The Reorientations of Edward Said

“Professor of Terror” was the headline on the cover of the August, 1989, issue of Commentary. Inside, an article described Edward Said, then a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, as a mouthpiece for Palestinian terrorists and a confidant of Yasir Arafat. “Eduardo Said” was how he was referred to in the F.B.I.’s two-hundred-and-thirty-eight-page file on him—perhaps on the assumption that a terrorist was likely to have a Latin name. V. S. Naipaul willfully mispronounced “Said” to rhyme with “head,” and asserted that he was “an Egyptian who got lost in the world.” Said, an Arab Christian who was frequently taken to be Muslim, recognized the great risks of being misidentified and misunderstood. In “Orientalism” (1978), the book that made him famous, he set out to answer the question of, as he wrote in the introduction, “what one really is.” The question was pressing for a man who was, simultaneously, a literary theorist, a classical pianist, a music critic, arguably New York’s most famous public intellectual after Hannah Arendt and Susan Sontag, and America’s most prominent advocate for Palestinian rights.

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