Before Edward Said: a tribute to Fayez Sayegh

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Long before there was Edward Said, there was a man named Fayez Sayegh. He was one of the most visible spokespersons of the Palestinian cause in the West. There is very little about him on the web (he died in 1980) but I was able to watch a full hour of an episode of Firing Line featuring Sayegh (available on Amazon Instant Video). He clearly was a masterful debater and knew how to speak to a Western audience. Sayegh and Sami Hadawi also worked through the Arab Information Office to disseminate information and arguments in defense of the Palestinian cause in the Western world. Their booklets and pamphlets on the Palestinian question remain classic in the field. Hadawi’s “Bitter Harvest” is still one of the best introductions to the Palestinian problem.

Fayez Sayegh was active in the Syrian Social National Party but then left the party and remained politically independent for much of his life. He studied philosophy at Georgetown University (where he focused on existentialism) and devoted his entire life (like his brothers Anis and Yusuf) to serving the Palestinian cause. Anis was the most radical (he survived a letter bomb that was sent to him by Israeli terrorists). I met Yusuf and Anis, but I never knew Fayez although I heard so much about him through the years and decades. I also liked his writings.

I knew how impressive Sayegh was from the memoirs of CBS journalist Mike Wallace. He recounted in his memoirs his early meeting with Sayegh and his friendship with him. Wallace basically admitted that Sayegh changed his views and perceptions about the Palestinian question. Sayegh was a calm and careful speaker and used language precisely. His influence must have been remarkable at a time when many Arab speakers in the West struggled with English and had very thick accents (thicker than mine). Furthermore, most Arab speakers on Palestine in the West – especially but not exclusively PLO diplomats – resorted to emotions or screaming or both. Their participation in debates was clearly to the advantage of Zionists.

Sayegh was so good in debates that Zionists stopped debating with him (Zionists in recent years went back on their early inclination to debate with representatives of the Palestinians because their rivals have gotten much better at it). Sayegh was very well-informed of the facts and history of the conflict, which he used to a great advantage. He also was impossible to provoke; he never lost his cool and never became emotional. For him, the whole matter was logical and scientific. He presented his case with the precision of a jeweler.

Back then, it was possible for men like Sayegh to be professional advocates for the Palestinian cause. Sayegh, who taught at a number of US universities, was never tenured at an American college and served as an advisor to the Kuwaiti delegation at the UN. Gulf regimes were so sensitive to Arab public opinion at the time, that they employed and utilized Palestinian scholars and diplomats. Gulf regimes also lacked a native diplomatic service, and often relied on Lebanese and Palestinian academics.

Dr. As’ad AbuKhalil is a Professor of Political Science at California State University, Stanislaus, a lecturer and the author of The Angry Arab News Service. He tweets @asadabukhalil

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