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Edward Said – 10 years on

By Hicham Yezza
September 30 2013




September 25 marks a full decade since Edward Said left us. While one can’t pretend to grapple with what his remarkable legacy means today other than superficially and at a tangent, some sort of accounting – of emotional and intellectual stock taking – seems in order. Indeed, for the many who have been inspired and stirred by Said’s words and ideas, the past decade presents a sombre and sobering portrait of the ills, ironies and injustices he diagnosed and combatted with such verve and energy for so long.


Palestine and the peace process

Said’s commitment to the Palestinian cause is well-known. Indeed, it is often the only thing some people know about him. However, it is important to remind ourselves that his loyalty and self-abnegation in the service of the cause were never the products of unthinking chauvinism or nationalistic stupour. His humanist ideals shaped his political approach and he explicitly framed his vision for Palestine as a quest for justice, peace and dignity, rather than through dogmatic ethnic or religious claims to the land. On visiting Jerusalem in the mid-90s he wrote, “There is something unyielding about the place that encourages intolerance; all sorts of absolute religious and cultural claims emanate from the city, most of them involving the denial or downgrading of the others”. Of course, such lofty equanimity earned him the opprobrium and enmity of many people on “both” sides of the conflict.

Also worth remembering as we mark this sad anniversary, is that Edward Said was one of the earliest, and most trenchant, voices daring to puncture the enforced circus joviality greeting the Oslo Accords of September 1993. While many supporters of the Palestinian cause succumbed to the pressure of closing ranks behind a supposed “national Palestinian interest”, he was unafraid to unmask the charade for what it was, a “Palestinian surrender.” His deep reservations were routinely denounced and decried by the Palestinian Authority’s mouthpieces and conduits – painting him as an ‘anti-peace’ Cassandra – to the point where people feared for his safety whenever he visited the West Bank. His attacks on the ‘gangstersism’ and moral bankruptcy of Arafat’s ruling edifice saw his books banned in the Occupied Territories, with xeroxed copies of his writings surreptitiously circulated in Samizdat fashion.

Rather than be deterred, however, he redoubled his attacks on what he insisted was a “poor deal for Palestinians,” one that allowed Israel to continue its colonial enterprise while outsourcing the job of keeping Palestinians under control to a corrupt and utterly-dependant Palestinian Authority security apparatus. In the post-Oslo era, he was the first to make direct comparisons between Israel’s accelerated settlement policies and South Africa’s Bantustans. Israel’s by-pass road networks, he wrote in 1996, made it “possible for Israelis to punctuate West Bank life without having to see Palestinians,” reminding him of “the South African roads that skirted the black townships.” In 2000, his calls grew more urgent and disconsolate, “what does it mean to speak of peace if Israeli troops and settlements are still present in such large numbers?” he asked, “Has the world been deluded or has the rhetoric of ‘peace’ been in essence a gigantic fraud?”

Critics attacked him for bringing negativity, for being hasty and premature in condemning Oslo as a sham. Time has proven him right. Today, as the world marks twenty years of the ‘peace process’, Said’s prophetic warning has been vindicated beyond his darkest and most pessimistic imaginings. In the period between September 1993 and September 2003, the “Peace Process” illusion has meant the following for the Palestinian reality on the ground: 7000 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces, more than 12,000 Palestinian homes destroyed and 441 miles of the ‘Apartheid’ Separation Wall built. More devastatingly, in the twenty years since the “fashion show vulgarities” of the Rabin-Arafat handshake, Israel has transposed more than 250,000 settlers onto the very same West Bank it continues to insist will be handed back to the Palestinians so they can have their state.

As Said warned would happen, Israel’s aggressive settlement policies have utterly destroyed the possibility for a ‘Two State solution.’ Today, few serious commentators disagree. For those seeking to understand who is to blame for this, one can instance Said’s repeated indictment of the international community’s complicity in this unfolding injustice. As he wrote a couple of years before his death: “A few people, myself included, have tried to chronicle what has been going on, from the initial Palestinian surrender at Oslo until the present, but in comparison with the mainstream media and governments, not to mention the status reports and recommendations circulated by huge funding agencies … who have played along with the deception, our voices have had a negligible effect except, sadly, as prophecy.”

As one watches the on-going plight of the Palestinian people, one can’t help but feel acutely the cruel absence of this ablest and most eloquent of advocates. The past decade has seen Gazans choked and starved in their open-air prison, simply for daring to vote the wrong way. In the West Bank, Palestinians are ensconced in forever shrinking cantons, as Israel steals more of whatever little land they had been promised two decades ago.

It’s worth also noting that the “Arab Spring” has not been kind to Palestinians, either. Treated with suspicion inside and beyond their own borders, they continue to endure the same humiliations and travails of years past. “The basic difficulty” Said wrote in 1996 “is that for a Palestinian being pushed around by young people with rifles, it does not finally matter whether the soldiers are Arabs in countries like Egypt, Syria and Jordan or Israeli Jews on the West Bank or in Gaza. As an individual one feels alienated and demeaned.” These words remain as apt and true today as they were on the day he wrote them.

Orientalism 2.0

At the junction of politics and culture, Edward Said’s work in anatomising the systemic and critical role that cultural orientalist discourse plays in facilitating imperial domination and control – arguably the centre of his intellectual enterprise – remains as potent as ever. For the two decades before 9/11, Said had chronicled the centrality of the “terrorism” discourse as a key tool in the imperial rhetorical arsenal, used “to justify everything ‘we’ do and to delegitimise as well as dehumanise everything ‘they’ do”. In the decade since his death, the “War on Terror” paradigm has been used to justify every abuse of human rights and civil liberties under the sun, including secret renditions, torture, extrajudicial killings and state spying on an unprecedented scale.

Said has helped shatter the illusions of “objectivity,” so dear to proponents of western official political and cultural ideologies. “Facts do not at all speak for themselves,” he pointed out, “but require a socially acceptable narrative to absorb, sustain and circulate them.” Such narratives continue to be erected and consolidated today, as the west’s military excursions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere routinely invoke the need to “bring democracy”, preserve “human rights” and end the “plight of women” across the Muslim world.

Meanwhile, the demonization of ‘the Arab’ in western discourse and culture continues apace. Cultural tropes representing Middle Eastern men as uncouth, untrustworthy, cowardly, bumbling and morally deficient continue to abound. This isn’t to pick on the easy targets of lowbrow American TV, with their vast panoply of mad-eyed, incoherent, screaming, and inscrutable brown men. Even cultural efforts that are praised for their sensitive and respectful treatment, such as last year’s multiple-Oscar winning ‘Argo’, can’t seem to be immune. One scene in that film shows Iranian officials being comfortably outwitted by supposedly nervous American naïfs using trickery that would have struck any real-life 5 year old as pathetic. (Needless to say, that Iranians aren’t Arabs is often treated as a barely relevant footnote in most western cultural production and discourse.)

Of course, one sees this, too, in portrayals of the Arab or Muslim woman, still a favoured object (that word again) of western fantasy: as captive or brainwashed victim in need of rescuing, or submissive creature deserving of pity, or as an exotic vixen to be lusted after, often all of the above. Similarly, there continues to be a systemic tendency to classify Arab and Muslim women as either ‘good’, ‘brave’ ones (usually signposted as ‘westernised’ or ‘west-friendly’) or ‘oppressed’ and ‘in denial’. One thinks of the western media’s unanimous embrace of Malala Yousefzai, the brave teenager shot by the Taliban, and how it sits at an odd angle to the silence it continues to reserve for the hundreds of anonymous Malalas maimed or killed by American drones over the past decade, whose names and faces and voices will never grace the covers of Time Magazine. Indeed, how can one watch the current “debate” in Europe over the Islamic veil – that scary noun, the ‘Niqab’ – without remembering Said’s withering scorn for similarly “patronising and silly” western initiatives, many spearheaded by engaged intellectuals such as Simone De Beauvoir, to save Iranian women from the ‘Chador’ (another scary term) three decades ago?

In 1987, Said remarked that “the only stories about the Arab world that seem to be worth printing or portraying concern violence, inordinate wealth, and intransigent opposition to Israel.” Little seems to have changed. In the news media, one does not have to look far, either, to see that orientalist representations – with their “repertory of images” invoking a “Timeless Orient” – are alive and well. Last week, a Washington Post writer, affecting to lampoon a recent interview by Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, chose to do so by mocking Arabs as imbecilic, illiterate, dodgy buffoons, (insulting “Nigerians,” too, for good measure). A few weeks earlier, David Brooks, one of the New York Times’ star columnists, defended the anti-Morsi coup in Egypt by insisting that democracy was wasted on Muslims. “It’s not that Egypt doesn’t have a recipe for a democratic transition” he explained. “It seems to lack even the basic mental ingredients.” Meanwhile, the Daily Currant’s contribution to international outrage over the chemical attack in Syria was to allege that bestselling author and notorious commentator Ann Coulter had been asking, ‘why gassing Arabs is such a bad thing?”

Of course, beyond a few half-hearted ripples, none of these incidents seemed to have registered on the mainstream media’s radar. As Said showed, however repugnant such individual prejudices and sentiments were, it is the silent acquiescence of western culture at large to these manifestations that should be denounced and called out.

The responsibility of intellectuals

Meanwhile, Said’s systemic and deep-cutting examination and questioning of the nature of the intellectual enterprise has produced some of his most important contributions. His criticisms of the prevailing intellectual culture of “experts” for hire, willing to peddle the ‘right’ opinions to the highest bidder, were not merely rhetorical. Throughout his life, he refused the never-ending requests and offers to take up positions as a “consultant,” both for governments and the corporate sector. He would no doubt be horrified today by the fantastical mushrooming over the past decade of an industry of western ‘experts’ and think tanks queuing up to “explain” the orient to themselves and each other. His despair at the poverty of analysis of the region (his Covering Islam is required reading for any aspiring foreign reporter) is unlikely to have been dampened by the endless reams of clichés and stock phrases (“old hatreds”, “angry mobs”, “savage histories”) that have littered coverage of the “Arab Spring” over these past two years (yes, including the “Arab Spring” tag itself). This allergy to linguistic abuses also included a marked impatience towards jargon and obfuscation, notably his disdain for the “sullen technological narcissism” of most post-structuralists and post-modernists. (Ironically, these reservations are often side-stepped by many a professed disciple and devotee, yet are more relevant than ever).

What we seem to be missing (in both senses of the word) most today is Said’s moral and intellectual courage as well as his unbounded sense of solidarity with the oppressed. For years, he was the most prominent, and thus most exposed, de facto spokesman of the Palestinian cause in the United States, at a time when it was an extremely precarious and lonely position. He endured years of intimidation, death threats, as well as abuse towards him and his loved ones, and did so with resilience and great dignity. He also showed great ability to work with others despite key differences, for the sake of a greater cause or purpose. Today, whether it’s debates on Syria or the battle against the neo-liberal economic behemoth, one can’t help but note how intellectual tribalism across the spectrum has become more entrenched than ever.

Said’s courage was evident not only when he took on traditional adversaries, notably the votaries of power, but also in his willingness to challenge those from his “own” side, such as when he publicly called out, in the mid-80s, western anti-apartheid activists for avoiding “discussion of Israel when they criticise one of its chief allies, South Africa,” as well as the leaders of the anti-nuclear movement, “who have nothing to say about the Israeli nuclear threat.”

This also included Said’s frank and trenchant verdict on the Israeli ‘Peace Camp’. “For years this stalwart bunch prodded, cajoled, coaxed Palestinians – myself among them – into believing that they were interested in peace”, he noted. Yet, when Oslo came and Israel accelerated its dispossession and colonisation project, “the peace camp essentially said nothing”. By the end of his life, he came to see the Israeli left’s modus operandi as one of “making all sorts of prize-winning declarations about peace while doing exactly the opposite on the ground.”

Said’s bravery in challenging the Palestinian leadership extended to his attitude to the surrounding Arab regimes, notably in their treatment of Palestinian refugees within their borders. “To speak of Palestinians outside the Occupied Territories,” he pointed out “was to challenge the collective Arab narrative,” a narrative that wanted to keep the focus on Israel’s misdeeds rather on Arab political and moral failures.

On a more personal plane, Said was as unstinting in his friendships as he was fierce in his feuds. Many will be familiar with his cold wars – against Bernard Lewis, V.S. Naipaul, Thomas Friedman and others – as well as his short, intense hostilities with others, often played out in rumbustious exchanges in the pages of literary journals. The lesson one ought perhaps to take from this – in a cultural age where intellectual controversies often seem empty and contrived – is the importance of taking ideas, and their consequences, seriously.

In the years following his death, many were the moments where, coming across an intellectual controversy or a political news item, I would reflexively wonder whether he’d written or said anything about it in the recent past. Then I would remember he was gone, and that sense of irredeemable loss would hit me again with renewed gusto. I have since come across many who have experienced this very same strange process which seemed to combine obdurate denial – of the reality of his passing away – on the one hand, with one of defiant affirmation: of his continued and powerful presence as intellectual and moral guiding light for generations of students, colleagues, activists and comrades.

In many ways, that reflex has not faded away. As the past decade has progressed, with its litany of political scandals, organised violence, intellectual coarsening and imperial arrogance, the Edward Said-shaped hole in the global conversation has continued to become sharper in its contours by the day. What would he have said about the obscene barbarities of Abu Ghraib? About Israel’s destruction of Gaza – by F16s and white phosphorous – in the dark winter of 2008-9? What would he have made of Wikileaks? Of Occupy? Of Edward Snowden’s unmasking of the globalised Security State? Of the US’s unending military excursions in the Middle East? What would he have made of Obama’s “kill list”? As the ‘Arab Street’ took to Arab streets, and the world watched decades-old political systems – built on corruption and cruelty and coercion – sway precariously under the weight of their own historical grotesqueness, one can easily imagine Said’s withering scorn at the west’s attempt to save its clients in Egypt, Bahrain and Tunisia, as well as his undiminished contempt for the absurd collection of dictators and oil potentates holding on to their thrones against the tide of history.

A decade after his premature departure, Said’s life, in all its “disorganised, scattered, uncentred” richness will continue to radiate moral and intellectual sustenance, as well as untold surprises and delights. The vast and under-explored provinces of his oeuvre, his musical excursions as well as his unsurpassable literary map-making, will guide and console readers everywhere. Above all, for many in the Arab world, Said’s enduring legacy will continue to be this reinvigorated sense of pride and possibility that he instilled in all of us. In an age where being an ‘other’ remains the heaviest of crosses to bear, his ebullience and charm and defiance will continue to infuse the rising generations with strength and optimism and light. The injustices remain, but so will the resistance.

Originally published by Open Democracy 

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