What people in the US know about Islam and the Arab world is a series of stupid cliches: Edward Said
New York: It's a frigid morning on the urbane East Side and the hulky American-made Chevrolet Caprice Classic is guzzling its way past Central Park and its standard smattering of joggers and roller-bladers covered with lycra and spandex. Now and then the cab makes a loud clunkety sound, let off from somewhere within its mammoth eight-cylinder engine, and the Haitian born driver makes token protests in response, mostly in monosyllables.
“This car’s a piece of you know what man,” says Michael the cabbie. “But when we get there you say when to stop man and I make this thing stop as good as I can.” This is the last thing he says as we hurtle down a maze of city streets until we finally reach the Morningside Heights neighborhood, a sort of American equivalent of Kharadar gone help where Columbia University is located. "What you wanna do here man?" he says now, putting on a large pair of Rayban Wayfarer sunglasses and pointing to my Dictaphone. “You wanna interview somebody or what?" In truth, of course, it's more than the mini tape recorder that's giving away his passenger as a foreign journalist. Michael picked up his fare at the Overseas Press Club and he is probing to see if he has I a vulnerable newcomer on his hands.
The Fourth Estate is a worldwide victim of shark cab-drivers and New York is no different. To make matters worse, I am carrying a copy of The Jerusalem Post overseas edition in my hands, a sure sign for any driver that his passenger deserves no more than the full treatment. I peer at the meter, answer yes to his question, and hand him the exact fare. It's a coup; he is shocked and dismayed. But he insists that he is genuinely interested and wants to know the subject of the interview. So, I say “Edward Said” and explain who Said is, unprepared for his response.
“Goddamned Arabs” he exults, guffawing, obviously unaware of the racist charge of his outburst. “You go put those Jews in their place brother,” he screams, loud enough for a group at a nearby bus stop to hear. “Show them man”, his voice booms as the cab clunkety-clunks once and disappears, leaving just his unreconstructed racism and a bad taste in the mouth. It will stay with me for the course of the day.
In a way, of course, it is relevant. Arab and Jew, Muslim and Palestinian. Wog and hymie. One only needs to visit New York, not to mention the Middle East, to realise that these distinctions, real and imaginary, convenient and hustling, continue to inform social and political discourse. “Compared to us”, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir once told the Palestinians, “you are like grasshopper.” And in America’s great universities and across Washington D.C, at well- funded think-tanks, it is still not passe to talk about ‘Arab attitudes’ and the ‘Muslim mind’. To regard peoples who are different from oneself and may have different beliefs or espouse a separate set of ideals as somehow less legitimate or inferior.
Edward W. Said, Professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia, friend and advisor of the Palestine National Council, writer, historian and critic, has been explicating these ugly truths for well over twenty years. A prolific producer of books and a relentless destroyer of wordprocessor keyboards, Said is seen by many as having singlehandedly wrought a sea change in the way the western mind perceives its oriental opposite, a process whose implications of knowledge and power he explained in his landmark 1978 work Orientalism.
His other works include Covering Islam, which documented in painstaking detail the hypocracies of mainstream US news coverage, and his three books dealing with the issue closest to his heart, Palestine: The Question of Palestine, Blaming the Victims, and After the Last Sky. The last book takes its title from a poem by Mahmoud Darvish, the national poet of the Palestinians, and was produced in collaboration with the photographer Jean Mohr.
Taken as a body of work, these individual books have put into sharp perspective the narrow, often ethnocentric path which western literary and political treatments of the east have more often than not taken. At the sync time, they have also made Said a hero and a cult figure, opening up vast areas of debate and making his name synonymous with innovation and change in both thought and action. His opinions and comments have been sought by major news organizations all over the United States. He has appeared regularly on national television. In many ways he is regarded as Palestine's Ambassador At Large.
But if Said’s work on Palestine has brought him international recognition, it has also exposed him to unfair, sometimes racist, attacks from both extremist Jewish groups and, on a more serious note, the mainstream of American intelligentsia which once dominated the issues which Said has made rapidly his own: Palestine, the Middle East, Europe and the West’s distorted perceptions of the so-called ‘other,’ the Orient, the horrendous implications of Zionism for the Palestinians.
For instance, Said routinely receives death threats. His home telephone number is kept unpublished for fear of racist phone calls. And all callers at his office are thoroughly screened by his staff before he meets them. His experience with the US media has also been coloured by the unpleasant feeling that he has come to be regarded by American intelligentsia as “some sort of diplomat for terrorism”, a stereotypical characterization that he finds unfair. And yet, whatever the cost, nobody doubts that Said has made his mark, not only as the historiographer/iconoclast of orientalism, which to many in the third world will remain his most memorable moment, but also in the more rarefied field of bare bones literary criticism.
In the heart of American literary academe, Said is now known as a disciple and heir of sorts to the French philosopher and litterateur, Michel Foucault, mainly due to his approaches to post-structuralist theory. His early works, Joseph Conrad and The Fiction of Autobiography, and Beginnings: Intention and Method have been standard university texts for many years. And his 1983 collection of essays, The World, The Text, And The Critic is a virtual must on any serious bookshelf.
Last, but not the least, especially to Pakistanis and Indians, he is known for his abiding interest in the Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Holding him to be a great example of the post-colonialist intellectual at work, Said often mentions Faiz’s name along with that of the great Kenyan writer and intellectual, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, to illustrate for the uninitiated the nature of the third world literary and political landscape. In fact, in Said’s hands, Faiz almost became an epigram, a fact evident in the oft-quoted article which the Palestinian writer contributed to the New York based Harper’s magazine in 1984.
“To see a poet in exile-as opposed to reading the poetry of exile-is to see exile’s antimonies embodied and endured. Several years ago, I spent some time with Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the greatest of the contemporary Urdu poets. He had been exiled from his native Pakistan by Ziaul Haq’s military regime and had found a welcome of sort in the ruins of Beirut. His closest friends were Palestinian, but I found that although there was an affinity between them, nothing quite matched- language, poetic convention, life history. Only once, when Eqbal Ahmed, a Pakistani and fellow exile, came to Beirut, did Faiz seem to overcome the estrangement written all over his face. The three of us sat in a dingy restaurant one night and Faiz recited poems to us. After a while, he and Eqbal stopped translating his verses for my benefit, but it did not matter. For what I watched required no translation, no enactment of homecoming steeped in defiance and loss, as if to say exultantly to Zia: ‘We are Here’. Of course, Zia was the one who was at home.”
The Herald thought it would be proper to begin the interview with some more thoughts on the significance of Faiz before asking Professor Said about the importance of being Edward.
Herald. You say, 'Of course Zia was the one who was at home'. But if he was, and indeed we know he was, what was in it for Faiz? And if in countries like Pakistan, we are to espouse this Faizian model of the postcolonial intellectual, what in the end is gained and lost? Tell us why the world maybe needs another Faiz. Why we must continue to turn to the Zias of the world and continue the chant, ‘We are here'.
Edward Said. First, a couple of things. The article came out in 1984 but my meeting with Faiz was in '79 or '80. Also, even though I had no way of knowing this at the time, I understand Faiz went back to Pakistan. In fact, he died in Pakistan.
Now, I don't know the precise reasons because of which he left Pakistan in 1979 (or thereabouts), but I assume it was because his freedom was threatened. He may have been put in jail, or silenced in other ways. As I remember it, he was the editor of Lotus, which was an Afro-Asian writers' magazine and, to the test of my knowledge, he was the responsibility of the Palestinians. There was a man there by the name of Mu'in Besseisso, a Palestinian poet who has since died also, who worked at the magazine and understood Faiz's satire, and so on. Since this was a particularly lawless period in Beirut's history, I think he (Besseisso) secured the protection of the Palestinians so that Faiz's safety and comfort were assured.
What I say in that article, and the point I am leading up to here is that in spite of all this, exile is not such a bad thing. I think that in order to continue working, in the case of a writer or an intellectual! (like Faiz) it might be necessary sometimes to leave and to find another place to continue. At the time of the meeting, I didn't know Faiz would return, and what I was doing was contrasting his condition with my own. I left Palestine in 1947 and never went back to the part of Palestine I am from, which later became Israel. I was on the West Bank in 1966, one year before the Israeli invasion, but I haven't been back there either.
Herald. And what about this exultant and defiant retort to Zia, ‘We Are Here’, as a larger sort of condition, as opposed to whatever it may be construed as meaning in a narrower Pakistani sense. As a general condition, what does that statement say?
Said. Look, as a general condition, India and Pakistan on the one hand, and the Arabs on the other, share a common background of colonial tribulation followed by independence and sovereignty. And at least in our case, speaking of the Arabs, what has happened is that although there are now twenty plus independent Arab states, the Arab world itself, with its rules and regimes and kings and presidents, is a catastrophe.
You have regimes, all of whom, with the exception of a few, are deeply unpopular. You have the resurgence of Muslim religious political feeling. You have a significant brain-drain; a lot of people are leaving. And above all, from my point of view, you have a cultural class, let’s say, who are either silent or hiding or abroad.
So, very frequently in a situation like this – when the situation is hopeless – it is important to turn to a symbolic figure, like a poet or a writer or an intellectual, to a Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who is not co-opted, who is not corrupted, who is not silenced, and to say what he or she is doing is enough for us. Of course, in reality it’s not enough. What we are talking about are situations where political change has often been set back. There has been no political change.
Herald. You are also a writer exiled from his country. Tell us, is your situation essentially different from Faiz or, say, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, the Kenyan, who you also sometimes mention? Does being in America make the situation distinctly different? And I ask you this because in one of the essays in The World, The Text, And The Critic you talk about Eric Auerbach, the Jewish, western trained and educated intellectual who wrote Mimesis.
You note that he was exiled by the Nazis and wrote the book in Istanbul, an odd place for such an important western work to be written in, since that city at the time still represented what Europe regarded as the Ottoman menace. Then you go on to discuss Auerbach’s condition in more detail. But it sounds almost as if you are talking about yourself. After all, you are also in the belly of the beast, a Palestinian at work in the United States. Is that so?
Said. Well, obviously there are many parallels, but I wouldn’t want to suggest that my life is a very difficult one. Due to a series of fortunate circumstances, I am in a field which allows me to teach literature and to maintain a position as a professor, with great luxury and ease. I mean, it’s a wonderful job. It’s the best job in the world. So in that sense, I can’t really complain. But I must say that there is no question that I live in an alien environment. And all said and done, it is very difficult because my relationship with the culture and the surroundings is adversarial. People are always waiting for me to say something in order for them to utter rebuttal.
Nothing I say is easily accepted, it must be fought over. Not to mention the fact that I come from a part of the world that most people here are completely ignorant of: the Arab world, the Islamic world. Nothing is known about it at all. What is known, as I tried to show in Orientalism, is extremely attenuated and a series of stupid clichés: violent this, despotic that. And then, if you say, well can you name a writer, an Arabic writer, these people come up with no names. There is nothing. They draw a blank. So, it’s a tough situation.
Herald. You described an occasion once, before Naguib Mahfooz won the Nobel Prize, when an American publisher called you and asked for a list of writers. Could you tell that story for the benefit of our readers?
Said. I will tell you exactly. The publisher called me sometime in 1980 or ’81 and asked for a list of third world writers, because he wanted to start a series, and I put Mahfooz at the top of the list. A few months later, I saw this publisher and I said well, what have you picked? So he told me that Mahfooz was not one of the writers that he had chosen. I asked him why. After all, Mahfooz was the greatest Arabic writer, and a world figure. Why would he drop him? He said: “Well, you see, Arabic is a controversial language.” The language is controversial! I mean, what are we talking about here?
I’ll give you another example. There is a great deal done in American universities, in their literature departments, with medieval studies: medieval English, medieval French, and so on. And the phrase medieval is understood to cover the entire middle ages.
Yet, not a single instance can I think of in which medieval courses and programmes ever include Andalusian, Muslim civilisation, which was exactly contemporary with that of say Dante, Chaucer, Aquinas etcetra, etcetra. And on a much higher level, whether it be science or literature or theology or medicine, it’s just left out! So, if you live in this culture and you come from the part of the world (the Arab and Islamic world), you have to pay the price of this, lapse, let’s call it.
Herald. Now, on the other hand, your own works are very widely distributed in the West and equally sought after in the third world. With Orientalism, you had a profound galvanizing influence on an entire generation. It has been translated into seventeen or eighteen languages, and to many among us, it represents a manifesto, so to speak, a state of mind. Tell us, have you had the time, so many years since 1978 when that book came out, to sit down and scrutinize the changes in perception it has brought about?
Said. Well, yes, I think it has changed perceptions. In the west, for instance, in certain fields, such as anthropology, history, cultural studies, feminist studies, it has influenced people to think about problems of power relationships between cultures and peoples, where dominance includes the power to represent and create, to control and to manipulate. In other words, it makes the argument for the connection between the production of knowledge and power. And specifically, because it was a historical work, it really looks at all of this in the age of empire.
Now, one of the things I was slightly disturbed by, in terms of the book’s influence in the Muslim world, was that it was considered by some to be a book in defense of Islam, which it was not at all. I have nothing to say about Islam; what I talk about are representations of Islam, rather than Islam itself. I suppose somebody could write a book about portrayals of the West in the Islamic world, and come up with roughly the same distortions. But what I am really interested in, to make my point, is not just distortion, because distortion always occurs, but rather in trying to facilitate an understanding of how it occurs, and what might be done to ameliorate it. So, that is one point.
Another reflection is that since Orientalism came out in 1978, I have myself started thinking of the problem of orientalism in a wider context. Beginning in 1984-85, I started working on a book, nearly finished now and scheduled to come out later this year, which is a kind of sequel to Orientalism, but looks at the problem in a global context.
In other words, I try to look at Africa, I look at the Middle East, I look at India and Pakistan and I try to discover what the role of culture was in forming imperialism in the West. In the middle of the book, I look at the role of culture in the process of decolonisation and resistance to imperialism – in other words, what role culture played in resisting empire in places like India and what is now Pakistan, in Africa, the Caribbean and so on.
And then, in the last chapter, I look at the role of the United States after classical empires were dismantled in World War II, to see, since the extraordinary role that the United States played as the last remaining imperial power, and the influence of that role upon knowledge and the production of knowledge. And all of this really comes out of my work on orientalism. I have tried to extend it and take it further, looking not only at the aggressive aspects of empire but also at the resistances to empire that people like you and I were able to mount. After all, empires didn’t last. India gained its independence in 1947. So, something happened, and that is what I look at in this book.
Herald. Getting back to Orientalism itself. Tell us, was there a sequence of events in your life which led to the writing of Orientalism?
Said. Well, there are several germs. One of the things was when I was growing up after we left Palestine and were in Egypt. Although my family was well off and I went to colonial schools in Palestine and Egypt, I realised that no matter what I was by virtue of family or education or language, to a ruling Englishman – and this is colonial Egypt in 1948-49 – I would always remain a wog. It was brought home to me in an episode I will never forget.
I was walking home across the fields of the Gazira Sporting Club in Cairo, a great colonial sporting club of which my family was a member. It was a club really for the English but they admitted a few locals. So, I was walking home (we lived near the club) and the man whom I saw coming towards me on a bicycle was the secretary of the club, an Englishman named Mr. Pilly. He stopped me and said: “Boy, what are you doing here” and I replied, “I’m walking home.” And he said: “Don’t you know you’re not allowed to be here” and I said “Yes, I am allowed to be here. Because my family is a member.” And he said “Boy, you are not allowed here. You are an Arab boy. Get out.” Now the irony of this is) and by the way, I did get out: I was scared) that Mr Philly’s son was a classmate of mine at school. Now these are the sort of formative experiences where you come to understand that race, in the colonial context-no matter what else goes on – is determining. So that’s one of the germs to it.
Another germ was 1967, when I was here already. I was a professor at Columbia. I was not at all involved in politics. I was a student of European literature and a professor of it. But then the war broke out and I realised the enormous cultural hatred and bias towards Arabs and the Arab world, and that politicised me. That is to say, being an Arab, I identified with the Arab losses and realised how much of the loss was due to the fact that we were considered to be an inferior people. I began to try to understand where that image they had of us came from.
The last point that I want to make about Orientalism, which is also very important, is that I don’t think I would have written that book had I not been politically associated with a struggle. The struggle of Arab and Palestinian nationalism is very important to that book. Orientalism is not meant to be an abstract account of some historical formation but rather a part of the liberation from such stereotypes and such domination of my own people, whether they are Arabs, or Muslims or Palestinians.
Herald. It’s good you brought it up, Professor Said, since we were about to turn to Palestine any way. You concluded The Question of Palestine by saying that by saying: “We must not forget that Palestine is saturated with blood and violence, and we must look forward realistically to much turbulence, much ugly human waste, in the short term.
Unhappily, the question of Palestine with renew itself in all too well-known forms. But so too will the people of Palestine-Arabs and Jews-whose past and future binds them inexorably together. Their encounter has yet to occur on any important scale. But it will occur, I know, and it will be to their mutual benefit.” Now with the advent of direct negotiations (and the third round of negotiations in Washington will already have taken place by the time this is printed) do you think that the encounter, so to speak, has occurred?
Said. Yes I think it really began to occur during the Intifada, with the beginning of the Intifada in December of 1987, and it has continued to occur. The Israelis have had to confront the reality of the Palestinian nation. I am not talking about rioting individuals or of throwing stones. I am talking about a nation. For the first time in their history, Israelis are dealing with an entire population which constitutes a nation because.
Of course, that entire population in the Occupied Territories is tied with people like myself, who live in exile. More than half of the Palestinian population lives outside Palestine. Forty-five percent live on this land of historical Palestine, that is to say the Occupied Territories and present day Israel, and fifty-dive percent live abroad, like myself and my entire family, who were made refugees in 1948.
This has made Israel confront, first through the Intifada and then through the declaration of Palestinian statehood in Algiers in 1988, then the recognition of Israel by the Palestinians, and now through these talks, the reality of the Palestinian nation. It is coming. It is very, very slow. But I have no doubt that at the end of the process there will be an independent Palestinian state.
I also have no doubt, however, that Israel as a nation- and I’m not talking about individuals but rather an establishment –had made very little progress towards us and towards what we have done as people. They still will not recognize the PLO. They still will not recognize Palestinian nationalism.
I don’t know if you notice this, and most people in the West are not aware of this, but when Shamir and Netanyahu (Israel’s deputy foreign minister) speak they never speak about the Palestinians, they always call them “the Palestinian Arabs.” That’s still a part of their political make-up; that we (the Palestinians) are not a people.
Herald. So you don’t exist?
Said. Well, we do exist, but they refer to us as “aliens” who lie on the land of Eretz Israel. The more honest Likud settler in Israel refers to the Palestinians on the West bank and Gaza as “aliens” on the land of Israel. So, they have made no progress yet in coming to terms with our reality as a nation. The same is true of the most American Jews.
I can’t speak of Jews in the West, but American Jews, with a few exceptions, still cannot reconcile themselves to the existence of our nationhood. And one of the reasons is that the whole enterprise that brought Israel into being was premised upon our non-existence. Now, suddenly, forty-five years later, they discover that not only are we here now, but that we have been here all along, and it’s something that’s just very difficult for them to accept.
Herald. Do you think that an encounter on a major scale, at this point in time (and we are talking about, say, the next two years), is at all possible without the PLO and Yasser Arafat coming overtly into the picture?
Said. No it’s not. And, in fact, it is taking place with the PLO. In other words, there is this tremendous illusion, mainly because of this ludicrous puerile attitude of the Americans and the Israeli’s, that if you exclude the physical presence of the PLO, the PLO will go away. The delegation sent to Madrid and to Washington was chosen by the PLO. Everything they say or do is referred to and approved by the PLO. The delegates receive directives from the PLO.
Many of them are supporters of parties within the PLO. And all of them recognize the supreme authority of the PLO as the national organisation representing Palestinian identity as a nation. So, I think this ‘we are not talking with the PLO’ business is a reflection on the juvenile qualities of the Americans and the Israelis. They say, “Well, you know, we are not dealing with them.”
But on the other hand, they are dealing with them in this roundabout way. They are prisoners of their own silly ideology that the PLO is nothing but a terrorist organisation. If you believe that kind of lie then you can’t really deal with reality. That’s why I am really proud of the fact that the Palestinians are mature and are able to deal with the Israelis as they are.
We don’t need ideological fiction. We can say: “We are dealing with Israel” We are not dealing with “the Zionist entity.” And it’s true, we are the ones who want to deal with the Israeli government; they are the ones who have difficulty sitting with us. In the last round of talks in Washington, they refused to sit in the same room with the Palestinians. They said we don’t recognise you. We must sit only with the Jordanians. And that is what they are stalling. But I think in their hearts they know that the inevitable is upon them. They are going to have to deal with us. The real question now, of course, is how much and how long America is going to indulge them in this fantasy of not dealing with us.
Herald. There has been some criticism of this specific administration, the Bush administration, over its decision to join this month’s United Nations resolution condemning Israel for its latest deportations of Palestinians. How do you feel about that?
Said. I don’t take very seriously the changes that have occurred in the policies of this country under the Bush-Baker administration. I think it is very important to remember that this is the first American administration to attempt and partially succeed in destroying a major Arab country.
This is an administration that uses the United Nations to continue to violate the sovereignty of Iraq, which is one of the two major Arab countries. It is an administration that has granted nothing to Palestinian nationalism at all except cosmetic improvement in its image after the end of the Gulf war.
It needs a ‘Peace Victory’ to make up for what it was not able to do in Iraq to bring down the regime of Saddam. He is a tyrant, I will say it, and what he did in Kuwait was absolutely wrong, but the Americans have not solved the problems of the region. They have caused rifts between Arab states. They have caused a huge amount of human suffering and waste and violence. What they are doing now with this so called peace process is, I will repeat, a cosmetic attempt to restore the lustre of George Bush’s image as a peacemaker and, at the same time, to express a sort of petulance at Israel’s behavior.
But petulance is not enough. Israel continues to settle and appropriate the land. Israel continues to deport. Israel continues to kill. Israel continues to imprison. Israel continues to clamp down the curfews, twenty-four hours a day. And the United Nations has not withheld one cent of the five billion dollars annually sent to Israel in US aid. That is against the law of this country. The law says that gross violations of human rights have to result in curtailment of US aid to the recipient country. That has never happened.
So, I am not one of those people who think this is a historical breakthrough that United States has changed its policy. They are still exacting from the Palestinians concessions they are too scared to ask from the Israelis. I will give you a simple example. The two Palestinians who negotiated with Baker for six months, from March until the beginning of August, were Hanan Ashrawi and Faisal Hussaini, and Baker praised them publicly in Madrid for their negotiations.
Neither one of them was allowed to come to the Peace Palace in Madrid because Israel said we cannot have these people since they are affiliated with the PLO and they are real leaders. The official reason they gave was that they were from East Jerusalem. And America accepted these conditions, so what are we talking about? We are talking about an administration that is too afraid, too tied to the past, to subservient to whether its Saudi Arabia on the one hand or the Israeli lobby on the other, to make any courageous advancements in the progress towards peace.
Herald. Is it true that Shamir had once objected to George Shultz meeting you?
Said. Not only that, he wouldn’t allow me into the country. In the spring of 1988, I wanted to go with my family and he wouldn’t allow it. I am an American citizen but he expressly forbade me from entering the country. We are dealing with a really lousy situation here. And, to get back to the point, I don’t see a vote in the United Nations where the United States condemns a flagrant violation of the Geneva Convention is all that significant.
First of all, who is going to enforce the resolution? What astonishes me is the Arabs accepting that as a reason for coming back to the talks. We got nothing from it. Just a condemnation. So what. There are already sixty-four UN Security council resolutions condemning Israel for one or other abuse of Palestinian rights. Not one of them has been implemented, and the reason they haven’t been implemented in the United States.
Herald. Talking of resolutions, you gave an interview once to Salman Rushdie in which you described Zionism as the touchstone of contemporary political judgement in America. You said a lot of people who are happy to attack apartheid or to talk about US intervention in Central America are not prepared to "talk about Zionism and what it has done to Palestinians."
You said that here in the United States, if you say anything about Zionism you are seen as "joining classical European or western anti-Semitism. Therefore, you said, it has become "absolutely necessary to concentrate on the particular history and context of Zionism in discussing what it represents for the Palestinian."
Said. The important part of that phrase is "for the Palestinian." Zionism for the Jew was a wonderful thing. They say it was their liberation movement. They say it was that which gave them sovereignty. They established institutions which they never had before, etcetra etcetra. The list is very long. So, I am not talking about that. That's good. It's fine. But so far as the Palestinians are concerned, we re the victims of Zionism.
Herald. But this undertaking itself, of making this position known, how will it be affected by the reversal of the United Nations resolution equating Zionism with racism?
Said. Well, look, I was never happy with the resolution. To say that Zionism is a form of racism is to be sufficiently clear about, and insufficiently sensitive to, what Zionism did for the Jews; for the Jews on the one hand and to the Palestinians on the other. In the Question of Palestine, I talk about it. To me, Zionism is Zionism. I don’t have to equate it with anything else.
But for the Palestinians today, Zionism means: number one, the shattering of their society; number two, the dispossession of their population; number three, and most importantly, the continuing oppression of the Palestinians as a people. To give you an example, Israel is the only state in the world which is not a state of its own citizens, it is a state of the Jewish people, if you happen to be a non-Jew in that Jewish state (and there are some 800,00 Palestinians who are Israeli citizens) and you are referred to as a non-Jew and you are discriminated against simply because you are not Jewish.
Jews are allowed to return to Israel by the law of return. I was born there but I can’t. Jews can buy and lease and rent land in Israel. Palestinians cannot. And on the West Bank and Gaza, in the Occupied Territories, Palestinians are discriminated against in ways Jews are not discriminated against. Settlers on the West Bank and Gaza can take away land from Palestinians and just live on it.
However, in spite of all these things, I must say that the resolution on Zionism and racism was a tremendously unfortunate episode. It was partly the euphoria of the early seventies, with the Afro-Asian movement in full bloom, and the Soviet Union still a player, and the Islamic movement heating up, which caused it to come about. It was badly thought through, insufficiently sensitive as I said, and as a result of it we, the Palestinians, have paid a very high political price. It became a stumbling block. But that is in the past now.
Herald. You were just saying that you are not allowed to buy land. One of the most important piece of land at issue, of course, is Jerusalem itself. The peace process which has just been started is torturously slow. Do you believe, by the time this process comes to fruition, there will be any chance left at all for non-Jews to lay claim on Jerusalem.
Said. I don’t see any a way of resolving the problem if Israel continues to hold on to the whole of Jerusalem. I am not saying that I am repartitioning of Jerusalem, I am not. I think it should remain a united city. But there should be an imaginative way for Palestinians to see in Jerusalem, of at least Arab or East Jerusalem, their capital. It has to be.
It means a lot to Palestinians. And, of course, it also means a tremendous amount to the Islamic world. Jerusalem is not just a Palestinian city. It is also a city with great significance for a billion Muslims. So, some arrangement has to be made whereby Israel cannot go on dispossessing Palestinians within Jerusalem. But I must repeat I am not for the repartitioning of the city.
I think something should be done in an imaginative way so the city, which is a universal city, can express the hopes and traditions of the three faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Herald. Something on the lines of the Vatican, would you say?
Said. Something like that, without necessarily internationalizing it. But something of that sort, rather than cutting it up again or keeping it unified under Israeli control.
Herald. Now let’s talk about intimidation. And we know it’s a sensitive issue. As a highly visible spokesperson for the Palestinian cause, you have been targeted by the various groups who turn out and protest when you deliver papers, who attack you in print, hand out leaflets quoting you out of context and so on. They call you an Ambassador of Terrorism. All these unpleasant incidents have taken place.
Said. Well, there have even been death threats. What can you do?
Herald. Tell us what bothers you the most about all this.
Said. Well, what bothers me most, I think, is the lying and the injustice that’s involved, because by any standard whatsoever, I am a victim. I was chased out of the house. I lost my homeland. And my people have continued to be killed and be mistreated, in the hundreds of thousands. And yet these people are mounting the viscous campaign not only to continue to hurt me and my people in these concrete ways but also to heap all kinds of lies and opprobrium upon me and to call me a terrorist and what not. That’s number one.
Number two, in America, I have no real way of responding. That bothers me a lot. Many of the people who have attacked me and written about me in slanderous and libelous ways have entire magazines at their disposal. Commentary, for instance, the magazine of the American Jewish Committee, which is one of them, gives them space to write whatever they want. I, on the other hand, don’t have a magazine to write in. So, it’s very hard, if you know what I am trying to say. In other words, there is no organized equivalent to the platform that the enemies of the Palestinians have in this country.
The third, most galling thing of all, is that the Arabs and the Muslims, in this country and elsewhere have never organised themselves together and tried to put forward a credible, alternative view to that put forward about us-not about me necessarily but about us-the Zionist lobby in this country. It’s a crime. We are the inheritors of a great tradition and a great civilisation. We have many talented people and yet we cannot, just cannot, work together.
The Palestinians work not only in five different directions but frequently in opposing ones. The Syrians work by themselves. There is no attempt to take ourselves seriously as members of a nation. And it really goes back about what I said earlier about the condition of the Arab world: It’s a sink. It’s a sink of corruption and mediocrity and the most appalling and murderous tyrannies. There are no democratic freedoms. It’s just a dreadful place.
And yet, it is a place to which I feel attached; it’s where I am from, and my family is from. I mean, I am not about to give up. And I won’t do what the Samir El Khalils and the Fouad Ajamis of the world want to do, which is to set up in this country, the United States, and to become apologists for the enemies of the Arabs. I won’t play that game.
Herald. You once described Fauad Ajamis (the Middle East expert of The New Republic, a Washington based anti-Palestinian magazine) as The New Republic’s resident anti-Arab Arab.”
Said. That’s right. He’s a disgrace. Not just because of his viciousness and his hatred of his own people but because what he says is so trivial and so ignorant. He, much more than me, is a professor of Middle Eastern Studies. That’s what he does for a living.
Yet, he doesn’t know anything about the Arab World. He doesn’t read about it. He doesn’t care about it. He is an ignorant man who writes negligible stuff that is simply used by the Zionist lobby and the establishment in this country against the Arabs. It is a very despicable kind of work he does, and doesn’t contribute to knowledge so far as I am concerned.
Herald. Samir El Khalil is the author of the book entitled State of Fear, which is about Iraq and gained wide currency during and after the Gulf war. Would you put him in the same category?
Said. Roughly. He perhaps doesn’t have the venom. He hasn’t been at it long enough. In some ways, he is a much more confused man. Ajami, at least, has the virtue of clear-sightedness. He knows what he wants. He wants to attack the Arabs. This man, I don’t know what he wants. He is a confused, emotionally distraught figure who had leapt to a kind of sudden prominence on the basis of this basically negligible book. So, it attacks Saddam-fine. But it’s not a historical contribution, it’s not a scholarly contribution to understanding Iraq and it was useful as part of the mobilisation of this country against Saddam Hussain. Khalil has played that role and he has played it well and I really don’t see him doing anything else. When his post-war euphoria in this country is over, he will pass from the scene.
Herald. So you think he will indeed disappear?
Said. I think so, yes. He hasn’t really written anything of the lasting consequence, in my opinion. He is not a scholar.
Herald. There is some talk of a new Palestinian leadership, and many Americans mention Hanan Ashrawi, for instance, as a new kind of leader. Give us your thoughts on that.
Said. Well, you know she was a student of mine. She was at the University of Virginia, not here at Columbia, but they asked me if I would like to supervise the writing of her dissertation and it interested me, so I said yes. After that, for about two or three years, she would send me chapters of it and so on. She is a very intelligent and interesting woman. Lately, she has received a lot of attention too.
In my point of view, it is unfortunate that this has been used invidiously against Arafat, I am referring to the speculation and the attention that you asked about. In a certain sense, if you look at it honestly, she is unthinkable without Arafat, if you see what I mean. But it’s all a part of the racism of the West. They think they like her because she speaks English well, the same reason they used to like me, because I spoke English well. As if that’s it, if you don’t speak English well, you’re really not in the same world with their exalted highnesses.
Herald. Which brings us to a final question, one I know you are keen to address, about yet another person who speaks English well: Salman Rushdie. If you could just outline for us your position on Salman Rushdie. And we ask this because there are a lot of people who would be very interested to know precisely what Edward Said thinks about the whole Rushdie affair.
Said. Well, my feeling is the following. And there are two or three points to be made. Number one, I am an absolute believer in absolute freedom of expression. As a Palestinian, I have fought Israeli attempts to censor my people in what they can write or read. A lot of our battle of liberation has to do with freedom of though and opinion and expression. I firmly believe in them. So, let me say, regardless of the reason, I believe there should be no censorship after all. That’s number one.
Number two, Salman Rushdie is an old friend of mine whom I am known for about ten years. I first met him in 1980-81 in London. I’m a great admirer of his writing, especially Midnight’s Children, which I think is one of the great novels of the twentieth century. I also liked very much the book of short stories he wrote for his son, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which I reviewed here in the United States. Shame I like less than Midnight’s Children. I read it only once, and maybe if I read it again I will be able to get more into it.
The Satanic Verses, I think, is an interesting novel. It’s a large, confused, in many ways brilliant book designed to be provocative. I mean, I am not going to sit here this evening and give you my precise liter critical analysis of his work, but he is a very gifted and extraordinary man and I deeply regret all the things that have happened to him. I also urge you to not censor what I am saying and to print it as I say it, knowing that you will be under pressure to decide how much you want to print about him.
So, as a I was saying, I really regret that reactions to him have been as violent as they have been. Personally, I don’t myself believe that is in the nature of Islam or a part of the best traditions of Islamic civilisation to suppress the writings of an offending dissenter, let us say.
So, the hullabaloo about him has been deeply regrettable and, in many ways, unacceptable to me. Now, I understand that a lot of Muslims are offended by Satanic Verses, even though, I must say, I’m not sure if very many of them have even read the book. That’s one of the great comic events of all time. All these people screaming about this book being an offense to Islam when most of them, at least in the Arab world, can’t read the English language. After all, it is in English. But they just take the world of some ulema who claims this or that is what he says. That’s garbage. It’s terrible.
So, I am very disturbed about the whole thing and I just wish that Salman Rushdie could lead a normal life. I have seen him since he went underground and the toll this has taken on him has been terrible. It’s a huge price to pay for an individual. He has lost the ability to be free. He can’t move around as he wishes. He can’t see his son. His second marriage failed while he was in hiding. And the sense of persecution and insecurity is tremendous. I feel it shouldn’t happen to anyone. Our world is big enough to have people like Salman Rushdie writing as they do and to debate what they say. But to condemn him to death and to burn his book and ban it - those are horrible, horrible things.
This coming Sunday, by the way, in The New York Times, they asked a number of people, including me to give their opinions about whether Wagner should be played in Israel or not. What I have done is written a few paragraphs comparing the attitudes to Israeli’s to Wagner with that of the Muslims in the case of Salman Rushdie. And I oppose both views, Art and ideas one doesn’t like have to be discussed, they can’t just be thrown out of the window the way it was done during the inquisition. It’s a great crime and I think it would do our world a great disservice if we let that view prevail.
This article was published in the Herald's February 1992 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.