Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 Feb. - 5 March 2003
Issue No. 627
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'Being among difference'

Empire old, empire new: Hala Halim reports from Los Angeles on two lectures delivered by Edward Said


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Wadi Gaza: Israel is always encumbered by the memory of Palestinians, who have been collecting objects of memory, such as title deeds, keys, fabrics and embroidery
A long queue outside Royce Hall at 3.30pm on February 20 marked the venue for Edward Said's lecture, which was to start at 4pm. One of two lectures on consecutive days that Said was to give at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), this first lecture, sponsored by the Burkle Center for International Relations (BCIR), was entitled "Memory, Inequality and Power: Palestine and the Universality of Human Rights". With Royce concert hall filled to capacity, Geoffrey Garret, vice provost of the UCLA International Institute and director of BCIR, introduced Said. Garrett elaborated on Said's three lives -- the scholar, the activist and commentator, and the musician -- any of which, he said, would have been more than enough for any of us. The Said who came to the lectern had a new look: he now has a beard which, as he commented the following day, is a function of illness and medical treatment these past months.

Arriving at Palestine by way of Iraq, Said opened his talk by commenting that this is a fraught moment for human rights, with the US marshalling its military force to disarm Iraq and change its regime, and Arab governments mostly intimidated. What should be of top priority is the women and children of Iraq and the impact of a war on them -- an issue, he added, that does not impinge on George Bush and his administration. Had Iraq been the biggest world exporter of oranges, the abuses it has been accused of would not have been of concern to anyone. By the year 2025, Said went on, the US will need to import more than 70 per cent of its oil from the Gulf and, as against this, issues of human rights and education may seem trivial.

What is of paramount importance concerning both Iraq and Palestine, Said asserted, is the universal applicability of human rights. Since World War II these rights have been made clear, but governments need to be consistently reminded of them, and of the fact that no religious edict should supersede human rights, he stated.

"As an American," he said, "I feel that the US has no divine mandate" to intervene within Iraq. Here, Said had recourse to the work of American historian Howard Zinn which endorses the conception of the US as a multi-cultural society, as opposed to the white English model. That the US is an immigrant society is a fact that needs to be upheld, he added.

But Said wanted "to note other positive realities", namely that since 1948, Palestinians had moved from the status of non-persons to that of a universally acknowledged people and a collectivity through mobilising memory in face of disaster. While he did not want to be "fetishistically competitive about this claim", Said nevertheless wanted to assert that Palestinian visibility is not merely as victims but as a people actively putting forward a wrong that needs to be righted.

Edward Said Despite the Oslo declaration and "the peace process" being nothing but a rubric for colonising more of Palestine, Palestinians' sense of solidarity and "nationness" are unmitigated. Citing Nadia Abu El-Haj's Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-fashioning in Israeli Society, Said pointed out how even excavation of the material artefacts of the land had been skewed towards asserting the more or less exclusive presence of the Israelites in the area. Other scholarly works he mentioned in this context were Nur Masalha's A Land Without a People and Imperial Israel and the Palestinians. "Yet, Israel is always encumbered by the memory of Palestinians," who have been collecting objects of memory, such as title deeds, keys, fabrics and embroidery. Palestinian cinema, novels and literature were thriving, he added.

None of this was a given: during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Palestinian archives and repositories were destroyed, which is currently continuing in the West Bank, he added. Likewise, Arab states -- Said specifically cited Egypt and Lebanon -- have dehumanised Palestinians; and even in states such as Syria and Jordan where their status is better, they still face problems. Inside Israel, Palestinians are underrepresented; and the infringements of human rights and assassinations of Palestinians continue. And in all the talk about academic freedom in the US, not once was a single word said about the closure of universities in Palestine, Said noted. However, "today it is Palestine not Israel that is the progressive cause," which, Said affirmed, indicates the long way we have come since Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir supported Israel. Also, in 1982, Said had stated that every time Palestinians talked about their plight, the very basic narrative of their dispossession had to be recapitulated from its beginning -- which is no longer the case.

Israelis must make a clear distinction between what happened to them in the past and what is happening now and what they themselves are doing, Said submitted. "As a Palestinian, I should make my case defending Palestine by referring to the history of discrimination against the Jews," but it is precisely because of the history of discrimination against the Jews that they must not revisit it upon the Palestinians. Said ended his lecture by offering an account that could serve as a model for coexistence, namely his own friendship and collaboration with the Israeli musician Daniel Barenboim. Since their chance meeting at a London hotel, Said and Barenboim have co- authored a book the title of which, Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society, bespoke both their differences and affinities, and have also jointly held a music workshop in Weimar, Germany, attended by Arab and Israeli students. And Barenboim was currently training two Palestinian prodigies, including a young and remarkably talented relative of Said's, he added with a flourish.

Following Said's words occasionally became difficult thanks to a woman standing -- not sitting -- a few rows behind me who at regular intervals would yell "Terrorist! Nazi!"; she was eventually escorted out of the auditorium. Her exertions were also matched by those of a deliberately raucous crowd of young students sitting together up in the balcony.

When the floor was opened to discussion the first speaker was Chaim Seidler-Feller, Rabbi of UCLA's Hillel, a Jewish student association. Among other things Rabbi Seidler-Feller accused Said of being guilty of the accusations he himself brings against Bush and the American administration of seeing things in black and white, denied many of the lecturer's claims, and repudiated the figure cited in the lecture of 800,000 Palestinians dispossessed of their land. The rabbi was repeatedly urged by Garrett, who was moderating the discussion, to ask a question rather than make a statement, and to do so in a few seconds. He finally asked where the 800,000 figure had come from, and whether Said would be willing to sign some statement with him. Said's rejoinder was that the rabbi had just proved his own point about Israel's denials and accusations, and its unwillingness to take responsibility for what its creation has meant for Palestinian society. The 800,000 figure, Said added, came from a number of Israeli historians, including Benny Morris and Ilan Pappe.

Next, a young woman asked Said why he had not mentioned B'Tselem (The Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories). Nor, answered Said, had he mentioned several other such NGOs, which he now cited, but then his point was not to provide "a laundry list". Another young woman stated that she was against the occupation, but asked what Said had to say about terrorism, she herself having experienced the fear of suicide bombings, and whether he would be willing to sign yet another document (the purport of which I did not catch). "Answer the question!" a young man sitting in the balcony shouted at Said at one point. "I won't answer the question for you, you lout!" was Said's retort. Said reiterated his position that he is against militaristic solutions and that the only document he would be willing to sign would be for the end of occupation -- which drew a great deal of applause from the audience.

The lecture Said gave the following day for a much smaller audience, entitled "Empire Revisited", was sponsored by the Department of Comparative Literature, UCLA, and took place at Villa Aurora in Pacific Palisades. One of the speaker's introducers at the Villa Aurora lecture was Aamir Mufti, an associate professor of Comparative Literature, UCLA, who had studied under Said at Columbia University. Mufti elaborated on his relationship with Said, first as student-mentor and now as friends, gave an overview of the speaker's scholarship and commented that if the Palestinians did not have their Nelson Mandela (this drawn from something in Said's previous lecture) they had their Edward Said.

Given that the villa had hosted a number of German Jewish intellectuals and writers during and after World War II, Said began by reflecting on his engagement with the German tradition. He spoke of Theodor Adorno's notion of "late style" and how he has drawn on it in his work. But it was to Erich Auerbach, author of Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature and "the last of the great philologists of the German tradition", that he wanted to turn. Said has been rereading Mimesis these past months, as he has been asked to write an introduction to a reprint of the book to be published by Princeton University Press. To those familiar with Said's work, it was unsurprising that he chose to begin his comments by referring to the passage in Auerbach's "Epilogue" where the German scholar, by way of apology for what may be construed as the shortcomings of his book, describes the circumstances of its production. He wrote the book, Auerbach explains, during World War II in Istanbul, where he did not have access to secondary sources and where the libraries are not equipped for European studies. The passage is one that Said has cited as paradigmatic of his own notion of secular criticism and in his reflections on exile. At the lecture, Said dwelt on Auerbach's discussion of Dante and Christianity, which he found particularly moving in this book by a German Jew. In Auerbach's discussion, the turning point in the separation of styles -- the "high style" being used in Greece and Rome for gods and kings, and the "low style" for commoners -- is Christianity. The presence of Jesus accomplishes this synthesis and Dante is the greatest accomplishment of the Western tradition, as he represents the present and the timeless within the same moment or formula and goes beyond Aquinas into the human sphere.

But Said was also keen to elicit a humanistic tradition within Islam, one that antecedes the Western revival of humanism, and cited in this context ijtihad (or systemic original thinking and interpretation), the presence of which surmounts the kind of divisions now talked about as the "clash of civilisations". Said also reflected on how the fact that he -- as "a Christian by birth, and a Muslim by culture" -- relates to all this German Jewish tradition is reassuring in that this too is another instance which demonstrates that divisions can be surmounted. Had he met Adorno, he commented in an aside, it is unlikely that the German would have given him the time of day, as he put it.

Ruminating on his personal trajectory, Said spoke of how he had witnessed the end of empire in India and different parts of Africa, Bandung, and the Nasser and Nkrumah years. The great symbol for the decolonisation struggle was Frantz Fanon in whose work there was a Manichean world of rigid opposition, the only way out of which was revolution -- an issue in Fanon, Said added, which has been misread and over- emphasised.

Later, in the 1970s into the 1980s, there would be a counter- movement asserting that it was not true that empire was evil, and that the atrocities of postcolonial nation-states were much worse, with Mobutu's regime and Algeria being the examples usually referred to. An integral part of this backlash was the work of V S Naipaul -- whose counterpart in the Arab context, Said suggested, is Fouad Ajami, who once referred to himself as an "Arab Naipaul" -- and one of its motifs was a misreading of Joseph Conrad, who was recast as being the first to point out that the heart of darkness is in Africa. Then came postcolonial criticism in the 1980s, with its redefinition of canons to include the cultures of the subaltern, Said recounted. Yet, the revisionist histories continue, Said added, citing among other examples Linda Colley's Captives: Britain, Empire and the World, 1600-1850, which reduces the story of empire to stories about European elites captive by non-Europeans and David Cannadine's Ornamentalism: How the British Saw their Empire, which suggests that empire was not about exploitation but collaboration between the English and the native elite. Referring to current events that were the subject of his first talk, and taking a quick shot at commentator Michael Ignatieff's article entitled "The American Empire (Get Used to It)", Said asserted that discussions of empire are of the utmost moment.

The discussion that followed was short. Vincent Pecora, professor of English at UCLA, drawing on various strands from Said's work and his two lectures, brought out the importance of religion, albeit not in a doctrinal sense, as a key aspect of cultures, and commented on its relative absence in Said's scholarship. Said's response was that although he had been brought up among many different religions, he himself is secular, that religion in the Middle East, for example, is often about other issues, such as politics, and that for him philology is a point of entry into cultural analysis which allows for reading religious meaning in broader historical, secular terms.

Ellen DuBois, professor of History, UCLA, asked whether there was not a tension in Said's work between a critique of identity politics and a reliance on notions of identity, and enquired about the place of this tension in Orientalism. Said's response was that he rejects American-style identity politics, that his book Orientalism was misappropriated by Islamists, and that his own investment is in more humanistic possibilities of affiliation while affirming the need to assert identity in certain situations. "The challenge," Said concluded, "is about being among difference."

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