Edward Said: The man who went to the mountain

September 29, 2003 12:00 AM

An ancient Arab poet said that death was an old blind woman randomly waving her stick: “Those she hits die and those she misses get old.” Therefore the words for “blind” and “random” in Arabic are synonyms. The pre-Islamic poet’s masterpiece was written in gold and woven into the black sheets covering the Kaaba. Yet, today, I realized the poet was wrong.

The death that came to Edward Said on Thursday, Sept. 25, was not a blind;  dark architect of coincidences; this death knew what it was doing.

For 30 years Edward Said was holding the one non-skewed mirror in the face of the colonial West; a Caesar that always thought of itself as Christ, a truck that always thought of itself as an antelope, and a children-eating ghoul who really believed in her educational talents.

Said’s job was to deconstruct colonial discourses to reveal the absurdity of the arguments that provided many warmakers with the peace of mind they needed.

Dying now, therefore, looks like a conspiracy ­ now that colonialism in its crudest, most ignorant, most blatant, most clumsy, most shameless, disgusting face is making its explosive return to human history. Said was digging out the colonialism hidden in novels, poems, speeches and media coverage. Yet he dies when colonialism grows out of those hideouts, and declares itself the religion embraced by America and imposed on the world.

Naturally, like great men, Said was respected by his foes and friends alike; this well-deserved strength rendered him vital and rare in the intellectual struggle between the oppressed and their oppressors.

The function of many in American academia is to provide a logically appealing legitimizing discourse for American hegemony. Like the medieval priests and sheikhs of Europe and the world of Islam, the scholar is attached to the sultan; he weaves the gowns and makes the scepters. The so-called academic objectivity, scientific method and empirical evidence are all magical words corresponding to medieval concepts like the will of God, inner truth and sacred knowledge. This allows the priests in Harvard to brush aside anything that deconstructs their discourses as “nonscientific,” again, a word that corresponds to the medieval heresy. But no one could have brushed aside Edward Said. Just as the infidels of Mecca first thought the prophet just a poet rambling about the origin of the universe, and so left him alone until it was too late, so the black-gowned guardians of America’s peace of mind woke up in the 1970s to discover that this Jerusalemite’s theories on literary criticism could cause them serious political headaches. But it was too late, and from then on Said was a citadel for anti-colonialism boldly situated in colonialism’s heartland.

But now he has left us, and all those unarmed intellectual refugees who had sought asylum in his citadel are shivering as the teeth of inquisition-type priest-scholars shine like sabers under the banners of the End of History, the Clash of Civilizations and the Virtues of Imperialism.

Said has many students, most of which he might have never known. He was an icon to many in the Arab world, many of whom never even read all his works. Yet, his main argument, set forth since Orientalism, turned into some sort of popular culture among many university students and young intellectuals. This process of popularization usually involves various degrees of simplification that might harm the original idea. Yet, despite such damage, the ideas, in their complex or simplified forms, changed many minds to the point of self-redefinition.

For his readers in the West, Said was an eye opener; he allowed them to see the contradictions in their own culture, the illusions they create of “the other” and the reality of domination those illusions help to create, consolidate and eternalize. To his readers in the Arab world, and in many other places in the Third World in general, Said was a granter of words; he said what all of us were trying to say for the last two centuries. The meanings were held in many hearts and minds for long: Said knew how to express them in the language of the enemy and to his face.

Said’s students will now try to go on, but it will be much more difficult. The infidels of Mecca now know the danger in letting people go to the mountain and come down with rhyming words; the elders of Israel know the danger in letting young men heal the blind, and the priests of the inquisition will now go after anyone who would point to the fact they resemble the crucifier rather than crucified.

Sometimes death comes on time, sometimes people even go asking for it. To martyrs, prophets, crescents and daylights, death is the most powerful line ending ­ the crescendo of the poem that is their life.

But this time, death interrupted Said; despite his great achievements, his job was not done yet. And when the job is done, no Palestinian born in Jerusalem will have to die in New York.

Read more: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Culture/Art/2003/Sep-29/112093-edward-said-the-man-who-went-to-the-mountain.ashx#ixzz2wGtsSSzY 
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