Ghada Karmi

Al Ahram Weekly Oct 9-15 2003

Edward Said and the politics of dispossession

A citizen of the world with roots deep in his homeland, Edward Said had an acute understanding of the anguish of the dispossessed, writes Ghada Karmi*

When I heard about Edward Said's death on 25 September I was overwhelmed by an extraordinary sense of grief and personal loss. Perhaps this was not so surprising in view of the similarities between our two stories. We were both born in the same part of Jerusalem and both had to leave our native city to live in exile thereafter. We both grew up in the West, with Edward migrating to the USA in his teenage years, and I to England at a younger age. Despite his American environment he, like me, was reared on English literature and remained true to it in his work and style of writing. More personally, the difficulties with his father that drove him to achieve more and more, but which left him with a sense of inadequacy echo sharply my own experience. In his memoirs Out of Place, he says, "I have no sense of cumulative achievement. Every day is for me like the beginning of a new term at school, with a vast and empty summer behind it" -- sentiments with which I am intimately familiar.

For both of us, political awaking came with the defeat of 1967, leading to a new path of active involvement in the politics of Palestine. He went on to great fame and achievement while my own progress was much more modest. But at the heart of his life was a persistent sense of dispossession and lack of belonging that tormented but also animated him, just as it does me. He was a cosmopolitan in the best tradition because, as I know so well, those who lack the citizenship of their native land become citizens of the world.

Perhaps it was this sense of identification that made our encounters over 24 years so meaningful, and for me, so unforgettable. I first met him in Libya in 1976. We were both guests of Colonel Gaddafi at a conference on Zionism and racism, which was a favourite topic back 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. 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 the book, I began to understand its significance for Palestinians in particular. What he did in this book was to expose a fundamental aspect of the Western approach towards the Orient, namely that conventional Western literature and scholarship about the East is coloured by colonialist attitudes, and regards the oriental "other" as something less than human, an interesting object of study, rather like a zoo animal. But there is more to the book.

Like all great ideas, this one seemed simple and instantly familiar, as if we had all always known it. It also aroused hostility and admiration in equal measure. Living in Britain, I can remember the storm of vituperative commentary which appeared in literary journals, and the polarity it caused among British historians, causing the formation of opposing camps. 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 from the opposite direction. How many Eastern scholars have studied the West in such depth, or even at all? However, I think the criticisms deserve some merit, but the object of this criticism is not the point of the book. For Edward Said's real achievement is to have defined what I call "the will to dispossess"; this is at the heart of this scholarship. His writings are properly situated in the politics of dispossession whose roots are firmly planted 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 gave 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 these influences, 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 school. Arabic was forbidden at home, except when speaking to the servants. As Said himself has noted, during his adolescent years this caused a split in his sense of identity, 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 the leitmotif of his view of the world. The Palestinian refugees' right to return to the homeland from which they were evicted remained at the core 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 on an air of obsessive denial. To maintain its fiction of innocence, Israel set about eradicating all traces of Palestinian presence on the land. Over 400 villages were demolished and new settlements sprang up in their place. The history of "Israel" taught to Israeli children distorts the facts to exclude reference to Palestinian presence. An intricate mythology of Israel's origins maps a Jewish continuity from Biblical times to the present, interrupted only by phases of transient settlement by Romans, Ottomans and British. If you knew no different, it would be entirely possible to believe that no Arabs had ever existed in the country apart from a few nomadic Bedouin tribes. Thus the Israelis have attempted to annihilate an entire people, including their history, memory, language and 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 acutely and his writings reflect it in one way or another. Orientalism must be understood in this way. Orientalist writers attempting to describe the Arab people also contributed to their dispossession, though elegantly and with erudition. For a people recreated through the prism of an alien scholarship influenced by alien notions of supremacy are also robbed of their true identity. Which is also a form of dispossession.

* Ghada Karmi's memoirs, In Search of Fatima, include a commentary by Edward Said.