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Edward Said

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  • Edward Said (1935-2003)

  • Biography

    Said was a Palestinian American literary theorist, cultural critic, political activist, and an outspoken advocate for a Palestinian state. He was University Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, and is regarded as a founding figure in postcolonial theory.

    He was born in Jerusalem (then in the British Mandate of Palestine) on November 1, 1935. His father was a wealthy Protestant Palestinian businessman and an American citizen while his mother was born in Nazareth also of Christian Palestinian descent. In his autobiography Out of Place (1999), he referred to himself as a "Christian wrapped in a Muslim culture" His sister was the historian and writer Rosemarie Said Zahlan. He described himself as having lived "between worlds" in both Cairo and Jerusalem until the age of 12. In 1947, he attended the Anglican St. George's Academy when he was in Jerusalem. He was thirteen when Israel captured West Jerusalem in 1948. His family fled with other Palestinian refugees to Cairo. He eventually attended Princeton and Harvard and settled in the U.S., where he became a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, a celebrated intellectual, and the leading advocate for Palestinian self-determination.

    He wrote his first political essay, “The Arab Portrayed,” in response to Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s declaration in 1969 that “There are no Palestinians.” Said writes that he took on

    “...the slightly preposterous challenge of disproving her, of beginning to articulate a history of loss and dispossession that had to be extricated, minute by minute, word by word, inch by inch.”

    That piece ignited the political imagination of the young man and led him on to a lifetime of writing and activism. He championed the rights of the Palestinian people to determine their own future—while insisting that Palestinians acknowledge the persecution and genocide suffered by the Jews. He promoted peaceful coexistence and wrote

    “[T]he struggle for equality in Palestine/Israel should be directed toward a humane goal, that is, co-existence, and not further suppression and denial,”

    Said, like Fanon before him, was a product of colonisation. He was forbidden to speak Arabic at home, even to the servants, and was taught at the very best colonial schools, designed to raise an elite of young Arabs to administer the remnants of Empire. As he later recorded:

    "I was born in Jerusalem and had spent most of my formative years there and, after 1948, when my entire family became refugees, in Egypt. All my early education had, however, been in élite colonial schools, English public schools designed by the British to bring up a generation of Arabs with natural ties to Britain. The last one I went to before I left the Middle East to go to the United States was Victoria College in Alexandria, a school in effect created to educate those ruling-class Arabs and Levantines who were going to take over after the British left. My contemporaries and classmates included King Hussein of Jordan, several Jordanian, Egyptian, Syrian and Saudi boys who were to become ministers, prime ministers and leading businessmen, as well as such glamorous figures as Michel Shalhoub, head prefect of the school and chief tormentor when I was a relatively junior boy, whom everyone has seen on screen as Omar Sharif" (Out of Place)

    At the age of 15, Saïd's parents sent him to Mount Hermon School, a private college preparatory school in Massachusetts, where he recalls a "miserable" year feeling "out of place".

    Said earned an A.B. from Princeton University and an M.A. and a Ph.D. from Harvard University, where he won the Bowdoin Prize. He joined the faculty of Columbia University in 1963 and served as Professor of English and Comparative Literature for several decades and subsequently became the Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities. In 1992 he was appointed University Professor, Columbia's most prestigious academic position. Professor Said also taught at most major Ivy League universities. He was fluent in English, French, and Arabic. In 1999, he served as president of the Modern Language Association. He was also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Royal Society of Literature, and the American Philosophical Society

    Said was awarded numerous honorary doctorates as well as several prestigeous prizes from universities around the world. His autobiographical memoir Out of Place won the 1999 New Yorker Prize for non-fiction. His writing regularly appeared in The Nation, The Guardian, the London Review of Books, Le Monde Diplomatique, Counterpunch, Al Ahram, and the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat. He gave interviews alongside his good friend, fellow political activist, and colleague Noam Chomsky regarding U.S. foreign policy for various independent radio programs Said also contributed music criticism to The Nation for many years. In 1999, he jointly founded the West-East Divan Orchestra with the Argentine-Israeli conductor and close friend Daniel Barenboim.

    In January 2006, anthropologist David Price obtained 147 pages of Said's 238-page FBI file through the Freedom of Information Act. They showed that Said had been under surveillance from 1971. Most of his records are marked as related Israel and significant portions remain "Classified Secrets."

    Edward Said died at the age of 67 in the early morning of September 25, 2003, in New York City, after a decade-long battle with chronic myelogenous leukemia


    Said is best known for describing and critiquing "Orientalism", which he perceived as a social construction of false assumptions underlying Western attitudes toward the East. In Orientalism (1978), Said described the persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture. He argued that a long tradition of false and romanticized images of Asia and the Middle East in Western culture had served as an implicit justification for Europe and America's colonial and imperial ambitions. Despite the fact that his theories of Western perceptions of the East have been vigorously attacked (mostly by the right wing Zionist movement) they have nevertheless elevayted him to superstar status in the academic world. But Said did not only criticise the West. Just as fiercely, he denounced the practice of Arab elites (like himself) who internalized the American and British orientalists' ideas of Arabic culture.

    In 1980 Said criticized what he regarded as poor understanding of the Arab culture in the West, characterising it as both a consequence of historical colonialism and a prerequisite for the continued appropriation of Arab land and resources. He wrote:

    "So far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say that Moslems and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Moslem life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have instead is a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression "

    Orientalism has had a significant impact on the fields of literary theory, cultural studies and human geography. Taking his cue from the works of Franz Fanon , Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, and from earlier critics of western Orientalism such as A. L. Tibawi,Anouar Abdel-Malek, Maxime Rodinson, and Richard William Southern, Said argued that Western writings on the Orient, and the perceptions of the East purveyed in them, are suspect, and cannot be taken at face value. According to Said, the history of European colonial rule and political domination over the East distorts the writings of even the most knowledgeable, well-meaning and sympathetic Western ‘Orientalists’ (a term that he transformed into a pejorative):

    "I doubt if it is controversial, for example, to say that an Englishman in India or Egypt in the later nineteenth century took an interest in those countries which was never far from their status in his mind as British colonies. To say this may seem quite different from saying that all academic knowledge about India and Egypt is somehow tinged and impressed with, violated by, the gross political fact – and yet that is what I am saying in this study of Orientalism." (Orientalism)

    Said contended that Europe had dominated Asia politically so completely for so long that even the most outwardly objective Western texts on the East were permeated with a bias that even most Western scholars could not recognise. His contention was not only that the West has conquered the East politically but also that Western scholars have appropriated the exploration and interpretation of the Orient’s languages, history and culture for themselves. They have written Asia’s past and constructed its modern identities from a perspective that takes Europe as the norm, from which the "exotic", "inscrutable" Orient deviates.

    Said concludes that Western writings about the Orient depict it as an irrational, weak, feminised "Other", contrasted with the rational, strong, masculine West, a contrast he suggests derives from the need to create "difference" between West and East that can be attributed to immutable "essences" in the Oriental make-up. In 1978, when the book was first published, with memories of the Yom Kippur war and the OPEC crisis still fresh, Said argued that these attitudes still permeated the Western media and academia. After stating the central thesis, Orientalism consists mainly of supporting examples from Western texts.

    Said's political outspokeness made him many enemies - not least amongst the Zionist community of the United States which has unquestioningly supported the Israeli colonisation and oppression of the Palestinian people. But Said refiused to denounce the right of Israel to exist. He called instead, for a policy of mutual acceptance and peaceful coexistence between the Palestinians and the Israelis. ¥et his activism exiled him from Israel and Palestine for most of his life and provoked criticism in the United States. He has been called everything from “the professor of terror” to a Nazi, and his office at Columbia was set on fire. But he persevered, publishing regularly in The Nation, the Arabic newspaper al-Hayat in London, and many other publications. His enduring legacy is the courage to say the most difficult things to the most difficult people in the most difficult circumstances.

    As a (Westernised) intellectual voice of the Palestiniann people he was without equal - able to courageously bridge the gap between the polarised worlds of Western intellectualism and Arab activism, bringing each into sharp focus in a heroic attempt to promote a reconcilliation. Yet he never misunderstood the root causes of the conflict - Western imperialism of which the State of Israel was the willing participant. He was, without doubt, the epitome of Gramsci' s Organic Intellectual.


    To view Said's (2003) incisive critique of the (impending) war on Iraq click here.

    To access a comprehensive source of articles by and about Edward Said click here

    For a compelling though brief biography of Said' poliotical activism click here

    For an outstanding summary of Said's cultural and political importance in his Guardian obituary click here.

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