Exiles often have conflicting feelings about their adoptive society, and Edward Said was no exception. As a Palestinian in the United States, he recognized the country’s pervasive racism and violence, but he also knew its educational system made his career as a renowned and prosperous thinker possible. His life was indeed filled with paradoxes and contradictions. He was one of the twentieth century’s most influential anti-colonial writers, who mostly studied his colonizers’ literature; a proponent of Palestinian liberation who wrote in English and mostly for English-speaking audiences. Few statements capture his embrace of such tensions more than his surprising claim in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz that he was now the only heir to the Jewish tradition of radical criticism. “I’m the last Jewish intellectual,” he exclaimed. “You don’t know anyone else. All your other Jewish intellectuals are now suburban squires.… I’m the last one.”
As comical as this statement can seem, Timothy Brennan’s new biography, Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said, suggests it captures Said’s unique place in public life: a Middle Eastern exile who provided an original explanation for American imperialism, powerfully condemned it, and successfully reached mass audiences. By telling Said’s life, from his childhood in British-ruled Palestine to his death in New York in 2003, Places of Mind seeks to explain his unique ability to blend intellectual production and public activism. Impressively researched and powerfully written, it charts Said’s many triumphs: his revolutionary scholarly writings, which became classics and are taught decades after their publication; his rise as a media celebrity (an unusual fate for an academic); and his role in making the Palestinian national movement a source of international fascination. For Brennan, who was Said’s student and is an accomplished literary scholar in his own right, his teacher was everything a humanist should be. By embracing his status as an “outsider”—an exile, a Palestinian, an Arab—he successfully infused America’s mainstream with new ideas and political visions.
Yet by claiming to be a “Jewish” intellectual, Said was doing more than placing himself in the company of giants like Franz Kafka or Theodor Adorno. What he recognized, and what Places of Mind sometimes misses, was the tragedy of his career: how by his life’s end, the causes for which he fought were ultimately defeated. The Palestinian liberation movement, whose cause animated so much of Said’s writing, was headed toward ruin (a reality that he was among the very few to realize). And the humanities, whose flourishing made his career possible, were entering a downward spiral from which they show no sign of recovery. Reflecting on Said’s life, in short, is not only a chance to celebrate groundbreaking achievements. It is also an invitation to recognize, soberly, some of our era’s heartbreaking misfortunes.
Colonialism is a brutal business, and this was certainly true of British rule in the Middle East. Whenever locals protested the empire’s authority, as Palestinians did during the so-called “Great Revolt” of 1936 to 1939, British troops responded by demolishing entire neighborhoods, imprisoning thousands of civilians in concentration camps, and putting hundreds to the gallows. Like many other colonialists, however, the British also sustained their rule in the region by offering alluring opportunities to some of their subjects. Those willing to cooperate could gain access to British markets, find jobs in the colonial bureaucracy, and send their children to European-run schools. These were the carrots that Europe’s “civilizing mission” dangled in front of its subjects’ noses: Submit to us, colonialists promised, embrace our language and culture, and maybe, one day, some of you would control your own fate.
This was the duality that made the young Said. Born in British-ruled Jerusalem in 1935, much of his childhood took place in the shadow of the Palestinian national trauma. While his parents, Hilda and Wadie, rarely talked politics at home, other relatives often protested their people’s fate. The price of political oppression was even more apparent once British troops were replaced by the armed forces of the Jewish Yishuv, which decimated the Palestinian national movement. In 1947, Said’s parents fled to Cairo, which rapidly became home to many hungry and dispossessed Palestinian refugees. At the same time, colonialism helped cushion the Saids from some of this brutality. Not only were they affluent merchants, but they also benefited from being Anglican, a tiny minority that enjoyed preferential treatment by British authorities. Said’s father supplied office materials to the British (which ran the formally independent Egypt), and Said was sent to study in the elite schools of British missionaries. Nothing demonstrated colonialism’s contradictory imprint on his family more than his regal first name, Edward, which his mother chose because she admired the Prince of Wales—a fact that Said bemoaned his entire life.
When Said’s parents sent him to the U.S. at age 15, he would find a similar pattern of simultaneous subjugation and inclusion. In his years as a student, first at an elite prep school in New England and then at Princeton, Said was alienated by the other students’ oppressive self-absorption. Almost all white, they were confident in the superiority of their Anglo-Saxon heritage and considered Arab culture primitive. As he put it in a note uncovered by Brennan, “to be a Levantine” in the U.S. meant “not to be able to create but only to imitate.” At the same time, the postwar U.S. system of higher education provided remarkable opportunities. After Princeton, Said enrolled in Harvard’s graduate program in European literature, and in 1963, he was hired as a professor at Columbia. Ivy League prestige, as it often does, opened many doors, and Said quickly learned how to prosper in the world of U.S. letters. He published a book on Joseph Conrad, built ties to the New York literary world, and began contributing essays to magazines like The Nation. For all the whiteness and Euro-centrist ethos of American academia, Said cherished his success in it. To his parents’ dismay, he preferred to spend most of his summers in New York, feverishly churning out academic writings.
paradoxes of imperial power do not get much attention in Places of Mind,
and its first chapters say frustratingly little about the colonial Middle East
or the Cold War U.S. This is a missed opportunity, as the
similarities between the two systems would later become crucial to Said’s intellectual
and political agenda. Most important, both the British and Americans elevated
certain minorities (Christians in the Middle East, Jews in the U.S.)
to justify their subjugation of others (Muslims under British rule, Black
people and other people of color under white U.S. hegemony). The two cultures also
similarly viewed their elites’ culture as universal, a sacred trust they had to
bestow upon humanity. Both British and American elites were therefore eager to
demonstrate that “outsiders” like Said, who appreciated the brilliance of Western
culture, could join their club, as long as they fully assimilated and
“overcame” their non-Western origins. It is likely that these parallels informed
Said’s later insistence that the U.S. emulated European empires. And
it is clear that his effective navigation in both inspired his later claim that
colonialism was not just oppressive but also creative, that hegemonic cultures could
possess a certain allure even for their victims.
Said’s career up to the mid-1960s was headed in a predictable direction. Groomed by and for WASP institutions, he was on the path to become a footnote in their history, yet another scholar who studied the European canon and reproduced elites in his teaching. But the convergence of two revolutions, one intellectual and one political, soon upended this trajectory. Harnessing their energies, Said went on to produce one of the twentieth century’s most important intellectual events.
In its most impressive chapters, Places of Mind reconstructs Said’s participation in these two revolutions. The first was post-structuralism. Under the influence of philosopher Jacques Derrida, a group of French scholars launched blistering attacks on Europe’s intellectual traditions. Even after the Enlightenment, they claimed, Europe remained obsessed with enshrining hierarchies and binaries (between men and women, “primitive” and “civilized”); the most urgent task was to dismantle those. While Said is not always associated with this school today, he was among the first to embrace it in the English-speaking world. He took part in the early conferences on post-structuralism in the U.S. and was one of the first to utilize its concepts in his writings. He borrowed especially from Michel Foucault and his provocative depiction of the link between knowledge and power. Artists and thinkers, Foucault claimed, were rarely individuals who challenged authority. Most of the time, they reproduced and reinforced their society’s structures of authority, making them seem natural and even benevolent.
The second project that Said joined, and for which he became especially famous, was the Palestinians’ renewed struggle for self-determination. After the shock of the 1967 war, which initiated Israel’s military rule over large Palestinian territories, Palestinian activists and leaders sought to make their cause the center of international attention. They appealed to international institutions and launched multiple violent attacks on Israel to keep their struggle in the headlines. While Said had little personal interest in returning to Palestine (by that point he considered his exile a permanent condition), he joined this campaign and quickly became its most prominent international figure. He published fiery essays that compared the Palestinian struggle to other anti-colonial struggles in Asia and Africa and helped launch organizations that called for an end to the West’s support for Israel. His eloquence and rare status as a Palestinian at the center of U.S. letters made him into an icon. Palestinian politicians and leaders, some of whom he met in person during a prolonged academic stay in Beirut, sought his advice; in 1974, he helped edit and translate Yasser Arafat’s historic address to the United Nations, the first by any Palestinian leader in that forum. Three years later, Said became a member of the Palestinian National Council, the coordinating organization of the Palestinian national movement.
Bringing these two projects together was hardly an obvious undertaking. Post-structuralism’s philosophical musings, with its notoriously impenetrable jargon, seemed worlds apart from the blood and sweat of daily Palestinian resistance. Yet in his monumental Orientalism (1978), Said fused these two projects to provide a new understanding of Western attitudes toward the Middle East. Drawing on his own experiences as a beneficiary and victim of colonialism, Said claimed that Europe’s colonial domination in the Middle East did not rely merely on military or political might. Rather, it was a vast intellectual project, in which countless scholars and novelists voluntarily rushed to explore, interpret, and explain why Europe had to dominate the “Orient.” Said further argued that the Orientalist project was in fact foundational to Europe’s own self-understanding. As Europeans sought to define themselves as rational, industrious, and self-controlling, they simultaneously identified the Orient’s people as emotional, lazy, and pathologically obsessed with sex.
This claim about colonialism’s centrality to Europe’s identity would have been enough to make Orientalism an intellectual bombshell. But Said went even further, using his literary study to explain the aggression of modern American diplomacy. Said argued that the collapse of formal European empires after World War II did little to diminish the orientalist mindset. Rather, orientalism continued to flourish in the U.S., where journalists, artists, and scholars conflated their country with a “civilization” that they contrasted with the Middle East’s alleged primitivism and fanaticism. Indeed, Said maintained that U.S. diplomacy in the region, and especially its unwavering support for Israel, reproduced Europe’s earlier racism, arrogance, and myopia. U.S. diplomats and their Israeli allies inherited the view of Arabs as inhuman and thus dismissed their political demands as emotional and even animalistic outbursts. Said’s most scorching invective was directed at Middle East specialists like Princeton scholar Bernard Lewis, whom he acidly described as the intellectual foot soldiers of U.S. imperialism. Their writings about the Arabs’ supposed fanaticism, he wrote in a related essay, provided “not history, not scholarship, but direct political violence.”
Said, in short, exposed how knowledge and art worked in the service of oppressive power. And in so doing, he forever transformed the meaning of the word orientalist: Rather than a term for a scholar of the Middle East, it now became an adjective describing a racist and paternalist worldview.
Orientalism’s sweeping claims could hardly leave readers indifferent, and Brennan masterfully traces both the admiration for and backlash to Said’s masterwork. Conservative commentators predictably dismissed Said as an ignorant trespasser who failed to understand the West’s greatness as he downplayed the orient’s failings. In a lengthy review, Lewis lambasted the book as “insouciant,” “outrageous,” and “reckless,” inaugurating a rhetorical dual with Said that would continue for decades. Even more sympathetic readers highlighted the book’s limitations. Scholars like the French historian Maxime Rodinson noted that Orientalism was far too sweeping in approach. The study of the Orient, he noted, was a diverse field, and many of its proponents hated empire. Other supportive readers questioned the book’s focus on ideology and representation. Wasn’t colonialism ultimately driven by economic exploitation? The critique that stung the most came from Arab and Pakistani Marxists, who lamented that Said unintentionally strengthened Muslim conservatives. The Syrian philosopher and activist Sadiq Al Azm, for example, argued that by depicting European knowledge as hopelessly tainted, the book “poured cold water” on the effort to popularize Marxist ideas in the Middle East and bolstered lazy anti-Western sentiments.
These misgivings, however, did little to diminish Orientalism’s impact on the international republic of letters. Appearing in 30 languages, it was widely celebrated as a fresh and sophisticated assault on Western arrogance, one equal to anti-colonial classics like Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth (1961). “Here for the first time,” Palestinian historian Tarif Khalidi wrote, “was a book by one of us telling the empire basically to go f— itself.” In a world reeling from the manifold disasters perpetrated by the U.S. in Vietnam, understanding the connections between Western self-righteousness and violence seemed more urgent than ever. Said helped inspire the work of countless literary scholars, philosophers, historians, and political scientists who mapped colonialism’s intellectual legacies in the present. He was the founding figure of what in the 1980s became known as “postcolonial studies.” The impact of this intellectual project spilled beyond academic circles. After Orientalism, theater programs, museum catalogs, and Hollywood films began to adopt less Western-focused perspectives.
According to Brennan, Said in fact infused the humanities with renewed significance. Works like Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism (1993), which expanded its insight to more novels, demonstrated the centrality of literature and art to political discourse. Said turned the traditional Marxist view of culture on its head. He claimed that novels and images were not mere expression of social domination but their very heart; they informed how journalists covered world affairs, how citizens thought about politics, and how politicians enacted policies. Countless students and scholars came to view the study of stories, movies, and representation as political action, and journalists the world over courted Said, endlessly asking for his take on political matters.
Places of Mind’s last chapters trace Said’s rising prominence to the position of celebrity. As a testament to his triumph, they catalog the mind-numbingly abundant prizes and honors he received, describe his never-ending stream of interviews on radio and TV, and depict his collaborations with many famous artists, such as the conductor Daniel Barenboim. Yet along with the rapid ascent came frustration. Said’s publications may have made a splash, but they were unable to materially advance the Palestinian national cause, which suffered defeat after defeat.
For Said, stories were essential to the struggle for Palestinian self-determination. If Americans so enthusiastically lavished Israel with weapons and supported its cruel occupation, he claimed, it was not out of some hard-nosed calculation, but because they bought into a particular narrative, one in which persecuted Jews had heroically defeated their evil Arab neighbors. According to Said, this story was sustained not only by relentlessly pro-Israel politicians, magazines, and TV shows but by the fact that Americans were rarely exposed to Palestinian perspectives. Said noted that this was true even for those who were deeply critical of Israel’s actions. Noam Chomsky’s Fateful Triangle (1983), for example, condemned U.S. diplomats and Israeli politicians for enabling the horrific massacres of Palestinians in Lebanon, but it, too, relied on Western sources and did not include Palestinian testimonies.
Alongside his campaign against the orientalist tradition, Said therefore launched an effort to open new spaces for Palestinians in the Western imagination. As he wrote in the essay “Permission to Narrate” (1983), the task was to forge “a socially acceptable narrative” that would allow people to empathize with Palestinians and view them as fellow humans. Venturing beyond European literature, Said sought to integrate Arab perspectives into the Western literary canon. While most of his academic work remained focused on English and French authors, he also began studying Palestinian writers like Mahmoud Darwish and helped facilitate their translation into Western languages. And he collaborated with photographer Jean Mohr on After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives (1986), a collection of images and short texts that depicted Palestinian people in everyday activities.
Yet readers largely ignored After the Last Sky and similar projects, and most certainly did not lavish it with the prizes and honors that were showered on Orientalism. They were mostly interested in the analysis of the West’s colonialism; oppression’s victims were an afterthought. Said was painfully aware that this part of his work had limited impact, and during the 1980s and 1990s he became progressively despairing about the prospects of Palestinian liberation. “The road forward is blocked,” he ruefully wrote, “the instruments of the present are insufficient, [and] we can’t get back to the past.” His gloom only grew after the Palestinian leadership signed a tentative peace agreement with Israel in 1993 (the so-called Oslo Accords), which Said predicted would not lead to statehood but to deepening occupation. By the end of his life, he was politically isolated; his books were even banned in the Palestinian Authority over his criticism of Yasser Arafat’s authoritarianism.
Said’s high hopes for literary studies—that they would lead the expansion of the world’s political options—also proved fleeting. Said’s career, in fact, was not only a rare exception but also a product of broad intellectual sources. It emerged from the 1970s and 1980s, when debates about the literary canon roiled institutions of higher learning and figures like Paul de Man and Alan Bloom were famous. But by the early twenty-first century, the humanities began to decline. Students were beginning to abandon them, a trickle that would soon become a flood. In such a world, Said was quickly becoming a monument for a passing era. He was one of the last literary scholars to gain the public’s attention; when he lamented being the “last Jewish intellectual,” he in part recognized he was not likely to be followed by others. His increasing alienation from his adoptive country was reflected in the location of his grave. At his request, it stands not in New York, where he spent most of his career, but in Beirut, where he was only an occasional visitor.
If Said’s words still resonate today, it is because the evils he helped expose are as powerful as ever. In the two decades since the 2001 attacks, orientalist sentiments have only intensified: Western politicians still treat Muslims and Arabs as fanatical terrorists, and Western media still perpetuate those narratives. As historian Maha Nassar recently noted*, of the thousands of pieces run by The New York Times and The Washington Post on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, barely 1 percent were written by Palestinians. The grip of orientalism on U.S. knowledge production has in fact only tightened since Said’s passing. In 2002, the historian Daniel Pipes, who began his career with a campaign against Orientalism, founded the organization Campus Watch, which has targeted scholars who express sympathy with Palestinians. The case of Fresno State University in California was probably the most on-the-nose expression of Said’s lasting relevance. In 2016, the university’s leadership posted a job ad for its newly created Edward Said chair in Middle Eastern studies, only to abruptly call off the search by summer of 2017.
Just like his life, Said’s legacy is a paradox. His ideas are relevant exactly because their political impact was limited: The vast campaign he launched in scholarship, the media, and political activism could not dislodge orientalist bigotry. Similarly, Said looms so large in the humanities because a career like his is now hard to imagine. Rather than blazing a path for other literary scholars to become influential political commentators, he turned out to be among the last humanists with a public presence. Those who share in his quest for a more equal and humane world still face the question that always vexed him: If one has a humanist story to tell, how to make others listen?
* An earlier version of this article misspelled Maha Nassar’s name.