Edward W. Said, 67; Respected Professor and Scholar Advocated Palestinian Cause
Edward W. Said, an influential Columbia University professor of literature whose public role as the West’s most eloquent spokesman for the Palestinian cause brought him both condemnation and awe over the past three decades, died at a New York hospital Wednesday after a long battle with chronic leukemia. He was 67.
Said was a fascinating, complex figure who sometimes spoke of his two quite separate lives. He was a Princeton- and Harvard-trained literary scholar who could knowledgeably expound on the works of such great Western writers as Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling and Jane Austen. He also was an engaged academic, a thinker and an activist whose articulate and emotional advocacy of Palestinian sovereignty brought him wide media exposure and an unwelcome degree of notoriety.
In the Arab world, Said was revered as “Mr. Palestine in America,” who brought a luminous intelligence to the challenge of humanizing the Western world’s perceptions of the Palestinian struggle.
“He put us, the Palestinian cause, within the consciousness of people who would much rather have been dismissive,” Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi told The Times on Thursday. “He brought Palestine to the world of intellect, and made it part of the public discourse, particularly in the West.”
He earned grudging respect from some critics, who found him an effective spokesman for a cause they disagreed with.
“He’s been a brooding countenance, something like the Elie Wiesel of the Palestinians,” Martin Peretz, editor in chief of the New Republic and staunch supporter of Israel, once said of Said.
To others, however, Said was the “professor of terror” -- the headline on an article in Commentary magazine several years ago -- because of his once-close ties with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat and his fierce defense of Palestinian rights.
He gave his foes further cause for fury three years ago when a French news agency photographed him throwing a rock toward an Israeli position at Lebanon’s recently liberated border with the Jewish state. The rock hit no one, and Said said his action had been wildly misconstrued.
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a statement Thursday that although he disagreed with some of Said’s views, he “admired the passion with which he pursued his vision of peace between Israelis and Palestinians” and said that the U.S. and the Middle East “will be the poorer without his distinctive voice.”
The author of more than 20 books, Said (pronounced Sah-yeed) was best known for “Orientalism,” an exploration and analysis of Western views of the Islamic world. Published in 1978, it has been translated into more than two dozen languages and is required reading in many fields.
Other major works by Said include the 1993 book “Culture and Imperialism,” in which he traced the influence of 19th-century European imperialism in the novels of authors such as Austen and Charles Dickens, and “After the Last Sky; Palestinian Lives,” published in 1986, which examined through Said’s text and Swiss photographer Jean Mohr’s images the transience of Palestinian existence.
Said was also an accomplished pianist and a musicologist who joined with Daniel Barenboim, an Israeli and a world-famous conductor, to hold annual workshops that drew together musicians from Israel and Arab states.
A Palestinian who was born in Jerusalem, raised in Cairo and schooled in the United States, Said lived as an exile, an outlook that infused his extensive writings.
“It’s a very conflicted thing for me because I’m an American and I’m also an Arab,” Said told The Times some years ago. “You can only imagine what this is like. But then I remember once again that a Palestinian is almost always out of place.”
Born in 1935 in what was then Palestine, Said was the son of a well-to-do businessman who had attended college in Cleveland and served in the U.S. Army during World War I. Said was baptized as an Episcopalian and went to an Anglican school attended by the children of Jerusalem’s elite.
When Palestine was partitioned into Jewish and Arab sections by the United Nations in 1947, “the situation was dangerous and inconvenient,” Said told New York magazine in a 1989 interview, and his family sought what was intended to be temporary refuge in Cairo. After war broke out between the Palestinian Arabs and Jews the following spring, other Said family members fled -- to the U.S., Greece, Jordan, England and Switzerland. Political upheavals in Egypt when Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power eventually led Said’s parents and siblings to uproot once again and move to Lebanon.
Compared with other refugees, Said acknowledged that he had suffered little. In Cairo, he went to the American School with the children of U.S. diplomats. He matriculated to Cairo’s Victoria College, where his classmates included the future King Hussein of Jordan and actor Omar Sharif, but after Said defied one of his teachers, he was asked to leave. His parents sent him to what Said later described as an “austere evangelist school,” where he was miserable.
He was an excellent student, however, and was admitted to Princeton, where he flourished intellectually. A self-described autodidact, he was fluent in French and could read several other languages, including German, Italian and Latin.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in 1957, he entered doctoral studies at Harvard, earning his PhD with a dissertation on the Polish-born writer Joseph Conrad. The thesis became the basis of Said’s first book, “Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography,” published in 1966.
He had a troubled first marriage to an Estonian American woman he met while studying at Harvard. On a trip to Lebanon in 1970, just before his father died, Said met Mariam Cortas, a Lebanese Quaker. They were married in 1970. He is survived by Cortas and their two grown children, Wadie and Najls.
By the time of his second marriage, Said was teaching at Columbia and beginning to establish himself as a scholar. His 1975 book “Beginnings: Intention and Method,” which examined the way literature, works of history and other intellectual endeavors begin, won Columbia’s Lionel Trilling Award. A critic for the New Yorker proclaimed that Said’s book was “in itself a beginning, for it displays a young scholar’s mastery of several fields and his suggestions for further criticism.”
Said had evinced little interest in Middle Eastern affairs until 1969, when he was provoked into action by a statement made by Golda Meir that “there are no Palestinians.” It propelled Said in a new direction that considered the interactions of politics and language, of “power and representations.”
The most elegant expression of this thinking came in “Orientalism,” which examined European and American portrayals of the Middle East. He attacked what he said was a disturbing tendency in Western scholarship to stereotype Middle Eastern cultures as violent, morally bankrupt and irrational. The result was a distorting “Orientalism,” which he described as “a web of racism, cultural stereotypes [and] dehumanizing ideology.”
The book was savaged in the New York Review of Books by Bernard Lewis, a distinguished professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton, whose work on Islam had been attacked by Said in “Orientalism.” Lewis called Said’s work “reckless,” “arbitrary” and “capricious” and said it revealed “a disquieting lack of knowledge of what scholars do and what scholarship is about.”
In that book, Said had set the mold for future inquiries, by himself and others.
“He initiated a whole line of studies that had not been set down before,” literary critic Richard Poirier said Thursday. “It was in no way a political book. It was a very scholarly investigation [that] has had a strong impact on cultural studies, particularly in demonstrating that works that seem very neutral are cultural and ideological.”
Said continued to examine Western perceptions of the Middle East in other books, notably “The Question of Palestine” in 1979 and “Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World” in 1981. He was critical of such American intellectuals as Edmund Wilson and Reinhold Neibuhr for depicting Arabs as “synonymous with trouble -- rootless, mindless, gratuitous trouble.”
Said nonetheless believed that Israelis and Palestinians could live in peace. This drove him, with Barenboim, to organize the musical forums for Israeli and Arab musicians.
The goal, Said said, was “not to find a solution, but to provide a metaphor quite removed from politics.” Arabs who resisted teaching Israelis how to play their music eventually were collaborating with them in late-night jam sessions.
“Music-making and listening at the same time ... present a kind of fascinating dialectic between the individual and the collective,” Said told National Public Radio last year. “And that back-and-forth is very precious and gets over a lot of ground that is not commonly traversed in everyday life.”
Staff writer Megan Stack in Jerusalem contributed to this report.