Reconsidering Said

When I was in graduate school in English literature during the 1980s, Edward Said was in many ways the exemplary intellectual. He was a serious scholar of literature who'd done much to introduce the heady work of that time's major continental philosophers and theorists -- especially Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida -- to American audiences. Furthermore, Said was that rare academic who was also politically engaged, not just an activist but a real participant in meaningful politics. And in 1978 he'd written a book that brought all these currents together: Orientalism was a study of Western art and literature detailed with 20th-century critical insights that had political resonance in the real world. Moreover, unlike the work of almost any other academic at the time, Said's tour de force reached a wide, appreciative and relatively popular audience. Virtually every grad student and junior professor I knew looked up to Said and sought to model his or her career after his. It was partly because I realized the unlikelihood of this for myself that I left grad school and came to New York.

I saw Said occasionally in New York, first at social gatherings, where we talked mostly about academic work and how he was no longer interested in many of the European writers he'd once embraced (they were too far from his sense of meaningful political life). Then I saw him a few times for professional reasons. I interviewed him about his memoir, Out of Place, and his illness and sense of mortality. He talked about a book he was working on; its theme was how certain writers, artists and composers become more complicated in advanced age than they were in youth. It seemed this was also a way for him to understand the trajectory of his own career as a thinker. Finally, I visited him at Columbia University on a more personal basis. He was ill and had a very busy schedule, but was still generous enough to take time to see me. I had started studying Arabic and wanted to talk to him about Arab culture and literature. He was surprised, pleased, flattered and perhaps somewhat embarrassed when I made it plain he was part of the reason I'd become interested in the subject.

He was definitely part of the reason I left New York a few months after September 11 to study Arabic in Cairo. After all, the powerful humanist thesis underlying all of Said's work on Palestinians specifically and the Arabs generally is that Muslims and Arabs -- "Orientals" -- are not just caricatures of the Western imagination, but have real lives that deserve to be described as such. I went to Egypt to write a book describing some of those lives.

Said gave me introductions to a number of people in Cairo. Obviously his name carried a lot of weight. His influence was everywhere, especially at the American University in Cairo, where I was studying and where, as a past guest of honor, he was a formidable spiritual and intellectual presence. He also wrote a regular, and much-discussed, column for Al-Ahram Weekly, the English-language version of Egypt's leading semi-official newspaper.

In Egypt, I started to consider Said's work on the Arab world in view of what I now had a chance to see firsthand. His work wasn't really about the Arab world or Islam as such, but about how Westerners, Americans in particular, had come to understand it. The main thrust of his work then was media critique, and how to read the American media for the ideas and desires it projects along with the ostensibly objective images it presents. This is a valuable subject, but I found it scarcely adequate grounding for trying to understand Arab culture or history or Islam as a body of beliefs and a network of practices. I suspect Said would have agreed: Intellectuals all have their own pressing interests, and these weren't his.

The problem, as I came to believe while rereading his books and keeping up with his columns, was that while my interest in Arab culture had partly been inspired by Said, his work generally tended to discourage readers from conducting their own research. He dismissed authors of any opinion he disagreed with. To him, they were -- to use the once-neutral phrase he had turned into an insult -- Orientalists, and all too often they were just straight-out racists.

Said's enmity toward Princeton University scholar Bernard Lewis is well-known. Other frequent targets included Fouad Ajami and Kanan Makiya. These two are Arabs, and because they couldn't be tarred as racists, Said retreated to equally unattractive formulations, like self-loathing, to deflect their work. Said contended -- rightly, though it's hard to know exactly to what degree -- that these men had served U.S. policy-makers by telling them the bad things they had wanted to hear about the Arab world. Said thus dismissed their work as compromised and not worth reading. It was perhaps an understandable position for an activist whose views were at odds with U.S. policy, especially regarding Israel and the Palestinians; but as a scholar and intellectual it was dishonorable and irresponsible. He should instead have encouraged both his American and Arab followers to read as much material as possible and to engage it all critically and systematically.

Said's frequent recourse to charges of racism was in keeping with the general thesis of Orientalism: that most writing on the Arabs and Islam was undertaken as a handmaiden of empire in order to dominate and subjugate the Middle East. Orientalism is essential reading for anyone interested in the meeting of the West and the Orient, but its canonical status, and frequent tone of condescension, convinced far too many readers they had an explanation at hand and needed to go no further. The sad result is that Said abetted the conditions he himself so often lamented: Americans, even the best-intentioned and most well-educated, don't know much about the Arab world or Islam.

It seemed to me in Cairo over the last year or so that Said was spending much of his time outside of the United States, in Europe and to a lesser extent in the Arab world. This I thought was too bad. His forte was speaking to Americans about their understanding of the Arabs; I wished that he had used the politically charged atmosphere of the post-September 11 world to continue challenging Americans, while relishing the challenge of taking his case to them himself. As an American, as well as an Arab, the proper place for Said's argument was here, not in Europe telling the Europeans what they wanted to believe about America. I read in the Arab press that he thought that in the time since September 11, the United States had become hostile and crazed. I don't believe that's true; and I hope that at the end of his life he didn't believe Americans had become hostile toward him. Or I'll speak for myself: I came to disagree with many of his positions and dislike much of his rhetoric, but I still take his moral courage to be among the defining characteristics of an exemplary American, and Arab, intellectual.

Lee Smith is writing a book on Arab culture for Scribner.