EDWARD W. Said, 62-year-old guru of post-modernism, one of the world's trendiest Lefties, Palestine's most famous intellectual exile and originator of the phrase 'orientalism', is dying. Terminal leukaemia exhausts him at the end of every day and racks him with pain every night. Lean, ashen, always within reach of an ambulance, Said looks as if he is battling against time, daring fate to cut him short as he piles book on book, concept on concept, denounces the Middle Eastern peace process, takes up in favour of Salman Rushdie, attacks Western classical music as a mode of cultural dominance and refuses to climb down on his main argument that the West created the entity which it called "the Orient" in order to justify imperialism.
At his impassioned Rajiv Gandhi lecture in New Delhi, on the tragedy of the Palestinian people, he declared: "I hope I am embarrassing someone!" As the sand in the glass falls, Said's intellectual fury is evident; he is impatient with platitudes, anxious to get to the heart of things quickly.
His controversial book, Orientalism, written in the '70s, disproved the belief that post-modernist theory could never be a bestseller. It has been translated into 26 languages and remains a powerful argument on how the West viewed (and views) the East, although the arguments were qualified in his later works like Culture and Imperialism. He wrote: "A white, middle-class Westerner believes it his human prerogative, not only to manage the non-white world, but also to own it because by definition 'it' is not quite as human as 'we' are." Dressed in regulation Ivy League tweed, more like a European sophisticate than a dispossessed Arab, Said argues: "We must constantly analyse, sift, take what is valuable, the interaction between empire and colony was sometimes quite rich".
After his family was dispersed from Jerusalem in 1947 as a result of the Israeli occupation of Arab lands—"The year of Indian independence was a year of catastrophe for my family"—he was sent to America as a schoolboy in 1951 and began teaching there in 1963. Now professor of Comparative literature at Columbia University, he is married with two children. Said is an aristocrat-dissenter, one who will always prefer Aristotle to MTV, yet who believes that cultural values or traditional Great Books are an imposition of authority and must constantly be questioned. "The canon should be read and re-read and constantly examined and interrogated. Nothing is cast in stone," he says.
"I would not recant anything I said in Orientalism. I have modified it in some of my other works, but I still believe that knowledge is constructed for a particular purpose, in the case of the Raj to maintain a hold on the empire." In Said's vision, imperialism contributed more than is usually recognised to Western thought, and a host of writers and philosophers including Karl Marx accepted a basic distinction between East and West as a starting point for their writings on the Orient. The latter was always inferior, confusing, mystical, colourful, the "great Asiatic mystery" as Disraeli said, the polar opposite to the normal West which was rational, virtuous, mature and 'normal'. This is the identity which the West has, from ancient to modern times, constructed for non-Western (non-white) cultures.
Further, Western writers and thinkers—and Said includes a vast number of 'liberal heroes' like John Stuart Mill, T.E. Lawrence and E.M. Forster as well as Goethe, Byron, George Eliot and others—sought to create their own identity by contrasting it with the opposite identity of the non-western Other—the irrational depraved, childlike, 'different' steamy lands out there, full of strange darkies with even stranger gods. Today, Third Worlders sometimes buy into this very image of an 'Orient', but the image of "difference" is a figment of the imperial imagination.
Thus, Orientalism is the language of 'us' and 'them', 'they' who must be 'civilised', 'saved' and "taught how to organise themselves into nation-states". Several old-fashioned Marxists, outraged that Comrade Karl too was being condemned as orientalist by the tireless Said, attacked him for ignoring 'class' in his pre-occupation with 'culture'. Hey, said Aijaz Ahmed in his book, In Theory, there is no such thing as a single entity called 'the West'—Aeschylus, Dante, Marx and Bernard Lewis cannot be united in one common 'discourse'. After all, explained Ahmed, different Westerners thought different things about India, and perhaps Said is guilty of 'Occidentalism' even as he fulminates against orientalism. Furthermore, Ahmed argued, even within national boundaries, such as in India—the Aryans made the Dasyus or Dravidians into the 'Other', so creating 'Others' was not simply the prerogative of the West.
Said was apparently so outraged at Aijaz Ahmed's critique that with characteristic impetuousness he staged demonstrations in the bookshops that stocked Ahmed's book. Today, he destroys him with a regal wave of the hand. "Aijaz Ahmed has a singular capacity for vituperation. He is constantly mis-stating the obvious. What is he actually saying that is not parasitical on my work?" India, he believes, was the 'good' Orient, treated with proprietary hauteur by the West without the sense of danger reserved for the Islamic world or the Near East as it was called. Yet, even the liberal thinker Mill made it clear that his document On Liberty and Representative Government could never be applied to India because India was civilisationally, if not racially, inferior.
Said claims questions of 'identity' bore him. "The post-colonial world has got too caught up in notions of identity. I sometimes ask my Indian students in New York, why come to America and study about India? Why not study America? There's no getting away from the Western influence. We should accept what we are. Our identity is made up of several things. There is no such thing as a Hindu or an Arab or Chinese—we are not any one thing."
He gazes with a fierce intensity, sitting very still, a sort of Nostradamus in a suit, excited about forecasting how East and West will relate in the next millennium. Perhaps academics are the new prophets of the age of techno-rationality. After all, it is these cloistered thinkers-cum-media stars who, every few years, key in defining theses that become catch phrases and provide words to understand a tumultuous world. In Clash of Civilisations, Samuel Huntington coined this oft-repeated term and argued that the next war will be fought between civilisations. In The Rise And Fall Of The Great Powers, Paul Kennedy argued that nations' powers are relative and will rise and fall according to the material resources at their disposal. And Said's 'orientalism' has become a favourite anti-Western stick with which to beat insensitive white people when they persist in describing Asia as abnormal and 'different'.
"Perhaps the reason why Third World cultures are so vulnerable to the West is because we don't go out there and debate these issues. There has been a too narrow interpretation of identity politics. The West is not all bad, after all the West of Kissinger is different from the West of Noam Chomsky," he says. He's been called an armchair activist, championing the Palestinian cause at champagne lunches without getting his hands dirty, being a critic of Arafat from his comfortable fastness at Columbia. "I have always lived in New York and visited Palestine often, but no, I don't plan to go and live there". Yet, he's been a member of the Palestinian parliament in exile from 1977 to 1991 when he resigned in protest against the 'surrender' at Oslo. He has called the Middle East peace process a Palestinian Versailles and says that although he doesn't support terrorism, he can understand its context and see what drives groups like Hamas to violence.
So, is he an activist or an intellectual, a Palestinian or a westerner? "I don't know and I don't care," he says angrily. "I don't want anyone to curtail me by telling me what I am. As far as Palestine is concerned, I campaign because it is offensive to destroy a political collectivity with a collective experience." Said says he believes in universal morality, that there are certain moral rules—such as respect for human rights—that must be followed by both East and West, irrespective of culture. "There is no question of abrogation of freedom of expression on any grounds, religious or otherwise. If religious feelings are deep, why should they be in danger of being destroyed by one book?" he asks referring to the ban on The Satanic Verses.
Those who have been victims of imperialism can never recover their lost selves, he says. "To return to some sort of 'native' self and undo the influence of the West would be to try and invent something unauthentic." But we must have a critical awareness of how we and our minds were made, we cannot shut ourselves off into a 'nati-vist' or fundamentalist refuge. We must discover ourselves by study and understanding, not by received notions. The post-colonial self is a debate. "We exist," he says smiling warmly, "in analysis."