"It's calumnious! It's backbiting! It's defamation! It's a right-wing campaign to smear me!"
Calumnious? Even in anger, Edward Said emanates gentility. It's a humid Friday afternoon in late August, and the 63-year-old Columbia University English professor and outspoken advocate of Palestinian rights is holding forth from a teal-blue chaise in the living room of his Upper West Side apartment. True to reputation, he is impeccably turned-out and even more handsome -- almost shockingly so -- than the standard lecture-circuit mug shot (mouth open, eyes blazing, finger righteously jabbing the air) suggests. But Said is decidedly distraught. Even for such a veteran of bruising political skirmishes, this has been a particularly trying week.
It's been exactly seven days since Commentary, the neoconservative Jewish magazine, leaked an explosive story about Said to the press. The article, which appears in the magazine's current issue, accuses Said, a Jerusalem-born upper-class Christian Arab, of deliberately and systematically lying about his past for political gain. According to the article's author, an obscure American-Israeli lawyer named Justus Reid Weiner, the story Said has told of his childhood and his family's departure from Palestine under threat of imminent Jewish takeover in December 1947 is, in its essential assertions, "a tissue of falsehoods." Last year in The London Review of Books, for example, Said wrote that he spent his "formative years" in Jerusalem and then, "when my entire family became refugees, in Egypt." This, argues Weiner, is a typical lie. Said, he declares, "has served up, and consciously encouraged others to serve up, a wildly distorted version of the truth, made up in equal parts of outright deception and of artful obfuscations carefully tailored to strengthen his wider ideological agenda -- and in particular to promote the claims of Palestinian refugees against Israel." Said may have been born in Jerusalem in 1935, but other than that, Arab Palestine's most affecting mouthpiece had very little to do with the place. Said, he scoffs, is no refugee.
Said firmly defends his innocence, denouncing Weiner's attack as a purely political gambit. "The aim of the article by smearing me is to smear the whole of Palestinian claims to dispossession and the right of return," he says. "The basic law of Israel is that any Jew anywhere in the world has the right to go to Israel. Now, I was born there, and I don't have the same right."
He is accustomed to media vilification -- even death threats. This, after all, is a man who has been publicly reviled as a Nazi, denounced as the "Professor of Terror," and only half jokingly referred to as "Arafat's Man in New York" -- at a time when Arafat was considered one of the world's most dangerous guerrilla leaders. During the mid-eighties, the NYPD deemed Said's physical safety so precarious it had a panic button installed in his apartment.
Said's antagonists are not all in the political realm, however, as his memoir, Out of Place, hitting the stores this week reveals. Factually, the memoir is a much richer and more detailed account of the circumstances of his early life than he's given in the past, though it differs in some ways from earlier statements he's made. Even Weiner admits its contents are 100 percent true. Is Said belatedly correcting the record? What if, Weiner speculates, Said had caught wind of his investigation and, realizing the jig was up, hastened to correct himself in print?
Weiner's theory is farfetched, but the memoir is undeniably a surprise. For a man who enjoys considerable public esteem, a man whose scholarship has spawned an entire discipline (postcolonial studies), whose political prestige has earned him diplomatic commissions from the White House, and whose predilection for acid-tongued invective is so feared that Benjamin Netanyahu once refused to sit next to him in a television studio, claiming "He wants to kill me," the book is not the usual recounting of political victories, near losses, and backstage maneuverings or even his rise to academic stardom. It is instead the tale of an acutely unhappy childhood. Its emotionally overwrought tone testifies to devastating wounds inflicted not by an enemy state but by his own intimates.
According to his friends, the tremulous tone is no affectation; it is indicative of a constitution fundamentally unsuited to political life. Said, his friends like to point out, is not only an accomplished literary scholar, with seventeen books to his name, but a talented pianist, music critic, opera lover, mimic, clotheshorse, and all-around aesthete. "He's very sensitive, takes things hard, and is extremely easily wounded," says the journalist Christopher Hitchens, who has known Said for more than twenty years. "If it wasn't for this offense done to the Palestinians in 1947 and 1948, Edward would have become what he basically already is: a New York Jewish intellectual."
Beginning in the late sixties, as a young Princeton- and Harvard-educated Ph.D. of extraordinary promise, Said sailed up the academic hierarchy, churning out more than a dozen books on literature and politics and racking up any number of professional accolades in the process, including tenure at Columbia in just five years. Orientalism, Said's most influential book, appeared in 1978, sparked immediate controversy, and won him both lasting enemies and, in considerably greater numbers, devotees. By portraying the Islamic world as a "web of racism, cultural stereotypes and dehumanizing ideology," Western writers and artists, not just corrupt colonial regimes, Said argued, had helped advance imperialist goals in the Near East.
Said's book coincided with the arrival of French literary theory in the American academy, which in its most popular incarnations, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, preached the corrosive presence of ideology in even the most innocent-seeming romance novel or oil painting. Orientalism introduced a generation of newly radicalized American graduate students to a place (the Middle East) and a population (Muslim Arabs) oppressed by representation. What better real-world laboratory for testing out Foucaultian theory? Thus, postcolonial studies was born. By 1979, Said was himself in Paris, hanging out in Foucault's apartment with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir discussing peace in the Middle East. (He wasn't all that impressed with what the French intellectuals had to say.)
At the same time that he was accumulating lecture invitations, honorary doctorates, and job offers from rival Ivy League campuses (not to mention playing Beethoven piano sonatas on the side), Said was also busy agitating for Palestinian rights. In the early seventies, he served as adviser for Yassir Arafat's famous olive-branch-and-gun speech at the United Nations. During the Carter years, he shuttled between the White House and the PLO, and he served on Arafat's parliament in exile, the Palestine National Council, for fourteen years, until 1991. Until recently, Said was a serious Arafat admirer, once writing a chummy profile of the chairman for Interview magazine.
If the hysterical reaction to Weiner's Commentary bombshell is any indication, the media has not exactly labored to create a balanced picture of the Palestinian professor. "It's as if we found out that Elie Wiesel spent the war in Geneva, not Auschwitz," thundered Sidney Zion in the Daily News, while an editorial in the Post anointed Said the "Palestinian Tawana Brawley." The Forward compared him to Rigoberta Menchú, the Mayan Indian activist and Nobelist whose memoir was shown to be substantially fictionalized, as well as to Paul de Man, the late Belgian philosopher whose reputation has never recovered from his outing as a Nazi collaborator.