Laudatio for Said
Below is the text of the speech delivered by Ashwani Saith* on the occasion of the award of the degree of Doctor Honoris Causa to Edward Said at the Lustrum Ceremony on the 50th Anniversary of the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, The Netherlands, October 9, 2002
photo: Antoune Albert
It is with great pleasure that I undertake this task. But also with some trepidation, for well might this house wonder: how is a practitioner of that dismal science, economics, addressing such an eminent scholar of English Language and Comparative Literature? After listening to the previous orations of my colleagues, addressing our other eminent honorary fellows by their first, even diminutive, names, I stand here as an impostor, for I must confess that I have never set eyes on Professor Edward Said, let alone having met him. Here, there can be no Edward, Eddie, Ed, ... or "Edwaad" as in his affectionate memory of his mother summoning him from play in his early years. Yet, I have an inexplicable feeling that I know him well. Nor can I claim to have set foot on the land of his birth -- that denied country of Palestine. And yet, here I have an even deeper conviction that I have indeed visited it, and frequently -- since "Palestine" is that space in my mind, in all our minds, in everybody's backyard -- a space called "Injustice". We have all been there all too often -- and not least on account of Professor Edward Said's life contributions. So bear with me when I explain my reasons for nominating him as one of our Honorary Fellows. If, in following my own Indian form of rendition of this laudatio for Professor Edward Said, I strike a false note or chord, I seek your, and his, indulgence.
There is, of course, an immediate and obvious intellectual and professional interface between Edward Said and the Institute of Social Studies, and it is contained in his concept of Orientalism.
The most readily accepted designation for Orientalism is an academic one: "Anyone who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient -- and this applies whether the person is an anthropologist, sociologist, historian, or philologist -- either in its specific or its general aspects, is an Orientalist, and what he or she says or does is Orientalism," and more generally, "Orientalism is a style of thought based upon ontological and epistemological distinction made between "the Orient" and (most of the time) "the Occident." Thus a very large mass of writers, among who are poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, and imperial administrators, have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, "mind", destiny, and so on." So there is an obvious resonance here between Orientalism and the perspectives and projects that we engage with at the Institute.
But there is a more substantive intellectual relationship, a more significant bond between Edward Said and ISS, beyond this professional or occupational manifestation of Orientalism.
Prins Claus, himself an Honorary Doctorate of the Institute of Social Studies, who sadly passed away on the eve of ISS's 50th Anniversary, said: "People are not developed, they develop themselves". An eminent earlier Honorary Fellow, the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has characterised development as the widening of choices, and of capabilities to enable the attainment of those choices. We at ISS teach and preach, profess and practice development as a search and striving for freedoms and emancipations -- in material, social, cultural and political domains, above all recognised in its core manifestations: freedom, freedom from want, human dignity. I can visualise Professor Said asking: But can people develop themselves if their fundamental rights are suppressed through coercion? And I can equally and clearly imagine recognition from these two older Fellows, as indeed from the other two new ones of the day, that human rights and democracy constitute foundational elements of development. Where human rights are denied, all routes to development must negotiate the inseparable, if not prior, issue of rights.
If our inter-disciplinary, undisciplined discipline is so understood, Professor Said immediately becomes one of us, for he has been a vanguard exponent and protagonist of development. His has been an intellectual mission, in his words, "to sift, to judge, to criticise, to choose so that choice and agency return to the individual". His vision is of a community that doesn't exalt "commodified interests and profitable commercial goals", but rather gives primacy to "survivability and sustainability in a human and decent way. Those are difficult goals to achieve" he recognises, "but", with Gramscian optimism of the will, he adds, "I think they are achievable".
There is little I need to add to underscore the intellectual and spiritual affinity and synergy between this perspective, and that meant to guide development viewed as a cluster of processes, driven by human agency, unfolding and claiming liberations and emancipations.
Edward W Said was born in 1935 in Jerusalem, raised in Jerusalem and Cairo and was educated in the United States, where he attended Princeton (BA 1957) and Harvard (MA 1960; PhD 1964). In 1963, he began teaching at Columbia University; and there, and in New York, he has remained since, currently being University Professor of English and Comparative Literature.
He is the author of more than 20 books which have been translated into 35 languages, including Beginnings: Intention and Method (1975); Orientalism (1978), his classic mirror to the self-justifications of Western colonialisms; The Question of Palestine (1979); Covering Islam (1980); The World, The Text, and the Critic (1983); After the Last Sky (1986); Culture and Imperialism (1993); Representations of the Intellectual: The Reith Lectures (1994); Peace and Its Discontents: Essays on Palestine in the Middle East Peace Process (1996); Entre Guerre et Paix (1997). His most recent publications include Out of Place: A Memoir (1999), The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After (Vintage, 2000), Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Harvard University Press, 2001), and Power, Politics and Culture (Pantheon, 2001).
He serves on the editorial board of 20 journals, and is the general editor of a book series, Convergences, at Harvard University Press. He has lectured at over 200 universities in North America, Europe, Africa and Asia; has been a visiting professor at Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins, and Toronto; Cambridge University, as well as the Collège de France. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Royal Society of Literature, the American Philosophical Society, as well as an Honorary Fellow of King's College, Cambridge, he was a member of the PEN Executive Board until 1998, and President of the Modern Language Association for 1999.
He has been awarded numerous prizes and honours, including 17 honorary doctorates, from, amongst others, the Universities of Chicago, Michigan, Edinburgh, Warwick, Exeter, the National University of Ireland, and Bir Zeit University. As an Indian, I report with particular pleasure that he recently received honorary doctorates from the Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Millia University, delivered the Rajiv Gandhi Memorial Lecture in Delhi and the Netaji Centenary Oration in Calcutta. In 1998, he received the Sultan Owais Prize, the premier literary award in the Arab world, for general cultural achievement, and in 1999, he became an Honorary Fellow of the Middle Eastern Studies Association. That year, he was also awarded the first Spinoza Prize given in the Netherlands. Professor Said has received several awards for his memoir, Out of Place including the 1999 New Yorker Book Award for Non-Fiction; the Year 2000 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Non-Fiction; the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award in Literature conferred by the American Academy of Arts and Letters; and the 2001 Lannan Literary Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Besides his academic work, he writes a twice-monthly column for Al-Hayat and Al- Ahram, premier media institutions of the Middle East, and is a regular contributor to newspapers in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Significantly, he has also been a pioneer founder and supporter of grassroots organisations, among them the Welfare Association in Jerusalem, a civil society entity which inculcates in its development activities, a sense of self-reliance with an accent on internal institutional capacity building and Palestinian, local, resource mobilisation.
There is more to Professor Said than meets the eye -- you also definitely need your ears, and indeed need them to be finely tuned. An accomplished musician and pianist, his home in New York has served as a salon and home from home for many an artist. Predictably, the words and the notes mix and harmonise: he has collaborated with Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a new production of Beethoven's Fidelio for which he wrote a new English text to replace the spoken dialogue; he is the music critic for The Nation. He published Musical Elaborations in 1991, and this month, his Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society is due to be published by Pantheon. And inevitably, the music and humanist values mingle and intertwine: he conducted a workshop with Daniel Barenboim and Yo-Yo Ma for young Arab and Israeli musicians in Weimar, Germany. Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said have together set up an Arab-Israeli youth orchestra, and their contributions through music to expression, harmony and engagement across man-made borders and barriers were recognised in Spain this summer through the Prince of Asturias Award for Concord -- Spain's highest peace prize.
Edward Said has been described, amongst other things, as a quintessential New Yorker. But once again, the boundary proves too narrow. A gifted and inspired bridger of cultural distances, the Arabian incarnation of Edward Said has forever been a connoisseur, an aficionado, a critic, an interpreter of Middle Eastern traditions of dance and music, traditions that are analysed in Orientalism, and aspects of which he describes later, I think rightly, as being virtually "untranslatable". His special affair with the belly dance seems indeed to have been launched at first sight: it traces back to his initial encounter, obviously a close one, with the legendary Tahia Carioca, the Egyptian goddess from the pantheon of the belly dance. I hasten to add that the encounter in Cairo in 1950 was from a discreet and discrete distance, and Edward Said at the time was all of 14 years of age! He confesses to being shy, tongue-tied, flustered by the power of her presence. But less shy when writing about her 50 years later, Said confesses: "Tahia's dancing vertically suggested a sequence of horizontal pleasures, but also paradoxically conveyed the kind of elusiveness and grace that cannot be pinned down on a flat surface". How fortunate that children grow up and learn to speak and write! His memorable piece, Homage to a Belly Dancer, was carried in Arab-esque in 1994; and when Tahia Carioca passed away in 1999, Said wrote rare, grieving and reflective commentaries on her art, her life, her several imprisonments, her varied radical and other vacillating politics, and the ethos of her times, all against the backdrop of the Arab world's hurtling passage through the cultural and political rapids it had by then been drawn into. Typically, through this elegy, Said points to a collective loss beyond the stilling of her great art: "There exists no complete record of Tahia's films, no bibliography, no proper biography -- and there probably never will be. All the Arab countries that I know don't themselves have proper state archives, public record offices, or official libraries any more than they have a decent control over their monuments, antiquities, the history of their cities, individual works of architectural art like mosques, palaces, schools. This realisation [gives rise to] a sense of a sprawling, teeming history off the page, out of sight and hearing, beyond reach, largely irrecoverable. Our history is mostly written by foreigners, visiting scholars, intelligence agents, while we do the living, relying on personal and disorganised collective memory, gossip almost, plus the embrace of a family or knowable community to carry us forward in time. Tahia seems to me to embody that beyond-the- boundary life for the Arabs today." Poignantly exposed is the ephemeral life, the fragility and loss of contemporary Arab cultures.
There is another distinction which renders him virtually unique in the Arab world, and beyond: he found Umm Kulthum, the great Egyptian diva and devi of romantic and Qur'anic verse, "insufferable"! "Her secret power eluded me" he confesses, citing "the long, languorous, repetitious line, the slow tempi, the strangely dragging rhythms, the ponderous monophony, the eerily lachrymose or devotional lyrics". Being hopelessly captive to her charm myself, this is heresy of the same terminal order as a North Indian remaining insular to the divine definitive doyenne of the Indian ghazal, the existential melancholy love-lyric form that lingers and dwells generously on the finest nuances of the human condition, all around what Faiz declares to be the true subject of poetry, the loss of the beloved. I refer of course to Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, mallika-e-ghazal Begum Akhtar. Expressing the soul of their ancient civilisations, the two were surely sisters accidentally separated by a flaw in the geographical or cultural coordinates of their birth -- though I wonder if they ever met outside an anthology of world music. Their lives spanned and enslaved more than two generations of devotees, and they died within a year of each other. None would grudge Edward Said his legion well-deserved distinctions, but I would deny him this one if I could!
The defining commitment of his life has been, of course, the search for the freedom of the land of his birth, Palestine. In this, he has been an indefatigable spirit, a roving restless intellectual warrior against colonisations of imaginations, minds and bodies, against occupations of lands, peoples and communities, wielding -- with strength and skill -- the word as his weapon and the justice of his cause as his shield. Through his involvement with Palestinian rights, he served as a member of the Palestine National Council from 1977 to 1991 when he left over differences of principle and practice that he has enlarged upon elsewhere. Edward Said has never fallen victim to those immobilising "habits of the mind in the intellectual that induce avoidance". He has been a severe critic of the Oslo accords which he has characterised as a schema of apartheid; of parts of the Palestinian leadership, that he has argued to be wrong headed and wrong handed; of the disingenuous treatment that the Palestinian issue has received at the hands of the media, something he has continuously exposed since the early 1980 book Covering Islam; and above all, of course, against the crushing goose-step, hob-nailed march of would-be history writers and map makers through the homes and lives of a wounded yet unyielding people. The scanning critical eye has fixed unflinchingly also on the governments of the Arab world that preside over domestic systems of extreme inequality, of external dependence, of polities where fundamental democratic rights have been thwarted by ruling coteries for generations with full impunity in the full self-serving gaze of the world community, governments that have all too often looked the other way on the Palestinian question.
Underlying it all are elemental humanistic foundations:
"Equality can only be based on the principle of equal identity, which itself has to have the positive content of an open tolerance of oneself and of the Other. It therefore behoves Arabs as well as Israelis to submit the[ir] primitive and finally unacceptable mind-set to true intellectual critique".
I turn for words to another voice of a silenced struggle, the celebrated Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, some of whose manuscripts were destroyed, along with valuable collections of Palestinian art, cultural works and relics, in the recent soulless ransacking of the Khalil Sakakina Cultural Centre in Ramallah only a few days ago, politely speaking, by unfriendly, uncivilised and uninvited visitors from across the border.
In one of his poems, the ever present dispossessed subject of Darwish's poetry introduces himself; like Said, this Palestinian "comes from There, and remembers":
"I come from There and remember
I was born like everyone else is born, I have a mother
And a house with many windows
I have brothers, friends and a prison."
And like for Darwish, the search is for freedom from this gaol: "The subject of occupation itself becomes a burden" the rebel-poet laments in anger. Darwish, almost like a jealous child is reluctant to share his mother with others. Having set down for her perhaps the most sad, beautiful and enduring lines, he reacts: "When I write a poem about my mother, Palestinians think my mother is my symbol for Palestine. But I write as a poet, and my mother is my mother! She's not a symbol!" ... "I want, both as a poet and as a human being, to free myself from Palestine. But I can't. When my country is liberated, so shall I be." And till then, like Mahmoud Darwish, Edward Said has little choice either.
So Darwish the wordsmith continues to strike, with the iron in his soul, and the metal bars ring out and speak:
"I come from There, and remember .....
"I have learned and dismantled all the words to construct a single one: Home."
Well might the subject of Darwish's poem have been Said himself.
From which mysterious perennial does this prolific, asil, intellectual and rebel draw his endless energy? I would submit, from the restless dialectic tying Exile and Home, Prison and Freedom -- both realities and metaphors -- unstable spaces where he battles colonisation and searches for freedoms and synergetic harmonies in both, for Both. Sleep is not for him sore labour's bath, the Shakespearean balm of hurt minds -- "For me sleep is death, a night's loss, as is any diminishment in awareness." Movement, travel, communication, engagement are the compulsive necessities of life. In his memoir, Out of Place, Edward Said writes that he experiences his body often not as a material entity but a cluster of flowing currents, never fully harmonised but sources of consciousness and creativity. I am sure this congregation joins me in wishing all power to these flowing currents that make him the remarkable man that he is: may they continually recharge him and provide the energy for him to be our Honorary, and honoured, Fellow long into our, and his, second 50 years.
* Ashwani Saith is a professor in the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, The Netherlands. He is also a professor of Development Studies, London School of Economics, U.K.