Said, Edward (1935–2003)

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Said, Edward

Edward Wadie (Wadi or William) Said was a literary theorist and Palestinian activist who played a key role in shaping the image of mostly left-wing Western intellectuals concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With his book Orientalism (1978) he provided a major theoretical framework in the twentieth-century humanities to explain Western-Arab relations. His scientific approach was entangled with a pro-Palestinian political bias, making him a controversial figure within the community of scholars on the Middle East. In the last phase of his life, Said broke with the Palestinian leadership when he rejected the Oslo Accords.


Said claimed that he was born on 1 November 1935, in Jerusalem, but critics argued that even the statement about his birthplace was propaganda and that Said was born in Egypt, not mandatory Palestine. He came from a Christian Arab background and the choice of his first name, Edward, indicated his father's inclination to Western culture. His father immigrated to the United States before World War I and had returned to the Middle East as a wealthy man.


Name: Edward Wadie (Wadi, William) Said

Birth: 1 November 1935, Jerusalem, mandatory Palestine or Cairo, Egypt

Death: 25 September 2003, New York, United States

Family: Wife, Mariam; daughter, Najla; son, Wadie

Nationality: Palestinian

Education: Princeton University, 1957, B.A. English; Harvard University, 1960, M.A., 1964, Ph.D.


  • 1963: Becomes instructor at Columbia University, New York
  • 1970: Becomes full professor at Columbia University
  • 1977: Appointed Parr Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia
  • 1977–1991: Member of the Palestinian National Council
  • 1999: President of the Modern Language Association

Most of Said's early life is unclear. In his own descriptions he spent a lot of time in what was then British-mandatory Palestine, while his critics argue that he had a more or less Egyptian upbringing. In any case, he grew up in a still very much British-influenced affluent Arab setting. His early school attendances are also unclear; at times it was claimed that he clashed with the British-style school system and was therefore sent to the United States, which would reinforce his image as an anti-colonial activist even as a schoolboy. It is clear that for some reason or another his father sent Said to the United States for school and academic training, where he succeeded academically, earning a B.A. from Princeton University and an M.A. and a Ph.D. from Harvard University.

Said claimed that the defeat of Arab armies against Israel in the 1948 War first made him politically aware as a Palestinian, but that the real impetus for his political coming-out was the defeat of the Arabs in the 1967 War. Whatever his political ambitions might have been then, he did gain prominence first as a literary scholar and not as an advocate for the Palestinian cause. How much the events of 1948 affected his personal life is another unclear element in his early life. Some of his relatives lost property in 1948 with the establishment of Israel. Said claimed a special relationship to a Jerusalem-based aunt, which to a certain extent was his proof for his strong personal involvement in the Palestinian fate during his adolescence.

Said was a prolific foreign language and music student. After his Ph.D. thesis on British novelist Joseph Conrad, his academic success in the United States led him successively to professorial offices at Columbia University. He became a full professor there in 1970. In 1977, he was appointed to an endowed chair at Columbia as the Parr Professor of English and Comparative Literature. There followed appointments as the Old Dominion Foundation Professor of Humanities and finally University Professor, Columbia's highest honor for a faculty member. He gave the field of comparative literature a new framework when he transferred the anti-colonial intellectual feeling of the 1950s and 1960s into literary theory. He shared the left-wing political leanings of United States and Western students in the 1960s, but because of his Palestinian origins he could somehow argue the anti-colonial sentiment with more individual credibility, despite his strong links with Western academia. His experience of Palestinian, Egyptian, British colonial, and U.S. communities in his youth and adolescence predestined him for a comparative approach. His background and language studies gave him the linguistic background to broaden the field of comparative literature from the comparison of Western literatures with each other to the comparison of Western and non-Western literatures. His celebrity status within the community derived from the fact that he added to the comparison of literatures the question of how one culture is seen by another culture. Though he was probably not the first to ask and explore this question, he was the scholar who examined it the most convincingly.

While his influence in the field of literary theory is undisputed, the 1967 Arab-Israeli War shaped Said into a controversial Palestinian activist. From the 1970s onward, Said was both a literary scholar and a partisan political activist. It is difficult to separate Said's scholarship from his political activism because the object of Said's research and politics was the same: the problems of the post-colonial Arab world in general and the fate of Palestinians in particular. Because Said was already well known as a scholar in the West by the time of his full political awakening in the late 1960s and 1970s, he became the natural unofficial ambassador for the Palestinian cause in the United States. The Ivy League academic Said could counter the image of Palestinian terrorists responsible for the Munich Olympics massacre and other atrocities. Said became a representative of educated Palestinians and Arabs in the Western media.

As a member of many academic communities both in the United States and Europe, Said became the prototype of the Palestinian or Arab intellectual in the West. He addressed his academic and non-academic audience regularly in important English-language newspapers and journals on both sides of the Atlantic and was at the same time present in quality papers of the Arab world. His election to the Palestinian National Council in 1977 and the publication of his best-known book, Orientalism, in 1978 is probably the point in time when Said intellectually left academia for a political career. From that point onward, his public standing was much more dependent on his political views than on his academic achievements.

Said's political role and development were somewhat confusing, though his career includes a consistent opposition to the mainstream political views of the Palestinian leadership at any given time. In the 1970s, when acceptance of the existence of the state of Israel was still a minority view among the Palestinian political elite, Said advocated a two-state solution. He argued for talks between the two sides at a time when YASIR ARAFAT was still contemplating terrorism as the sole approach to the Palestinian problem. When a development that on the surface appeared to be in line with Said's views of the 1970s and early 1980s took place and the Palestinian leadership entered into what appeared to be serious talks with Israel, Said denounced these talks. The Oslo Accords of the early 1990s marked his open split with the Palestinian leadership. Said resigned from the Palestinian National Council in 1991. At a time when the political leadership of the Palestinians openly declared willingness to embrace a two-state solution, Said, as a former advocate of such a solution, denounced it.

In 2000 Said was photographed throwing a stone from the Lebanese side of the Israeli-Lebanese border in the direction of the Israeli frontier installations soon after the Israeli army left southern Lebanon after an eighteen-year presence there. In the photograph, the Ivy League academic and literary theorist represented a symbol of an Intifada activist.

Said's criticism of the leadership of Arafat was not limited to his disapproval of the Oslo Accords. Said became an important critic of the system of bribery and corruption within the Palestinian Authority of Arafat. As a Christian Palestinian, Said did not support the Islamist Hamas and therefore tried to establish a third way between the corrupt system of Arafat and Islamism of Hamas. This effort was cut short by Said's death on 25 September 2003.


For the purpose of a fair representation of Said's influences and contributions, the distinction between his academic and political activities must be recognized, although this distinction may not be possible for the period after the late 1970s. His major contribution as an academic was condensed in his world-famous book Orientalism in 1978. The major themes and thesis of this book were elaborated by Said in the remaining twenty-five years of his life, especially in his book Culture and Imperialism (1993), and shaped a whole school of literary critics of the anti-and post-colonial movement. Said's work contributed to a transformation and reconstruction of comparative literature that changed the discipline forever.

Said's main political contribution to the Palestinian cause was his role as a culturally acceptable mouthpiece in the form of an Ivy League academic. The image of the Palestinian-American intellectual Said countered the media image of Palestinian terrorists. Maybe this media image was even more important than Said's political message. The influence of his political message is much more difficult to evaluate. It is difficult to determine how much influence Said exerted with his advocacy of a two-state solution in the 1970s and 1980s and with his anti-Oslo approach in the 1990s. At the end of his life his "third way" approach between the corrupt Fatah and the extremist Hamas left him on the fringe of any notable political stream within the Palestinian society. In a way, his political maverick status can be explained by his own academic work: The "Oriental"-born Said had become a Western professor looking back at his roots with all the theoretical and practical problems and deviations outlined in Said's Orientalism.


To paraphrase the saying "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" to apply to Said: One man's brilliant and inspired academic with social consciousness is another man's intellectually corrupt and dishonest sponsor of violence. This marks the range of evaluations of Said. The world started to form an opinion on Said in the late 1970s at exactly the point in time when Said finished his important academic achievements and started his political career as an unofficial intellectual ambassador of the Palestinian cause to the Western world.

Admirers of Said highlight his innovative approach to literary theory. His transformation of comparative literature is presented as a breakthrough in literary theory in the twentieth century and may even be regarded as a new start in literary theory to replace and refute any former theories. Other proponents of Said highlight his social and political activities. Said is portrayed as an Ivy League academic who left his Ivy Tower without concern for what that might cost him in terms of reputation. The Palestinian cause, which he took personally, was more important to him than general appreciation among his academic peers. His followers assert that he was not corrupted by his political opportunities to profit from his involvement with the Palestinian leadership. They stress his early warnings against the corrupt system of the Palestinian Authority. For his admirers Said was an honest man: honest in his academic and political convictions, but also honest and not opportunistic in his political actions.


Positively, I do believe—and in my other work have tried to show—that enough is being done today in the human sciences to provide the contemporary scholar with insights, methods, and ideas that could dispense with racial, ideological, and imperialist stereotypes of the sort provided during its historical ascendancy by Orientalism. I consider Orientalism's failure to have been a human as much as an intellectual one […] If the knowledge of Orientalism has any meaning, it is in being a reminder of the seductive degradation of knowledge, of any knowledge, anywhere, at any time. Now perhaps more than before.


Said's opponents, on the other hand, highlight his ambiguity with the truth, starting with the possible lie about his birthplace (Jerusalem or Egypt). Even before criticizing his political activities they will contrast his biographical ambiguities with the academic standards expected from an Ivy League academic. The main criticism of his achievements in the field of literary theory is the blurry line between his political opinions and his academic theories. His discovery or deconstruction of the colonialist view of Westerners as outlined in Orientalism is contrasted with the theory that his work was a political act by somebody himself deeply biased by his Palestinian background.

Said's political actions are even more controversial. His change of heart concerning Palestinian-Israeli negotiations can be criticized from various viewpoints. His advocacy of a two-state solution in the 1970s and 1980s has been criticized as a sort of treason to the Palestinian cause in what they considered a just war against Israel. His opposition to the Oslo agreement in the 1990s and his infamous border-stone-throwing of 2000 was criticized as a harmful opposition to an ongoing process of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. The United States's Federal Bureau of Investigation considered him a possible threat and kept him under surveillance from the 1970s until his death.


The academic and the political legacies of Said must be distinguished. His literary theory as outlined especially in Orientalism will remain a decisive piece of literary scholarship of the second part of the twentieth century. Although the post-colonial mood is by now history and many of the approaches of Orientalism have to be revaluated and possibly redirected in a post-11 September 2001 world, the mark of Said on literary theory from the 1960s and beyond will remain. His political legacy has probably already now evaporated. The contradicting political sides taken by Said were always somehow related to the actual politics of the Palestinian leadership. Said's political actions were mostly reactions against that leadership, so his political views will not easily fit in the new scenery of a post-Arafat Palestinian framework.

Said's reputation suffered after the release of a widely circulated photograph of him throwing a stone across the Lebanese-Israeli border into Israel. The negative effect of this episode on his academic reputation was probably the price Said had to pay for his convictions and for his transformation into a Palestinian icon. He may be longer and more widely remembered as such an icon than as the brilliant literary theorist that he was.

To do justice to Said one has to mention that he restrained from religious extremism and hatred. His efforts with Israeli pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim to organize joint Israeli-Palestinian youth music education and events may highlight a positive part of Said's legacy and underline the high cultural education of this controversial academic. After his death, Columbia University established the Edward Said Chair in Middle Eastern Studies, and the American University of Beirut established the Edward Said Chair in American Studies.


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Said, Edward W. Beginnings. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

――――――――. Covering Islam. New York: Vintage, 1981.

――――――――. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage, 1993.

――――――――. Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.

――――――――. Musical Elaborations. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

――――――――. Orientalism. New York: Random House, 1978.

――――――――. Out of Place: A Memoir. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.

――――――――. The End of the Peace Process. London: Penguin, 2002.

――――――――. The World, the Text, and the Critic. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.

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Viswanathan, Gauri. Power, Politics and Culture. London: Bloomsbury, 2004.

Warraq, Ibn. Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said's Orientalism. London: Prometheus, 2007.

                              Oliver Benjamin Hemmerle