Trapped for the moment in the West, what can Edward Said do for the only place he ever felt he 'belonged', his native Palestine? Jennifer Wallace met him in London
Intellectuals ought to be attuned to the interests of the weak and the disadvantaged," Edward Said, one of the western world's most outspoken intellectuals, declared to me, as we sat sipping Perrier water from cut-crystal glasses, served on a silver tray. Said had just jetted in from Paris the night before and was staying in what must be one of London's smartest hotels, in Knightsbridge. One of the hotel staff showed us into a large private sitting-room, which she described as a "salon," where we chatted about the suffering of the Palestinian people while enjoying a spectacular view of Hyde Park. It all seemed slightly bizarre.
But then Edward Said is a creature of contradictions. In a recent flurry of acrimonious correspondence in the London Review of Books, he was accused, among other things, of criticising the Middle East peace process while remaining safely "within the precincts of Morningside Heights" in New York and of preferring the harsh realities of Benjamin Netanyahu's Israeli government to the deceptive compromises of former prime minister Shimon Peres and the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. One jibe was that Said had "muzzled his independent intelligence" in previous years for the Palestinian national struggle. But the blatant untruth of that last attack is indicative of the difficulties with which all his critics are faced. They cannot pin him down, cannot place him, cannot deal with the variety and polarity of his interests.
The chief problem for critics is in comprehending and reconciling his two high-profile roles. Although he has lived in the United States since the age of 15, Said, now 61, is Palestinian by birth and from 1977-91 served as a member of the Palestinian National Council, the interim Palestinian government in exile. He translated the Palestinian Declaration of Independence into English in 1988. Having left the PNC five years ago, he has become the most virulent critic of the Oslo peace agreement, causing the Arafat regime recently to ban his books. But through all this time, he has also worked as professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, writing books about the novelist Joseph Conrad and literary theory and teaching what he takes pleasure in describing, in his East Coast campus accent, as "canonical authors". In May, he will deliver a series of lectures at Cambridge University on opera.
It is this heady mixture of dissident politics and apparent privilege which leaves critics nonplussed. Said recognises his unique position. "I belong to a kind of establishment of sorts, so I know what that world is like," he acknowledges. "They feel they can bring me back to the fold because they say 'you're really one of us, not one of those people'. I become enraged and I become even more inflammatory, and I reveal even more of their horrible secrets."
Life in the establishment began early. Said's father was effectively a "tycoon", with a stationery and books business that spanned the Middle East. Said was sent to St George's School - "basically a colonial school" - in Jerusalem, and later to Victoria College in Cairo, alma mater of King Hussein of Jordan and Omar Sharif, a contemporary. But in December 1947, when the British divided Jerusalem and Palestinians needed passes to cross from one part of the city to the other, the Said family were compelled to leave Palestine and set up home in Egypt. And it was then, as a refugee, that Said first encountered the contradictions of exile which still shape his character today.
One memory in particular is still vivid. He was stopped one evening as he was walking over the grounds of the British colonial club in Cairo of which his family were members. "'You realise that we don't allow Arabs here,'" he remembers the club secretary told him. "So I tried to say that we were members, but he wouldn't let me speak. He just said 'Arabs are not allowed in here. Get out!' That was the first time I realised that to be an Arab in a country dominated by someone else was, if not a crime, then a misdemeanour."
For the first decade of his academic career in the US, Said tried to separate his personal political experience from his literary criticism. Although he had frequent conversations with Lionel Trilling, who had appointed him at Columbia, he found that "my background was always left out of the discussion". But by the 1970s, especially as a result of the post-1967 formation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, he decided that the division between the two sides of his life just could not be maintained and it was time, as he put it then, to "rub culture's nose in the mud of politics". The result was Orientalism (1978), a "subversive" book which still polarises both university campuses and political organisations. Its thesis is that since the Napoleonic era, orientalism can be thought of "as a western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient" and that the "relationship between the Occident and the Orient is one of power" in which European identity depends upon its self-created "superiority" over non-Europeans. The book has influenced thinking in literary, feminist and ethnic studies as well as anthropology, history and politics. Said himself went on, in Culture and Imperialism (1993), to write of the unwritten imperialist background behind such canonical texts as Jane Austen's Mansfield Park.
Homi Bhabha, the critic who "refines" orientalism to explore literature which crosses cultures but whose work, as Said agrees, is not nearly so readable, has coined the term "hybridity" to describe inter-cultural identity. The term could describe Said's puzzling identity as an exile. But Said prefers to see his position in a positive light. It allows him to be subversive in the manner which he sees as characteristic of the intellectual. The intellectual, the subject of his 1993 Reith lectures, is defined as "exile and marginal, as amateur, and as the author of a language that tries to speak the truth to power".
Three years on from the Reith lectures, does Said think the role of the intellectual is waning? "I think it is increasingly hard to have the capacity or the opportunity to intervene in intellectual debates if one isn't certified as an insider," he says.
It is this fear of finding his independent opinions compromised or corrupted by "powerful interest" groups which has partly prevented Said from entering politics full-time. His former student Hanan Ashrawi, whose doctoral thesis he supervised, has taken a very different route, now serving as minister for higher education in Arafat's government. "It's good that people of her stripe are in power or at least close to power," Said concedes. "But it, alas, means a number of compromises with that very power." Arafat's government, he thinks, is riddled with corruption and has sold out utterly to the Israelis in return for a notional peace. "It's a government that puts people in jail, tortures them to death, there's no freedom of expression - well," he says of Ashrawi, "if you can serve in a government like that, fine, do it, but for me, I find it wrong."
Rather than becoming involved in the murky but necessary world of politics, Said prefers to criticise from the sidelines, giving "people an opportunity of understanding how many lies are being told". But does he not have any positive suggestions for the Palestinians? Well, a few. Having spent time in South Africa and established connections with the ANC, he believes in an international cultural boycott of the Israelis to "make them face the truth of their own past". Dialogue with the Israeli government or mainstream parties is pointless, he thinks, because the Labour party of Peres is just as bad as the Likud of Netanyahu. It was Peres who invaded Lebanon and who organised the increase of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. At least, he feels, Netanyahu is "slightly more open and honest" in his treatment, or oppression, of Palestinians. Rather than talking with politicians, he would talk to sympathetic Israelis, independent writers and thinkers and journalists. "You have to gain a constituency in the opposing camps," he allows, "but a constituency in which you don't compromise your own goals".
For the moment, however, Said is trapped in the West and unheard among the Palestinians. The banning of his books from Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem has prompted a letter of protest from the president of International PEN and other writers to Yasser Arafat, but there has been no change in the decision to censor him. To return to Palestine is an impossibility. The Israelis would probably refuse him entry, and the Palestinian government would love to throw him into jail. Besides, although he admits that it is only as a child in Palestine that he has ever felt that he has "belonged" anywhere, he does not believe that at the moment Palestine offers a home to which he could return. "If I went back, I'd just go back to make trouble," he confesses.
In any case he now cannot move far from the US hospital that is treating his serious illness. Diagnosed with leukaemia in 1991, he grapples each day with the chemotherapy the sophisticated first-world hospital provides to keep the disease at bay. By the end of our hour's chat, he is visibly tired, his still handsome face now greying. "Sometimes you get tired of the whole thing and just wish that it would end," he confesses in a subdued voice. "I guess I'm committed to going on".
We shuffle out of our "salon", contemplating the Middle Eastern mess and the frustrating decline of the body's powers. But Said soon perks up. "Do you recommend Troilus and Cressida or John Gabriel Borkman?" I realise that, with only one night in London, Edward Said is planning his evening's entertainment. I tentatively suggest Ibsen. "Yes, I think I will try the Borkman," he says, and, with a surprisingly firm handshake, he bids me goodbye.
Jennifer Wallace is director of studies in English, Peterhouse, University of Cambridge.