On September 25, 2003, many people across the globe lost a dear friend. Edward W. Said was and remains our friend, brother and comrade. He was a scholar, a humanist and an untiring advocate of Palestinian rights. Without him we feel adrift, even helpless, but we must resist this feeling. In and through his life, Edward insisted that we must persist in
speaking truth to power.
In September 1991, Edward asked me to organize a meeting he wanted to convene in London. He invited a select number of Palestinians from the Occupied Territories, and others from the vast diaspora, to think together about how the Palestinian national movement should respond to the then upcoming Madrid peace conference held that October. The attendees urged the Palestine Liberation Organization to participate in the Madrid conference, but with certain provisos. The Palestinian leadership embraced the yes, and eschewed the provisos.
Just before this meeting, Edward had visited South Africa. On the plane ride from South Africa to London he sat next to the African National Congress (ANC) ambassador to Great Britain. Edward invited the ambassador to address the London gathering. Not all who were present appreciated Edward’s reasoning, but they listened. Edward wanted to convey
a simple message: the Palestinian national movement was at a critical crossroads. It had no military option, but it still needed to conduct a wise but militant struggle. Such a struggle
would require the mobilization not only of Palestinians, but of international public opinion. Toward this end, the ANC representative informed us about the internationally organized
anti-apartheid campaign. The purpose of the campaign was to create an international moral climate to force a political showdown with the apartheid system. The message was clear.
PLO participation in Madrid should be accompanied by the launching of the Palestinian equivalent of the anti-apartheid campaign: Israeli Occupation Must End. For diplomacy to
yield positive results, more politics and grassroots mobilization, on the home front and internationally, were needed.
During a break preceding the London meeting’s last session, Edward came to my hotel room to call his wife Mariam in New York. What he learned during that conversation was life-altering. His doctor wanted to see him upon his return to New York; he suspected that Edward might have leukemia. Edward asked me not to share this incredible news with anyone. He had scant time to digest it himself before presiding over the last session. Everyone noticed the change in his demeanor. He seemed preoccupied, a bit resigned. Everyone was perplexed.
Edward was indeed shaken and seemed withdrawn, but his resignation did not last long. This was the first and last time he allowed himself that luxury. From that moment on,
he decided to live. He fought pessimism, opting to continue his mission of speaking truth to power — but with a sense of intense urgency. His body was subjected to ordinary and experimental treatments. After each grueling hospital visit, he wondered aloud if he could go through another. But, as the next treatment approached, he would say, “Do I really have
another choice?” Thus, despite his chronic illness, he wanted to “press on with the tasks at hand. I’ve got a lot to say and write, and I just want to go on doing that.” This is precisely
what he did until his last day. His courage in the face of personal adversity inspired people all over the world to struggle for justice in Palestine and elsewhere.
After the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and its devastating human consequences, Edward teamed up with Jean Mohr, a Swiss photographer, to produce After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives, a moving portrait of Palestinians. Two years later, he wrote an article titled “Permission to Narrate.” He wanted to rescue Palestinians from being mere objects of dismissive representation. Instead, he gave his people and their culture an active voice. In effect, as Mahmoud Darwish observes, “Edward placed Palestine in the world’s heart, and the world in the heart of Palestine.”
Edward’s Question of Palestine should be read as an essay in reconciliation. He did not deny Jewish claims to Palestine; rather, he would say that “their claims always entail Palestinian dispossession.” Because he remained a proud and unapologetic Palestinian, ardent Zionists and neo-conservatives launched puerile and vindictive attacks against him. Their attacks failed to offer the slightest hint of an inclusive and humanistic model of coexistence. In sharp contrast, Edward’s friendship and musical collaboration with the Israeli pianist Daniel Barenboim in founding the East/West Divan offered a model of hope predicated on the building of community by crossing cultural boundaries. He articulated this inclusive vision many times. In 1983, he addressed a memo to the Palestinian National Congress in which he said that the world must see that the “Palestinian idea is an idea of living together, of respect for others, of mutual recognition between Palestinian and Israeli.”
But Edward cannot be identified simply as a Palestinian. He is much more nuanced and complex. He is one of a class of modern thinkers, along with Noam Chomsky, Raymond
Williams and Michel Foucault, to have critically interrogated the modernist project. At once, he could identify the spectacular successes of modernity and its disastrous failures. This
is precisely what he set out to accomplish through both his literary work and his cultural criticism. Edward did not so much defend Islam or the Arabs as attack the reified notions
of Orient and Occident. His primary concern was to delineate the sources of Western knowledge about non-Western societies. Like a mirror, Orientalism reflects Western power and its imperial appetite. To rescue the production of knowledge from colonial and imperial constraints, Edward used a humanistic critique that “is centered on the agency of human individuality and subjective intuition, rather than on received ideas and approved authority.” His pioneering study Orientalism (1979) helped to create a new field of inquiry: post-colonial studies.
For Edward, the real task of the intellectual “is to advance human freedom and knowledge.” At a celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Orientalism, Gyan Prakash dubbed his Princeton colleague Bernard Lewis the “embedded intellectual,” one who serves power. In contrast, Edward was the quintessential oppositional intellectual. Like Julien Benda, Edward believed that the intellectual must insist on truth and justice, and “give utterance not to mere fashion and passing fads but to real ideas and values, which cannot be articulated from inside a position of power.” Edward’s conception of the intellectual both echoes and expands Gramsci’s agenda for the “organic intellectual.” He or she must uphold broad moral interests, especially in defense of the deprived and oppressed of society. Edward insisted that the intellectual must never shy away from criticism because
of loyalty to nation. In Representations of the Intellectual, he implores native intellectuals to resist the temptation to “narcotize the critical sense, or reduce its imperatives, which are
always to go beyond survival to questions of political liberation, to critiques of the leadership, to presenting alternatives that are too often marginalized or pushed aside as irrelevant
to the main battle at hand.”
Edward’s oeuvre is vast and still unfinished. Soon, we will be able to read his forthcoming book on the state of the humanities. He weaved in and out of interconnected domains —
literature, music, politics and history — insisting that to understand the world we must search for a balance between dissonance, consonance and discord. In his memoir, Out of
Place, he saw himself through this complicated prism. He was not a coherent single person, but many different things. In effect, his life affirmed and celebrated his and the world’s
multiple differences. The philosopher of education Maxine Greene (The Dialectic of Freedom) shows how, in learning through the arts, the world is disclosed in “incomplete profiles.” Speaking to a conference in South Africa in February 2001 in an address titled “The Book, Critical Performance and the Future of Education,” Edward built on Greene’s observation, and with his words, I close this tribute to a dear friend and brother whom I will always miss and cherish.
Surely a great lesson of the last hundred years is that none of the great or small systems, whether imperial, ideological, racial, religious or socio-economic, is adequate to the world’s complexity, which cannot be herded neatly under one or other totalizing rubric. Such systems are false gods that routinely end up lapsing into barbarism and tyranny. Hence the alternative notion, that the world is incomplete, in the process of becoming, a magnificent series of fragments, certainly uncontainable by reductive schemes, nationalist or otherwise. Greene is right to say that, as Vico had suggested in the mid-eighteenth century, the world presents itself to the learning mind in incomplete profiles.