Edward Said

Edward Said, who died in 2003, first contributed to the LRB in 1981.

Thoughts on Late Style

Edward Said, 5 August 2004

Both in art and in our general ideas about the passage of human life there is assumed to be a general abiding timeliness. We assume that the essential health of a human life has a great deal to do with its correspondence to its time – the fitting together of the two – and is therefore defined by its appropriateness or timeliness. Comedy, for instance, seeks its material in...

“Anyone who believes that the road map offers anything resembling a settlement, or that it tackles the basic issues, is wrong. Like so much of the prevailing peace discourse, it places the need for restraint and renunciation and sacrifice squarely on Palestinian shoulders, thus denying the density and sheer gravity of Palestinian history. To read the road map is to confront an unsituated document, oblivious of its time and place.”

“This is the most reckless war in modern times. It is all about imperial arrogance unschooled in worldliness, unfettered either by competence or experience, undeterred by history or human complexity, unrepentant in its violence and the cruelty of its technology. What winning, or for that matter losing, such a war will ultimately entail is unthinkable. But pity the Iraqi civilians who must still suffer a great deal more before they are finally ‘liberated’.”

“After years of degeneration following the white man’s departure, the empires that ruled Africa and Asia don’t seem quite so bad. A crucial tactic of this revisionism is to read present-day American imperial power as enlightened and even altruistic, and to project that enlightenment back into the past.”

I can’t imagine that there are many Arabs or Iraqis who would not like to see Saddam Hussein removed, but all the indications are that US/Israeli military action would make things much worse on the ground.

‘The world is closing on us, pushing us through the last passage, and we tear off our limbs to pass through.’ Thus Mahmoud Darwish, writing in the aftermath of the PLO’s exit from Beirut in August 1982. ‘Where shall we go after the last frontiers, where should the birds fly after the last sky’? Nineteen years later, what was happening then to the Palestinians in...

My Guru: Elegy for Ibrahim Abu-Lughod

Edward Said, 13 December 2001

Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, a former professor of political science at Northwestern University who later became vice-president of Bir Zeit University on the West Bank, died at the age of 72 on 23 May in his Ramallah home, after a long illness. I learned of his death as I was walking out of Tel Aviv airport on my way to see him. He was my oldest and dearest friend, remarkable as an introspective...

Cosmic Ambition: J.S. Bach

Edward Said, 19 July 2001

The core repertory of Western classical music is dominated by a small number of composers, mostly German and Austrian, mostly of the 18th and 19th centuries. In their work, perfection – of form, melody, harmony and rhythm – is common; in fact it occurs in their music with a frequency unimaginable in painting (except perhaps for Raphael) or literature. Yet even in such...

[ This article refers to a number of maps which are too detailed to be rendered readably on this website. They are available (via these links) as Acrobat PDF files. Map One shows the situation in Hebron now, with the Arab town dominated by Israeli settlements. Map Two follows the sequence of Israeli transfers of West Bank territory to Palestinian self-rule between 1994 and 1999. Map Three...

Diary: My Encounter with Sartre

Edward Said, 1 June 2000

Once the most celebrated intellectual, Jean-Paul Sartre had, until quite recently, almost faded from view. He was already being attacked for his ‘blindness’ about the Soviet gulags shortly after his death in 1980, and even his humanist Existentialism was ridiculed for its optimism, voluntarism and sheer energetic reach. Sartre’s whole career was offensive both to the so-called Nouveaux Philosophes, whose mediocre attainments had only a fervid anti-Communism to attract any attention, and to the post-structuralists and Post-Modernists who, with few exceptions, had lapsed into a sullen technological narcissism deeply at odds with Sartre’s populism and his heroic public politics. The immense sprawl of Sartre’s work as novelist, essayist, playwright, biographer, philosopher, political intellectual, engaged activist, seemed to repel more people than it attracted. From being the most quoted of the French maîtres penseurs, he became, in the space of about twenty years, the least read and the least analysed. His courageous positions on Algeria and Vietnam were forgotten. So were his work on behalf of the oppressed, his gutsy appearance as a Maoist radical during the 1968 student demonstrations in Paris, as well as his extraordinary range and literary distinction (for which he both won, and rejected, the Nobel Prize for Literature). He had become a maligned excelebrity, except in the Anglo-American world, where he had never been taken seriously as a philosopher and was always read somewhat condescendingly as a quaint occasional novelist and memoirist, insufficiently anti-Communist, not quite as chic and compelling as (the far less talented) Camus.‘

In Memory of Tahia: Tahia Carioca

Edward Said, 28 October 1999

The first and only time I saw her dance on the stage was in 1950 at Badia’s Casino, in Giza, just below where the Sheraton stands today. A few days later, I saw her at a vegetable stand in Zamalek, as provocative and beautiful as she had been a few nights before, except this time she was wearing a smart lavender suit and high heels. She looked me straight in the eye but my 14-year-old flustered stare wilted under what seemed to me her brazen scrutiny, and I turned away. I told my older cousin’s wife Aida with shamefaced disappointment about my lacklustre performance with the great woman. ‘You should have winked at her,’ Aida said dismissively, as if such a thing were even imaginable. Tahia Carioca was the most stunning and long-lived of the Arab world’s Eastern dancers (belly-dancers, as they are called today). Her career lasted sixty years, from her first days as a dancer at Badia’s Opera Square Casino in the early Thirties, through the rule of King Farouk, of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar al Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. Each of them, except, I think, Mubarak, imprisoned her at least once for various, mostly political offences. She also acted in hundreds of films and dozens of plays, took part in demonstrations, was a voluble, not to say aggressive member of the actors’ syndicate, and in her last years had become a pious (though outspoken) Muslim known to all her friends and admirers as ‘al-Hagga’. Aged 79, she died of a heart attack in a Cairo hospital on 20 September.‘

Hey, Mister, you want dirty book? The CIA

Edward Said, 30 September 1999

E.P. Thompson called it the ‘Natopolitan’ world: that is, not just Nato plus all the Cold War military and political institutions that were integral to it, but also a mentality whose web extended over a lot more activity and thought, even in the minds of individuals, than anyone at the time had suspected. Of course there were the revelations in the mid-Sixties about Encounter and the CIA, and later in the US and Britain a stream of disclosures about covert counter-insurgency in every form, from secretly underwritten academic research to assassinations and mass killings. Yet it still gives me an eerie feeling to read about people like George Orwell, Stephen Spender and Raymond Aron, to say nothing of less admirable characters of the Melvin Lasky stripe, taking part in surreptitiously subsidised anti-Communist ventures – magazines, symphony orchestras, art exhibitions – or in the setting up of foundations in the name of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ against Soviet totalitarianism.’‘

John McEnroe plus Anyone: tennis

Edward Said, 1 July 1999

Of the several sports that have turned almost completely professional during the past three decades, tennis deserves a place of honour in what Christopher Lasch called the culture of narcissism. A sport of skilful, well-mannered ladies and gentlemen has metamorphosed into a brutal confrontation between unpleasant, physically overdeveloped and remorselessly single-minded hitters, which is controlled by agents, TV networks, tournament bosses, sports equipment conglomerates, automobile and, until recently, cigarette companies. At the same time, an ever-increasing number of former non-tennis countries, besides having the de rigueur national airline and lavish arms procurement agencies, today put on at least one international tournament a year. There are now Qatar and Dubai Opens, to say nothing of counterparts in Tashkent and Conakry. So along with the Grand Slam Big Four (Wimbledon, Sydney, Paris, New York) and the national tournaments, a complex web of satellite tournaments keeps the sizable corps of men and women pros, plus – in the case of top players – retinues that include trainer, coach, psychologist, lover and bodyguard, in business for 52 money-earning weeks a year.

All families invent their parents and children, give each of them a story, character, fate, and even a language. There was always something wrong with how I was invented and meant to fit in with the world of my parents and four sisters. Whether this was because I constantly misread my part or because of some deep flaw in my being I could not tell for most of my early life. Sometimes I was intransigent, and proud of it. At other times I seemed to myself to be nearly devoid of character, timid, uncertain, without will. Yet the overriding sensation I had was of never being quite right. As I have said before in these pages, it took me about fifty years to become accustomed to, or more exactly to feel less uncomfortable with, ‘Edward’, a foolishly English name yoked to the unmistakably Arabic family name ‘Said’. True, ‘Edward’ was for the Prince of Wales who cut so fine a figure in 1935, the year of my birth, and ‘Said’ was the name of various uncles and cousins. But the rationale of my name broke down when I discovered no grandparents called ‘Said’, and when I tried to connect my fancy English name with its Arabic partner. For years, and depending on the exact circumstances, I would rush past ‘Edward’ and emphasise ‘Said’; or do the reverse, or connect the two to each other so quickly that neither would be clear. The one thing I could not tolerate, but very often would have to endure, was the disbelieving, and hence undermining, reaction: Edward? Said?‘

When I was filming with the BBC in Palestine during February and March 1997, I was especially conscious, in places like Hebron, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, of the unpleasant quality of daily life for most Palestinians, whose capacity to earn money or travel has been greatly curtailed since Oslo; whose land and homes are under constant threat; and whose life under Chairman Arafat’s dreadful Authority (buttressed by CIA and Mossad support) has become a nightmare. At least it was possible to render in images the tiny bit of territory – about 3 per cent – controlled by the Authority: controlled, that is, except for exits and entrances, water resources and security, all of which Israel still holds onto. The last scene of the film put things very starkly: land was being expropriated on a daily basis, with no one, certainly no one official, able to stop the Israeli bulldozers. Palestinian workers do the construction work on Jewish settlements – the most terrible irony of all; their leaders are unwilling (for reasons I can’t understand) to stop this by providing alternative employment. The general impoverishment of Palestinian political and economic life is nowhere more evident and cruel.

Between Worlds: a memoir

Edward Said, 7 May 1998

In the first book I wrote, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography, published more than thirty years ago, and then in an essay called ‘Reflections on Exile’ that appeared in 1984, I used Conrad as an example of someone whose life and work seemed to typify the fate of the wanderer who becomes an accomplished writer in an acquired language, but can never shake off his sense of alienation from his new – that is, acquired – and, in Conrad’s rather special case, admired home. His friends all said of Conrad that he was very contented with the idea of being English, even though he never lost his heavy Polish accent and his quite peculiar moodiness, which was thought to be very un-English. Yet the moment one enters his writing the aura of dislocation, instability and strangeness is unmistakable. No one could represent the fate of lostness and disorientation better than he did, and no one was more ironic about the effort of trying to replace that condition with new arrangements and accommodations – which invariably lured one into further traps, such as those Lord Jim encounters when he starts life again on his little island. Marlow enters the heart of darkness to discover that Kurtz was not only there before him but is also incapable of telling him the whole truth; so that, in narrating his own experiences, Marlow cannot be as exact as he would have liked, and ends up producing approximations and even falsehoods of which both he and his listeners seem quite aware.’‘

On ‘Fidelio’

Edward Said, 30 October 1997

‘Fidelio’ is the one opera in the repertory that has the power to sway audiences even when it is indifferently performed. Yet it is a highly problematic work whose triumphant conclusion and the impression it is designed to convey of goodness winning out over evil do not go to the heart of what Beethoven was grappling with. Not that its plot is complex, or that, like many of the French operas of the day which influenced Beethoven and whose brilliance he admired, it is a long and complicated work: Fidelio’s success in the theatre derives in part from its compactness and intensity – in the course of two extremely taut acts, a devoted wife rescues her unjustly imprisoned husband, foils a tyrannically cruel Spanish grandee, and manages to release all the other prisoners arbitrarily imprisoned in his dungeons. Unlike most other operas, however, Fidelio is burdened with the complexities of its own past as well as the huge effort it cost its composer before he was able to present it in its ‘final’ form in Vienna on 23 May 1814. It is the only work of its kind he ever completed; it caused him a great deal of pain; yet despite the attention he lavished on it, he failed to get the satisfaction from it, in terms either of popular success or of aesthetic conviction, that his efforts entitled him to.’‘

In the Chair

Edward Said, 17 July 1997

One of the most talked and written about musicians after World War Two, Glenn Gould quite consciously set about making himself interesting and eccentric. Most performers do, but Gould went beyond anyone. It helped a great deal that he had a phenomenal digital gift, a perfect memory, a very high intelligence, but in addition he was self-conscious and self-observant to an extent most other performers would scarcely be able to imagine. This was not just a matter of takes and re-takes of everything he played, but also of imagining and thinking about himself playing in the greatest detail. In 1964, when he was 34, he deserted the concert stage and retired into an appallingly claustrophobic world of his own making: he never woke up before three in the afternoon, rarely left his hotel room in Toronto, worked all night with his own tape-recorders and splicing-machines, and with a few exceptions, confined his social life to long phone calls after midnight. He was very secretive, despite his loquacity, and hated any criticism, even though his playing was so original and compelling that he became a cult figure among other musicians and the general public when he was still in his twenties.

Lost between War and Peace

Edward Said, 5 September 1996

The principal Palestinian city on the West Bank is Ramallah, about ten miles north of Jerusalem. My parents and I spent the summer of l942 there. I recall it as a leafy, slow-paced and prosperous town of free-standing villas, largely Christian in population, served by a well-known Friends High School. Today it is the West Bank capital of the Palestinian Authority set up under Yasser Arafat as a direct result of the Israeli-PLO negotiations. Most of its Christian residents have been replaced by Muslims; it has considerably increased in size and is now full of office buildings, shops, restaurants, schools, institutes and taxis, all catering to ‘al-Dafah’, or ‘the Bank’ as it is known. But there are only a tiny number of hotels in Ramallah, nor is it any longer a resort. While I was there during the second half of March Mr Arafat’s office in Gaza announced that the West Bank was to be renamed the Northern District. No one I spoke to understood what that particular change signified. But it is true that more than most places, and despite their long history, the Palestinian territories seem to spawn new names, jargons, initials and shorthands. They are a feature of the unstable circumstances in which Palestinians now live.

Charles Rosen’s new book is about the group of composers who succeeded the great Viennese Classicists Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn, and the aesthetic movement they represented. The Post-Classicists emerged for the most part during the period from the death of Beethoven (1827) to the death of Chopin (1849). A substantially expanded version of the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures given at Harvard during 1980-1, The Romantic Generation, which follows in the path of its distinguished predecessor The Classical Style, is a remarkable amalgam of precise, brilliantly illuminating analysis, audacious generalisation, and not always satisfying – but always interesting – synthesis scattered over more than seven hundred pages of serviceable but occasionally patronising prose that takes Rosen through a generous amount of mainly instrumental and vocal music at very close range indeed.’

Contra Mundum

Edward Said, 9 March 1995

A powerful and unsettling book, Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes brings to a close the series of historical studies he began in 1962 with The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848, and followed in 1975 and 1987 respectively with The Age of Capital, 1848-1875 and The Age of Empire, 1875-1914. It is difficult to imagine that anyone other than Hobsbawm could have approached – much less achieved – the consistently high level of these volumes: taken together, they represent one of the summits of historical writing in the postwar period. Hobsbawm is cool where others are hot and noisy; he is ironic and dispassionate where others would have been either angry or heedless; he is discriminatingly observant and subtle where on the same ground other historians would have resorted to clichés or to totalistic system. Perhaps the most compelling thing about Hobsbawm’s achievement in these four books is the poise he maintains throughout. Neither too innocent nor too knowing and cynical, he restores one’s faith in the idea of rational investigation; and in a prose that is as supple and sure as the gait of a brilliant middle-distance runner, he traces the emergence, consolidation, triumph and eclipse of modernity itself – in particular, the amazing persistence of capitalism (its apologists, practitioners, theoreticians and opponents) within it.’’

Who is worse?

Edward Said, 20 October 1994

Despite the dismal events of the past year, Israel continues to be immune from criticism of its outrageous behaviour in the American ‘peace process’. This is one of the most striking aspects of the 12 months that have elapsed since the Declaration of Principles and the Gaza-Jericho agreements were signed on the White House lawn. Part of the blame rests with the PLO’s current leadership, which from the very beginning saluted Israel’s ‘courage’ in granting Palestinians the right to extremely limited self-rule. (Even that is still far from realisation.) Why the victims of Israel’s policies of dispossession, occupation and repression should thank their persecutors for a grudging admission that they ‘exist’ is difficult to understand, although the recently published memoirs of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) provide at least one important clue. It seems that, to people like himself and Arafat, the psychological need for recognition from ‘the Zionist movement’ was so great as to override almost all other considerations – especially those that concerned the Palestinians’ real, long-term interests. The Palestinian negotiators at Oslo, insecure in their own cause, achievements and history, mistook the satisfaction of their own personal need for acknowledgment as a real political victory. But, as the Palestinian economist Burban Dajani has shown, Rabin’s one-sentence ‘recognition’ of the Palestinians recognised no Palestinian rights, but merely an organisation said to represent that people as ‘a suitable negotiating partner’. In other words, Rabin recognised the Palestinian leadership only in order then to wrest concessions from it. The Palestinian people’s losses, suffering and future were handed over to Israel to dispose of as it wished.’

At Miss Whitehead’s

Edward Said, 7 July 1994

Among major 20th-century critics who wrote in English, Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) is still by far the most readable – readable anywhere and at any time. Only professionals are likely to find his style, and even his methods, entirely too informal and amateurish – absence of footnotes, personal tone etc. But I can testify to being able to read him with pleasure and for no particular reason at home, on a bus, in an office, a hospital waiting-room, a hotel. I cannot recall that he was ever an assigned author in any of the many literature classes I took, both as an undergraduate and as a graduate student, but he was always a significant presence, for my teachers as much as for myself. His vast output stretched over an enormous expanse of literature, and history, over a great range of cultures, East and West, North and South. His voice remained the same: engagingly chatty, effortlessly well-informed, always interested in the human side of books and histories, a side he rendered in the form of chronological narratives, none more gripping and interesting than those deft plot summaries which he combined with biographical detail and perspicacious literary judgment. His model was Sainte-Beuve who, as F.W. Dupee, another remarkable American Sainte-Beuvian, used to say, enabled Wilson not only to be a literary portraitist but also to give you the impression that he was discovering books and authors as if for the first time. This sense of excitement and, yes, egotism – Wilson communicates a proprietary ease, with no book or idea too out of the way or difficult for him to have ferreted out – still makes for great pleasure, despite the many cranky likes and dislikes.

In 1992 I visited Hebron for the first time since the 1967 war and was immediately impressed with how, of all places under Israeli occupation, it was clearly waiting to explode. That it did so on 25 February is surprising only in that a massacre did not take place earlier, although on 14 January the Army, using anti-tank missiles, destroyed a student house and killed three young Palestinians.

The Morning After

Edward Said, 21 October 1993

Now that some of the euphoria has lifted, it is possible to re-examine the Israeli-PLO agreement with the required common sense. What emerges from such scrutiny is a deal that is more flawed and, for most of the Palestinian people, more unfavourably weighted than many had first supposed. The fashion-show vulgarities of the White House ceremony, the degrading spectacle of Yasser Arafat thanking everyone for the suspension of most of his people’s rights, and the fatuous solemnity of Bill Clinton’s performance, like a 20th-century Roman emperor shepherding two vassal kings through rituals of reconciliation and obeisance: all these only temporarily obscure the truly astonishing proportions of the Palestinian capitulation.

‘The bewildering variety of interests and standards in Wagner scholarship (or what passes for it) is congenitally resistant to study.’ Thus John Deathridge, the leading Wagner scholar of the English-speaking world, at the beginning of his chapter on Wagner research in the Wagner Handbook. It so learned and au courant a scholar as Deathridge is daunted by trying to make sense of Wagner research and interpretation, what about the rest of us? For not only was Wagner both contemptuous of history in general and a constant re-maker of his own history, but the enormous range of materials that have survived him (including, of course, his 15 Operas) has made almost any relatively straightforward approach to him impossible. Deathridge deepens the problem by saying that even a Gesamtforscher (‘a versatile scholar who can do everything’) would probably fail to adjudicate or negotiate the discrepancies: between the fantastic quantity of sources and Wagner’s shifting ideologies, for example, or between Wagner and Wagnerism, or between the music and the texts. The difficulties are dizzying and appear limitless. ‘A viable view of Wagner research,’ Deathridge concludes, ‘has more to do with the dynamics of history than with an absolute vision of how it should be.’

Paulin’s People

Edward Said, 9 April 1992

It is not very often that professional students of literature experience an invigorating shock of pleasure, surprise, illumination upon reading a work of criticism – perhaps because, like the natural scientists described by Thomas Kuhn, we are bound by ‘paradigms of research’ which tend to direct attention to accepted modes of expression and discovery. Some time in 1987 I happened on an issue of a literary magazine left in my house by a visiting friend. My attention was immediately caught by an essay on Gerard Manley Hopkins by one Tom Paulin, of whom at the time I had never heard at all. Hopkins was a poet I was particularly attached to, and for years I had read very little about him that was not clotted and professionalised. But Paulin’s piece was, I thought, unusually compelling. Using a vocabulary that was both political and extraordinarily sensitive to poetic technique, Paulin resurrected Hopkins from three generations of ‘ahistorical literary criticism’. Here was a primitive communist and also a rigid authoritarian, a man committed to ‘a blurting boorishness and lack of refinement’, as well as ‘a self-abasing admiration for rigid order’. Like Hugh MacDiarmid, Paulin said, Hopkins had a ‘risky, over-the-top extremism’ to his imagination, and while in Ireland in 1887-8 gave vent in his verse to ‘revolutionary intoxication, an expressionist whap of pure energy’ inspired by his perception that he belonged to ‘a civilisation founded on wrecking’.’

On board the ‘Fiona’

Edward Said, 19 December 1991

Conrad enthusiasts subdivide into two categories. Both are convinced that so peculiar and haunting are his life and work, so utterly without precedents or successful emulators, that only an all-out, full-scale, total exertion – no gracefully written or tasteful essays here – can even begin to get hold of his astonishing oeuvre. Category one believes that the exertion should be to nail down all the known details of Conrad’s travels and readings, thereby tying the fiction to real places and personages, and, whenever possible, actual books and ideas, that help explain the mysterious novels and stories. Norman Sherry famously does this in Conrad’s Eastern World and Conrad’s Western World, remarkable works of sleuthing rediscovery that respectively cover Conrad’s Indian and Pacific Ocean voyages, and his wanderings in Africa, Europe and Latin America. But so also do Zdislaw Najder, with his emphasis on Conrad’s Polish perspective, and Ian Watt, whose exhaustive survey of the 19th-century background provides a wide array of sources for Conrad’s stranger ideas.’

The United States is at an extraordinarily bloody moment in its history as the last superpower. Perhaps because I come from the Arab world, I have often thought during the past few months, and more anxiously during the past few days, that such a war as we Americans are now engaged in, with such aims, rhetoric, and all-encompassing violence and destruction, could now have been waged only against an Arab-Islamic-Third World country. It does no one in it any credit, and it will not produce any of the great results which have been predicted, however ostensibly victorious either side may prove to be, and whatever the results may prove to be for the other. It will not solve the problems of the Middle East, or those of America, now in a deep recession, plagued by poverty, joblessness, and an urban, education and health crisis of gigantic proportions.

Homage to a Belly-Dancer

Edward Said, 13 September 1990

The greatest and most famous singer of the 20th-century Arab world was Um Kalthoum, whose records and cassettes, fifteen years after her death, are available everywhere. A fair number of non-Arabs know about her too, partly because of the hypnotic and melancholy effect of her singing, partly because in the world-wide rediscovery of authentic people’s art Um Kalthoum is a dominant figure. But she also played a significant role in the emerging Third World women’s movement as a pious ‘Nightingale of the East’ whose public exposure was as a model not only of feminine consciousness but also of domestic propriety. During her lifetime, there was talk about whether or not she was a lesbian, but the sheer force of her performances of elevated music set to classical verse overrode such rumours. In Egypt she was a national symbol, respected both during the monarchy and after the revolution led by Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Goodbye to Mahfouz

Edward Said, 8 December 1988

Naguib Mahfouz’s achievement as the greatest living Arab novelist and first Arab winner of the Nobel Prize has in small but significant measure now retrospectively vindicated his unmatched regional reputation, and belatedly given him recognition in the West. For of all the major literatures and languages, Arabic is by far the least known and the most grudgingly regarded by Europeans and Americans, a huge irony given that all Arabs regard the immense literary and cultural worth of their language as one of their principal contributions to the world. Arabic is of course the language of the Koran, and is therefore central to Islam, in which it has a hieratic, historical and everyday use that is almost without parallel in other world cultures. Because of that role, and because it has always been associated with resistance to the imperialist incursions that have characterised Arab history since the late 18th century, Arabic has also acquired a uniquely contested position in modern culture, defended and extolled by its native speakers and writers, belittled, attacked or ignored by foreigners for whom it has represented a last defended bastion of Arabism and Islam.

Alexander the Brilliant

Edward Said, 18 February 1988

Much the best way to convey appreciation of Alexander Cockburn’s rousing and combative prose is to quote him at length. The protocols of reviewing, however, preclude such a practice, so one has to resort to the altogether drearier method of describing what he is about. Recently I mentioned to him that I was reading his book in order to review it. He was calling from Eugene, Oregon (the week before he had been in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, and just before that we had had breakfast in London, to which he had just come from Moscow). ‘Noting with pleasure and admiration the superb prose, the witty observation, the admirable structure,’ he immediately volunteered. Why, in the desert of today’s journalistic mediocrity and cowardly trimming, anyone with Cockburn’s gifts and courage should be modest, or mock-modest, I shall leave to others to discuss. Certainly the darting, cruel and unsparing wit displayed by this oldest son of Claud Cockburn stands out brilliantly in the pages of the Nation, the Wall Street Journal, In These Times, week after week. Few people have the courage to accumulate enemies the way Cockburn has. Starting with Ronald Reagan, whom he twits remorselessly, he has been on the wrong side of the entire US Government, of the New Republic, of Norman Podhoretz, of nearly every journalist of note, left, right and centre, of the New York Times, of the McNeil-Lehrer Report (see in particular his devastating replication of that TV programme’s famous ‘balance’, with the ponderously sober ‘Robin’ McNeil, ‘Jim’ Lehrer and ‘Charlene’ Hunter-Gault studiously examining both sides of the slavery question, Hitler and the Crucifixion), of most academics and of all TV networks, of the rich and the famous, of the military, of Israel, of Thatcher, Kissinger, and many others. He has, it should be added, his softer side, which emerges occasionally in gay or commendatory remarks about family, good cooking (excluding Chinese), figures of stoic calm and moral truthfulness (Israel Shahak, Chairman of the Israeli League of Human Rights), socialism, P.G. Wodehouse.

Miami Twice

Edward Said, 10 December 1987

Despite the media’s unending stream of patriotic talk about ‘America’, one occasionally has a sense of the country’s disunity, its unmanageable extremes, the foreignness of some of its parts to other parts. Riding the Broadway bus recently, I was struck by the driver’s almost beatific reaction to a passenger’s rudeness to him. Instead of screaming back at the offending person, he smiled gently, saying with an air of contentment: ‘Scream all you like. That’s OK. In California they don’t just argue – they shoot each other.’ He was referring to the spate of freeway incidents near Los Angeles, in which impatient or stalled commuters picked each other off with rifles and handguns in the midst of the vast traffic jams.’


Edward Said, 7 May 1987

The ostensible reason for the enormous concern in America over the Irangate affair has been the question of whether the President and his National Security Council, together with the CIA and others, have been trading weapons for the release of the hostages held in Lebanon. The argument given in defence of what was done has been, from the start, that sending Robert McFarlane to Teheran was an attempt to exploit a ‘geopolitical opening’. Both versions of the same series of events have been criticised as an affront to the stated US policy of not dealing with terrorists or terrorist states. According to the categories devised by the State Department, Iran is a terrorist state.

America and Libya

Edward Said, 8 May 1986

In the extracts from David Stockman’s memoirs published on Monday 14 April by Newsweek, Reagan’s former Budget Director spoke of the mediocrities, charlatans and power-hungry politicos who cluster around the disturbingly vague and incompetent Great Communicator. For them, Stockman said, ‘reality-time’ was the seven o’clock evening news on television. How did we look and sound? they ask themselves, as if public policy were some sort of show designed to entertain and please ‘the American people’ once a day, five nights a week. On 14 April reality-time began on each of the three networks with the same first indications of an American strike against Libya.

How not to get gored

Edward Said, 21 November 1985

Readers of American writing have been struck by the prevalence of what Dwight Macdonald once called ‘how-to-ism’. This is not simply a matter of guides to gadgetry, or to cooking, or to doing things like marrying wealth and achieving peace of mind, although writing on all these subjects is more plentiful in America than anywhere else. What I have in mind is the practical, instructional attitude which is to be found in a great many canonical works of high literature: Moby Dick, for instance, can be seen as a manual of what to do if you want to go whaling, as well as an encyclopedia of everything pertaining to ships and the sea. Cooper’s novels are full of practical hints about forest and Indian life, Twain is stuffed with South-Western and Mississippi River lore, as is Walden of New England nature and Faulkner of the South; in Henry James the tendency takes the form of connoisseurship. In all these cases the implication is that reality cannot stand on its own, but requires the services of an expert to convey or unlock its meaning. The converse of this is no less true, that Americans seem interested not so much in reality as in how to approach and master it, and for this expert guidance is necessary.

I never thought that Beirut was the Middle Eastern Paris, nor that Lebanon was like Switzerland. This does not make the country’s present agonies any less horrible, or Beirut’s relentlessly detailed self-dismantling – much of it performed on prime-time television – any less unprecedented, and interminably, senselessly miserable to witness. The whole process has by now become a large-scale version of the Laurel and Hardy film of two men who vengefully destroy each other’s car and house piece by piece, tit-for-tat, and while they glower and puff through many ‘take thats’ the world around them gets wiped out. As the struggle for power and territory continues in Beirut, very little will be left of either when, and if, a final victor emerges. A close friend of mine who has lived through the entire ordeal told me last week over the phone from Beirut that quite apart from the bombing and mayhem, reading the epidemic of local newspapers would certainly drive anyone crazy: no two of them say the same thing, and trying to figure out what is happening or who is fighting whom for what reason is like catching clouds.’

Permission to narrate

Edward Said, 16 February 1984

As a direct consequence of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon an international commission of six jurists headed by Sean MacBride undertook a mission to investigate reported Israeli violations of international law during the invasion. The commission’s conclusions were published in Israel in Lebanon by a British publisher: it is reasonably clear that no publisher could or ever will be found for the book in the US. Anyone inclined to doubt the Israeli claim that ‘purity of arms’ dictated the military campaign will find support for that doubt in the report, even to the extent of finding Israel also guilty of attempted ‘ethnocide’ and ‘genocide’ of the Palestinian people (two members of the commission demurred at that particular conclusion, but accepted all the others). The findings are horrifying – and almost as much because they are forgotten or routinely denied in press reports as because they occurred. The commission says that Israel was indeed guilty of acts of aggression contrary to international law; it made use of forbidden weapons and methods; it deliberately, indiscriminately and recklessly bombed civilian targets – ‘for example, schools, hospitals and other non-military targets’; it systematically bombed towns, cities, villages and refugee camps; it deported, dispersed and ill-treated civilian populations; it had no really valid reasons ‘under international law for its invasion of Lebanon, for the manner in which it conducted hostilities, or for its actions as an occupying force’; it was directly responsible for the Sabra and Shatila massacres.–

In this small-scale and intimate first collection of stories by Ahdaf Soueif there is a remarkably productive, somewhat depressing tension between the anecdotal surface of modern, Westernised Egyptian life and the troubling, often violent but always persisting traditional forms beneath. In one story, cajoled and pleaded to by her family and importunate suitors, Marianne is nevertheless seduced by an engineer whose Eau Sauvage, silk robe and Zamalek flat are to her the height of an irresistible worldliness: after she becomes his mistress it is discovered, however, that he runs a vice ring. Her brief revolt against the code governing nubile women is thereafter quelled, and she marries an uninteresting bourgeois who perfectly suits her family’s idea of what a good husband should be. Contrasted with this, Zeina’s marriage (Zeina is a lower-class foil for Aisha and Marianne, both Egyptian women inhabiting the world of half-European attitudes, foreign travel and university learning) is consummated in ritual fashion with the bridegroom’s bandaged finger brutally deflowering her in full view of her family, whose ‘honour’ has thus been served. Ironically, Zeina later confesses that she likes her ‘big’ husband, and contrives a clever way of ridding herself of his new, second wife. Marianne, on the other hand, settles despondently into a life of correct but dull domesticity.

Crazy America

Edward Said, 19 March 1981

On 20 January 1981 the 52 Americans held prisoner in the US Embassy for 444 days finally left Iran. A few days later they arrived in the United States to be greeted by the country’s genuine happiness at seeing them back. The ‘hostage return’, as it was to be called, became a week-long media event. There were many, frequently intrusive and maudlin hours of live TV coverage, as the ‘returnees’ were transported to Algeria, then to Germany, then to West Point, to Washington, and then at last to their various home towns; most American newspapers and national weeklies ran supplements on the return, ranging from learned analyses of how the final agreement between Iran and the United States was arrived at, and what it involved, to celebrations of American heroism and Iranian barbarism; interspersed were personal stories of the hostage ordeal, often embroidered by enterprising journalists, and what seemed an alarmingly available number of psychiatrists eager to explain what the hostages were really going through. Insofar as there was serious discussion of the past and of the future, discussion that went beyond the level of the yellow ribbons designated as symbolic of Iranian captivity, the new Administration set the tone, and determined the limits. Analysis of the past was focused on whether or not the US should have made (and ought to honour) the agreement with Iran. On 31 January 1981 the New Republic predictably attacked ‘the ransom’, and the Carter Administration for giving in to terrorists; then it condemned the whole ‘legally controvertible proposition’ of dealing with Iranian demands, as well as the use of Algeria as an intermediary, which is ‘well practised at giving refuge to terrorists and laundering the ransoms they bring’. Discussion of the future was constrained by the Reagan Administration’s declared war on terrorism: this, not human rights, was to be the main new priority of US policy, even to the extent of supporting ‘moderately repressive regimes’ if they happen to be allies.

Grey Eminence

Edward Said, 5 March 1981

Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) was probably the most powerful and famous American journalist of this century, a fact confirmed many times over in Ronald Steel’s extraordinarily fine biography. The only son of very well-off German-Jewish parents, Lippmann had a sheltered and privileged childhood in New York, ‘learning Latin and Greek by gaslight and riding a goat cart in Central Park’ before going off to Harvard, where his classmates included John Reed, T.S. Eliot and Conrad Aiken. From birth to death, Fortune – in the form of knowing nearly everyone who counted and being able to defend at least two sides of every major public issue of his time – always favoured him. The list of his friends, his associates, the things he did (‘worked as a legman for Lincoln Steffens … debated socialism with Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells … became the éminence grise to Woodrow Wilson’s own alter ego, Colonel House’), the presidents, kings and leaders he knew, the great events he witnessed at very close quarters, the papers, books and journals he produced, the careers he espoused or helped, the ideas, issues, problems he encountered and illuminated, is positively awesome, and, as Steel says justly, ‘gave him an enormous power over public opinion’. Yet Lippmann never held office; although substantial, his wealth did not command direct control over industry or finance capital; he had many influential friends, but never a school or movement behind him. The only thing he did (‘only’ being a most inadequate word here) was, as he put it, to assist his American readers in making an ‘adjustment to reality’.


The Great Lie

14 December 2000

Edward Said writes: ‘Tens of thousands of fine new houses’ are what Edward Luttwak claims to have seen on a visit to the West Bank. Fine, nice houses, rich ones, too! Did he count them? Amnesty published a report last winter on the number of Palestinian house demolitions undertaken by the Israel military since 1987: 2650 houses were destroyed and 16,700 Palestinians made homeless. Other...
Steven Maynard and Michael Payne (Letters, 20 July) rush needlessly to Foucault’s defence. First of all, Payne seems unable to distinguish between ‘philo-semitism’, which I never discussed, and the strong, indeed unconditional support for Israel given by both Sartre and Foucault. It was that support I commented on (without placing a ‘blot’ on either’s reputation)...

Baying for Blood

17 July 1997

As a professional performer herself, Rosalind Cressy (Letters, 31 July) thinks it ‘ill-considered’ of me ‘to speak of audiences waiting for the isolated genius on stage to make a mistake’. Doubtless, but precisely that and a great deal more paranoiac anxiety is what Glenn Gould felt: I was paraphrasing his sentiments, not endorsing them, though I do think Cressy is a bit disingenuous...

Arafat’s Palestine

5 September 1996

Messrs Teimourian and Katznelson persist in their illusions (Letters, 31 October). Connie Bruck’s recent New Yorker article about the negotiations affirms what I have been saying and, unlike my critics, seeing. For one thing, she says that it was Peres who forced Arafat to make most of the nasty concessions as part of a scheme, according to Peres, to remake Arafat into his partner. According...

Unfaithful to Wagner

11 February 1993

Edward Said writes: How convenient for Michael Tanner to retreat into undergraduate nitpicking, having lost his case on all the essential points about Wagner. There aren’t 13 operas, water is everywhere (this is Vogt’s point anyway), Wieland Wagner’s influence, the importance of Wagner’s politics to his aesthetics, the need for ‘infidelity’, Proust and Mallarmé...

Goodbye to Mahfouz

8 December 1988

Philip Stewart is a decent enough translator, but he is an incredibly bad reader (Letters, 19 January). I didn’t say that Awlad Haritna ended in 1952; I did say that it was banned before it was published, meaning ‘in book form’. Mahfouz’s work as a whole is ‘stately’ despite Stewart’s petulant little outburst.

Wrong Analogy

1 October 1987

SIR: When he complains of David Shipler’s ahistorical and acontextual attitude to the Palestinian-Zionist conflict. Shlomo Avineri (LRB, 1 October) himself requires a historical and contextual gloss. He first asks us to imagine an analogous book written in 1945 by an American journalist about the poor defeated Germans, who, he hints, would be a preposterous object of sympathy. In other words,...

Going Against: Is There a Late Style?

Frank Kermode, 5 October 2006

The odd thing is that most of the contributors to these books doubt whether it is possible to offer a clear and distinct idea of the subject under discussion. Indeed, Karen Painter, one of the...

Read More

In Being and Nothingness Sartre has an admirable passage about the stubborn human tendency to ‘fill’, the fact that a good part of human life, in politics as elsewhere, is devoted to...

Read More

What nations are for

Tom Nairn, 8 September 1994

The politics of dispossession is nationalism – an over-generalisation which at once calls for precise qualification. It is quite true that not all nationalists are dispossessed: possessors...

Read More

In the Wilderness

W.J.T. Mitchell, 8 April 1993

The Foundation of Empire is Art and Science. Remove them or Degrade them and the Empire is no more. Empire follows Art and not vice versa as Englishmen suppose. William Blake,...

Read More

Off the edge

Frank Kermode, 7 November 1991

The Wellek Library Lectures at the University of California, Irvine, are meant to be about Critical Theory, and up to now they have, for good or ill, been faithful (in their fashion) to that...

Read More


Richard Wollheim, 19 March 1987

Professor Bernard Lewis enjoys a worldwide reputation as a scholar of Near-Eastern history, and in his most recent work, Semites and Anti-Semites, he has chosen to concentrate his formidable...

Read More

Textual Harassment

Claude Rawson, 5 April 1984

In a recent review in this paper, Edward Said used the word ‘narrative’ about thirty times. This might have seemed a lot even in the present state of litcritspeak, and even in an...

Read More


Malise Ruthven, 18 February 1982

Edward Said is the first Palestinian to have stormed the East Coast literary establishment. His achievement has partly been the result of what his more paranoid opponents must regard as his...

Read More

Making peace

Dan Gillon, 3 April 1980

The Palestinian problem has been the subject of world-wide debate for more than a decade. Yet the issue is not well understood. The debate, for all its volume and intensity, has rarely managed to...

Read More

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences