Who is Edward Said?
Edward Said, in full Edward Wadie (William) Said, was born on November 1, 1935 in Jerusalem. He was a Palestinian-Christian scholar, a controversial literary critic, and a bold political activist. An Arab Christian in America, Said raised his voice for the social and political rights of the Palestinian people. He also advocated for the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Said was, indeed, a North Star for Palestinians and subaltern communities across racial, religious and geographic lines.
His Family and Early Education
Edward Said belonged to an Episcopalian family. His father, Wadie (William) Ibrahim, was a wealthy businessman who had spent years in America. His mother, Hilda Said, was an Arab Christian. Said had four sisters whose names were Rose, Jane, Joyce, and Grace. Said got his early education in Cairo where his father had moved from Jerusalem in 1929 and established a stationary company. His father enrolled him at the Gezira Preparatory School in the Egyptian capital.
In 1947, Said’s family spent much of the year in Jerusalem where Said attended St. George’s School. His family then left Jerusalem and moved to Cairo to avoid the conflict beginning over Palestine’s partition into separate Arab and Jewish areas. Thus, Said spent his childhood between the worlds of Jerusalem and Cairo.
Said’s Higher Education
In 1948, Said was enrolled at the new branch of Victoria College, a British colonial school designed to educate the ruling class, in Cairo. Said thought of his life as a student in the following words:
“With an unexceptionally Arab family name like “Said”, connected to an improbably British first name…I was an uncomfortably anomalous student all through my early years: a Palestinian going to school in Egypt, with an English first name, an American passport, and no certain identity, at all.
— Between Worlds, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (2002)
In 1951, Victoria College expelled Edward Said for being a troublesome boy. His father then sent him to the exclusive Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts, U.S. It was an elite Anglican preparatory boarding school where he lived through difficult years of social alienation. Nonetheless, he excelled academically, and achieved the rank of either first or second in a class of 160 students. In 1957, Said attended Princeton University and got his B.A. degree. Later on, from 1960-1964, he attended Harvard University and got his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in English literature.
His Career, Interests and Popularity
Trained as a literary scholar in a Euro-American humanist tradition, Edward Said became an admirer of French theory and a great supporter of Michel Foucault. In 1963, he became a lecturer in English at Columbia University, New York. He promoted after four years and became an assistant professor of English and comparative literature in 1967.
As a faculty member at Columbia University, Edward Said earned great popularity for being the outstanding representative of the post-structuralist left in America. Moreover, he also became the most articulate and bold advocate of the Palestinian cause in America. His visible advocacy, however, earned him many enemies. Said’s popularity, nevertheless, was not merely in academic and scholarly fields. He was an intellectual superstar in the United States. In addition, he was also celebrated as an opera critic, television celebrity, pianist, politician, media expert, public lecturer and popular essayist.
Said married Mariam Cortas in 1970, by whom he had a son and a daughter.
Edward Said’s Famous Works
Edward Said wrote his first book, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography, in 1966. An expansion of his doctoral thesis, the book investigates Conrad’s short stories and letters and reveals the underlying tension of the author’s narrative style.
However, Said is best known for his most influential work, Orientalism (1978). It is, in fact, one of the most powerful scholarly books of the 20th century. By exposing an unholy alliance between the enlightenment and colonialism, Said’s Orientalism helped to change the direction of several disciplines. The book examines and criticizes Western representations, both fiction and non-fiction, of Middle Eastern culture and societies.
In addition, Edward Said also wrote many books and articles in his support of Palestinian rights and Arab causes. In his writings, he was especially critical of U.S. and Israeli policy against Palestinian and Arab people. Due to which, he suffered severe hostility from the supporters of those two countries. Some of his famous works about the Middle East include:
- 1979: The Question of Palestine
- 1981: Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World
- 1988: Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question
- 1994: The Politics of Dispossession
- 1995: Peace and Its Discontents: Essays on Palestine in the Middle East Peace Process
Besides these books, Said’s also wrote other notable works as well. These include:
- 1983: The World, the Text, and the Critic
- 1988: Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature: Yeats and Decolonization
- 1991: Musical Elaborations
- 1993: Culture and Imperialism
Edward Said also wrote his autobiography, Out of Place, in 1999. It mirrors the ambivalence he felt over living in both the Eastern and Western traditions.
Edward Said’s Orientalism Theory
Once upon a time, an ‘Orientalist’ was a term used for anyone who studied ‘the Orient’. He might be either competent or incompetent, but the respectability of his profession often went unquestioned. But in 1978, Edward Said threw a large spanner in the Orientalists’ works. His hugely influential book Orientalism recast the term claiming it to be a byword for prejudice, racism, and oppression.
Certainly, Edward Said was not the first person to propose that a great deal of what had been written on the Orient was misleading, biased or just wrong. But, it was Said who showed how there had been a common prejudice across a range of cultural and academic work in the West. This prejudice assigned the Orient (East) as the ‘other’, and therefore, ‘inferior’. That is, the Orient was fundamentally different to the West and, by implication, inferior. Said wrote:
“Indeed, my real argument is that Orientalism is—and does not simply represent—a considerable dimension of modern political-intellectual culture, and as such has less to do with the Orient than it does with “our” world.” — Orientalism (1978)
What is Orientalism According to Edward Said?
Orientalism, in Edward Said’s view, was a term representing false assumptions underlying Western attitudes toward the Orient (East). His book, Orientalism, highlighted a “subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic people and their culture.” Said contended that Europe had politically dominated Asia for a long time. Due to which, Western texts, even the most outwardly objective ones, became biased. It was a fact which, in Said’s view, even the most Western scholars could not recognize.
However, Said’s contention was not only that the West had conquered the East politically. But, he also contended over the Western scholarship. In his view, it was Western scholars who appropriated the interpretation and exploration of the Orient’s history, its languages and culture for themselves. They wrote about the Orient’s past and constructed its modern identities from a perspective that took Europe as the norm, from which the ‘exotic’ and ‘enigmatic’ Orient deviated. Said bluntly challenged what Western scholars traditionally referred to as ‘Orientalism.’ He considered Orientalism to be an entrenched structure of thought, a pattern of making certain generalizations about the part of the world known as ‘East’.
The conclusion of Edward Said’s theory was that Western writings depicted Orient as an irrational, weak, feminized ‘Other’. This image sharply contrasted with the rational, strong, masculine ‘West’. It was a contrast, he suggested, that resulted from the need to create a difference between West and East. Moreover, it was a contrast that could be attributed to immutable ‘essences’ in the Oriental make-up.
Edward Said’s Development of Thought Over Time
Edward Said’s opinions on art and literature continued to evolve gradually over time. However, they were encapsulated in Culture and Imperialism, a book he wrote nearly 15 years after Orientalism. Here is the development of his thought:
Said’s early work began with a refusal and rejection, and ended with equivocal acceptance. It questioned a pattern of misrepresentation of the non-Western world. On the other hand, Culture and Imperialism maintained a less confrontational tone to explore the complex and existing relationships between colonizer and colonized, West and East, white and black, and metropolitan and colonial studies.
Edward Said: Father of Postcolonialism
Edward Said is a pioneer of postcolonial studies and also the ‘father of postcolonialism’. He confronted the tradition of critical theory with the challenge of reflection on himself and the epistemological anchoring in the ruling states of the North Atlantic. The Frankfurter School, the French theorists or the Anglo-Saxon cultural theory remained amazedly silent regarding racist theory, anti-imperialist resistance, and opposition practice. Said’s Orientalism is the foundational work on which postcolonial literary theory developed. In the book, he described the practice of othering, the making of an identity of others. Said’s theory of postcolonialism specifically brought into consideration the false image of the Orient (East). This image, according to Said, was mainly constructed by Western scholars, philosophers, economists, political theorists, imperial administrators, novelists and poets since Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt in 1798. The West constructed the Orient to justify their colonial rule.
Said also identified various assumptions the West made about the Orient. That is, the Orient is irrational, anti-Western, menacing and dishonest. In his theory, he explored how these assumptions were constructed in opposition to what the West thought about themselves and therefore defined this projected image of ‘Arabs’ in the mind of Westerners as the ‘other’. The danger was that, in Said’s view, these assumptions became treated as truth and therefore had a great impact on relations and ideologies. Said called for a new treatment of ‘the Orient’. That is, allowing for self-representation of authors belonging to the Orient rather than depending on second hand representation.
Edward Said: Later Life and Death
The great critic of Western narratives, Edward Said demonstrated his post-colonialist convictions slowly but with increasingly growing intensity. He helped to explore the processes of constructing binary opposites and uncovering the values that caused these opposites to come into being. By doing so, he called for an erasure between these boundaries and lines and promoted a more moderate way of thinking.
Towards the end of his life, Edward Said became more bold, politically active, and radical. He forcefully rejected the Oslo Accords signed by the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel in 1993. This was because he viewed them merely as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause. In 2000, on his visit to Lebanon, Said threw a stone across the border at an Israeli watchtower—a symbolic act that enraged the Zionist right. Today’s academia broadly accepts Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism and his postcolonial theory.
On September 25, 2003, Edward Said died in New York, U.S. He was buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Broumana, Lebanon. After his death, several books have been written as a tribute to Edward Said. Some of these books include:
- Waiting for the Barbarians: A Tribute to Edward W. Said (2008)
- Edward Said: The Charisma of Criticism (2010)
- Edward Said: A Legacy of Emancipation and Representations (2010)
While gone for years, Said’s words still matter. And they matter more with each passing day. There is no doubt that amid the waning of humaneness, Edward Said emerged as one of the last literary scholars with a public presence. If his words still powerfully resonate today, it is due to the evils he helped expose are as powerful as ever.
Awards and Honors
Edward W. Said received many honors, awards, and prizes during his life. Some of them include:
- The Bowdoin Prize by Harvard University (1960)
- The Lionel Trilling Book Award (1976)
- Wellek Prize of the American Comparative Literature Association (1984)
- Sultan Oweiss Award (1996–97)
- The Lannan Literary Prize for Lifetime Achievement (2001)
- The Prince Asturias Award for Concord (2002)
Moreover, Edward Said also received numerous honorary doctorates. Among them, he was most proud of the one he received in 1993 from Birzeit University. In addition, Said was a renowned member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a board member of International PEN.