Filmmakers: Heba Bourini and Mohammad Jameel
Born to affluent parents in Palestine under the British mandate in 1935, Edward W Said devoted his adult life to raising awareness of the Palestinian cause on the world stage. A literature professor at Columbia University and celebrated intellectual, “he was a scholar and an ordinary man’s person,” according to the Independent’s Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk.
A fatal diagnosis with leukaemia in 1991 prompted him to start working on Out of Place: A Memoir, a coming-of-age story of exile and a celebration of his irrecoverable past. In this masterpiece, Said rediscovers the lost Arab world of his early years in Palestine, as well as in Lebanon and Egypt.
Raised as a Protestant in a predominately Eastern Orthodox community in Jerusalem, he realised early in life that he had something of a split identity. His first name was British, his last name Arabic and he carried an American passport through his father’s US army service in the first world war.
Describing her English faculty colleague’s seminal work, Gauri Viswanathan says, “He saw being out of place as a psychological state of things … as a physical characterisation. He saw out of place as also a moving reflection on being out of place – the place being Palestine.”
While living and working in pro-Israeli New York City, the 1967 Arab-Israeli War marked a defining point in his life. The war changed the map of the Middle East and has affected the path to Arab-Israeli peace until today because of the way it redrew borders, implemented Israel’s territorial claims and confirmed its military dominance in the region.
“I was no longer the same person after 1967”, wrote Said. “The shock of that war drove me back to where it had all started, the struggle over Palestine.”
At Columbia University, Said’s preoccupation with the Arab world began to show in his published work, as he produced one of the most significant books of the 20th century. Orientalism challenged western preconceptions about the ‘other’, arguing it saw it as exotic, backward, uncivilised and sometimes dangerous. The book effectively gave birth to the academic discipline of post-colonial studies.
Said became something of a superstar in some academic circles and began trying to change the stereotype of Palestine and the Palestinians among Americans – and was also elected to the Palestine National Council, the governing body of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). But he predictably fell foul of the US pro-Israel lobby and a far-right Jewish magazine labelled him the ‘professor of terror’.
Said was an accomplished musician and pianist and as his health failed in the late 1990s, he took a step away from politics and devoted the last years of his life to music, seeing it as a universal language. He wanted to break down barriers and find a common language between Israelis and Arabs – and so co-founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra with Argentine-Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim.
This disappointed some of his peers who were quick to point out that this meant what they saw as normalisation with a coloniser. “I reminded him that he taught us not to separate art and music from politics,” says Lebanese writer Samah Idriss.
Columbia University Professor Hamid Dabashi captures the essence and impact of his friend and colleague: “With the death of Edward Said we immigrant intellectuals ceased to be immigrant and became native to a new organicity. We are the fulfilments of his battles. He theorised himself to be out of place so timely and so punctiliously, so that after him we are no longer out of place, at home where ever we can hang our hat and say no to power …
“We are all free-floating. Said was very site specific about Palestine – and thereby he made the Palestinian predicament a metaphysical allegory, and he grounded it in the physical agony and heroism of his people… The new intellectual organicity that Said enabled requires that you roll up your sleeves, get down and dirty, so that in the midst of chaos you can seek solace, of darkness, light, of despair, hope.”
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