(unpublished - September30, 2003)
WHAT EDWARD SAID MEANT FOR PALESTINIANS
In the throes of grief, anger and helplessness that one feels after the death of someone precious, I wondered if, while we mourned for Edward Said, the Zionists would be celebrating the demise of one of their most successful, articulate and effective enemies. The Israelis do not seriously fear Palestinian military resistance or Palestinian ‘terrorism’, or the threats of militants. The battle they can’t afford to lose is the one for hearts and minds, the public relations contest which they’ve always won hands down against a poor and ineffectual Arab opposition. Over three decades, Edward Said reversed that perception in the most important of arenas for Israel and its supporters: the USA and the West. He was more effective than a dozen armies and a fleet of F16s in the fight against the Zionists. The effect on millions of people of his speeches, writings, ideas and sheer personal charisma has been stupendous and its effects will reverberate for years to come.
Now that he has died, many people will rush forward to claim Edward Said for themselves: ‘friends’, associates, admirers, even former enemies. Literati, historians, musicians, political activists will appropriate him and most of them will be Western. This is understandable, since the West was his milieu for most of his life, and his achievements in diverse European fields make him a worthy candidate for several Western disciplines. Indeed Edward Said, like all great creative men, could be said to belong to the whole of mankind. But that would be to misunderstand the Palestinian context that animated him and from which his inspiration sprang. It is the Palestinian people who must claim him first, as one of their subtlest, cleverest and most loyal fighters, the foremost cultural bridge that connected and explained their cause to Western sensibilities.
My friendship with Edward Said spanned 27 years in which I found inspiration but also identification with him. We were both born in Jerusalem, both grew up in exile in the West, he in America, I in England. For both of us, political awaking came with the defeat of 1967 and led to a new career of active involvement in the politics of Palestine. When he generously endorsed my memoir in 2001, I though that he saw in it the same sense of unbelonging and dispossession that he felt himself. 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. 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 for Palestinians in particular. The book exposes a fundamental aspect of the Western approach towards the Orient: 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.
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 this was not the real point of the book. For Edward Said’s real achievement is to have defined what I will call, the will to dispossess that is at the heart of this scholarship. His writings are properly situated in the politics of 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. 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.
Ghada Karmi is the author of ‘In Search of Fatima, a Palestinian story’ (Verso).