Remembering one of the world’s great thinkers, activists
October 07, 2003
One of the most influential intellects and activists of the 20th century died Sept. 25. Dr. Edward Said was a world-renowned author, activist, and intellectual. He had been a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia. Those lucky enough to know of this remarkable man will more than likely associate him with the fight for a free Palestine. As a Palestinian living in the West, he never gave up his own identity. He worked his entire life to reconcile the West’s understanding of the many beautiful cultures present in the Middle East.
I have never been a man to lose myself in the quagmire of melancholy, but in recent days, I have allowed myself to ruminate on his legacy almost constantly. I have admired this man for as long as I have considered myself an activist. When I discovered “Orientalism,” I knew this book was different, and not simply a rant. He developed a new understanding of the relation between the Middle East and the West for all us.
His works revolutionized how the Western conceptions of the Middle East. What identity has the West created for someone in the Middle East? How do modern Middle Eastern cultures reflect this Western construct? His work began to demystify Western perceptions of the Middle East.
He stood at the forefront of rebutting the base cliches to which the West reduces the Middle East. The culture is not one of oil barons or desert vandals, nor is there a harem at every corner with a terrorist training center in the back. Humanity has countless unique identities to be understood and respected. To create an identity for a huge mass of people is not only discourteous, but also dangerous.
Said was one of the few critics of our time to successfully marry intellectual ability with a clear political conscience – an ability few activists have. He regularly published in Al-Ahram – an Egyptian newspaper – and I was always pleased when he penned a new column. The last column he wrote was on contemporary polemics. How do a few elites control the semiotic nature of language, and why are we, as a multi-vantage point society, allowing such deception?
He never downplayed his intelligence in his work. He never played the role of the American politician, who hides his or her intelligence in an effort to “connect” with the people. He never considered lowering the bar, but rather, he raised every person up to his level. He has been criticized as arrogant for his gifted prose and style. His critics do not trust humanity’s ability to learn and appreciate the wisdom he had.
Said was totally devoted to the Palestinian people. He was one of the few outspoken voices to call for one state in the Middle East, where everyone was treated with equality under the law. He broke away from Yasser Arafat with sharp objections to his approval of the Oslo Accords and his refusal to grant the Palestinian people open democratic elections. His break never dissuaded him from continuing his fight for Palestinian freedom. He understood the need for a secular reckoning that would eventually bring peace.
His activism was not limited to his personal relationship with the conflict of Palestine. Said was dedicated to the notions of peace and equality for all of humanity. From the privileged vantage point of the West, he could see the amount of pain in the world and this is what he worked his entire life to extinguish.
Said, a scholar of literature, a music critic and an advocate for peace, will never know the impact he made on the world. He influenced countless individuals across the globe. He will never know how he affected this gay boy from a farm in Ohio, who knew there were problems with the world, but had no idea what his role in the solutions could be. The only thing that might have surpassed Said’s intelligence may be how much he cared for the thriving spirit of humanity. He will always stand as an Enjolras for all of us who want to end the pain in our world.
Posted on 10.7.2003 at 9:56 PM