IN MEMORIAM: Edward Said 1935 – 2003 September 25, 2010

Editor’s Note: The great Palestinian-American public intellectual Edward Said died on 25 September 2003 after a 12-year long battle with chronic lymphocytic leukemia.  In Said’s influential book Orientalism, which gained him international academic fame, he claimed a “subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture” and argued that a long tradition of false and romanticised images of Asia and the Middle East in Western culture had served as an implicit justification for Europe and the United States’ colonial and imperial ambitions.  And, in his book The Question of Palestine, Said  presents the Palestinian standpoint from a rigorous interpretation of documents, showing that Palestine was not a desert when European powers were deciding its destiny in the 19th and 20th centuries and that the Palestinian middle class was highly educated and regarded as an elite in the Middle East generally.  It was, Said concluded, the “original sin” of Israel’s Zionist nature culminating in the creation of Israel in 1948, that catapulted the Palestinians into the long and painful struggle against their complete historical deletion – a struggle that is ongoing to this day. “The question to be asked,” he wrote in the Politics Of Dispossession, “is how long can the history of anti-semitism and the Holocaust be used as a fence to exempt Israel from arguments and sanctions against it for its behaviour towards the Palestinians, arguments and sanctions that were used against other repressive governments, such as South Africa? How long are we going to deny that the cries of the people of Gaza… are directly connected to the policies of the Israeli government and not to the cries of the victims of Nazism?” Below is an extract from one of the hundreds of eulogies lamenting his passing, written by another celebrated Palestinian, the poet Mahmoud Darwish who has since also sadly passed away.

“He was a whole person in whom the critic, the intellectual, the musician and the politician all worked in harmony. His imposing personality gave off a remarkable charisma that made a unique international phenomenon. Seldom does one encounter a person in whom the intellectual and the star combine in the way they did in Edward, a dashing presence, as eloquent and profound as he was fierce and lucid, maintaining a steadfast fascination with the aesthetics of life and language.

On bidding him a difficult farewell, with his presence belying the impossible condition of his absence, the world meets Palestine at a rare moment of convergence, a moment during which we cannot specify with certainty who the family of the deceased might be since the whole world, for a moment, is his family. The loss is common to us and the world, and so are the tears, for Edward, his lively conscience and encyclopaedic knowledge, managed to place Palestine at the heart of the world, and place the world at the heart of Palestine.”

Some extracts from Edward Said’s writings:

Are Palestinian civilians, men, women, children, no more than rats or cockroaches that can be killed and attacked in the thousands without so much as a word of compassion or in their defence? And what about the capture of thousands of Palestinian men who have been taken off by Israeli soldiers without a trace, the destitution and homelessness of so many ordinary people trying to survive in the ruins created by Israeli bulldozers all over the West Bank, the siege that has now gone on for months and months, the cutting off of electricity and water in all Palestinian towns, the long days of total curfew, the shortage of food and medicine, the wounded who have bled to death, the systematic attacks on ambulances and aid workers that even the mild-mannered Kofi Annan has decried as outrageous? Those actions will not be pushed so easily into the memory hole. Its friends must ask Israel how its suicidal policies can possibly gain it peace, acceptance and security. A monstrous transformation of an entire people by the most formidable and feared propaganda machine in the world into little more than “militants” and “terrorists” has allowed not just Israel’s military but its fleet of writers and defenders to efface a terrible history of suffering and abuse in order to destroy the civil existence of the Palestinian people with impunity. Gone from public memory are the destruction of Palestinian society in 1948 and the creation of a dispossessed people; the conquest of the West Bank and Gaza and their military occupation since 1967; the invasion of 1982 with its 17,500 Lebanese and Palestinian dead and the Sabra and Shatila massacres; the continuous assault on Palestinian schools, refugee camps, hospitals, civil installations of every kind.” (extract from “What Israel has done” Al-Ahram Weekly Online, 18-24 June 2002)

“Under the worst possible circumstances, Palestinian society has neither been defeated nor has it crumbled completely. Kids still go to school, doctors and nurses still take care of their patients, men and women go to work, organisations have their meetings, and people continue to live, which seems to be an offence to Sharon and the other extremists who simply want Palestinians either imprisoned or driven away altogether. The military solution hasn’t worked and never will work. Why is that so hard for Israelis to see?” (extract from “Dignity and solidarity”, Al-Ahram Weekly Online, 26 June -22 July 2003)

“The profound question facing Israel and its people is this: is it willing juridically to assume the rights and obligations of being a country like any other . . .?  In 1948 Palestinians lost 78 per cent of Palestine. In 1967 they lost the last 22 per cent, both times to Israel. Now the international community must lay upon Israel the obligation to accept the principle of real, as opposed to fictional, partition, and to accept the principle of limiting Israel’s untenable extra-territorial claims, those absurd Biblically-based pretensions, and laws that have so far allowed it to override another people completely. Why is that kind of fundamentalism tolerated unquestioningly? But so far all we hear is that Palestinians must give up violence and condemn terror. Is nothing substantive ever demanded of Israel? Can it go on doing what it has without a thought for the consequences? That is the real question of its existence: whether it can exist as a state like all others, or must always be above the constraints and duties of all other states in the world today. The record is not reassuring.” (extract from “What Israel has done”, Al-Ahram Weekly Online, 18-24 June 2002)

“The most important lesson of all for us to understand about ourselves is manifest in the terrible tragedies of what Israel is now doing in the occupied territories. The fact is that we are a people and a society, and despite Israel’s ferocious attack against the PA, our society still functions. We are a people because we have a functioning society which goes on . . .  despite every sort of abuse, every cruel turn of history, every misfortune we have suffered, every tragedy we have gone through as a people. Our greatest victory over Israel is that people like Sharon and his kind do not have the capacity to see that, and this is why they are doomed despite their great power and their awful, inhuman cruelty. We have surmounted the tragedies and memories of our past . . .  As Palestinians, I think we can say that we left a vision and a society that has survived every attempt to kill it. And that is something. It is for the generation of my children and yours, to go on from there, critically, rationally, with hope and forbearance.” (extract from “Thinking Ahead” Al-Ahram Weekly Online, 4-10 April 2002)

Excerpt from one of the last talks he gave before he died – 2003

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