In a public dialogue with Salman in London he [Edward Said] had once described the Palestinian plight as one where his people, expelled and dispossessed by Jewish victors, were in the unique historical position of being 'the victims of the victims': there was something quasi-Christian, I thought, in the apparent humility of that statement.
It was at a conference in Cyprus in 1976, where the theme was the rights of small nations, that I first met Edward Said. It was impossible not to be captivated by him: of his many immediately seductive qualities I will start by mentioning a very important one. When he laughed, it was as if he was surrendering unconditionally to some guilty pleasure. At first the very picture of professorial rectitude, with faultless tweeds, cravats, and other accoutrements (the pipe also being to the fore), he would react to a risquÃ© remark, or a disclosure of something vaguely scandalous, as if a whole Trojan horse of mirth had been smuggled into his interior and suddenly disgorged its contents. The build-up, in other words, was worth one's effort.
Arab nationalism in its traditional form was the way in which secular Arab Christians like Edward had found and kept a place for themselves, while simultaneously avoiding the charge of being too 'Western.' It was very noticeable among the Palestinians that the most demonstrably 'extreme' nationalists and Marxists were often from Christian backgrounds. George Habash and Nayef Hawatmeh used to be celebrated examples of this phenomenon, long before anyone had heard of the cadres of Hamas, or Islamic Jihad. There was an element of overcompensation involved, or so I came to suspect.
Then all at once our personal and political quarrels were made very abruptly to converge. In the special edition of the published to mark the events of September 11, 2001, Edward painted a picture of an almost fascist America where Arab and Muslim citizens were being daily terrorized by pogroms, these being instigated by men like Paul Wolfowitz who had talked of 'ending' the regimes that sheltered Al Quaeda. Again, I could hardly credit that these sentences were being produced by a cultured person, let alone printed by a civilized publication.
I resolutely refuse to believe that the state of Edward's health had anything to do with this, and I don't say this only because I was once later accused of attacking him 'on his deathbed.' He was entirely lucid to the end, and the positions he took were easily recognizable by me as extensions or outgrowths of views he had expressed (and also declined to express) in the past. Alas, it is true that he was closer to the end than anybody knew when the thirtieth anniversary reissue of his was published, but his long-precarious condition would hardly argue for giving him a lenient review, let alone denying him one altogether, which would have been the only alternatives. In the introduction he wrote for the new edition, he generally declined the opportunity to answer his scholarly critics, and instead gave the recent American arrival in Baghdad as a grand example of 'Orientalism' in action. The looting and destruction of the exhibits in the Iraq National Museum had, he wrote, been a deliberate piece of United States vandalism, perpetrated in order to shear the Iraqi people of their cultural patrimony and demonstrate to them their new servitude. Even at a time when anything at all could be said and believed so long as it was sufficiently and hysterically anti-Bush, this could be described as exceptionally mendacious. So when the invited me to review Edward's revised edition, I decided I'd suspect myself more if I declined than if I agreed, and I wrote what I felt I had to.Not long afterward, an Iraqi comrade sent me without comment an article Edward had contributed to a magazine in London that was published by a princeling of the Saudi royal family. In it, Edward quoted some sentences about the Iraq war that he off-handedly described as 'racist.' The sentences in question had been written by me. I felt myself assailed by a reaction that was at once hot-eyed and frigidly cold. He had cited the words without naming their author, and this I briefly thought could be construed as a friendly hesitance. Or as cowardice... I ca
Edward had a personal horror of violence and never endorsed or excused it, though in a documentary he made about the conflict he said that actions like the bombing of pilgrims at Tel Aviv airport 'did more harm than good,' which I remember thinking was (a) euphemistic and (b) a slipshod expression unworthy of a professor of English.
I had not particularly liked the way in which he wrote about literature in , and I was always on my guard if not outright hostile when any tincture of 'deconstruction' or 'postmodernism' was applied to my beloved canon of English writing, but when Edward talked about English literature and quoted from it, he passed the test that I always privately apply: Do you truly this subject and could you bear to live for one moment if it was obliterated?
Some lurid things have been said about me that I am a racist, a hopeless alcoholic, a closet homosexual and so forth that I leave to others to decide the truth of. I'd only point out, though, that if true these accusations must also have been true when I was still on the correct side, and that such shocking deformities didn't seem to count for so much then. Arguing with the Stalinist mentality for more than three decades now, and doing a bit of soapboxing and street-corner speaking on and off, has meant that it takes quite a lot to hurt my tender feelings, or bruise my milk-white skin.
As he defended the book one evening in the early 1980s at the Carnegie Endowment in New York, I knew that some of what he said was true enough, just as some of it was arguably less so. (Edward incautiously dismissed 'speculations about the latest conspiracy to blow up buildings or sabotage commercial airliners' as the feverish product of 'highly exaggerated stereotypes.') took as its point of departure the Iranian revolution, which by then had been fully counter-revolutionized by the forces of the Ayatollah. Yes, it was true that the Western press which was one half of the pun about 'covering' had been naÃ¯ve if not worse about the Pahlavi regime. Yes, it was true that few Middle East 'analysts' had had any concept of the latent power of Shi'ism to create mass mobilization. Yes, it was true that almost every stage of the Iranian drama had come as a complete surprise to the media. But wasn't it also the case that Iranian society was now disappearing into a void of retrogressive piety that had levied war against Iranian Kurdistan and used medieval weaponry such as stoning and amputation against its internal critics, or even against those like unveiled women whose very existence constituted an offense?