Photo: Jeremy Pollard
The end of September marks fourteen years without Edward Said, literary theorist and an intellectual of a wide range. Many of the things Said wrote about – from the way West perceives and represents The East to the question of Palestine – remain a hot topic today. To commemorate Said and recall the magnitude of his works, we are in conversation with Judith Butler, Laleh Khalili, Avi Shlaim and Illan Pappé.
“Humanism is the only – I would go so far as saying the final- resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history.”
Edward Said (1935-2003)
The end of September (25th of September) marks fourteen years without Edward Said, literary theorist and an intellectual of a wide range. Said was a founding figure of the critical-theory field of post-colonialism, and a strong advocate of political and human rights of the Palestinian people. His capital work, Orientalism, presented the Western study of Eastern cultures and, in general, the framework of how The West perceives and represents The East.
Said’s great intellect and his inexhaustible energy are strongly missed. Many of the things Said wrote about – from cultural representations of the East to the question of Palestine – remain a hot topic today. To commemorate Said and recall the magnitude of his works, we are in conversation with scholars around the world, asking them one question:
This month, when we mark the 14th anniversary of Edward Said’s death, we turn the light towards his work once again. What do you find most relevant and important in/about Edward Said’s work in this day and age?
Judith Butler, philosopher and gender theorist, professor at Department of Comparative Literature and the Program of Critical Theory, University of California: Said understood the work of imagination
“Said was able to imagine a world in which the legacy of colonialism could come to an end and a relation of equality in difference could take its place on the lands of Palestine. He understood the work of the imagination to be central to politics, for without an ‘unrealistic’ vision of the future, no movement could be made in the direction of peace based on a just and lasting solution.
He lived in the midst of conflict, and used the powers of art and literature, of the archive, testimony, and public appeal, to ask the world to imagine a future in which equality, justice, and freedom finally triumph over subordination, dispossession, and violence. Sometimes I think he was perhaps too good for this world, but that incommensurability between what he could imagine and what actually exists accounts in part for the power of his writing and his presence in the world.”
Laleh Khalili, researcher and professor of Middle East politics, SOAS, London: The tender cadences and prophetic brilliance of Said’s prose
“Said’s Orientalism seems never to lose its relevance, even decades after its publication. In fact, the transformations (and failures in transformation) that have happened in the Middle East since the 2011 Arab Uprisings seem to give orientalist policy-makers and pundits another excuse to trot out the same old cliches.
But as I get older, I also become profoundly appreciative of Said’s insights into literature and the arts. His work on beginnings – and endings – his close and extravagantly generous reading of novels and stories, the insights he imparts about the social and political from the slightest sentences or paragraphs in the classics of English or French literature, make him ever more relevant. And as one reads more and more turgid academic and non-academic writings, one becomes ever more appreciative about the tender cadences and prophetic brilliance of his prose.”
Illan Pappé, historian and professor with the College of Social Sciences and International Studies, University of Exeter: Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism still relevant today
“I think Said’s two major contributions to knowledge are still relevant today as they were during his life time. His seminal works, Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism, which exposed the racist, reductionist and harmful Western discourse on the Orient, is still a crucial part of life. It is still the best analytical took we have for understanding how both the aggression of the West in the Middle East (the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan) and the reactions to it are still sustained as acceptable and legitimate through the power of this discourse.
Similarly, Said’s message in the various books and articles on Palestine is still valid today. In these works he exposed the level of fabrication and ignorance about a suffering of a people for more than a century and warned that this state of affairs will affect the Middle East and beyond. Both contributions are about power and knowledge and his legacy is still with us, give power to truth and you may be able to use knowledge for peace and reconciliation; leave at the hands of cynical stakeholders and conflict would continue to rage on.”
Avi Shlaim, historian and emeritus professor of International Relations, University of Oxford: Intellectual who never gave up hope on coexistence and peace
“Edward Said was an extraordinarily versatile and prolific scholar. His book Orientalism exposed the ideological biases behind Western perceptions of ‘the Orient’ and helped create a distinctive sub-field of what came to be called post-colonial studies. In addition to these literary pursuits, Said was a pianist of concert-playing standard and a leading music critic. Last but not least, he was a politically engaged intellectual and the most eloquent spokesman on behalf of the dispossessed Palestinian people.
Although Said’s calls for accommodation and peaceful co-existence earned him the displeasure of Arab radicals and few adherents on the Israeli side, he never abandoned the struggle. On the contrary, he continued to articulate his inclusive vision at every conceivable opportunity. The world must see, he wrote, that ‘the Palestinian idea is an idea of living together, of respect for others, of mutual recognition between Palestinian and Israeli.’ This one sentence encapsulates the essence of Edward Said’s thinking. It is the most consistent theme in his voluminous writing on the subject, from The Question of Palestine to the last article.
He spent the last few years of his life trying to develop an entirely new strategy of peace, a new approach based on equality, reconciliation, and justice. ‘I …see no other way than to begin now to speak about sharing the land that has thrust us together, and sharing it in a truly democratic way, with equal rights for each citizen,’ Said wrote in a 1999. He was an intellectual who spent a lifetime grappling with the complexities and contradictions of the Arab-Israeli conflict and yet never gave up hope on coexistence and peace.”