Edward W. Said (1 November, 1935 - 25 September 2003) – former Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University – was a fearless academic, outstanding as an intellectual and a key interpreter of the crises of civilization witnessed in recent history. He has also been one of the most articulate and consistent defenders of the Palestinian right to self-determination. This Palestinian-American scholar, critic and pioneer of postcolonial studies was showered with numerous accolades and awards in his lifetime but he was also stigmatized by the label of “The Professor of Terror” for his forthright criticism of hegemonic representations of Islam and Muslims, as well of U.S.-Israeli foreign policies in the Middle East and elsewhere.
The Pen and the Sword: Conversations with David Barsamian showcases five interviews of Said, conducted between 1987 and 1994 by David Barsamian, the producer of the award-winning audio program Alternative Radio. In his Introduction to the 1994 edition of the book, Eqbal Ahmed, at the very outset of his introduction, raised the following question: “Why this set of interviews with a writer as prolific and widely known as Edward Said?” (7) According to Ahmed, the interviews were worth recording because they revealed the “linkages between the writer and his life” (7); moreover, they helped uncover the connections between the “man and his ideas” (8).
Conducted over several years, these interviews explore divergent issues: the intricate relationship between knowledge and power, culture and imperialism, the pitfalls of uncritical nationalism, the Oslo Accord and its aftermath, the role of PLO in the struggle for Palestinian liberation, and the contemporary predicament of the Palestinian people. Three of the interviews – “The Politics and Culture of Palestinian Exile,” “The Israel/PLO Accord: A Critical Assessment” and “Palestine: Betrayal of History” – largely revolve around Palestine, the history of its people's dispossession and loss, and the varied nuances of the Israel/PLO agreement.
Said was one of the early advocates of peace with Israel; he supported the theory of a bi-national state, premised upon the harmonious co-existence of both Israelis and Palestinians. The 1991 Israel/PLO Accord, however, failed to realize the dream of Palestinian sovereignty. Yasir Arafat, Said believed, had succumbed to U.S. sponsored and Israeli-dictated terms that impaired Palestinian interests. Said offered cogent reasons to justify his belief and stated that Arafat should have offered a counterpoint to Rabin's narrative, represented the plight of stateless Palestinians, and articulated the narratives of their loss and dispossession in front of the media in the White House, where Clinton, “like a Roman Emperor” had brought two vassal kings to his imperial court in order to shake hands and deliver speeches which hardly addressed the issue of Palestinian independence.
What Said was preoccupied with also was the role of “culture” and “memory” which could save the bitter narratives of oppressed Palestinians from extinction and obliteration. Such preoccupations exemplified Said's engagement with the narratives of the marginalized and revealed his unwavering commitment to never let a “dominant myth or viewpoint become history without its counterpoint” (11), that is to say, without its counter-narratives. And in order to do so – according to Said – Palestinians would have to put forth effective resistance to prevailing structures, to the status quos, by bringing forth alternative narratives and viewpoints.
Unlike Stephen Daedalus of Ulysses, Said did not consider history a nightmare; rather, he believed that history was a “place of many possibilities” (104), an amalgamation of many voices. As he would say, what matters is “many voices producing a history” (22). In the case of Palestine, people in the west only encounter the homogeneous version of history represented by the U.S.-Israel led media coalition, which energized evils in the present political setup both in the Middle East and in the United States. Said believed that education is the “central instrument in all of this,” stating that without a “self-conscious, skeptical, democratically minded citizenry (emphasis mine), there's no hope for any political change for the better” (104).
Such change could appear a distant dream too if people remain entrapped within an insular and narrow national consciousness. When nationalism—an “ethnic particularity or a racial particularity” (60-61), a parochial entity enmeshed in chest-beating exercises—becomes an end in itself, then human community as a whole ceases to exist. As a person living “between worlds,” and under the grace of an ecumenical tradition, the concepts of mapping geographical/national territories and ethnocentrism appeared completely foreign and of “relatively new vintage” to Said. That is why he considered Aime Cesaire's envisioning of a world where people coming from diverse classes, races and ethnic backgrounds would have space for all so significant.
Said's intellectual journey is thus preoccupied with a quest for universal and optimistic alternatives to sectarian structures, ideologies and claims. His journey was informed by his deep sense of individual and collective loss. His pursuit of positive and empathetic alternatives shaped his methodology of interpreting histories as well as texts, which is “based on counterpoint,” meaning, the presence of many voices.
The two other interviews of The Pen and the Sword – “Orientalism Revisited” and “Culture and Imperialism” – offer Said's illuminating and insightful discussions on a host of literary luminaries. The likes of Joseph Conrad, Jane Austen, E. M. Forster, Albert Camus, V. S. Naipaul and Mahmoud Darwish jostle with others in them. Reflecting on the intertwining relationship between knowledge and power, and establishing their connection with culture and imperialism, Said discussed how in the age of empire, cultural artifacts such as the novel can play an important and extraordinary role in shaping “imperial attitude towards the rest of the world” (64). For Said imperialism is a contested history, constituted of the narratives of the oppressor as well as the oppressed. The central point for him is that it is a shared enterprise, and an experience of interdependent histories; that is why the history of the colonizer and the colonized has to be studied together. Reminiscing about Forster's phrase “only connect” – the epigraph to Howard's End – Said defined his intellectual stand by saying that, “It's important to connect things with each other” (72).
In Edward Said's life we encounter a convergence between “ideals and reality,” and a translation of theory into practice. Often seen as the “quintessential oppositional intellectual,” Said has always experienced a discomforting relationship with power, never being a part of the coterie of those intellectuals who remain subservient to it. For Said, being an academician or a professor was not enough; he felt that a person must transcend his predetermined professional assignment in order to address broader issues involving human sufferings and to confront instances of injustice, discrimination and marginalization. According to Said, the task of the intellectual is to refute the “seductions of power,” the “delights of authority,” the “absence of dialogue,” and to examine state-sponsored news and views with “subversive criticality.” Though the intellectual remains a lonely voice, a figure at the fringe of society, he/she must move on despite the sense of marginalisation and loneliness he or she may feel; all intellectuals must aspire for alternatives and learn to dream different dreams. Acknowledging the debt of Raymond Williams – who introduced Said to the idea of alternatives, he says “to every situation, no matter how much dominated it is, there's always an alternative. What one must train oneself is to think the alternative, and not to think the accepted and the status quo or to believe that the present is frozen” (105).
With the unrest now evident in so many places of the world – in the Middle East, in Europe, in the Indo-Pak and Indo-China borders, in Kashmir or in the province of Rakhine – the earth seems to be a place plagued by sectarian violence, communal riots, ethnic cleansing, intolerance, greed and capitalism run amok. Amid such frenzy – where “ignorant armies clash by night” – we must inculcate within us the ability to imagine alternatives; we must learn the lesson to envision a world-order where tolerance, mutual respect, moderation and accommodation appear as tangible and viable realities. This slim volume of interviews, I believe, is adorned with all these lessons, and will be loved by anyone who is inclined to embrace the world of ideas and ideals, and anyone possessed by the willingness to learn from great minds.
Natasha Afrin is Lecturer, Institute of English and Other Languages at Rajshahi University.