Ghada Karmi



Ghada Karmi


Edward Said, whose sad death was announced on September 25, will be remembered in Pakistan for his great stature as the leading Palestinian of his day. His columns regularly animated the pages of Dawn, and his close friendship with the great Pakistani intellectual, Iqbal Ahmad, was an inspiration to many


When I heard about his death, my first reaction was a deep and overwhelming grief for a lost friend and admired role model. My second reaction was to wonder where he would be buried. I say this because the Israelis, who persecute the Palestinians in life, also do so in death. Edward Said’s dearest wish might well have been to be buried in his native Jerusalem. But his chance of that happening will be as small as that of my paternal uncle, the eminent nationalist poet, Abu Salma, who died in 1980. He passionately wanted that his last resting place should be a plot of earth in his native land. But, as with all such requests from Palestinians, Israel refused and he was buried in Damascus, his adopted city after the nakba of 1948. Edward Said was a man of no less patriotism or devotion to the cause of Palestine.


I first met him in Libya in 1976. We were both the guests of Colonel Ghaddafi at a conference on Zionism and racism, which was a favourite topic then following the UN General Assembly Resolution of 1974 on Zionism. I little realised at the time that when I met this rather shy young man how eminent he would later become. The next time I saw him was in New York in 1978 when his major literary work, Orientalism, had just been published. (It shames me to recall now how I tried to get a free copy out of him.). Being no historian myself, I little appreciated the importance of the book. The storm of controversy it aroused was remarkable, and when I finally read it, I began to understand its significance. In this book, he exposes a fundamental aspect of the Western approach toward the Orient: that much of Western literature and scholarship about the East was coloured by colonialist attitudes and regarded the oriental ‘other’ as something less than human, an interesting object of study, rather like a zoo animal.


Like all great ideas, it seemed simple and instantly familiar, as if we had all known it for ages. But it aroused hostility and admiration in equal measure. He was criticised for his allegedly simplistic analysis of Western writings on the East and of denigrating the genuine and painstaking work of many Western scholars. Many pointed to the dearth of corresponding studies the other way around. How many eastern scholars can one point to who have studied the West with such care or even at all? To my mind, there is something in these criticisms, but they still miss the point. For Edward Said’s real achievement is to have defined the dispossession that is at the heart of this scholarship. His writings are properly situated in the politics if dispossession that have their springboard in his Palestinian origins. To understand his significance properly is to understand the recent history of Palestine. The country he was born into in 1935 was a land ruled by a British colonial administration under the Mandate granted by the UN in 1922. The environment of his childhood was colonialist and the Zionist enterprise, which had begun to flourish under British patronage at that time, was also colonialist. Although the Said family was affluent and his father a wealthy Christian businessman who afforded the young Edward a Western-style education in expensive schools, the general parameters of Arab existence were inescapably colonialist.


These influences dominated his upbringing. Even his first name is a result of them, chosen by his mother after the Prince of Wales whom she admired; evidently no Arab role model inspired her to the same extent. When the Said family left Jerusalem in 1947, they went to Cairo where he attended an English-style public school. Arabic was forbidden at home, except when speaking to the servants. As Said himself has noted, this induced a split in his sense of identity during adolescence from which he never recovered. The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 led to the forcible expulsion and flight of three quarters of a million Palestinians. This physical dispossession had its parallel in his spiritual dispossession and became a basic theme in his worldview.  The Palestinian refugees’ right to return to the homeland they were evicted from was a central aspect of his work. Always he returned to the fundamental elements of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians: the latter’s dispossession and Israel’s evasion of its responsibility for their plight.


From the start of Israeli statehood, that evasion took a path of obsessive denial. In order to maintain its fiction of innocence, Israel set about eradicating all traces of the Palestinian presence in the land. Over 400 villages were demolished and new settlements sprang up in their place. The history of ‘Israel’ that Israeli children learn at school is distorted to exclude the Palestinian presence. An intricate mythology of Israel’s origins maps a Jewish continuity from Biblical times to the present, only interrupted by phases of transient settlement by Romans, Ottomans and British. If you knew no different, it is entirely possible to believe that no Arabs had ever existed in the country but for a few wandering Bedouin tribes. By such methods, the Israelis attempted to annihilate a whole people, their history, their memory, their language and their culture.


All Palestinians feel this insult of a double dispossession, aimed at their bodies and souls, their existence as a separate people with a history denied and their resulting sufferings unacknowledged. Edward Said felt this keenly and his writings all reflect it in one way or another. Orientalism has to be understood in this way. The orientalist writers who described the Arabs dispossessed them too, though elegantly and with erudition. For, a people who are re-created through the prism of an alien scholarship influenced by alien notions of supremacy, are robbed of their true identity. And that is a sort of dispossession too. 


Dawn September 2003