“Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said”

A Full Biography of an Outstanding Palestinian Intellectual
Book Cover.

This American book, and many of the major American comments about it, seem to still have not figured out the real Edward Said. The deeply rooted spirit of Said, starting from Jerusalem, through Cairo, Beirut, and hovering over the rest of the Arab and Muslim Worlds before landing in the US, has proven to be larger and more lasting than the book's contents and the comments about them.

Said was described as a “dashing, multilingual scholar known for leading theoretical seminars in Savile Row suits” and as a “self-doubting, tender, eloquent advocate of literature’s dramatic effects on politics and civic life.” He was also deemed “a cajoler and strategist, a New York intellectual …”

But, at least, the book’s author tried to understand the real Said.

Timothy Brennan, the author of “Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said” was Said’s student and friend.  A professor at the University of Minnesota, he had published philosophical books such as: “At Home in the World: Cosmopolitanism Now;” “Wars of Position: The Cultural Politics of Left and Right;” and “Salman Rushdie and the Third World: Myths of the Nation.”

The author benefited from his relation with Said, his family and friends, from Said’s teaching notes that go back to the 1970’s, from opinions by a few of Said’s critics, and from the secret files of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

No one should be surprised to learn about the FBI spying on Said. Long before he became a national and international figure, the mere fact that an Arab student was criticizing Israel, even before he joined Columbia University in 1962, was enough.

But the author and a few others tried to give Said his due. The author wrote that “Said’s political work found its basis in literary criticism,” in reference to Said’s translating and editing texts of the Palestinian movement during the 1970s and 1980s, including Yasser Arafat’s first address before the United Nations in 1974.

A few other American commentators wrote about Said as “a tireless advocate for Palestinian rights and a frequent guest on television roundtable,” and the “most influential, controversial, and celebrated Palestinian intellectual of the twentieth century.”   One critic noted that “his politics, that first shattered the manicured boundaries of Western academia, opened the doors for a new generation of non-White academics and postcolonial consciousness.”

Palestinian Cultural Mural Honoring Dr. Edward Said. Palestinian Cultural Mural Honoring Dr. Edward Said by Briantrejo.

The book follows Said’s life from Jerusalem to Columbia University, with keen interest in his political and intellectual crusade for the sake of the Palestinians, the Arabs and the Muslims.

It may surprise  Muslims that as a Christian, Said wrote in 1981 a book, “Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World.”

Most of Said’s contemporary political comments were about the Palestinian Liberation Front (PL0), Chairman Yasser Arafat and the Oslo Accords of 1993. Said’s close relation with, then animosity towards, Arafat has illustrated, not only the complexity of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but also the complexity of the conflicts among the Palestinians themselves.

Said, himself, switched from one position to another:

First, like Arafat, he supported a two-state solution.

Second, unlike Arafat, he described the Oslo Accords as a betrayal of an independent Palestine.

Third, towards the end of his life, he called for a one-state solution.

Although in all the above cases, Said could be described as a pioneer (only recently some Palestinian leaders abandoned the two-state solution and called for a one-state solution), he, nevertheless, was a fighter-in-exile. Arafat himself, during a moment of anger, compared life in New York to that in Gaza, and his kaffiyeh to Said’s bespoke suits.

The book presents Said as a secular realist, i.e., neither an emotional dreamer nor a religious jihadist. Said talked about “near-total triumph for Zionism,” and seemed to have given up hope when he returned to the US from the West Bank, writing about the endless settlements and the strategically-built highways.

The book looks to Said as more philosopher than politician, as more a historical critic of the powers of the West than a defender of Palestine.  Said started from the origin of all the West’s evils -- capitalism, which led to colonialism, which led to imperialism. That the West’s imperialism collaborated with Zionism to establish Israel was a by-product of the major evils.

His 1978 landmark book, “Orientalism,” challenged the foundation of the West’s culture, which itself was a by-product of the West’s colonialism and racism. According to Brennan’s book, Said “revived an older ethics of reading based on fidelity to what books say in their own place and time, part of his lifelong argument that what happened in the past is not hopelessly ambiguous but can be recovered through the work of interpretation.”

Said believed that digging into the past looking for fairness and justice was better than feeling victimized. In “The Politics of Knowledge” he wrote that “Victimhood, alas, does not guarantee or necessarily enable an enhanced sense of humanity. To testify to a history of oppression is necessary, but it is not sufficient unless that history is redirected into an intellectual process and universalized to include all sufferers.”

But Said was, to some extent, a victim of his own pioneering, as Brennan writes: “Although he let few see it, he lived in agony.”

Maybe he shouldn’t have become a Palestinian politician, arguing with Yasser Arafat, George Habash, Nayef Hawatmeh and others. Maybe he should have confined himself to be an international and historical philosopher, particularly, as the events have shown, because the Palestinians could not agree on what to do.

Said not only changed his opinions about what to do, but, according to Brennan, brought wrath on himself from within his own family for cooperating with Israelis.

Said co-founded a musical orchestra with Daniel Barenboim to bring young Arab and Israeli musicians together but was “criticized by some of his own family members,” his friend Brennan writes.

In 1980, as a new Arab journalist in Washington, I had my first interview with Said, to be followed by more throughout the decades. As much as I was surprised by the mere presence of a strong advocate of Arab and Muslim causes in the US at that early time, Said was surprised by the mere presence of Arab and Muslim media in the US.

At the end of the first interview, he put his hand on my shoulder and said “Na’amal ma’a ba’ad” (Let us work together).

Strangers in a strange land, but we have come a long way.


Book: “Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said”

Author: Timothy Brennan

Publisher: Farrar, New York

Print Pages: 492

Price: Paperback: $21.00; Kindle $16.99