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Setting the Record Straight

Edward Said confronts his future, his past, and his critics' accusations

September 22, 1999

Out of PlaceBorn in Jerusalem in 1935 to a prosperous Palestinian Christian family, educated at Princeton, and currently a University Professor of Literature at Columbia University, Edward Said is a writer whose work has had extraordinary range. Perhaps because he himself lives on the cusp of so many cultures, he has striven to join disparate areas of experience, including musical and literary, private and public, First and Third World, and, not least of all, Jewish and Arab. Two of his books, Orientalism (1979) and Culture and Imperialism (reprinted in 1994), have been important studies of how artistic creation and cultural prejudices intersect.

Said, a spokesman for Palestinian rights and a member of the Palestinian National Council, has been called the Arab world's most prominent intellectual, yet has lived in the West for most of his life. A harsh critic of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, he has, at the same time, attempted to educate Palestinians about realities of Jewish experience that have been convenient for Arab nationalists to deny. To Arabs, in short, he is likely to talk about the Holocaust, to Jews about the dispossession of Palestinians. If, as he has written, an intellectual should not aim to make "audiences feel good: the whole point is to be embarrassing, contrary, even unpleasant," then there are many, on all sides of the Palestinian question, ready to agree that he has richly succeeded. His position on the Oslo Accords can serve as a case in point: he opposed them. While many others in the peace movement saw the Accords as a possible turning point in Jewish-Palestinian relations, Said emerged as a gadfly whose arguments were, as always, worth reckoning with.

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Since 1991, Said has been battling leukemia. But, as his new memoir, Out of Place, shows, he lacks no energy for continued literary effort, nor for the controversy his politics engender. An article in the September issue of Commentary attempts to undermine Said's credibility as a spokesman for the Palestinian cause by arguing that he has constantly overstated his and his family's connections to Palestine. Those charges are among the many topics broached in a conversation Harvey Blume had with Edward Said for Atlantic Unbound.

Edward Said
Edward Said   

How are you feeling?

I've had four-and-a-half years of useless chemotherapy and radiation because it turned out my leukemia is refractory leukemia. So this great doctor of mine found a treatment, which has given me a remission. That's the good news. The bad news is that it's not a cure. The disease is coming back; it's insidiously creeping back.

The disease was part of your motive for writing the memoir, was it not?

The disease and my mother's death. My mother died in July of 1990. I was diagnosed in 1991. My connection with my mother was very, very close. And in the last two years of her life, she knew and I knew that she was dying. As I saw her fade away, it struck me that a very important link to my past was disappearing. She was the only member of my immediate family -- my father had died in 1971 -- who had a connection to all of the worlds in which I'd grown up. So I resolved then and there to try and memorialize that. And that was accelerated by my illness.

You allude several times in the memoir to having become interested in writers' and composers' late styles.

That also began after the diagnosis of my illness. When I got ill, my interest changed to the last phase of life, and by chance I came upon a fantastic fragment, five or six pages long, by German culture critic Theodor W. Adorno on Beethoven's late style. I was interested in Adorno emphasizing that Beethoven's late style was a much more difficult style. The late piano sonatas and quartets are radical departures from the triumphalist, heroic mode of his second period, and really are all about confronting the end, as it were, with a new kind of stubbornness and artistic intransigence.

Can we switch to something much less transcendent than Beethoven's late quartets, and get into the current controversy? Justus Reid Weiner wrote a piece for Commentary saying, essentially, that you aren't a bona fide Palestinian, that you didn't, in fact, grow up in Jerusalem, you're from Cairo, you've been a liar, you're not a displaced person, you have no right to speak for them.

Of course I read Weiner's piece, and was struck by the enormous fabrication of lies and, how shall I put it, maligned construction. He can't get my family relationships right, he can't understand, or won't understand, that my father was a fifty-percent partner in everything my family owned in Palestine, which included the house and all our property. My cousin, now eighty years old, went to Palestine in 1996 for the first time since he left in 1948, and put in a claim for the property that we lost.

Various people Weiner had spoken to wrote to me, including classmates of mine from both Egypt and Palestine. One, an Egyptian Jew, was outraged about the distortions in what Weiner said. And then of course the most preposterous thing of all is that Weiner never spoke to me. He worked for three years, he claims to have contacted my secretary, who swears that's a lie, but he never contacted me directly, which he could have simply by writing a letter.

It's not so surprising to me that Commentary would publish what's little more than character assassination. Its views on the Middle East are rabid.

The piece is designed to have a harmful effect. For thirty years, these very right-wing Zionists have been trying to get me. They try to rebut me and can't. So the only thing they can do is hire some guy with Michael Miliken's money to research my early life for three years -- to come up with what? That I was a member of the Nazi party, or a killer or drug dealer or something? Now, you wanted to talk about?

The Oslo Accords. Having known of you and of your work all my adult life, I took extreme exception to your opposing the Oslo Accords. I thought, How many peace processes were there to choose from? Isn't this the one we've got to make work? How could he dare oppose it?

I was one of the first people in the Palestinian world, in the late 1970s, to say that there is no military option, either for us or for them, and I'm certainly the only well-known Arab who writes these things -- and who writes exactly the same things in the Arab press that I say here.

I'm trying to say that I know the politics of the PLO better than anyone, certainly in this country. I realized that the Oslo Accords were a result not only of Palestinian weakness, but also of Palestinian incompetence and miscalculation of a catastrophic sort. I said from the beginning that given the fact that Arafat had stood with Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War -- which was a crime against his people (Kuwait and Saudi Arabia kicked 3,000 or 4,000 Palestinians out of the Gulf in revenge for Arafat's act) -- he entered the secret talks at Oslo basically to save himself. And he entered the process without competent advice. Not one of the three people who were closeted in Oslo knew English, not one of them had a legal background. They would call people up in the middle of the night and say, What does the word "self-rule" mean, what does the word "autonomy" mean? They didn't even have maps, didn't even have a map of Palestine. Most of these people had never been there. The people negotiating Bethlehem, for example, had never seen Bethlehem. And on and on and on.

They took the thing back to Arafat and showed it to him. And the man who signed the accord on the White House lawn, Abu Mas'n, said that it took Arafat a year to understand that he didn't get a Palestinian state. That's what he thought he got, because he read only the paragraphs that had something to do with his status.

Okay, let's assume that all that is inevitable, that there was nothing else he could do. Still, why not level with your people, and tell them: This is all there is. This is all we can get now. We need your help. Let us all get behind this process and do what we can. And if you don't like this, I'll resign, but this is the most I can do. He never did that. Instead, he lied. He said we have gotten sovereignty, we've gotten a state. We've gotten nothing.

Nothing's said about the settlements, nothing's said about the refugees, nothing's said about Jerusalem. To call this an economic and political arrangement like that of a repressive Arab state is an understatement. And this is with the encouragement of the U.S. and the Israelis. They say openly that it's better for Palestinians to have a little tyrannical dictatorship, without sovereignty, without borders, without economic independence ...

Some of that, though, is a question for Palestinians themselves. Whether or not you tolerate a tyrannical elite is a question for Palestinians.

Yes, but don't forget that over fifty percent of the Palestinian population today are refugees. Arafat doesn't represent Palestinians anymore. He represents -- and says he represents -- people on the West Bank and Gaza. But I agree with you, it is for Palestinians. But when Palestinians make criticisms Arafat puts them in jail, he closes newspapers, he bans books.

Al Gore went to Jericho in March of 1996 and commended Arafat on the creation of state security courts, all in the name of the peace process. Gore backed a tyrannical, corrupt government, with the support of the international community, because this is "the peace process."

Now, I say, If there was good will, and a real sense of wanting to reconcile, why was there not, from the very beginning, an acknowledgment of the thirty years of deprivation and abuse that took place during the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza?

One of most striking things about Oslo was that both sides said, Look, rule number one is no recriminations. We don't talk about bus bombings, you don't talk about refugee camps. That's the only way we can begin. We have to put aside bitterness.

Our society was destroyed in 1948. You don't seem to understand that.

What you're saying seems to lead to no possible political solution.

That's wrong. I'm not saying that everything has to be given back. You're not listening to me. I said what you need is an acknowledgment of the past, and then we go forward.

For me, the rhetoric that came out of Oslo, the words that came out of Rabin's mouth about the rights of the Palestinian people are irreversible and profound. They overthrow a few generations worth of lies about the nature of the Palestinian people and the Palestinian cause.

I'm sorry, you didn't hear what Rabin said at the White House. He said nothing about what happened to the Palestinian people.

He acknowledged there was a people. I'm not saying you should be grateful. I'm saying, as a Jew, I thought, About time, now we can begin to address reality. This is a beginning. And I continue to see it not as a perfect solution, but as a beginning, in lieu of any other beginnings visible to me.

You're now arguing with me instead of interviewing me.

Is that okay?

What is my choice?

Well, we have many choices.

But I don't think you're listening to what I'm saying.

Is it possible we disagree?

No, no. That's not a solution. If you say the things that you say -- namely, that you believe in two states -- it means that there are two peoples between whom there is no equality; there is apartheid. It's like telling a white South African, "Look, give the blacks what they want, and let's not talk about the past." That's nonsense. You can't do that. The genius of the South Africans was that they said, "One person, one vote, and let's have a truth and reconciliation commission."

That is not a two-state solution.

No, it's not a two-state solution. I don't myself believe in a two-state solution. I believe in a one-state solution.

Well you've changed ...

Of course I've changed. Reality has changed. Consider the fact that there are now a million Palestinians who are Israeli citizens, who constitute about twenty percent of the Israeli population. They have no interest at all in moving to a Palestinian state because they are in places like Nazareth and Haifa, which is where they belong. Why should they go to the West Bank? There are now Jews and Arabs on every inch of this tiny little country called Palestine, living next to each other and hopelessly intertwined. And how can we talk about anything unless we say something about the settlements, where they're still taking land --

Barak has put a freeze on settlements.

Okay, but there are a lot there. Listen to what I'm saying. I'm saying, let them all stay. But first of all, give the Palestinians who are Israeli citizens the rights of citizens, and let Israel become a state of its citizens and not of the whole Jewish people.

I'm really sympathetic when you point out the flaws and difficulties of the two-state solution. But except for a few intellectuals like you and Noam Chomsky, who argue for what used to be called a binational state, there's no political impetus for it.

I think you're wrong there. One of the reasons for this Commentary attack is that there are increasing numbers of Israeli Jews who listen to me. I was invited by the Israeli Anthropological Association last March to give a keynote speech. An audience of 500 or 600 Israeli academics turned up. In my speech -- "The Consequences of 1948" -- I talked about the one-state solution in the context of the history of the conflict. Much of the whole Zionist thing was to get rid of the Palestinians. And the whole of Palestinian nationalism was based on driving all Israelis out. But, I said, if you look at it now, there's no way of writing the history of either Israelis or of the Palestinians without also writing the history of the other. They are hopelessly, terminally intertwined as two peoples on one land. I said that not only in the writing of history but also in the construction of the present and the future one has to acknowledge that fact. You would be surprised at the reception I got.

And I'll tell you something else that I'm not afraid to admit: a lot of Palestinians disagree with me. Most say, "We've got to have our state, even if it means ten square kilometers. We've got to have our own flag." I just don't agree with that.

Which brings up one of the central points of your work. In Representations of the Intellectual, for example, you refuse to be silenced by perceived tribal or national interests. You say, "never solidarity before criticism." I know that when you talk to Arab students you say, "If you want to understand Jews, you better get used to the fact that there was a Holocaust." I feel very good about you taking that role on, though a little horrified that it had to be done -- in other words, that they didn't know.

It's a great problem. A few weeks ago, I spent three weeks in Weimar with Daniel Barenboim -- a very close friend of mine -- Yo Yo Ma, and a group of young musicians from Arab countries and from Israel. Since Weimar is barely five kilometers away from Buchenwald, we took all of them on a trip to Buchenwald one afternoon. And it was quite interesting, because to the Jews it meant one thing and to the Arabs it meant something quite different.

My role there was to lead the discussions that we had every other night. The night before we went to Buchenwald I gave a talk, and said, "Look, if you just go to this and see it as part of the Jewish experience, it's wrong, because it's part of the human experience, which we as human beings have to understand. In other words, universalize it and understand it as a horror that afflicts all of humanity." It was quite an important moment for me and the Arab kids, who, I think, appreciated my commentary.

In the memoir, you allude often to an inner self maturing and coming together through your experience of music and literature.

The inner me was always under attack by authority, by the way my parents wanted me to be brought up, by these English schools I went to. So I've always felt this kind of anti-authoritarian strain in me, pushing to express itself despite the obstacles. I think that's probably the most valuable part of my life. Whether in the end the inner self won or not I can't really tell. When you become a public figure, you still think, That's really not me, there's more to me than that.

You've maintained a connection to practical politics all your life. Isn't it difficult for something as subtle as an inner self cohering around literature and music to maintain itself when translated into the language of politics?

Of course. The memoir was my answer to trying to maintain the integrity of the inner self, by laying open all the contradictions and irreconcilabilities. I think it is an unconventional kind of memoir, in which I allowed myself to spend time on periods of my life when I was nonpolitical, leaving in abeyance the politics of my other writings.

In Representations of the Intellectual you write about the intellectual as engaged, as responsible, as committed both to truth and to politics. The language seems to belong to another era. Today, we talk not of intellectuals being engaged but of knowledge workers, particularly in the world of high tech.

Absolutely. But the whole notion of commitment is deeply important to me, as is the notion of humanism, which is a discredited notion. I'm trying to restore some sense of fullness to it. For instance, I have the right, as the president of the Modern Language Association, to organize a presidential forum at the MLA convention this coming December. The title is "Scholarship and Commitment." I've invited Chomsky, Pierre Bourdieu, Michael Freid. Personal example is very important. I want to restore the notion of commitment from an earlier part of this century, as you say, to the end of this century.

Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

More Atlantic Unbound interviews.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.
Harvey Blume, a writer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a frequent contributor to Atlantic Unbound.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved. Said photo by Brigitte Lacombe.
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