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Edward W. Said: Scholar and Activist

You cannot put a label on Edward W. Said. This University Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, US, is also a historian of ideas whose dazzlingly original interpretations on Orientalism have given history writing a new stimulus. But that's not all. Said is a political activist as well. A Palestinian by birth, he has been deeply involved in Palestine's confrontation with Zionism and Israel. A gifted musician, at present Said is working on a new interpretation of Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio. All these have made it difficult to understand the man. He has been marginalized by the American mainstream, dubbed the 'professor of terror' by some, and at the same time lionized as 'the defender of Islam' by others. But how does Said see himself? 'As a teacher,' he says. Excerpts of an interview.

By Damayanti Datta


Q: You may have always been a teacher, but you are also a prolific writer and an activist. How do you reconcile all these identities? In which role do you feel most comfortable?
A: I think the role of a teacher. I've been teaching now for almost forty years. And I've always learnt during the actual class. There's something that eludes me when I read and think without the presence of students. So I've always thought of my classes not as a routine to go through but rather an experience of investigation and discovery. And I depend very heavily on reactions from my students. In the early days when I started teaching, I used to overprepare - plan every minute of a class. Later, because I had such bright students at Columbia I began to find out that the students' comments would stimulate lines of thought and discussion that I hadn't expected before. And very often that found its way into my writing.

Q: You've always focused on the problems of the Arab world, especially Palestine. But as an exile in America do you ever feel that you are orating into a void? How interested are, say, your students in the issues that engage you most?
A: In the beginning I certainly felt that I was only addressing my students. Later, as I began to write politically, I was conscious of a larger audience. Not my students. I have never used my classes to talk about my political activism. The classroom is sacrosanct to a certain degree. But the more I wrote the more I discovered that by writing one could get an audience, especially on the question of Palestine. Since there was a dearth of voices, I was able to create, in a certain sense, a kind of constituency for what I was saying and it became quite large. The latest phase is that, since the early nineties I've been writing two columns a month for an Arabic newspaper. For the first time now I have a regular Arab readership, which has been very important for me. My work is so often translated into many different languages and I go to countries and places where the terms of debate and understanding of what I've written are so different that I'm constantly surprised. But I've never had the feeling of speaking into the void. I think the audiences I get in universities and academic associations, professional groups and activists are very stimulating and I love the debate.

Q: Your work on Orientalism has profoundly affected the writing of Indian history. But has your work affected the historians of the Arab world?
A: In the Arab world, sadly, my work has really not been as deeply understood as I think it has been elsewhere. There I am read as a kind of defender of Islam against the evils of the West. Which, I think, is a caricature. The theoretical side is missing there. In the Arab world there is not much interest in material that isn't directly about them. A new historical consciousness, however, is slowly emerging and most of them are affected by the kind of criticism I've done. In Beirut last July there was a conference - I think the first of its kind in the Arab world - devoted to my work. It was called 'Towards a critical culture'. But that's a tiny sample. Arab intellectual life is in a state of torpor, political asphyxiation, and indifference. So it is really among the younger Arab intellectuals in the Diaspora where I think the change will come.

Q: You've been educated in orthodox and elite institutions. How did you develop into an anti-establishment intellectual from such a background?
A: You see, my background was always conflicted. Before I left for the US, I had a colonial education and I felt out of place. There was something that didn't correspond between what I felt to be myself and that kind of education. I've always felt that two educations were going on - the conventional education at the school and the self-education in order to satisfy the other part. That almost always produced rebellion of one sort or the other. I was always known in school as too clever or too smart to be thrown out but too unorthodox to be considered one of the prize students. In the end I was thrown out at the age of 15 for my political involvements. So, I was sent to very elite schools in America. There it began all over again. During my 11 years as a student there I never developed close relationships.

Q: When you write, for whom do you write? For yourself, for other intellectuals, for policy makers, for activists, for whom?
A: I write most of the time for an occasion rather than for a person. I certainly don't address policy makers. My readers tend to be people on the left, who are outside the consensus and looking for alternatives to the prevailing world view. For Arab readers, I try to reach out as widely as possible, for there I feel that I'm trying to change opinion. But, I also write for myself. For instance, the memoir I'm writing now is really a search for a lost time and those on music satisfy my own long-standing interest in these issues.

Q: Some people allege that because of your influence, Indian history writing has been derailed. Too much attention is being paid to literary and aesthetic representations of colonial rule than, say, to social, political, or economic domination. How would you respond to that?
A: I hope not. I'm nothing if not historically based. I've always said that the study of literature is basically a historical discipline, no use in separating one from the other. There's a constant tension between the world of aesthetic and the world of historical action, which I am interested in explaining. I've always had an aversion to theoretical web-spinning, but one can't neglect the theoretical and the aesthetic - as important components of human experience. My views are more inclusive than exclusive. I don't think of the study of literature or of history as separate or competing: they support each other. The whole process of writing, whether of literature or history, involves sifting through evidence and in the end arriving at interpretations. I would find it very surprising and even perverse, if I was understood as derailing the study of history.


This interview was given during Edward Said's first visit to India at the end of December 1997 - beginning of January 1998. Copyright: 1997 by The Telegraph, Calcutta, ABP Ltd Co. Reprinted by permission.

D. Datta was an affiliated fellow at the IIAS from 5 April - 2 May 1998. She was a guest lecturer of history at Jadavpur University (Calcutta) and the assistant editor at The Telegraph, Calcutta.

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