On Edward Said: Different shades of an intellectual
Edward Said is one of only a handful of intellectuals who can truly be said to have educated and influenced multiple generations on the Palestinian cause and the different prisms of thought through which we now look at literature, art, and history. In many ways, we are the heirs of the man who popularised the term, "Orientalism"; a man who championed the voices and struggles of the Global South in the Anglo-American sphere. For the first time since his untimely passing in 2003, we have a fleshed out biography of Edward Said, one of 20th century's towering intellectuals.
Written by colleague and friend, Timothy Brennan, Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said (Macmillan, 2021) is an intellectual biography. It maps out Said's life and his experiences from the British Mandate of Palestine to colonial Egypt to Israel to New York's Columbia University.
Born to a Palestinian-American couple in Jerusalem, Edward W Said always referred to himself as "Out of Place", a title he used for his 1999 memoir, which reads, in fine prose, like a novel. In this new account of his life, Brennan takes us to the lost cosmopolitanism of Said's Cairene childhood in the 1940s as the family crisscrossed between Jerusalem and Cairo, nudging shoulders with Armenians, Europeans, and Jews in a multicultural, Muslim Middle East. Said was an American citizen because of his father, Wadie, a US Army veteran. He had an ambivalent relationship with his domineering father and a "not very satisfactory" relationship with his sisters. His mother, Hilda Said, he states, was his "closest and most intimate companion". From 1951, Said found himself in America where he would remain a mainstay in the rigorous world of academia, and where he would cement his legacy as Professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia University.
Known as the founder of postcolonial studies, Said was credited for introducing literature from the non-western world, particularly Arabic literature from the likes of Tayeb Salih, Mahmoud Darwish, and Naguib Mahfouz to western audiences. It was Said's magnum opus, "Orientalism", in 1978 that challenged mainstream views on the colonised world having long been projected as barbaric and sensualised beings from the western lens. This, alongside his pro-Palestinian activism, led to seismic shifts in academic circles, with Said going head-to-head with intellectuals such as Michel Foucault, Jean-Paul Satre, Bernard Lewis, Sadiq Azm, and many others. Said reckons even with his own intellectual heroes, like the charismatic Charles Malik, the brilliant Lebanese statesman and one-time President of the United Nations General Assembly, from whom Said was inspired to write about the much misunderstood world of the "Orient", and yet someone he would later refer to as "the great negative intellectual lesson of my life". It was Malik who gave the green light to US interference in Lebanon perpetuating a series of conflicts that have engulfed the region ever since (notwithstanding the brutal massacres of Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli military and the Lebanese Maronite militia).
In Places of Mind, Brennan taps into a plethora of sources from Said's personal papers, which highlight the critic's soon-abandoned forays into the world of fiction. Engrossed in personal testimonies from Said's treasured array of admirers, family members, and critics, the book maps out the intellectual journey of a man who among many achievements will be remembered as the voice of Palestine. Brennan's prose is quick, easy to read, magnetic, and at the same time acting as a sequel to Said's brilliant memoir, Out of Place (Vintage Books, 1999). Said's dissatisfaction with the Oslo Accords—a series of "peace" negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government—is captured articulately, with the late critic's feelings on the bit of "venomous sarcasm designed to burn bridges" noted well. His opposition to the Oslo Accords saw his books banned in the West Bank and him being further marginalised by the Palestinian political establishment, alongside the fury with which the Zionist lobby came after him.
As a refugee who longed to go to the land of his birth, the place as an idea had forever permeated Said's work. Whether a place is geographical, or of the mind, or simply the intersection of the two, it is finely encapsulated in this biography capturing the complexities of an intellectual the Global South can gladly claim to be their own.
Israr Hasan is a contributor.