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Edward Said fights for his past

October 02, 1999

THIS week, I was planning to write about the wonderfully heart-warming and absorbing symposium arranged to honour the memory of Eqbal Ahmad at Hampshire College recently.

By sheer chance, my attention was drawn to an article on Edward Said published in this newspaper's weekly Review section. Since Said had delivered this year's Eqbal Ahmad Lecture (Kofi Annan was the speaker last year), apart from being a panelist in the following day's symposium, I would have written about him anyway, but the contents of the article were so disturbing that I have decided to devote this column to the famous Palestinian's on-going tribulations.

I had heard about a scurrilous attack launched on Said by a paid Zionist hack, but had not realized the nature and viciousness of the whole thing. While all Dawn readers are familiar with Said's erudite and incisive writing that has graced these pages for the last few years (due largely to his long and close friendship with Eqbal), all of them may not know the full extent of his scholarship, the breadth of his interests, or the lofty position he occupies in the world of letters. To introduce Edward Said more fully, I can do no better than quote the first paragraph from Ed Vulliamy's recent article:

"To take an axe to Edward Said is to swipe at one of the more fruitful and elegant trees in the orchard of human intellect. Said is one of the leading literary theorists of our century, a commentator on music - opera in particular - a historian, pianist and political essayist. Most famously, he is the world's most instantly recognizable and tenacious exponent of the Palestinian cause. He is the living example of that maxim coined by Theodore Adamo, another radical refugee who came to New York, then from the Third Reich: 'For a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live'."

In a sense, people like Said, Chomsky and Eqbal Ahmad have lived on the fringes of American academia, largely marginalized because of their fierce and unflinching support of causes that have often run counter to the mainstream. They have been far too brilliant and eloquent to completely ignore, but they are not sought out by the media for their views on the issues of the day, and nor are they invited to give their advice in the formulation of American policy.The present furore in much of the western press was triggered by an article by an unknown American-Israeli researcher called Justus Weiner published in a little-known right-wing American magazine Commentary. Basically, Weiner alleges that Said and his family were not refugees from Palestine and he had not attended the Jerusalem school that he had. In short, Said's whole life was a lie. While Weiner was 'researching' Said's life, he never once spoke to the writer. The researcher is a paid employee of the Jewish Centre for Public Affairs that is generously supported by Michael Milken, the junk-bond 'king' who was jailed in 1991.

Basically, this shabby but shattering attempt to discredit Said is aimed at diminishing the Palestinian claim to the right to return to their homeland. This right, denied by the Israelis, is expected to figure largely in the negotiations on Jerusalem's final status. If Said, the most articulate and respected advocate of Palestinian rights, can be shown to be a liar, then obviously, other Palestinians can hardly be expected to be truthful about their claims.

For years, Zionists have based their claim to Palestine partly on the fiction that it was an empty, barren wasteland that they have peopled, watered and made to flower. The motto of these latter-day colonialists was "A land without a people for a people without land." To make this happen, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were brutally terrorized and bullied into fleeing their homes. Ultimately, history and demography have been re-written to the point where eminent Palestinian families like the Saids are being told that they did not actually have anything to do with Jerusalem.

While this row engages those on both sides of the Palestinian fence, another controversy concerning Jerusalem rages at the heart of the American corporate world. It seems that the UAE has taken grave exception to a Disney display that shows Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Not having lifted a finger to prevent this from becoming a ground reality, this show of Arab indignation and empty bluster is surprising. It is true that symbols can be powerful weapons in the hands of the dispossessed, but the weak should choose their battles with care. There is no way in which Disney can afford to go against Zionist wishes and succumb to the hollow threat of an Arab boycott.

These two distant but parallel events demonstrate simultaneously the weakness of the Arabs and the power Israel has come to acquire in the western establishment. Even people of goodwill can begin to doubt Said's integrity after reading an account of the controversy. Given his ongoing battle with leukemia and the fact that he does not have vast resources behind him, he cannot afford to take Weiner and Commentary to court and sue them for libel.

Had Arabs been really sincere in their support of the Palestinian cause, this would have been the perfect opportunity for them to underwrite Said's legal expenses. This case - and not the futile battle against Disney - would have been worth fighting and winning. But the sad truth is that most of those who are now threatening Disney with dire consequences are very uncomfortable with educated and cultured Palestinians like Edward Said whom they regard as dangerous radicals and uncompromising democrats.

Yasser Arafat and his comrades must be chuckling on learning about Said's discomfiture. For years, he has opposed the flawed peace the PLO has accepted, and has been harsh in his criticism of the Palestinian authority's undemocratic and repressive methods.

In his Eqbal Ahmad Lecture titled "Embattled landscapes, unresolved geographies", Edward Said spoke eloquently and passionately against partitioning land to keep different peoples apart. He quoted the example, among others, of the subcontinent where although Hindus and Muslims now live in separate countries, they remain nonetheless locked in hostility.

But I fear that while Palestine may still be an embattled landscape, it is now a resolved geography.