A Tribute to Edward Said

Afif Safieh -
Palestinian General Delegate to the United Kingdom and to the Holy See,
6th November 2003

At Memorial event - organised by Association of the Palestinian Community (APC), Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), Friends House. London

Edward was profoundly Palestinian. Edward was totally cosmopolitan. Edward was the universal intellectual par excellence.

I still remember his devastating critique of Samuel Huntington's "Clash of civilisations" in which he argued that even the city-states of Ancient Greece owed a lot and borrowed much from those they considered "barbarians". That the Roman Empire was, by its very nature, a pluri-ethnical multi-cultural society. On the basis of this vision of the constant cross-fertilisation of cultures and civilisations, I believe that Edward Said was our Palestinian contribution to the international intellectual landscape, our Palestinian input in contemporary political thought.

Edward was a charming private person. Edward was an immensely charismatic public figure. For Christ'l and I, Edward was a very close and dear friend since 1978 when we met in Beirut. He had just published "Orientalism" which was hailed more as an event rather than simply one more book. In academic circles, there will always be "a before Orientalism" and "an after Orientalism".

Is there a contradiction due to the fact that Edward was a severe critic of the Palestinian National Authority and my being here to pay tribute to his legacy and to his memory? Not at all. Edward and I agreed, years ago, that the Palestinian people had neither the authority they deserve nor the opposition they need. We agreed, years ago, that the P.L.O. was at the same time an idea and an institution. I happen to represent the institution. I hope with dignity. He was the powerful vehicle of the idea. And ideas are immortal.

One of Edward's favourite thinkers, Antonio Gramsci wrote brilliantly about the special relationship between intellectuals and the oppressed: "those who think because they suffer and those who suffer because they think". An opinion as though tailored specially for Edward. The fact that today supporters of Palestinian aspirations are no more a marginal minority but belong to the mainstream in Europe owes much to Edward's prolific writing and his tireless lecturing. Edward would have been delighted by the results of the opinion poll conducted by the European Commission which showed that 59% of European public opinion consider Israeli policies and practices to be the greatest threat to world peace. Of course the pro-Israeli inquisition will try, through their usual intellectual terrorism, to drag in the mud those who undertook the poll and those whose opinions it expressed, yet the message from European public opinion is clear:

-Anti-semitism today is the persecution of Palestinian society by the Israeli state. -It is the constant American alignment on the Israeli preference that is poisoning international relations.

-It is the collusion between the Israeli and the American agendas that has put America on a collision course with the Arab and the Muslim World.

-The European governments are too timid, insufficiently assertive, too complacent in their dealings with an Israel that daily violates international law and defies the international will.

All through his life, Edward denounced both Judeophobia and Islamophobia. He never indulged in comparative victimology or martyrology. He never volunteered mechanisms and methods to measure pain or to quantity suffering.

If I were a Jew or a Gypsy, the Holocaust would be the most horrible event in History. If I were a Black African it would be Slavery and Apartheid. If I were a Native American, it would be the discovery of the New World by European explorers and settlers that resulted in near total extermination. If I were an Armenian it would be the Ottoman-Turkish massacres. And if I happen to be a Palestinian, it would be the Nakba-Catastrophe. No one people has a monopoly on human suffering. It is not advisable to try to establish a hierarchy of suffering. Humanity should consider all the above as morally repugnant and politically unacceptable. And humanity is increasingly beginning to express its adhesion to the principle that there is only one mankind and not different kinds of men and women. This too we all owe to Edward Said.

The last time I met Edward was at his keynote speech at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) on the January 29, 2003. It was followed by a small dinner, in his honour, nowhere else but in The British Museum. Knowing that the end was near, I felt that the place was extremely well chosen to pay tribute to a living monument, a roving encyclopaedia. If ever we the Palestinians were to have, like in Paris, a Pantheon of our own "for those to whom the nation is indebted", it is undeniably there that Edward Said would belong.

Bing Crosby, the singer, said of Frank Sinatra: " such a voice happens only once in a lifetime. Why the hell did it have to happen during my lifetime?".

Edward, we are all proud, we all feel immensely privileged that you "happened" during our lifetime.

Afif Safieh
Palestinian General Delegate to the United Kingdom and to the Holy See

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