Ed­ward Said

( 1935– 2003) Weapons of Crit­i­cism and Ded­i­cated Con­scious­ness

Asian Geographic - - On Assignment - “My ar­gu­ment is that his­tory is made by men and women, just as it can also be un­made and rewrit­ten, al­ways with var­i­ous si­lence and eli­sions, al­ways with shapes im­posed and dis­fig­ure­ments tol­er­ated”

con­tem­po­rary un­der­stand­ing of Asia would be found deeply want­ing had it not been for the in­flu­en­tial work of critic Ed­ward Said, au­thor of the sem­i­nal text Ori­en­tal­ism in 1978. Born in Pales­tine, raised be­tween Cairo and Jerusalem, and ed­u­cated in the US, the shrewd in­tel­lec­tual put his unique mul­ti­cul­tural po­si­tion to the project of im­prov­ing un­der­stand­ing be­tween West­ern and Eastern schools of thought.

Not one to shy away from con­tro­versy, Said was fiercely crit­i­cal of the ro­man­ti­cised West­ern rep­re­sen­ta­tions and per­cep­tions of peo­ple from the Ori­ent, par­tic­u­larly from the Mid­dle East. He held this ex­oti­cism as cul­pa­ble of per­pet­u­at­ing false and stereo­typ­i­cal ideas about the peo­ple of Asia, which he saw as fuelling the colo­nial ex­pan­sion of West­ern pow­ers; in ad­vanc­ing of the West­ern iden­tity as “su­pe­rior”, he ac­cused the West­ern world of jus­ti­fy­ing the ex­ploita­tion of Asian peo­ple through cul­tural rep­re­sen­ta­tions that robbed peo­ple of their agency. In do­ing so, the West con­structed a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Asian peo­ple as be­ing in­ca­pable of think­ing, act­ing, or speak­ing for them­selves. This left the door wide open for West­ern schol­ars to write the his­tory of Asia, and ex­ploit the re­gion im­pe­ri­ally. Ever the nu­anced aca­demic, Said was also crit­i­cal of Arab elites for in­ter­nal­is­ing these false con­struc­tions, and per­pet­u­at­ing them fur­ther.

Many schol­ars were in­fu­ri­ated by Said’s claims, say­ing that he threat­ened their in­tel­lec­tual cred­i­bil­ity as his­to­ri­ans and philoso­phers. De­spite dis­sent from some aca­demic cir­cles, Said’s book went on to be­come the foun­da­tion for what we now call post­colo­nial stud­ies, and it is still read widely to­day.

Po­lit­i­cally, Said was equally bold, speak­ing out against the US me­dia’s rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the Israeli-pales­tinian con­flict. He re­ceived fur­ther crit­i­cism in 2000 when, on a tour of the Mid­dle East, he threw a stone to­wards the guard­house on the bor­der of Is­rael, which was seen as a bla­tant act of ag­gres­sion. He re­futed the al­le­ga­tions, a re­sponse that the New York Times head­lined as: “A Stone’s Throw Is a Freudian Slip.” He was also crit­i­cal of US for­eign pol­icy, and the Amer­i­can me­dia’s at­tempt at spec­u­lat­ing about ter­ror­ism, pro­lif­er­at­ing Is­lam­o­pho­bia.

What is less known about Said is that he bat­tled a 12-year fight against leukaemia, the ill­ness which took his life in 2003 at the age of 67, leav­ing be­hind a wife and two chil­dren. The trib­utes poured in from in­tel­lec­tu­als all over the world, among them renowned post­colo­nial aca­demic Gay­a­tri Spi­vak and con­tro­ver­sial critic Noam Chom­sky.

The for­mer Columbia pro­fes­sor was also an ac­com­plished pian­ist, and to­gether with Daniel Baren­boim, co­founded the West-eastern Di­van Orches­tra, which is com­prised of Israeli, Pales­tinian, and Arab mu­si­cians; the Baren­boim- Said Academy was es­tab­lished in 2012.

De­spite the many con­tro­ver­sies and dif­fer­ences in opin­ion coun­tered against Said dur­ing his life­time – and these will cer­tainly con­tinue long after his pass­ing – there can be lit­tle doubt that he was in­stru­men­tal in chal­leng­ing the fab­ric of Ori­en­tal phi­los­o­phy and cul­tural stud­ies, and the mod­ern per­spec­tive on the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Asia and its peo­ple. ag

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