Said Drew From His Great Moral Strength
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Said Drew From His Great Moral Strength
by Haroon Siddiqui
It flatters me that they think I'm important enough to keep attacking me. What it does, in fact, is to interest more people in my work and my writing. That's the way I respond to them, by producing more. I think what they want is my silence. Unless I die, it's not going to happen.
Death has now silenced Edward Said. But his words live on.
"Anti-Arab sentiment, anti-Arab speech and representations are the last approved racism and hate talk that exists in the West. There is very little attention paid to Arab suffering. There is no acknowledgment that Palestinians are going through things even South African blacks were spared during apartheid. The homelands were never bombed by F-16s or Apache helicopters."
Courage was Said's greatest gift, more than his extraordinary brilliance as a towering literary critic and Palestinian patriot. He was persistent and eloquent on behalf of his people whose own tenacity he admired:
"Palestinians remain, despite Israel's concerted efforts from the beginning to get rid of them or to circumscribe them so much as to make them ineffective. I have never met a Palestinian who is tired enough of being a Palestinian to give up entirely.''
Despite relentless attacks on his integrity and character, Said (pronounced Sa-eed) refused to be intimidated. That gave him his great moral strength, leaving his critics largely helpless and mostly fuming.
He inspired the timid to break the silences and self-censorships that characterize much of our debate on the Middle East.
To him, the duty of a public intellectual is to be a moral agent, and speak truth to power.
Individuals, too, shouldn't be complacent. "Human understanding cannot take place on the collective scale unless it takes place first on an individual scale." Teachers must inculcate in students "perpetual dissatisfaction." "Knowledge and reading require unending questioning, discovery and challenge."
Portrayed as a radical by his enemies, Said was a charming, cultured and cosmopolitan man of catholic tastes: an accomplished pianist and opera buff who waxed poetic about belly dancing and Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan; a Christian who defended Muslims, and had Hindu and Jewish friends, notably Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim, who helped him bring Arab and Israeli musicians together for a yearly concert.
It was a pleasure to meet Said and a greater pleasure to read him, even when one disagreed, as on his unequivocal opposition to the Oslo peace accord and his advocacy of one secular state for Arabs and Jews.
He had an affinity for Toronto, mostly due to Glenn Gould, whose fan he was and whom he eulogized in an erudite essay, The Virtuoso as Intellectual.
In 1986, already famous as professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, Said came to the University of Toronto as the Northrop Frye visiting lecturer in literary theory. In 2000, he returned to receive an honorary doctorate.
His independent thinking first came to light in his 1978 epochal work Orientalism. He painted Western scholars of the Orient as the advance guard and then the court poets of colonialism. His hypothesis did not go unchallenged, but it did usher in Post-Colonial Studies.
He also decried Occidentalism, the East viewing the West as a white Christian monolith.
He saw Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations as pernicious: "What is described as `Islam' belongs to the discourse of Orientalism, a construction fabricated to whip up feelings of hostility and antipathy against a part of the world that happens to be of strategic importance."
He was a dissident Arab. A member of the Palestinian National Council (1977-91), he broke off with Yasser Arafat, calling him self-serving, authoritarian and corrupt. Typically, Arafat banned his books.
He criticized Arabs for not acknowledging historic Russian and European anti-Semitism. But he understood the "resentment and hatred that people feel in the Arab and Islamic world towards the Jews, not because of classic European anti-Semitism but because of what Israel is doing, which is barbaric."
He attacked despots Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad, and Arab states for doing little for Palestinian refugees. He condemned terrorism but not enough for his critics who were also infuriated by his attacks on "Israeli terrorism."
His detractors went after him after an incident in 2000 when he was photographed in Lebanon indulging in the local custom of tossing a symbolic stone across the border with Israel.
Columbia University was urged to fire or censure him. It declined. Provost Jonathan Cole said in a famous statement:
"We at Columbia did not yield, as did other institutions, to the pressure and impulse to sanction or fire professors who held unpopular political views during the McCarthy period; we will not back down from our protection of the faculty's right to express itself now."
He called Said "a giant in his field ... one of the foremost and influential humanists and intellectuals in the world."
But the Freud Society in Vienna cancelled a Said lecture on Freud's interest in Egypt and Palestine. He said: "Freud was hounded out of Vienna because he was a Jew. I am hounded out because I am a Palestinian."
While admired in the Arab and Muslim world, he did not escape its criticism either.
Echoing one sentiment, Abdullah Schleifer of American University in Cairo, said Friday Said was so preoccupied with Palestine, "he was unable to see problems in other parts of the Arab world, such as the massacre of Kurds and Shias."
Khaled Abou el-Fadl, professor at UCLA, raised another in an interview with me last year.
While Orientalism was a pioneering work, it ended up "helping many Muslim intellectuals to deflect criticism, project fault upon the others: `Well, it's the fault of colonialism, it's the fault of Orientalism, it's the fault of this, it's the fault of that,' and there doesn't seem to be much space for Muslims to engage in self-criticism and hold themselves under the microscope."
The day Said died, there was a news story that 27 high-ranking Israeli reservist fliers had publicly denounced Ariel Sharon's policy of assassination air strikes as "immoral and illegal."
He would have applauded their courage to be true to their conscience.
Haroon Siddiqui is the Star's editorial page editor emeritus. His column appears Thursdays and Sundays.
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