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Edward Said's legacy lives inside us

January 30, 2014 at 1:42 am

This past week marked a decade since the sad, early passing-away by cancer of Edward Said, and I would like to dedicate this column to him.

Edward Said was an intellectual and moral powerhouse. As an English literature professor at New York’s Columbia University, for many years he was the most visible representative of the Palestinian cause in the American media.

Said wrote many books, but probably his most lasting contribution was “Orientalism”. His ground-breaking 1978 study of the Western discipline of orientalism is still widely read by students today for its searing critique of the racism endemic in the European academy. With it, Said essentially invented the discipline of post-colonial studies.

The book is often caricatured by Said’s enemies as a crude attack on the West and on Western thought. But if those critics had been bright enough to understand the book (most are not), they would have known that its real message was precisely the opposite. Indeed the whole thrust of the book was to challenge such crude and essentialist categories as “Western thought” or “the Arab mind”.

Listening again to Said’s last major lecture before his death, one is struck by two sad impressions. Firstly, the massive void his departure left behind is still keenly felt – we are bereft without him. Secondly, how many of his denouncements of the injustices of 2003 are still eerily and miserably relevant. Although a lot has changed in the region since then, much has not.

Said denounced the then-impending US war against Iraq. In 2013, the US has threatened another war against another Arab country ruled by another Baathist regime.

How then-Secretary of State Colin Powell could “stand up before the world, and righteously sermonize against Iraq while at the same time completely ignoring the ongoing American partnership in human rights abuses with Israel defies credibility,” he said.

Substitute the name Powell for John Kerry, the current holder of that office, and “Iraq” for “Syria”, and the exact same words apply. Said listed some of the many Israeli abuses of the Palestinian people:

“Torture, illegal detention, assassination, assaults against civilians with missiles, helicopters and jet fighters, the annexation of territory, the transportation of civilians from one place to another for the purpose of imprisonment, mass killing as in Qana, Jenin, Sabra and Shatila, to mention only the most obvious, the denial of rights to free passage and unimpeded civilian movement, education, medical aid, the use of civilians as human shields, humiliation, punishment of families, house demolitions on a mass scale, destruction of agricultural land, expropriation of water, illegal settlement, economic pauperization, attacks on hospitals, medical workers and ambulances, the killing of UN personnel, to name only the most outrageous abuses.”

All still relevant, all still far too familiar practices.

Said was a moral inspiration, not least because of his refusal to be bowed or intimidated by systems of power. These systems included Arab regimes, as well as imperial America and colonial Israel.

Time and again as one reads through Said’s collected newspaper columns (which you can do in books such as “Peace and its Discontents”, “The End of the Peace Process” and his final collection “From Oslo to Iraq and the Roadmap”) a constant theme is denunciation of the brutal and corrupt dictatorships that rule in the Arab world. He ridiculed and denounced subservient Arab intellectuals and journalists, the court stenographers of oil sheikhs and dictators.

In that respect, Said pre-empted 2011’s popular Arab uprisings by decades (although I am personally convinced that he would, like me, have disliked the Western imposed label “Arab spring”).

Had Said lived to see these days, it is not hard to imagine him denouncing the Egyptian regime’s scape-goating of the Palestinian people, as well as its anti-democractic coup.

Unlike many others, Said was never fooled by the Oslo agreement. As I previously mentioned in this column, he denounced it as a “Palestinian surrender, a Palestinian Versailles” almost immediately. As early as 9 June 1994 (writing in Al-Ahram Weekly) he described the Palestinian Authority as “an Israeli protectorate resembling… a Middle East version of a South African Bantustan” – an analogy which is now made quite often, but would have been far more controversial in those days.

As Hicham Yezza recalled recently, this implacable and principled opposition infuriated Yasser Arafat, who banned Said’s books in the West Bank and Gaza.

Said’s legacy is still with us today, in the many written works he leaves behind. But it is also with us insofar as we stay true to his legacy of thought and principle. Today in Ramallah, there is an Edward Said street, but I hope one day we may also see an Edward Said street in a free Jerusalem, the city he was born in.

An associate editor with The Electronic Intifada, Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.