The Rootless Cosmopolitan
In consequence, as Said tellingly observed just a few months before his death, "I still have not been able to understand what it means to love a country." That, of course, is the characteristic condition of the rootless cosmopolitan. It is not very comfortable or safe to be without a country to love: It can bring down upon your head the anxious hostility of those for whom such rootlessness suggests a corrosive independence of spirit. But it is liberating: The world you look out upon may not be as reassuring as the vista enjoyed by patriots and nationalists, but you see further. As Said wrote in 1993, "I have no patience with the position that 'we' should only or mainly be concerned with what is 'ours.'"
This is the authentic voice of the independent critic, speaking the truth to power...and supplying a dissenting voice in conflicts with authority: As Said wrote in the Cairo newspaper Al-Ahram in May 2001, "whether Israeli intellectuals have failed or not in their mission is not for us to decide. What concerns us is the shabby state of discourse and analysis in the Arab world." It is also the voice of the free-standing "New York intellectual," a species now fast approaching extinction--thanks in large measure to the same Middle Eastern conflict in which so many have opted to take up sides and identify with "us" and "ours." (To its lasting credit, Columbia University withstood considerable internal and public pressure to censure or even remove Said because of his public interventions on the Palestinians' behalf.) Edward Said, as the reader of these essays will discover, was by no means a conventional "spokesman" for one party in that conflict.
The Munich daily Süddeutsche Zeitung headed its obituary of Said Der Unbequeme--"The Uncomfortable Man." But if anything, his lasting achievement was to make others uncomfortable. For the Palestinians Edward Said was an underappreciated and frequently irritating Cassandra, berating their leaders for incompetence--and worse. To his critics Said was a lightning rod, attracting fear and vituperation. Implausibly, this witty and cultivated man was cast as the very devil: the corporeal incarnation of every threat--real or imagined--to Israel and Jews alike. To an American Jewish community suffused with symbols of victimhood he was a provocatively articulate remembrancer of Israel's very own victims. And by his mere presence here in New York, Edward Said was an ironic, cosmopolitan, Arab reminder of the parochialism of his critics.
The essays in this book cover the period December 2000 through March 2003. They thus take us from the end of the Oslo decade, the onset of the second intifada and the final breakdown of the "peace process," through the Israeli reoccupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the massacres of September 11, 2001, the American retaliation in Afghanistan and the long run-up to the US attack on Iraq--a distinctly turbulent and murderous twenty-eight months. During this time Said wrote copiously and urgently about the alarming state of affairs in the Middle East, contributing at least one article a month, often more, despite his worsening medical condition (to which there is no reference in these writings until August 2002, and then only a casual, passing allusion).
All but one of the pieces collected here were contributed to Al-Ahram. These writings are thus an opportunity for Said's Western readers to see what he had to say to an Arab audience. What they show is that Said in his final years was consistently pursuing three themes: the urgent need to tell the world (above all, Americans) the truth about Israel's treatment of the Palestinians; the parallel urgency of getting Palestinians and other Arabs to recognize and accept the reality of Israel and engage with Israelis, especially the Israeli opposition; and the duty to speak openly about the failings of Arab leadership.
Indeed, Said was above all concerned with addressing and excoriating his fellow Arabs. It is the ruling Arab regimes, especially that of the Palestine Liberation Organization, that come in for the strongest criticism here: for their cupidity, their corruption, their malevolence and incredulity. This may seem almost unfair--it is, after all, the United States that has effective power, and Israel that was and is wreaking havoc among Said's fellow Palestinians--but he seems to have felt it important to tell the truth to and about his own people, rather than risk indulging the "fawning elasticity with regard to one's own side that has disfigured the history of intellectuals since time immemorial."