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All Things Considered: September 25, 2003

Leukemia Claims Palestinian Advocate Edward Said


Edward Said, an advocate of the Palestinian cause, a professor of literature at the Columbia University, a critic who wrote authoritatively of Conrad and Beethoven, died in New York City last night at age 67 after battling leukemia for many years. Said, who was born in Jerusalem, was best known for his 1978 book "Orientalism," which, for Said, had many definitions. One was, `a style of thought based on a distinction between the Orient and the Occident.' That style often reduced and simplified the exotic other. He saw it at work in a lot of post-9/11 writing, which he criticized on this program last year.


Professor EDWARD SAID (Columbia University): The hijackers were identified as Muslims, and that becomes the symbol by which we talk about the Islamic world. And into it is read all sorts of expert books about the mind of Islam, the society of Islam, what went wrong, why are they doing these things, forgetting that we're really talking about 1.3 billion people and that it would be just as appropriate to talk about the problems of Christianity when we discuss fascism.

SIEGEL: Edward Said was a friend to Homi Bhabha, professor of English and American Literature at Harvard, who remembers him as a man of great tastes in all things.

Professor HOMI BHABHA (Harvard University): From literature to philosophy to politics to music, that wide range and landscape of intellectual interests and beliefs fed straight into the kind of generous and cosmopolitan person that he was. From the way he dressed--which was in itself an aesthetic experience, enormously elegant, enormously handsome. I feel I just have to say this given the way in which disease ravaged him, but even in the midst of that he was alive intellectually, he was alive physically. He really was a live wire.

SIEGEL: What thrust Edward Said into prominence beyond the circles of academic theory was his advocacy for the Palestinians. Shibley Telhami, a Palestinian-American scholar who grew up in Israel, said Edward Said was a vital spokesman for the Palestinian cause 20 and 30 years ago--a time when Yasser Arafat was vilified even more so than now in American eyes. Said, by way of contrast, was passionate, articulate, urbane.

Mr. SHIBLEY TELHAMI (Scholar): He probably was the first really to have an impact on the image of the Palestinians on a large scale in America in the '70s and '80s. And he encouraged a lot of others to follow suit in a way, but there were very few people who had that capacity at that time. He was a professor of an Ivy League university who looked the part. Who looked, quote, "like us," and spoke like us, only more eloquently.

SIEGEL: At Arafat's invitation, Said joined the Palestine National Council. Back in 1988 he spoke in support of the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, and of the unity the Palestinians had achieved.


Mr. SAID: I mean, I think the search for Palestinians who are not connected with the nationalist movement as a whole simply don't exist anymore. And the last four months have eliminated the distinction between Palestinians who are actively involved and Palestinians who are not. I think we are all involved now because of what the occupation--in particular these last days during the great uprising--has done to us.

SIEGEL: Shibley Telhami says in later years Edward Said became more of a rejectionist.

Mr. TELHAMI: First he became disillusioned with Arafat, in part because Said recognized the authoritarianism of Arafat. And anyway therefore he rejected what was coming out of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority and Arafat. But he also rejected what was on the table for the peace process, including the Oslo agreements, including the so-called recent road map and American diplomacy in the region.

SIEGEL: In the year 2000 Said threw a rock at an Israeli guardhouse near the Lebanese border. That provoked criticism at Columbia, but the university declined to censure him. Professor Homi Bhabha of Harvard says that while Said was passionate in support of Palestinian nationalism, he was equally passionate about justice and was just as skeptical of the borders between nations as he was of the boundaries between academic disciplines. Edward Said wrote of exile, a subject which may have begun as something autobiographical, but Homi Bhabha says it was something that became philosophical for Said.

Prof. BHABHA: In "Reflections on Exile" he writes, he says, `The exiled knows that in a secular and contingent world, homes are always provisional. Borders and barriers which enclose us within the safety of familiar territory can also become prisons and are often defended beyond reason or necessity. Exiles cross borders, break barriers of thought and experience.'

SIEGEL: Professor Homi Bhabha, reading the words of Edward Said, who died last night in New York City.


MICHELE NORRIS (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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