Edward Saïd- Biography
Edward Saïd, Ph.D.,, was a critically acclaimed American writer and professor of Palestinian origin. He was born on November 1, 1935 and died on September 25, 2003. He had a Palestinian Protestant mother and a wealthy Palestinian-American Catholic father. He grew up in a Jerusalem that was under British mandate. The Palestinian-American intellectual to be would spend his life investigating the in the end imaginary line that divides the East and the West.
Edward Saïd would teach English literature and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York City from 1963 until his death in 2003. He would be the author of numerous books of literary criticism, music analysis and most notably on the Arab-Israeli conflict. The famous British Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk (1946 - ) would say of Edward Saïd that he was the “most powerful voice” for Palestinians. And yet it is important to note that Saïd would argue passionately for a binational state rather than for a Palestinian state. Edward Saïd’s theoretical inspiration would be from his studies of colonial literature but also most importantly from the post-structuralist theories of Michel Foucault (1926 - 1984) and Jacques Derrida (1930 - 2004). Saïd was fluent in Arabic, English and French and could read Spanish, German, Italian and Latin.
Edward Saïd’s work would be very influential. In particular, Edward Saïd’s 1978 book Orientalism would come to be widely regarded as deeply significant. Indeed, this work would revolutionize the study of the Middle East and in this way helped to create entire new fields of study, including most notably post-colonial theory. Additionally, it would influence fields as diverse as political science, history, English, anthropology and cultural studies. The book would be translated in over 25 languages and is, not surprisingly, required reading at many colleges and universities. However, it would also be one of the most controversial scholarly books of the past few decades. It would spark intense debates and disagreements.
Orientalism would try to answer a deceptively simple question that is as existential as it is political: why when we think for instance of the Middle East, we tend to have a pre-conceived idea of the sort of people who live there. More broadly, Orientalism interrogates how we come to understand people who look different to us. The main argument of the work is that the way we learn this knowledge is neither innocent nor objective, but rather the outcome of a loaded process. That is to say, it is highly biased. Edward Saïd argues that the way the West, that is Europe and the United States, thinks of countries in the Middle East is through lenses that distort the reality of those places and people. He will name these lenses “orientalism”. Professor Saïd’s contribution to how we understand this general process that is reminiscent of the concept of stereotyping would be monumental. In a 1980 interview he would share live his analysis:
“So far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say that Moslems and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Moslem life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have instead is a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression.”
After a controversy about Edward Saïd childhood times, having been critically questioned about his life in the Middle East, he would eventually make the following biographical statement in 1998:
“I was born in Jerusalem and had spent most of my formative years there and, after 1948, when my entire family became refugees, in Egypt. All my early education had, however, been in élite colonial schools, English public schools designed by the British to bring up a generation of Arabs with natural ties to Britain. The last one I went to before I left the Middle East to go to the United States was Victoria College in Cairo, a school in effect created to educate those ruling-class Arabs and Levantines who were going to take over after the British left. My contemporaries and classmates included King Hussein of Jordan, several Jordanian, Egyptian, Syrian and Saudi boys who were to become ministers, prime ministers and leading businessmen, as well as such glamorous figures as Michel Shalhoub, head prefect of the school and chief tormentor when I was a relatively junior boy, whom everyone has seen on screen as Omar Sharif.”
In 1951 at the age of 15 Edward Saïd would be sent by his parents to the prestigious Mount Hermon School, a private preparatory school in eastern Massachusetts. However, he would have bad memories of that time of his life because he did not feel at home and clearly felt out of place. He would go on with his studies and get his BA at Princeton University, and his MA and Doctorate at Harvard University where he would win the very important Bowdoin Prize. He would subsequently join the faculty at Columbia University in 1963.
Edward Saïd’s feelings of displacement would surely contribute to his growing future interest in East-West relations. Tellingly, he would later state:
“With an unexceptionally Arab family name like Saïd connected to an improbably British first name (my mother much admired the Prince of Wales in 1935, the year of my birth), I was an uncomfortably anomalous student all through my early years: a Palestinian going to school in Egypt, with an English first name, an American passport and no certain identity at all. To make matters worse, Arabic, my native language, and English, my school language, were inextricably mixed: I have never known which was my first language, and have felt fully at home in neither, although I dream in both. Every time I speak an English sentence, I find myself echoing it in Arabic, and vice versa.”
In 1992 Edward Saïd would attain the status of University Professor, which is the most prestigious position at Columbia University. Additionally, he would also teach at Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University as well as Yale University.
Edward Saïd’s essays over the many years would be published in The Nation, the London Review of Books, Counterpunch, Al Ahram as well as numerous others in the world. Together with his friend and colleague Noam Chomsky (1928 - ) they would give many interviews on the topic of the US foreign policy for various independent radio stations.
Edward Saïd would be the recipient of many prizes. He would be awarded numerous honorary doctorates from universities around the world and would receive the Trilling prize from Columbia as well as the Wellek prize from the American Association of Comparative Literature. In 1999 his memoir Out of Place would win the New Yorker prize for non-fiction works.
The thinker’s existentially engaged attitude towards life would be a celebration of culture, indeed of cultures in all of their forms. Few people know, for example, the he would create in 1999 with his Argentine-Israeli friend Daniel Barenboim (1942 - ) the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra made up of young Arab, Jewish and European musicians. The two friends would enjoy thinking of the initiative as a “weapon of mass construction”. Together in 2002 they would co-author Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society, a project which would have started to emerge back in 1995 when during a conference on Richard Wagner (1813 - 1955), the two authors would engage with each other in a sensitive debate on the brilliant but anti-Semitic composer. They would repeat such an experiment five times, placing art and music, and especially that of Beethoven, at the heart of problems such as the crisis in the Middle East, education etc. The result would be a challenging yet gratifying book where the two men come to agree that culture has the power to transcend political and social differences.
Edward Saïd would die in New York City after fighting chronic lymphocytic leukemia for twelve years, on September 25 2003, at the age of 67. In January 2006, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, the anthropologist David Price would manage to get a hold of the 147-page FBI file on Saïd. The record shows that Saïd had been under surveillance since 1971. The majority of the file is marked as IS Middle East, “IS” meaning Israel. Interestingly, however, considerable portions of the file are still classified.