The Jewishness of a Very Palestinian Intellectual

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Aidan Joseph Beatty reviews a new biography of Edward Said.

At the very start of the current millennium, in the decade-long interregnum after the end of the Cold War and before the War on Terror, Edward Said, by then the most commanding voice for Palestinian causes in the West, informed the vaguely centrist Israeli journalist Ari Shavit that ‘I’m the last Jewish intellectual’. This was a bold claim, for sure, but one that Said clearly enjoyed deploying, having first thrown it out in 1988 at a conference organised by the progressive Tikkun magazine. Intentionally or not, Timothy Brennan’s absorbing biography, Places of Mind, provides a suitably Jewish accounting of Said’s life. At times this remains at the level of mere anecdotes: the midwife who delivered him was Jewish; his first piano teacher – music was enough of a pastime to almost become a career – was a Polish Jewish transplant, Ignace Tiegerman, who also intimated to Said the existence of a gay subculture in Cairo. At times it becomes something more serious.

Said’s childhood moved between Cairo and the Talbiya neighbourhood of West Jerusalem, then relatively quiet, today a plush district under Israeli sovereignty. Then, as now, Jerusalem’s ‘humorless doctrinal air was matched by a tacky religious tourism’. The Nakba of 1948 cut off that city from him. Said’s father was a US citizen and the vagaries of US immigration law meant that Said had to move to America as a teenager to maintain his citizenship; he circulated between the ‘Little Syria’ in Manhattan and Mount Herman, a private and vaguely evangelical boarding school in Massachusetts, before matriculating to Princeton and then Harvard for his doctorate. Some disciplinary problems at Said’s very British school in Cairo, Victoria College, may have also precipitated the move. He seems to have abandoned his family’s Protestantism, along with any personal religious belief, soon after his move to the Western Hemisphere, though diplomatically avoided any public displays of atheism. Even before the move to the US, Said had developed both a sympathy for Leftist politics, as well as a simultaneous tendency to hold the Left at arms-reach; his inclination remained to not join formal parties or organisations.

Legally an American citizen, he arrived with only a loose sense of American culture. Brennan suggests that Said’s Levantine ‘fluidity’ helped him adopt new cultural codes. His graduate mentor, Harry Levin, saw in Said a playing out of two familiar American literary tropes – the ‘Wandering Jew’ and the ‘Flying Dutchman’ – both of which are nomads defined by both wanderlust and nostalgia for a lost home. For the rest of his life, Said always seemed to be both assimilated into, and alienated from, the United States. His Communist sympathies played an early role; 1950s America hardly being hospitable to Marxism.

Gerald Sandler, later to be a medical doctor, and a classmate of Said’s in Princeton, recalled that Said’s background meant that he ‘probably felt as isolated as a Palestinian as we did as Jews.’ Already at Princeton, Said was outspoken in his Palestinian nationalism. Another acquaintance from this period remembered with a sense of shock that, on trips to New York, Said would cross the street rather than pass by Orthodox Jews, described as a furious gesture but not an antisemitic one (this was about a decade after the 1948 war).

He married during his time at Harvard, though the wedding was short-lived. His second marriage, to Mariam Said, was more successful. He started teaching at Columbia University in 1963, soon gaining access to the city’s packed literary scene. Fred Dupee, a Trotskyist literary doyen and one-time editor of the Partisan Review, served as Said’s guide here, bringing him to the attention of the New York Review of Books and its ‘mostly Jewish writers and critics.’ This milieu helped Said adjust to Columbia, a university he found stuffy and snobbish. This was probably an unfair assessment – as well as being a hot spot for ‘60s radicalism, Columbia, as Brennan observes, was still a shabby campus, lacking in the salubrious surroundings of other Ivy League institutions. It was in a neighbourhood that had still not undergone the gentrification of Rudy Giuliani’s 1990s, and tended to attract a greater share of first-generation Jewish-American students, as opposed to the WASP-nests further north in New England. Said had an admiration for Dupee’s willingness to throw himself into the practical details of political activism – such as handing out petitions against the Vietnam War outside of supermarkets – even if that represented a grassroots work that Said disdained for himself. That Said was a very political writer who avoided getting his hands dirty with the banal work of political activism is a trait that Brennan sometimes sidesteps, sometimes skewers him for. When, sometime around 1970, three protestors from Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) attempted to interrupt his class and make speeches to the students, Said removed himself to his office from where he could call campus security on them.

At Columbia, he kept his Palestinian identity quiet, until rumours spread that he was an Alexandrian Jew. Brennan thus suggests that Said’s early-career interest in Joseph Conrad was an interest in Conrad’s hiding of his identity and his talents for personal reinvention. But by the later ‘60s, Said was feeling increasingly out-of-touch with his New York scene. Jewish writers with otherwise left-wing bona fides developed a pro-Israeli stance after June 1967, an obvious source of alienation for a Palestinian critic. It is not at all a coincidence that his famous friendship with Noam Chomsky dates from this period.

Said authored a book on Joseph Conrad early in his career, now mostly forgotten except by specialists, and he started a project on Jonathan Swift which he never finished but would later develop into an interest in Irish literature as part of the post-colonial canon. It was really with Orientalism (1978) that his academic star rose, and he began to acquire a public reputation. Equal parts polemic and literary history, Orientalism provided a dissection of western attitudes towards a vaguely defined place called ‘the East’. It was an unlikely bestseller, translated into close to thirty languages and the occasion for a series of denunciatory works assaulting its central claims (a fact that Brennan rightly sees as evidence of the book’s importance). The critiques of the book ranged from the furious and misguided to more fair-minded observations that Said did a disservice by not discussing both Jewish Orientalists (of whom there were many) and all the ways in which ‘Jews’ were themselves the objects of Orientalising racism.

Commensurate with his growing profile, Said became increasingly vocal on Palestinian issues. Floating down briefly to more hands-on political work, he wrote the English translation of Yassar Arafat’s speech to the United Nations in 1974. It was Abu Ammar’s first such speech and Said added in elements he knew would appeal to an American audience. On this occasion, Arafat took Said’s advice, though that would rarely be the case later, and Said tended to become increasingly alienated from the official Palestinian leadership, more so after the Oslo Accords. His involvement with Palestinian causes – he was elected to the Palestinian National Council in 1977 and gravitated towards, though never formally joined, the Democratic Front faction with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) – provided the excuse to put him under FBI surveillance, an archival source that Brennan both draws on whilst also pointing out its absurdity and immorality. The FBI monitored Said’s bank records, voting patterns and credit score, often with help from informants at Princeton, Harvard and Columbia.

A year after Orientalism, Said published The Question of Palestine. Initially under contract with Beacon Press, that publisher not only refused to release it on manifestly political grounds, but also demanded a return of Said’s original advance fee and momentarily refused to return the manuscript. A bracing work, the chapter on ‘Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims’ has acquired a well-earned reputation. At the same time, there is something almost ‘Jewish’ in how Said described ‘Palestinianism’. Quoting Brennan: ‘His people were itinerants, moving fluidly in, among, and between other peoples and long-established nations. These features were often used, in fact, to deny them a state of their own, because as nomads they lacked a clear identity.’

As Said became a more prominent Palestinian voice, perhaps the central Palestinian-American, so also his hate-mail grew. Letters accusing him of being a ‘commie sympathizer’ and a ‘dirty sneaky Arab’ were not uncommon, along with packages containing hand-drawn swastikas or used condoms. Yet he was never completely outside the pale of accepted opinion; invitations to the right-wing American Enterprise Institute were forthcoming, as was, in 1987, a Christmas card from Ron and Nancy Reagan. He was becoming a public intellectual in the broadest sense, open to leftist thought but also comfortable within the elite. Brennan calls him ‘the closest thing America had to Sartre’, which is not untrue, but ignores the likes of Chomsky, Angela Davis or James Baldwin. Said self-identified as an ‘undeclared Marxist’ and likewise flirted with, but kept formally separate from, feminism and psychoanalysis, a critical distance (or fence-sitting?) that recurs in Brennan’s biography without every really being explained.

Said’s long-term friendship with Jewish-Americans could come more out of the closet by the nineties, legitimated by Rabin and Arafat’s handshake on the White House lawn in September 1993. Said had already made a strong connection with Rabbi Elmer Berger, founder of American Jewish Alternatives to Zionism, patrons of a more universalistic and humanistic Judaism that seemed almost tailored to appeal to Said’s similar values. Nonetheless, Said became deeply critical of the post-Oslo peace process, which, by his predictions, was designed to prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state and thus, in fact, prevent peace. His latent criticisms of Arafat became more prominent, and his books were soon banned by the newly established Palestinian Authority. Ironically, he found a more receptive audience in Israel, where Orientalism became an authorized text, one that particularly resonated with the Mizrachim in their struggles against the white Ashkenazi establishment. The Question of Palestine was already available in Hebrew translation two years after the original English edition.

Said’s slow-motion falling out with the Palestinian leadership was contemporaneous with a twelve-year diagnosis of leukaemia, of which he eventually died in 2003. One of his final works was his memoir, Out of Place, his only book to receive near-universal acclaim. Though the portrait it offered of his family as austere and unloving ran afoul of his sisters, who struggled to recognize their parents in this at times bleak book. Brennan suggests that the memoir might even have been the ultimate expression of Said’s career-long project of crafting himself as the subject of his own narrative. Said died on 25 September 2003, to be buried in a Quaker cemetery just outside of Beirut; fearing that his grave would be desecrated, he requested not to be buried in Palestine. Moving away from the academic and the intellectual, Brennan’s descriptions of Said’s last years are written with an uncommon tenderness and humanity and provide a sharp summation of what it means to live, and die, with leukaemia.

Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim in Sevilla, 2002. Photo: Wikipedia

As with any good academic biography, Brennan knows when to lay on the gossip. When Said debated Bernard Lewis at the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association in 1986, he told some of his lunch companions ‘I am going to fuck his mother’. Tariq Ali, a friend, and political fellow traveller was still willing to confess that Said had an ‘awful’ desire for constant praise. That he had a love of consumer electronics, Robert Ludlum novels and middle-brow TV are just added extras. Christopher Hitchens, who would later make a nasty attack on Said just after the latter’s death, once needled Said by pointing out that he knew the names of too many TV shows for a person who claimed an abhorrence of pop culture.

Places of Mind is written with an unconcealed affection for his subject (Brennan completed his PhD under Said). The affection mostly does not cloud his judgement, but it does skirt a close line. The general result is a copious overview of Said’s life and work, one that is layered enough to even accommodate the Jewishness of this very Palestinian intellectual.

Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said by Timothy Brennan is published by Bloomsbury priced £25.


Aidan Beatty is a historian of Irish and Jewish history, with interests in race, gender and capitalism. He teaches at the Honors College of the University of Pittsburgh
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