Just when you think the Middle East peace process is finally back on track--when Binyamin Netanyahu is a fading memory and Arab and Israeli leaders are basking in mutual effusions of goodwill--along comes Edward W. Said to spoil the party.
"I think if anything the situation has gotten worse," thunders the West's most prominent avatar of Palestinian suffering, displaying his usual penchant for turning the conventional wisdom on its head, then slapping it senseless. "I haven't any doubt at all that they're going to sign some agreement and there will be a lot of fanfare in the usual way, but it just won't work. I mean, you know, it can't given the bad regime--Arafat's regime is so terrible--and the lopsided nature of the state or statelet they're going to recognize, the constant imposition of indignities and humiliations on the Palestinians.
"It's just unworkable."
C'mon, Professor. Tell us what you really think.
Actually, that's rarely been a problem. For more than three decades, while holding down a day job as a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, Said has been speaking, writing and generally raising a ruckus about the plight of Palestinians displaced by the creation of Israel in 1948. It is a crusade that has earned him many enemies, particularly among pro-Israel conservatives who have long regarded the 63-year-old academic--with his striking good looks and aristocratic bearing--as a smooth-talking apologist for Arab terrorism.
In recent weeks, the noise level surrounding Said has intensified with the publication of an article in Commentary that accuses him of misrepresenting himself, over 30 years, as a Palestinian refugee when he spent most of his childhood in Cairo as the son of a wealthy Palestinian American businessman.
The charge has been amplified by conservative critics such as columnist Charles Krauthammer, who went so far as to compare Said to Rigoberta Menchu, the Mayan Indian whose widely praised autobiography--centering on the abuses of Guatemala's military government--was later shown to be partly false.
Said's partisans on the left have described the Commentary attack as "a malicious waste of time" aimed at discrediting not only its target but also "the entire Palestinian 'narrative' of diaspora and dispossession," as Christopher Hitchens wrote recently in the Nation.
The truth, of course, is more complicated than either side lets on. And whatever role Said may have played in burnishing his halo of martyrdom--an offense that in any event seems less a felony than a misdemeanor--he can hardly be accused of hiding the essential facts of his upbringing, having just written a memoir that airs them in excruciating detail.
By strange coincidence, "Out of Place" was published within a few weeks of the Commentary article. Largely written while its author was undergoing treatment for leukemia, now in remission, Said's latest book is an intensely personal--some would say clinically self-absorbed--account of his privileged but deeply unhappy childhood. Said was born in Jerusalem in 1935 and paid frequent and extended visits there as a child, but his book makes clear he spent the bulk of his youth in Cairo, where his father--a Palestinian Christian--owned a prospering office-supply business.
"I really felt I was going to die, and I wanted to recover the world of my childhood, in Jerusalem and Cairo, warts and all," he says. "I didn't, frankly, think I'd be alive to read it or see it published."
Actually, Said looks fine. He's sitting behind his desk in his cluttered corner office in Columbia's Philosophy Hall, sipping a cappuccino. He's just bustled in after a quick jaunt to Chicago, part of a book tour he is eager to conclude. He is, as usual, impeccably dressed: blue shirt, maroon tie, pale gray suit accented with gold watch chain. A threadbare oriental rug covers much of the floor.
This comfy academic scene is wholly consistent with Said's resume. A product of British colonial schools in Cairo and, briefly, Jerusalem, Said was packed off to boarding school in Massachusetts as a teenager. He went on to Princeton and Harvard and in 1963 landed a teaching position at Columbia, where he has since racked up a daunting record as a literary scholar. His numerous published works include "Orientalism" (1978), which kicked up a firestorm in academic circles with its bold attack on Western stereotypes of Islam. As if that weren't enough, he is also an accomplished classical pianist whose closest friends include Daniel Barenboim, musical director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
To the general public, Said is less known for his scholarly achievements than for his outspoken advocacy--in books, magazine articles and numerous televised interviews--of Palestinian nationalism. Besides his role as a spokesman, he also has served as an adviser to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and once held a seat on Arafat's parliament in exile, the Palestinian National Council.
All of this came at a price. Enemies dubbed him "the professor of terror," and his father fretted that someone would try to kill him--an apprehension shared by the New York City police, which assigned him protection.
More recently, Said has broken with the Palestinian leadership over the 1993 Oslo peace accords, which he regards as a road map for apartheid. He has utter disdain for Washington policymakers--"cliche-driven, interest-bound opportunists"--and these days devotes most of his political energies to influencing the Arab world, where he is widely published and read.
Surprisingly, Said also has traveled half a dozen times to Israel, where, he says, he has acquired a considerable following among liberal young people drawn by his vision of a single secular state that welcomes both Arabs and Jews.
"More and more people are influenced by my way of thinking, which is I think more flexible, more reasonable," says Said, who has never been accused of humility. "After all, I was practically the only major Arab figure to talk openly about the need to recognize the importance for Jews of the Holocaust, which was not a very popular view, but now at least people can discuss it. And I'm also one of the few Palestinians, independent Palestinians, who has spoken to large Israeli audiences in Israel."
Said may be finding sympathetic audiences in the Middle East, but back home he is as controversial as ever. The Commentary piece added fuel to the fire. Written by Justus Reid Weiner, an Israeli American lawyer, the article accuses its subject of claiming falsely that he spent his childhood in Jerusalem before fleeing to Cairo in late 1947 to escape the Zionist takeover.
Said's public persona, Weiner writes, is "made up in equal parts of outright deception and of artful obfuscations carefully tailored to strengthen his wider ideological agenda--and in particular to promote the claims of Palestinian refugees against Israel."
Weiner, who reports that he spent three years on the project, cites Said's own words to buttress his point. "I was born in Jerusalem and spent most of my formative years there and, after 1948, when my entire family became refugees, in Egypt," Said wrote last year in the London Review of Books. Weiner also cites a 1998 New York Times profile, which reported, "Mr. Said was born in Jerusalem and spent the first 12 years of his life there . . ."
Said, who had written of his Cairo past in other forums, acknowledges that he did nothing to correct the record when the Times profile appeared. But he continues, "I mean, what difference does it make? The fact is I was born in Palestine, both my parents were Palestinian. My [extended] family was Palestinian, and it was, in fact, totally destroyed. We lost, in fact, all our property."
In any event, he adds, "We're talking about memories that go back 50--in some cases, 55, almost 60--years. If anybody were asked to account for every minute of his first 10 years, particularly if it was a fairly itinerant life, led between three countries in which we had homes, it would be very difficult to come up with an answer. That's number one. Number two, well, you know, it's difficult not to see myself as afflicted by Palestine in one way or another."
Said began writing the book around the same time he began chemotherapy for a rare, chronic form of leukemia. He finished it last year while undergoing a grueling experimental treatment that appears to have checked the disease, at least for now. Every three weeks, he returns to the hospital for half a day to receive an immunoglobulin infusion, which makes him tired.
"I was really writing this book against death," he says. "Nearly every time I had chemotherapy, which was almost all the time, it was showing more and more that I had what is called refractory leukemia, which is impervious to it." The point of writing a book on his past, he says, "was to get as far away as I could from the present."
On reading the book one might wonder why. True, Said reminisces fondly of 1940s Cairo--its exotic blend of Islam and nights at the opera--at least as experienced by the rich. But Said's cloistered world was not a happy one. What dominates his memories are slights and humiliations, many at the hands of his austere, demanding father, who once ordered his son to wear a corset to improve his posture. Said's failure to make the tennis team at the Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts is taken as evidence of personal malice on the part of the coach. Even the sight of snow depresses him.
The young Said is aware of the political turmoil that surrounds him. After the creation of Israel, destitute Palestinian relatives descend on Cairo to work for his father. But politics, for the most part, are uncharacteristically absent from Said's memoir.
"The world I lived in, largely by design, was meant to shut out the world of politics," he explains. "I think it was actually my father's intention, and probably my mother's, too, to insulate us from the world of changes that were taking place. And looking back on it, I lived through some pretty tumultuous times."
While critics have praised the book for its candor, some have also faulted the author for excessive bathos and self-pity.
"In Said's life . . . the subjective has a way of slipping into the objective, as though his private troubles were also the troubles of all the dispossessed, and of the dispossessed Palestinians in particular," wrote Ian Buruma in the New York Times Book Review. "This lends a pompous tone to an account that when it is kept truly personal is often touching."
Asked why he chose to dwell on the minutiae of his suffering, Said says simply, "That's what I found I recalled. Having done that, I felt that I could lay it to rest."
Said says his illness has slowed him down, but you wouldn't know it from his schedule. He rises at dawn in the Riverside Drive apartment he shares with his wife, Mariam. He swims for half an hour at the Columbia University pool, then returns home for four or five hours to write, which he does in longhand. Afternoons are reserved for teaching and research.
Said is working on several projects. One is a book on opera. Another, focusing on Ludwig von Beethoven, is an examination of "late style" in the lives of musicians, writers and poets.
Asked whether his own brush with mortality influenced his choice of topics, Said pauses. "Yes," he says reflectively but with no trace of sadness. "One feels oneself at the end. One of my earliest books is a book called 'Beginnings.' Now, I'm interested in endings."
CAPTION: Literature professor and Palestinian advocate Edward Said, accused of misrepresenting his early life as a "refugee," has published his memoir.
CAPTION: Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat at the signing of the Oslo Accord.