Edward Said (1935-2003)

By Nelson Ascher *

The leukemia that killed Edward Said lasted long enough for the polemist and political activist who had settled in the US to watch his projects and hopes crumble.

Said owes his fame to having become the most articulate apologist for the “palestinian cause”, something that wasn’t all that difficult when one considers that most of his rivals in this field, whenever they’re not too busy blowing up school buses and pizza parlours, satisfy themselves spreading anti-Semitic forgeries like “The Protocols of the Sages of Zion”. Even so, although his prose reminds one of a post-modern English version of a deconstructionist French translation of the Germanic ravings of some Heidegger epigone, his academic dance of the seven veils with successive layers of Marxist, anti-imperialist and post-colonial jargon never hid the fact that his goals were fundamentally the same.

A large part of his so-called moral authority came from Said presenting himself as a refugee from a Palestinian homeland. In spite of having been put in doubt by his adversaries, the truth or falsity of this claim isn’t too important. The internal borders of the Arab world are all artificial and, half a century ago, loyalties there were established in relation do clans, families, cities or villages and religious sects, not countries or nations, an European import that has had no time to grow deep roots in the Middle East. The Palestinian nationality as a distinct identity has not begun to be developed before the 60s.

Born in an upper middle class Christian family, a student at the best local schools and a member of the most exclusive clubs, Said became since the 50s an American and he benefited both from this condition and from the romanticized image of an exile to reach the top of the academic pecking order. Since the beginning of the anti-Vietnam movements in the following decade, any cause that could be related to the Third World became first popular and then compulsory among Western intellectuals. Attuned to such a context, Said, whose speciality were Literary Studies, published in 1978 the book that would make him famous, assuring his role of guru almost until his death: “Orientalism”.

His “classic” is a confused, misinformed and angry diatribe that consists in applying to a particular case an overused generic thesis according to which intellectuals are mostly the servants of the ruling class. What “Orientalism” tries to show through half-truths, non-sequiturs, weird examples and exceptions turned into rules is that the discipline or, rather, the disciplines generically called Orientalism that study the Eastern peoples and cultures are nothing but the theoretical arm of imperialism. In short, whoever studied difficult languages such as Chinese or Sanskrit, whoever translated or annotated old or forgotten Japanese or Persian works, whoever unearthed lost temples and palaces did it only for the profit of British or French capitalists.

If such a childish reductionism weren’t enough, the author limited his analysis to the less Oriental of all the non-European regions: the Arab-Muslim world. Surrounding the publication of his work with a whole series of polemics where, to any substantive objection, he only answered questioning the ideological credentials of his critics, he managed, helped by the spirit of the times, to turn his book in the cornerstone of an academic fashion that is still strong enough, that is, judging people and works according not to scholarly criteria but in the light of their political choices. His greatest success was to have coined the very expression “Orientalism”, making it work, like similar terms (fascist, racist, communist), as an insult that, shutting up those with a different point of view, allows its users to avoid any discussion.

One year later, in 1979, he published his other “classic”, « The Question of Palestine », a book the purpose of which was to narrate the tragedy of his people but which touches historical truth only tangentially, at best. Among the many lies with which this deformed view of the past is built, the most scandalous is the mysterious disappearance of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hadjj Amin al Huseini (1893-1974). The main leader of what Said calls Palestine and of its revolt, in 1936-39, against British rule, the ally of the Nazis who wanted Hitler to help him exterminate the Jews of Haifa and Tel Aviv, the personality that dominated, between the 20s and the 60s, the life of the local Arabs, taking them from catastrophe to catastrophe, makes only one very brief appearance in the whole volume. It is as if a history of the US or Italy, covering the same period, simply omitted the names of FDR or Mussollini.

For two long decades, until the day when the Al Qaeda atrocities, demoralizing his apologetic view of the Islamic world, occasioned his final eclipse by his nemesis, Bernard Lewis, Said kept a powerful and evil hold over many intellectuals. And, though below such euphemisms as the “creation of a secular bi-national state where Jews and Arabs would live democratically together” what really lurked was his mad dream of abolishing Israel, something that would result in the extermination of its “non native” population, the real victims of his ideas were first and foremost his own countrymen whom he helped to guide towards new disasters.

* Nelson Ascher, brazilian journalist, essayist and poet


1. Article published originaly in the news papper Folha de São Paulo – São Paulo, Brazil

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