Said, Edward W.

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Said, Edward W.

(b. 1 November 1935 in Jerusalem, Palestine; d. 25 September 2003 in New York City), literary critic and leading advocate for Palestinian national rights.

Said was one of three children born into a wealthy Christian Palestinian family. His father, Wadie A. Said, earned U.S. citizenship after serving with U.S. troops during World War I and later established a successful stationery business in Cairo, Egypt. His mother, Hilda (Musa) Said, was the daughter of a Baptist minister from Nazareth. The family’s wealth gave Said the means to live and travel in style, develop his sporting and musical skills, and pursue his education at elite schools. He spent his childhood in both Jerusalem and Cairo, attending the Anglican Saint George’s Academy in Jerusalem in 1947. After the Arab-Israeli war of 1947 to 1948, the family was exiled from Palestine and remained in Cairo. Said attended the exclusive Victoria College there until 1951, when his parents sent him to a U.S. boarding school, the Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts. Said remained in the United States for his higher education, earning an AB (1957) at Princeton University in New Jersey and an AM (1960) and PhD (1964) from Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Said launched his academic career while still a doctoral student at Harvard. He began teaching as an English instructor at Columbia University in New York City in 1963 and remained at Columbia until his retirement. He became a full professor in 1970 and later the Parr Professor of English and Comparative Literature (beginning 1977) and the Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities (beginning 1989). His first book, a study of the Polish-British novelist Joseph Conrad, was published in 1966 and broke new ground in criticism. For Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography, Said mined volumes of Conrad’s personal letters and, by juxtaposing them with the author’s fiction, illuminated the texts and made sense of Conrad’s quest to find order in a chaotic universe. Said was drawn to Conrad by their mutual existential condition as immigrants, and his own outsider position made it possible to understand his protagonist with empathetic ease.

Said struggled throughout his life to define his identity. He could have conformed to the norms of academia and made a significant name for himself. But his ambivalence drew him to the hazardous intellectual task of deciphering the amorphous topic of “beginnings.” His landmark book of criticism, Beginnings: Intention and Method, was published in 1975. Said then tackled the epistemological roots of imperialism in his most famous book, Orientalism (1978). He then addressed the ongoing dilemmas of Palestinians in confrontation with Zionists and Israelis in a series of books and innumerable journal and newspaper articles. His most important later books were Culture and Imperialism (1993) and The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination, 1969–1994 (1994).

Said embraced controversies that others tended to shy away from, thereby compounding his alienation. When critics attacked him, sometimes viciously, he felt physically assaulted and totally vulnerable. He never developed an inner core to steel him to those assaults. But that vulnerability left him open to new ideas, especially to new intellectual currents from Europe. Said was drawn to the ideas of the European philosophers Giambattista Vico, Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, Theodor Adorno (about whom he claimed he was one of the few who understood the man’s work), and others, all of whom helped shape his critical sense and originality. Marxists such as the critic Aijaz Ahmad attacked Said because he did not conform to the guideposts of left analysis, but he was too polyglot, well read, and restless to adhere to any doctrine or school. Instead, Said picked and chose from the greatest minds that he encountered to revitalize the field of U.S. literary criticism.

The Arab defeat of 1967 against Israel’s military might turned Said from an indifferent Middle Easterner living in New York City into a Palestinian protagonist. He became a spokesperson in the United States for the Palestinian cause, and in 1977 he was invited to join their parliament in exile as an unaffiliated member. However, he refused to adhere to a party line and often angered the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leadership by turning his sharp critical eye to internal corruption and lack of political clarity in the circles around the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. He refused to accept the Oslo accords negotiated between the PLO and Israel in 1993, joining his Pakistani friend Eqbal Ahmad in claiming that the agreement would lead the Palestinians into a situation akin to the South Africans under apartheid, in which black Africans were confined to segregated territories. Late in his life he worked with another close friend, the Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim, in bringing together Palestinian and Israeli young musicians to prepare concerts and perform together and set an example of the possibility of coexistence for two peoples whose histories had led them into dire conflict.

Said wrote more than twenty books over his lifetime, some of them while suffering from the ravages of cancer. After engaging in the Palestinian struggle he became a significant popular commentator on Middle Eastern affairs. In addition he wrote musical criticism and helped found the new field of cultural studies. His articles on Middle Eastern affairs and his criticism appeared regularly in the London Review of Books, New York Times, Nation, AlAhram Weekly, and several Arabic newspapers. Among the many awards he won were the Lionel Trilling Award from Columbia University (1976, 1994) and the American Comparative Literature Association’s René Wellek Prize (1985). After a courageous ten-year battle with leukemia, Said died at age sixty-seven, leaving behind his wife, Mariam Cortas, and their son and daughter. Said and Cortas were married on 15 December 1970. He is buried in Protestant Cemetery in Broummana, Lebanon.

Said left behind a powerful legacy in which he demonstrated how the Western corpus of literature, art, and music contributed to incorporating the Orient into the West’s orbit of control, facilitating Western rulers’ attempts to attach the region to their empires. By employing an archaeology of knowledge, following in the footsteps of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, he showed how the marshalling of culture served imperial political ends. He likewise reminded us that there was not one Islam, but rather many Islams shaped by regional cultures and differing local legacies. In that way he refuted the new paradigm of imperial commentators—the “clash of civilizations” posited by scholars such as Bernard Lewis and Samuel P. Huntington—that pits the Islamic world against the West in a deadly confrontation. He tore holes in these binary arguments and demonstrated the world’s true complexity.

Said’s autobiography is Out of Place: A Memoir (1999). Two of his former students, Moustafa Bayoumi and Andrew Rubin, edited The Edward Said Reader (2000). An informative article published after Said’s death is Irene Gendzier, “The Political Legacy of Edward Said,” Logos 2, no. 4 (Fall 2003). An obituary is in the New York Times (26 Sept. 2003).

Stuart Schaar