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, …