In sorrow and anger
A tribute to Edward Said
By Mourid Barghouti
Mourid BarghoutiAware of the nature of Edward Said's illness I have yet to be reconciled to its outcome. It is silly to think that anyone could have protected him yet I feel somehow we failed him, that we did not do enough. Perhaps this is because, to those that knew him, this ferocious critic of imperialism, this staunch warrior against oppression who cared for his friends as if they were his grandchildren, concealed somewhere deep inside a tender child. He was vulnerable, charmingly petulant, proud, insecure, curious, afraid of censure and eager for praise. There was a fragility about him, a mixture of maturity and childlike innocence that drove him towards both philosophy and music.
It is easy to say we still have his ideas, books, lectures, the records of the debates he waged around the world. But Edward Said was a writer you loved as a whole person. You loved the way his laugh filled the room, his confident walk, the easy, mellifluous voice and the sometimes merciless sarcasm from which he would not spare himself. You loved, too, the child within him.
We will read Said's works over and over again, and will commemorate his memory in the years to come. But it is hard knowing we will no longer watch him striding into battle, stripping off the varnish from insidious words and tearing the mask from the face of corruption.
I met Edward Said only a few times. But I saw how he treated his close friends: it was as though their welfare was his personal responsibility. He attended to them no matter how many other people were present or how tired he was. I would call him up in New York wanting only to reassure myself that he was "getting on" with his illness as usual — with the same courage and the same scorn. I would comfort myself with the thought of how successfully he was responding to treatment, taking refuge in the illusion that leukemia was something akin to a bad cold. But the man who devoted his life to fighting many metaphorical cancers was not to be spared in his battle against the real thing. His courage in facing both was inspiring.
Edward Said was no saint. His ideas were not above criticism or debate. What is beyond discussion, though, is that Edward Said was as great an advocate of his people as he was a champion of knowledge in the service of humanity, of the image of the intellectual, of the victims of colonialism and of the wretched of the Third World. He was a formidable and honourable adversary, even when facing those who lacked honour. Nor did he shrink from subjecting his ideas to renewed scrutiny whenever new knowledge seemed to call for revision, which, perhaps, is one of the most important marks of a sincere and dedicated thinker. Not only did he take an amazing delight in knowledge, he was one of the few who sought to discover the world through literature. He was the model of the peripatetic philosopher, indefatigable and tenacious as he raised the banner of a humanitarian aesthetic.
Because he defended an oppressed people, and a narrative the Zionist narrative is seeking to destroy, Edward Said was dubbed "the professor of terrorism" by Zionists such as Alexander Edward. Others took exception to the fact that his academic and intellectual accomplishments were mixed with a daily involvement with the Palestinian cause. They would have preferred he remain a purely "universal thinker". Apparently, a "universal thinker" is a being brought to earth through some combustion resulting from the friction between two clouds, a creature without connections to a people, a land or a history, without enemies and, hence, with no need for supporters, and whose writings are intended to be read by the nighttime stars and the winds rustling through the forests. Yet even in his native country it was not any sense of shame that made the imbeciles of the "Oslo Authority" retract their ban on his books. Rather, widespread protests deprived them from the pleasure of indulging in that ban.
Edward Said's death leaves me feeling angry though anger, like sadness, fades. What does not seem to have any end in sight, though, at least for a person of my age, is the collective Palestinian death. In this our pain corresponds to that of Said, which remained with him till his last breath. It is the death of a child, the terror of incessantly busy Israeli guns, the uprooting of olive trees by bulldozers hysterical in their vigilance over Israeli security, the dropping of a bomb from the belly of an Apache on the heads of an entire family, rooftops collapsing on rubble and sometimes on the inhabitants within. Such are the images Said carried with him, and they are things all of us will have in common as long as the world remains as he saw it when, through experience, research and the pen, he caught evil red-handed. He carried with him too the image of a world he described so well and fought so tenaciously, the world of imperialism, moving from war to war, shooting down human beings, the truth and the law, corralling all into its net. Yet there he was, in bed, advising his daughter Najla and son Wadi' to continue their work and be happy. He might have been addressing an entire generation, tendering advice that only a professor of his stature can impart.
On the day he died, in the garden outside Philosophy Hall where Edward had his office, students and teachers at Columbia University stood in a large circle holding candles and observing a moment of silence at sunset in a collective commemoration of their late professor. Readers and admirers of Edward Said, in Palestine and the Arab world, can only say their farewells individually, from where they happen to be and each in his or her own way.
I am angry, though I was no less angry before I heard the news of Edward's death. Death is suspiciously active around us, so noisy that it still drowns out the whisper of hope, the thunder of the world and the cry of the newborn. Death has become tediously repetitive, so much so there is no longer time between one funeral and the next to grieve and contemplate the loss. The shrinking of horizons smothers hope. For a lifetime we have been running in chains, living on the brink of the edge, building new tents and digging makeshift graves, because before 40 days have passed since one person died 40 more will have fallen. There is no longer time to mourn or to pay respects to the dead, though I hasten to give pause for the absence of Edward Said before the crowds start pressing in on us, before Sharon dispatches a thousand more in the bout of ethnic cleansing that awaits us and that will receive Washington's blessing, as well as the blessings of many Arab capitals where the wonders of developing droopy eyelids whenever disaster strikes have long been known.
I am angry because Edward Said died when we most needed his voice, roaring against a new world order that has reached the heights of belligerency and the depth of barbarity. We need his voice more than ever now, when the Palestinian narrative faces an unprecedented assault and the prevailing logic has come to blame the victims and praise the murderers, when Sharon is dubbed a man of peace while our national resistance is branded terrorist.
I am angry because my powerlessness repeats itself more than is decent. Neither I, nor anyone else, was able to be a sudden tremor in the wrist that pointed the gun at the forehead of Naji Al-Ali, native son of Al- Shajara and now lying in a grave in Britain; I was unable, even for a few moments, to be a few minutes of morning drowsiness in Beirut, detaining Ghassan Kanafani, originally from Akka, from getting into his car which Mossad had rigged to explode and scatter pieces of his body over neighbouring rooftops. I am angry because I couldn't be one more hour in the life of Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, from Bethlehem and now buried in Baghdad; angry because I could not be a convincing argument that might have detained Abu Salma of Haifa from his grave, or a dose of oxygen to keep Ihsan Abbas, from Ain Ghazal, among us for just a few more days before we escorted his body to its grave in Wadi Al-Sir in Amman, or that of Mu'in Bessisu to his grave in Cairo.
The list of names and of graveyards will grow larger. The names will increase so we decrease and no one knows where they will die.
Edward Said's is another grave out of place, another funeral away from the homeland. When we lose a person in such a way sorrow gives way to anger. I am angry because it doesn't make sense that we have to circumnavigate the globe in order to put a flower on every grave containing a creative talent from Palestine.
* The writer is a Palestinian poet and author of "I saw Ramallah" , New York: Random House, 2003.