Teacher bridged diverse worlds

Humanist: Edward Said, devoted to America and the Arab world, sought justice for the Palestinians.

October 05, 2003|By Charles Glass | Charles Glass,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

AN OLD ARABIC lament goes, "There is no shade." Egyptians chanted it at the funeral in 1970 of the only president they ever loved, Gamal Abdel Nasser. It means that no one is left to shield them from the fiery sun of oppression. With the death of Edward Said last month, there is no shade from the stupidity, hypocrisy and cant that emanate from Middle East tyrannies and America's imperial architects.

Professor Edward Said, who died of leukemia Sept. 25 at age 67, was one of America's few public intellectuals. The outline of his careers as author, critic, teacher and musician has been recounted in obituaries throughout the United States, Europe and the Arab world.

But the list of his accomplishments - whether as author of the revolutionary Orientalism or as organizer with Israeli conductor-pianist Daniel Barenboim of a world-class orchestra of young Israelis and Arabs - provides only a glimpse into the character of one of the century's great humanists.

Said, born an Arab Palestinian and educated as an American, was uncompromising in his devotion to what Aristotle said all men have the duty to seek: excellence. He did not tolerate sloppy thinking or second-rate scholarship. His repeated attacks on Orientalist scholars like Bernard Lewis had more to do with a distaste of shoddy methodology than with their conclusions that were hostile to an entire race of people.

For Said, redressing the injustice done to the Palestinian people was a universal, rather than merely tribal, cause. His defense of Palestinians came from the same fierce integrity that animated his literary criticism, his splendid piano playing and his political analysis. It was enough for something to be wrong or unjust for him to attack it.

About 10 years ago, I wrote a profile of Said in The Times Literary Supplement of London. I had the advantage that I could speak to him and surround myself with his books and articles. Today, he isn't here, and I'm on the road without any of his works. This means I have to rely on memory, always a faulty support, to write about a man who was a friend for 30 years. We met at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, in 1972, when he was on sabbatical from Columbia University and I was a 21-year-old graduate student.

Nothing in my experience equaled the excitement of his intellect, erudition, confidence and fearless originality. Whether decanting the confusing works of the French philosopher Michel Foucault or demolishing the trivialities of Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, he demonstrated that gift of making you see things in a new and often better way. It was not always easy to follow, especially for an American like me who got lost when his lectures bounced from English to Arabic to French and back again.

When he and his wife, Mariam, returned to New York, they left behind many friends who missed them. His years back at Columbia were productive. He and Mariam had children. He taught comparative literature. He wrote Beginnings, Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism. And he never stopped writing about Palestine or playing a role in Palestinian political life. He was an independent member of the Palestine National Council, the Palestinians' parliament-in-exile. He tried to mediate between Palestinian politicians and American officials. He urged Palestinians to follow his example of maintaining a dialogue with Israelis. His eloquent championing of Palestinian rights led to death threats and demands for his dismissal from Columbia.

Said, like James Joyce's Leopold Bloom, was a Ulysses from two worlds, occidental and Levantine. Both were vivid in thought, original in expression, passionate about music and women and words. Any day spent with Said, whether in Beirut or London or New York, was Bloomsday: rich in images from mythology, random and purposeful debate, chance meetings, troubling thoughts, a lifetime in an instant. He did not know how to be boring.

His contradictions, like Bloom's, were heroic.

Devoted to America and the Arab world, he was prohibited by his affiliation to each from belonging wholly to either. This left him freedom to criticize as an observant and compassionate outsider. He challenged the powerful, American and Palestinian, but had his shirts made at London's Jermyn Street. His standards in clothes, food, wine and cigars were as rigorous as they were in argument - the art at which he excelled.

He and Noam Chomsky were the first two prominent writers in the United States to point out the lie on which the Oslo Accords were constructed and over which they would come undone: that Israel's settlers were permitted to take more land, build more buildings and evict more Palestinians while a discredited Palestinian leadership acted out the forms of statehood without any of its substance. It did not please him, however, when Oslo's bankruptcy manifested itself with the explosion of the second Palestinian intifada in 2001.

Hanan Ashrawi, one of the Palestinian delegates to the Madrid conference on Middle East peace in 1991, recently wrote that Said was the "conscience of Palestine." He was also the conscience of those Americans, like himself, who wanted his country to do right by the world.

Charles Glass was ABC News' chief Middle East correspondent from 1983 to 1993. He is writing a sequel for Harper Collins to his 1990 book, "Tribes with Flags."

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