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Foreign Affairs

Polymath with a Cause

Reviewed by Christopher Hitchens

Sunday, August 15, 2004; Page BW03

FROM OSLO TO IRAQ

And the Road Map

By Edward W. Said. Pantheon. 323 pp. $25.95

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Edward Said, who died last September after an astonishingly tenacious duel with leukemia, had at least three interlocking careers and perhaps four. He was a most accomplished literary critic, who combined a reverence for canonical English with an awareness of postmodern methods. He was what I like to call a civilizational critic as well, interpreting Eastern and Western societies to each other and mapping, in his best known work, Orientalism, an attack on scholarly presumption that altered the perspective of a generation. He was a full-time volunteer on behalf of the cause of the dispossessed Palestinian people. And he was a musician of concert-playing standard.

Each of these commitments contained its own fold or irony or duality. Said became shocked by the anti-literary and philistine tone of much postmodern academic fashion. He was as ready to attack insularity and tribalism in the Arab world as he was to excoriate the condescension of the Anglo-American professoriat. As a member of the Anglican minority from Palestinian Jerusalem, and as a man temperamentally opposed to cruelty and violence, he was not an apologist for jihadism or for the tactics that have so much degraded the Palestinian cause. And, as a promoter of the theory and practice of music, he found his warmest collaborator in the Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim, with whom he founded a program to bring Jewish and Arab orchestral prodigies closer together.

His unofficial fifth career, as a regular columnist in Arab-world newspapers such as Al-Hayat in London and Al-Ahram in Egypt, was the scene where many of these complexities played themselves out, and it forms the material collected in these pages. (And here is the point where I should declare that we were friends, as well as one-time collaborators on an anthology about Palestinian rights.) As someone who is Said's distinct inferior as a litterateur, and who knows nothing of music, and could not share in his experience of being an exiled internationalist, I try not to suspect myself of envy when I say that he was at his very weakest when he embarked on the polemical.

This weakness arose from two causes. First, Said was extremely emotional and very acutely conscious of unfairness and injustice. No shame in that, I hardly need add. But he felt himself obliged to be the unappointed spokesman and interpreter for the unheard and the misunderstood, and this could sometimes tempt him to be propagandistic. We ended up having a bitter personal quarrel over the "regime change" policy of the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the disagreement actually began almost a quarter of a century before that, with the publication of easily his worst book: Covering Islam. In that volume, published just after the Khomeini revolution in Iran, he undertook to explain something -- Western ignorance of Muslim views -- that certainly needed explication. But he ended up inviting us to take some of those Muslim grievances at their own face value. I remember asking him then how he -- a secular Anglican with a love of political pluralism and of literary diversity -- could hope to find any home, for himself or his principles, in an Islamic republic. He looked at me as if I had mentioned the wrong problem or tried to change the subject.

Then again, during the Algiers summit of the PLO in 1986, he was prominent among those who called for the Palestinians to revise their "charter" and to accept a two-state solution. There was an important element of nobility in this: Those who had lost their homes in Palestine in 1947-48 had decided that they would not demand "the right of return" for themselves, but would sacrifice this goal for the sake of the occupied inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza. In those days, Edward was very much an admirer of Yasser Arafat and published a flattering profile of him -- in Interview magazine -- that I don't believe he ever anthologized. But by 1993, with Arafat on the White House lawn and mutual recognition occurring between Israel and the PLO, he had announced that the old man was too corrupt and too undemocratic to be taken seriously. (The Clinton administration really wanted Said on that lawn: I can remember George Stephanopoulos asking me to try to persuade him, which I was made to regret doing as soon as I attempted it.)

One could hand this volume to anybody who doubted, or who had managed not to know about, the daily suffering of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. With great moral energy, Said details the reality of confiscated land, demolished homes and brutal restrictions. He registers, with especial strength, the sheer humiliation of all this. A Palestinian born in the town of his great-grandparents has to accept arbitrary rule by people who have just arrived from Russia or the United States, many of whom do not speak (as many Palestinians do) either Hebrew or Arabic. How can this possibly be justified? Some answer the question nonsensically, by claiming that God awarded this entire territory to the Jews. Others say that the imperative of a Jewish homeland constitutes a sort of meta-historical override. To the latter, Said gave a very dignified response, saying that his people's case was also unique in that they were and are "the victims of the victims."

But, since the case is unequal to begin with, and confronts largely unarmed Arab farmers with a military superpower that has nuclear weapons, it seems beside the point to complain that any negotiations are therefore unfair also. This is the line taken by Said, and also by Tony Judt, the former kibbutznik and now a distinguished academic at New York University, who contributes a highly eloquent introduction. Just as peace does not need to be made between friends, so redress is not demanded between equals. It may well be, as both Judt and Said imply, that the whole Zionist enterprise was a mistake to begin with and that Palestine should be a political entity that awards citizenship without distinction of ethnicity and religion. (For what it's worth, I think so, too.) But in the meanwhile, it is no more probable that Jews and Christians will want to mingle freely with Hamas and Islamic Jihad than it is that Muslim olive-growers will welcome gun-toting settlers from Brooklyn. And -- to get specific -- if Edward Said believes that Arafat is the Palestinian version of "Papa Doc" Duvalier, as he once told me and as he reaffirms here, why should the Israelis accept an interlocutor that he himself would reject? As he points out with rage, Arafat has since announced that he now wishes he had stayed with the Oslo negotiations. But at whose expense, really, is this awful irony?

The book is disfigured by some vulgarities that are not worthy of their author. To say that George Mitchell and Warren Rudman, former senators who worked on a very imperfect peace plan, are "among the highest-paid members of the Israeli lobby" is cheap, to put it no higher. To say that Arab Americans were beaten in the streets after Sept. 11 because of the inciting speeches of Paul Wolfowitz, as Said actually did write in the exalted pages of the London Review of Books, is to resort to the silliest kind of demagogy. Worst of all is an entire article slandering the distinguished Iraqi dissident author Kanan Makiya. This is an essay written in tones of almost subliterate violence and containing allegations -- of a direct subsidy from Saddam Hussein to Makiya, for example -- that Said knew to be false and defamatory. It should never have been written, and it most decidedly should not have been reprinted.

There is a contradiction at the center of this collection. Edward Said, to his credit and honor, repeatedly confronted his Arab readership with stern criticism of their own shortcomings, and of the abject failures and horrible crimes of their regimes and their leaders. But never once did he allow that American or British policy, directed at changing those regimes, could be justified. He cites the dreadful case of the Egyptian social scientist Saadedin Ibrahim, unjustly accused and imprisoned by a state security court in Cairo for pursuing his objective and detached research. Well, who sent observers to Ibrahim's trial and protested his sentence? The U.S. State Department, that's who. (In New York not long ago, the now-released Ibrahim told me that he had personally celebrated the downfall of Saddam Hussein.) In similar fashion, Said would steadily denounce the Taliban and the Iraqi Ba'ath Party, while reserving even more vitriol for what he calls "the devastation of Afghanistan" by the Western intervention. At his lowest point, he even claimed that the looting and destruction of the Iraqi national museum was a deliberate act of American imperial vandalism, designed to intimidate Iraqis by a show of force. The uplifting thing about contradictions is that they can illuminate, by debate and contrast, and may point the way toward a synthesis. The sad thing about this book is the deliberate way in which it forecloses that possibility. •

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and a visiting professor of Liberal Studies at the New School in New York. His study of Thomas Jefferson is forthcoming in the Eminent Lives series.


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