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Mementos

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We gave him cufflinks fashioned out of typewriter keys for his sixtieth birthday. That was almost eight years ago. I had been his editor on political pieces since 1987, but Edward had a way of blurring professional and personal lines, and with my co-conspirator in this gift, Alexander Cockburn, we were comrades, confidants, friends together and apart. I had selected the keys, an exclamation mark and a semicolon, and Alexander made the little speech that night explaining the choice. I can't remember what Alexander said exactly, except that it was brisk and keen-witted, and Edward was charmed as he always was by praise. I don't remember Edward's comments that night either, only his face, the look of expectancy and surprise like that of a boy on his big day being honored for the first time. I do know why those two, out of forty-five possible letters, numbers and symbol combinations, had called out to me, though. The exclamation mark--of course, the exclamation mark! Who knew Edward, who saw Edward for an hour, perhaps an instant, without recognizing the vivid force of the man? Alexander called him "The Lion" because sometimes when he spoke it was as if he were pawing the air, lashing a tail. Of course the exclamation mark. The semicolon is another story altogether. Curiosity of the punctuation world, neither showy nor strictly utilitarian, it is the symbol of unapparent linkages, the iconic gesture casting back at one thought while drawing it forward, finished yet unfinished, into the next. Most people confuse this mark with one of its steady-Eddy relatives; they are not used to thinking contrapuntally.

Contributions in memory of Edward Said may be sent to: Chronic Lymphatic Leukemia Research Fund, LIJMC, Attention: Dr. Kanti Rai, New Hyde Park, NY 11040; The Friends of Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, Inc.,
PO Box 450554, Atlanta, GA 31145; National Conservatory of Music, Birzeit University Fund, c/o K. Fred Ajluni J.D., K&S Mall, 1800 West 14 Mile Road, Suite C, Royal Oak, MI 48073.

About the Author

JoAnn Wypijewski
JoAnn Wypijewski, who writes The Nation’s “Carnal Knowledge” column, has been traveling the country...

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* * *

Edward didn't use a typewriter or a computer. He wrote in longhand, with a fountain pen. A stack of pages, the words cascading straight across unlined sheets and contained within their writer's self-imposed margins, would be handed off to a loving-exasperated-loving assistant, Zaineb and later Sandra, and returned as typescript. I remember sitting beside him one day, going over galleys of a piece he'd written on the second anniversary of the Oslo Accords. Everything had gone to hell, as he'd predicted on the day of the famous handshake. I never got the feeling Edward took pleasure in the accuracy of his predictions. We'd talk about the situation, what he had and hadn't already committed to paper. His voice was musical in a way, full of questions repeated, of facts and images laid out like urgent evidence, his tone rising and falling as the words followed swiftly, smartly, one upon the other. "So let's add that in," I'd say. And his lovely hand would unscrew the cap of his fountain pen and glide along the page:

I do not pretend to have any quick solutions for the situation now referred to as "the peace process," but I do know that for the vast majority of Palestinian refugees, day laborers, peasants and town and camp dwellers, those who cannot make a quick deal and those whose voices are never heard, for them the process has made matters far worse....

I have been particularly disheartened by the role played in all this by liberal Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. Silence is not a response, and neither is some fairly tepid endorsement of a Palestinian state, with Israeli settlements and the army more or less still there, still in charge.

For all his erudition, all the easy references to Adorno or Vico or ones more obscure, Edward did not write in the clogged, remote style of the academic. And for all his acquaintance with elites, he had an allergy to power. His objection to the war on Iraq sprang from the same source as his opposition to Zionism and his contempt for Arab despots, including Arafat. He despised Saddam Hussein as he did Ariel Sharon, but could no more countenance the invasion of Iraq than he could support a suicide bombing in Israel. At the same time, he couldn't abide facile equations between criminal desperadoes and the legalized murder machinery of a state. His advice for the engaged individual was remarkably simple. One must concern oneself with human suffering, he insisted. And he drew sustenance from human effort, human resistance, whether in the form of protests against US warmaking or the development of independent politics from the ground up in the new Palestinian National Initiative. As the most prominent advocate for the Palestinian cause, as a Palestinian exile, he was in psychic proximity to one of the most excruciating instances of collective suffering in the postwar period. That this suffering could so often be demeaned or ignored--worse, justified--seemed inconceivable, and yet there it was. Here it is. How could someone not have a restless spirit, a passionate fury? But Edward had more restlessness and passion than most.

I sometimes think he cultivated the ability to savor things--small things like the contrasty form and weight of a cufflink against a smooth cotton shirt or the taste of French dark chocolate, large things like the haunting lines on home and loss by the twelfth-century monk Hugo of St. Victor or the gorgeous agony of Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time"--as a kind of counter to the knowledge of a surreal horror that would not let him rest. But maybe I'm reading too much into it. He once told me, "I was a sensitive boy." Maybe he was just careful enough, and lucky enough, to protect that part of the boy from disappearing into the man. And maybe it was that boy who threw that stone at nothing in particular in South Lebanon, for the sheer wild release of it.

* * *

The best tribute that night of the sixtieth birthday was delivered by Edward's daughter, Najla. A poor chronicler, I don't remember a word she said either, though as I call it to mind now, I'm sure "delivered" is the wrong word. Najla was all arms and legs then, and she uncoiled her stories, her bull's-eye insights and sweet-sly jokes at her father's expense in the same endearing manner as she arched and twisted her limbs. Edward didn't laugh at her jokes the way he laughed at his own, with that staccato Ha-ha! curling up at the end almost to the point of raucous but not quite. No one else laughed like Edward. But on this occasion his enjoyment was different, deeper, dearer. I've always thought that whatever else one might say about a person, if his children like him--not just love but like--he enters some superior category of esteem.

Najla and Wadie liked their father, and he liked them back. And he liked his wife, Mariam, which again is something beyond loving or needing, and he did those as well. He called them "remarkable" the way one would describe a revered friend, not because they were reflections of himself but because they so clearly attracted him with their own light. They seemed always to be together, all four of them, and when Wadie married Jennifer, five. There was something about the uncommon commonness of their togetherness that Edward extended into his friendships and exchanges beyond the family group. He was generous, with his time, with his advice, and generous too in his approach to the world around him. In the breadth of his scholarship and interests, in the precision of his dress and tastes, he was something of a nineteenth-century man, an aesthete, a bit of a dandy. He could be vain, a quality that, his great friend Ben Sonnenberg said, made him "the most delightful person to tease." But he had no wish to be cooped up in rarefied worlds. He loved gossip and low movies (a few years ago he pressed everyone he knew to see Showgirls) and seemed endlessly fascinated by the twists of one's amorous affairs. "Really..." he would say, stretching the word out at half-volume upon receiving reports from love's territory. He thrilled to each new discovery of popular culture, even if he was hopelessly behind. Not long ago his daughter wrote a friend that he'd just heard the term "lipstick lesbians" for the first time and, taken with it, decided to try to work it into a conversation at least once a day. I'll never forget the day he told me doctors discovered that the chronic leukemia, which ultimately did him in, had created a tumor in his stomach as well.

"My God, Edward," I said, "it's like the trials of Job."

"I should think it's more like the Perils of Pauline!" he said quickly, and then gave that laugh.

* * *

"He swam in the sea and he wasn't supposed to swim in the sea," Ben said while running through the chronology leading up to the final collapse of Edward's health at summer's end. He had treatments. He'd been weakened. He flew to Spain and Portugal. He swam in the sea. Any one of those things could have pulled the trigger, or all of them, or none of them in particular. While he was alive those who loved him could debate the should he?/shouldn't he? Now that he's gone, every recent risk he took flows into every other one over the dozen years that he spent living to keep from dying. Amid such immense grief it's a fine image to be left with: Edward under a Mediterranean sky, pushing against the waves; "the great man" who wore his greatness lightly.

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