Edward Said: criticism and society
Abdirahman A Hussein Verso, 339pp, £19
Edward Said has been accused, in the neoconservative US magazine Forward, of systematically lying about his life as a young Palestinian. He is routinely accused of anti-Semitism and has even been compared to Hitler. This biography, by the Arab academic Abdirahman Hussein, does not dignify such attacks with a response - so it will undoubtedly enrage the illiberal, hyper-Zionist campaigners who increasingly dominate Israeli public discourse.
There is a more moderate school of Said critics, however. Academics such as Bruce Robbins and James Clifford argue that he engages with such a wide range of subjects - from the formation of literary canons to Palestinian history, from Jane Austen to Yasser Arafat - that this produces incoherence in his work. His harshest non-Israeli critic, Aijaz Ahmad, has said that it is Said's very eclecticism that leads to "various species of inflation, conflation and misconstruction". Hussein, in contrast, argues that Said's huge and varied corpus has been misunderstood. He is right, I think, not least because readings of Said have been dominated by Orientalism, his seminal work of 1978, which argued that the entire academic discipline of oriental studies was constructed on an imperialistic fiction of an imaginary "other" based in a mythical "east". In showing the orientalists' world-view to be chauvinistic, racist even, Said was the unwitting midwife to the new world of post-colonial studies.
Such was the impact of Orientalism that one can understand why critics have concentrated on that one book. Yet this has led, Hussein argues, to a wildly distorted view of Said's oeuvre. Too many theorists - especially in the developing world - conveniently read him as attacking solely an arrogant west for denigrating its various others. In so doing, they have often ascribed a purity to those "others" - whether they be from Africa, Palestine or elsewhere - which mirrors the old western cultural superiority. If we give equal consideration to all of Said's output (especially Beginnings, his much-neglected early work), we can see that, in fact, he consistently attempts to demystify all cultures that claim superiority or purity. Hussein argues that "beyond the polemically charged, anti-imperialist indictments which he is best known for, there is an abiding commitment to (one might say a dogged, even desperate belief in) a common humanity engaged in a collective but variegated enterprise".
So Said, in this reading, tries to demolish all models of superiority and ethnic purity, not just western ones. He aims to replace our squalid national or racial identities - which often implicitly assume that we are better than the "other" - with acknowledgement of a shared humanity, while still accepting that different peoples have different stories and understandings. It is a profoundly egalitarian project.
Hussein's argument - backed by an extremely close reading of the work - provides ammunition against those who accuse Said of both inconsistency and anti-Semitism. Said's vision of a binational state of Israel, comprising both the Jews and the Palestinians (which seems even more distant today than in 1993, when he argued it should take the place of the Oslo accords), fits this view. He wants a state in which each group acknowledges the other as equally legitimate: Israel would no longer be a Jewish state where Palestinians are alien, but neither would it be a Palestinian state from which Jews were excluded.
This book should be compulsory reading for all those who value Edward Said's contribution to 20th-century intellectual life.
Johann Hari is a columnist on the Independent