Palestinian Lives and Deaths
On this week’s episode of Start Making Sense, conversations from our archives, where Rachel Kushner reports on Palestinian refugees and Adam Shatz talks about Edward Said.
Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news.Start Making Sense hosted by Jon Wiener, Edge of Sports hosted by Dave Zirin, The Time of Monsters hosted by Jeet Heer.
For this week’s Start Making Sense podcast we have two archival segments about Palestinians; neither is about the current war.
In 2016, Rachel Kushner visited Shuafat, the only Palestinian refugee camp inside Jerusalem. She went alongside a community organizer as he tried to solve massive problems. Her report, published originally in the New York Times Magazine, appears in her 2021 book of nonfiction, The Hard Crowd.
Also on this episode, Adam Shatz talks about Edward Said, the leading voice of Palestinians in the US before he died in 2003. Said was also The Nation’s classical music critic, and Adam Shatz, now an editor for the London Review of Books, was The Nation‘s literary editor. His work included editing Edward Said’s pieces for the magazine.
(This show was first broadcast in May, 2021)
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For this week’s podcast, we have two archival segments about Palestinians; neither is about the current war.
In 2016, Rachel Kushner visited Shuafat, the only Palestinian refugee camp inside Jerusalem. She went alongside a community organizer as he tried to solve massive problems. Her report, published originally in The New York Times Magazine, appears in her 2021 book of nonfiction, The Hard Crowd.
Also on this episode, Adam Shatz talks about Edward Said, the leading voice of Palestinians in the US before he died in 2003. Said was also The Nation’s classical music critic, and Shatz, now an editor for the London Review of Books, was The Nation‘s literary editor. His work included editing Edward Said’s pieces for the magazine.
This show was first broadcast in May, 2021.
Jon Wiener: From The Nation magazine, this is Start Making Sense. I’m Jon Wiener. Today we have two segments about Palestinians; Neither is about the current war. Later in the show, Adam Shatz will talk about Edward Said, the leading voice of Palestinians in the United States, before he died in 2003. But first, Rachel Kushner reports on a visit to a Palestinian refugee camp in 2016 alongside a community organizer as he tried to solve massive problems. That’s coming up – in a minute.
First up today, Rachel Kushner reports on life and death in a Palestinian refugee camp. That report appears in her 2021 book of essays – it’s called The Hard Crowd. Her novels, The Mars Room, The Flamethrowers and Telex from Cuba have been translated into 26 languages and won many awards. We’ve talked about them here. Her work appears in the New York Times Magazine, The LRB, The Paris Review, Art Forum, and The New Yorker. We spoke with her in May 2021. Rachel, welcome back.
Rachel Kushner: Thanks, Jon. Nice to be here.
JW: The Palestinian refugee camp you wrote about in The Hard Crowd is not in Gaza or southern Lebanon. It’s actually inside Jerusalem. I knew nothing about this. It’s called Shuafat. Have I got that right?
JW: And I looked up a little history of why it’s there. Shuafat was established by the UN in the mid ’60s before the ’67 War, at a time when Jordan controlled that territory. And then in ’67, Israel conquered and occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including the neighborhoods around Shuafat. But the camp remained, and the Israelis established checkpoints controlling who went in and out, and you went through the Israeli checkpoints.
Of course, your essay is not about the current crisis in Jerusalem and the efforts of right-wing Jews there to push Palestinians out of some of the Palestinian neighborhoods around Shuafat. You visited in 2016 when something called the knife intifada was going on. But your report is about ordinary life for Palestinian refugees at that time in that place. Your visit to Shuafat was a big deal for the people who live there. It seems like they were all happy to see you and happy to talk to you. Partly that was because you obviously cared about them and were interested in them, but also it was because of your guide, a wonderful man named Baha Nabata, 29-year-old community organizer. In some ways, it’s a story about him. How did you and Baha find each other?
RK: I was invited to go to the West Bank in 2016 by the writers Michael Chabon, and Ayelet Waldman, who were putting together an anthology to mark the 50th anniversary of the occupation of 1967. And the book is called Kingdom of Olives and Ash. They had liaised with an incredible array of different kinds of contacts on the ground in the West Bank from community organizers of youth groups in cities like Hebron and Ramallah to architects who are experts on the tripartite division that Israel uses to code areas and how they are controlled and the level to which they are controlled, to philosophers and historians, poets. We traveled all over the West Bank for a week and met with people multiple times a day. I mean, we would be roused, for instance, at four in the morning to go to a checkpoint at Columbia and talk to the woman there who’s been monitoring that checkpoint for the last 40 years and talking to her about the difference between merely being a witness to humanitarian crimes and doing something more. And she is more on the side now of doing something more.
At the end of that long and intensive and concentrated week, we each were given a weekend where we had chosen a specific subtopic that we wanted to write about for the anthology. And then they, long before the trip, had organized, arranged everything, and connected us to the context that we would need for our weekend away from the group doing whatever we’d chosen to do. And just on instinct alone before I went, I was not knowledgeable about the history of Palestine. I was dimly aware of the way most people would be and dimly aware also of where my affinities and sympathies might lie. But I really knew very little about the history of that conflict. And on instinct, I decided I wanted to see what life was like inside one of these refugee camps that’s been functioning where people thus are forced to make a live generation after generation for decades now. And what does that mean? These are not temporary camps at this point.
And obviously the really famous or more notorious camps are inside Lebanon, and I knew people who had written academic books about these camps and et cetera. But I saw on the map that there was a camp inside the borders of Israel, and it’s called Shuafat. There’s also a neighborhood called Shuafat and that should not be confused for the camp because they are very different. That’s basically a middle-class neighborhood. Shuafat refugee camp has 85,000 residents who live in roughly one square kilometer. And I knew that and just asked myself, “How do those people live and what kind of self-government goes on in that camp?” Because the Palestinian authority is not allowed into the camp. It is Israeli territory, but Israel does not service the camp. There’s no water service, there’s no electricity, there’s no emergency services, there are no, virtually no schools. There’s no land registration, there’s no paved roads, there’s no garbage service. So how do these people live?
And the organizers who worked with Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, one of them Moriel Rothman-Zecher, who’s a writer and an organizer who’d been living and working in the West Bank for many years, knew of Baha Nabata and connected me to him. And we went into the camp together and met with Baha and Moriel served as my Arabic interpreter for quite a while the first day I was there. And then he left, and it was me and Baha alone and I stayed with his family for a weekend and talked to him quite a bit about the camp, about his family, his history. He was born in the camp. Believe his father may have also been born in the camp. His children were all born in the camp and what kind of future they saw for themselves and also why people live in that camp.
JW: Have you been in touch with or heard anything about what’s been going on in the last week or month there?
RK: Really just through the news. I’ve been busy and preoccupied with some family issues, so I haven’t had the time I’d like to read everything that’s happened. And I like to follow Breaking the Silence, former Israeli military people who have stepped up to speak about their experiences in the military. And I am on their newsletter email list and read what they have to say about it. They haven’t sent out a report yet. I will say that reading about the destruction in Gaza and the killing of children living in housing blocks in Gaza does remind me of my trip in 2016 because one of the people on our trip, the writer Dave Eggers, went to Gaza. I went to Shuafat. Dave went to Gaza. And in order to go into Gaza, he had to get several different documents stamped by both the Israeli government and Hamas.
And the people living in Gaza, like we’ve all heard over the years, are trapped there and cannot leave. And in a way, there’s a similar predicament in Shuafat. In fact, I met people from Gaza in Shuafat who originally in Gaza were trapped there and then once they got to Shuafat were trapped in Shuafat because Gazans are not allowed to really be anywhere. But inside of Shuafat since Israel doesn’t service that camp, they don’t bother with people who are there without papers, without documentation. And if you’re there and you don’t have a green documentation that allows you to travel in the West Bank and you don’t have documentation that allows you to travel in Israel, you’re basically stuck inside this one-kilometer camp. And the Israeli military has invaded that camp in the past. And having been there, I think I could understand just in a tiny way, which is better than nothing at all, understand what it’s like to be stuck in a territory that’s being bombarded by the Israeli military.
JW: So when you were there, you moved around with Baha as people talked to him about what they needed, what they wanted him to help with. What sorts of things did they turn to him for?
RK: My impression of him was that he sort of was like a de-facto mayor of the place. Although the term mayor is a little problematic because that suggests politics. And I think that Baha transcended politics maybe in the way that the most effective politicians do. He seemed like a trusted source that people could go to for a whole variety of problems.
The first thing I saw him deal with was a lack of water in one of the unregistered, not up-to-code high rise buildings that people are forced to live in there. This building had no water and had had no water for a few days. They sort of take water illegally from lines that passed near Shuafat and they are forced to do that. And they were having a problem and Baha’s phone kept ringing and he wasn’t answering. And finally he said to me, “It’s the people calling from this building here,” and pointed to this towering high rise building. And he said, “I can’t answer yet because I really don’t have a solution for them to offer.” But he was trying to work with the facilities people who are kind of renegade facilities people who can figure out how to solve the problem getting water to this building.
I remember another problem was a man whose baby had died in a clinic and the man wanted to kill the doctor who had attended to the situation with this baby. And it was one of those situations that, without knowing much about it, I would say is a symptom of a lack of a useful, helpful civil structure where people resort to revenge out of grief. And not just that, but a symptom of a lack of decent medical care that people can turn to. And so Baha was forced to deal with a lot of very complex situations that arise in a place that doesn’t have a civil structure.
JW: What did Baha mean when he told you “We need police here”?
RK: Well, to be quite honest, and part of what I write about in that essay is what I heard in terms of what fit with a narrative that I was sort of constructing in my mind as I was with him and what I wrote down but didn’t really think about in the moment. I mean, I was taking in a lot of information in just a few day’s time and really just trying to be in that place. For me, it wasn’t really a political engagement. It was me trying to write down sense impressions and be sensitive to what people were telling me. And the piece that I wrote was meant to – I guess I wanted people who read it to feel that they would’ve had the same reactions that I did, that it was just about a person being plunged into, immersed in an environment that was foreign to her. And yet the people in it still had so much dignity and humanity and decency. And I reacted to that.
The detail about Baha telling me that they wanted police there was something that I wrote down in my notebook, but quickly kind of, I guess I would say I repressed it because it didn’t really fit with my ideas for the place. And yes, I’m no real fan of the function of police in society who are sort of, to clunkily summarize, there to protect private property and those who own property. But Baha, coming from a place that is caught between two different authorities, not attended to by the government of Israel, not attended to by the Palestinian authority, has been overrun by opportunists who themselves are a product of a place that has experienced war and a deeply ignoble treatment by the Israeli military for decades now. And so naturally, there are young people there who are more brutal in their perception of how to get ahead.
And there are people in the camp who regard the lawlessness as useful for their own endeavors, be it selling drugs or making money in other ways. And you can buy an apartment in Shuafat refugee camp for a lot less money than you would, for instance, be able to buy an apartment for in Israel proper, so to speak, proper. But there are people who could take that apartment away from you at gunpoint at any moment, and there’s nothing you can do. So that’s part of what Baha, I think, was speaking to is a lawlessness and opportunism that he was trying to push back against. And I believe that that’s what ended up getting him assassinated in the street in the middle of the day in front of 100 people.
JW: Yeah, I have to say, when I read that part at the end, I shouted unintentionally, “No.” And my wife came into the room and said, “What happened? What’s wrong?” And I said, I was sort of embarrassed.
I said, “Oh, I’m just reading Rachel Kushner’s book.” But it is something horrible and something huge that ends this essay.
RK: Yeah, it was devastating to learn that. And the people who had organized my trip into the camp let me know. I was getting on an airplane. It was 10 days after I left. I was traveling to do something to go talk to students at Hunter College. And they called me and said, “We’re very sorry. We need to tell you that Baha was killed.” And it was unbelievable to me. I had not felt that I was inviting that kind of violence into my life by going there. But in fact, in a way I was. And your reaction of, oh no, I think was shared by people who knew Baha very well. There were activists, even Israeli activists who’d worked with Baha who don’t recognize their own government, architects I knew who’d worked with him, who work on these issues of trying to reestablish services to Shuafat who said, “It’s always the good ones. It’s always the good ones.”
People who are or not divisive, who are optimists and positive without being unrealistic who have a natural grace. And Baha had a natural grace, and I think it was really devastating and demoralizing to people that he died in this way.
JW: When you leave the camp, you do write, I quote, “Everything seems hopeless and obscene,” and that’s even before Baha got killed.
RK: Well, yeah, that was after I met the child of a friend of Baha who’s a co-organizer with him of a voluntary emergency response system where without fire, medical, or ambulance services, they have a WhatsApp group where they try to be on call for emergencies. And the goal is to get people through the Israeli checkpoint on the border of the camp back into Jerusalem so they can go to a hospital. And many people have died being carried on stretchers through that checkpoint.
This incident had happened beyond Shuafat where a school bus full of children had crashed on a wet road and turned over and caught fire. And it was a totally devastating incident for the people of Shuafat camp. And I mean, honestly, it’s hard to talk about, but this young woman that I met, young girl, she, I believe, was eight years old, had been very badly burned and injured in that fire. And her father, Adele, wheeled her out in her wheelchair to meet me, and she was very sweet and patient and didn’t understand English and was asked to sit there and kind of pretend that she understood and was paying attention. And it was an unbearable situation, but it was also life for these people. And they were asking me to bear witness to their life and to this girl. And I did that, but also tried to explain what was difficult about it in the essay that I wrote that’s in the book.
JW: What’s going on now in Israel and Palestine is so much worse. We’re speaking on Wednesday. When you were in Shuafat, Israeli planes were not bombing Gaza and killing children. Israeli forces had not attacked the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem at the end of Ramadan and injured hundreds of Palestinians. I almost said that when you were in Shuafat in 2016, things were more peaceful, but that’s not really the right way to describe it.
RK: Yeah, I could see how one would use that expression compared to now, that it was relatively peaceful. But going there as I did and witnessing what, to me, very much looked like apartheid, and in fact, representatives from South Africa who had been a part of the truth and reconciliation process had gone to the West Bank and said that apartheid wasn’t quite the right term because what they witnessed there was so much more extreme in terms of there being two different systems for two different populations of people.
In any case, going there and witnessing what looked like apartheid and seeing the constant violence and humiliation that was enacted by Israel to maintain that apartheid is never peaceful. The year that I was there was the intifada of the knife when young people with nothing to lose charged to Israeli soldiers with knives in their hands, just these totally futile acts of despair. And my feeling by the time I left Israel and Palestine was I was stunned to think that the Palestinian people were not running at Israeli soldiers in despair every second of their waking lives. And it was the opposite of what you’d think. You think you would ask yourself, how could these kids decide to end it all? It’s a version of suicide by cop running at a soldier with a knife in your hand, a soldier that’s armed to the teeth, moreover, wearing knife proof, bulletproof, all kinds of personal body armor.
My question was the opposite. How are they not doing that all the time because of the extreme nature of their predicament and the torture and humiliation of it? So that was my personal takeaway, and I think that part of Israel’s trick is to leave us with a lack of language – where peace is not the right term for a momentary absence of terror, such as the time when I went, when, as you say, Israel was not actively bombing buildings that were full of children in Gaza.
JW: Rachel Kushner’s report on life and death in a Palestinian refugee camp was titled We Are All Orphans Here. It was originally published in the New York Times Magazine, and it appears in her 2021 book of essays, The Hard Crowd. Rachel, thanks for talking with us today.
RK: Thanks so much, Jon. Always a pleasure.
JW: We spoke with Rachel Kushner in May 2021.
Jon Wiener: Now it’s time to revisit a 2021 interview about Edward Said with Adam Shatz. Edward Said died in 2003. In addition to being the leading American advocate for Palestinians and the author of Orientalism, one of the key scholarly books of the later 20th century, he was also classical music critic for The Nation and wrote about Palestine for the magazine. Adam Shatz was The Nation’s literary editor for much of that time. Now he’s US editor for the LRB, The London Review of Books. He also writes for the New York Review, the New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and other publications. He’s also been a visiting professor at Bard and at NYU. Adam Shatz, welcome back.
Adam Shatz: Thanks for having me, Jon.
JW: Well, this new biography is called Places of Mind. It’s written by Timothy Brennan, and it gives us a chance to talk about Edward Said. He was born in Jerusalem in 1935. His parents were Palestinian Christians. He was an American citizen. You open your piece in the new LRB back in 1963 when a young Edward Said joined the English department at Columbia and people were spreading a rumor about him. What was the rumor?
AS: The rumor, Jon, was that he was a Jew from Alexandria.
JW: And what do you make of that?
AS: Well, it is certainly entertaining, and it’s also amusing because in a sense, as I suggest in this piece, he might as well have been a Jew from Alexandria. He had grown up mostly in Cairo. Many of his schoolmates were Middle Eastern Jews. His piano instructor, Ignace Tiegerman, a renowned specialist in the romantic repertoire who ran a school in Cairo, was a Polish Jewish refugee. So it’s not as though the intellectual culture of secular Judaism was foreign to Said.
JW: This new biography was preceded by his own autobiography. He called it Out of Place. What did he see there about his family and his parents?
AS: Said’s memoir, which I think is one of his finest books, is a very pained, agonized, sometimes excruciatingly Freudian depiction of a childhood that was at one and the same time, a very privileged, he grew up in a rather wealthy family, and miserable. It was a very claustrophobic family setting. His father was rather tyrannical, very cold, at times he claimed used a cane with him. His mother, Hilda, he described as the most intimate companion he had in his first 25 years. And she was alternately doting and withholding, and she regulated his life, regulated his moods he says, and took a keen interest of course, in his relationships with women in particular.
JW: And his parents, his father in particular wanted him to get an American education, so they got him into an elite prep school, and then he went to Princeton in the ’50s, a really conservative place during a conservative era. What was that like for him?
AS: Princeton was a very conservative school, but Said did manage, I think, to find his intellectual vocation there as a literary critic. He developed close relationships, friendships that would last through much of his lifetime with people like the future art critic, Michael Fried. And Said continued his work as a musician. In fact, when he was at Princeton, he was still flirting with the idea of a career as a concert pianist. Eventually, of course, he chose literature.
JW: He was a young faculty member at Columbia when the campus became a world center of anti-war action in 1967 and ’68. And his politics also changed dramatically in 1967 and ’68, but not because of Vietnam.
AS: He was certainly sympathetic to the campaign against the war in Vietnam. He was not a supporter of the war in Vietnam. He had already developed fierce anti-imperialist convictions. But he was rather traditionalist in his view of the university as a safe haven and sanctuary for intellectual inquiry, and he did not appreciate it when students came to his class and wanted to shut down the classroom and he threatened to call security.
Vietnam, I think was a far less passionate concern to him than the emergence of the Palestinian guerrilla movement. 1968 was a very important year in the struggle for Palestine. It was the time of the Battle of Karameh, which was a battle by Palestinian guerrillas in Jordan against the invading Israeli army. The Palestinians lost that battle, but fought very bravely. And so a myth emerged around the Battle of Karameh, and that helped to propel the PLO forward. Said made his first trip to Jordan in 1969. Then a year later, he met Yasser Arafat. 1967, the Arab defeat by Israel, and then ’68, the emergence of the Palestinian guerrilla movement. This was a critical time in the formation of his political consciousness.
JW: And then in 1978, after 20 years as a basically conventional English professor in terms of his academic work, he published Orientalism which changed pretty much everything for him and for the humanities. In The New Yorker, Pankaj Mishra calls Orientalism, a book that launched 1,000 academic careers. Why was that book so huge and important?
AS: Right, and perhaps that’s even an understatement. What Said did in that book was to argue that the image that we have of the East, he paid a special attention to the Middle East and to some extent, to South Asia, was a construction of an imperialist West. In fact, the very production of Western knowledge about the societies of the Middle East was geared towards furthering and consolidating a whole system of power and domination over these societies.
JW: Orientalism was misunderstood, of course. Edward was not an enemy of Western Civ. He always loved what we call the cannon of great European writers.
AS: The book was, I think, taken to be a kind of whole scale denunciation of Western literature and culture and misread and misconstrued in those terms, both by the book’s many detractors on the right, but also by a number of people either on the left or in Islamist movements that looked with great suspicion on Western learning, Western intellectual traditions. The impact of a book is, of course, measured not only by the influence that it has, but on the number of mis-readings that it inspires.
JW: At the time, I was one of those Marxist types whose critique of Orientalism was that if you’re going to unmask Orientalism as an ideology, you need an analysis of the reality that it is concealing and distorting – the actual relations, the real relations of dominance and resistance that exist in the Middle East. And Orientalism, of course, didn’t do that. This was a fairly conventional Orthodox Marxist objection. But this was the era when theory had become dominant in literary studies in the United States, especially French theory, starting with Foucault, who Edward was a champion of. And then Jacques Derrida. His deconstruction provoked the left with his doctrine of undecidability. The French literary theorists in America claimed to be engaging in a form of political action, a critique of domination, even though they wrote in a kind of private language that was mostly read by grad students in comp lit. Edward eventually broke with “theory”. What were his reasons?
AS: Orientalism, as you say, was very indebted to French theory, but really, especially to Foucault. He never had much interest in Derrida’s work. And certainly, the very fact that Orientalism omitted any discussion of the lived reality of the Middle East and focused on the Middle East as discursive formation was Foulcaultian through and through. But you also see in that book, especially in the last third of it, a shift from Foulcault’s vision of a discursive formation towards a more politically engaged analysis influenced by, on the one hand, Antonio Gramsci with his critique of hegemony, and on the other by Noam Chomsky, with his analysis of how consent is manufactured in otherwise democratic societies.
And I would say by the late 1970s, early 1980s, Said’s interests had shifted decisively towards figures like Noam Chomsky and also by British art critic and essayist John Berger, who was very interested in how the oppressed and subaltern resist and who believe that no system of oppression is ever entirely totalizing. There are always pockets of resistance, and the point of analysis is to identify what those points of resistance might be and to profit from them. And so Said very much moved in that direction.
I think also what happened was that as Said became a more renowned and public figure and became increasingly comfortable with himself, he found that he could shake off some of the encumbrances of theoretic and jargon and all the kind of academic stuff that I think for reasons of power and prestige might’ve felt necessary to him at one point. He realized no, he could write in a more colloquial style. He could write in a more direct fashion. And that’s really how his work changed in those years. And you see that already in a book like The World of Text and The Critic in which he really announces his break with French theory and his turn towards a more political worldly criticism.
JW: So he became not just the voice of Palestine for Americans, but as you have mentioned, he became an advisor to Yasser Arafat and the PLO. He urged Arafat to negotiate a two-state solution. And then the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians were finally signed in 1993. How did that work out for Edward Said?
AS: Right. Well, I mean, Edward Said’s career is filled with paradoxes like any good intellectual. He became an advisor to Arafat around 1974 when he helped to draft Arafat’s November ’74 address to the United Nations, and it was Edward Said who contributed the line about not allowing the olive branch to fall from my hand. He, at the time, was essentially a supporter of a two-state solution, which is the position that he advocated in The Question of Palestine, which did not win him many admirers among his Palestinian comrades at the time. He also expressed reservations about the efficacy of arms struggle. He wasn’t against arms struggle per se, he wasn’t a pacifist, but he believed that the Palestinian movement’s strength lay in civil resistance and in the moral case of Palestine as a human rights, an anti-colonial issue. The Palestinians were vastly out outnumbered militarily. There was no way they could fight Israel. And so he believed that they had to focus on different methods of pressing their case.
Now, by the late 1980s, early 1990s, Said becomes increasingly disenchanted with Arafat’s rule for a number of reasons. Partly it’s the disaster of the Lebanese civil war and the PLO’s involvement in that. Partly it’s the growing corruption of the PLO’s bureaucrats, which he observes closeup in their exile in Tunis. Partly it is Arafat’s decision to fully back Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War, which is calamitous and forces the PLO to negotiate prematurely because they had lost so much funding and all these Palestinians had been kicked out of Kuwait. And so by the time the Oslo Accords are signed in 1993, he has become increasingly frustrated with Arafat. And he sees this agreement as a capitulation to Israel, in which instead of defending Palestinian borders, Palestinians will be defending Israeli security and not really realizing the project of Palestinian self-determination. So his position at that point begins to shift from two states to bi-nationalism.
JW: And what was the response of the PLO to Edward Said’s critique of Oslo?
AS: Well, the PLO never officially responded to Said. However, at a certain point, Said’s books in Arabic, not in English, but his books in Arabic were banned in the Palestinian authority, which essentially meant that unless you read English, you couldn’t read Said’s work, the work of the most important, undeniably the most important Palestinian intellectual of his time. The books were banned. A number of the people close to Edward came to have his view of Oslo. So I do think he was quite prescient, but at the time, he was seen as a naysayer certainly. And there were those who grumbled that after all, Said had the luxury of high handedly denouncing the Oslo accords because after all, he had a nice apartment on the upper West side. He could go wherever he wanted to. He wasn’t confined to the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. So there were those criticisms. But I think today his position is viewed as quite a prescient one.
JW: And then he changed his position on Palestine in the Middle East. He gave up the fight for an independent Palestinian state, and he became one of the first advocates of a single binational secular democratic state that would guarantee equal rights to Jews and Arabs. That was huge, and that was pretty daring at the time, wasn’t it?
AS: Well, he was one of a number of people I think who adopted this view. Of course later, his friend Tony Judt would make a splash in The New York Review of Books by essentially making the same argument. It was bold. But I think what was remarkable about his defense of bi-nationalism, whether or not you agree about its feasibility, were the terms in which he cast it. And they were the terms that really marked his criticism as an intellectual and his writings on everything from literature to freedom of speech. I mean an emphasis on equality, on dialogue, on coexistence, on having a place for different narratives that didn’t necessarily fit and an insistence on a kind of universal humanism.
JW: And all the time that he was speaking out for Palestine and reshaping post-colonial studies, he was playing the piano and he was writing about classical music, writing for you at The Nation. I remember that we brought him to UC Irvine, where I’m on the faculty, to give some endowed lectures. In 1990, he had a grand piano set up in the lecture hall, and he talked about music in the writing of Adorno, Proust and Benjamin, and then he played examples from Beethoven, Wagner and Strauss. We loved it. He loved doing it. Let’s talk about Edward as a musician and as a music critic.
AS: I think that there’s a tendency to see Edward’s love of music and his writings on music as a kind of dandyish pastime, separate from his writings on literature, on culture, on politics, separate to be sure from his advocacy of the Palestinian cause. But in my view, these are all interwoven. And he was very fond of Goethe’s remark that art is about a voyage to the other, and I think this is really how he understood music. I think this is why he named the music ensemble for Arab and Israeli youth musicians, the youth orchestra, the West-East Divan Orchestra, which was a tribute to Goethe’s West-East Divan, a collection of poems inspired by Hafez, the Persian poet. Music was also a great passion for Edward because it was a kind of artistic expression of what he called counterpoint. He loved counterpoint in intellectual argument. He loved it in music.
This is one of the reasons why he was obsessed with Glenn Gould. He went to every Glenn Gould concert that he could when he was a graduate student at Harvard. He wrote one of his most memorable essays on Gould, Glenn Gould, as an intellectual. Music for Edward was not simply a matter of enjoyment, not simply a matter of aesthetic beauty. It was also a way of thinking. And I think that music permeates his writing practice. You cannot separate Said’s writing from his music. The two really go hand in hand. And one of the most fascinating aspects of Said’s career is the turn in his last years to a concept that he discovered in Adorno of a concept of late style. Adorno had theorized that in Beethoven’s late sonatas, late quartets, Beethoven was creating music that was not an expression of a kind of serene wisdom. It was not a summing up. There was nothing graceful about it. It was an explosion. These were works of difficulty. They were sometimes works of intense fragmentation of daring dissonances. He called them the catastrophes of music.
And Said was very much drawn to this idea of late style because I think it also spoke to his experience as a Palestinian intellectual who had broken with the mainstream of the Palestinian movement, and who essentially decided “I would prefer the dissonance and difficulty of my life living apart from the movement that I’ve devoted myself to for three decades than accept this false piece of Oslo.” His writing was his late style. His late style was his way of being a Palestinian intellectual and being a man in the world.
JW: Adam Shatz is The Nation’s former literary editor. He wrote about Edward Said for the London Review of Books. Thank you, Adam. This was great.
AS: Thanks so much, Jon. It was a pleasure talking to you.
JW: Adam Shatz’s essay about Edward Said appears in his 2023 book, Writers and Missionaries: Essays on The Radical Imagination. We spoke with him about it in May 2021.
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