The World of Edward SaidHistorians in the News
tags: Palestine, book reviews, Postcolonial Theory, Edward Said
Esmat Elhalaby is a historian of modern West and South Asia. He is currently a University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California, Davis.
Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said
On February 2, 1977, Palestinian poet Rashid Hussein died in his New York apartment. Hussein had been born forty-one years earlier in Musmus, a town not far from Nazareth. Politics for Hussein, Edward Said remembered, “lost its impersonality and its cruel demagogic spirit.” Hussein, Said wrote of his dear friend, “simply asked that you remember the search for real answers, and never give it up, never be seduced by mere arrangements.” Sharply critical of his own society and its rulers—he had a map of the Middle East on his wall with “thought forbidden here” scrawled across it in Arabic—Hussein was also a partisan of the Third World. “I am from Asia,” he pronounced in an early poem, “The land of fire / Forging furnace of freedom-fighters.”
Another of Hussein’s friends, Pakistani political scientist Eqbal Ahmad, wrote that he lived in “New York City as though it were a Palestinian town.” Born in 1936, Hussein was nearly the same age as Said. Had the dislocations of his life not burdened his soul so heavily—he died alone in his apartment, a lit cigarette setting fire to the mattress as he slept—Hussein may very well have lived alongside Said in Manhattan for a few decades more.
Though born in different milieux, Hussein and Said were drawn into close contact by the exigencies of the anti-colonial struggle in Palestine. Hussein, who was a Muslim from a peasant family, did not attend college, but he was an adept translator of Hebrew and a deeply perceptive writer. A Palestinian citizen of Israel, like better-known poets Mahmoud Darwish and Samih Al-Qasim, Hussein first encountered his other Arab counterparts in Europe, as historian Maha Nassar has vividly documented in Brothers Apart: Palestinian Citizens of Israel and the Arab World (2017). Hussein arrived in New York in 1966. He worked as a writer there, unhappily, before setting out in 1972 to find work among other Palestinians in the Arab world. First in Beirut, then Cairo, and finally Damascus. But political circumstances would send him back to New York, were at the time of his death he was a spokesperson for the Palestine Liberation Organization at the United Nations.
Said, meanwhile, an Arab Protestant, came from an urban, bourgeois family and was deeply embedded in the scholastic institutions of the Anglophone world. He arrived in New York as an assistant professor of English at Columbia, having spent a decade studying in the United States, first at a Massachusetts boarding school, then at Princeton, and finally at Harvard, where he received his PhD for a dissertation on the life and work of Joseph Conrad.
There is no doubt that Said’s influence and impact were profound, but he was not alone. Any intellectual history of the twentieth century’s second half must account for the multitude of emigres, exiles, and migrants from Africa and Asia who carried the pillars of anti-colonialism across the world. Said’s life intersected closely with many friends and comrades, fellow travelers in the Palestinian cause and the promise of Third World liberation.
Indeed, it was precisely Said’s participation in a global political movement—his regular, public refusal to abide by the dictates of the United States’ imperial way of life—that drew the ire of so many during his lifetime. Before their recent reinvention, liberal journals such as the New Republic and Dissent regularly found column inches to attack Said’s thought and personage. But the bromides of Irving Howe and Leon Wesieltier were never a match to Said, who embodied Frantz Fanon’s “final prayer” in Black Skins, White Masks (1952): “O my body, make of me always a man who questions!”
And yet, many reviewers of Timothy Brennan’s new biography of Said, Places of Mind, have taken the opportunity to domesticate the late Palestinian writer. Said is characterized as a representative of precisely those New York intellectuals who regularly derided him. In the London Review of Books, Adam Shatz goes to great lengths to argue that Said doesn’t “resemble Gramsci or Fanon so much as Susan Sontag.” The same Sontag who rebuffed Said’s (and many others) urgent appeals not to accept Israel’s Jerusalem Prize in 2001. Rather than an honest reckoning with how Said’s commitment to the Palestinian cause and conscious affiliations with anti-imperialism world-wide distinguished him from such thoroughly American figures, reviews have exhibited a resilient orientalism. Shatz, long familiar with Said’s vision and politics as one of his editors at the Nation, nevertheless lazily falls back on such tropes when he describes Said as someone who donned “Burberry suits, not keffiyehs.” In the New Statesman, Thomas Meaney breathlessly ends his review by mentioning that “along with his well-stocked shelves and formidable collection of classical music records, the Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities kept a map with the current positions of the Israeli Defense Forces.” It was precisely these kinds of efforts to juxtapose culture or refinement from the symbols and practices of political action that Said perennially opposed. To account for Said’s life, one must acknowledge his involvement in a community of intellectuals, activists, and indeed martyrs, who found their commitment to Palestine and their commitment to ideas not only unironic, but essential.
Throughout Places of Mind, Brennan is at his best when he deals directly with the themes, arguments, and circumstances of Said’s substantial oeuvre. He is sensitive to how political judgments long shaped Said’s work even before Palestine and the Third World became the causes for which he devoted most of his voice. In that way Brennan’s book is a rich intellectual history, summarizing the content of Said’s major works, tracing the conditions of their creation, and mapping their influence. In detailing how specific conversations and locations stimulated his writing, and discussing the nature of Said’s unpublished poetry, fiction, and essays, Brennan breathes new life in a crowded field of Said studies.
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