Posts Tagged Edward Said

Six (make that seven) greatest stories ever told about the Middle East

On Facebook, I ran a series listing the most influential modern books on the Middle East (in the English language). I selected each not on the basis of quality, but my rough assessment of a book’s impact on readers and politics, short-term and long. It’s rather rare for a book on the Middle East to have much of an influence in America and Britain; at most times, it’s a marginal region. But events have propelled a few books into the limelight, and these six, for better or worse, had an impact, influenced perceptions, and may have changed history.

Arabia of Lawrence

Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence
Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence (1926). I rather like Charles Hill’s depiction of Lawrence as someone “who wrote himself into history as a fictional character leading Arab tribes in revolt against the Ottoman Turks.” (Hill calls the book ” a novel traveling under the cover of autobiography.”) But the book lives, and is even said to have inspired U.S. counter-insurgency theorists in Iraq.

Arise, ye Arabs!

The Arab Awakening by George Antonius
The Arab Awakening by George Antonius (1938). This purported exposé of British double-dealing provided all the pretext that Britain needed to retreat from its support for the Jewish National Home in Palestine, culminating in the 1939 White Paper. The British commander of forces in Palestine in 1946 said he kept the book “on my bedside table.” It also became the bible of American sympathizers of Arab nationalism. “We had our revered texts,” wrote the American Arabist Malcolm Kerr, “such as The Arab Awakening.” It has been refuted on many grounds, but while its influence doesn’t endure, it lingers.

God Gave This Land…

Exodus by Leon Uris
Exodus by Leon Uris (1958). Recently I asked a class of grad students in Mideast studies whether they’d heard of it, and I didn’t get a single nod. But this fictionalized account of Israel’s founding was said to have been the biggest seller since Gone with the Wind, propelled by a blockbuster motion picture starring Paul Newman. The novel, confessed journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, “set me, and many others, on a course for aliyah, and it made American Jews proud of Israel’s achievements. On the other hand, it created the impression that all Arabs are savages.” Arabs have been searching for their equivalent of Exodus ever since.

Snake Charmer

Orientalism by Edward Said
Orientalism by Edward Said (1978). Sigh… I suppose “baneful” is the best adjective. No book has done more to obscure the Middle East, and impart a sense of guilt to anyone who has had the audacity to represent it. The French scholar Jacques Berque (praised by Said) put it succinctly: Said had done “a disservice to his countrymen in allowing them to believe in a Western intelligence coalition against them.” But the book gave rise to a cottage industry in Western academe, and helped tilt the scales in academic appointments. Its influence may be waning, but it’s still on syllabi everywhere.

Fit to Print and Reprint

From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman
From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman (1989). It spent nearly twelve months on the New York Times bestseller list and won the 1989 National Book Award for nonfiction. Coming in the wake of the 1982 Lebanon war and the 1987 intifada, it captured the “falling-out-of-love-with-Israel” mood, although it cut no slack for the Arabs either. Friedman has said he keeps threatening to bring out a new edition with this one-line introduction: “Nothing has changed.”

How the East Was Lost

What Went Wrong? by Bernard Lewis
What Went Wrong? by Bernard Lewis (2002). The book appeared in the aftermath of 9/11, and it rocketed to the New York Times bestseller list, where it spent 18 weeks. Lewis used his broad historical repertoire to explain “why they hate us.” (In a word: resentment, at failed modernization and an absence of freedom.) Lewis later summarized his view thus: “Either we bring them freedom, or they destroy us.” Some in Washington took him literally.

Nakba Validation

Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem by Benny Morris
At a reader’s suggestion, I’m adding a seventh book to my list. It’s The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-49 (1988) by Benny Morris. Drawing on Israeli archives, Morris did what no Palestinian Arab historian had managed to do: (partially) validate the Nakba narrative. The book confirmed Israel’s “original sin” in the eyes of the Israeli left, and persuaded Palestinians (wrongly) that Israel might compromise on the “right of return.” Neither the criticism by Efraim Karsh, nor the political swerves of Morris himself, could mitigate the book’s political impact.

This doesn’t exhaust the list of books about the Middle East that made the New York Times bestseller list or won the admiration of scholars. That bibliography would be much longer (and some years ago, I myself put together a different list, of choice scholarly works). But for sheer influence in the longer term, I don’t see another book that deserves inclusion in this club. If you have other ideas, share them at this link on Facebook.

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    Start with two Palestinians

    In an interview in February 2003, Edward Said said this:

    An outrageous Israeli, Martin Kramer, uses his Web site to attack everybody who says anything he doesn’t like. For example, he has described Columbia as “the Bir Zeit [university] on the Hudson,” because there are two Palestinians teaching here. Two Palestinians teaching in a faculty of 8,000 people! If you have two Palestinians, it makes you a kind of terrorist hideout. This is part of the atmosphere of intimidation that is McCarthyite.

    Flash forward seven years later, to last week’s formal inauguration of the new Center for Palestine Studies at Columbia University. From its website:

    Founded in January 2010, the Center for Palestine Studies is the first such center to be established in an academic institution in the United States. Columbia University is currently the professional home to a unique concentration of distinguished scholars on Palestine and Palestinians, as well as to award-winning supporting faculty in a variety of disciplines.

    So how did Columbia go so rapidly from “two Palestinians teaching in a faculty of 8,000 people!” to “a unique concentration of distinguished scholars on Palestine and the Palestinians”? Don’t be shocked, but Edward Said was out to deceive in that 2003 interview. Obviously there were more than two Palestinians back then. But I didn’t invent the nickname Bir Zeit-on-Hudson because of their number. It was meant to evoke precisely the atmosphere of intimidation—anti-Israel intimidation—that would later come to light in the “Columbia Unbecoming” affair.

    Now that Columbia boasts of being home to “a unique concentration of distinguished scholars on Palestine” (who “will have a national and global reach”), Bir Zeit-on-Hudson hardly sounds far-fetched. By that, I don’t mean a “terrorist hideout”—those were Said’s words, not mine—but a redoubt of militant Palestinian nationalism in the guise of scholarship. And I mean militant: the affiliates of the new center aren’t only engaged in the positive affirmation of Palestinian identity, but are activists in the campaign to negate Israel. This is obviously the case in regard to Joseph Massad and Nadia Abu al-Haj—their field isn’t Palestine studies, it’s anti-Israel studies—but it’s increasingly true of the new center’s co-director, Rashid Khalidi, Columbia’s Edward Said Professor, an enthusiastic spokesman for the PLO in its terrorist phase and a severe critic of the same leadership in its present phase.

    For now, Khalidi is cleverly doing what Said did with his “two Palestinians” shtick. “We have absolutely no money,” Khalidi said at the launch (attended by an overflow crowd). “What our little modest center will be able to do may be some narrow, specific things,” he reassured a journalist from the Jewish Forward. I’m not buying it, and I think that the moniker Bir Zeit-on-Hudson is too modest to convey the scope of the ambition behind this project. So I’m working on an alternative. For a preview, click on the thumbnail or here.

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      More Massad mystery at Harvard

      In August 2006, I wrote a post entitled “Massad mystery at Harvard.” There I asked why, for two years, Joseph Massad described his book Desiring Arabs as “forthcoming from Harvard University Press,” only to announce that it would be published by the University of Chicago Press. I wrote the following:

      Last spring [2006], Columbia promoted Massad to associate professor, a rank from which he could be tenured. Did the list of publications he submitted include Desiring Arabs as forthcoming from Harvard? If so, on what basis? What went wrong for Massad at Harvard University Press?…

      Since Massad paraded the Harvard credential when he needed it, he should explain why it’s evaporated. And if the elusive book figured in Columbia’s promotion decision, the university should investigate Massad’s conduct—again.

      So did Columbia ever look into that Harvard mystery? Massad himself (perhaps in response to my post) gave his explanation in the acknowledgments to Desiring Arabs (pp. xiii-xiv). It turns out that it hinges on Edward Said:

      Edward [Said] read drafts of three chapters of the book…. [During] the conference celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of Orientalism in April 2003, he asked me if I would be interested in publishing the book in his Harvard University Press (HUP) series. I was in disbelief of this unexpected praise. I prepared a proposal quickly and sent it to him and then forwarded it to the HUP editor. The HUP approved the contract for the book several months later, in September—two weeks before Edward’s death…. He called me on his cellular phone from the car while on his way home from yet another chemotherapy treatment at the hospital. “Any word from Harvard?” he asked. I told him that I had just heard half an hour earlier. He was thrilled. I was ecstatic.

      Unfortunately, a few weeks before production was set to begin, the HUP editor and I realized that we had differing visions for the book, and we parted ways.

      So the mystery has begun to unravel. “Forthcoming from Harvard University Press” was yet another Columbia inside job. At the time, Edward Said was the general editor of an HUP book series entitled Convergences. HUP apparently accepted Massad’s book provisionally for publication in Said’s series, on the basis of the proposal and Said’s reading of a few chapters. But after HUP had the complete manuscript—and Said was no longer editor of the series—its own editor rejected Massad’s finished product. (“We parted ways” is an amusing euphemism.) Presumably, this decision would have been based, at least in part, upon readers’ reports on the completed manuscript. (At university presses, anonymous peer review is a precondition of publication. All books accepted as proposals still must be vetted.)

      The president and trustees of Columbia University, if they haven’t already approved Massad’s tenure, might well bear HUP’s decision in mind. Absent Edward Said, Massad must be judged strictly on his own merit. And they might take some interest in precisely why Massad’s book failed to make the cut at Harvard. “My books are not controversial at all in academe,” Massad recently steamed in a tirade against a critic of Desiring Arabs, “and [to] the extent that I am said to be ‘controversial’ at all, I am so for the New York tabloid press and for Campus Watch, and now for some right-wing gay newspapers upset with my book.” Well, at Harvard University Press, they were less than impressed.

      Footnote: The latest on Massad’s book comes from Dror Ze’evi in the American Historical Review. Ze’evi is the author of Producing Desire: Changing Sexual Discourse in the Ottoman Middle East, 1500-1900 (University of California Press). Money quote: “If Massad’s evidence is to be trusted, then he is completely wrong in his conclusions.” But move on, folks, no controversy here—at all.

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        Hamas of the Intellectuals

        The late Edward Said, the Palestinian-American icon, described the role of the intellectual as “speaking truth to power.” In that spirit, many Palestinian academics and thinkers broke with Yasir Arafat and Fatah, accusing them of corruption and compromise.

        These intellectuals are nearly all secularists, who’ve long insisted to the world that the cause of Palestine is also the cause of revolution, equality, and democracy. So now that Hamas rules, are these intellectuals speaking the same truth to (and about) the Islamists who’ve become the new power?

        No one knows what guidance Edward Said would offer were he alive today. But during his last decade (he died in 2003), he made occasional reference to Hamas (and Islamic Jihad). When these references are assembled, as they are below, they convey a consistent message. Palestinian intellectuals seem to have ignored it, as they rush headlong to embrace an Islamist regime.

        Said made his first reference to Hamas in 1993, after two visits to the West Bank. At the time, Hamas hadn’t yet become a household word in the West. Nor had it perfected the method of the suicide attack. Said was underwhelmed by the encounter:

        In 1992 when I was there, I briefly met a few of the student leaders who represent Hamas: I was impressed by their sense of political commitment but not at all by their ideas. In 1993 I arranged to spend some more hours with them and with their rivals for political sway, Islamic Jihad. I found them quite moderate when it came to accepting the truths of modern science, for instance (interestingly the four young men I spoke to were students with outstanding records: all of them were scientists or engineers); hopelessly reductive in their views of the West; and irrefragably opposed to the existence of Israel. “The Jews have to leave,” one of them said categorically, “except for the ones who were here before 1948.” … In the main, their ideas are protests against Israeli occupation, their leaders neither especially visible nor impressive, their writings rehashes of old nationalist tracts, now couched in an “Islamic” idiom. (The Politics of Dispossession, pp. 403-5.)

        In 1994, Tariq Ali interviewed Said for the BBC, and Said repeated his opinion that Hamas had no ideas on offer:

        In my opinion, their ideas about an Islamic state are completely inchoate, unconvincing to anybody who lives there. Nobody takes that aspect of their programme seriously. When you question them, as I have, both on the West Bank and elsewhere: “What are your economic policies? What are your ideas about power stations, or housing?”, they reply: “Oh, we’re thinking about that.” There is no social programme that could be labelled “Islamic.” I see them as creatures of the moment, for whom Islam is an opportunity to protest against the current stalemate, the mediocrity and bankruptcy of the ruling party.

        That same year, 1994, Said sharpened his critique of Hamas, even as the movement gained momentum as an oppositional force:

        As to Hamas and its actions in the Occupied Territories, I know that the organization is one of the only ones expressing resistance…. Yet for any secular intellectual to make a devil’s pact with a religious movement is, I think, to substitute convenience for principle. It is simply the other side of the pact we made during the past several decades with dictatorship and nationalism, for example, supporting Saddam Hussein when he went to war with “the Persians.” (Peace and its Discontents, p. 111.)

        By placing Hamas in the same box as Saddam, and by equating Islamism with dictatorship, Said left little room for doubt as to the responsibility of the secular critic.

        In 1996, the year Hamas gained international notoriety with a series of devastating suicide bombings, Said found still more disparaging adjectives for the growing movement of “Islamic resistance”:

        Unfortunately, it is not to my taste, it is not secular resistance. Look at some of the Islamic movements, Hamas on the West Bank, the Islamic Jihad, etc. They are violent and primitive forms of resistance. You know, what Hobsbawn calls pre-capital, trying to get back to communal forms, to regulate personal conduct with simpler and simpler reductive ideas. (Power, Politics, and Culture, p. 416.)

        In 2000, Said again returned to the poverty of ideas in Hamas:

        They don’t have a message about the future. You can’t simply say Islam is the only solution. You have to deal with problems of electricity, water, the environment, transportation. Those can’t be Islamic. So they’ve failed on that level. (Culture and Resistance, p. 62.)

        In 2002, in the midst of the second intifada, Said made his last and most devastating critique of the Islamists, chiding Arafat for allowing them to wreak havoc with the cause:

        He [Arafat] never really reined in Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which suited Israel perfectly so that it would have a ready-made excuse to use the so-called martyrs’ (mindless) suicide bombings to further diminish and punish the whole people. If there is one thing that has done us more harm as a cause than Arafat’s ruinous regime, it is this calamitous policy of killing Israeli civilians, which further proves to the world that we are indeed terrorists and an immoral movement. For what gain, no one has been able to say. (From Oslo to Iraq and the Road Map, p. 185.)

        So from an early date, Said discovered that Hamas hadn’t a clue as to how to govern. He described it as gripped by “hopelessly reductive” ideas. He dismissed its violent resistance as “primitive” and “mindless,” and deplored that violence for doing more harm to the Palestinian cause than the harm done by Arafat. Above all, he warned secular intellectuals against concluding a “devil’s pact” with Hamas that would sacrifice principle to convenience. Said would not compromise his secularism. In 1999, he succinctly explained why he could not ally himself with Islamists, even in the shared cause Palestine: “First, I am secular; second, I do not trust religious movements; and third, I disagree with these movements’ methods, means, analyses, values, and visions.” (Power, Politics, and Culture, p. 437.)

        Given Said’s standing as the guiding light of Palestinian intellectuals, it’s remarkable that not a single one has echoed his critique of Hamas since the Palestinian elections. To the contrary: several of them have rushed to enter that “devil’s pact” against which he warned.

        For example, there is Said’s own nephew, Saree Makdisi, a professor of literature at UCLA, who keeps a weblog, “Speaking Truth to Power.” (The title suggests that he’s especially qualified to keep Said’s flame alive.) But Makdisi seems to have forgotten his uncle’s dismissal of Hamas rhetoric as “rehashes of old nationalist tracts,” when writing these fawning words in praise of an article by the Damascus-based commissar of Hamas, Khalid Meshaal.

        Meshaal revives the language of genuine struggle rather than that of hopelessness and defeat; he relies on the unapologetic rhetoric of national liberation, rather than the tired cliches and bureaucratic language (“performance,” “interim status”) borrowed from Israeli and American planners…. What was refreshing about Meshaal’s piece was his use of a defiant language of struggle.

        Similarly, George Bisharat, a University of California law professor and activist, wrote an op-ed praising the Palestinians for doing exactly what Said said he could never do on principle: trust a religious movement:

        The Palestinians have gained a government with spine—one they trust will be far less yielding of their fundamental rights. It is to the shame of the secular nationalist Palestinian movement that it was not the one to offer this alternative. One day, Palestinians will have to wrestle with questions of what kind of polity they truly want, Islamic or other. For now, they have entrusted their future to Hamas, and the world will have to grapple with their democratic choice.

        Issa Khalaf, Palestinian-American author of a book on Palestinian politics and holder of an Oxford Ph.D., shared nothing of Said’s view of Hamas policy as a danger to the Palestinian cause. To the contrary: in an op-ed he hailed the Hamas “strategy” as “eminently sound, including its principled defense of the Palestinians’ core interests, its efforts to create a national consensus and a countervailing balance to the one-sided American-Israeli alliance.” He also added his expert assurance that “its Islamist militancy will be dramatically curtailed upon assumption of the perquisites and symbols of state power.” (“There is no question in my mind,” he insisted.)

        After the elections, Rami Khouri, the Palestinian-Jordanian columnist now based in Beirut, went to meet a few Hamas members, in the Palestinian refugee camp of Burj al-Barajneh in Beirut. Unlike Said, he came away glowing from his encounter (which lasted all of two-and-a-half hours). In an article entitled “Talking to the Guys from Hamas,” he reported his epiphany:

        What does one learn from such encounters? The two most significant themes that emerge from discussions with Hamas officials, and from their many statements, are a commitment to national principles and a clear dose of political pragmatism… Hamas will surely continue its three-year-old slow shift towards more pragmatism and realism, because it is now politically accountable to the entire Palestinian population, and to world public opinion. Incumbency means responsibility and accountability, which inevitably nurture practicality and reasonable compromises.

        All the evidence so far indicates that the promise of such an “inevitable” transformation has not been kept. Of course, it’s a promise Hamas itself never made; it was made instead by Palestinian intellectuals and their Western academic allies. In making it, they hurriedly jettisoned their own secular principles. “I do not trust religious movements,” said Edward Said. Since the election of Hamas, not a single Palestinian intellectual has dared to repeat that sentence. Instead, an entire raft of them (the sample above is comprised entirely of nominal Christians) has insisted that those whom Hamas openly reviles should trust the “Islamic Resistance,” and conclude just the sort of “devil’s pact” that would strengthen its grip on the Palestinian cause. (Rami Khouri has gone the farthest, openly urging Arab liberals to ally with the mighty Islamists on the basis of their shared “core values.”)

        Admittedly, there is no more dangerous enterprise in the Middle East than speaking truth to (and about) Islamist power. But it’s another sign of the weakness of the Palestinian people that it hasn’t a single intellectual who remembers how to do it.

        Edward Said

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          Edward Said, Malcolm Kerr, and Honors at AUB

          On Saturday, the American University of Beirut (AUB) will hold its annual commencement, and will award honorary doctorates for the first time in over thirty years. Among the recipients: Edward Said.

          Edward Said is a big celebrity in Beirut, and AUB is his favorite theater. In 1999, he addressed 1,000 students there. “The atmosphere was almost like a carnival,” reported Beirut’s Daily Star. In 2000, he delivered AUB’s commencement address. In March of this year, he spoke once more at AUB; the Daily Star likened it to “an American rock concert for the learned and the not-so.” So there’s nothing daring or controversial in AUB’s decision to honor Edward Said. Yet there’s a bit of irony in it.

          During AUB’s long night of war and instability, the university lost one of its presidents: Malcolm Kerr, assassinated at gunpoint on campus on January 18, 1984. Kerr had a special bond with AUB. His parents had been American educators there, and he was born in the AUB hospital. He studied at Princeton and Johns Hopkins, became a political scientist, and built an academic career at UCLA, where he became one of America’s leading interpreters of contemporary Arab politics. Kerr was also one of the founders and early presidents of the Middle East Studies Association. He returned to Lebanon to become the president of AUB in 1982, at the university’s darkest hour. Eighteen months later, his choice cost him his life.

          Why mention Malcolm Kerr on the eve of this commencement? Kerr was the only American scholar to take a chisel to Edward Said’s 1978 book Orientalism, the work that catapulted Said to academic fame. In a review published in an academic journal in 1980, Kerr described the book as

          spoiled by overzealous prosecutorial argument in which Professor Said, in his eagerness to spin too large a web, leaps at conclusions and tries to throw everything but the kitchen sink into a preconceived frame of analysis. In charging the entire tradition of European and American Oriental studies with the sins of reductionism and caricature, he commits precisely the same error.

          It’s a great read. For all of it, click here.

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