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The Idea of Edward Said By Missang Oyongha


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By Missang Oyongha

Sir Isaiah may have been a liberal fox in other matters, equable and palpably averse to extremism, but he was a hedgehog where it concerned the state of Israel, convinced only and always of it’s rightness. Berlin’s Zionism is shown by Said to have impelled several of his overt and covert machinations on behalf of Israel, and to have bred in him a wilful blindness to the existence, much less the fate, of the Palestinians.

Because he was driven by a catholic array of themes and interests, Edward Said himself resists summary in a single noun: he was a polymath, professor, pianist, music critic, controversial pasha of postcolonial literary thought, and a Palestinian. For many this last description of Said seemed to be the operative one. It is invariably in light of this detail that one must note those triply insistent adjectives bearing down on ‘Zionist’. Whatever affinity the two men may have shared as public intellectuals was injured by the lack of empathy inherent in Berlin’s attitude, and Said’s piece ends by sounding a note of bad conscience about this posthumous remonstrance.

Elsewhere in that essay on Berlin, Said attempts to capture the climate of opinion and influence surrounding the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, and the chilling Palestinian dispossession it entailed. He names an assortment of personages who lent their imprimatur before and after the fact of the colonial enterprise:
But if one thinks of Churchill, Weizmann, Einstein, Freud, Reinhold Niebuhr, Eleanor Roosevelt, Truman, Chagall, the great conductors, Otto Klemperer and Arturo Toscanini, plus dozens of others like him in Britain, the United States, France, and elsewhere in Europe, and then tries to produce a list of Palestinian supporters at the time who might have balanced this tremendous array of influence and prestige, one finds next to nothing.

One of the glories of Edward Said’s life and career is that he came to represent, by the time of his death in 2003, the object of his previous lament. I mean by this that he came to wield tremendous global ‘influence and prestige’, both as an academic and as an advocate for Palestinian rights. Alongside Yasser Arafat, he was and is arguably the most recognizable Palestinian. After he died his friend Alexander Cockburn concluded that ‘’ the Palestinians will never know a greater polemical champion’’.

Before and after he assumed the presidency of America, much was made of Barack Obama’s connection with Edward Said. This was arising from the one semester in 1982 that the future president spent as a literature student under Professor Said at Columbia University, and from a photograph taken in 1998 showing the Obamas and Said at a fundraising. Some of the more strident and unconvincing of Obama’s rightwing critics swore on the basis of these tenuous connections that he had acquired his alleged socialist leanings, his alleged Islamophilia, and his alleged anti-Israel attitudes from Said. But this is to misunderstand the nature of Barack Obama the politician { whose biographer David Maraniss tells us viewed Said as a ‘flake’}, who is more a pragmatist than an ideologue of any hue, sloughing off quite adroitly and cold-bloodedly any stances, any associations, any residues of principle that could prove an impediment to the pursuit and possession of power. This is also, quite fundamentally, to misunderstand Edward Said’s intricate and nuanced positions. To oppose and document the tragic consequences of imperial power and capital is not automatically to become a socialist. Said, an ‘’Arab Christian Protestant….by birth’’, understood the pitfalls of being explained by others when he wrote that ’’ despite my extremely anti-religious politics I am often glowingly described in the Islamic world as a defender of Islam’’. He was a vocal critic of Israeli apartheid and an eloquent spokesman for Palestinian rights, but the rhetoric of outrage was accompanied by an obverse note of accommodation. He wrote with sensitivity about the Jewish history of suffering, writ large in the Holocaust, but saw no reason to visit the sins of Nazi Germany on the Palestinians. Said was as critical of Israel’s dispossession and murderous occupation as he was of what he called the revolutionary adventurism that did nothing to advance the Palestinian cause politically’’. Nevertheless, he could be dismissive of the disingenuousness of those who presumes ‘’ that Hamas flourishes gratuitously’’. As an academic Edward Said offered exegeses of everyone from Fanon to Foucault, Conrad to Camus, but his name was made with the publication in 1978 of Orientalism. His literary interest in narrative led him to find parallels too in the construction of national narratives. In Orientalism he argued that representations of Islamic culture and society in the writings of European scholars, writers and travellers greatly misrepresented the reality of things. He would argue later on that ‘’ even so relatively innocuous a thing as language can have a tremendously wounding effect on the subject of … description’’.

This is as true of Chateaubriand’s anti-Arab writings as it was of Conrad or the Israelis. Said himself was labelled by Edward Alexander as ‘’ the professor of terror’’, and by the Jewish Defense League as a ‘’Nazi’’. There were those who liked to allude to the fact that Said had attended an elite British college in Cairo, and was born into a prosperous Palestinian-American family, as if these facts somehow invalidated his claims to speak for the oppressed in the refugee camps. As with Berlin’s Zionism, Said’s Palestinian advocacy illustrated the difficulty of articulating a political or intellectual stance uninflected by biography, by the personal. The fact that Said was not a blinkered partisan can be seen in his resignation from the Palestinian National Council in 1991, and his principled, unwavering attacks on Yasser Arafat’s corrupt, dictatorial, shambolic, and ultimately acquiescent rule in the Palestinian territories. He was the sort of patriot who loves his country always and his government when they deserve it. He understood the unfairness {to the Palestinian side} of the Oslo accord, and remarked that he was ‘’ immediately branded anti-peace’ because{ he } had the lack of tact to describe the Oslo treaty as deeply flawed’’. Friends and former students have testified to the force of his intellect and his charismatic style, but also to what appears in several accounts as a thin skin, sensitive to actual and perceived affronts. The smears and affronts were very real, of course, but he could not be silenced. It is as well that he is said to have relished Antonio Gramsci’s dictum about ‘’ pessimism of the intellect, and optimism of the will ’’. Said could be scathing about ‘’ shamelessly pro-colonial renegades like V. S. Naipaul’’, while also acknowledging him as a remarkably gifted writer and novelist. He lauded Soyinka’s pointed critique of negritude but decried the Nobel Laureate’s later ‘’ unfortunate attack on Islam and the Arabs as the defacing African experience’’.

As one of the early, perceptive readers of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, he alerted the author to its potential for incitement. In a published conversation with Daniel Barenboim, Said deplored the growing focus in the academe on specialization and isolation of disciplines, with less and less room for eclectic styles of vision and interpretation like his. Edward Said’s name has survived what he described in respect of his own tentative efforts at writing a memoir as ‘’ the sleep of self-satisfaction and the finality of death’’. Columbia University, his academic perch for 40 years, has endowed a professorial chair on his name, currently occupied by Rashid Khalidi. The Palestinian national orchestra is named the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music. In 2005, the University of Adelaide, in Australia, established the Edward Said Memorial Lecture, delivered over the years by such thorns in the flesh of orthodoxy and Zionism as Noam Chomsky, Robert Fisk, and Ilan Pappe. His days may have been finite, but his life and work have escaped that finality to which he so poignantly alluded.

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