Places of Mind, Timothy Brennan’s recent biography of Edward Said, is fundamentally a celebration of the Palestinian intellectual’s life and mission. Brennan, a scholar who studied under Said at Columbia University, draws from a sensibility rooted in social and racial justice and an academic career inspired by his teacher. His examination of Said’s personal relations and conduct often seems protective of Said (against others) or his family (against others and Said). While not ruthlessly probing into the most uncomfortable and unpleasant aspects of Said’s personality, however, Brennan is willing to at least acknowledge them.
Brennan notes while describing the “special challenge” of his endeavor that none of the many books that have been written about Said “paints a full picture of his Arab and American selves as they come together, or accounts for the ways that Said’s writings on Palestine, music, public intellectuals, literature and the media intertwine.”
That Jews are missing from that fullness is significant, for the Jewish echoes in Said’s life were numerous and pronounced: He was rooted in the experience of exile, inspired by Jewish intellectualism, and driven by a central obsession with the Jewish state.
Jews were important at every stage of Edward Said’s life. He was delivered in Jerusalem by the midwife Madame Baer. Growing up in Cairo, one of his closest friends was psychoanalyst Andre Green; he took lessons and shared meals with the exacting Polish pianist Ignaz Tiegerman.
Most of Said’s close friends at Princeton were Jews; there he was inspired by the experimental approach of Milton Babbitt and would study under the composer Erich Itor Kahn, who had fled the Nazis. Monroe Engel and Harry Levin, his dissertation supervisors at Harvard, were essential in shaping his academic perspective. At Columbia, many of those who concerned themselves with his burgeoning Palestinian identity were Jews, including David Lehman, who dedicated a series of poems to him, and theologian Alan Mintz.
His work first appeared in publications led by Jewish writers. Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books, offered him a refuge for his perspective. Jean Stein named a room in her apartment, filled with Oriental décor, after him.
But Said’s long engagement with Jews and Jewishness largely amounted to a set of crass positions: incuriosity, relativism, blankness, replacement. Brennan charts many of Said’s seemingly innumerable relationships with individual Jews. But he largely echoes Said’s perspective on the Middle East (the book is dedicated “for the Palestinian people”) and the infecund nature of Said’s encounter with Jewishness.
“I have never known what language I spoke first, Arabic or English, or which one was really mine beyond any doubt,” Said wrote in his childhood memoir Out of Place. His two names remained a mystery even after he inquired into their origins, the discordance of their pairing. He had known his father as Wadie Ibrahim Said; but “Said” was absent when he saw his dad’s name listed on the honor tablets at St. George’s School in Jerusalem. He would later learn that Wadie had adopted the generic Arab name after some years in America. Said never managed to find any of the relatives his mother told him bore the name, and he never learned its source.
As for his conspicuously Occidental first name, his mother told Said he was named after the Prince of Wales—who apparently cut a particularly fine figure in 1935, the year of his birth. Hearing his mother cry “Edwaad” at closing time in the Zamalek Fish Garden in Cairo, Said recalled, he was “undecided whether to answer her back or to remain in hiding for just a while longer, enjoying the pleasure of being called, being wanted, the non-Edward part of myself taking luxurious respite by not answering until the silence of my being became unendurable.”
The Saids were part of a small Anglican minority within the Palestinian Christian minority. Brennan writes that their sect “began during the mandate to face accusations of collusion and collaboration with the British occupying powers and, by extension, with the Zionist movement.” Said’s father’s Standard Stationery Company was the primary supplier office equipment to the British army in Egypt: Christian and well-off with a seemingly direct link to Western power, “the family worked overtime to demonstrate their authenticity as Palestinian Arabs.”
At the prestigious Victoria College in Alexandria, Said registered the twilight of British global power, receiving an elite education that prepared him for membership in a nonexistent elite. He joined a rising tide of adolescent mockery at the pretention, impersonality, and rigid authority of the Englishmen, rumored by the Arab kids to be “depraved pederasts.” Speaking his ancestral tongue—which he had earlier repressed at the Cairo School for American Students—became a “proud insurrectionary gesture,” a “way of answering an academic question and attacking the teacher at the same time.”
Said experienced the pivotal tragedy of his people at a distance. In Cairo, where he later confessed his immediate family was “completely insulated” by wealth and security, he felt the Nakba as a lowering of mood, a souring of faces, a sporadic, incoherent anger expressed by incoming relatives. He would later find ways to shade his own limited encounter with the Nakba into that of his extended family and therefore his people: “I grew up in Palestine. I remember what it was like to leave. One’s whole family left.” Yet what started as an indirect foundation in his consciousness would later become the foundational event of his intellectual credibility.
Said’s recollections of his father focused on his own sense of smallness in comparison to him: Wadie Ibrahim comes across as distant but dominant. Even through depressive moods and nervous breakdown, his physical prowess and decisiveness are underscored. (This portrait “appalled” his sisters, who found him instead a “tender, quiet man who spoiled them with love and kindness.”)
Interwoven into this picture was an early connection to the emerging American empire and to Said’s own place in it: Wadie Ibrahim enlisted in the American Expeditionary Force and fought in France during World War I, after which he set up a paint company in Cleveland. He eventually acquired U.S. citizenship, and was officially called “William.” Said and his sisters were given American passports at birth. If there was an eerie absence of personal texture to the decade Said’s father spent in America, certain generic features of American culture were part of Said’s childhood world: Thanksgiving turkey, apple pie, stock phrases (“big boy”). (His father would later repeat the phrase “my country, right or wrong” when arguing about the Vietnam war with his son.) Retrospectively reexamining his father’s relationship with America, Said eventually focused on the “practice of self-making with a purpose, which he exploited in what he did and what he made others around him, chiefly me, do.”
As for his own relation with America, Said was “a New Yorker before ever moving to America,” spending time in the city in the late ’40s and early ’50s “sitting in its movie houses or wandering through its department stores and restaurants.” Out of direct touch with hinterland Americana, he wrote that his experience was “barren of soda fountains and soda jerks, the two items that intrigued me the most.” He was mesmerized by American cinema.
He moved to America aged 16, attending Mount Hermon school in Massachusetts. The sterility and homogeneity he encountered there would extend to Princeton. He would later deem it miraculous he survived what he called its “poisonous social atmosphere” of “casual, pipe-smoking, tweedy anti-intellectualism.”
But Brennan depicts a more purposeful figure during this period than Said’s memoirs would suggest. In response to the hushed bigotry of some of his WASP superiors, he sought to “outmanoeuvre” them with “a cosmopolitan flair that many found disarming,” cultivating a worldly image enabled by wealth. Aside from French, at this early point, Said used “two forms of English: one American, the other Oxonian, shifting abruptly between the two at a moment’s notice either to make a point or to match the accent of his interlocutor.” He “negotiated Princeton’s customs perfectly, enjoying the rituals of the dining clubs in particular but could be very ironical about them, mocking their excessive shows of ceremony.” He would range (mostly fruitlessly) across nearby schools looking for girls in his Alfa Romeo; his activities included “visits to prominent family members in Washington, D.C., or overnight stays at the Lebanese mission in New York.”
“It is anyone’s guess whether he fled the life of sales contracts and import ledgers because of a higher calling” is not the most seductive reflection by a biographer about the genesis of one of the most famous intellectuals of the 20th century. Rather, it reflects a certain blankness at a key stage in Said’s life.
At Harvard, Said’s vision for his academic path began to take shape, a process Brennan illuminates adeptly. Said’s doctorate was supervised by Monroe Engel, a novelist and editor (including to Saul Bellow), and critic Harry Levin, who observed a generation of “adaptable émigrés,” “trained in their homelands and by earlier travels to be experts on cultures other than their own.” Levin’s vision for literary studies “anticipated many of Said’s critical preferences,” founded on “cautioning against the ‘tyranny’ of grand ‘systems’ of thought that lose touch with contradictions and chance discoveries,” and “a sense of universal interrelatedness.” Levin was in conversation with Erich Auerbach and Leo Spitzer, two Jewish philologists who had fled the Nazis. Spitzer understood his vocation as a “chameleonic” one, in which “free-floating erudition” unlocked disciplinary experimentation. Levin “impressed on Said the importance” of Auerbach and Spitzer. But Said later “downplayed his relationship with both of his mentors” Engel and Levin, even though both relationships were actually “deep” and “sustained.”
Philology and literary studies provided Said with a broad orientation, channelling a background rooted in special capacities derived from access to different languages, traditions, and using close reading to generate new connections and discoveries. But it was theory—rooted in the work of European thinkers which Said helped transform into a distinctly American concoction—which ultimately unlocked the crucial possibilities of Said’s academic strategy.
Even at the dissertation stage, Said was “clever enough to realize he would be more likely to succeed professionally by writing a conventional study of a canonical English author.” But in order to escape the “somewhat predictable project he had chosen, of exploring Conrad as an invented authorial persona,” he ended up “injecting ideas” from French and German theorists into an “otherwise safe dissertation.”
While he was reading widely in “phenomenology, existentialism, and psychoanalysis,” however, his allegiances were, ultimately, “skin-deep.” He noted that these “theoretical movements” were “acquiring prestige” and was open about “shamelessly” utilizing the vocabulary of their leading lights. Insertions from their work allowed him to “throw off the straitjacket of a criticism based on a mere reading of novels and poems.” Said realized that through intellectuals like Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and Husserl, it was possible “to understand the study of forms, as taking place in a context, in a whole environment.” It was exactly this malleable premise that unlocked the possibilities of building a new approach to academic authority.
Said began writing Orientalism in “high, tennis playing spirits” as a fellow at Stanford in 1975. (“Of the several sports that have turned almost completely professional during the past three decades,” he would later write, “tennis deserves a place of honor in what Christopher Lasch called the culture of narcissism.”) Despite complaining about the place to friends in letters, anthropologist Jonathan Cole observed that he was “the center of attention, at ease with others in long and lively conversations over lunch.”
One intriguing counterpoint was provided by Yehoshafat Harkabi, chief of Israeli military intelligence in the mid-to-late 1950s, who was by coincidence also stationed there as a fellow. The pair already had a history: At an Arab American student convention, Harkabi led some Israeli students who confronted a group representing the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, led by Said. Following their series of exchanges at Stanford, depicted by observers variously as polite and strained, Harkabi would show up in the book as an epitome of racist condescension toward Arabs; an exemplar of Israeli orientalism.
Orientalism’s title is a metonym for the way Said reversed and reclaimed the act of naming. “Since they do not call themselves Orientalists, my use of the word is anomalous,” Said notes of the “modern American social scientists” he targets in the book. Imperialists had turned native terms into markers of shame and inferiority; now Said was inverting the neutral terms by which they defined themselves. He extracted from the tradition of Orientalism the negative vitality needed to overhaul it from within, starting with the term itself. The project was not only one of historical revision, but of lasting opposition: “My argument takes it that the Orientalist reality is both antihuman and persistent. Its scope, as much as its institutions and all-pervasive influence, lasts up to the present.”
“It would be wrong to conclude that the Orient was essentially an idea, or a creation with no corresponding reality,” Said wrote. “There were and are cultures and nations whose location is in the East, and their lives, histories, and customs have a brute reality obviously greater than … anything that could be said about them in the West. About that fact this study of Orientalism has very little to contribute, except to acknowledge it tacitly.” His focus was instead on “the internal consistency of Orientalism and its ideas about the Orient (the East as career) despite or beyond any correspondence, or lack thereof, with a ‘real’ Orient.” But despite his tactically necessary disclaimer, the two tracks—of brute reality, and the reality of ideas—did not ultimately coexist: “We must be very clear: Orientalism overrode The Orient.”
“Orientalism” was not really an idea; the premise of the book—i.e., the existence of “Orientalism”—was essentially presented as utterly singular, dominant, and monolithic, and yet also as functionally malleable intellectually. Orientalism possessed the dimensions and force of action: It was an act that enabled other acts.
There was of course an overtly political dimension to this: “I find the work on Orientalism to be a contribution to the struggle against imperialism,” Said put it bluntly. He was overt about the justifications for his revolutionary suspension of norms: “Even Said’s admirers found Orientalism at times unalert to contradiction, too willing to corral unlike thinkers into the same camp … Close friends observed that Said knew he ought to qualify his statements more, but he felt he had to be strong and definite for political reasons.” “Subtlety, generally, was his beat,” but “he didn’t want to get lost in it,” was how his colleague Michael Wood put it.
But Said’s assault on subtlety would become his most lasting and profound influence. The book established itself by claiming to unmask reductive Western systems of power and thought. But its own set of intellectual tools were as reductive as any system. In the words of Alan Mintz, in a letter to the Forward explaining why he chose not to attend his former friend’s funeral in 2003, Said “was enacting his own description of how culture works by using ideas to do the work of politics.”
Without getting into the gory details, Brennan points to a shift in Said’s circumstances in tandem with the success of the book: “With Said already an academic sensation, his sudden global fame had the unfortunate effects that pride often bestows, and because everyone wanted a piece of him, he took advantage. His sister Grace complained of a new haughtiness, a ‘nastiness’ in dealing with his sisters that was not evident growing up.”
His private responses to the Syrian philosopher Sadik al-Azm’s critique were ludicrously smug, patronizing and aggressive. The tone was of a man who didn’t need to take criticism into account. The sociologist Jacques Berque, someone Said respected greatly, noted that Orientalism’s thesis that works “reflect the conditions of their composition” was simply obvious. But Said’s objective professional success would enshrine the subjectivity on which his intellectual project was built.
Said became iconized as the oppressed Arab who proved to the world that Arabs were self-created individuals, too. To pull off this audacious maneuver, he necessarily embodied some of the most flattering aspects of Western culture, even as he turned himself into an image of Arab authenticity.
Said was the most exquisitely dressed man of letters in the Anglosphere. “Can you imagine a man too busy to go to his tailor?” is one quip cited by Brennan, and the issue was indeed existential. Said had to bring himself into the world on his own terms; bespoke clothing meant no longer being represented by the designs of others. His mastery of sartorial self-curation was all-encompassing, from the cut of a lapel to the direction of patterns across the different pieces of a suit to his color palette: Equally receptive to the scholastic pastoral of Lincoln green or a rakish shock of red, his taste in fine tailoring showed he was conversant in the pairing of diverse things, the flow of mutual perceptions. He smuggled otherness into the Eurocentric uniformity of the suit.
As a public figure, his voice added deeply to his post-colonial pathos. He was sympathetic to Paul Goodman’s critique of Noam Chomsky view of language as grammatically neutral, instead wanting to encompass “inflection, tone, gesture,” the more mercurial possibilities of language situations. His tones drew from both power and vulnerability, mixing personal hurt and collective pain. He carried the decrepit tones of Anglo-American superiority towards a new frontier of emergent authority. Suppressed Arabic lilts surfaced through his boarding school veneers.
He never lost sight of how, within the petty yet rarefied halls of elite Western educational institutions, a purportedly pure tussle over grand themes actually functioned as strategic and tactical competition for authority, in which knowledge was but one pliable component. The humiliation of colonization imparted a lasting feeling for the ramifications of parochial victories in places with expansive influence.
Said was in touch with the carnal aspects of that humiliation: “A certain freedom of intercourse was always the Westerner’s privilege; because his was the stronger culture, he could penetrate, he could wrestle with, he could give shape and meaning to the great Asiatic mystery, as Disraeli once called it,” he wrote in Orientalism. In the late ’80s and early ’90s he failed to finish a novel “highlighting the impotence of Arab men.” But he attempted to combat civilizational dispossession by “owning” his opponents in print or person. His was a blend of the Anglo obsession with rule-bound games and sports—itself a reflection of the self-command that so readily enabled their command of others—and the instincts underlying Middle Eastern blood feuds. A 1986 showdown with Bernard Lewis at the Middle East Studies Association in Boston—which was so packed that 600 people stood outside the assembly room—was largely seen as a triumph for Said. Beforehand at lunch, he told his Arab friends in Arabic: “I’m going to fuck his mother.”
On a trip to Lebanon in 2000, encouraged by “someone speaking Arabic in the entourage,” Said threw a stone at the border with Israel. The physical trajectory of the stone was unimpressive, but its representational reach was long. Images capturing his by then post-athletic pose ravaged by leukemia seemed to have the muscle memory of an oppressed people behind it, as if Said had organically adapted to the resistance folkways of his people in his natural environment. It was an act that expressed Said’s distance from reality (it had no material impact), yet also revealed a world in which image and representation had become even more potent than reality, an affirmation of his early academic instincts. But unlike the Victoria College days, when he was spanked by an uptight Englishman as punishment for throwing stones, this time he had Columbia for support.
An Arab isolated in diaspora, often surrounded by elite Jews, Said summoned the power of a lost world and the strength of an imagined nation. His political mission was to turn Palestine into an idea that could accommodate the emotionally appealing and ideologically hygienic aspects of nationalism while negating the undesirable ones: “Palestinianism since 1967 has generally been inclusive, trying (satisfactorily or not) to deal with the problem created by the presence of more than one national community in historical Palestine.” A nominal Christian, Said found his special place among Muslim Arabs by demurring on any sectarian difference internally and becoming an external ambassador.
In doing so, Said joined a tradition of Christian Arab nationalists, encompassing men like foundational Ba’ath theorist Michel Aflaq, with whom he shared a middle-class mercantile background and a desire to frame and guide the Muslim majority. Brennan shares an anecdote: Once asked by an Arab taxi driver if he was Muslim, Said replied with alhamduliah (“praise be to God”). It was a smooth way of withdrawing from the perilous frontline of the question. Insofar as Arabic is central to Islam, and Islam dominant among Arabs, the difference between us disappears: We all have one God anyway, and he speaks Arabic. Said’s profound need to believe in Arab nationalism meant that, as critic Mohammad Shaheen told Brennan, “Edward did more to promote Islam than all the sheikhs in the world.”
Said’s experience in the West—bitter and disorienting at times, yet expansively fruitful—was as a minority. But he drew strength from visions of majoritarian restoration: that enjoyed by Arabs before Zionism in the Palestinian homeland and by Arabs in their post-colonial “world.” He was drawn by the vulnerability of the Palestinian experience—as a minority in Israel and a nonsovereign majority in their territories—and the yearning to call on collective Arab strength. These impulses wrestled for control inside Said.
But one of the great privileges of being in the majority is incuriosity. Said yearned to be incurious about Jews; his erosion of Jewish particularity constituted a plea for regression to majoritarian innocence. One of Said’s friends from Princeton told Brennan that, on their concert trips to New York, if an Orthodox Jew walked towards them, Said would “cross to the other side of the street rather than face them.” Speaking of a classmate in Cairo, Said wrote: “I also had very little idea what his Jewishness meant for us, except that I recall distinctly not feeling anything peculiar about his presence among us.” He described feeling “dumbfounded” that the Jewish family of his closest friend at the Cairo School for American Children perceived the 1948 war as a majoritarian gang-up that represented “another anti-Jewish episode.” As pointed out by David Stern, Orientalism neglected the work of Ignaz Goldhizer, the Islamophilic Hungarian Jewish scholar who proved an exception to the ideological orientation he ascribed generally to Europeans. In an introduction to Erich Auerbach’s book Mimesis written in the early ’90s, Said concedes: “Auerbach’s Jewishness is something one can only speculate about.”
“I am not a great believer in the claims of ethnos, tribe, blood, or even patria, but I must, I feel make the distinction between the varieties of invasion,” he wrote in After the Last Sky; in light of cultural destruction, “perhaps it does not make any difference who or what that power is.” It is that righteous universal framework which permitted him to wallow in fantasies of majoritarian innocence with ideological impunity. Within that frame, he expressed an understanding that, to quote Alexander Yakobson and Amnon Rubinstein, being a minority was “the natural state of the Jews—a status to which they are ultimately destined to return.” Until the dismantling of its ideological artifice, Israel was destined to remain an alien trauma that was fixed in history as a colonial project undertaken by the “remnant of the Jewish people, who were massacred in Europe by Western anti-Semites, coming to Palestine.”
Said’s assault on subtlety would become his most lasting and profound influence.
On the ground, however, a phenomenon was occurring which materially changed the reality of Israel. The expulsion of around 800,000 Jews from North Africa and the Middle East in the 1940s-’70s and their massive settlement into Israel featured only sparingly in Said’s work. He refused to contemplate the significance of the expulsions of Jews from the Arab lands where they had lived for millennia, and for good reason: The phenomenon challenged his vision of Israel as a country which had been “internationally adopted by the Atlantic West” as “a quasi-European state whose fate” was to “hold non-European indigenous peoples at bay for as long as possible.” It also revealed Arab governments to be autonomously capable of persecuting minorities, running counter to the cosmopolitan and universalist vision he claimed to uphold. It further showed that Jewish suffering was possible after the Holocaust and that it was mostly taking place in the Arab world.
Said’s inevitable recourse was to extend Arab claims over Mizrahi Jews indirectly, by tallying them among the broader victim group generated by the European colonial intrusion of Zionism. “Given Israel’s continued oppression of Palestinians, few Palestinians are able to see beyond their reality, namely, that once victims themselves, Occidental Jews in Israel have become oppressors (of Palestinian Arabs and Oriental Jews),” he wrote. He would, in Orientalism, attack Bernard Lewis’ description of riots in Cairo on the day of the Balfour Declaration, in which a synagogue was destroyed and five Jews killed, as “anti-Jewish,” partly on the basis that a Catholic Church was also attacked, instead claiming they were “anti-imperialist.” He described the 1967 Tunis riots—the destruction during which prompted more than half the remaining Jewish population to leave the country within a few months—as “anti-semitic” and anti-Israel, with only the first descriptor in inverted commas, as if the nature of attacks targeting Jews was inherently open to dispute. Said wasn’t intellectually interested in the texture and detail of Mizrahi Jewish experience—exactly the same failures he perceived Western observers having in relation to Arabs—except as evidence for his preexisting ideological compulsions.
Said repeatedly emphasized the importance of being the first Palestinian to publicly “admit the Jews of Israel are survivors of the Holocaust,” as he once put it. He framed this act as courageous, and indeed, Brennan notes that “in Palestine, intellectuals resented his care in mentioning the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust.” “It’s incredibly important for a Palestinian to try and understand what force we’re dealing with,” he informed a documentarian in 1986. “I made a great effort to go and see Shoah. I’m certain that my wife and I were the only two Arabs in the audience. I could feel it all; I understood the enormous horror. I was aghast at it, because I understood it as a kind of European, or Western, kind of Holocaust, which it was. But then when I came to the point of saying: Well, what does this mean to me? It means to me, that this is the legitimization of what is happening to us as a people.”
Said did not treat the Shoah as a historical phenomenon with its own independent existence. He lamented the fact that Palestinians “have had no Holocaust to protect us with the world’s compassion,” and spoke of how “the Holocaust has victimized us too, but without the terrifying grandeur and sacrilegious horror of what it did to the Jews.” By axiomatically seeking the ways in which Jewish suffering enabled the suffering of others, he could present himself as maximally caring. Here was the ultimate empathy: a pure universalism that left no sufferer behind. But selectively blocking a connection to Jewish particularity—to the point of nullifying the Shoah by rendering it inextricable from his own sense of victimhood—ultimately belied Said’s claims to a universal framework.
The ultimate way he denied Jewish particularity was to call himself “the last Jewish intellectual.” Said’s replacement of the Jewish other had an environmental context: He saw American Zionism as having degraded the moral caliber of Jewish thought. Gone was the star-studded European era of exile in which Jews were seductively vulnerable, and the special status that came with it. As early as the 1980s, Said had adopted this mantle; “all your other Jewish intellectuals are now suburban squires,” he elaborated to Ha’aretz in 2000.
Said’s “public intellectual” involvement with the Palestinian cause was initially empowering on a personal level: “I thought this was my movement,” he told an interviewer. “I was no longer out of place. This was my people.” Having taken classes on a Beirut balcony with a philologist friend of his father’s, he was equipped to speak to Arafat entirely in Arabic in their first meeting. “I was also armed with a very powerful knowledge of the tradition from which I came,” he described. “I found it absolutely exhilarating to be able to move between the two.” As for his position as a national outsider with a peculiar personal story: “I was an American, nobody seemed to hold that against me.”
From Said’s angle, he argued that he was “one of the first to realize that a good part of our war against Israeli occupation would have to be in the West, in the Western mind.” Brennan writes that Said’s perspective was grounded in “the need to influence the U.S. public upon which Israel’s life support ultimately relied.” (For instance, he “was wary of the Palestinian national outfit,” which he thought made Arafat “ripe for mockery in American magazines.”) Said’s intellectual counterparts in the Palestinian territories, however, found his argument that the U.S. had to be the primary focus of their work “outrageously provincial.”
Said had aligned his sensibility with the broader anti-colonial movement and the various strands of political and academic solidarity it offered. In Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims, Said argued that the Palestine experience “at the hands of Zionism” had an “unmistakable coincidence” with the “experiences of those black, yellow and brown people who were described as inferior and subhuman by nineteenth-century imperialists.” He could also connect those colonial dynamics with contemporary politics and ongoing global inequalities in the context of the American empire. When seeking to decry U.S. support for Israel, for example, he could point to a failure to intervene in Rwanda because “the Black people were not worth the effort.”
The Gulf War brought together several of Said’s key fixations: American power, Arab nationalism, the power of media and knowledge in the struggle between them. It recapitulated the old dramas of imperialism. But Said’s public interventions in relation to Saddam’s Iraq were egregious exhibitions of the moral and intellectual failures of his ideological morality and theoretical frameworks.
Said was dogged in his refusal to ascribe any agency to Saddam’s actions and to minimize and relativize his atrocities. David Zarnett described this pattern in an indispensable critique of Said’s articles from this period: “There is some acknowledgement of Saddam as an aggressor and as a dictator. Such remarks are then flooded and overshadowed by a much longer analysis of U.S. policy which, by the end of the article, renders the critique of Saddam impotent.”
To challenge the Western media’s perceived dehumanization of Arabs (seen as inseparable from the imperialist machinery of war), Said was determined to represent his vision of Saddam’s perspective and Arab support for it. Within this context of abuse and domination, in which Saddam was being targeted for his own potent opposition to the West, he was “almost invited into Kuwait, then almost immediately demonized and transformed into a worldwide metaphysical threat.”
The admiration of Saddam by Arabs was also explained reactively: The brutal Iraqi dictator was responding to an ongoing legacy of Western depredations. Said purported to give voice to this generic racial bloc: “We should not therefore underestimate Saddam’s appeal to Arabs who feel that nothing less than the future of Arab civilization is at stake.”
The purported existential crisis of the Arabs was not created by Saddam’s invasions and genocide and his liquidation of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Saddam, in fact, was a key player in “a resurgent Arab nationalism” that “has taken heart from the resistance” embodied by the “Iraqi president” along with “the Palestinian intifadah and the various Islamic groupings.”
Instead of confronting the reality of Saddam’s crimes on their own terms, Said took refuge in the wound that never healed: The inter-civilizational historical conflict of Arabs with the West (and by extension, Zionism). Within Said’s frame, opposing both “fascism and imperialism” was “the honorable and only serious position to take.” Rather than chronicle the courageous Kuwaiti resistance to Saddam’s invasion, he focused on Saddam’s resistance to Western designs for the Middle East built on a “morbid and obsessional fear and hatred of Arabs and Islam.”
Even after widespread reports of the Anfal genocide, Said described the claim that “Iraq gassed its own citizens” as “at best … uncertain.” Said prided himself on being a skeptic, but he selectively disbelieved the testimony of victims of dictatorship and persecution, first according to abstract models and then empirically.
Said remained “doggedly loyal” to Arafat until the Oslo accords, which he denounced in Peace and Its Discontents, the first of his books to “have been written start to finish with an Arab audience in mind.” He described the “degrading spectacle” of the accords being sealed on the White House lawn, a humiliating recapitulation of imperial vassalage. Arafat would later seize copies of Said’s books and ban their sale in Gaza and the West Bank, a move protested in print by an extraordinary cast of intellectuals. The accords ultimately confirmed the severance between the emotional yearning for a homeland which had driven Said’s tireless advocacy efforts and the reality of Western and Arab politics and the Palestinian cause. His son said that Oslo made Said live the last decade of his life “in a permanent state of rage and hurt.”
Said’s flamboyant transgressions set an example of how racial outsiders could draw strength from their own narratives in ascending through Western institutions. But the scope of the breakthroughs he helped pioneer would expand beyond his control. In the 1991 essay “The Politics of Knowledge,” he described how a “black woman of some eminence” had confronted him at a seminar on imperialism, asking why he “talked only about white males.” (Despite being a pioneer of call-out culture when it came to his foes, here Said does not name the historian.) He attempted to contextualize the perceived omission and further the dialogue: “After all, I said, I was discussing European imperialism, which would not have been likely to include in its discourse the work of African-American women.” Hauntingly the encounter ended there. “I waited for her to resume,” Said recalls, “but she did not proceed, and I was left to suppose that she considered her point sufficiently and conclusively made.” Like Conrad’s mute and blank natives, the historian had passively revealed her dormant force.
“It would be pointless to deny that the exchange was unsettling,” Said admitted. (Brennan says he was “still grumbling about the encounter” months afterward.) In that moment, he felt the essence of his achievement being undermined: “It did not seem to matter that a great deal of my own work has concerned itself with just the kind of omission with which I was being charged … I was disheartened not because I was being attacked, but because the general validity of the point being made in Orientalism still obtained and yet was now being directed at me.” He had made his fame deneutralizing the Western man; his privileged status was now being deneutralized. Just a few years into fighting for his own “permission to narrate,” now he had to fight to retain his authority within a new negative definition: The “non-white” category she represented was “a category incidentally to which as an Arab I myself belong.”
“I don’t believe in the politics of identity, although in many ways, paradoxically, I seem to be the father of identity politics,” Said reflected in an interview. He could not deny the extent of his influence, but he tried to claim an essential misinterpretation: He always saw himself as coming from a cosmopolitan and universalistic tradition. He spoke out against confining writers to their own ethnic group and ethnic groups to their own writers: This was, after all, the very border-crossing, authority-climbing process on which he had built his career. But while Said’s own vision of Orientalism was so closed off to the power of the individual mind that it saw in Homer the same tendency as 19th-century European novelists and 20th-century American scholars, now he scrambled to draw lines in the ideological quicksand. He would later write that judging “great writers and thinkers” because “some of their ideas seem politically incorrect by the standards of our time” is a “stupid notion,” critiquing Chinua Achebe’s work on Conrad to that effect.
Said was stern in his warnings of straying from some combination of tradition and innovation he thought it was clear he represented: “To testify to a history of oppression is necessary, but it is not sufficient unless that history is redirected into intellectual process and universalized to include all sufferers.” He cited Elie Wiesel’s support for Israel as an example of how such testimony can become “only a justification for further cruelty and inhumanity”—an offering from the space of oppression he was surely still ethno-culturally authorized to speak upon. The uprising against Eurocentrism—and, Said now felt the need to add, the rise of feminism—in the academy was nothing short of a “Copernican revolution,” but “on its own, ethnic particularity does not provide for intellectual process,” and it was “never a matter of replacing one set of authorities and dogmas with another.”
After years of superficial and partisan applications of theoretical frameworks, Said was now speechifying about the need for intellectual work “situated in the world, and about that world” which yields to “the actual participation of peoples in the making of human life.” In an awkwardly staid tone, he sought footholds in procedural conservatism, emphasizing the importance of “the full intellectual process itself” including “historically informed research as well as the presentation of a coherent and carefully argued line that has taken account of alternatives.”
That he did not take responsibility for the worst excesses of his legacy affirmed the subjective nature of his own journey. Having helped unleash the ideological purity spiral, Said was now the victim of it. But his own elevation of subjectivity prevented him from acknowledging his immense influence on the process of severing the mind from reality.
Mardean Isaac is a writer and editor based in London. Educated at Cambridge and Oxford, he has written for publications including the Financial Times, Lapham’s Quarterly and New Lines magazine.