Nibir K. Ghosh
Thursday, 19 May 2011
Edward Said, in his own words
Nibir K. Ghosh
Interviews with Edward W. Said. Singh, Amritjit and Bruce G. Johnson (editors). University Press of Mississippi. Pages 253. $20 (paperback), $48 (hardcover).
Edward Said’s writings since 1970 have had a dramatic effect on how we think about our world, its past, present and future. Because of the lasting influence of his 1978 book, Orientalism (translated into dozens of major languages), he is often regarded as the founder of "postcolonial studies." Said never seemed to grow weary of his relentless struggle against authoritative regimes which, backed by the ideology of imperialism or colonialism, sought to control the destiny of nations and cultures. Battling since 1990 against a debilitating leukemia, which took his life at the age of 68, he remained until his very end a champion of justice, humanism and the affinity between cultures and civilisations. A Palestinian who never lived in Palestine, Said remained a citizen of the world whose devotion to Palestine never undermined his loyalty to humanity.
Interviews with Edward Said forms part of a new series from University Press of Mississippi and brings together, for the first time, Said's animated conversations with such notable media figures as Charlie Rose, Scott Simon, Alexander Cockburn, Paul Zahn, and Jim Lehrer, as well as academics like Bill Ashcroft and Te-hsang and novelist Joan Smith, who conducted a post-9/11 public conversation with Said in London. Of particular interest to academic readers would be the interview conducted during Said’s 1998 visit to New Delhi by three academics — Neeladri Bhattacharya, Suvir Kaul, and Ania Loomba — the day after Said gave a major public lecture at Jamia Millia Islamia. While allowing the readers the freedom to formulate their own opinions about Said, the interviews in the volume help unfold the many layers of Said's personality.
The volume provides a fascinating glimpse into the multi-dimensional life and personality of a legend who defies easy descriptions. The editors have chosen 25 representative interviews, selected from among at least 80 face-to-face encounters granted by Said during the last four decades to provide the reader "an engaging point of entrance into Said’s wide and disparate oeuvre". These interviews shed ample light on Said's impressive contributions to the discursive practices of many disciplines, including literature, anthropology, political science, international studies, peace studies, history, sociology, and music. The volume also includes a most useful chronology of Said’s life and a list of his publications.
The Introduction to the volume provided by the two editors — Amritjit Singh and Bruce G. Johnson — offers a coherent, nuanced, and balanced overview of Said’s career and perspectives. In these interesting conversations, one can see an animated Said talking at length about his major books and influences, clarifying his goals in writing and responding to misconstructions placed by his critics upon his written texts and public statements.
Accounting for statements which at times sound ambivalent, Said states in a 1995 interview: "I am invariably criticised by younger post-colonialists …for being inconsistent and untheoretical, and I find that I like that. Who wants to be consistent?" In many interviews in this volume, Said speaks about his self-conscious existence as an exile in New York and how that has shaped his perspectives. But while he reveals the pain of being an exile, he also realises the advantage that such a position affords him. Not unmindful of the prevailing orthodoxy in his own community, he states in a 1999 interview with David Barsamian, "People like myself who luckily don't have to face the pressures of living in either Israel or Palestine, but have time to reflect at some distance, can play a role in terms of seeking out discussion and debate with their opposite numbers in the other camp."
What, however, sets Said apart from many other intellectuals of West Asian background is his staunch faith in secularism grounded in human values backed by reason. It is perhaps this faith that makes him appreciate a genuine sense of idealism about America without his being unaware of the revulsion that people nurture against the "practices of recent American governments." Although Said was sometimes called a "terrorist" because of his once close association with Yassar Arafat and the PLO (he broke with them after the 1993 Oslo Accord), he had consistently expressed his abhorrence of violent solutions to problems in the West Asia.
As a daring critic of the Western media for its myopic presentation of the crisis in West Asia wherein the Palestinian is "either a faceless refugee or a terrorist," Said clearly marks his frustration with the complicity of the media in constructing an " Israel that, for him, is in direct opposition to the material reality of how Israel continues to persecute the Palestinians in their homeland. The interviews also bring to the fore Said's changing perceptions about America. While in 1979, he was quick to show his deep appreciation of the "American tradition of dissent", in 2001 he is more forthright in sharing, with Joan Smith, his intense concern for the fate of Muslims and Arabs in America: "...the racial profiling, the picking up of suspects on the basis of religion, race and national origin is pretty much now out of control. I fear it. With the anti-terrorism bills and all the rest of it, there is a very fearful atmosphere in the United States. I don't think we're going to be having a very happy time."
Taken together, these engaging conversations help to build the image of Edward Said not as a mere academic writer or critic but as a whole climate of opinion in support of every collective act against dogma, orthodoxy and authority.
Courtesy: The Tribune, Sunday, December 19, 2004
(c) Nibir K. Ghosh