The Debt We Owe Edward Said

The Debt We Owe Edward Said

A conversation with biographer Timothy Brennan about the enduring political and intellectual legacy of the Palestinian thinker.


Edward Said was our prince,” the Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif recently said in a conversation reflecting on the Palestinian public intellectual’s life and writings. An incomparable thinker, Said is credited with founding postcolonial studies, penning histories of cultural representation and “the Other,” and, in so doing, upending the Anglo-American academy. His Orientalism, published in 1978, is among the most cited books in modern history, by some accounts above Marx’s Capital and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Throughout decades of essays, books, and reviews, Said showed his care for form and the structures of feeling, seeing in their examination a means of understanding music, literature, the world, and Palestine, his home.

Said was many other things—a critic, a dandy, a narcissist, a mentor, a polemicist, and a singular wit. In 1995’s Peace and Its Discontents—the first of his books intended for an Arab audience—Said describes the Oslo Accords as a “degrading spectacle of Yasser Arafat thanking everyone for what amounted to a suspension of his people’s rights,” shrouded in the “fatuous solemnity of Bill Clinton’s performance, like a twentieth century Roman empire shepherding two vassal knights through rituals of reconciliation and obeisance.” The Palestinian leader for decades, Arafat would come to ban Said’s books in the West Bank and Gaza, a result of Said’s early positions in support of the one-state solution and his criticisms of Oslo.

Said’s commitment to the liberation of the Palestinian people made him enemies closer to home as well. Late in his life, and after 9/11, Said felt isolated by his American friends and colleagues, as if they had “suddenly discovered they were imperialists after all, and had turned themselves into mouthpieces for the status quo,” as he said in one of his final interviews, filmed by English documentarian Mike Dibb in 2003, just a few months before leukemia would take Said’s life. After being faced with the capricious nature of American letters, Said found solace among Arabs.

Many who opposed Said’s political commitments to Palestine spent years attempting to tear him down, and those who owe a debt to him as a person and a scholar have had to rely on private conversations and his own enormous œuvre to contest those depictions. Timothy Brennan, an author and professor who was Said’s former graduate student and a close friend, has attempted to change that with Places of Mind, his biography of Said.

As the reviews of the book have come in, though, it has been dispiriting to see a procession of white writers get Said wrong. Dwight Garner, in his review for The New York Times, “A Study of Edward Said, One of the Most Interesting Men of His Time,” seems to find every possible thing interesting about Said except his identity as a Palestinian, devoting more lines to Said’s sex life than his views on the liberation of his own people. This reflects Garner’s paper’s own treatment of Said when he was alive (The New York Times Book Review published Said 10 times, zero times on Palestine) and echoes its consistent overlooking of Palestinian voices—publishing almost 2,500 op-eds on Palestine since 1970, with only 46 authored by Palestinians. This recent review only furthers something white critics have always misunderstood about Said: In treating his Palestinian identity as a curiosity rather than an animating feature of his life and work, they miss how generative the experiences of the (albeit privileged) colonial subject were to the writing of Orientalism (or Beginnings, Covering Islam, and The Question of Palestine, for that matter). These currents are convincingly traced in Brennan’s intellectual history.

In our conversation, Brennan discusses Said’s literary influences, his relationship to Marxism, his views on the growing movement to boycott Israel, his friendship with anti-war leader Eqbal Ahmed, and his experiences with the New York media. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

—Kaleem Hawa

Kaleem Hawa: Some people represent Said as a Palestinian academic “with a gentile intellect” rather than an ultimately Western one, whose project is situated within and in response to the Western canon. Do you believe Edward Said was an Arab intellectual?

Timothy Brennan: This is probably one of the things that changed my mind about the Edward Said that I thought I knew so well. First meeting him, it is very difficult to think of him as anything other than a British-educated, Ivy League product. And when you talk to some of the people who became Edward’s political enemies over time, they echo this sentiment, saying, “Don’t believe this commitment he has to Palestine. He never once talked about going back home or that he longed to live in the Middle East.” But while this is a popular way of thinking about Edward, it is not borne out by the record. He took pains to relocate to the Middle East. He systematically apprenticed himself under the intellectuals of the Nahda [Renaissance], like Constantin Zureiq or Ibrahim Abu-Lughod. And I think it was very important to him to establish a direct line of communication with Arab readers and address them as Arabs.

KH: They didn’t always like what he had to say; I am thinking of the criticisms of Said by Marxist Arabs like Mahdi Amel, for instance. On this, the Irish poet Seamus Deane said that Said was not a Marxist, but only if we recognize the wildly different degrees to which one can be not a Marxist. What would you say was Said’s relationship to Marxism?

TB: I think that Edward couldn’t accept Marxism as somebody fighting for Palestinian nationalism because he felt it was an imported ideology that had been largely negative in the forms that it had taken in the Middle East. He thought that, however correct a program it might be politically, it did not have the attractive force as a political system in the Middle East context to lead to the successful founding of a Palestinian state.

KH: Are you referring to his book Beginnings in which he attempts to map an indigenous Arab culture, politics, and aesthetics, and criticizes Frantz Fanon and Taha Hussein for using the structures of Freud and Marx to fight colonialism, rather than create their own distinctly native culture?

TB: There is also the famous takedown of Marx in Orientalism. And there’s the complaint about certain Marxist movements in Culture and Imperialism. But let’s not forget that a lot of Said’s close friends and associates were Marxists. He’s as tight as one can be with another intellectual during a formative period of his life with Sadiq al-Azm. Marxism wasn’t off-putting to him in any way—in fact, there was some competition between him and al-Azm about who could be the worst enfant terrible in the Middle East, and the relationship that he has with Marxism is consistent throughout his life. There’s evidence of a more generally politically liberal disposition, yes, but Said also acted as an agent for Marxist intellectuals, reminding people of the vital insights that they had brought to political and cultural theory. His greatest heroes, apart from [Giambattista] Vico—who you could say was proto-Marxist—were Marxists: [György] Lukács, [Theodor] Adorno, [Antonio] Gramsci. A small cast of characters made up this pantheon.

KH: Were there any women in this pantheon?

TB: Yes, Rose Subotnik, a musicologist, and Gillian Rose, a sociologist and Hegel scholar. Susan Buck-Morss’s first book on Adorno was also an influence.

KH: You didn’t mention Eqbal Ahmad, the anti-war leader and Pakistani intellectual. Said’s FBI file would call Said the unofficial liaison between the US and the Palestine Liberation Organization. This was perceived as radical in American contextsthough it hardly is nowadaysand was in part attributed to Said’s relationship with Ahmad. How did that relationship come to be?

TB: Eqbal was one of the leaders of the American anti-war movement, and he caught Edward’s attention just when Edward was becoming more overtly political following the Palestinian Naksa in 1967. Eqbal took a very bold and unpopular step at the time, giving a lecture to militant Arab intellectuals and activists saying that they would not be able to win their fight against Zionism in a military way, that they had to learn about the techniques of persuasion. This was not where Edward was coming from at the time; he was very attracted to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which was the most Marxist of the organizations in the Palestine liberation umbrella groups. Said was thinking in military terms at that point.

KH: It’s interesting because you also say that Said would admire his students and peers who would stand outside of grocery stores collecting signatures against the Vietnam War, but he would never do it himself. He also famously called the campus police on student protesters when they stormed his class at Columbia. Are we talking about Said’s political failings as aberrations explainable by circumstance, rather than as constitutive of a worldview? Would he have leafleted if it was for Palestine? Was he just not a leafleteer? How do we explain these contradictions?

TB: There are few reasons I can think of. First, Edward was an elitist. He grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth and did not see himself as being in the trenches. Secondly, if he’s going to put himself out for a political cause, it’s not going to be the Vietnam War; as much as he despised and was appalled by what the United States was doing in Vietnam, he only had one life to give and one set of energies. Finally, he thought of the student activists as involved in a sort of middle-class playacting, that they didn’t know what real political danger was. He had seen that danger up close by knowing comrades in Cairo under [Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser and comrades in Beirut who were getting assassinated. All those things would militate against him handing out leaflets.

KH: I wonder about the role of intellectuals then as a node in a network between other intellectuals and liberation causes. Said claims to have been the person that introduced Fredric Jameson to Palestine—he organized a trip with Ahmad with the intentions of elevating Palestine to a political issue, not just an academic one for Jameson. What do you know about this trip?

TB: Edward admired Fred and Fred’s intellect but would not identify with Jameson’s Marxism. He thought it was not interested in applying itself to real-world conditions, that it had become a kind of a compensatory philosophy where one could feel ethically pure but not engage with the world. Edward would say things like, “Jameson, he’s as political as that chair over there.” The trip was to Lebanon, and the goal was to show Western academics what it meant to politically resist Israel.

KH: Sometimes I think what is missing in the Western intellectual is a deeply felt anger. Was Said’s rage real?

TB: He was angry. He was really angry. He would have taken up arms if it would have been the way to achieve victory. I am absolutely astounded at the prodigious energy that went into his writing about Palestine from so many different angles over so many years. But also, his political strategies vis-à-vis Palestine and the post-9/11 attacks on freedoms in the United States had everything to do with what he learned from studying literature—there is a direct connection between his patient study of rhetoric and narrative and his belief in the authority that the intellectual has in society. He would talk about the entire Israeli apparatus of stories that had been brought to the public on a mass basis, like the movie Exodus or the eye patch of Moshe Dayan. Edward would say that Palestinians didn’t register with the public, that they needed to tell their stories and find a way to mythologize their experiences so that people could identify with it. Essentially, Said’s view of narrative was not just as something that literature professors study in a classroom—it had everything to do with the Palestinian national project.

KH: The audiences for these stories are implicitly Western ones, though. What about Said’s visions for communicating with Arabs? You describe his essay “Withholding, Avoidance, and Recognition” in Mawaqif, the Beirut magazine, as the first time Said addressed an Arab audience, staking out a sort of Arab pessimism, the very thing that Ghassan Kanafani described as a “masochistic festival of self-disparagement.” What was Said arguing in that essay and why?

TB: It’s an absolutely stunning essay. Said argues that what the Arab intellectual most needs to recognize as lacking in their culture is a theory of mind. In the essay he is attempting to show that the challenge with resisting Western imperialism as an Arab has to do in part with the overemphasis on the Arabic language as a reservoir of beauty and perfection, and that Arabs must work to understand what makes them different, what they most need, what they lack. It’s very political, but it’s also psychoanalytic.

KH: You also write that Said was fascinated with fiction writers he should not have liked. He championed Jonathan Swift instead of anti-colonialist William Blake, and he loved Joseph Conrad rather than his anti-imperialist colleague R. Cunninghame Graham. You argue that in Conrad’s pessimism and moral darkness, Said could find himself as a relief. But Said also saw similarities, describing himself and Conrad both as “exiles in the imperial world capitals of their time.” Can you talk more about Said’s connection to Conrad?

TB: Edward was attracted to those whose politics he disagreed with. This is clear in his early emulation of [Lebanese nationalist and Phalangist] Charles Malik. In part, Edward sought to get in the minds of those who in some respects he despised, interested in what would be produced by the friction. But I also think his attraction to Conrad was because Conrad had invented himself, creating fictional masks under his own persona in his works. Edward really identified with that and wanted that, especially in his abortive attempts at writing a novel. Edward wanted to hide himself, and Conrad doing so gave him ideas about how he might do it.

KH: Said also saw in Conrad a duality that replicated in his personal life. You quote Said saying, “When I was beginning to teach at Columbia…I was really considered two people…the teacher of literature…and this other person who did these quite unspeakable, unmentionable things.” What were Edward Said’s unspeakable, unmentionable things?

TB: Well, I think they’re largely imaginary. I think what he’s really saying there is that despite his eloquence, despite his success as a professor, people could never get over the fact that he was different, he was slightly off, he was from another part of the world. It was a feeling of inferiority in his presence because he had a global reach and a cosmopolitan depth that they didn’t have. They saw this man who spoke Arabic and knew the British Empire from the inside out, having grown up under it—all of those things made him formidable. And so it wasn’t what he was doing, it’s what he was thinking.

KH: I always thought that stuff was kind of libidinal, that it operated at the level of psychosexual distrust for Arab people, à la Joseph Massad’s Desiring Arabs. Were there any consequences of this attention for Said?

TB: Yes, it was apparent when he arrived in New York City. He was always in love with New York, always felt at home in New York, and that went way back even to childhood. He gets there and soon he’s established. He’s the darling. He’s handsome. He’s articulate. He’s funny. He writes perfectly for that kind of intellectual crowd. He’s got the cachet of being from Columbia, and he’s from unidentifiable origins, which makes him intriguing. But then he publishes The Question of Palestine. And the problem with that book for the New York media world was precisely what made it attractive to people like Cyrus Vance and George Shultz: He could be “reasonable”; he could patiently explain; he had the rhetorical techniques and the evidence to drive his point home. He explained too well, and nobody had ever seen anything like it. They felt endangered. They felt that this person could make a case for Palestine that more and more people would accept. So they start to blacklist him. It was harder for him to publish in The New York Review of Books after that; he only got to publish certain kinds of things. And there’s lots of correspondence with The New York Times Magazine where they say, “Well, we’re interested, but only if you stay away from politics, if you just talk about your childhood.”

KH: On this point, one of Said’s first essays for the London Review of Books was about the journalist’s relationship to power. He planted a flag for the idea of media criticism. Why?

TB: You could say that Covering Islam was the book that most perfectly embodied the fruits of the media criticism that he was reading in others. There are writers who precede Said who are writing these really important studies of the media, like Edward Herman and Armand Mattelart. Said argues that we need to systematically and structurally unpack media bias on the subject of the Middle East. And he brings to it literary critical notions like the problem of representation and the mediation of the news by capitalism.

KH: Yes, but do you believe his critique is always so structural? I think of his essay in the London Review of Books, “Permission to Narrate,” in which he argues that there is a unique standard when it comes to Palestine. Why did he think this?

TB: The Zionist project both objectively is—and Edward was trying to convince people that it was—a genocidal attempt to disarticulate a people, to deny its existence, to prevent it from associating with itself, prevent it from telling its story. And so anything that would create the impression that there was this people with a history and a heritage that was conscious of itself as a people had to be anathema.

KH: It is interesting that you say that. Did Said ever describe what Israel has done and is doing to the Palestinians as genocide?

TB: To my knowledge, no, he never uses that word. It is one that I think would be appropriate myself, but I don’t think that he uses that word. I think Said would have thought it polarizing among the people he was trying to reach, but then he would write several essays about the complete disarticulation, denial, and elimination of Palestinian collective existence, which fits under the official UN definition of genocide.

KH: In some ways this is an evasion, because the enemies of Palestinian people understand this deeply and police the parameters of which language is reasonable and not reasonable. We are seeing this firsthand with the boycott, divestment, and sanctions [BDS] movement, which Zionist groups have tried to present as something that is not discussed in polite society. I struggle with Said’s position.

TB: Right.

KH: I do want to talk about BDS for a moment. Said died in 2003 and the BDS movement was founded in 2005. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra program that Said cofounded with Daniel Barenboim [an Israeli citizen] would become the subject of a Palestinian boycott by the cofounder of the BDS movement, Omar Barghouti. Some in Said’s family, like his sister Grace, took issue with the orchestra project because of the ways that it normalized the Israeli state. Nevertheless, she and others have said that Said would have been a supporter of BDS today.

TB: I agree with Grace. Before 2003, Said himself was actively participating in boycotts of Israeli companies. And he was absolutely livid with close friends and associates at Columbia for not participating in a boycott of any company that was investing in the occupied territories. He would have probably taken the position, which is BDS’s position, that the boycott is not a question of individuals but is a question of institutions, and that these institutions should be punished for what they are doing.

KH: You dedicated your book to the Palestinian people. Why?

TB: I guess being around Edward taught me to throw my energy into trying to do something for the cause. He taught me to risk professional censure to take a stand on Palestine. To me, it’s a litmus test for whether your anti-colonial politics is sincere or not, whether you risk speaking out on behalf of the great injustice done by Zionism to the Palestinian people. To me, this is one of the biggest ethical questions of our time.

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