Edward Said: The Palestinian Intellectual Champion

By Salloum, Habeeb | Contemporary Review, November 2003 | Go to article overview

Edward Said: The Palestinian Intellectual Champion


Salloum, Habeeb, Contemporary Review


EDWARD W. Said, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, and a much sought after lecturer died on 25 September 2003 at the age of 67, in a New York hospital, after a lengthy illness. With his passing, the Arabs, especially the Palestinians, and the intellectual world in general have lost one of the greatest thinkers of our age. For the past few decades Said was known as the Arab world's most prominent overseas thinker and scholar.

Renowned for his groundbreaking research in the field of comparative literature and his shrewd political commentaries, he was one of the most prominent intellectuals in the United States. Few of the world's eminent academics were able to draw rock concert crowds like Edward Said and, amazingly, after the lectures, like the rock stars, he was often mobbed.

Above all, Edward Said has made his mark as a Middle East analyst, a relentless critic of the Israeli policy of domination, and as the foremost North American spokesman and advocate of the Palestinian and Arab causes. A man with many dimensions, he was considered to be one of the world's best known English Literature professors and, like only a very few of his colleagues, he was able to combine an arduous intellectual life with a political stance.

And these are not all his attributes. Edward Said, besides writing extensively on music, was also a classical music and cultural critic, a scholar of opera, as well as a pianist. In 1998, he participated in a new production of Beethoven's Fidelio for which he wrote a new English text.

For decades, the most famous Palestinian in the West, Edward Said was proud of his people and their history. When the Oslo Peace Accords were signed in 1993, he was, amid all the euphoria, a lonely voice of dissent. He denounced the agreements, calling them 'instruments of Palestinian surrender' and 'a Palestinian Versailles'. These were prophetic words which in less than a decade were to come true.

Edward Said was born in Jerusalem in 1935 to a prosperous Palestinian Christian family who were also US citizens. As a result of the 1947 partition of Palestine, his family were dispossessed and became refugees, moving to Cairo. There, he attended St. George's, an American school, then later moved to Victoria College--an English colonial school. Everything about him at this stage of his life was Western. He carried an American passport, went to westernized Lebanon for holidays, and watched Hollywood films about Africa--enthralled with those about Tarzan.

At the age of sixteen, his parents sent him for further schooling in the United Sates--a country where he lived from then on. As a young man, he learned to speak several languages and was interested in reading novels and listening to classical music. After his high school education, he obtained his B.A. from Princeton, then his Ph.D. from Harvard where he won the Bowdoin Prize for the best scholarly dissertation written by a student, the topic being a critical study of Joseph Conrad, another writer who combined two cultures.

In 1963, he was appointed as Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia University, New York, where he later was promoted to Professor. In the ensuing years he served as a Visiting Professor at Harvard, Yale, John Hopkins and Toronto Universities.

During his lifetime, Edward Said lectured at more than 200 universities and colleges in North America, Africa, Asia and Europe. He served on the editorial board of twenty learned publications, and was the General Editor at Harvard University Press of a book series named Convergences. His writings, some of which have been translated into twenty-six languages, include many books and cover an extraordinary range of subjects. Among these are: Beginnings: Intention and Method (1975), Orientalism (1978), The Question of Palestine (1979), Covering Islam (1980), Literature and Society (1980), The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983), After the Last Sky (1986), Blaming the Victims (1988), Musical Elaborations (1991), Culture and Imperialism (1993), Representations of the Intellectual: The Reith Lectures (1994), The Pen and the Sword (1994), Representations of the Intellectual (1994), The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination (1994), Peace and Its Discontents: Essays on Palestine in the Middle East Peace Process (1995), Out of Place (1999), Reflections on Exile (2000), End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After (2000), Power, Politics, and Culture (2002), and his latest book Not Quite Right: A Memoir, Reflections on Exile--a monumental collection of essays spanning his 35-year career at Columbia University. …

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