“I spoke to Mrs Edward Said and she told me he has passed
away this morning at a New York hospital,” said Hamid Dabashi, chairman of Columbia’s Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures Department.
“Over the past three decades he was the most eloquent
spokesman for the plight of the Palestinians,” Dabashi said.
Said was a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He had suffered from leukaemia at least since the early 1990s.
Known for his groundbreaking research in the literary field and his incisive political commentary and music criticism, Said was one of the United States’ most prominent intellectuals.
His writing regularly appeared in the Guardian of London, Le Monde Diplomatique and the Arab-language daily al-Hayat.
Through his writing and his speeches, the Palestinian Christian academic became a leading voice in the struggle of his countrymen for self-determination.
A life in exile
He was born in 1935 in Jerusalem – then part of British-ruled Palestine – but Said spent almost all his adult life in the United States.
In 1948, he and his family were dispossessed from Palestine and settled in Cairo.
Said first came to the United States as a student. He received a bachelor’s degree from Princeton in 1957 and a master’s and PhD from Harvard, in 1960 and 1964 respectively.
Most of his academic career was spent as a professor at Columbia University in New York, but he also was a visiting professor at such leading institutions as Yale, Harvard and Johns Hopkins.
Due to his advocacy for Palestinian self-determination and his membership of the Palestine National Council, Said was not allowed to visit Palestine until recently.
His writing, translated into 14 languages, includes 10 books, among them, Orientalism (1978), a runner-up in criticism for the National Book Critics Circle Award; The World, the Text and the Critic (1983); Blaming the Victims (1988) and Cultural Imperialism (1993). His most recent book, Peace and Its Discontents: Essays on Palestine in the Middle East Peace Process, was published in 1995.
A thrower of rocks
Said was consistently critical of Israel for what he regarded as mistreatment of the Palestinians.
He prompted a controversy in 2000 when he threw a rock toward an Israeli guardhouse on the Lebanese border.
Columbia University did not censure him, saying that the stone was directed at no one, no law was broken and that his actions were protected by principles of academic freedom.
“I have been moved to defend the refugees’ plight precisely because I did not suffer and therefore feel obligated to relieve the sufferings of my people”
He wrote two years ago after visits to Jerusalem and the West Bank that Israel’s “efforts toward exclusivity and xenophobia toward the Arabs” had actually strengthened Palestinian determination.
“Palestine and Palestinians remain, despite Israel’s concerted efforts from the beginning either to get rid of them or to circumscribe them so much as to make them ineffective,” Said wrote in the English-language Al-Ahram Weekly, published in Cairo.
Critic of Arafat
After the signing of the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, Said also criticized Yasir Arafat because he believed the PLO leader had made a bad deal for the Palestinians.
He said in a lecture at Tufts University that Arafat and the Palestinian Authority “have become willing collaborators with the (Israeli) military occupation, a sort of Vichy government for Palestinians.”
He lived to see a musical partnership with Argentina-born Jewish pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim bear fruit. The West-Eastern Divan orchestra of young Arab and Israeli musicians played an ecstatically received concert in Rabat, Morocco last month, the 80-piece ensemble’s first date in an Arab country.
Barenboim and Said, who founded the orchestra together, said at the time they hoped the concerts would help to bring friendship, peace and security between Palestinians and Israelis.
Not a refugee
Israeli scholar Justus Reid Weiner published an article in the American magazine Commentary accusing Said of dramatising his own background to enhance his credentials as a spokesman for the Palestinians. Weiner said Said claimed he was driven out of Palestine while actually his family was living in the Egyptian capital Cairo before the founding of Israel.
Said replied by saying he had never described himself personally as a refugee. He said he had always maintained he spent much of his youth in Egypt and Lebanon, but that many of relatives were dislodged from Palestine as Israel came into being.
He wrote in the Egyptian Al-Ahram Weekly, “I have been moved to defend the refugees’ plight precisely because I did not suffer and therefore feel obligated to relieve the sufferings of my people.”