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The English Professor Who Linked Literature to World Politics

by Julia Simpson-Urrutia

Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said, by Timothy Brennan (Bloomsbury, 2021)

Timothy Brennan’s in-depth study of Edward Said shows that people will still argue about Edward Said, still be confused as to what he represented, perhaps for the simple reason that no one of his stunning backgrounds and immense capabilities has stepped in to fill the void. Said’s life work shows how an individual from a demonized ethnicity can use his talent and intelligence to command respect and challenge attitudes for what he represents.

Said represented the Middle East.

He is an almost mythical presence now to readers with Middle Eastern ties. This American Christian Palestinian born in Jerusalem, raised in Cairo, steeped in American traditions, educated at Princeton and Harvard, fluent in French, English and Arabic and capable of classical piano performances as a professional, was the educated spokesperson for an abused, exploited and misrepresented people. His lifetime pursuit was not just to hold up the standard for humanism in the Middle East, to challenge “the anti-Semitism [that] had shifted from Jews to Arabs in the modern West,” but to be the advocate of symbiotic intellectual conversations with the goal of promoting truth and justice, particularly in relation to the Middle East. In essence, he was a constructive critic, an intellectual advocate for assessing the weight of philology in cultural intercourse.

The Middle East has traditionally been represented from the 19th through 21st century news as a place of warring religious factions, yet Said—in a sense like Gandhi—considered himself an “honorary” Muslim and was certainly no enemy of Judaism, considering that so many of his friends were Jews of great intellect, like Noam Chomsky. He could not have been otherwise to have made the stand he did for the inherent dignity of Middle Eastern culture and to expose its exploitation by the West. It is one of the all-time ironies that a place on Earth honored as the cradle of civilization is more devastated with Western-sponsored bombings, which the “first world” justifies for the region’s alleged incapability for democracy, than any other geographical location on earth.

Brennan, for whom Said was both mentor and friend, has woven a powerful biographical study, showing the sometimes-wandering steps that led Said to settle on teaching English literature as his profession. Given the debatable reputation of a career in English literature as a powerful political force, it was a momentous decision.

In Said’s initial major work, Beginnings, the first book to receive the Lionel Trilling Award at Columbia University (where the author was employed as English professor), Said used his intellectual pursuits in philology to show how the development of the novel in the West is a beginning that shapes the way we humans evaluate experiences, art, and knowledge. The influence of Vico, Valery, Nietzsche, Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Husserl and Foucault can all be felt. Orientalism, published in 1978, deals with the portrayal of the Middle East through the Western lens. Brennan’s assessment of the misunderstandings that “plagued the book’s reception” demonstrates the need for the book to have been written in the first place. Edward Said realized that only literary critics “can explain how a mania like Orientalism” impacts “mass density and influential power” and thus shapes politics.

Who can deny that the interpretive prism of humanities is political? Herein lies the key to Said’s defense of all that was Middle Eastern, including Islam even though he was not himself a Muslim. When superpowers wish to defend and continue exploitation of a region, the most useful tools are those of projected images. Perspective, taking place through images, stories and language, clearly props up exploitation. The diagnosis of any culture as backward and in need of being managed will easily take place through the arts, influencing audiences.

Before Said, no Middle Easterner had written a work in English that probed Western attitude towards the Middle East through secular expression with the express goal of demonstrating that a one-sided perspective must be unjust. No Middle Eastern intellectual, until his time, was able to capture the attention of the world’s most respected writers and thinkers on the subject of how that representation had come to hold sway.

Since the time of Ibn Khaldun, who wrote the Introduction to History—Al Muqaddimah—that explains how civilizations rise and fall, a work which Said considered one of the all-time great books of the millennium, few were the commanding voices to explain the trajectory of mankind’s efforts in a study of human pursuits and expressions. In that trajectory lie the keys to intercultural strength and weakness. Said was a holistic analyst. That was an uphill battle for him since in the West, the niches of human study have long been compartmentalized: psychology, science, literature, and so on. Walls exist between the fields. He asked readers to consider how the language of interpretation impacts world order.

In Orientalism, Brenan explains, Said not only exposes Western caricatures of the Middle East but underlines misrepresentations that contribute to the East-West divide. Said stayed in conversation with the major intellects of his era, sometimes losing friends, for he was unwilling “to fall victim to dogma.” Said studied the impact language and its usage in portrayals of the Middle East. Close friends with Kamal Nasser, Said was the final editor of Arafat’s speech at the UN on November 13, 1974, famous for the closing line: “Don’t let the olive branch fall from my hands.” Certainly Said’s emphasis on language usage would have resonated with Benazir Bhutto, twice prime minister of Pakistan and author of Reconciliation, published in 2008, who implored readers to stop using the term “secularism” when talking about democracy’s compatibility with Islam but instead to discuss the equal human rights supported by both democracy and the Qur’an.

Of great value in this book are the assessments of the thinkers and writers with whom Said debated. For instance, Christopher Hitchens, the British-born author and friend of Salman Rushdie, who started out his career pro-Palestine, turned his acidic wit to slander Orientalism in particular and the Middle East/Islam in general, in pursuit of a lucrative reputation for the same. During a public debate between Hitchens and Egyptian novelist Soueif in New York, Said jumped up in the audience to ask, “Why does no one talk of truth and justice anymore?” Brennan is convincing in his rendering of a self-critical intellectual who opened the world’s mind to the impact of language and art in global relations and specifically in respect to relations with the vast Middle East.

Julia Simpson-Urrutia, lured by languages and cultures, gained degrees in Switzerland and the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, marrying a Saudi at the age of 21. During her 17 years’ residence in Saudi Arabia, she wrote freelance for the Riyadh Daily, Saudi Gazette, and Arab News newspapers. Her pieces were read over the English Service of the Saudi Broadcasting System, the American Forces Network and the BBC World Service. She has authored five Muslim children’s books, a novel, a compilation of short stories and a memoir. Today she teaches writing at Fresno City College in California.

Copy editors: Nancy He, Nina Zhang

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