Edward Said, champion of justice

By Jamal Kanj

Jamal Kanj views the life and achievements of distinguished Palestinian scholar Edward Said, whose life was “the quintessential Palestinian story of people yearning for a place to belong”, noting that the lack of official US acknowledgement of his talent was due mainly to pressure from the pro-Israel lobby.

Last week was the ninth anniversary of Edward Said’s death. He died in New York following a 12-year battle with lymphocytic leukaemia.

He was born in Jerusalem 12 years prior to joining hundreds of thousands of his compatriots in a forced, lifelong journey into exile or refugee camps.

He was a towering figure in American academia and a distinguished cultural critic best known for his 1978 book Orientalism.

In it, he argued that Western perception of the East was based on false colonial, self-serving rationalization to justify imperial domination.

Western scholars appropriated the task of exploration and interpretation of the Orient’s languages, history and culture for themselves, with the implication that the East was not capable of composing its own narrative.

Edward Said

According to Said, “Western scholars appropriated the task of exploration and interpretation of the Orient’s languages, history and culture for themselves, with the implication that the East was not capable of composing its own narrative.”

More than 30 years after its publication, Orientalism continues to dominate academic discourse and Western media bias when covering the East.

On the heels of Orientalism, Said wrote The Question of Palestine in 1979 followed by Covering Islam in 1983, in which he used the theory expounded in Orientalism to expose contemporary media bias when covering the Islamic world.

In Covering Islam, Said asserts that most professed Western experts were politically motivated by self-interest and influenced by discreet cultural biases.

He makes a compelling argument that “untruth and falsehood about Islam” is propagated and filtered in the Western media under the cover of objectivity, democracy and freedom.

I was fortunate to have met him at a small dinner table when he was a visiting professor at the University of California, San Diego, in 1989.

He was eloquent in critiquing shortcomings of the Palestinian leadership and as articulate when making the Palestinian case before a standing room only lecture later that night.

After meeting and studying Said, you couldn’t help but feel you were in the company of a genius. He was an accomplished pianist and an authority on topics ranging from literature and politics to culture, art and music.

His memoir Out of Place, which he wrote during the sunset years of his life, was the quintessential Palestinian story of people yearning for a place to belong. It was an account most Palestinians would identify with, whether they lived in refugee camps or had a successful life in exile.

Said was the recipient of many academic awards, but the lack of official US acknowledgement of his talent was mainly due to his tireless efforts fighting the most powerful and organized single-issue group in America [the Zionist lobby].

I have read many of Said’s books and confess that most are not easy to read. His subject writing is certain to challenge the most erudite and intellectual reader.

Exceptional scholars are typically celebrated in the West. Said was the recipient of many academic awards, but the lack of official US acknowledgement of his talent was due mainly to his tireless efforts fighting the most powerful and organized single-issue group in America.

For instance, the charge of anti-Semitism has become a psychological weapon in the hands of Zionists, who use it to numb Israel’s opponents and stifle its critics.

Said questioned this dilemma extensively in his 2003 book Culture and Resistance, pointing out that “there is a great difference between acknowledging Jewish oppression and using that as a cover for the oppression of another people”.

At a time when it became convenient for Western intellectuals to ignore Israel’s brutality to avoid the wrath of national Jewish organizations, Said refused to be silenced. For him, “injustice was to be rectified, not rationalized”.


 

A version of this article was first published by Gulf Daily News. The version here is published by permission of Jamal Kanj.

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