Edward Said’s Commitment to Palestine: An Interview with Timothy Brennan

Samuel McIlhagga


If you attended a four-year college and majored in the humanities, there’s a strong chance that you’ve read at least the introduction of Edward Said’s seminal Orientalism (1978). The book, which combines literary theory, cultural criticism, and poststructuralism to critique the West’s construction of a corrupt “East,” shot Said to academic stardom in the 1980s and 1990s. 

Recently, pictures of the eminent Columbia University professor throwing a stone across the Lebanon-Israel border at an Israeli guard tower resurfaced online, as violence broke out in response to the evictions of Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. While the image of Said pelting an IDF watchtower was widely condemned at the time, even by Columbia’s student newspaper, it has drawn positive reactions from a new generation of young people who, like the New Left of the 1960s, are helping to redraw the contemporary moral landscape in America, and to a lesser extent, Europe.  

Said, who died in 2003, still remains relevant as a powerfully influential thinker on the Middle East, the media, the power of information and disinformation, and the interaction of politics and literature. During a 2013 discussion between Judith Butler and Cornel West at Columbia University, Butler said of Said: “When we speak of Edward Said’s work… we speak in the present tense.” West follows up by alleging that Said, “Had a moral consistency… he refuses the two distinctive features of the declining American empire: callousness to catastrophe, especially of poor and working people, and indifference to criminality, especially crimes against humanity.” The recent bombings of the Associated Press and Al Jazeera offices in Gaza by the Israeli Air Force prove that we are still very much in the world that Said described: one of contested information and knowledge production, governed by imperial military logic.   

Said lobs a rock at an IDF guard tower in 2000.

Two months before the expected Israeli Supreme Court ruling on the Sheikh Jarrah evictions and the storming of the al-Aqsa Mosque by Israeli police, Professor Timothy Brennan, an old graduate student of Said’s at Columbia, published Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said. Brennan’s text, an intellectual biography, draws on published work, archival sources, and hundreds of interviews, aiming to describe Said’s conceptual formation as well as the story of his life. 

Brennan, who is a member of both the English and Cultural Studies & Comparative Literature departments at the University of Minnesota and an expert on global culture, intellectual history, theory, colonialism and imperialism, and popular music, spoke with Protean Magazine about Said’s lifelong and complex commitment to the Palestinian cause.  

An Itinerant Childhood

Said was born to bourgeois Arab Christian parents. His father had gained American citizenship through service in the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I, and later set up a stationery business in Jerusalem and Cairo. This required the family to move across a cosmopolitan and diverse Levant that had been within the borders of the Ottoman Empire and had only recently been split up by the Sykes-Picot Treaty of 1916. Brennan defines the cosmopolitanism of Jerusalem and Cairo in Said’s early years as one that was “without some of the negative connotations of cosmopolitanism as being the official ethos of the jet-setting upper-middle-class… [it is] a place that has been conquered, reconquered and unconquered so many times because of its geostrategic position.” The early chapters of Places of Mind relate an itinerant childhood spent moving between Egypt, Palestine, and the Said family’s holiday home in the Lebanese village of Dhour el Shweir. According to Brennan, in Said’s family, there was “always an acknowledgement among Palestinians about a pre-nationalist openness between very different religious groups, peoples, and ethnicities that had crisscrossed the Middle East, which is, after all, a crossroads of a region.” 

Said was educated at elite Protestant private schools in Jerusalem, Cairo, and Massachusetts and was, for most of his life, rooted in Ivy League institutions: Princeton, Harvard and Columbia. Consequently, Said was both an outsider from the imperial margins and an individual who shared the religious and educational background of the traditional colonial elite. As Brennan says: “One of the discoveries of this book is that religion did put a large stamp on him, despite the fact that he would tell everybody who asked him that he was an atheist. He makes a name for himself as a secular intellectual and he’s constantly promoting secularism. Nevertheless, religion [was important] partly because he grew up in a very religious Anglican family, which was a tiny Christian sect in the Cairo of his day, but also the religion of the British occupiers.”

This unique upbringing, situated between different cultural, political and geographic poles, would allow Said to produce innovative writing on Palestine that was deeply connected to the cause of liberation while also containing the historical perspective and appreciation of complexity that marked his work on other subjects.  

Intellectual and Political Life

Said, to borrow a set of terms used by Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition (1958), was deeply interested in both the public vita contemplativa of intellectuals while also admiring those who managed to live the revolutionary vita activa, especially in relation to the issue of Palestinian liberation. These two ideals—the revolutionary and the intellectual—would produce a creative tension throughout Said’s life. 

“The people that he most wants to emulate are underground political revolutionaries like Hanna Mikhail [Abu Omar]. He often berated himself for not living up to the courage and dedication of these figures,” Brennan told Protean, adding that: “He makes his position clear about why he never joins a Marxist organization. Partly it is to do with a certain idea of the intellectual. He thinks the intellectual is more effective in the public sphere when not directly allied with organizations.” Although, “If it were not for that consideration, he would have joined the PFLP [Popular Front for The Liberation of Palestine], the radical Marxist wing of the Palestinian movement.” 

Said lived most of his life as a university professor in the English and Comparative Literature department at Columbia University, where he taught and researched on Joseph Conrad, Jonathan Swift, and “Continental” European theory. Brennan notes that Said was committed to the university as a “precious place—he’s rather conservative in this way, he thinks that politics shouldn’t be in the classroom. For instance, he never protested in the classroom and never taught anything about the Middle East. He reserved this for his public persona.” 

That public persona would be highly politicized and intimately linked with the Palestinian struggle for the entirety of Said’s career. His first piece of public writing on the Arab world, a short essay called “The Arab Portrayed,” was both a reaction to the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War of 1967 and a racist costume theme for a Princeton reunion party. This early essay focused on the production of American knowledge about the Arab world in the media. In it, Said writes: “Press pictures of the Arabs were almost always of large numbers of people, mobs of hysterical, anonymous men, whereas photographs of the Israelis were almost always of stalwart individuals.”

He would continue to mount powerful critiques of contemporary orientalists, like Bernard Lewis, whom he saw as part of a “substantial roster of experts who regularly represent the Middle East for the U.S. media… who insist on characterizing what they do as impartial and detached.” Brennan says that after “The Arab Portrayed,” Said began to argue against “a specious psychoanalytic reduction of what the Arab is and how he or she thinks and why [Arab societies are] inconsistent with contemporary secular democratic norms.” 

An interest in both the contemplative work of intellectuals and the active representations of places like Palestine in the media would undergird the writing of Said’s seminal 1978 text Orientalism. Said’s book would, in turn, spawn the field of critical and literary postcolonialism and set the scene for the “subaltern studies” of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and notions of “provincializing Europe” pushed by Dipesh Chakrabarty during the late 20th century. It would also, in part, create the modern precedents for current calls to decolonize the curriculum across the Anglosphere. 

Adam Shatz, in the London Review of Books, pointed out that the contemporary progeny of Orientalism did and still do stand in opposition to Said’s universalist Marxism—which was itself opposed to native bourgeois elites in Palestine. The field of postcolonial studies has become, according to Shatz, a “career path for a growing number of upper-middle-class graduate students from the Middle East and South Asia [who have developed] an increasingly orthodox critique of secularism and the Enlightenment [that exasperated] Said.”

Brennan seems to agree, at least in part, with this analysis of Said’s attitude: “The problem for Said wasn’t to come up with the ‘true’ version of the Orient but to allow individuals to speak for themselves—and to come to a realization, once one has heard them talk, that they have the same aspirations that we do. The universalistic and humanistic consciousness is part of a democratic striving just as much in Iraq or Palestine as anywhere else.” 

Tensions between the doctrine of liberal self-determination and identity and more radical forms of universal class liberation are reflected in political theory and works like Frantz Fanon’s 1961The Wretched of the Earth. Indeed, Brennan insists that Said “learnt a lot from the communists who were at the forefront of anti-colonial liberation movements in their heyday [from] about 1948 to 1979. He very much wanted to keep the idea of that period alive in the 1980s and 1990s.” He added that: “His analysis, in his later work, is overtly Marxist: he’s talking about political economy and the construction of a bourgeois class.” This strain of economic and historical analysis is evident in The Question of Palestine (1979), which was published soon after Orientalism, as well as in Said’s later newspaper writing on the Oslo Peace Accords in the 1990s.  

Said’s ideological alloy of “Western” canonical thought, Marxist materialist analysis, and universalist rational humanism led him to take up unorthodox positions that were often outside the American liberal mainstream and its discourses in the academy. “He was out of step with the postcolonial consensus, which was more about discourse and identity and not about the creation of states,” asserts Brennan. “A consistent Marxist would say that you need the state—but that it is not an end but a beginning.” 

At the same time, he was perceived as frustratingly heretical when it came to the Arab nationalism represented by Yasser Arafat’s Fatah, the PLO, and the Palestinian National Authority: “There are many people who are militant Palestinian partisans on the ground who hate Edward Said—who consider him to have held out the fig leaf too long and too early, and for trying to create a commonality and harmony between the warring factions that does not correspond to the politics on the ground. That he too quickly gave up on the idea of an independent Palestinian state—advocating as he did for the last decade of his life for a one-state solution.”

Oslo and the One-State Solution

The Oslo Accords were a series of treaties engineered between the American government, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and the leader of the PLO Yasser Arafat between 1993 and 1995. The accords led to a mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO, allowing for a continuing peace process, and created a Palestinian Authority with limited control over parts of the West Bank and Gaza. Said famously described the accords as a “Palestinian Versailles” in the London Review of Books

Between the signing of Oslo I in 1993 and Oslo II in 1995, Said penned numerous excoriating articles about the process. He began to take aim at Arafat, who was by then the president of the Palestinian National Authority and, for many, the symbolic leader of the Palestinian people. “Arafat’s total marginalization as a result of his catastrophic misjudgments and failures (his alliance with Saddam Hussein being only the latest) made the Israeli offer attractive. He accepted,” wrote Said in the Washington Post. “Arafat’s capitulation saved his own skin for a time, but also converted him from being the leader of his people’s quest for independence into Israel’s Buthelezi, or the administrator of a Bantustan, or the head of a kind of Vichy government.”

On the failure of the Oslo Accords and the current outbreak of violence, Brennan argues that: “I think it would be very difficult for him, on the Oslo Accords, to resist saying ‘I told you so.’ Especially when it was very unpopular on both sides of the Palestinian issue back in 1993 to say that.” 

Oslo II, which divided the West Bank into Areas A, B, and C, also led Said to shift from supporting a two-state to a one-state solution. The second accord created islands of Palestinian control in the West Bank, separated by Israeli settlements. Brennan believes that the physical reality of the West Bank and Gaza rendered a two-state solution impossible in Said’s eyes: “The ‘one-state solution’ was an idea that he believed was important to promote because facts on the ground rendered it inevitable. The ‘bantustanization’ of the Palestinian territories within greater Palestine is so complete that the idea of an independent state on the West Bank is now unimaginable, precisely because the Israelis have made it that way… There is also the political advantage of shifting the discourse from the competition between warring parties or neighboring states to the quite different problem of eliminating apartheid and discrimination. [Peace] then becomes a civil rights issue within a nation-state.” 

In 1999, Said declared his support for a shared Palestinian-Israeli state in the New York Times Magazine: “It is my view that the peace process has in fact put off the real reconciliation that must occur if the hundred-year war between Zionism and the Palestinian people is to end. Oslo set the stage for separation, but real peace can come only with a binational Israeli-Palestinian state.” In the article, Said suggests emphasizing notions of citizenship over ethnic and religious identity: “The beginning is to develop something entirely missing from both Israeli and Palestinian realities today: the idea and practice of citizenship, not of ethnic or racial community, as the main vehicle for coexistence. In a modern state, all its members are citizens by virtue of their presence.” 

Says Brennan, “The Palestinians embody an alternative that is implicitly inclusionary and secular.” They “offer an alternative to the two main unsatisfactory options: being subservient to a colonial occupier or religious fanaticism that wants to wipe out any trace of secularity. These are not acceptable alternatives. Not just the PLO, but the Palestinians themselves represent something dangerous to the corrupt regimes” in the region.

Edward Said was dedicated to theorizing and advocating for these liberatory possibilities. Throughout his remarkable life and in his influential work, he saw the imperative of recognizing of Palestinian rights and self-determination as a symbol of the progressive potential embedded in the Middle East. ♦

Samuel McIlhagga is a freelance journalist, book reviewer and writer based in the U.K. 

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