Not even his dissent books of magisterial stature notably Orientalism or Culture and Imperialism would I regard as his utmost legacy nor his numerous essays and lectures that are variously distinguished monuments to scholarship. Rather Professor Edward Said’s greatest legacy is the younger ‘Saids’ he hatched worldwide. Said the scholar’s intervention in literary criticism and cultural politics diverted focus from class analysis of history to the study of discursive power of text and their representation; Said the public intellectual whose activism continued in the tradition of Gramsci and Sartre; Said the campaigner, Said the humanist were all showcased 3rd October 2003 at a commemorative conference arranged by Palestinian Society and the Sir Joseph Hotung Research Programme in Law, Human Rights and Peace Building in the Middle East both of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.
The sheer attendance coupled with the enthusiasm was awesome. Even after the Logan Hall had been overwhelmed, the young and old did not mind the gracing the floors in honour of the late scholar and to hear the eminent lecturers, journalists from both sides of the Atlantic at the one-day event. Stuart Hall held all our attention spelled bound the most. I was familiar with Hall on the pages of Transition but hearing him for the first time in flesh was orgasm. During the first coffee break, on the queue, I offered one old woman a space.
“That last lecture was highly wonderful isn’t it?” My head shook yes.
“Where is the man from?” Before I could answer wrongly, she intercepted,
“Jamaica?” My head shook yes again. She summarised the whole Hall lecture in one brilliant flourish, quoting here and there from memory. I stood there staring at her exquisite white hairs, her fallen face, her rich wrinkles, the clothes on her draping like a prop on a deserted stage. I started wondering whether Hall’s lecture: Edward Said and the Postcolonial Turn had been given to her earlier to review and memorise.
“Where are you from?” I suddenly heard.
“Oh Wole Soyinka.” I am not surprised how Nigeria has become synonymous with Wole in the international arena even Edward Said acknowledged him as “an advanced intellectual” yet criticised him for being “nativist” when he queried how much African is Ali Mazuri.
“I heard about the recent crisis in.” I cut in. “Yes in the oil producing regions”
“Shell isn’t it?”
“No. A trinity of evil: Shell, ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, the Nigerian government and the region’s leaders. The environmental degradation is so callous that it is affecting the quality of children being born nowadays.” I went on and on.
“What a pity. It seems as if it’s only Wole Soyinka speaking about it internationally?”
There are others too that I mentioned in the spirit of federal character.
“He mentioned it in his Climate of Fear. Have you read it?”
“Before I could grapple with one idea, he has given two more”. She dazzled me again with another synopsis. The woman na wire.
“Well I think Soyinka squandered that prestigious platform of Reith Lectures. He said nothing new, neither did he theorise sufficiently his ideas. Maybe being a busy man, he typed out the lectures on the plane from Lagos to Heathrow.”
We resumed the second session which was about how media ‘experts’ cover the Israel – Palestine question. In his own submissions, Graham Usher of The Economist and Middle East International said that most of the journalists who cover the crisis are connected with the Israeli establishment and therefore wilfully suppress information about Palestine. They never visit the hotspots and only report the Sharon narrative. He stressed that it was after much pressure that The Economist decided to have two reporters, one on each side. Their mission as journalists is not to cover Palestine since that entails keeping fact and fiction married but to “uncover” it.
Alexander Cockburn of Counterpunch and The Nation, chronicled how he met Edward Said in the mid-70s, how his demeanour contradicted stereotypes of Palestinians in currency: terrorist, who cannot speak English or when they do, it is always stained with blood. He saw Said as very trendy with a taste for chic wears. He told Said, “may be it is good to be in exile”. Beyond the hilarity, Cockburn discussed how the corporate media deliberately lie and misrepresent facts to reshuffle public opinion. As against Arundhati Roy in An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire, who argued that power knows the truth but just prefers otherwise, Cockburn said power immunises itself against knowing and it has an “unlimited capacity not to listen.” He buttressed his point with the Camp David agreements that they called peace between Barak and Arafat in Clinton’s memoir My Life. Ex-President Clinton he noted, has “a fantastic capacity to lie”. He dismissed the Wall Street Journal, though he worked there as ‘a stronghold of the neocons’, “demented from start to finish.” Had Said lived for one more year, Cockburn revealed, he would have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature because Stockholm wants to expand its criteria to include also literary criticism.
The third session on literature and literary criticism offered professors who were students of Edward Said. According to Ferial Ghazoul of American University in Cairo, “unlike Achebe who preferred to throw out novels [pertinent here Conrad’s Heart of Darkness] as racists, imperialists, Said would prefer them to be read for their aesthetic options but still cognizant of their power politics”. I agree with her fully. Conrad was one of Said’s favourite authors. His first credit was Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography. But Said did not extend the same treatment to Naipaul’s A bend in the River.
Palestine, Politics and History, the final session, was no less stimulating. In fact, one of the things intriguing about the conference was that no one’s interest waned. Even all the previous speakers were present till the end. Prof Ella Shohet, a lovable young professor, a Jew with a meek intelligence, made a swipe at post-Zionism (a feelamonger genre) as a unique ‘post’ without a past of colonialism. “How post is this post?” She started her lecture asking: how does one write about someone whose work, energies, dissent and campaigns on behalf of a people who were forbidden to talk about in America?” She continued delineating, how the Israeli academia derailed from democratic intellectualism by disqualifying the inflow of Said’s books and works on him. Of course, Said’s identity and reputation are bound in the vocabulary of Palestine liberation; this might secure the politics of their state as a criminal offence within. She concluded: some ideas are stamped with entry
visa, others travel underground and must be smuggled in.”
Shortly before the curtains were drawn, Mrs Said told the conference that besides calling her late husband ‘professor of terror’, ‘ambassador of terrorism’ and his office fired-bombed, there was a high level pressure to scrap the recently instituted Edward Said professorial chair in Columbia University, New York, and that the faculty should disclose those who sponsored the chair because they “fund terrorism”. It only braced the resolve of her listeners to take up cudgel against slander.
Then I asked a question that afterwards earned me two radios interview together with Mrs Said and Prof Stuart Hall. “Edward Said”, I began, “succeeded in showing us that there is a seductive relationship between institutions of knowledge and imperial projects. Why was Said and the Saidians silent on interrogating, deconstructing the Arab text, philosophies and laws that made inevitable, during their own period of empire, the dispossession, dehumanisation, degradation, displ
acement and enslavement of black Africans; contemporary evidence being the Dafur, Sudan genocide and the unsung maltreatment of blacks in Egypt, Tunisia, Mauritania, Morocco, Libya, etc.? Or was the western instrumentalization of knowledge for the colonial foray just unique?” The speakers juggled the microphone several times to determine who shall answer last. The question nevertheless remains unresolved.