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Remembering Edward Said
by George Shadroui
27 September 2003Edward Said

An Arab-American examines the legacy of Edward Said, who passed away last week. Was he truly interested in peace in the Middle East?


It is somehow fitting that Edward Said passed away the very day that George Plimpton also died, robbing Said of some of the notoriety and tribute he so richly deserved. That, alas, is one of the strange twists of Said’s life and career during his final decade -- unfortunate in timing, in cause, and in death.

That is a strange thing to say I suppose about a man who enjoyed as much success as Edward Said. He was no less than a cultural icon, especially in the intellectual world of college campuses and on the left, and he enjoyed near legend status as a Professor of Literature at Columbia University, where early on he won the acclaim and support of Lionel Trilling, and many others. Said might well have enjoyed a prosperous and easier career as an esteemed literary critic by avoiding the tough political issues into which he inserted himself. But those issues enabled him to transcend genre and to write not only about literature, but about politics, Middle East peace and the very nature of power.

Plimpton was a great entertainer, a man known for his movie and television appearances, and his association with the literary magazine, the Paris Review, which added an allure to his otherwise predictable celebrity tale. But Said was a serious man of letters and ideas, who took on the Palestinian cause at the height of its unpopularity. He was handsome, articulate and highly persuasive. He won praise from such diverse people as Tom Brokaw, Robert Hughes, Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison. In trying to humanize the Palestinians in a strongly pro-Israel United States, Said also found himself the target of unrelenting and often vicious criticism. One writer spread the unfortunate claim that Said had somehow misrepresented his ties to Palestine, a charge not supported by a close reading of his many interviews and essays. In his passing, we might ask what it was about the man that drove so many to attack him so vehemently.

I first read his controversial book, Orientalism, while living in Cairo, Egypt in the early 1980s. At the time, I was determined to become an expert on the Middle East as I pursued a career in journalism. I had already read two other books written by Said, The Question of Palestine and Covering Islam, which were far easier to digest. As I plowed through Orientalism I was impressed by Said’s work, but also greatly discouraged. Said basically suggested that no Westerner could study the region without carrying into the effort a tremendous amount of cultural and political baggage. The people of the Middle East had been dominated and subjugated by Western power, in whose service many scholars, writers and diplomats served. In essence, Said leveled the highly volatile charge that rather than pursue dispassionate and fair-minded research, even the most respected of the “Orientalists” concocted a Middle East out of their own biases, which served those who sought to dominate and exploit the region. Call it the “white man’s burden” thesis.

Now, this is a complex book, and scholars and critics far more able than I have written at length about both its merits and its failings. For a critical view, I would point those interested to Martin Kramer’s lengthy study of Said, included in his book, Ivory Towers on Sand. For a more sympathetic analysis, you could turn to a number of essays that have appeared over the years, including a review by Albert Hourani, which appeared in the Times Literary Supplement. It is fair in underscoring where Said both succeeded and failed.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Said’s thesis, no one disputes the tremendous impact he has had on Middle East studies. Almost single handedly, he popularized the notion that Orientalists in the traditional field of Middle East studies were tainted and incapable of fair-minded research or analysis. Bernard Lewis headed the list of suspects on the contemporary scene. A debate on the issue in the early 1980s between Said and Christopher Hitchens, on the one hand, and Lewis and Leon Wieseltier, on the other, became the stuff of legend in Middle East studies circles.

Not only did Said put traditional views of the Middle East on the defensive, he also played a major role in trying to humanize the Palestinian cause. He was a passionate defender of the Palestinian people and Arabs generally and argued relentlessly that they were unfairly demonized, particularly in the United States, whose foreign policy and Congressional leadership was one-sidedly sympathetic to Israel.

To appreciate how Arabs and Arab Americans view Said, one must remember the situation we faced (I write here as a person of half Lebanese ancestry) during the 1970s and 1980s. Arabs were vilified constantly in popular culture, while Israel was feted and celebrated. I was myself taunted for being pro-terrorist as a student in middle school, simply because of my ethnic origins. The famous phrase used by Israeli partisans, “A land without a people for a people without a land,” literally denied the existence of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were reduced to living in squalor after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

Though there were the occasional exceptions -- Phillip Hitti and Charles Malik come to mind -- there was a real conviction on the part of Arab Americans that we were misunderstood, always positioned as the enemy of peace and civilization because our concerns sometimes clashed with those of the powerful pro-Israel community. It was not uncommon for Arab Americans to hide their ethnicity, for fear of hurting their career in Hollywood or academia.

Along came Said, a man of grace and eloquence whose very presence defied traditional stereotypes; he simply could not be easily dismissed as a fanatic. Unlike other famous people of Arab ancestry, he did not run from his ethnic association, but celebrated it. He demanded a fair hearing and often got it by pure force of his will and his intellect. And he made us proud.

He certainly made me proud, as a young intellectual and journalist trying to find my way through the harrowing world that is the Middle East policy debate. No other issue comes close to being so polarized. You were either for Israel, or against it. You either demonized Arabs and Muslims or ran the risk of being charged with being tolerant of despicable acts of terrorism. On the conservative side, Buckley or Sobran might occasionally seek a middle ground, but otherwise it was pretty much Israel.

I had no major axe to grind, and have always supported Israel's right to exist, but I had first-hand experience with major publications editing my copy to exclude any negative comment about Israel or any favorable comment about Arabs. On the other hand, I found that if I criticized Arab political culture, not a hard thing to do, I was quickly published. When I tried to introduce nuance or even handedness, I was blocked both as a journalist and as a policy analyst.

Said, Jim Zogby and others sought to change this. We tried to argue that one could support Israel’s right to exist and also acknowledge the great pains inflicted on the Palestinian people. These were not mutually exclusive positions. There were two sides, each with legitimate grievances. I also argued that Arabs were also responsible for their own fate. They were not condemned to wage war endlessly against Israel while allowing themselves, in many instances, to be ruled by the most despotic and reprehensible leadership in the world. There was a self critical middle ground in which thoughtful men and women could negotiate a fair and forward-looking peace. Said was always on board with this perspective, I felt, until the early 1990s.

By that time, I was working for the Arab American Institute. Let me be honest. I didn’t want to be there. I was a writer and a journalist, not a hyphenated American, but having been pushed into unemployment by a tough journalism market, I had no other immediate options. I started to work full-time for Jim Zogby, the Institute’s founder. Jim was a good guy. A Democrat and a liberal, he was a fair-minded man who never forced his staff to embrace his views. I was the conservative on staff, and Jim and I discussed issues from time to time and he was quite respectful in allowing dialogue.

When the Oslo Accords were announced, Arabs and Jews celebrated. For the first time in a long time, there was real hope that the accords might trigger a process through which acts of good faith built more good faith, thereby making peace possible. No one thought it would be easy and no one expected it to happen overnight. But a series of compromises, in addition to an infusion of capital and good will, might gradually diminish tensions and open up other avenues of compromise. That was Zogby’s hope and the hope of many others, including the Clinton administration's policy team.

I, for one, was shocked when Edward Said dissented, vigorously, arguing that the accords were a sell out of the Palestinian people and that those who embraced it were collaborators. This was not the Said I had come to respect. This was Stalinist rhetoric, and I am sorry to say it continued, with Zogby bearing the brunt of it for several years. As the rejectionists on the Arab side began to mobilize, they attacked not only Israel, but the very leadership many of them had once celebrated -- the Arafat-led PLO. (I, for one, never had much confidence in Arafat, but that is another story for another day.)

The anti-Oslo crowd found another target in Kanan Makiya, whose book, Cruelty and Silence, was an eloquent and needed plea for a more humane Arab political culture. Makiya, an Iraqi dissident, also argued that Arab intellectuals were partially responsible for this state of affairs because of their knee-jerk anti-Israel position. Every Israeli abuse of a Palestinian was a huge concern, but when far worse was inflicted on Arab by Arab, Makiya argued, too many looked the other way. I agreed with him and wrote several positive reviews of the book, which led to my only personal conversation with Edward Said.

He called me at the Institute and argued, politely, I must say, that Makiya was a fraud who was attacking prominent intellectuals to make a name for himself. I countered that Said himself had observed several times prior to the Gulf War that Arabs could not continue to complain endlessly about Israel and the West without also engaging in much needed self criticism. For all the rhetoric about colonialism, I maintained then (and still do) that it was not the fault of the West or Israel that not a single Arab democracy had emerged. Said seemed swayed momentarily. And while I conceded that Makiya’s attacks on Said were overstated, perhaps, I still thought the larger point was valid. Said sent me a New Yorker profile of Makiya, which he thought made his case. But upon reading it, I realized that this great man, as I thought of him at the time, had lost his critical judgment. The article cited Makiya’s criticism of him as perhaps unjust, but it was otherwise a highly flattering profile. Said simply did not see it; he saw only his own reputation at stake, not the larger issues.

In the years that followed, it seemed to me that Professor Said grew increasingly bitter. He went from embracing a two-state solution to rejecting it once it became official policy. He could find little positive to say about any American administration or peace effort. He took on a tone that at times seemed determined to scuttle peace, not advance it. It all came to a head after 9/11.

While Makiya emerged as a potential founder of new Iraqi democracy, the man who some saw as a potential Palestinian Havel had been reduced to a carping critic. An article that appeared in Counterpunch suggests how sadly extreme Said had become. All of his formidable critical skills seemed useless when he tried to analyze US policy or the current situation in Iraq.

Not content to disagree honorably with the Bush policy, Said took his argument to almost absurd extremes. The war represented the undoing of American democracy because a small cabal of Washington insiders bent American policy to their will, he suggested. These men were not elected, Said argued, and consequently were not accountable to anyone. Thus, Said continued, the United States had come to resemble an Arab tyranny more than a great democracy.

This was a remarkable statement so far removed from reality that it baffled me. The officials to whom Said referred were appointed legally by the President of the United States to implement his policies, right or wrong, and that is precisely what they did. The President, moreover, articulated with almost blunt candor what that policy was both to the United States Congress and to the United Nations. Congress authorized the President to pursue necessary action as he saw fit, and the UN, in signing on to UN resolution 1441, knew that it was quite possible that military action would be taken. In any case, regime change in Iraq had been the stated policy of the United States government since 1998 -- such policy having been endorsed, again, by the U.S. Congress.

What did Said offer to discredit this remarkable testimony to Constitutional and international process: street protesters? You know, those folks who blocked streets and compared Bush to Saddam. We were to heed this mob, rather than the Constitutional bodies and processes that have been in place for more than 200 years. The article contained other outrageous claims. But let me put them aside. This is a moment of mourning, not analysis, and I only delve into the issue to show how angry Said had become.

What fueled that anger? First, I think he was deeply disappointed that the Palestinian cause had been hijacked by lesser men. He was right on that count. Arafat is a terrorist who made a deal that empowered him. For the sake of trying to broach a peace, the United States went along, without doing a great deal to pressure Arafat in a democratic direction. But Said never forthrightly explained how he could support Arafat one minute, and turn on him the next. Ironically, the one president who has tried to force Arafat to share power in a meaningful way, George Bush, got no points on this account from Said, who was, by then, locked into an anti-American mindset that I found sad and troubling. (And I do not mean, in saying this, that there were not fair criticisms to be aimed at American foreign policy.)

Said was tied to a cause that was mired in tragedy, loss and violence. The long-stated dream by Palestinian advocates that they would lead the Arab world to democracy not only was not realized, it became an unending nightmare. Instead of advocating non-violent resistance, and transformation of their own societies, instead of embracing free elections and open debate, the Palestinians allowed themselves to be manipulated by Islamic and Arab fascists who are now blowing up men, women and children all over the world, many of them Muslims and Arabs. A culture of death and destruction began to emerge from the region, not the hope of enlightenment and liberation.

For Said, this had to represent a defeat of his life’s work. Some might argue that his own stances contributed to this decline. Perhaps. While I disagreed with Said more and more in recent years, I still truly believe he wanted a real and just peace in the Middle East. I think he lost his ability to navigate through the complexities, or perhaps lost the capacity to digest anymore failure. With so much power lined up against his position, he retreated into bitter attacks and the politics of blame. When that did not suffice, he embraced, understandably, nostalgia for a long ago past. (See his memoir, Out of Place.)

I cannot end on this negative note, however. Said was a wonderful writer and critic. His collections of essays are well worth reading. Orientalism, while not a perfect scholarly work, raised legitimate questions about the relationships between power and scholarship. His concern for the children of Palestine, it must be said, never caused him to celebrate the culture of death that is now inflicting so much pain on the people of the region. To my knowledge, he never showed anything but compassion for the tragedies that the Jewish people have experienced, most horribly during the Holocaust. He simply wanted Palestinians to receive at least some measure of that compassion and respect. He felt it never came. May he find in the next life the peace he found so elusive in this one.


George Shadroui is a writer who has been published in more than two dozen newspapers and magazines, including National Review and Frontpagemag.com
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