“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.
Nor were the pyrotechnics all on one side. Rushing to Said’s defense in the New York Press, the columnist Alexander Cockburn engaged in a virtuosic display of legerdemain, the point of which was to show less that Said was innocent than that Weiner was, of all things, an anti-Semite. By depicting Said as “a rootless type … popping up here and there in the Levant, bowered always in luxurious circumstance,” Weiner, Cockburn declared, was invoking an ancient, immediately recognizable stereotype, that of “the rootless cosmopolitan Jew, as set forth in a million anti-Semitic tracts.”
When I arrive at Said’s apartment on Friday, he ushers me inside, past an immaculate steel-and-stone kitchen into an air-conditioned living room. The cool air makes him more comfortable, he says, needlessly apologetic. Since 1991, Said has suffered from a chronic, incurable form of leukemia. After undergoing an experimental cancer therapy and enjoying a partial remission last year, Said fears the disease may be slowly returning now. His current treatment consists of monthly immunoglobulin infusions that elevate his body temperature and make him sweat.
The living room, with its two pianos and, hanging neatly from a rack in one corner, a collection of elegant pipes, seems, like the man himself, at once incomparably refined and quite fragile. Concerned that my water glass might damage the veneer on the table beside me, I ask Said for a coaster. He hands me a compact disc still in its plastic wrap: Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.
Describing Said, his friends, who are numerous, fiercely loyal, and frequently, it should be said, liberal Jews, tend to employ many of the same encomiums – “unparalleled intellectual presence,” “gifts and drives that no mere mortals have,” “one of the most extraordinary human beings I’ve ever met” – in much the same breathless tone. “We live in an age where everybody’s a specialist in something and knows less and less about other things,” says Daniel Barenboim, the Israeli conductor of the Berlin State Opera who counts Said among his closest friends. “Edward’s brain is not compartmentalized that way. He has not only a great interest in and quite a lot of knowledge about music, but he is one of those rare people that are interested in everything.”
Well, not quite everything. As Said tells me matter-of-factly, “I have a radical political philosophy, but I’m also culturally conservative. I believe in the classics. For me, music is still Western classical music. Arab music is not my thing. I never watch sports. I rarely go to movies. I’m not into what my son calls ‘blue-collar tastes.’ “
Indeed, for a man who has been accused of harboring a sentimental attachment to Marxism, Said’s tastes run unmistakably toward the elite. This past August, he spent two weeks in Weimar with Barenboim and the cellist Yo-Yo Ma running a workshop for young musicians from all over the Middle East – Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Israel, Syria, Jordan, and Tunis. “We found a whole brace of first-class Egyptian cellists,” he says, his face for the first time during our interview animated with pleasure. “And who knew about the level of the Syrian musicians? Most extraordinary of all was a 10-year-old prodigy – a pianist – from Jordan.
“He turned out to be the star of the whole thing. He’s a phenomenally gifted prodigy with whom Daniel fell absolutely in love. Daniel says a talent like this appears once or a few times a century. I’ve never had such an intense and remarkable experience.” (Somehow it’s no surprise to learn that the prodigy is named Karim Said and is the grandson of Said’s cousin Albert.) Said plans to collaborate with Barenboim again, as dramaturge on a Berlin State Opera production of Berlioz’s Les Troyens scheduled to go up next winter and, after that, possibly a production of Othello.
In the meantime, he is plenty busy. He’s teaching a graduate seminar, supervising half a dozen dissertations, and wrapping up a twelve-month stint as president of the Modern Language Association (MLA), the 30,000-member professional organization for literature professors – all the while writing his bi-weekly political column for Al-Ahram Weekly, tossing off the odd review or essay or, not infrequently, entire book. He proudly shows off the volume of Henry James short stories he’s just edited for the Library of America and enthusiastically describes the nasty essay he’s been asked to write for The New York Review of Books about the City Ballet’s house orchestra. “It’s fantastically terrible,” he fumes. “They can’t play. They obviously never rehearse. They can barely get the notes. And I was under the impression that the music is centrally important to the art!”
It goes without saying that Said gets by on very little sleep. Even so, friends whose packed schedules and prolific output match Said’s word for word and obligation for obligation are impressed. “I know he’s an insomniac who channel-surfs and wastes a lot of time,” whispers Hitchens. “He’ll be telling me what he saw on TV at four in the morning. And I’ll be thinking, ‘How does he have time to do that and all his other work?’ “
In addition, Said has an actor’s ear for language. “His other great career would have been the stage,” says Ric Burns, the documentary filmmaker and a close friend. “He’s an extraordinary mimic. He can absorb any particular style and reproduce it perfectly.” Hitchens says he has heard Said perform P. G. Wodehouse: “He can do it, not just remember entire passages but do the voices.”
Said has an extraordinary visual memory as well. When he was a child, among the few commercial entertainments his parents permitted him were Hollywood musicals and children’s films. As a result, he is rumored to have an encyclopedic knowledge of MGM musicals from the forties and fifties. In 1989, he wrote a long essay on Tarzan for Interview. Astonished, Michael Rosenthal, a Columbia colleague who has known Said since the early sixties, confronted him: ” ‘When did you have the time to watch all these films?’ I asked him. He said, ‘I remember them.’ “
Said appears to be adored as much for his frailties as for his strengths. “We love Edward because he’s a very vulnerable person,” says Jean Stein, the MCA heiress and editor of Grand Street. “There is an innocence about Edward, a completely vulnerable, down-to-earth side to him,” echoes Michael Rosenthal. “Despite the accomplishments, there’s a doubt that lurks in him about how substantial they all are.”
There are, of course, dissenters. Once admirers, now critics (and nearly all anonymous), they dismiss this portrait of tormented and defenseless genius as part of a larger drama-queen routine. Said’s vaunted emotionalism is really just narcissism, they claim, a way of playing his audience for sympathy and attention without ever having to take responsibility for his own insolent barbs. One proponent of this theory is Jon Whitman, a former student of Said’s who is now a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. When Said became president of the MLA last January, Whitman withdrew his membership, accusing Said of “acts of aggressive contempt and blatant dehumanization” toward his scholarly opponents. Among the list of incivilities: He called an opponent a figure of “characteristic idiocy.” “When confronted with his insults,” Whitman complained in an irate letter to the MLA’s official journal, Said merely “cries that his own integrity is being impugned.”
When it comes to pushing Palestinian rights, his critics say, Said has honed the helpless-victim routine to irresistible perfection. Thus the unforgettable image of Said from a 1998 BBC documentary, In Search of Palestine. Pale and thin from the leukemia, he stands on a freshly plowed plot of earth outside Jerusalem, his voice choked with tears as he laments the fate of the Palestinian squatters who, until the morning when Israeli soldiers forcibly removed them, had eked out a living there: “The world has taken very little notice of this. And I must say, it’s very hard for me to stand here talking about it when I see my own people going through this” – here Said sighs deeply, his hand on his heart – “this endless calvary. Without any relief, without any sympathy or support from the so-called civilized world, which backs Israel in these barbaric inhuman practices.”
It’s a bravura performance, heartfelt and deeply moving. It’s also unabashedly partisan, which explains some of the difficulty the BBC had finding distribution for the film in this country. (It was picked up by Channel 13 only after Jean Stein and Gita Mehta, the wife of Knopf publisher Sonny Mehta, arranged a screening at the Alliance Française where a PBS honcho saw it.)
The reason for the histrionics, his critics say, is simple. As an upper-class Arab growing up in the Middle East, Said could not have had a fate more different from that of his less-fortunate countrymen – many of whom have been living in refugee camps on the West Bank for the past 50 years. Unable to share in their material loss, Said embraced their pain instead. It was just a matter of time before Said, thrust onto the public stage, began to hog it: No longer just a spokesperson for Palestinians, he embodied them.
Perversely, the critics argue, Said’s helpless-exile shtick is no longer politically expedient. With the Oslo Accords and the current, tentative thaw in Palestinian-Israeli relations, Said’s furious rebukes of Arafat, Barak, and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East reveal him to be hopelessly out of touch. Today, say his opponents, Said is politically more isolated then ever. He is truly an exile.
Victim or scene-stealer? Neither, Said answers. “I’m not into victimhood,” he tells me. “It’s not my style. All that is made absolutely clear in my book. I make it clear that I never suffered the fate of a wretched refugee. I have written about it in the past simply by saying, ‘My entire family was evicted and we lost all our property,’ but I never, never gave the impression that I was a miserable camp-dweller. Anyone who knows me knows that that’s the last thing I would pretend to be or want to be.”
Economically speaking, it’s true. Said’s family was not ruined by the fall of Palestine. On that point, his memoir is abundantly clear. His father, a Jerusalem-born Christian Arab, owned what was by the fifties the largest office-supply-and-stationery company in the Middle East, with branches in Cairo, Alexandria, and Beirut. Until 1948, Said père also shared ownership with his cousin Boulos of the Palestine Educational Company in Jerusalem and Haifa. Although Said, his parents, and his four sisters traveled frequently to Jerusalem, their official residence was Cairo, where they lived attended by servants in a spacious apartment on an island in the Nile.
Every day during the week, Said’s father was chauffeured to the office in one of a series of black American-made cars that got bigger with the family’s growing fortunes, eventually culminating in an enormous Chrysler limousine. In the afternoons, while Said’s father played bridge at the Gezira Club, an exclusive colonial redoubt, young Edward was busy with mind-and-body-enhancing and distinctly Western-flavored extracurriculars: Cub Scouts, calisthenics, tennis, swimming, cricket, boxing, sailing, and piano.
For reasons Said does not explain, the family spent most of his thirteenth year, 1947, in Jerusalem. “The signs of impending crisis were all round us,” he writes. “The city had been divided into zones maintained by British Army and police checkpoints, through which cars, pedestrians, and cyclists had to pass.” In December 1947, Said’s father took his family back to Cairo, a few months before the neighborhood around his aunt’s house – the house where he was born – was taken over by the Hagganah. “By early spring of 1948,” Said writes, “my entire extended family had been swept out of the place, and has remained in exile ever since.”
It is possible to read Out of Place in this way, as a factual document, with Weiner’s article and its evidence in one hand and a red pencil in the other, noting discrepancies and contradictions. In the end, however, this exercise proves little. Out of Place is consistent with accounts Said has laid out before (including a 1987 essay in House & Garden titled, “Cairo Recalled”). But the memoir is less consistent with statements Said has made (or implied) in other contexts, including venues Weiner cites: Harper’s, The London Review of Books, and the BBC documentary. Did Said spend his formative years in Jerusalem? No, that clearly seems an exaggeration. Did Said’s entire family become refugees after 1947? The answer depends on how you define family and refugee, but semantics seems almost beside the point: Said’s father lost business assets; his relatives lost even more. All sorts of cousins, aunts, and uncles turned up in Cairo after 1948 in straitened circumstances, begging for jobs and handouts. Why not let him call his family refugees? Many of the facts Weiner hammers away at as whole-cloth invention are actually matters of interpretation.
There are other ways to be a victim. Consider Out of Place not as a fiscal or even a factual record but as an emotional one, and the results are dramatically different. As an emotional document, Out of Place is a revelation. Lonely and uncertain, fraught with anxiety and confusion, the young Said is perpetually under siege from forces beyond his control. His parents, his teachers, school bullies, even the landscape seem to have it in for him. “There was always something wrong with how I was invented and meant to fit in with the world of my parents and four sisters,” he writes early on in the book. His father, indomitable and overbearing, was “a devastating combination of power and authority, rationalistic discipline, and repressed emotions.” His mother, despite her spontaneous and overwhelming displays of affection, is no more reliable a source of self-esteem: “I was in an enraptured state of precarious, highly provisional rapport with my mother, so much so that I really had no friends of my age.”
Together, the parents enjoy a total, obsessional control over young Edward’s mind and body, intimately involved in the “correction” of every one of his numerous defects: from his feet (flat) to his stomach (prone to aches), curly hair (too effeminate), eyes (weak), tongue (too long), chest, and posture (for which his father prescribed a metal chest-expander and a harness).
Eventually, Said is packed off to the Mount Hermon School in rural Massachusetts. “Although it was in the traditional picture-book sense a beautiful, leafy, hilly, and perfectly maintained New England site,” Said writes, “I found it altogether alienating and desolate… . The nearest town of Greenfield has long symbolized for me the enforced desolation of middle America.” Seeing snow for the first time that winter, Said can muster only feelings of “revulsion,” a reaction he says he has to this day.
In short, Out of Place is the affecting testimony of one boy’s nearly relentless persecution by the world. With respect to Edward Said the adult, what is remarkable about that persecution is the degree to which it precedes any sort of political consciousness. Out of Place is indeed a chronicle of exile, the story of one for whom “home,” as Said puts it, “was in the deepest sense something I was excluded from.” Whether he means by this an emotional or a national home, the plodding investigations of Justus Weiner will never illuminate.