The name that enables: remembering Edward Said

Ten years after his passing, the scholar still looms large in the lives of his friends and colleagues, Dabashi writes.

Palestinian writer and scholar Edward Sa
Palestinian writer and scholar Edward Said left an indelible legacy AFP]

Stop all the clocks  … let the mourners come.

– WH Auden

The common leitmotif of writing on the milestone anniversary of a friend’s passing is a strong element of nostalgia – how wonderful things were when he was alive and how sad that he is no more. This element of nostalgia becomes even stronger when the fallen friend is a towering intellectual figure whose voice and vision were definitive to an age that now seems almost irreversibly altered. When the site of that dramatic alteration is the home and habitat of that colleague, with Palestine as its epicentre and the larger Arab and Muslim world all gathering momentum around it, the act of remembrance becomes positively allegorical.

This September, we mark the 10th anniversary of Edward Said’s passing at a time when the entire Arab world is in turmoil and Palestine is being stolen even more savagely by the hour. We as a community of his friends, comrades, and colleagues, actively remember his voice, his vision, and his steadfast determination to lead our causes around the globe. But how is it exactly that he still shows the way a decade after his silence?

The fact is that when today I think of Edward Said and the more than a decade that I was fortunate to know him personally as a friend and a colleague here at Columbia, my paramount feeling is not a sense of loss – but a sense of suspension. Some people, it seems to me, never die for those whose moral and political imagination is organically rooted in their living memory. For me at least, the temporal timber of our politics has frozen ever since that fateful morning of September 24, 2003, when Joseph Massad called me to say Edward had taken his last breath. I had just received the news of my own younger brother Aziz having passed away  – so the sense of loss of a brother, of two brothers, a younger and an older brother, is frozen in time for me, framed as it were on a mantelpiece that defines the focal point of where I can call home.

I have written a few pieces specifically on Edward Said’s passing, my immediate thoughts and feelings when he passed away, and then my travelogue to Palestine, from which trip I brought back a fistful of dust from a sanctified cemetery of the Prophet’s companion cemetery in Jerusalem near Dome of the Rock, to take to Brummana in Lebanon and place it on Edward’s last resting place, and then another piece that her widow Mariam Said had asked me to write for a small circulation volume when we were having a memorial for him at Columbia in March 2004.

But none of those pieces has been able to put anything resembling a full stop at the end of my moral, imaginative, political, and scholarly engagements with Said. They are far less about who Edward Said was than what he enabled me to become. I now read them more like various punctuation marks in my evolving conversations with his enduring memory. After Phillip Rieff and George Makdisi, the two towering intellectual figures whose gracing shadows bends over every sentence I write, Edward Said is sitting next to my laptop, as always dashingly well-dressed, inquisitive, playful and determined all at the same time, wondering what I am cooking.

I don’t think I can mourn Edward Said as long as I live, if mourning is a ritual of reconciliation with a loss, for I don’t believe my kind of conversation with him are ever over.

Citing Said

Much has happened since Said’s passing – and on too many occasions we have all thought what would he have said if he were with us today – particularly when the Arab revolutions started. What would he have said of the carnage in Syria, of the coup in Egypt, of the NATO bombing of Libya, of the revolution in Tunis – and above all of the continued barefaced armed robbery of Palestine?

Though he is no longer here to share his thoughts, he has done enough to enable us to think with him. Certain towering intellectuals become integral to the vey alphabet of our moral and political imagination. They no longer need to be here physically for you to know what they might have thought or said or written. They live in those who read and think them through – and thus they become indexical, proverbial, to our thinking.

Said lived so fully, so consciously, so critically through the thick and thin of our times that he is definitive to our critical thinking, just like Marx, or Freud, or Fanon, or Dubois, or Malcolm X are. They are the sound with which we sing, the sight with which we see, the aroma with which we smell things, definitive to the intuition of our transcendence.

On many occasion I would run into Said on our campus while I had a conversation with him in my mind and as soon as I saw him I just continued with that mental conversation out loud – and he seemed to do the same – he would just abruptly say something, as if we had a conversation started long before we saw each other on campus. That sense of suspended and continued conversation is still very much alive and running – perhaps it is a state of denial, perhaps the fact that thinkers like Said are epistemic to our thinking, time lapsed dosage of themselves that keep unpacking themselves.

I don’t think I can mourn Edward Said as long as I live, if mourning is a ritual of reconciliation with a loss, for I don’t believe my kind of conversation with him are ever over. I still live in the same block where he and his family lived for decades. I still run into his widow Mariam once in a while almost exactly on the same spots I used to run into him.

I still read his books and essays with his voice in my ear, and am still moved by the joy and anger of his principles on the bone marrow of my own politics. I have travelled quite a distance from where Edward Said was in terms of his literary and historical theories, for I had also started from different vantage points from where he did. But I think him in my own thoughts, feel him in my own sentiments, and echo him in my own politics. I feel at home with him almost exactly the same way he was at home anywhere, slightly out of place, having come to similar (but not identical) conclusions as he did, but from a different embarkations and looking at adjacent shores. He was an enabler, not a guru. He did not replicate himself. His friends became more of themselves by his virtue.

Towering intellects like Said or Fanon or Césaire enable you in your own voice, and making sure you never repeat but extend them, expostulate their logic, domestic their politics to their own rhetoric, navigate unchartered territories with their compass but not their itinerary. To me, it is impossible to be a Saidian or a Fanonite, for they were so particular in their universalities that could not but trigger your own particularities awaiting their own intuition of transcendence.

After Said there are no native, no national, no international, no first world, no second, no First or Third World intellectuals. Battlefields of ideas are site specific and global. You cannot wage any battle at any local level without simultaneously registering it globally.

A new intellectual organicity

With the death of Edward Said we immigrant intellectuals ceased to be immigrant and became native to a new organicity. We are the fulfilments of his battles. He theorised himself to be out of place so timely and so punctiliously, so that after him we are no longer out of place, at home where ever we can hang our hat and say no to power.

After Said there are no native, no national, no international, no first world, no second, no First or Third World intellectuals. Battlefields of ideas are site specific and global. You cannot wage any battle at any local level without simultaneously registering it globally. If you are not global you are not local and if you are not local you are not global.

The most boring and irrelevant intellectuals are those who think the US, Iran, India, or North Pole are the centre of the universe. The universe has no centre, no periphery. We are all free-floating. Said was very site specific about Palestine – and thereby he made the Palestinian predicament a metaphysical allegory, and he grounded it in the physical agony and heroism of his people.

It is meaningless after Said to speak of “exilic intellectuals”, precisely because he so thoroughly theorized the category for his own age. There is no home from which to be exiled. The capital and the empire that wishes but fails to micromanage it are everywhere. There is no exit from this world and home and exile are illusions that late capital and the condition of empire have dismantled.

The new intellectual organicity that Said enabled requires that you roll up your sleeves, get down and dirty, so that in the midst of chaos you can seek solace, of darkness, light, of despair, hope.

Missing Said

There are times that I do not even miss Said for, in an enduring sense, he has never left us. You think your phone will ring and it is he calling to chat about one thing or another, or that you run into him on campus, or his name appears in your Inbox. I don’t miss him because I think I am still not quite done talking, arguing, agreeing, disagreeing, confiding in him. He is always there – there in the midst of a haze of happiness and despair that agitates and endears all his writings.

And then there are times, especially in the heart of the very early morning darkness when I habitually get up and start reading and writing only a few buildings away from where he used to live and do the same, that I suddenly sense the weight of his absence, the hollowed presence of his absence, the aura and audibility of his voice, the inquisitive frivolity of his gaze, his always speaking with you directly, pointedly, specifically, and yet from the rested assurances of distantly assured seashores he had seen. It is the accidentality of those encounters, just as I turn the corner of 116th and Broadway that I suddenly see him coming – “you and you post-modernity”, he would tease me, and as I was about to protest, “don’t you worry, I invented the vocabulary!” 

He loved to add an entirely superfluous shadda to the middle of my last name and pronounce it not just with two but it seems five or six extra “ds.” “He is not even an Arab,” he would say tongue in cheek, when praising me to his friends and family. Countless memories, voicemails, emails, casual encounters, planned collaborations, formal academic occasions connect my life at Columbia to Edward Said, and I live them all in my mind and play with them happily in my soul every single day of my life, for as long as I live, for as long as I am able to think, to remember, recollect, rethink him in my own thought. 

I have a mental picture of Edward Said that is increasingly fading in my mind, and the more it gets faded the more actively I remember it. It was April 28, 2003. We were all in Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania to celebrate the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, who had just received the Lannan Cultural Freedom Prize. At the end of the ceremony, Darwish, Said, Massad, and I went to pay a visit to our friend and colleague Magda al-Nowaihi who was on her deathbed and would soon die of cancer. Magda was lying on her bed, a shimmering shadow of herself, but her paradisiac smile still mapping her beautiful face. I cannot recall a word that was said by anyone around that bed – only a mental picture, frozen, freezing, a fresco carved on the deepest wall of my memories, and upon it the three faces of Magda, Edward, and Mahmoud now shine more brightly.

“Perhaps,” Levinas once wrote, “the names of persons whose saying signifies a face – proper names, in the middle of all these common names and commonplaces – can resist the dissolution of meaning and help us to speak.” It is in that sense that the name, the persona, and the memory we call “Edward Said” is definitive to the sense and purpose of the moment when I sign my name over or under this homage and call myself by a proper name.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He is the author of Post-Orientalism: Knowledge and Power in Time of Terror (2008).

You can follow Professor Dabashi on Twitter @HamidDabashi