A movement called Edward Said
Throughout his life, Said struggled against the seductions of essentialism and otherworldliness
By Saeed Ur Rehman
If one looks at the publications of Edward Said, one realises that a profound shift occurred in his thought after the Six-Day War between Israel and the Arabs in 1967. Before 1967, Edward Said had published only on literary topics such as the fiction of Joseph Conrad, who was also the subject of his doctoral research. He had completed his doctorate in 1964 and had started an academic career as a teacher of comparative literature at the university of Columbia.
During and after the 1967 Arab-Israel war, the issue of the Arab world and the way it was represented in the West intensely occupied Edward Said. He had witnessed an overwhelming support for Israel in the American academy as well as in the public sphere. This made him question his role as an American citizen of Arab origins. He could no longer consider himself at home in America where his Palestinian origins were publicly aligned with terrorism and irrationality. He had to take positions. So, from writing on Conrad and Levi-Strauss, he started examining the ways in which the image of the Arab, especially the Muslim Arab, was constructed by the West.
In 1972, he published a full-length manuscript titled 'The Arabs of Today: Alternatives for Tomorrow' which marked the beginning of a lifelong commitment to the cause of Palestine and the Arab world. After 'The Arabs of Today', he wrote a highly theoretical book titled 'Beginnings' (1975) in which he made his affiliation with secularism public.
The basic argument of 'Beginnings' distinguishes between a very nuanced philosophical difference between two words: origin and beginning. According to Said, the idea of origin has its history in metaphysics whereas the idea of beginning was linked with secular inquiry. Having established his theoretical position and having displayed his expertise in extremely dense poststructuralist theory, he returned to the issue of orientalism which resulted in the publication of 'Orientalism' in 1978.
In 1978, Orientalism and postcolonial politics were not new concepts in many disciplines. What was new in the book 'Orientalism' was the discipline which became the target of Edward Said's critical appraisal: Western literature. The historical sweep of his narrative of Western misrepresentations of the Orient and its inhabitants was staggering. From Aeschylus' play 'The Persians' (472 BC) to policy statements of Henry Kissinger, Edward Said had analysed almost every important literary, political, and philosophical work for its stereotyping of the Muslims and the Arabs.
It was a great scandal. According to Bart-Moore Gilbert, there was silence for five years before anybody could speak of the political ramifications of Said's work. The erstwhile noble enterprise of literature had been stripped of its aesthetic and metaphysical pretensions. Western literature had been irrefutably declared an integral weapon in the arsenal of Western cultural imperialism. There were uncomfortable questions in the book. Why did the West want to study the Orient in the first place? Why were the Arabs shown as ignorant, irrational and lustful semi-humans? Why did Karl Marx think that British colonialism would help India join the grand narrative of history?
The book was intended to be a polemic and it became one. It succeeded in disturbing countless pro-Western secularists in the Third World, pro-Soviet Indian Marxists, such as Aijaz Ahmed, and it disturbed the cloistered sensibility of non-Western anglophiles pining away in their Raj nostalgia in newly independent societies. Literary departments the world over were politicised. Postcolonial studies and cultural studies marched to the centre of the stage. The inspiration behind all this was Orientalism, the passionate magnum opus of a displaced Christian Palestinian whose own persona was challenging all orientalist stereotypes of Arabs.
Said had Ivy League qualifications (a Ph.D. from Harvard University), played piano with conservatory-level competence, dressed immaculately, and fluently conversed in three dominant languages of the world -- Arabic, English, and French. Moreover, he had appropriated the critical vocabulary of Michel Foucault to unravel the self-congratulatory discourse of the West and was also criticising Foucault for not being political enough. All over the world, apolitical professors of literature were trying to relearn their trade because one Arab had linked the global reception of literary and cultural products with inter-civilisational politics.
As far as everyday committed politics was concerned, he was also doing his part. He had become an active supporter of the Palestinian cause and a member of the Palestinian National Council. He was critical of Yasser Arafat and his brand of cronyism in the Arab world. Still, his was a balanced commitment. He was not for the expulsion of the Jews from the Middle East and, later on, leaned towards a combined Arab-Jewish state where Palestinians and Israelis would have equal rights. Through this secular yet anti-imperialist stance, he irked many seekers of easy and partisan solutions. When Arabs maligned the West, he became a representative of Western humanism and secularism. When the West created dangerous stereotypes of the Arabs and Muslims, he excoriated the West. In book after book, he guided his readers to question authority and speak truth to power. Suspicious of postmodern relativism, he painstakingly created an aesthetic of political engagement from the perspective of the displaced, the exiled and the marginalised. Many secular humanists and anti-imperialists thronged around him in solidarity, including Eqbal Ahmed from Pakistan.
Throughout his life, he struggled, on the page and from day to day, against the seductions of essentialism and otherworldliness. Maligned by the Jewish activists in America, he was labelled 'the professor of terror' because of his commitment to the Palestinian cause. Once when he was photographed throwing a symbolic stone towards Israel, a large number of pro-Israel people tried to have him removed from his professorial position at Columbia University. The University sided with Edward Said by stating that the University did not have any authority over the private life of a tenured professor unless he had broken the law. If he had broken any law, the problem was for the police to resolve.
Edward Said also realised the enormous individual space and freedom of expression offered by American academia. Often he proclaimed that the American university was one of the last bastions of freedom left in this increasingly oppressive world.
After fighting for a decade against leukaemia, during which he maintained an active academic and political life, Edward Said died on September 25, 2003. He had written about twenty-five books and numerous articles on literature, culture, Western imperialism, and critical theory. Rescuing Islam from Western misrepresentations as well as its ready exploitation by Muslim dictators remained his main concern.
According to some thinkers, Edward Said is the greatest contribution to contemporary global culture from the Arab world. The resistive and critical discourse that he generated through his scholarship and activism will continue to inspire many generations to come.
Saeed ur Rehman can be reached at email@example.com