Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said by Timothy Brennan.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 464 pages.
I was six years old when I first heard the word orientalism. In a suburb of Cairo, an American family friend explained to me that the release of Aladdin had been delayed because the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee objected to Disney’s “orientalist” opening song, which featured the line “It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” I must have been crushed by the news, as the word stuck in my mind, although it would be years before I learned the name of the prophet who had popularized it.
Edward Said was no Israelite, but for his many disciples he was one of the Chosen People. Exodus, exile, and Egypt made him—after Jesus Christ and Yasir Arafat—the world’s most famous Palestinian. Born in 1935 in Jerusalem to Anglican Palestinian parents, and delivered by a Jewish midwife, Edward grew up in Cairo, where his father supplied stationery to the occupying British army during the interwar years. He was educated at Victoria College (“the Eton of the Middle East”), where he counted the future Hollywood star Omar Sharif and Hussein bin Talal (later King of Jordan) as schoolmates, until he was suspended for troublemaking. In 1951, just before the Free Officers’ coup that toppled the King of Egypt and Sudan and thereby launched the age of decolonization proper in the Middle East, Said was sent to boarding school in Massachusetts, from which he crept up a succession of Ivies (Princeton, Harvard, Columbia), flirting with music but settling on literature.
Perpetually out of place, Edward Said became too many things at once: a literary critic and a salty politician, a virtuoso pianist and a novelist manqué. He was charismatic but vicious, erudite but embittered. He was a secular humanist who reportedly caroused with gun-wielding “terrorists,” but he was also, at times, a surprisingly devout Anglican. The publication of his 1978 treatise Orientalism would catapult the critic to global celebrity and cement his name as the founding father of postcolonial studies, yet Said would come to disown much of the scholarship produced under that label. By his death in September 2003, just months after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, he had become the world’s most prominent Arab American intellectual and the second most articulate spokesman for Palestine (after his former student, the activist Hanan Ashrawi). As a personification of the Palestine in whose name he spoke so beautifully, Said’s life story became a pitch upon which the battle for statehood was waged.
Was orientalism a symptom of a malady, or the malady itself?
Although Timothy Brennan’s Places of Mind is the first comprehensive biography of the towering intellectual, Said’s life story is familiar to many because his Zionist critics long alleged that it was a fabrication. In Cairo, the first thing I heard about the man who had spread the word were such aspersions: Was he was truly from Palestine, or just a genteel, self-mythologizing Cairene? To say Said had invented his biography was to suggest that the entire Palestinian narrative of dispossession was a fiction. With the appearance of Brennan’s book, it would seem that so much hangs in the balance of a single man’s life story, with every detail weighted and fraught. (Was Said’s middle name William as Brennan insists, or was it Wadie, as the Arabic inscription of his cenotaph states?)
Whether flying to Beirut to offer Arafat Palestinian statehood on behalf of Jimmy Carter in the 1970s, urging Jackie O. to publish Naguib Mahfouz in the 1980s, or being in such high demand that Columbia could only retain him by repainting his apartment every year (as it was rumored), Said was a power broker who routinely imagined himself to have none. He was, significantly, one of the first academic celebrities—an institution that became entrenched in the 1990s when American universities began to model themselves after Hollywood, as the historian Faisal Devji has astutely observed. “Celebrity academics, paid much more than their colleagues in secretive deals, were part of a financing formula that included large capital projects like recreational facilities, satellite campuses, and terms abroad,” Devji writes. “Matched by astronomical student fees, this marketization of higher education lured students by promising exclusive access to luxury, networking, and brand names,” of which the name “Edward Said” was a prime example.
At the same time, other scholars such as Udi Greenberg have eulogized Said as “among the last humanists.” With Said’s death, we are routinely told, died a mode of intellectual engagement with the humanities that has become nearly impossible in today’s neoliberal academy—yet the expensive branding of academics such as Said played a key part in this demise. “By elevating stars”—such as Said—“above a professoriate that, however imperfectly, operated as a congregation of equals,” as Devji writes, faculties saw their influence drained away in the face of a managerial class of administrators, eager to transform erstwhile bastions of learning into hedge funds with teaching facilities attached.
The most compelling intellectual biographies demonstrate not the staggering originality or lone genius of their subjects, but instead reveal how they are able to capture the social and political transformations being wrought everywhere around them. Unfortunately this does not appear to be Brennan’s purpose in Places of Mind, which furthers a Carlylean “great man” approach; in many ways Brennan never transcends the context in which he first met Said, as an enthralled PhD student. None of the ironies at the heart of Said’s academic celebrity provide any fuel for thought. More troublingly, while the biography seeks to confirm Said’s inclusion in the pantheon of Anglo-American twentieth-century intellectual history, it does so at the expense of the long history of Arab anticolonialism, of which Said became simply the best known, English-speaking exemplar. Although Said sat within a bright constellation of Arab intellectuals and activists, he alone would gain recognition within the Anglo-American academy. By extracting him from the contexts in which he was formed, by seeing Said as inaugurating a debate rather than as a latecomer to it, Brennan exceptionalizes him. This is in part due to Brennan’s continuous fidelity to what Said wrote and said about himself. But it is also borne out of Brennan’s inability to access, or appreciate, an intellectual tradition that barely registers in popular and academic Anglophone consciousness.
Edward Said might best be understood as a translator, one who first brought to English readers ideas that had shaped Arab anticolonial thought for nearly a hundred years before him. Through his readings of Giambattista Vico, Said understood how translation creates its own forms of innovation: the one who repeats, resurrects, and carries words back and forth is more worthy than the mythic, solitary inventor. Brennan himself writes that “rather than a complete rupture with the past, Said was looking for an originality based on tradition.” Yet the biographer is unable to see, or fails to show us, how Said did exactly this with his theory of orientalism, or how repetition and translation—even though he came late to learning written Arabic proficiently—was at the heart of Said’s continued importance. In the first act of his life, Said invoked the concept of return, Vico’s ricorso, to think of how one can repeat in an original way. In his second act, Said set return aside as a metaphor and made it a literal demand: the right of the Palestinian diaspora to return to Palestine.
Syndromes and a Century
For Edward Said, “orientalism” referred to both the Euro-American academic field that took the East or the Orient as the object of study (typically through the prism of philology and theology, sometimes archaeology), and a more generalized style of thinking—embedded in literature, everyday media, and film—which posited East and West, or Orient and Occident, as irreconcilably different. That difference was most often expressed in condescension toward the people of the East, but could also express itself in admiration, romanticization, or indeed, unbridled lust. Crucially for Said, then, knowledge about the “Orient” couldn’t be innocently disaggregated from imperial rule in the region. On the contrary, he argued, orientalist knowledge was both produced by imperial rule and made such rule possible. But in actuality “orientalism” was a name for many things at once: the tendency to treat non-Europeans as undifferentiated, the resort to cultural and civilizational hierarchies (as a proxy for race when biologized speak of aptitudes became unfashionable), as well as a tendency to use the supposed achievements of the “West”—an invented and ahistorical category—as a yardstick against which to measure the failures of those who fell out of its purview.
Was orientalism a symptom of a malady, or the malady itself? If orientalism was a way of seeing, did it emerge merely out of the observers’ faulty vision or was there indeed something different, or unusual, about the observed that needed to be understood? Did imperialism give birth to orientalism or did orientalism give birth to orientalism, critics wondered? Said’s unwillingness to confront these ambiguities—even in revisions of the argument in subsequent years, such as Orientalism Reconsidered (1985)—has conventionally been explained by his devotion to fashionable French “theory,” to which he is sometimes credited for introducing American audiences. But as Brennan shows, Said criticized Foucault on these very grounds, writing that “the origin and the beginning are both hopelessly alien to, and absent from, [what Foucault means by] the stream of discourse.” Said, by contrast, was interested in origins, as the title of his first major book Beginnings suggests. Said attacked Foucault for his excessive focus on “impersonal rules, authorless statements, and disciplined enunciations,” and for his claim that authorship did not matter. Foucault, Said argued, had deliberately obscured his intellectual forebears so as to appear more original than he actually was.
Could the same have been said of Said himself? From the very start, critics such as the Egyptian Marxist Anouar Abdel-Malek charged him with borrowing; Abdel-Malek alleged he had drawn upon his 1963 essay “Orientalism in Crisis” without attribution. Coming to Said’s defense, Brennan insists that he had “listed his precursors . . . very plainly: Jacques Berque, Maxime Rodinson, Abdallah Laroui, Hussein Fawzi, Constantine Zurayk, George Antonius and Albert Hourani.” But it would be a mistake to see anti-orientalism as an idea that could be attributed to a single author or a series of authors. In fact, if orientalism was a discourse formed by “impersonal rules, authorless statements, and disciplined enunciations,” did it not stand to reason that anti-orientalism was as well? From the beginning of the region’s colonization by European powers, anticolonial activists have noticed the centrality of knowledge, as a form of representation, to the subjugation of the Arab people. Nearly a hundred years before the publication of Orientalism, in 1877, James Sannu’, an Egyptian-Italian Jew, would make it his mission to examine how words are deployed as a weapon of war. In his journal Abu-Naddara, or “The Bespectacled,” Sanua’ took as his symbol a pair of eyeglasses, as if to correct the defective vision—or gaze, as postcolonialism would call it—of the imperial powers.
Said was protestant, peripatetic, priapic, poetic, polemical, piano-playing and political all at once.
The idea would be invoked again in 1910, when ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Jawish, a socialist shaykh who taught Arabic at Oxford, described how the British brandished “in our faces their murderous weapons of words whenever we ask them to leave our country.” Just as It’s barbaric but hey, it’s home, set to a catchy tune, would be used to legitimize the American assault on Iraq in the first Gulf War, British imperialists, Jawish observed, justified their occupation of Egypt by painting it as a vividly barbaric place that needed to be civilized. In particular, the British alleged that religious fanaticism “hides in the hearts of every Egyptian . . . and will volcanically explode, its fires burning if they leave the Nile Valley,” he wrote. Identifying words as central to imperial rule, Jawish evinced the relationship between power and knowledge, having read neither Derrida nor Foucault. Instead, drawing upon the bigotry he experienced firsthand among his own Oxford students and at various international Orientalist conferences, Jawish arrived at the same questions, of the relationship between representation and domination, that Said would later famously articulate.
But such explorations were not limited to the Arab world: one could argue that the basic argument of Orientalism was first made in 1912 in the Journal of Race Development by an expert on Japan. Congregational Minister William Elliot Griffis wrote,
A literary legend has been developed, which sets in sharpest opposition the so-called Orient and the fondly named Occident. Poet, dramatist, sentimental writer, novelist and maker of sensational machinery for the stage, picture show and quick-selling newspaper have created the “Oriental” of imagination, fancy, prejudice and bigotry, who has no counterpart in reality or has ever existed. It has become a “vested interest,” a staple and stock in trade, a permanent and ever-promising speculation to picture “the Oriental” as a being in human form whose nature is fundamentally different from the “Occidental.” Such a delineation and contrast has mercantile value. It pays what the American loves so dearly—money.
Unlike Said, who famously traced the origins of this Othering to Homer, Griffis insisted that “the creation of this ideal person, ‘the Oriental,’ is a comparatively modern affair.” Indeed it might have been of Griffis that the great historian Marshall Hodgson was thinking when, horrified by the internment of Japanese Americans, he wrote his first treatise There Is No Orient from imprisonment as a Quaker conscientious objector in the Second World War.
Those enamored of Said have regarded him, and his intellectual disciples, as uniquely capable of understanding this relationship between representation and power. But would it not make sense that those who lived much more directly under the violent fist of imperial rule could understand this relationship, back then, with even greater clarity? For nearly a hundred years, anticolonial activists understood that if the region we now call the Middle East had been colonized by representation, then its decolonization had to undo the relationship between words and things upon which its colonization had been premised. Thinkers such as Jawish rejected, then, the false dichotomy between thought and action, as they insisted time and time again, by example, that the world could not be changed if it were not also creatively re-described. Activists intuited the relationship between power and knowledge through struggle, which Said and others would only come to understand through armchair speculation decades later. Whether or not Said intended this to be the case, his Orientalism has been used to dismiss the entire canon of Nahda (“Arab Renaissance”) thought on the grounds that it was beholden to the representational forms and tropes of the colonizers.
Despite this longer history, the treatise established Said as the head of the burgeoning field of postcolonial studies, one that Brennan tells us drifted far from Said’s own project, although he would be reluctant to disown it. The huge controversy the book ignited, as the anthropologist Talal Asad has noted, was a symptom of the persistence of the very orientalism Said set out to denounce. Critics in the Arab world argued the book was derivative. Diasporic South Asian intellectuals denounced the book for not being Marxist (despite Brennan’s attempts to nuance the picture, Said, in fact, wasn’t), while apoplectic and chinless orientalists (many of them British) took toothless pot shots (more so after Said’s death when he couldn’t answer back). Brennan in some cases wants to reduce these critiques to personal animosities—such as those of Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, to whom Said would eventually admit that Orientalism was “not really a very good book,” and that he had been left with “no hard feelings, although perhaps some bruised ones.” The debate the book provoked was so tired by the time of its forty year anniversary in 2018 that its passage went by largely unnoticed.
Brennan notes that the writings of Said hailed as masterworks in the Anglo-American academy garnered much less success with Arabophone readers, “because of the florid Arabic translation of Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism’s sheer length and erudition.” But perhaps Orientalism was never the success story in the Arab world not because Arabs were incapable of dealing with its erudition or the complexity of its prose, but rather because the ideas it expressed were so commonsensical, even banal. If Said’s work failed to impress, it was because the ideas he expressed had circulated in all sorts of ways across the Arab world for nearly a century before Said wrote about them. In Places of Mind, Brennan would have done well to explain to his readers why it took so long for these ideas to be considered seriously in the Anglo-American academy, rather than why they didn’t take off in the Arab world with Orientalism’s publication. This raises the question of what kinds of ideas are considered vaunted “theory,” and what formats and idioms they need to be written in, in order to be legible to the intellectual arbiters of the academy.
Even for those without much investment in the cult of Said, the question of whether Orientalism represents the culmination, rather than the inauguration, of a debate remains important. If Brennan is correct in arguing that Said should first and foremost be understood as a political activist (unlike other postcolonial scholars with their irrational hatred of a vague entity called “modernity”), then the question to be asked of Orientalism is less whether the text accurately captured the dynamic of a historic past, but rather whether its strategy of waging a battle over representation has been, or can be, successful. If Said comes at the end, rather than the start, of such a tradition, then can we argue that this tradition has failed? It may be that Said’s “relevance” is best understood through the failure of his project, rather than its alleged success. Can a critique of misrepresentation, or the unmasking of the shameful genealogy of a cherished idea, or the speaking of “truth to power” (as Said defined the role of the intellectual) really achieve what it sets out to do? (“Every document of civilization is simultaneously one of barbarism,” as Said frequently said, echoing Walter Benjamin.) A hundred plus years of this would suggest that the answer is no. Many, including several reviewers of the biography, have argued that Said’s writings are “relevant” because the conditions that gave rise to his project have remained the same, and yet such glib pleas don’t often see that Orientalism might have arrived just too late.
Edward Said might best be understood as a translator, one who first brought to English readers ideas that had shaped Arab anticolonial thought for nearly a hundred years before him.
This was in part the criticism fielded by Fernando Coronil, the brilliant Venezuelan anthropologist, who argued that, for all its focus on faulty or inaccurate representation, Orientalism left completely unexamined the entity that did the examination or representation itself: the West. Amid the endless arguing about the nature of representation, the biggest myth of all had been left undisturbed. Assumed to be stable, known, and unchanging, the “West” was the world’s most successful commercial brand. But crucially for Coronil, the “West” was a relational brand. It was a mystification for a dramatically unequal world: a post facto justification for global inequality. Such inequality was by nature relational—wealth for some had to come at the poverty of others—and yet the success of the “West” as a brand (evoking free elections, unbridled wealth, rationality, etc.) was derived precisely from its capacity to obscure its shared origin and relation, rendering both invisible, to the East to which it would stand in opposition.
It is clear from the contradictions of his writing that Said, too, understood that the “West” was a fiction but didn’t, or perhaps couldn’t, dispense with it as a category altogether. Perhaps he needed it too much, even as a metaphor or a shorthand for the entity to which he sought to transcend, to describe, and to dissect. Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of Brennan’s biography is that it shows the extent of the gulf between the ideas Said espoused in writing and the categories that organized his political activism. We learn from Brennan, for example, that while pondering Orientalism, Said asked a friend: “Why were all the great works on the Middle East written by Western scholars? Why are the Arab regimes so despotic?” These questions are not unlike the ones that exercised his bête noire Bernard Lewis, whose slim treatise What Went Wrong? appeared in the aftermath of 9/11.
In his earlier career, Said was propelled by many of the concerns that he would later ridicule his opponents for expressing. While he would skewer Saul Bellow for saying that the Zulus had no Tolstoy nor the Papuans any Proust, Said would make similar comments about his decidedly unchosen people: “We have no known Einsteins, no Chagall, no Freud or Rubinstein to protect us with a legacy of glorious achievements.” He would—incorrectly—bemoan the fact that “the Arabs since Avicenna and Ibn Khaldun (who borrowed from Aristotle) have never produced a theory of mind.” Even as an ironic invocation of Goethe, the orchestra Said established with Daniel Barenboim was called the West-Eastern Divan, an organisation which in its very title couldn’t but evoke the categories Said was keen to reveal as fictions. What if rather than undermining the existence of allegedly mutually exclusive categories like “East” and “West,” Said needed them to exist so he could traverse them? What if the man who did the most to popularize the idea of the “Orient” as a fiction couldn’t but fall back on the categories he sought to dismantle?
No Big Bang
My generation in the Arab world wasn’t awakened to Said’s message because of any interest in the academic debates Brennan so carefully reconstructs. In the year 2000, gaining access to the Anglo-American academy, via the openings for us Said supposedly created, was very far from my thirteen-year-old mind. Instead, it was the murder in cold blood of twelve-year-old Muhammad al-Durrah on television that shook our affluent, comfortable existences. In what would turn out to be the second day of the second Intifada, my parents’ generation were reawakened to the Palestinian cause after eighteen years of relative “peace” with Israel, following the withdrawal of its military occupation of Egypt in 1982. In the newspaper al-Ahram Weekly, amid cozy pandering to the United States, Israel, and our own complicit governments, Edward Said’s columns were some of the only windows into a radical politics that had elsewhere been effectively silenced. Ironically enough, it was the fact that he wrote in English that allowed Said to get away with what he said, and to reach curious, adolescent minds like my own.
The book focuses on the big speculative treatises written by Said, the great American academic, rather than the punchy if ephemeral newspaper columns written by Said the Arab activist.
Said was introduced to the Weekly by Mona Anis, who had met him in 1984 while a PhD student at the University of Essex, but it wasn’t until September of 1993 that he first wrote for them. While he was visiting Cairo to do research on Out of Place, as his memoir would eventually be titled, Said heard of the secret deal that the PLO had conducted with Israel that would eventually be signed into treaty at Oslo later that year. He wrote an impassioned op-ed denouncing it as a “Versailles” and sent the piece to the Weekly. Despite the fact that the Weekly was state-owned, and Egypt’s official line was to endorse the Oslo agreement, they ran it. Out of loyalty for their bravery, Said would write a bimonthly column for the paper for the next ten years. That none of this appears in Places of Mind isn’t all that surprising: in keeping with the usual conventions of intellectual biographies, the book focuses on the big speculative treatises written by Said, the great American academic, rather than the punchy if ephemeral newspaper columns written by Said the Arab activist. But such hierarchies obscure the interesting ways in which the former departed radically from the latter.
If Brennan is correct in asserting that it was Out of Place that secured Said’s place in the canon of Arabic letters (he claims it was his most widely read book), it wasn’t because his other texts were too sophisticated or too florid for Arab readers. Nor was it because Out of Place was more frank, “confessional,” and “psychologically fraught” than what readers in the Arab world were used to (“with the exception of Mohammed Shukri’s For Bread Alone”). By comparison to Arwa Salih’s The Stillborn or Sonallah Ibrahim’s That Smell, Out of Place was fairly tame. The memoir caught on with many because the cultural displacement that Said experienced in semi-colonial Cairo was highly reminiscent of the new dislocations wrought in the 1990s, after the demise of Arab nationalism, by neoliberal “restructuring” under the aegis of the IMF and other neocolonial agencies. At the time of the book’s publication, a new generation—of which I am one— felt torn asunder by the cultural and military Americanization of the region. Although Said’s school Victoria College (named after the Queen) was renamed Victory College (in a pun on Nasser’s name, meaning Victor) and was nationalized, a slew of new private, international schools and institutions of higher learning had sprung up across the region. A new generation found itself, again, out of place.
While we are amply supplied with the minutiae of the influence of certain beige, New England New Critics, Said’s Arab frenemies (of which there were many)—Adonis, Clovis Maksoud, “Consty” Zurayq, Kanan Makiya, Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, Charles Malik, and Fouad Ajami—make cameo appearances in Brennan’s biography as unsympathetic caricatures. Said would have conflicted relations with almost all of them, not because he was unusually complex, but because they all were, too. Take, for example, Kanan Makiya, the Iraqi émigré who by the end of his life would become a neocon cheerleader for the 2003 invasion, and with whom Said would have a spectacular and caustic falling out. Writing under several pseudonyms, Makiya’s journey from left to right was a conflicted and troubled one. So much so that Brennan is unable to identify one of Makiya’s pseudonyms, “Samir al-Khalil.” Like Christopher Hitchens, who would swerve from Said’s leftist ally and co-author to post-9/11 war hawk, Makiya’s trajectory is an instructive one. But Brennan is so committed to rendering Said as multidimensional that he does so at the expense of making Said’s Arab interlocutors flat. Brennan is unable to see how Said’s contradictions were bequeathed to him not by his lone genius but were built into the tragic condition of Arab dispossession.
Although the book is dedicated to “the Palestinian people,” history’s most famous absentees are barely present in it. For example, Brennan insinuates that Said wrote the famous final flourish to Arafat’s 1974 UN speech (“Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom-fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand”), when in reality the text was composed by a collective of PLO officials including Khaled and Hani Hassan, Nabil Sha’th and Shafiq al-Hut. But doing justice to the Palestinians requires us not to sanctify Said but instead to appreciate him as one who was read critically in, and from, Palestine. If scholars like Bashir Abu-Manneh are appreciatively critical (see his wonderful After Said) it isn’t because they disagreed with Said’s objectives but because they (too) wondered about the efficacy of his chosen strategy.
In 1994, embittered and furious at the putative pusillanimity of Arafat in accepting the Oslo Accords, Said confessed that he had been on a secret mission to Beirut sponsored by the Carter administration to try and get Arafat to accept Palestinian statehood in 1978. The only source for this claim is Said himself, in the biography, though surely Brennan could have corroborated it through state department archives. Although the PLO archives were destroyed or disappeared in the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the archive of Palestinian thought still lives in the minds of the many activists, officials, and thinkers that lived through these years. But they are, like much else related to Palestine, conspicuous by their absence from Places of Mind.
My generation in the Arab world wasn’t awakened to Said’s message because of any interest in the academic debates Brennan so carefully reconstructs.
Similarly—although we’d never know it from Brennan—when Said provocatively exclaimed, “I am the last Jewish intellectual!” he was tapping into a Palestinian poetics of paradox. It was no coincidence that Palestine’s most famous novel was titled the Pessoptimist and that another of its most famous works of literature was called Memory for Forgetfulness. After all, weren’t the Palestinians who were expelled from their homes, and forbidden to return, during and after the 1948 war known as the “Present Absentees”? For Said, the political and the aesthetic never belonged to separable domains as they do in Brennan’s telling, but were often, performatively, polemically, and poetically melded together. That he recognized the political in the aesthetic (Culture and Imperialism) and the aesthetics of the political (his fawning panegyric to Arafat in Warhol’s Interview Magazine) made him thoughtful but not, as the cliche goes, a contradiction. Such celebrations of contradiction have inadvertently facilitated the separation of Said the aesthete at the expense of Said the politician. Said was at his most brilliant when recognizing the inseparability of the two.
In his discussion of Said’s legacy in postcolonial scholarship, Brennan distinguishes Said’s primary concerns—the “creation of new states [mostly Palestine], the petitioning of governments, and media battles in the public sphere”—from those of the many Brown scholars who would follow in Said’s wake. Rather than pursuing concrete agendas, such scholars were motivated by “a general loathing for a Western entity vaguely dubbed ‘modernity,’” Brennan writes. While this characterization of Said is correct, Brennan has created a rather disturbing strawman here as a foil for his protagonist. The biographer writes,
Postcolonialism’s new wave of scholars, many of them from former colonial territories or related by birth or family name to those who were, broke into Western academic life for the first time. By the same token, they were from a generation formed under Reagan, on the one hand, and postmodernism, on the other. From South Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, often from well-to-do families with political connections, many migrated to the metropolitan university in part because of the openings Said had created. But once there and feeling their newfound power, they subscribed to a “big bang” theory that no resistance had existed before them. The idea seemed to be that one had to be a member of an oppressed racial, ethnic, or national group in order to resist imperial injustices, and an equation was drawn (one Said had always opposed) between what one knows and what one is.
If there exists such a “big bang” theory at all, it is only in the narrative Brennan is trying to weave. It is unfortunate Brennan feels he must resort to such a wide-sweeping dismissal of Brown and Black scholars writing in the wake of Orientalism. In this passage, he projects Said’s own life narrative onto a vast, diverse array of scholars from the Global South, in a way that sheds light on nothing except Brennan’s own limitations. It was Said who came from a “well-to-do family with political connections” (Charles Malik, his relative by marriage, helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), and Said who, with “newfound power,” wasn’t very good at acknowledging the debt (bar that 1969 essay) that he owed to his predecessors. The “openings Said had created” are mainly apocryphal—by participating in the marketplace of academic celebrity he may also have closed many doors. There were, of course, the professors who came before Said who first pried open the gates: Philip Hitti taught Semitic literature at Princeton since the 1920s, Nabia Abbott taught Islamic Studies from 1949, Charles Issawi (whom Said would savage in public) taught economics at Columbia from 1961, Afaf Marsot taught modern history from 1968, to name just a few. Yet for many who came before and after Said, if equations were drawn, to use Brennan’s words, between “what one knows and what one is,” those equations were neither chosen nor their own: they were imposed upon Brown scholars to ever remind them that their access was granted from on high because of their identities, their value as “diversity” to white academies rather than the nuances of their thought, and so kept them marginal—present but still profoundly absent from the centers of power.
In 2003, a few months before his death, I had the chance to meet Edward Said when he came to Cairo for the last time. On March 17, in a packed hall at the American University in Cairo, Said received a hero’s welcome as he delivered a two-part lecture. The streets were aflame with demonstrations against the Iraq war: protests that are now often viewed in hindsight as part of the near-mythical prehistory of the 2011 uprisings in Tahrir Square, not far from where Said gave his address. Because he spoke in English, Said was once again able to speak of things that would have been far less tolerated had they been delivered in Arabic.
Said arrived in Cairo as a radical icon: he would come to endorse armed struggle in Palestine (and to associate with George Habash) after decades of having been ambivalent toward both. How and why his views on violence had transformed is worthy of its own intellectual history. But to write such a history would require the biographer to expand their conception of what ideas are, which ideas are worth writing about, where they originate, and how they develop. It would require less deference to the exegetical readings of French theorists and humanist scholars—and greater concern with strategy, rhetoric, and efficacy, the intellectual categories that motivate those who understand themselves to be activists above all.
It is unsurprising that the critics who would cast aspersions on Said’s authenticity were often themselves white; their conceptions of Arab identity couldn’t deal with his category-exploding persona. But this is precisely what made him such a powerful symbol for my generation. It would be an exaggeration to argue that Said ought to be placed in the genealogy of ideas that would eventually lead to the Arab Spring. But in the post-9/11 world, where think-tank pundits, well-meaning white academics, and Arab authoritarian leaders all agreed that the only plausible popular politics in the region were Islamist (that is, religiously inflected if not determined), Said’s radical, and indeed staunchly secular, stance was extremely galvanizing. He communicated to us the notion that the politics of authenticity and identity were themselves depoliticizing impositions, and that being “out of place” wasn’t a sign of failure but instead of political courage. If “place” meant a hierarchy, implicitly racialized, then it was incumbent upon us to exceed it. Said didn’t teach us this, but he certainly gave us a vocabulary and an eloquence for articulating it.
The tragedy of Edward Said was not the tragedy of a man pulled apart by the European origins of his first name and a decidedly Arab surname, as we are routinely told. It wasn’t even the tragedy of a Palestinian who was “paradoxically” Protestant, peripatetic, priapic, poetic, polemical, piano-playing, and political all at once. Such contradictions exist only in the eyes of the beholder, and yet the constant need to resort to them is itself revealing: it is easier to cast Said as the exception than to question how it is that we come to make, believe, and uphold what we imagine to be the rules. Rendering Said exceptional ultimately communicates the sense that only certain Arab intellectuals are “presentable,” and that the rest peddle in petty, non-universal, and derivative ideas of little interest to metropolitan intellectuals. It allows writers like Brennan to stand as interpreters and gatekeepers of Arab thought and makes their ideas legible only through the concerns of certain debates of pertinence to the metropole. How many times have we heard editors respond to the critique that they don’t publish Arab writers with, “Oh, but we used to publish Edward”? His was the tragedy of a man who defied cultural and identitarian fixity, but whose writings would be used to deify it.
Said may have been “the last Jewish intellectual,” but he was taken with Freud’s suggestion that the great Jewish prophet Moses was, in fact, Egyptian. In what would become Said’s final work (based off a lecture he gave at the Freud Museum in London, after being banned from the Freud Museum in Vienna following the 2000 stone-throwing controversy ), he would reiterate his moving refrain for a “contrapuntal” conception of identity, one which allowed for the cosmopolitanism that he had always embodied.
At a time when “postcolonialism” and “identity politics” have become favorite punching bags for the left, just as “cultural Marxism” and “Critical Race Theory” have become boogeymen for the right, Brennan attempts to convey that Said stood above the crude idea that ideas were dependent on the person delivering them. Defending his former mentor against the charge of “identity politics,” Brennan asserts that Said was careful to distinguish between “what one is” and “what one knows,” suggesting that Edward always came down on the side of the latter. But Said’s life, and the rendering of it in Places of Mind, are evidence that this distinction doesn’t and can’t hold. The most recent assault on Palestine in May of this year has served as a reminder, if ever one were needed, that the Palestinian “permission to narrate” that Said placed at the center of his project has not yet been attained. What Said knew and what Said was are inseparable—and this is true of Brennan as well. The most interesting regions of Said’s thought are ones to which Brennan is often unwilling or unable to guide us, and so Places of Mind leaves far too much left unsaid.