A committed intellectual
reflects on the work and life of Edward Said
The most faithful representative of the Palestinian cause and the sufferings of the Palestinian people and their aspirations for true freedom and dignity is Edward Said. This is no overstatement, even though he did not share the physical presence on the land and the day-to-day anguish of the people on that land. Rather, he attained this status through pure political thought and action.
Edward Said came to embody the Palestinian cause via the broader and more abstract gateway of his intellect, through his espousal of noble and universal humanitarian values and his finely honed sense of truth and justice. It was, in a sense, with his mind before his heart that he perceived the horror his people are living through, and grasped the extent of the crime perpetrated against them. He was simultaneously acute to the complicit hypocritical silence kept by various intellectuals, political bodies and international agencies, whether in order to safeguard their own interests, out of fear of the Israeli lobby or due to the reluctance to perform a duty that may or may not be costly, but would certainly not be profitable.
Another trait that made Edward Said Palestinian to his very core was his perpetual and virulent allergy to falsehood and inequity. He could represent the Palestinian cause so well because he derived his energy from incontrovertible humanitarian principles, and because in his defence of these, he was the epitome of integrity. It was simply not in his nature to pretend about something he didn't believe or to beat around the bush. He called things exactly as he saw them, in full, down to the last excruciating detail, regardless of the consequences to himself. He told the truth to the Israelis with regard to the Zionist movement and its aims and practices and, with equal forcefulness, he told the truth to the Palestinian Authority when criticising its actions and behaviour.
Edward Said paid a heavy price for his outspokenness and intellectual courage. He braved vicious assaults against him by the Zionist movement, the American Zionist lobby and their supporters. In putting himself on the line in order to tell the truth about the Palestinian cause, he offered up enormous personal sacrifices, not least of which was all hope for what they call "peace of mind". But he went into this with open eyes and without a moment's hesitation.
This was only natural, for Edward Said's very life embodied "the involvement of the intellectual". His was characterised by an amazing blend of dedicated discipline and an unrestrained love for scholastic freedom and the quest for truth, regardless of where this might lead him. These very qualities are what led him to the Palestinian democratic opposition and, in the wake of the Oslo Accords, to the courageous step of helping to found the Palestinian National Initiative, a grassroots opposition movement that aims to spur the Palestinian people into action and achievement.
But before discussing this involvement, we must mention a third dimension to Said's dedication to Palestine and to his work in general. Said was driven by a constant and pressing sense of duty. He was perpetually haunted by the feeling that he could always do more and better, that there was always one more item to attend to, or an idea that had to be refined or expressed more persuasively. This applied to every endeavour he embarked upon, but it applied in particular to his work for Palestine. Every new challenge before the Palestinian cause, the mounting death toll during the Intifada, every demonstration of incompetence by the Palestinian leadership against the backdrop of the alarming state of Arab weakness struck him with knife-like thrusts, and these kept prodding him to do more. Yet, I have never met anyone who could fit more into a day than he.
The last time I spoke with him was three days before his death, and then, only for the few moments that his failing health would permit. His voice sounded so feeble over the phone that I found myself pleading, "rest, now. Take it easy until you get your strength back." He said, "How can I rest? I want to get out of bed. I want to write. I have work to do. I haven't done anything yet."
Hasn't done anything yet? That remark, alone, is very instructive. Some intellectuals, in their obituaries of him, went to great lengths to show how neutral and detached he was. He was above getting involved, they insisted. What I suspect is that they were really defending their own apathy and their own fear of commitment, whether to an idea or a cause or to the political activism that absorbed him in his later days. To them, Edward Said was an intellectual, and intellectuals reside in an ethereal world above the cares and causes of ordinary human beings. If these people knew Edward Said at all, they certainly didn't understand him.
What caused this infection of the fear of getting involved -- whether intellectually, culturally, socially or politically? Perhaps the fear has always been there, throughout history, and only surfaced more overtly in times of crisis and depression. Taking part weighs heavily; it is a far remove from the tranquillity of the ivory tower. Perhaps the self-acclaimed denizens of this lofty space find solace in Said's defence of the world of "rationalism and ideas", by virtue of which the "intellectual" has become associated in the public mind with "ivory tower" and "a sneer". This characterisation of prevailing popular attitudes towards intellectuals appears in the introduction to Representations of the Intellectual, the book- form of Said's 1993 Reith lecture series by that title. In this work, Said also cites Raymond Williams' observation in Keywords, "until the middle of the twentieth century unfavourable uses of intellectuals, intellectualism and intelligentsia were dominant in English, and it is clear that such uses persist." He then proceeds to discuss the views of Julien Benda, who famously defended intellectuals as "a tiny band of super-gifted and morally endowed philosopher-kings who constitute the conscience of mankind."
Nevertheless, Said is quick to point out that the examples Benda cites in support of this definition "make it quite clear that he does not endorse the notion of totally disengaged, other worldly, ivory-towered thinkers, intensely private and devoted to abstruse, perhaps even occult subjects." In fact, one is forced to conclude that, "real intellectuals are never more themselves than when, moved by metaphysical passion and disinterested principles of justice and truth, they denounce corruption, defend the weak, defy imperfect or oppressive authority."
Moreover, ultimately, Said tends towards the opinion of Gramsci, whose perception of the intellectual, he believes, is closer to reality. Indeed, he holds that there is no such thing as a private intellectual. Rather, the life of an intellectual is a complicated mix between the private and public, "since the moment you set down words and publish them you have entered the public world." Above all, however, the intellectual has a vocation, and this emanates from the conviction that, "all human beings are entitled to expect decent standards of behaviour concerning freedom and justice from worldly powers or nations, and that deliberate or inadvertent violations of these standards need to be testified and fought against courageously."
This picture is not complete without mention of Said's staunch opposition to fanaticism of all brands. No cause, however fervently embraced, justifies dogmatism and intolerance. On the contrary, it was the intellectual's duty to be consistently objective and open-minded and to submit everything we take for granted to rigorous scrutiny and even criticism.
In his outspoken criticism of the Oslo Accord, Edward Said broaches the same phenomenon we mentioned above; the fear of getting involved and speaking one's mind. Specifically, he detects this condition among some Palestinian intellectuals and suggests that it accounts for the flagrant contradiction between what they say in private, and what they proclaim on television. "Perhaps," he wonders, "the problem is that most of us still carry beneath our skin that trait that continues to predominate in most of the Arab world, for the intellectual still finds himself in the service of his master and keeper; he rushes to his defence, attacks those who attack him and is forever on the lookout against anything that might jeopardise his own career or reduce the size of the rewards he receives for serving that master."
Said ascribes this condition to a deep-seated sense of insecurity, which, he maintains, is closely connected to the American and Israeli penetration of Palestinian ranks. "By penetration, here, I am referring to that cultural and moral ignominy exhibited by the Palestinian and Arab intellectual whose primary aim is not the struggle for national independence but rather the quest to win the approval of some Israeli politicians or academics, or to procure financial support from the European Union or to obtain an invitation to some conference in Paris or New York." He adds, "why is it that we always have to go back to the basics and reiterate that there is a big difference between dialogue and submission and between dealing with reality and surrendering to the conditions of the stronger side?"
In my opinion, these remarks, which Edward Said issued in connection with Oslo, apply to the letter to the so-called Geneva Initiative and its proponents, who are no longer able to differentiate between realism, in the sense of an understanding of reality with an eye to changing it, and the abject capitulation to painful realities.
Edward Said was often far ahead of his times. His comprehensive and systematic critique of Orientalism in the West preceded the general run of analyses and criticisms we see today by three decades. And how prescient he was ten years ago when he wrote, "God came to the aid of many Arab rulers whom I see today in an unenviable position, for by ingratiating themselves to America and Israel they brought for themselves a not very long respite at a time in which they were very close to having to confront severe social and moral issues, which they had deferred dealing with and ignored their existence for a very long time."
OPPOSITION TO OSLO: Perhaps the most salient juncture in Said's involvement in the Palestinian cause was marked by his vehement and unequivocal rejection of the Oslo Accord. Coming shortly after his resignation from the Palestinian National Council, his declaration of opposition to Oslo did not, as we might expect, emanate from extreme nationalist feelings, which, in all events, ran deeply against his grain, but rather from a range of rational considerations. Above all, he realised that the accord was doomed to failure because of the irrationality and inconsistency of its aims and intent. In agreeing to such a fundamentally flawed document, the Palestinian leadership committed an incredible moral compromise. This was "the first time in the twentieth century that a national liberation movement sacrificed its great achievements and agreed to cooperate with an occupying power before compelling that power to admit to the illegitimacy of its occupation of another people's land by force of arms."
Said, like many other leading Palestinian activists, was disturbed by the incompetence, recklessness and irresponsibility that characterised the Palestinian leadership's approach to the negotiating process and its consequences. He railed incessantly against this leadership's disregard for substance, and its obsession with appearances and, especially, the false trappings of power as a result of which emblems and official titles took the place of true sovereignty and sovereign powers, and economic subordination became the substitute for autonomous planning. This attitude played perfectly into the hands of the ploy of dealing with the issues piecemeal, which, in turn, served as the "airtight seal" for exacting inevitable concessions, which was precisely the wall into which the Palestinian Authority ran headlong when faced with the moment of truth in Camp David II. If Edward Said were with us now, he would remind us, here, of how rampant pragmatism escalated into the pernicious self-serving opportunism that proved so detrimental to the welfare of the people.
Said was led by his views on Oslo (just as we are led by our views on the hypocrisy of the official rhetoric of the Palestinian leadership) to the central conviction that only by adopting democratic means to resolve internal differences, will the Palestinians be able to snatch their future from the hands of the bunglers and the self-serving. He perceived -- correctly -- an integral connection between our internal weaknesses, such as the lack of institutionalised structures and the absence of the rule of law, transparency and accountability, and our weakness before external enemies. Little wonder, therefore, that he became one of the most ardent proponents of Palestinian democracy and free and fair elections. These, he knew, were the essential instruments for promoting constructive change and enhancing our ability to stand up against the occupation, Israeli settlement expansion and Judaisation.
THE INDEPENDENCE INTIFADA: The second Palestinian grassroots uprising gave Edward Said an enormous boost of energy and passion, even as he continued to combat his illness with indescribable courage. Perhaps his acute sense of the value of time, whether sharpened by his physical condition or by the pressing need to confront the dangers looming over the Palestinian cause, is what drove him to devote the greater part of his later work and writings to this cause. A major part of this effort was dedicated to co-founding the Palestinian National Initiative (Al-Mubadara) whose aim is to build up a grassroots force that will voice the rights and views of the silent Palestinian majority and its aspirations for freedom, full national sovereignty and democracy.
In his pursuit of this objective, Said was only being true to his lifelong pursuit of the truth, his lengthy record of fighting tyranny, hypocrisy and backwardness, and his complete faith in the ultimate victory of justice, democracy and human rights. In short, he was practising what he preached; it's not enough to speak out for what is right; we have to work for it.
In his last writings, Edward Said described the Palestinian National Initiative as a promising group of "grassroots activists whose main activity is not pushing papers on a desk, nor juggling bank accounts, nor looking for journalists to pay attention to them, but who come from the ranks of the professionals, the working classes, and young intellectuals and activists, the teachers, doctors, lawyers and working people who have kept society going while also fending off daily Israeli attacks. Second, these are people committed to the kind of democracy and popular participation undreamt of by the authority, whose idea of democracy is stability and security for itself. Lastly, they offer social services to the unemployed, health to the uninsured and the poor, proper secular education to a new generation of Palestinians who must be taught the realities of the modern world, not just the extraordinary worth of the old one."
Edward Said debated indefatigably over the direction he felt the Palestinian cause should take. He showed immense courage in taking part in conceptualising what he believed was the only proper alternative for this cause, should Israel succeed in eliminating the possibility of creating a truly sovereign and independent Palestinian state. This alternative is the bi-national solution; the creation of a single democratic state in which all citizens are fully equal. If it is politically inexpedient at this stage to abandon the drive for an independent state, keeping the bilateral state alternative open has distinct advantages. Above all, it offers the Palestinians a broad margin of manoeuvrability to resist pressures aimed at marketing a counterfeit notion of an independent state and imposing a feeble autonomous entity whose purpose is to act as a local policeman, under the supervision of the occupying power, and as warden of the ghettos to which the Palestinian people are to be confined in order to neutralise the factor of Palestinian demographic superiority in the face of Israeli settlement expansion and the creation of new de facto geographic realities.
The alternatives, then, are two: either to end the occupation, remove all settlements and establish a fully independent, sovereign state, or to found a bi-national, fully democratic state in which there can be no place for racial discrimination or apartheid. In fact, however, both alternatives boil down to the same choice, which is to cling to the values of right and dignity and to persist in the fight for freedom.
Edward Said saw the Palestinian cause as inseparable from its global environment. He defended the rights of our people from the standpoint of his commitment to the defence of the rights and dignity of all people and his revulsion for all forms of intolerance and narrow-mindedness. He brought Palestine to the world, just as he brought the world, and the best of its culture, ideas and civilisation, to Palestine. He became a towering pioneering figure for the Palestinians, the Arab world and the world at large, not by virtue of force of arms, control over material resources or the manipulation of political power, but by virtue of the power of his ideas and his moral influence, which he shaped through his personal rectitude, his love for people, and his insatiable thirst for knowledge and discovery.
He will always be with us. Those who leave us are those who cling to the past even while still alive. In stark contrast, Edward Said represents the future, the future we dream of for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren, and for our nation which has been plagued by seemingly endless pain.
* The writer is secretary-general of the Palestinian National Initiative.