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The Question of Edward Said: Mongrel Intellectual

by Jonah Raskin

Was he really a Palestinian, and did he speak for the Palestinians? That doubled barreled question was directed at Edward Said by some of his harshest critics - many of them pro-Israeli and Zionist - and he devoted much of his life to defending himself from attack. A provocative and a controversial teacher as well as the author of Orientalism (1978), and The Question of Palestine, which was originally published 30 years ago in 1979, Said died in 2003 at the age of 68, and left behind a large body of work that continues to be read and assigned in college classes. The Question of Palestine, which is in many ways a sad and even a depressing book, has never been as widely read, or as revered and reviled as Orientalism, and Culture and Imperialism (1993). But in many ways it expresses, more intensely than any of Said’s other works, the depths of his dilemma as both an exile and a committed political activist.

It is probably his most fact-based book, and his most overtly ideological. And, since the future of Palestine is still unknown, it is perhaps as timely now as when it was first published. Of course, Said himself has a lasting appeal as a complex and sometimes enigmatic figure. He described himself repeatedly as a loner, and “not a joiner,” but in 1977 he joined the Palestinian National Council – the government in exile - and served as a member until he resigned in 1991. For a self-described loner he managed to join quite a few other organizations, serving as the President of the Modern Language Association, and an executive board member of PEN, the international writers’ organization. He wrote about music for The Nation, and was on the editorial board for many years. Moreover, for a scholar and teacher who insisted that he wanted no followers and no imitators, and who offered “no rules by which intellectuals can know what to say or do,” he gave birth to the academic field known as “post-colonial studies,” and to an influential group of writers and intellectuals – such as Andrew Rubin and Moustafa Bayoumi – who carry on his work.

Like many of his own intellectual heroes, Said crafted his own personal and political identity as a Palestinian and that identity was as much a matter of feelings as of facts. The feelings were often uncomfortable and even anxiety producing. “Exile is the fundamental condition of Palestinian life,” he wrote. He added that to be a Palestinian was to be an “outlaw” and an “outsider.” Indeed for much of his life, that began in Palestine in 1935, and that ended in New York, where he taught at Columbia, he felt that, paradoxically, he belonged nowhere, and everywhere all at once. By his own reckoning, he was “always a traveler” and always “out of place.” He was a mongrel intellectual who strayed far beyond the world of intellectuals, and in straying he found himself, and allied himself with exiles, refugees, displaced persons, and deportees the world over.

Said’s sense of not belonging came to him early in life. Born to a Palestinian father - with U.S. citizenship and an American passport - and a Lebanese mother, he left Palestine with his parents in 1947 when the state of Israel came into existed. He did not return for 45 years. In 1992, he sought and found the house that his family once owned, and where he spent his earliest years, an experience that prompted him to write his memoir, Out of Place, in which he describes what it was like to grow up as the British Empire went down and the American Empire shot up. In Egypt in the 1940s, he attended the Cairo School for American Children and then Victoria College, and felt that he did not have any one single identity – neither British, nor American, nor Egyptian, but a kind of Kiplingesque half-breed on a border that divided colonized from colonizers. The whole subject of Palestine was repressed at home by his parents, and rarely if ever discussed by them. Moreover, his family was Christian not Moslem, and members of what he would later call the “national bourgeoisie,” and so he was far removed from the living conditions that most Arabs faced everyday.

Sent to the United States as a teenager to attend private school, and then as an undergraduate at Princeton, he aimed “to become like the others, as anonymous as possible.” In 1956, when the British invaded Suez, and at a time of fierce Egyptian nationalism, he reacted intuitively, and for the first time in his life, identified publicly as an Arab, with an Arab point of view. Still, it would not be for another decade that he began to surface his politics, and to identify himself as an anti-imperialist.

In his first book, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (1966), he denounced European colonialism, albeit quietly, and traced what he felt were the links between the narcissism of the self on the one hand, and the narcissism of empire on the other, both of which he found abhorrent. In that book and in others that followed, he kept Marx and Marxism at arms’ length, even as he borrowed from them, and made himself into a reluctant Marxist.

In The Question of Palestine - an extension of the argument about colonized and colonizers that he first put forth in Orientalism - he held nothing back. The Six-Day War of 1967, when Israeli troops gained military control of the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights, shook him to the core of his being. He would say that he was never the same person again. Indeed, Palestine was for Said the equivalent of what Vietnam had been for a generation that came of age politically in the 1960s. It was the battlefield on which he was prepared to stake his honor, his career as an intellectual, and as a professor, and his whole identity. In The Question of Palestine, he left no room for doubt about where he stood, and what he stood for. He attacked The New York Times, Commentary, The New Republic, experts on the Middle East, and Zionism, at the same time that he defended Nasser, Arafat, and the Palestinian Communist Party.

What he wanted most of all, he explained in The Question of Palestine, was “an independent and sovereign Palestinian state.” He added that in his view most Palestinians, and most Arabs, too, had come to the realization that they had to live at peace with Jews and Israel. That now seems like wishful thinking. If there were terrorists in the Middle East, and of course there were, then Israel was to blame for bringing them into existence, he insisted, though he also condemned Palestinian violence, suicide bombers, and the hijacking of airplanes by members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Over and over again he aimed for a balanced perspective, though that proved difficult to attain. He decried “the horrors of European anti-Semitism,” and noted that for Palestinians the Jews were “the most morally complex of opponents.”

Thirteen years later, in 1992, when The Question of Palestine was republished in paperback, Said was much less sanguine about the prospects for an independent Palestinian state, and about peaceful co-existence between Jews and Arabs. In his view, history seemed to go around and around without progress or genuine solutions to social problems. Under the Nazis, the Jews were the “victims of persecution,” he wrote. Then, in the Middle East, with the creation of the State of Israel, they became “the victimizers of another people.” In his view, Arabs were “the victims of the victims.” Now, too, in the preface to the new edition, he lambasted Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, along with Kissinger and Reagan, and, with the exception of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist, he had fewer and fewer heroes. Even Arafat had failed him. The problem of Palestine was now “intractable,” he wrote; Palestinian history was marked by “catastrophes.” His own resignation from the PLO the previous year seemed to signal his sense of political impotence.

Oddly enough, Said became more hopeful about the prospects for global change again after 9/11. In part, he seems to have consciously taken on the mantle of Jean-Paul Sartre, and aimed to follow in Sartre’s footsteps – to be “optimistic,” to defend “populism” and “public politics.” In 2000, in an essay for the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, Said acknowledged Sartre’s positive influence on his own thinking as a young man. He praised him for “his courageous positions on Algeria and Vietnam, his work on behalf of immigrants, his gutsy role as a Maoist during the 1968 student demonstrations in Paris.” Said went on to say that he found nearly everything Sartre wrote “interesting for its sheer audacity, its freedom and its generosity of spirit.”

There was only one place where Sartre failed, Said believed, and that was Israel. “Except for Algeria, the justice of the Arab cause simply could not make much of an impression on him,” he wrote. “Whether that was because he was afraid of seeming anti-Semitic, or because he felt guilt about the Holocaust or because he had no deep appreciation of the Palestinians as victims of and fighters against Israel’s injustice, I shall never know.” Sartre died in 1980, a year after Said met him in Paris – the one and only time they met - and so he never had the opportunity to ask him why he’d been reluctant to defend the Palestinian cause.

Until he died, that cause would continue to haunt Said, though in part it was eclipsed for him and for many others by the immediacy of the War in Iraq. The Question of Palestine seems now, 30 years after it was first published, to be a book that that couldn’t help but be mired in “despair and pessimism.” Said saw Palestine as the “last great cause of the twentieth century,” and last causes seem to have a way of turning into lost causes. For a time, however, he envisioned Palestine as a cause he might have a hand in winning. Today, more than thirty years after its publication,

Said himself seems now like one of the last great public intellectuals of the twentieth century, a man who belonged to no place, and nowhere, and who felt permanently out of place, but who identified with what Franz Fanon called “the wretched of the earth.” Though they were poorer than he and his own family, and though they were mostly Moslems and not Christians, the Arabs of the world felt like family, and he sensed a profound bond with them. still generates feelings of despair and pessimism. Palestine, Said wrote in 1978, “is saturated with blood and violence.” That comment is no less true today than what it was first written. Moreover, as he noted then, Arabs and Jews are tied “inexorably together” by both the past and the future, and if there is any hope it is perhaps in that inexorable link.

“An intellectual is like a shipwrecked person,” Said wrote. “Not like Robinson Crusoe, but more like Marco Polo, whose sense of the marvelous never fails him, and who is always a traveler, a provisional guest, not a freeloader, conqueror or raider.” The intellectuals with whom he found common cause and identified most strongly were men and women who were exiled from their own countries of origin. He acknowledged all of them in his writings: Hannah Arendt, Erich Auerbach, Jose Marti, Frantz Fanon, and Theodoro Adorno, who Said described as “the dominating intellectual conscience of the middle twentieth century.” To the name of Arendt, Auerbach, Marti, Fanon, and Adorno we might think of adding the name Said, and to remember him now as a scholar, an intellectual and an activist who made the United States his home and who remained always at heart a Palestinian.


© 2012 Jonah Raskin