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The 10th anniversary of the death of the theorist and intellectual indicates how far we still have to go, writes Adekeye Adebajo.
Johannesburg - Last month marked the 10th anniversary of the death of Edward Said. He was born of Christian parents in British-ruled Palestine in 1935, grew up in Cairo, and then went to the United States, where he studied at Princeton and Harvard.
The towering Palestinian-American intellectual, who wrote 23 books, became the most eloquent voice for the rights of Palestinians. He taught for 40 years in the English department at Columbia University in New York, and served as a member of the Palestinian parliament-in-exile for 14 years before resigning in 1991. Said later accused Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, of having sold out the struggle by becoming a willing accomplice of Israeli occupation following the 1993 Oslo accords.
A gifted pianist who published music criticism, he contributed to mainstream Western newspapers and spoke to the Arab world directly through a column in Al-Ahram. He criticised Israel’s “exclusivity and xenophobia towards the Arabs” as well as its denial of Palestinian rights. His courageous advocacy led to the Jewish Defence League branding him a “Nazi” in 1985, and his university office was torched by political arsonists.
Said effectively pioneered the field of post-colonial studies with his publication of Orientalism in 1978. This book sought to deconstruct Western stereotypes of the Middle East in the clash between the Occident and the Orient. In a more ambitious 1994 study, Culture and Imperialism, Said elegantly demonstrated how “empire follows art” showing how culture was often used – consciously and unconsciously – by Western authors in support of the imperial project.
He demonstrated how even great works of poetry, fiction and philosophy were used in the service of slavery, colonialism, and racism. As Said put it: “Neither imperialism nor colonialism is a simple act of accumulation and acquisition. Both are supported and perhaps even impelled by impressive ideological formations that include notions that certain territories and people require and beseech domination, as well as forms of knowledge affiliated with domination…”
British poet Rudyard Kipling was a prime example of Said’s critique, with his 1899 poem, urging Western imperialists to: “Take up the white man’s burden – the savage wars of peace – Fill full the mouth of famine and bid the sickness cease...”
Said urged former colonial people to use their own narratives to counter misrepresentations of them by the West.
He sought to deconstruct classic Western novels such as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and countless travel writers and film-makers, noting that the “hegemony of Western imperial ideology” was often used to denigrate and damage other cultures.
Said specifically criticised the writings of eminent authors such as Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and VS Naipaul, noting that: “What are striking in these discourses are the rhetorical figures one keeps encountering in their descriptions of ‘the mysterious East’, as well as the stereotypes about ‘the African (or Indian or Irish or Jamaican or Chinese) mind’, the notions of bringing civilisation to primitive or barbaric peoples, the disturbingly familiar ideas about flogging or death or extended punishment being required when ‘they’ misbehaved or became rebellious, because ‘they’ mainly understood force or violence best: ‘they’ were not like ‘us’, and for that reason deserved to be ruled.”
Said argued that Joseph Conrad had perfectly expressed the traits of cultural imperialism in his famous 1899 novella Heart of Darkness.
Though himself a Polish emigré to Britain who was able to see through some of the corruption of imperial domination, Conrad was, in the end, unable to accept that the African characters he portrayed also had independent lives and cultures not controlled by Western imperialists.
Though Conrad was able to expose the domineering avarice of imperialism, Said noted that Heart of Darkness was essentially about Europe’s imperial mastery over Africa, with the “natives” having no culture or history of their own or the will to break the chains of bondage to win their independence. Science, history, and learning all come from the West, and European tutelage over Africans seemed inevitable and preordained by nature.
Said also promoted a positive synthesis of cultures, recognising the globalising, potentially positive impact of the post-imperial world.
He used the work of anti-colonial writers such as Frantz Fanon, CLR James, Walter Rodney, Derek Walcott, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Tayeb Salih, Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Garcia Márquez to show how “the Empire” had struck back with its own counter-narratives that challenged the arrogant and racist misrepresentations of Western authors.
Said particularly praised the 1986 nine-part documentary The Africans by Kenyan scholar Ali Mazrui which sought to narrate the history of Africa from an unapologetically Pan-African perspective. As Said noted: “Here at last was an African on prime-time television, in the West, daring to accuse the West of what it had done, thus reopening a file considered closed.”
Another important Saidian theme was that the past could not simply be discarded, as it continues to inform the present.
He was a particularly vocal critic of American power, accusing his adopted homeland of acting like a self-appointed global policeman.
Said saw in the propaganda for America’s wars in Vietnam and Iraq the same nativist appeals of earlier imperial powers, with intellectuals, journalists, soldiers, artists, and ordinary citizens uncritically wrapping themselves in the star-spangled banner in patriotic defence of their country’s neo-colonial aggression.
He particularly criticised – notably in the 1981 Covering Islam – the demonisation of Islam in the West and the often crude lumping together of its one billion people of diverse cultures and six major languages.
He decried the “othering” of Islam which he saw as having replaced communism as the new enemy of the West (the US has launched eight military strikes against Muslim countries in the past 15 years).
Another impressive aspect of Said’s work is that he criticised third-world autocrats such as Uganda’s Idi Amin and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein (“a deeply unattractive, indeed revoltingly, tough and callous leader”) as consistently and ferociously as he condemned Western neo-imperialism.
Even Egypt’s Anwar Sadat did not escape his sharp pen, with Said describing the Nobel Peace laureate as behaving in ways that American daydreamers imagine that “great native ‘rulers’ ought to be”. In contrast, Said admired Nelson Mandela’s “firmness and conviction”, contrasting this to a lack of principled leadership among Palestinians and Arabs.
Another of Said’s key concerns, elaborated in his 1993 Reith lectures on Representations of the Intellectual, was the need for secular intellectuals to engage with the public to “speak truth to power”, stir up debate and controversy, and avoid patriotic nationalism and corporate thinking.
Describing himself as a “stupidly stubborn secular intellectual” and humanist, Said regarded intellectuals as iconoclastic, marginal exiles and outsiders who belonged to no tribe and subscribed to no creed.
They had therefore to speak out for their fellow displaced and dispossessed. He cites James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Noam Chomsky, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Virginia Woolf as exemplary figures of dissent who challenged the status quo and sought to uphold “eternal standards of truth and justice”.
He dismissed establishment intellectuals as serving “gods that always fail”. True intellectuals are seen, in contrast, as crusaders against corruption; promoters of human freedom and knowledge; defenders of the weak and voiceless; confronters of orthodoxy and dogma; and challengers of oppressive authority.
Intellectuals are also exiles in a metaphysical sense of being unsettled and unsettling others, while traversing disciplines and demolishing idées fixes. As Said noted: “The exilic intellectual does not respond to the logic of the conventional but to the audacity of daring, and to representing change, to moving on, not standing still.”
Said has often noted that the power to narrate or to block narratives from emerging were important aspects of cultural imperialism. Today, the hold that the cartel of still mostly white men has over the mainstream international media is a powerful tool in shaping how people view the world.
Depicting Africa as a “hopeless continent” of culturally backward people prone to perennial conflicts is scarcely going to convince public opinion in the West to support efforts to end Africa’s tragic conflicts. Such Afrophobic Western misrepresentations of Africa must be deconstructed, and Africans have to force their own narratives on to the global agenda.
Said was the ultimate cosmopolitan citizen of the world. As he explained: “I have remained, as a native from the Arab and Muslim world, someone who belongs to the other side. This has enabled me in a sense to live on both sides, and to try to mediate between them.”
He was an Arab who challenged Western prejudices; a Christian who defended the rights of Muslims; and a public intellectual who became a political activist.
On this tenth anniversary of his death, I wish to place a wreath to Said’s memory for providing us with the tools to expose the flawed and prejudiced musings of Western apostles of Afrophobia.
* Adekeye Adebajo is Executive Director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, and author of The Curse of Berlin: Africa After the Cold War.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.