Reading Edward Said in the backdrop of the Israel-Hamas war

In our university campuses, a particular rendition of Edward Said finds persistent mention. Here he is admired and criticised as a Professor at Columbia University. However, there is another Said who fashions himself as an amateur intellectual, a Said who is unabashedly Palestinian

Published - November 29, 2023 10:30 am IST

Palestinians inspect the destruction caused by Israeli strikes in Wadi Gaza, in the central Gaza Strip on November 28.

Palestinians inspect the destruction caused by Israeli strikes in Wadi Gaza, in the central Gaza Strip on November 28. | Photo Credit: AFP

It has been two decades since Edward Said succumbed to cancer. In the aftermath of the events of October 7, 2023, opinions about Gaza and the Palestinians have surged. Perhaps now, more than ever, there is an imperative to revisit Said as he continues to remain the most severe critic of American-Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians.

After all, the story of Gaza and the Palestinians is much older and harrowing.

The academic and the intellectual

In our university campuses, a particular rendition of Edward Said finds persistent mention. In this realm, Said is the author of Orientalism (1978), The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983), and Culture and Imperialism (1993). Here occasionally, the earlier works, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (1966) and Beginnings: Intention and Method (1975), find timid mention. These spaces both admired and criticised him as the Professor at Columbia University. The adulation and criticism his person invited were deserving; after all, his Orientalism was critical to ascertaining post-colonial studies as a formal academic discipline. Said prompted us to contemplate, for the first time, that the Orient (or the East) was a hypothesis fabricated by the Occident (or the West). He urged us to understand that the prevailing portrayal of Islam as the perennial western adversary stemmed from the stubborn endeavours of post-enlightenment western explorers, poets, novelists, and professional orientalists. Said declared that the West envisioned the East before the East had the opportunity to envision itself. This is the rendition of Said that is scrutinised with meticulous, fervent attention.

However, Edward Said also fashioned an alternative version of himself. This was his identity as the public intellectual, operating outside the sheltered confines of the American university campus. Here, he projected himself as an “amateur” intellectual, a notion he eventually articulated in the 1993 Reith lectures. The demands of expertise did not bind the Saidian “amateur” intellectual. The amateur intellectual demonstrated emotions and was driven by commitment to speak truth to power. One can revisit this version through two books, Peace and its Discontents (1995) and Parallels and Paradoxes (2002). Here, Said embodies contradiction and imperfection. This Said was unabashedly Palestinian and was unafraid to speak about a Gaza moulded by the Israeli state.

Gaza: where it all began

Gaza was and continues to be the core of the Palestinian predicament. It is where the intifada began. It is the chaotic birthplace of the Palestinian freedom struggle and it evidences the ravages of Israeli colonialism. It evokes pity, fear, and anger. When one speaks about Palestine, one thinks about Gaza.

Nobody can deny Gaza’s centrality in the Arab imagination. Edward Said’s discussion of Gaza was precipitated by the Oslo Accords of 1993. Peace and its Discontents (1995) directly resulted from Said’s annoyance at what he thought was Yasser Arafat’s compromise. The essays guide us through his growing disillusionment with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). These essays’ prevailing sentiment is deep antipathy, primarily directed towards Arafat and the PLO, and indicate Said’s formal disassociation from the movement. Yet, these disassociations coincided with the formation of unexpected associations.

The Gaza that Said invokes is one that he sees through another’ eyes — Sara Roy. Sara Roy was a child of Holocaust survivors. Her mother and sister survived the Lodz and Auschwitz death camps, and her father was one of the only two Jewish survivors from Chelmno in Poland. After the war, in 1951, her parents settled in the United States to ensure a more pluralist upbringing for their children. This is a particularly crucial detail in Said’s text. It is Sara’s encounters with violence and her family’s connection to the turbulent chapters of Holocaust history that imbued her research with such profound weight.

Said admired Roy’s meticulous and empathetic documentation of Gaza in The Gaza Strip: A Demographic, Economic, Social and Legal Survey (1986). Despite this, Roy was excluded by the PECDAR (Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction) established in 1993 by the PLO following the Oslo Accords. For Said, this exclusion signified another failure of the Oslo Accords. While demonstrating his disaffection with the PLO in general and Arafat in particular, Peace and its Discontents revealed Said’s efforts to build fresh alliances. It remains a compelling, albeit polemic, testament to Said’s vision of Jewish-Palestinian dialogue for the reconstruction of Gaza.

Dialogue and performance

Years following the Oslo Accords, Said’s Parallels and Paradoxes (2002) advocated another — the performative — aspect of Jewish-Palestinian dialogues. The conversation between Daniel Barenboim and Said was performed in front of a New York audience.

The rest of the dialogues, occasioned by Ara Guzelimian (artistic advisor of Carnegie hall), were designed as conversational interludes inserted between a series of concerts by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Barenboim) at the Carnegie’s Weill recital hall.

The manifestation of their persons, the occasion of their exchange, and the language of their dialogue was dictated by a specific intellectual project — the demonstration of dialogue between an Arab and a Jew caught within the matrix of the socio-politico conditions that characterised West Asia. For instance, at the end of the second chapter, just as the two are concluding an exchange about the necessity for form (of composition) and time (that defines the composition) to balance out for effective performance, Barenboim refers to the failure of the Oslo Accords. He admits that he saw it as a failure due to the lack of coordination between the momentum and the content of the process. Said, however, intervenes and explains that the very “notations” of the composition (the accords) were erroneous. Classical music lends its lexicon to augment the discussion on Gaza.

Edward Said, the son of Wadie Said, an American citizen and former soldier of Palestinian origins, is juxtaposed with Daniel Barenboim, who hailed from a Russian Jewish family that settled in Buenos Aires. As the book recreated the dialogic performance, Said appears to exemplify multiple identities: a Palestinian intellectual who embodied the potential of the American Dream, an Arab Christian, and the spokesperson for the Palestinian intifada in New York. Barenboim’s identity is equally illustrious, serving as the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Deutsche Staatsoper.

As the conversations advance, both approach questions of courage, commitment, and the very definition of compromise — in both art and life. These are not conventional interviews; instead, they are carefully orchestrated (though undeniably impassioned) interactions between two friends who hold a steadfast vision of music and society. In the process, art and culture are carefully woven into a singular conversational fabric. However, much of the strength of their interaction is derived from the very occasion of their conversation (between concerts), the site of the exchanges (New York) rather than from the strength or complexity of their prose.

Edward Said’s relationship with Sara Roy and Daniel Barenboim is a model worth remembering. The Gaza that Said discussed three decades ago has now re-emerged to confront us. Now, as we witness the devastation in Gaza, perhaps the Said we ought to read and remember is the unafraid one. Reading him is, simultaneously an act of re-reading and, hence, remembering him.

The dead cannot reminisce; others must undertake this task. And, while they have no say in the matter, they must endure it.

Jonathan Koshy Varghese teaches Literature at Lady Shri Ram College. He is associated with the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS, Paris), where he recently completed his PhD. His research focuses on how the interplay between law, literature and archives influence the historical portrayal of minorities in the Global South.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.