The Political Transformation of Edward Said
Edward Said was a progressive liberal. He was not the radical that he is portrayed to be in Zionist media. But then again, anyone who stands up to Zionism is a radical by Zionist standards. My encounters with Edward Said (and I was not a friend of his and I only saw him a few times and we spoke on the phone a number of times and later exchanged emails – the last one I received from him said that he was “busy writing and dying”) attest to his political transformation over time. I first saw Edward Said at the Institute of Policy Studies in Washington, DC in 1984 ( it might have been 1985). He was introduced by the legendary journalist, I.F. Stone. I was already angry at him.
Back in 1978, around the time of the peak of my political activism, I heard his name for the first time from the mouth of Anwar Sadat. People forget that Sadat had nominated him for the position of Palestinian prime minister-in-exile. The recommendation by Sadat was enough for me to form an unfavorable opinion of him.
So I went to hear him in 1984, and was very ready to express years of frustrations and political resentment. For me he represented a Palestinian endorsement of the detested two-state (non)solution. I was clearly looking for a fight with him. He gave a general talk about Palestinian affairs. I sat and listened (angrily, not for what he said but for the fact that Sadat had promoted him years before) and waited for the Q and A session. As soon as he was finished, I provided an angry critique of his presentation. He tried to interrupt me but I would not budge: I was less comfortable in English but I did not want to stop. He then responded patiently and explained his position. I do remember him accusing me of misconstruing what he said (I remember going outside and asking my friend what the word “misconstrue” means). I did not want to admit that I was criticizing not the talk he has just given, but past political positions of Said. I realized that Said had undergone a political transformation since 1978. And that was my first encounter.
Edward Said then became increasingly politically radicalized. He became the most vocal champion of Palestinian rights: and the man who was accused of steering the PLO in a right-wing accommodationist direction became one of the most courageous critics of PLO stances under Arafat. He was already quite displeased with Arafat back in 1990 when he was fed up with his position on the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait (Edward, as he relayed to me later, counseled caution and criticism of Saddam while Bassam Abu Sharif was calling him to New York and assuring him that Saddam had secret weapons capable of defeating US and Israeli plans. Edward gave up on trying to reason with Abu Sharif).
I also noticed that his connection with the Arab world increased and his interest in things Arab increased. He was glued to al-Jazeera and his Arabic only improved over time. He would make an effort to speak in Arabic.
The Oslo accords were the watershed in the complete political transformation of Said. He was clear and adamant in his critique of Oslo. He was right in all his predictions about the consequences of Oslo and he severed his ties with Arafat.
I remember I was in my office in California when he called me the day the Oslo accords were being signed. He was – like me – furious and restless. He hated the presence of some Arab-Americans (James Zogby – the readily willing token Arab American) in the signing ceremony. He told me that people in the Clinton administration tried to secure his attendance but that he adamantly refused. He knew what was coming and he knew that Arafat had made an unforgivable mistake.
I saw him later that year in New York when I debated with Judith Miller (Said was quite excited about the debate and he called me a day earlier thinking that the debate was on that day). We talked after the debate and he told me: I am increasingly leaning to your “liberation-of-Palestine” side. He also was a champion of Hezbollah’s resistance model against Israeli occupation. I remember that we argued about Hezbollah: he was much less critical of it than I was, especially given that Hezbollah had not entered yet the Nasrallah era, when folks like Subhi Tufayli ran the party (he was succeeded by Abbas Moussawi before he was succeeded by Nasrallah). I was still embittered by the bloody campaigns by Amal and Hezbollah against Lebanese communists – I still have not forgiven nor forgotten those crimes. Conveniently, Amal now blames Hezbollah and Hezbollah blames Amal for those crimes.
The academic legacy of Said is as important. Said was instrumental in forcing Western academic studies of the Middle East to engage in unprecedented self-examination. But the political legacy of Said can’t be underestimated either. A new generation of Arab-Americans, and even of Arabs in the Middle East, are rediscovering Edward Said. His pictures have been widely visible on Facebook this week.
Edward Said stood up against Zionism although he knew how much he would have been rewarded had he chosen the easy route that many Arab-Americans have chosen since. Edward Said became the symbol of Palestinian nationalism and the model of courageous advocacy against Zionism. His name is now globally immortalized and will be more visibly immortalized in Palestine, after its liberation.