Thirty years later:
Revisiting Edward Said’s Palestine
By Jonah Raskin / The Rag Blog / September 9, 2009
It’s called The Holy Land but unholy wars have been fought on its soil for its very soil for ages. Sometimes it seems the wars will never end. Perhaps they won’t in my lifetime or yours.
But now and then there’s a voice of hope that’s raised above the din. In the last two decades of the twentieth century that voice of hope belonged, at least for a time, to Edward Said, the author of The Question of Palestine, which was originally published 30 years ago in 1979 — and nearly two dozen other books, including Orientalism, a contemporary classic about empire.
Again and again, The Question of Palestine has been the book that I turn to for information about Palestine, and, never having been there, I see the land and its people through Said’s eyes. I know that may sound strange. After all he was an Arab — he died in 2003 at the age of 63 — and I’m Jew, but we both aimed to link politics and culture. We also loved British literature, and taught British literature, though we also knew that it was often implicated in the spoils of empire.
Said was one of a kind, and a completely unique human being. I only met him once — in his office at Columbia College in New York, where I had been an undergraduate. But his appeal as a writer and as an intellectual has never waned for me because he was a complex, sometimes enigmatic figure.
He described himself as a loner, and “not a joiner,” but in 1977 he joined the Palestinian National Council — the government in exile — and served as a member until he resigned in 1991. For a loner he managed to join a great many other organizations, serving as the President of the Modern Language Association, and an executive board member of PEN, the international writers’ organization. He wrote about music for The Nation, and was on the editorial board for years.
Moreover, for a scholar and teacher who insisted that he wanted no followers and no imitators, and who offered “no rules by which intellectuals can know what to say or do,” he gave birth to the academic field known as “post-colonial studies,” and to an influential group of writers and intellectuals — such as Andrew Rubin and Moustafa Bayoumi — who carry on his work.
Like many of his own intellectual heroes, Said crafted a personal and a political identity, and that identity was as much a matter of feelings as facts. Then, too, the feelings were often uncomfortable, even anxiety producing. “Exile is the fundamental condition of Palestinian life,” he wrote. He added that to be a Palestinian was to be an “outlaw” and an “outsider.”
I probably would use the same if not identical words to describe the fundamental condition of Jewish life. I have certainly felt like an outlaw and an outsider for most of my life and part of that identity derives from being a Jew in a world of anti-Semitism. For much of his life — that began in Palestine in 1935, and that ended in New York — Said felt that he belonged nowhere, and everywhere all at once. By his own reckoning, he was “always a traveler” and always “out of place.” He thought of himself as a mongrel intellectual, and he strayed far beyond the world of intellectuals. By straying he found himself, and allied himself with other exiles, refugees, displaced persons, and deportees the world over.
Said’s sense of not belonging came to him first in boyhood. Born to a Palestinian father — with U.S. citizenship and an American passport — and a Lebanese mother, he left Palestine with his parents in 1947 when the state of Israel came into existence. He did not return for 45 years when he sought and found the house that his family once owned, and where he had spent his earliest years, an experience that prompted him to write his memoir, Out of Place, in which he describes growing up as the British Empire declined and the American Empire began to take its place.
In Egypt in the 1940s he attended the Cairo School for American Children and then Victoria College, and felt that he did not have any one single identity — neither British, nor American, nor Egyptian — but a kind of Kiplingesque half-breed on a border that divided colonized from colonizers. The whole subject of Palestine was repressed at home by his parents, and rarely if ever discussed by them. Moreover, his family was Christian not Moslem, and members of what he would later call the “national bourgeoisie,” and so he was far removed from the living conditions that most Arabs faced everyday.
First as a teenager in the United States attending private school, and then as an undergraduate at Princeton, he aimed “to become like the others, as anonymous as possible.” But in 1956, when the British invaded Suez, he identified publicly as an Arab with an Arab point of view for the first time in his life. Still, it would not be for another decade that he began to reveal his politics, and to identify himself as an anti-imperialist.
In his first book, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (1966), he denounced European colonialism, albeit quietly, and traced what he felt were the links between the narcissism of the self on the one hand, and the narcissism of empire on the other, both of which he found abhorrent.
A decade later, in The Question of Palestine, he held back none of his feelings. The Six-Day War of 1967, when Israeli troops gained military control of the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights, had shaken him to the core of his being. He would say that he was never the same person again.
After 1967, he began in earnest to recall his lost Palestinian identity, and to stake his honor, his career as an intellectual and a professor, on the future of his homeland. In The Question of Palestine, he left no room for doubt about where he stood, and what he stood for. He attacked The New York Times, Commentary, The New Republic, experts on the Middle East, and Zionism, at the same time that he defended Nasser, Arafat, and the Palestinian Communist Party.
What he wanted most of all, he explained in The Question of Palestine, was “an independent and sovereign Palestinian state.” He added that in his view most Palestinians, and most Arabs, too, had come to the realization that they had to live at peace with Jews and Israel. That now seems like wishful thinking.
If there were terrorists in the Middle East, and of course there were, then Israel was to blame for bringing them into existence, he insisted, though he also condemned Palestinian violence, suicide bombers, and the hijacking of airplanes by members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
Over and over again he aimed for a balanced perspective, though that proved difficult to attain. He decried “the horrors of European anti-Semitism,” and noted that for Palestinians the Jews were “the most morally complex of opponents.”
Thirteen years later, in 1992, when The Question of was republished in paperback, Said was much less sanguine about the prospects for an independent Palestinian state, and about peaceful co-existence between Jews and Arabs. In his view, history seemed to go around and around without progress or genuine solutions to social problems.
Under the Nazis, the Jews were the “victims of persecution,” he wrote. Then, in the Middle East with the creation of the State of Israel, they became “the victimizers of another people.” In his view, Arabs were “the victims of the victims.” Now, too, in the preface to the new edition, he lambasted Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, along with Kissinger and Reagan, and, with the exception of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist, he had fewer and fewer heroes. Even Arafat had failed him.
The problem of Palestine was now “intractable,” he wrote; Palestinian history was marked by “catastrophes.” His own resignation from the PLO the previous year seemed to signal his sense of political frustration.
Oddly enough, Said became more hopeful about the prospects for global change again after 9/11. In part, he took on the mantle of French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, and aimed to follow in Sartre’s footsteps — to be “optimistic,” to defend “populism” and “public politics.”
In 2000, in an essay for the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, Said acknowledged Sartre’s positive influence on his own thinking as a young man. He praised him for “his courageous positions on Algeria and Vietnam, his work on behalf of immigrants, his gutsy role as a Maoist during the 1968 student demonstrations in Paris.” Said went on to say that he found nearly everything Sartre wrote “interesting for its sheer audacity, its freedom and its generosity of spirit.”
There was only one place where Sartre failed, Said believed, and that was Israel. “Except for Algeria, the justice of the Arab cause simply could not make much of an impression on him,” he wrote. “Whether that was because he was afraid of seeming anti-Semitic, or because he felt guilt about the Holocaust or because he had no deep appreciation of the Palestinians as victims of and fighters against Israel’s injustice, I shall never know.”
Sartre died in 1980, a year after Said met him in Paris — the one and only time they met — and so he never had the opportunity to ask him why he’d been reluctant to defend the Palestinian cause.
Until he died, that cause would haunt Said, though in part it was eclipsed for him — and for others — by the immediacy of the War in Iraq. Said saw Palestine as the “last great cause of the twentieth century,” and last causes seem to have a way of turning into lost causes.
For a time, he envisioned Palestine as a cause he might have had a hand in winning, but increasingly he saw Palestine as a land “saturated with blood and violence” from which there was no exit. It seems today as saturated with blood and violence as ever before. But as Said noted, Arabs and Jews are tied “inexorably together,” and that inexorable link provides a sense of hope. It does for me. Together, we will have to figure a way out of the unholy land and away from violence and blood.
Said himself seems now like one of the last great public intellectuals of the twentieth century: a man who belonged to no place, and nowhere, and who felt permanently out of place, but who identified with what Franz Fanon called “the wretched of the earth.”
“An intellectual is like a shipwrecked person,” Said wrote. “Not like Robinson Crusoe, but more like Marco Polo, whose sense of the marvelous never fails him, and who is always a traveler, a provisional guest, not a freeloader, conqueror or raider.”
The intellectuals with whom Said identified most strongly were men and women who were exiled from their own countries of origin. Many of them, though not all were Jews, forced out of their homelands by Fascism. Said acknowledges all of them in his writings: Hannah Arendt, Erich Auerbach, Jose Marti, Frantz Fanon, and Theodoro Adorno, whom he describes as “the dominating intellectual conscience of the middle twentieth century.”
To the names of Arendt, Auerbach, Marti, Fanon, and Adorno we might think of adding the name Said, and to remember him now as a scholar, an intellectual and an activist who tried to create a bridge between Arabs and Jews. Thirty years after its initial publication The Question of Palestine is well worth revisiting because it shows Said at his most personal and at his most political.
I remember him now, not in his office where we sat and talked about literature, but on the Columbia campus near the height of the Vietnam War. Out of curiosity about the protests and the protesters, he would stand at a distance, watch the crowd as it roared, and listen to the fiery speeches. He never joined us and I never asked him to. I wish that I had.
[Jonah Raskin is the author of The Mythology of Imperialism: Revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age. (Monthly Review Press.)
- Find The Question of Palestine by Edward W. Said on Amazon.com.