Edward Said

Orientalism and After

RP 063 () / Interview

Edward Said is a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, New York and editor of Arab Studies Quarterly. Best known academically for his book Orientatism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (1978), which was a milestone in the redefinition of the concerns of literary studies, he is most widely knownfor his tireless representations on behalf of the cause of the Palestinian people. His writings span the areas of literary criticism, politics and music. His works include: The Question of Palestine (1980); Covering Islam (1981); The World, The Text, and the Critic ( 1983 ); After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives (1986); and Musical Elaborations (1991). His latest book, Culture and Imperialism, is forthcoming from Jonathan Cape.

[Spring 1993]

RP: Perhaps we could begin by asking you to say something about your intellectual and political background in the late 1950s and ’60s. How did you identify yourself politically in relation to the civil rights and student movements in the USA during the period when you were a young member of faculty at Columbia? What from that period of your life was a formative influence on your later work?

Said: Well, in the 1950s I was a student and by 1957 I had finished my undergraduate education. I then went back to the Middle East for a year, basically to play the piano. And then in ’58 I came back to graduate school, at Harvard, and Ijust plunged into that. I did really nothing else but study for five years. My family remained in the Middle East and moved from Egypt, where they had come after 1948, to Lebanon. My entire family became refugees in 1948. One member of my family, in particular, whom I saw in Cairo in those years, was very active in Arab politics, as a Palestinian. This is the period of Nasserism. He was there because Nasser was bringing into Egypt a lot of these revolutionary types from the Arab world. His name was Kamal Nasir, and although he was a Baathi at the time he was also aN asserite. Later he became a spokesman for the Palestinian movement in Amman in the late ’60s. Then he moved to Beirut, after Black September, and in 1973 he was one of the three 22 leaders assassinated by the Israelis in April of that year – I had seen him that very night actually. So that was going on. But I was largely oblivious of it, in the sense that I was focused on my studies. I got my Ph.D. in 1963 and moved to New York where I took up a position at Columbia in English. Then, too, I was pretty focused on that and writing my first book, on Conrad.

With the emergence of the civil rights movement in the middle ’60s – and particularly in ’66-’67 – I was very soon turned off by Martin Luther King, who revealed himself to be a tremendous Zionist, and who always used to speak very warmly in support of Israel, particularly in ’67, after the war. In 1968 the Columbia revolution occurred, but I was away for that academic year! It was the revolution I missed. I was like Fabrice del Dongo looking for the Battle of Waterloo. I was on leave at a research centre in the Middle West, and I got a telegram from the President of the University saying, “There’s a faculty meeting on such and such a day.” So I trekked all the way back to Columbia, and when I got there, they wouldn’t let me in the meeting, although I was a member of the faculty, because I didn’t have an up-to-date ID card. So I stood outside while this momentous event was taking place.

When I returned to Columbia in the fall of’ 68, I got quite involved in the anti-Vietnam campus activities. Many of the students who had been involved in the revolution were students of mine. But it was the period when the emergence of the Palestinian movement was also occurring. And for the first time in my life I got involved in Palestinian politics, as did some of my family and school friends. A contemporary of mine from Harvard, for example, gave up his position at the University of Washington and went to Amman to become a full-time cadre. He was killed in 1976, during the Lebanese war, in rather obscure circumstances. He was a very important figure in the movement, and there is still a question-mark over who killed him and why. He was the one who introduced me in 1972 to Jean Genet, who was in Beirut. He was the man who took Genet around. He’s referred to in Genet’s last work, Prisoner of Love as Abu Omar.

Anyway, I went to Amman in 1969 and got involved in the movement – not to stay there, but as an expatriate. I began to write about politics for the first time in my life, to be published in America, and to appear on television and radio. This was all in the aftermath of the ’67 war, which was the great event of my political life. I was in Amman during the summer of 1970 right up until the fighting broke out. I simply had to go back to my teaching. I was there for the National Council meeting. (I wasn’t a member then. I became a member in 1977.) That was the first time I ever saw Arafat, in 1970, in Amman. Then, after Black September, the movement drifted into Beirut. My mother lived in Beirut, so I would go to Beirut a great deal. That year I married a Lebanese woman, and for the next twelve years, 1970 to 1982, I was very involved in Palestinian politics in Beirut, as an expatriate. I always tried to steer clear of the inter-party fighting. I was not interested. For a time people thought I was – as indeed I was, in the early days – sympathetic to the Democratic Front. But I was never a member, and I never got involved in the disputes between them. Arafat made use of me, in away, because I was in America. They came to the United Nations in ’74, and I helped with the speech: I put it into English.

Then, of course, during the Carter Presidency, I was useful to the movement because some of my classmates were members of the Administration. They were people I’d gone to school with. One has to remember that I grew up as an Establishment figure in America. I went to boarding school, I went to Princeton, I went to Harvard. They were things I could draw on, although they were frequently misinterpreted by the Palestinians – some of them, I mean – who thought I “represented” America. When my book The Question of Palestine appeared, for example, the Popular Front weekly magazine ran a tremendous attack on me because I was supposed to be a representative of bourgeois this and that – all that formulaic bullshit. In any event, I was plunged totally into politics, simultaneously with my academic work, which was going on in parallel. They were joined, in a certain sense, in the middle 1970s when I wrote Orientalism. The book married the two things I was most interested in: literature and culture, on the one hand, and studies and analyses of power, on the other. From then, it continued pretty much unbroken until the autumn of 1991, when I resigned from the National Council.