not elaborate, but I like to think that the currents, that often clashed into each other came, towards the end of his life, to settle into a calm sea.
Internal harmony might necessitate ignoring certain questions, looking briefly rather than gazing on certain places. This is what Edward Said did with Arabness. The destructor of the “orientalist” ways of seeing the East did not really, in his published work, look deeply into that East himself. Perhaps this is why Edward Said is the hero of many a politically-engaged young Arab. But as the young man (or woman) gives way to a middle aged mind, he or she investigates Edward Said about what lies beneath the defences of the Arab world, of the orient, and finds different roads, all of which Said had trekked on but did not complete.
I think it was not his mission to draw a detailed picture of Arabness. After all, he was the exile, the one out of place. His choice was always to interpret, but not to write the decisive text.
Integrity also dictated that he refrains from drawing that detailed picture. Edward Said’s main attack against “orientalism” rested not only on how ideas were weaponised to allow colonisation and occupation. It also rested on the fantasy that Westerners viewed the East (the Orient) with, for in fantasy there are escapism, deception of the self and the other, as well as lies. And he, a man of real integrity, a man who strove after truth, knew that his land, his places, had descended a lot since the days he had known them. Cairo, Mount Lebanon, and behind them the rest of “Arabness” of the fifties were no longer the same by the eighties and nineties. They have not only lost most of their glamour. They also have lost a lot of the values and meanings that underpin Edward Said’s oeuvre.
Edward Said knew that the second half of the twentieth century was a painful time for the Arab world, and for Arabness. He saw it from afar, but did not write about it. Could not, for if he had done, his piercing language would have gone, like a bullet, to the heart of modern Arabness. He, the defender, would have been fiercer than all the assailants put together. Not writing meant not lying.
Perhaps language convinced him not to draw that picture of the Arab world. He, a connoisseur of English and French, was the perfect interpreter. But in educating about the Arab world, must not the language of instruction be Arabic. He, the man who upheld the sanctity of the land, of the places, and crucially of words, certainly sensed that it is Arabic, and only Arabic, that has the right to colour any real picture of modern Arabness.
May be time played its role. In the last decade of his life before his death in 2003, the man dying from Leukaemia, the man who negotiated (without success) with his self amidst two love stories that watered two different sides of his identity (and who ultimately was without both women), the man who knew that his cause (Palestine) is never going to materialise in his lifetime, and the man who behind a façade of charm, elegance, and eloquence suffered deep pains of abandonment – that man, while waiting for death, saw more priority in reconciling internal conflicts than in filling voids he had left in earlier writings.
Like the literature he critiqued, Edward Said, the thinker, remains a wealth of ideas, open for revisiting, reinterpreting. What is important is that, almost two decades after his death, we – the Arabs he defended – look at his thinking, not as a shield, but as a tool to analyse ourselves, our societies in the seven decades since the end of Western occupation, with the sharpness, intellectual integrity, clear language, and fierceness with which Edward Said defended us.