Edward Said – exiled between cultures

When people think of Edward Said, the first thing that generally comes to mind is his criticism of Orientalism. As a result, the theme of exile – which played no less significant a role in Said's writing and life – is often overlooked. By Tarek Azizeh

By Tarek Azizeh

"A life of exile moves according to a different calendar, and is less seasonal and settled than life at home. Exile is life led outside habitual order. It is nomadic, decentered, contrapuntal; but no sooner does one get accustomed to it than its unsettling force erupts anew." (Edward Said)

It is no coincidence that Said's first book, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography, which was published in 1966, was about the author Joseph Conrad, in whose life he saw many parallels with his own experience. Of Polish origin, Conrad settled in England and became a British citizen in his late twenties. He felt a profound regret over the loss of his mother tongue and homeland.

In England, he found himself in a state of inner conflict and felt torn. For Conrad, it was a place where he was ultimately the perpetual foreigner. English critics sometimes spoke slightingly of his Polish roots, although he published his texts in English.

Driven into exile

Over 30 years after his first publication, Said returned to the subject of Conrad in an essay in one of his key works Reflections on Exile (1984), tracing the parallels between his life and Conrad's. In the process, the differences between the two also became evident: while Conrad moved from one European country to another, Said went through a much more profound change when he left Jerusalem for Egypt, before finally settling in America. Another difference between the two was that Said was driven into exile several times in his life.

The first time was when he, as a Palestinian, was driven from his native home. From that point on, he was labelled a 'refugee'. The second time was when he, as a person with an Arab background, found himself in a Western culture that was steeped in negative attitudes towards the Arab world. The third and final time was when he became, to a certain extent, exiled from his own people in his native home after turning his back several times on the prevailing opinion and going his own way. In this way, Said's exile was multiple and complex.

In After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives (1986), Said describes the cultural and political dimension of his exile. In addition to the geographic dimension of his exile and the pain of being separated from his home, Palestine, things were made more difficult by the fact that he was not only accused of betrayal, but also confronted with fatal misinterpretations of his own thoughts and writings by Europeans, Americans and also Arab Palestinians.

Accepting historical facts

In a departure from the stance of many Arab intellectuals, Said called for people to accept the persecution of Jews in Europe and the West as an historical fact. In particular, he took a stand against the denial of the Holocaust. Why deny what actually happened in the past when the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular were not responsible for this crime and the consequences associated with it, he asked.

According to Said, the first step was to accept historical facts and, in conjunction with this, for the Arab side to demand that the West assume full moral responsibility for this past. The West, he argued, should not seek to solve the problem on Palestinian soil and to resolve it at the expense of the rights of the Arab population.

He was viciously attacked by some for this stance. Said was accused of basing his attitudes to matters in the Arab world and the Palestinian question on the viewpoints of western intellectuals.

However, it is often forgotten in this context that Said was one of the most vocal opponents of the Oslo Accords, which he described as a "capitulation" and a "defeat of the Palestinians".

Cover of Edward Said’s “Orientalism” (published by Penguin History)
Das Kernstück seines intellektuellen Schaffens ist zweifelsohne Saids Kritik am Orientalismus. Das Buch "Orientalism" (1978) war der Auftakt der wissenschaftlichen Untersuchung und Kritik des gleichnamigen Phänomens. Eine zentrale Feststellung des Buches ist, dass der überwiegende Anteil der orientalistischen Forschung nicht das wiedergibt, was der Orient in seiner Komplexität ist, sondern vielmehr das, was die Forschenden darin sehen wollen.

Indeed, in 1994, he devoted an entire book in Arabic to his criticism of the accords: ġazza-arīḥā: salām amrīkī (Gaza-Jericho, an American peace). Whether consciously or not, his critics overlook the fact that Said had picked up on the way Western readers think in order to address them in their own words and with their own ideas with a view to coaxing them away from their prejudiced standpoints. Such a strategy requires rational, objective language, far from empty slogans.

"The very core of traditional Orientalist dogma"

In his capacity as a U.S. citizen, he took a very clear stance against the policies of successive U.S. administrations towards the Arab world and, in particular, against the administration of George W. Bush and the Iraq War. "What American leaders and their intellectual lackeys seem incapable of understanding," wrote Said, "is that history cannot be swept clean like a blackboard, so that 'we' might inscribe our own future there and impose our own forms of life for these lesser people to follow. [...] Without a well-organised sense that the people over there were not like 'us' and didn't appreciate 'our' values – the very core of traditional Orientalist dogma – there would have been no war."

The centrepiece of Said's intellectual oeuvre is undoubtedly his criticism of Orientalism. The book Orientalism was the start of the academic examination and criticism of the eponymous phenomenon. One key tenet of the book is that the majority of Orientalist research does not reflect the Orient in all its complexity, but rather what researchers want the Orient to be.

According to Said, instead of giving an objective, realistic portrayal of the Orient, Orientalist research serves up a distorted image that is characterised by ready-made pictures and colonialist interests. In this way, it can be understood as an imperialist cultural project that was supported by the researchers who themselves hail from the colonising countries.

In his book, Said wrote "My idea in Orientalism is to use humanistic critique to open up the fields of struggle, to introduce a longer sequence of thought and analysis to replace the short bursts of polemical, thought-stopping fury that so imprison us."

He explained that two dogmas prevailed among those Orientalists who actually travelled to the Orient: firstly, the dogma that was opposed to the native culture of these countries and, secondly, the dogma that was opposed to the liberation of these countries from Western colonialism. This, he said, was aggravated by the fact that they were utterly blind to the larger contexts and events in the countries they visited.

Humanism as the last bastion against inhuman policies

In 1996, Said published the book taʿaqībāt ʿala 'l-istišrāq (Notes on Orientalism) in Arabic. In it, he addressed the critical responses to Orientalism, explained his positions and also looked at the false conclusions he had reached in that book.

His last article, 'L’humanisme, dernier rempart contre la barbarie' (Humanism, the last bulwark against barbarism) is also worthy of a mention in this context. In this article, which was published in the French monthly newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique shortly before his death on 25 September 2003 after a long battle with cancer, he wrote:

"I called what I was trying to do 'Humanism' – a word I still insist upon despite its scornful rejection by sophisticated post-modern critics. Humanism thrives on initiative and personal intuition, not on the mere reception of ideas and blind reverence for authorities. Humanism is our only – perhaps even our last – bastion against inhuman policies and practices that threaten to taint the history of humankind."

Tarek Azizeh

© Qantara.de 2019

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan