Crossing Lines for Justice

Against the Current, No. 107, November/December 2003

Nabeel Abraham

THE DREADED KNOCK on the door came at mid-day when a colleague brought the news — Edward Said died last night. For those who knew him, we lived with his illness for a dozen years the way a family lives with a doomed relative. The day would arrive when Edward’s inimitable and redoubtable voice would be heard no more. It was a shock all the same.

Earlier in the week a premonition came over me that something had happened to Edward. It’s not entirely clear why; perhaps it was because his pen seemed quieter than usual.

I thought of calling, but put that thought out of my mind, telling myself I ought not burden a sick man. He once mildly complained in an interview that his friends don’t call him for that very reason. But truth be told, I didn’t know what to say.

I preferred to watch Edward from afar. He was for me, as for thousands of Palestinians and others, a one-man PLO fighting for the silenced, the dispossessed, the marginalized, the culturally disappeared, without the corruption and capitulations of that hapless organization.

In his elegance and passion, he fashioned the cry of a nation into a rhetorical spear. At its core, it was his voice and his alone.

Edward crossed lines in all manner, resonating with the young, with people of color, with fellow intellectuals. He even crossed lines with the Palestinians, as when during the first flush of armed revolution he argued that we would have to eventually get over our gun fetish, the sooner the better.

Most importantly, he addressed Jews and Israelis, offering himself as a bridge in a dialogue he intuitively knew needed to occur if Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews were to ever find a way out of the abyss of injustice, oppression and war.

I first met Edward in Ann Arbor. It was early 1974, several months after war had blown across the Sinai and the Golan Heights. He had been invited to the university to read a paper whose key word struck my young graduate student ears as rather arcane, if not altogether antiquarian – “Orientalism.” A mimeograph copy of the manuscript lies buried somewhere in my attic.

First impressions are usually wrong. At lunch prior to his lecture, the young Edward, handsome and erudite, dressed in a tweed jacket, horn-rimmed glasses, impressed me as just another Palestinian/Arab academic who was probably on the make in academia.

Before an audience of seventy or so, Edward methodically dissected an entire discipline of Western scholarship that had helped lay the groundwork for the military battles we had just witnessed.

At long last here was a Third World intellectual who was taking on the Man — on his own turf, nonetheless — brilliant, incisive, but without any of the grandstanding, histrionics and rhetoric one had grown accustomed to expect from radical thinkers of the period. Edward deftly breached the citadel walls, and once inside opened the gates.

Said never wavered in his opposition to injustice. Like so many others, he could have easily gone over — to Arafat and the PLO leadership after they went down the path of the Bantustans; to the circle of academic pundits and TV talking heads who rationalize whatever Washington is doing; to the stable of apologists for the Arab regimes and oil sheiks.

He never retreated into the safe harbor of academic specialization, even though he remained on the cutting edge of literary criticism and cultural studies.

A Resilient Warrior

When leukemia struck in the early nineties, I assumed he would retire from the limelight to battle the disease in the recesses of his domestic life. The illness instead seems to have doubled his determination to persevere and wage simultaneous battles against it and the political disease of injustice, first and foremost in Israel/Palestine, but elsewhere as well.

Edward’s incredible resilience marveled friend and foe alike. Suffice it to say that he did something very special in his brief time in this world — he showed us that we need not be prisoners of our inherited (and acquired) identities.

Through steely determination and indefatigable effort he demonstrated that it is possible to transcend the bounds of national identity and still pursue peace and justice.

ATC 107, November-December 2003