When Edward Said joined the Columbia University English department in 1963, a rumour spread that he was a Jew from Alexandria. He might as well have been. Born in Jerusalem in 1935 to well-off Palestinian Christian parents, he had grown up in the twilight years of multicultural Cairo, where many of his classmates were Egyptian Jews. His piano teacher was Ignace Tiegerman, a Polish Jew who had moved to Cairo in 1931 and founded a French-speaking conservatoire. Said’s closest friends at Princeton and Harvard, Arthur Gold, a brilliant Luftmensch prone to tormented idleness, and the future art critic Michael Fried, were Jews. His dissertation and first book were about Joseph Conrad’s explorations of ambiguity and double identities. As Timothy Brennan writes in Places of Mind, Said was ‘a photo negative of his Jewish counterparts’.
Said spent his first years at Columbia as a kind of an Arab Marrano, or crypto Palestinian, among Jewish and Wasp colleagues who were either indifferent or hostile to the Arab struggle with Israel. He published essays in the little magazines of the New York intellectuals, went to cocktail parties with Lionel Trilling and Mary McCarthy, and kept quiet about his identity and his politics. His parents, who were themselves estranged from Palestine (his father said Jerusalem reminded him of death), were relieved that their moody and contentious son was showing such prudence. Thanks to his father’s service in the American Expeditionary Forces during the First World War, Said was an American citizen, and if he was reinventing himself, well, that’s what immigrants did in the New World. The Egyptian literary theorist Ihab Hassan had shed his Arab identity when he moved to the US, and had never looked back.
But something in Said rebelled against the concealment and silence that the loss of Palestine had imposed, and that his father, William Said, had accepted, leaving behind not only the family’s past in Jerusalem but also his Arab name, Wadie. After 1967, Said embraced the Palestinian struggle – an act of ‘affiliation’, as he put it, a commitment based on belief, rather than ‘filiation’. If Wadie chose to Americanise himself, adopting phrases like ‘hunky dory’ and supporting the war in Vietnam, Edward chose to ‘Palestinise’ himself.
In Cairo, Wadie Said had run a company that supplied office equipment to the British occupying army. Edward and his four sisters had a pampered childhood: servants, music lessons, family trips to New York, a holiday home in the Lebanese village of Dhour el Shweir (‘mind-deadening rigours of relentlessly regulated summers’, Said complained). As Palestinian members of the Anglican Church, they were a minority within a minority in Egypt. They gave their children English names and socialised mostly with other Arab Christians from Palestine, Lebanon and Syria. Wadie, who was proud of the whiteness of his skin and sometimes pretended he was from Cleveland, identified with America more than with Palestine. (The Saids celebrated Thanksgiving.) Edward also spent part of his childhood in the family’s homeland, in the West Jerusalem neighbourhood of Talbiyah, but after 1948, as he wrote in his memoir, ‘Palestine acquired a languid, almost dreamlike, aspect for me.’ It was only thanks to his aunt Nabiha, who did charitable work among Palestinian refugees in Cairo, that he became aware of the Nakba, which Wadie passed over in silence.
In his memoir, Out of Place, Said describes his parents as ‘amphibious Levantine creatures whose essential lostness was momentarily stayed by a kind of forgetfulness, a kind of daydream, that included elaborately catered dinner parties, outings to fashionable restaurants, the opera, ballet and concerts’. He benefited from the daydream, as their world was shaken by the loss of Palestine, and, in 1952, the collapse of the Egyptian monarchy, which would eventually force the family to flee to Beirut. He read Balzac and Dostoevsky with his mother and saw Furtwängler conduct (‘an emanation’). Yet he portrayed himself in his memoir as an unhappy, ‘delinquent’ child, at the mercy of his father’s strict discipline (and cane), vulnerable to his mother’s caprice and emotional blackmail. The book’s depiction of Wadie as a domestic tyrant infuriated his sisters, and Brennan has unearthed affectionate letters from father to son. Said described his memoir as a ‘documentary fiction’ but Brennan largely confirms its accuracy.
Hilda, his mother, was ‘my closest and most intimate companion for the first 25 years of my life’. (The intensity of the attachment was due in part to Hilda’s loss of a baby boy the year before Edward was born.) Their relationship, Said wrote, had ‘shattering results for my later life as a man trying to establish a relationship … with other women’. According to Brennan, Wadie sent his fifteen-year-old son to the Mount Hermon boarding school in rural Massachusetts not because of his rebellious behaviour at the British-run Victoria College, as Said later claimed, but because he feared that the ‘obsessive intimacies’ with Hilda would hinder Edward’s emotional development.
Said’s letters home were ‘positively jaunty’, full of enthusiasm for his adopted culture. But he chafed at the casual prejudice against Arabs (his classmates privately referred to him as a ‘wog’). He became a passionate anti-imperialist, expressing his support for the Palestinian cause and cheering on Nasser’s revolution in Egypt, even though his father’s business had been burned to the ground in nationalist protests. (Said’s enthusiasm for Nasser, which his mother shared and which sat uneasily with his anti-authoritarian politics, was apparently undiminished by the murder of his childhood hero, Farid Haddad, a communist activist who was beaten to death in prison in 1959.) At Princeton, he met Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, a graduate student from Jaffa, who told him about the revolution in Algeria and schooled him in the Palestinian struggle. His ethnicity didn’t go unnoticed on campus: a placement bureau form described him as ‘very dark, big’ and ‘of Arab descent’.
Said came into his own as an undergraduate, writing his senior thesis on André Gide and Graham Greene under the supervision of R.P. Blackmur, while continuing his piano studies with Erich Itor Kahn, a European Jewish émigré. His parents expected him to join the family business after graduation, but he had no intention of becoming his father’s subordinate. At first he flirted with a career in medicine, a respectable compromise which his parents accepted. But his friend Arthur Gold persuaded him not to give up his real passions. Gold also introduced him to a book that would exert an enormous influence on his thinking, Vico’s New Science. Vico’s emphasis on historical beginnings as acts of human freedom gave Said the framework he needed as he contemplated a career as a professor of literature in the US.
The summer after graduation, while driving through the Swiss mountains, Said collided with, and killed, a motorcyclist; when he woke up, a priest was giving him the last rites. Only a few months later, he was in graduate school at Harvard. His mentor there was Harry Levin, the author of a study of realism which Said considered on a par with Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis. As Brennan points out, Levin’s belief in ‘universal interrelatedness’ inspired Said’s own practice of making unexpected connections between literary and cultural traditions, between fiction and contemporary philosophy. While seeing a psychoanalyst, attending Glenn Gould recitals in Boston and working on his Conrad dissertation, Said began to discover the ideas that would shape his imagination as a critic: Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology (the subject of his 1967 essay ‘The Labyrinth of Incarnations’), Lukács’s analysis of ‘reification’ and Sartre’s theory of commitment.
At Harvard, Said also acquired a reputation for being irresistible to women. One of those women was Maire Jaanus, the daughter of Estonian refugees, whom he married at his family’s summer home in Dour El Shweir in 1962. Jaanus, who worked on literature from the 18th century onwards, referred to her new husband as ‘Saidus’, and described him as a ‘vexing trinity’: he ‘could have been a philosopher, a poet or a critic’. She had left out his fourth aspect: membership of a large and overbearing family in which, Brennan writes, ‘uncles and aunts were almost as close as parents and no one kept secrets from anyone.’ Hilda found Jaanus chilly and distant. ‘Edward, it was only normal for us to be wary of a foreign girl marrying our son,’ she wrote to him. ‘But honest to God we tried hard to love her, do you remember all that happened before your wedding – your reaction? Edward we didn’t know Maire then, we still don’t know her, or know her even less. All we know and are sure of now is that she has no use for any of us six, in any way.’
Hilda had already succeeded in sabotaging his love affair with a Lebanese Christian woman, seven years his senior, whom she considered unsuitable. Said was furious and refused to serve as his father’s go-between with a business partner in New York, declaring that ‘my whole attitude to my past is in ruin.’ (Hilda responded by asking where he would be without his father’s business.) He also wrote seventy pages of an unfinished novel, ‘Elegy’, about a shady Lebanese Christian owner of a ‘failing printing company and a grubby stationery shop’ and his sickly wife, ‘stuff[ed] away in a shabby apartment’. Said didn’t spare himself, including a mocking self-portrait of a clueless employee called Mufid who idles away his time on things that were ‘utterly lost on everyone else’. Brennan presents the lost manuscript (and a story Said submitted around the same time to the New Yorker) as evidence of the novelist he might have become, but it seems more like a thwarted attempt to settle scores with his family and break free of the past. He put aside his literary ambitions, and grew estranged from Jaanus, whom he later divorced. In 1970 he married Mariam Cortas, a Lebanese Quaker whose family knew the Saids; they had two children, Wadie (a restoration of William’s Arab name) and Najla. Hilda was overjoyed: she had regained her wayward son. In his private life, at least, filiation prevailed over affiliation. Said would seek out the company of other women, many of them high-profile academics, while quietly griping about the ‘bourgeois myth, which I now live, with increasing discomfort and unhappiness’. But he never seriously contemplated giving up his life as a husband and father.
In his first few years in New York, Said ‘settled into Columbia life as an upstart member of the New York intellectuals’. His relations with Trilling were cordial, but he found him ‘an impenetrable egoist’ and drew closer to the radical literary critic Fred Dupee, a founding editor of Partisan Review. In his early literary journalism, Said marked his distance from the Cold War moralism of the New York intellectuals as well as from the conservative formalism of the New Critics by looking to Paris, where writers were taking what Brennan calls ‘insurgent positions on the politics of culture’. His old mentor Harry Levin tried to check his enthusiasm for French theory, which, as he put it, ‘does not truly aim at the understanding of literature, but at deriving metaphysical paradigms from authors by superimposing certain abstractions supported by quotations taken out of context’. Said would later tell Levin he’d been right all along. But theory served him well in establishing his intellectual independence, and aided his efforts to deprovincialise the study of literature – to make it more ‘worldly’ (one of his favourite adjectives). He wrote variously on existentialism, phenomenology and structuralism, borrowing whatever he found useful.
Said’s relationship to ideas was supple and pragmatic, and, as Brennan writes, he was often ‘drawn to writers he should have disliked’. Conrad’s bleakness and Swift’s monarchism were anathema to him; so was Foucault’s totalising vision of power in which any and all resistance was destined to be swallowed up and neutralised. But Said found them all compelling as writers, and he sharpened his ideas by wrestling with theirs, in what he described as a form of counterpoint. Writers of the political right, he once said, can be ‘untimely, anxious witnesses to the dominant currents of their time’. Brennan calls these interests ‘perverse allegiances’, but they were also an expression of his commitment to intellectual freedom – and to the university as a sanctuary. While he styled himself an anti-imperialist, Said was mostly an old-fashioned liberal when it came to campus politics. He supported the 1968 student strike against the war in Vietnam called by Students for a Democratic Society but recoiled from their attack on the university, and from what he saw as puerile anti-authoritarianism. When a group of striking students disrupted one of his lectures, he insisted that they leave and called security when they refused.
For Said, the excitement of 1968 lay not in the student uprising, which he saw as revolutionary theatre, but in the Battle of Karameh in Jordan, where the Palestinian fedayeen fought bravely against the Israeli army. On his visits to Amman in 1969 and 1970, where he had his first, brief meeting with Yasser Arafat, Said had the experience of being ‘a visitor but also an exhilarated participant in the national revival that I saw taking place’. In 1972 a year’s Guggenheim fellowship took him to Beirut, where the PLO had set up headquarters after being forced out of Jordan. There he renewed his connection with a friend from Harvard, Hanna Mikhaïl, who had given up an academic career in the US to become a PLO cadre, taking the name Abu Omar. (He was killed in mysterious circumstances in 1976.) Mikhaïl in turn introduced him to Jean Genet, ‘a very strange bird given to long scary silences’.
While in Beirut, Said immersed himself in the work of Ibn Khaldun, whose 1377 study of history, the Muqaddimah, became nearly as important to him as Vico’s New Science, and received his political education from intellectuals in the orbit of the PLO who were struggling to make sense of the 1967 defeat. He met the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish; the Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury; the Syrian Marxist Sadik al-Azm (who had published a blistering anatomy of the Arab military failure); the Arab nationalist Constantine Zurayk (the author of a book on the 1948 war that popularised the term Nakba); and the PLO leader Kamal Nasser, who was killed by the Israelis only hours after he and Said had been at dinner together. In Mawaqif, a journal edited by the poet Adonis, Said made his own contribution to the literature of Arab self-criticism after the defeat, fretting – in the kind of essentialising language he would later condemn as ‘Orientalist’ – that the ‘characteristic movement of the Arab is circular … repetition is therefore mistaken for novelty, especially since there is no sense of recognition’.
The birth of the Palestinian guerrilla movement promised an end to the grim repetition of Arab political and intellectual life. The revolution’s centre was Beirut, and Said dreamed of staying on there with his family, but Mariam was against the idea. Having been made to feel unwelcome at the American University, he came to share her view: anyone of talent and initiative, he concluded, was ‘shelved, castrated or thrown out’. But his year in Beirut led to a creative breakthrough. In his 1975 book, Beginnings, an ambitious study of modern theories of language, Said made a case for writing as ‘an act of taking hold of language (prendre la parole) in order to do something, not merely in order to repeat an idea verbatim’. One critic saw in it ‘powerful intellectual tools … put in the service of Arab nationalist interests’. In fact, it was a challenge to the rigidities of structuralism, not Zionism, but its political implications were clear: Said was arguing that intentional acts of language, especially speech, could short-circuit systems of power and become a form of resistance.
In November 1974, Said’s argument was given a live demonstration before the world, when Arafat addressed the United Nations for the first time. Said helped draft the speech and added the closing line: ‘Don’t let the olive branch fall from my hand.’ Although not opposed to armed resistance, he took a dim view of the PLO’s cult of the gun and believed that non-violent protest and diplomacy – the ‘olive branch’ – were more effective weapons, given the enormous disparities in military power. The war for Palestine was, he understood, a war of clashing narratives and images: ‘In no modern conflict has rhetoric played so significant a part in legitimating one preposterous quote after another.’ He soon became the PLO’s unofficial liaison with the US government. Although he felt closer to the secular leftism of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine than to the traditionalist nationalism of Fatah, he remained loyal to Arafat (‘a genius at mediation’) and in 1977 was elected to the Palestine National Council, the PLO’s parliament in exile, as an independent.
Said’s closest comrades on the American left were decidedly unimpressed by the PLO as a national liberation organisation. Noam Chomsky – one of the few people Said allowed to call him ‘Ed’, a nickname he hated – said it lacked any sense of strategic direction. Eqbal Ahmad, who had worked with the FLN during the Algerian struggle for independence, was even more scathing. Given the number of lavish dinners the PLO put on, he remarked that ‘banqueting’ had become ‘the latest form of struggle’. But Said, who had lost his father to cancer in 1971, found in Arafat a substitute father figure, a refugee who not only hadn’t forgotten Palestine but had made it an international cause. For nearly two decades, Arafat called on him whenever the PLO wanted to send a message to the Americans. The US government recognised his value too: in 1978, the secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, told Said that the Carter administration would recognise the PLO and launch negotiations for a two-state settlement if Arafat accepted UN Resolution 242: a termination of the conflict, Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories. Arafat wasn’t interested. To Said’s frustration, Arafat would always see him as a useful but somewhat suspect American professor, not a fellow fighter.
‘The intellectual,’ Said wrote, ‘always stands between loneliness and alignment.’ His decision to align himself with a national liberation movement despised by many of his colleagues as a ‘terrorist’ organisation intensified his sense of loneliness and heightened his already acute sense of vulnerability and woundedness. In his introduction to Orientalism, which appeared in 1978, he wrote:
The life of an Arab Palestinian in the West, particularly in America, is disheartening. There exists here an almost unanimous consensus that politically he does not exist, and when it is allowed that he does, it is either as a nuisance or as an oriental. The web of racism, cultural stereotypes, political imperialism, dehumanising ideology holding the Arab or the Muslim is very strong indeed, and it is this web which every Palestinian has come to feel as his uniquely punishing destiny.
Orientalism not only made Said’s reputation, it incited a debate that hasn’t ended, and inaugurated a school of anti-Orientalist scholarship. Drawing on history, fiction, philology and philosophy, Said argued that the Arabs and Asians who had lived under British and French dominion had been captives not only of Western power, but of the image that Western writers had of them as mysterious, effeminate, timeless, immutable, irrational and, above all, incapable of self-government (he didn’t discuss German or Russian versions of Orientalism). Orientalism, he claimed, had not merely reflected but influenced and shaped the practice of imperial domination. Still strongly influenced by Foucault’s analysis of ‘discursive formations’ and ‘power-knowledge’, he depicted Orientalism as a discourse so pervasive as to be almost inescapable. In Said’s account, even writers who appeared to praise non-Western cultures in relation to their own had participated in the representation of the Eastern ‘other’ as essentially different. This was anything but a history of a distant past: Said made plain that he saw many of the best-known scholars of the Middle East, notably Bernard Lewis, as heirs of 19th-century Orientalism – and as apologists for, if not servants of, a new imperialism.
The value of Said’s book was immediately evident to intellectuals who felt their treatment by Western scholarship had been no less punishing. ‘You are on the frontier – a Gramscian frontier,’ Cornel West wrote to him shortly after the book’s publication. But Said was no man of the people; he wasn’t even a defender of Middle Eastern cultural and political traditions. He made no secret of his love of Western ‘high’ culture, even if he had assumed the task of exposing how deeply it had absorbed Orientalist mythologies. Unlike Eric Hobsbawm, whom he faulted for having a Eurocentric, top-down perspective of the short 20th century, he took no interest in jazz or popular music. (His daughter, Najla, would score a small victory by turning him on to Sinéad O’Connor.) He was a critical, secular humanist widely mistaken for a radical opponent of the Western canon. In fact, the canon was his subject and remained so: he never once gave a course related to the Middle East at Columbia, and only late in his career did he begin teaching novels by writers from the Global South. While he insisted that literary representations had helped shape the Western ‘gaze’, he didn’t argue that writers such as Flaubert or Montesquieu were irreparably stained: their (mostly unconscious) complicity was another reason to study them. His was an ethics of complex resistance, not an escape from complexity.
Still, Said’s bracing and accusatory tone, which gave Orientalism its rhetorical punch, helped fuel misperceptions. While he praised the work of Orientalist scholars, including Louis Massignon, Jacques Berque and Maxime Rodinson, he also sometimes implied that the entire tradition of Orientalist scholarship was a corrupted form of power-knowledge. But then what distinguished an eminent figure like Berque from Lewis or from a vulgar propagandist such as Daniel Pipes? And was all Western criticism – even Marxist criticism – of the failings of societies in the Arab and Islamic world to be dismissed as Orientalist? Said didn’t answer these questions, which led some readers to assume that he thought all Western writing about the East was Orientalist and therefore unsalvageable. This wasn’t his view at all, but he could be prickly. And his followers in postcolonial studies tended to be pricklier, as well as far less devoted to Western literature and culture than he was.
Some of the fiercest criticisms came from left-wing Arab intellectuals who hadn’t left the region for academic posts in the West. In their view, Said’s approach was indiscriminate, and ended up reproducing the binary opposition of ‘East’ and ‘West’ he ostensibly opposed. They also felt that, by placing the emphasis on the Western gaze rather than on the imperialism that had formed it, Said had got things back to front. Orientalism, in this view, was a justificatory ideology that would fade away with the end of imperial domination. In the meantime, Sadik al-Azm wrote in a long and forceful critique, the book risked giving comfort to Islamists in their denunciations of Marxism as a Western ideology and their campaign to ban the teaching of science. These criticisms reflected a fundamental misunderstanding of Orientalism: a study of literary representation exploring the culture of imperialism, not imperialism itself. Yet they also reflected a different set of priorities among intellectuals in the region, for whom the book was less urgently needed than it was for their counterparts in the West. Said did not take well to such critiques, denouncing al-Azm as a ‘Khomeini of the left’.
But Al-Azm had put his finger on one of Orientalism’s unintended effects: in spite of Said’s own opposition to dogmatic anti-Westernism, to religious politics and any form of nativism, the book lent itself to a ritualised condemnation of Western scholarship and literature as ‘imperialist’. Academic postcolonialism, which became a career path for a growing number of upper-middle-class graduate students from the Middle East and South Asia, would develop an increasingly orthodox critique of secularism and the Enlightenment, exasperating Said. Later in his career, he would find himself alternately embracing and lamenting the anti-Orientalist wave of scholarship he had spawned: a tribute to his influence, but, he felt, a misreading of his intentions. As if anticipating this wave, he wrote in The World, the Text and the Critic (1983) that ‘a breakthrough can become a trap, if it is used uncritically, repetitively, limitlessly.’ The history of ideas – and of politics – ‘is extravagantly illustrative of how the dictum “solidarity before criticism” means the end of criticism … even in the very midst of a battle in which one is unmistakeably on one side against another’.
The World, the Text and the Critic was also Said’s farewell to French theory. It wasn’t surprising, he suggested, that Derrida’s concept of undecidability and Foucault’s Nietzschean scepticism about truth had flourished in Reagan’s America: both provided sophisticated excuses for political quietism. This was an essentially Lukácsian critique of postmodernism as an expression of decadence. But his disenchantment also reflected a sense of personal betrayal: Foucault had abandoned the Palestinian cause; Derrida had wounded him by referring to him only as ‘un ami’ – not by name – in his book on Genet. When Said’s friend Jean Stein, the editor of Grand Street, asked him to review a book by Jean Baudrillard, he declined, saying that Baudrillard’s ideas are ‘all sort of like little burps’. He now preferred the company of Chomsky and John Berger, who believed that ‘there is always something beyond the reach of dominating systems.’ His own style became less cluttered and precious – more ‘transparent’ and ‘worldly’. He used it to demystify the ideology of Zionism in The Question of Palestine (1979), and to dissect the American media’s tendentious portrayals of Muslims in Covering Islam (1981). But he also established himself as a belletrist, writing on Arabic fiction, bullfighting, tennis and belly dancing. He interviewed Gillo Pontecorvo, published essays on exile and Glenn Gould, and became the Nation’s classical music critic.
Said was more prominent than ever, and more exposed. Letters arrived at his home covered in swastikas or filled with used condoms. ‘You are now under surveillance and two of your associates know it,’ an anonymous correspondent wrote to him. ‘Don’t think you’re too small for this. Look for cameras – you won’t find them.’ Informants at Princeton, Columbia and the Harvard alumni office assisted the FBI in an investigation that examined his banking and credit records, among other things. In 1985, Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defence League called him a Nazi and his office was firebombed and vandalised.
Beirut, where his mother lived, was still more dangerous for Said during the Lebanese Civil War. This wasn’t simply due to the Israeli invasion in 1982, which led to the massacres of Sabra and Shatila by Israeli-backed Christian Phalangist militias and drove Arafat and the PLO out of Lebanon: Said also faced threats of assassination from Palestinians for expressing reservations about the efficacy of armed struggle. During his year in Beirut, he had written that his experience there made him aware of ‘the poverty of labels like left-wing and right-wing’ when applied to Lebanese politics. Brennan seems unconvinced by this, but Said knew what he was talking about: while the Phalange had fascist sympathies, Lebanon’s civil war was not so much an Arab version of the Spanish Civil War as a gruesome power struggle between competing sectarian groups, made even more murderous by the Syrian and Israeli interventions. The ultimate winners were the country’s underdogs, the Shia, led by Hizbullah, which replaced the PLO as Lebanon’s leading armed movement with the backing of Iran – ‘a regime of exceptionally retrograde cruelty’, in Said’s words. In the mid-1980s, armed clashes erupted between Palestinians and Shia in the refugee camps. Said deplored this development but had little to say about the rise of the Shia – or the growing appeal of political Islam, which clearly disturbed him. Still, there is little doubt that his distrust of identity politics reflected the chastening lessons of Lebanon, where politicised sectarianism had laid waste to his mother’s adopted country. The war, he said, ‘began as a conflict over large areas of territory and in the end was fought over individual streets and sidewalks. And where did it lead? Nowhere.’
The disaster in Lebanon also marked the end of the revolutionary phase of the Palestinian movement, when the PLO styled itself as a liberation movement in the tradition of the FLN and the ANC. Arafat and his men were now in Tunis, and the movement was adrift. Said’s break with Arafat wouldn’t take place for another decade, but the rift had begun. On his visits to Tunis, he later wrote, he saw former revolutionaries who ‘drank only Black Label Scotch whisky, travelled first class, drove fancy European cars, and were always surrounded by aides, bodyguards and hangers-on’. In cautious, sometimes cryptic language, he began to express doubts about the movement’s direction. ‘Our insistence on “armed struggle”’, he wrote in After the Last Sky (1986), had ‘quickly turned into a worship of fetishised military postures, guns and slogans borrowed from theories of the people’s war in Algeria and Vietnam’. This emphasis ‘caused us to neglect the incredibly complex and far more important political and cultural aspects of our struggle, and it played right into the hands of Israel’. For all Arafat’s success in ‘connecting disparate segments of Palestinian life’, no leader had appeared ‘so catastrophically to be implicated in setbacks’.
But then, a year later, the first intifada broke out. The Palestinians in the Occupied Territories were delivering a message to Israel, and to the ‘Tunisians’ of the PLO, that could not have been more direct. Suddenly the movement’s centre of gravity shifted from the ‘exterior’ to the ‘interior’. Caught off guard, the leadership scrambled to impose itself on a revolt it had neither launched nor foreseen. Said was elated, hailing the uprising (with no little hyperbole) as ‘surely the most impressive and disciplined anti-colonial insurrection in this century’. In November 1988, at a meeting of the Palestine National Council in Algiers, Said and Mahmoud Darwish co-wrote the PLO’s statement in support of a two-state settlement. But within a year Said was complaining openly to the Arab press about the PLO’s authoritarianism and corruption. He was furious at Arafat’s decision to support Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War, which nearly bankrupted the organisation and forced it to the negotiating table prematurely. During the backchannel negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, Said looked on aghast as the PLO prostrated itself before the US, the ‘big white father’, agreeing to arrangements that condemned Palestinians to continued occupation, even if they had a flag of their own. Not surprisingly, betrayal was the theme of the unfinished novel he worked on occasionally from 1987 to 1992; one of its characters was a middle-aged Arab American professor, ‘cut off from Arabs in the West, aware of Jews … powerless to change, too honest to affiliate’.
The betrayal became official in September 1993, with the signing of the Oslo Accords – ‘an instrument of Palestinian surrender, a Palestinian Versailles’, as he wrote in the LRB (21 October 1993). Not only had Arafat accepted a less generous plan than the Carter-Vance offer he’d dismissed in 1978; more humiliatingly, he had agreed to become Israel’s gendarme in the territories, policing Palestinian resistance rather than Palestinian borders. Said never spoke to Arafat again. He would visit Israel-Palestine and film a documentary for the BBC, but he didn’t feel at home in the West Bank, where political Islam was on the rise, eclipsing the secular nationalism he had always advocated, and where the Palestinian Authority banned his books because of his criticisms of Arafat. Exile, he decided, was a ‘more liberated state’ than a ‘final coming home’ – and, in any case, neither Israel nor the West Bank was home. When one of Arafat’s deputies was asked by a journalist about Said’s critique of Oslo, he replied that Said was an English professor whose views about Palestinian politics were as pertinent as Chairman Arafat’s opinion of a Shakespeare production.
Said felt wounded by his falling out with the PLO, but it left him a free man, capable of imagining a last, creative phase in the face of fatal illness. In 1991 he had been diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia. Chemotherapy would leave his handsome face shrunken, an affront to his vanity as well as his health. While shuttling back and forth from hospital, he began to write his memoirs. Out of Place is revealing (and at times excruciatingly Freudian) in its depiction of the Said family romance, and of Said’s teenage sexual frustrations. Brennan compares it to Mohamed Choukri’s account of his life as a petty criminal and prostitute in Tangiers, For Bread Alone, but it’s a poor analogy. If Out of Place recalls any other work, it is Beer in the Snooker Club, Waguih Ghali’s novel about a group of doomed cosmopolitan Cairenes in the early Nasser years. As Nadine Gordimer put it, Said had finally written his novel.
But he wasn’t ready to elegise the Palestinian cause, even if he had cut his ties to the leadership. Palestine was a symbol of justice denied and freedom to come, rather than a piece of bitterly contested real estate: Said wrote constantly and with furious eloquence about Israel’s land grabs and Arafat’s strategic failures. He also became a champion of a binational state for both peoples, an idea that had once been promoted by ‘cultural Zionists’ such as Judah Magnes and Martin Buber, and long since been buried by the Zionist mainstream. Aware of this irony, Said once mischievously described himself as the ‘last Jewish intellectual’. The ‘empty nationalism’ that divided the land’s inhabitants into ‘camps of Jews and non-Jews’ supplied a vocabulary equipped ‘less for understanding than for reducing the world’. The notion that Arabs and Jews in Palestine were condemned to hate one another contradicted everything his own life had taught him. Precisely because Jews had never been the ‘other’ to him, he wasn’t afraid that by acknowledging the Holocaust he would be supplying ammunition to Palestine’s enemies. On the contrary, the Palestinian case was strengthened, not weakened, by recognition of the Jewish catastrophe during the war.
Said made this argument repeatedly, without fear of what other Arabs would say, but also without any suggestion of strategic genuflection to Jewish or Israeli sensitivities. ‘If we expect Israeli Jews not to use the Holocaust to justify appalling human rights abuses of the Palestinian people,’ he wrote, ‘we too have to go beyond such idiocies as saying that the Holocaust never took place, and that Israelis are all, man, woman and child, doomed to our eternal enmity and hostility.’ This statement appeared in a column for Al-Hayat in 2001, in which he compared the Arab taboo against contact with the ‘Zionist entity’ to the taboo against performing Wagner in Israel. Both represented a refusal of complexity – not just a political failure but an imaginative one. In his writings in Arab newspapers, Said continued to excoriate the crimes of Israel and the US, but he paired these attacks with a forthright and pointed denunciation of Arab despotism.
In his later writings on culture and education, too, Said tried to persuade others to think ‘contrapuntally’, acknowledging the injuries inflicted by imperialism, racism and other forms of domination while simultaneously promoting an ethos of interconnectedness, pluralism and academic freedom. But he found himself increasingly embattled among the new generation of scholars of race and empire. When he appeared at Rutgers in 1993 to talk about his new book, Culture and Imperialism, ‘a black woman of some eminence’ – a historian – asked him why, in the first part of his presentation, he had cited only European men. That he had mentioned C.L.R. James didn’t count, she said, because James was dead. Said was confounded, not only because he’d been found ‘guilty of not mentioning living non-European non-males’, but because ‘the general validity of the point made in Orientalism … was now being directed at me.’
According to Brennan, ‘he was still grumbling’ to friends about the Rutgers encounter months afterwards. He largely kept his distance from the anti-PC brigade, but he struck up a correspondence with Camille Paglia and, in speeches, issued warnings about the rise of identity politics in universities. ‘Victimhood, alas, does not guarantee or necessarily enable an enhanced sense of humanity,’ he said. ‘To testify to a history of oppression is necessary, but it is not sufficient unless that history is redirected into intellectual process and universalised to include all sufferers.’ He went on:
It does not finally matter who wrote what, but rather how a work is written and how it is read. The idea that because Plato and Aristotle are male and the products of a slave society they should be disqualified from receiving contemporary attention is as limited an idea as suggesting that only their work, because it was addressed to and about elites, should be read today. Marginality and homelessness are not, in my opinion, to be gloried in; they are to be brought to an end, so that more, and not fewer, people can enjoy the benefits of what has for centuries been denied the victims of race, class or gender.
The idea that education is ‘best advanced by focusing principally on our own separateness, our own ethnic identity, culture and traditions’ struck him as a kind of apartheid pedagogy, implying that ‘subaltern, inferior or lesser races’ were ‘unable to share in the general riches of human culture’. Identity was ‘as boring a subject as one can imagine’; what excited him was the interaction of different identities and the promise – the ‘risk’ – of universality. This vision lay at the heart of the youth musical ensemble he helped establish, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. The name alluded to Goethe’s West-östlicher Divan, a collection of poems inspired by the Persian poet Hafez. The orchestra’s co-founder was the conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim, an Argentine-Israeli Said had met by chance in London in 1993, just as his relationship with Arafat was falling apart. Said described the meeting as ‘love at first sight’.
Said, Barenboim and the cellist Yo-Yo Ma selected the original group of 78 Arab and Israeli musicians for a workshop in Weimar; with Barenboim conducting, it evolved into a professional orchestra. The idea of bringing Arab and Israeli-Jewish musicians together was – and is – controversial. Some Palestinians, including Said’s sister Grace, accused the orchestra of promoting ‘normalisation’ with Israel, even treason to the cause. Among his more radical acolytes there were complaints about his closeness to Barenboim (they spoke every day). Since Said’s death, the orchestra has been boycotted by parts of the BDS movement.
Brennan wonders whether Said might have ended up approving a boycott against the orchestra he built, but has little sense of what the West-Eastern Divan meant to him. Said’s increasing absorption in music wasn’t a retreat from politics so much as a detour through aesthetics. While the Palestinian Authority tried to pass off an archipelago of bantustans as the prelude to freedom and independence, Said was trying to show what a binational future might look (and sound) like. In Parallels and Paradoxes, a book of conversations with Barenboim published in 2002, he identified with Goethe’s belief that art ‘was all about a voyage to the “other”, and not concentrating on oneself, which is very much a minority view today’. Said didn’t imagine that the ‘voyage’ would turn all the orchestra’s members into binationalists like himself, or even lead them to a shared understanding of the region’s history. But he had ‘become more interested in what can’t be resolved and what is irreconcilable’. The musicians no doubt reminded him of himself when he was studying the piano in Cairo, and he enjoyed listening to their ‘different but intertwined histories … without necessarily resolving them into each other’. At times, he would correct their ‘culturally limiting perceptions’. When an Arab musician told an Albanian Jew from Israel that he had no right to play Arabic music, Said responded: ‘What gives you the right to play Beethoven? You’re not German.’
Although as militant as ever in his defence of Palestinian rights, he never accepted the idea that Arabs should avoid contact with Israeli Jews. As he put it in an article for Al-Hayat: ‘How many Palestinian homes have been protected from demolition by anti-normalisation measures?’ If Arab intellectuals wanted to do something for Palestine, they should go there to ‘give a lecture or help at a clinic’ rather than ‘sit at home preventing others from doing so’. Zionism, he said, ‘has tried to exclude non-Jews and we, by our unselective boycott of even the name “Israel”, have actually helped rather than hindered this plan’. That Said conceived the West-Eastern Divan as a challenge to Israel’s exclusion of Palestinians – and as a response to the cultural isolation suffered by Palestinian musicians under occupation – was lost on his less imaginative Arab critics, who could only see it as making peace with the enemy.
Serving as Arafat’s man in New York for nearly two decades had been an improbable role for a worldly, cosmopolitan man who dressed in Burberry suits, not keffiyehs. Said himself admitted that his relationship to the land of Palestine was ‘basically metaphorical’. His Zionist critics cited this distance in order to belittle or even deny his Palestinian origins. They also used his relationship with the PLO to impugn his scholarship, insinuating that his books, and even his essays on critical theory and classical music, were merely subterfuges from the ‘professor of terror’: Palestinian propaganda disguised as scholarship.
For all its crudeness, this charge has a grain of truth. All Said’s writings were touched by his ‘affiliation’. The burden of being a political spokesman, and his loyalty to Arafat, imposed certain limits on what he could say about the movement and the repressive governments of the Arab world: as Said often pointed out, affiliation could degenerate into filiation, into a familial structure of obedience and conformity. Only in his final decade did he express himself freely on the movement’s failures and the region’s dictatorships. But, as Brennan shows, the Palestinian struggle enriched Said far more than it constrained him. The themes that echo through his writing – the preference for exilic over rooted writing, the idea of ‘contrapuntal’ criticism, the insistence on secular humanism, worldliness and universality – can all, indirectly, be traced to Palestine. Not to the land itself, or to the people, but to the metaphor, the region of the mind, that he fashioned out of them.
This was no small achievement. As Said wrote in the LRB in 1984, Israel and its supporters had worked hard to deny Palestinians the ‘permission to narrate’ their experience. He helped to restore that right, not only by describing their dispossession and oppression, but by developing a powerful counter-myth to Zionism, which he sometimes called ‘Palestinianism’. In his 1986 collaboration with the Swiss photographer Jean Mohr, After the Last Sky, Said described a nation of vivid fragments, rather than trying to assemble them into a seamless whole. He had no interest in the folk nationalism of the refugee camps, with its romance of repatriation and reclamation: the keys to old homes, women’s embroidery, the olive tree, the posters of Al-Aqsa mosque. Instead, he wrote of Palestinians as witnesses to a century defined by ethnic cleansing, wars of national liberation, and migration, in restless, nomadic pursuit of freedom: ‘a counterpoint (if not a cacophony) of multiple, almost desperate dramas’.
Said’s Palestinianism exemplified the qualities he admired: open-ended and exploratory, resistant to the doctrinal and racial fixity – the dark historical fatalism and exclusionary fear of the other – that Zionism embodied. If Zionism was the song of a single people, Palestinianism held out the hope of a non-sectarian future for both peoples. Palestinian freedom, whether in the form of a sovereign state neighbouring Israel or – the position he defended after Oslo – a binational state, represented ‘a beginning’, a dynamic intervention in history, rather than a return to origin. And yet his vision also looked to the past, betraying a wistful attachment to his childhood memories of colonial Cairo, where Arabs and Jews, Muslims and Christians had lived beside one another.
Brennan’s title alludes to Said’s memoir, Out of Place, as well as to his family’s dispossession and his own experiences of being attacked by Israel’s apologists in the US, and later by the Palestinian Authority. Yet the emphasis on place is misleading. What captured Said’s imagination wasn’t place or territory so much as time: the drama of beginnings, the defiance of late style. Nor did he lack for a home: New York fitted him as well as his bespoke suits. He once asked Ignace Tiegerman why he hadn’t left Cairo for Israel. ‘Why should I go there?’ Tiegerman replied. ‘Here I am unique.’ In New York, Said was unique, and whatever loneliness he experienced was offset by his love of a place where ‘you can be anywhere in it and still not be of it.’ In New York he had a stage: a professorship at Columbia, where he was the highest paid member of the humanities faculty; access to nightly talk shows and news stations, where he became the face of Palestine; and, not least, the world of literary parties and salons, where ‘Eduardo’ (as friends teasingly called him) cut an alluring profile.
For all his admiration of men of the left who threw themselves into insurgent struggles – and although his own activism attracted the surveillance of the FBI – Said led the life of a celebrity intellectual. Brennan places him in the tradition of revolutionary intellectuals, but Said doesn’t resemble Gramsci or Fanon so much as Susan Sontag, born two years before him, and, like him, a dissident heir of the New York intellectuals. Both were literary critics who first made a name for themselves as interpreters of French theory for Anglo-American audiences but later broke free of its textual games and jargon in favour of a more readerly style. Despite a shared loathing of American consumerism and provincialism, each was possessed of a peculiarly American energy and drive. They were each American in their rejection of cultural pessimism, and they shared a reverence for traditional Western culture: they may have expressed ‘radical styles of will’, but they also invoked the authority of canonical critics. In their writings on photography, both drew inspiration from John Berger, moved, if not quite persuaded, by his insistence on the medium’s insurrectionary potential. Their best-known books, Orientalism and Illness as Metaphor, both published in 1978, were quarrels with oppressive systems of representation by which they had felt personally victimised. They often wrote in praise of Marxist intellectuals but were never Marxists themselves. Neither took part in civil rights or labour struggles at home, devoting their political energies to foreign causes.
But unlike Sontag, who had a thick skin, Said remembered every slight he’d suffered, every award he’d been denied, every note he missed when he played the piano. According to Brennan, he lived ‘in agony’ most of the time. The life of a closeted Palestinian would have been much easier. Sontag’s Jewishness made her an American establishment insider. For much of his career, Said was not just the lone Arab, but the Palestinian, liable to be portrayed as an enemy of the Jews, as a dangerous radical who, as he put it, did ‘unspeakable, unmentionable things’ when he wasn’t giving lectures on Conrad and Jane Austen. Eventually even those lectures would come to be seen by his critics as a threat to Western culture, if not an extension of his work for the PLO. Said’s insecurity, as much as his colonial origins, may explain why, unlike Sontag, he attached himself to institutions: Columbia, the Palestine National Council, the Century Club, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Institutional affiliation wasn’t simply a comfort: it offered an escape from feelings of awkwardness, of being ‘not quite right’ – the original title of his memoir.
Brennan, a former student of Said’s, writes with a restrained affection that only occasionally slips into defensiveness or hagiography. He understands that, in private, Said could be a prima donna, ‘a personality marked by impatience and vulnerability, by turns angry and romantic’, playful and witty, capable of acts of generosity but also vain, in perpetual need of affirmation, and occasionally quite petty and vindictive. He shows us Said at home, preparing breakfast for Mariam, practising Bach partitas, but we also catch glimpses of his less appealing side: the vulgar gusto he displayed in intellectual combat (before going on stage to debate Bernard Lewis he told his friends, in Arabic, that he was ‘going to fuck his mother’); his irrepressible competitiveness (when Mariam was struggling to learn Hebrew he grabbed her textbook and said: ‘I would finish this whole book in two weeks’). He was perpetually dissatisfied, insomniac, hypochondriac. ‘If Said had a cough he feared the onset of bronchitis,’ Salman Rushdie wrote after his death, ‘and if he felt a twinge he was certain his appendix was about to collapse.’
Many illustrious friends and acquaintances – Philip Roth, Nadine Gordimer, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis – make cameos in Brennan’s biography, but there is little sense of the texture of these relationships. Of Said’s personal life, we learn even less. After his second marriage in 1970, other women recede from view, with one exception: his longtime mistress Dominique Eddé, a Lebanese novelist who published a perceptive study of Said’s life and work, Le Roman de sa pensée, in 2017.While echoing several of Eddé’s judgments about Said’s work, Brennan characterises their on and off relationship of more than two decades as a ‘brief affair’ and ridicules her discreet book as the ‘largely autobiographical tell-all’ of a scorned woman who hardly knew the man she professed to love. This ad hominem attack injects a bellicose note into a book that otherwise studiously ignores Said’s private life. Brennan accuses Eddé of putting Said’s name on a petition he had never seen. The petition, though Brennan doesn’t mention the fact, was protesting a Holocaust denial conference in Beirut. Said added his own signature, but withdrew it when he learned that Eddé was the author. After the conference was banned, Said claimed that he had removed his name on free speech grounds. According to Eddé, he apologised to her shortly before he died.
Brennan has, however, tracked down many of Said’s early friends, including people whose names barely turn up in his writing, such as André Sharon, an Egyptian Jew who was at school with him in Cairo. He is also a confident guide to Said’s work as a literary critic, though he is on less sure ground when writing about Middle Eastern politics or music (he includes Janáček in a list of ‘experimental composers’).
Music supplied Said with more than metaphors in his writing: it provided him with the great theme of his final years, ‘late style’, an idea he discovered in Adorno’s writings on Beethoven. Adorno’s belief that it was ‘part of … morality not to be at home in one’s home’ spoke powerfully to Said. And he was captivated by Adorno’s argument that Beethoven’s late piano sonatas exhibited an aesthetics not of harmony but of ‘intransigence, difficulty and unresolved contradiction’. Far from being serene expressions of wisdom in old age, they were ‘catastrophes’.
Said’s vision of lateness differed from Adorno’s, as Brennan says, in its emphasis on the creator’s inner struggle. Lateness spoke directly to his own experience of exile, not just from the Palestine he had known but from the leadership, and explained his decision to uphold the ideals that had led him into the movement. The defiance and intransigence it expressed were spiritual cousins of what Palestinians call sumud, or steadfastness: better to accept the contradictions of exile and dissidence than the false harmony offered by the Oslo Accords, the ‘peace’ of permanent occupation. Although he was in a constant state of rage and sorrow over Palestine, his fidelity to what he called ‘Palestinianism’ grounded him.
In August 2003, I edited Said’s last piece for the Nation: a review of Maynard Solomon’s book on late Beethoven. We had become friendly over the previous few years, and he would occasionally call me, out of the blue, to give me a scoop or to chat about the politics of the Middle East. He seemed extremely anxious for the review to appear and called my boss to pressure me to run it sooner than planned (successfully, I might add). As it turned out, he had only a month to live. In the essay he celebrated Beethoven’s late works for their ‘violence, experimental energy, and, most important, refusal to accept any ideal of a healing, inclusive restfulness that comes at the end of a fruitful career’. The title, ‘Untimely Meditations’, strikes me today as an accurate description of his late writings on binationalism, secular criticism, cross-cultural exchange and intellectual freedom, which have been obscured in recent years by his now canonical work on Orientalism and cultural imperialism. In his own late style, he found a new beginning.