Edward Said
Literary Arts Icon

Literary Arts

Edward Said

Past Event: Monday, March 6, 1995

Edward Said is a distinguished cultural critic best known for his writings on exile, the social role of the intellectual, and the relationship between culture and imperialism.

Born a Palestinian Christian, Said lived in West Jerusalem from 1935 until 1947, when his family fled to Egypt and later to Lebanon, prior to the establishment of the state of Israel. Said was educated in the United States, receiving his undergraduate degree from Princeton in 1957 and his M.A. and Ph.D. in English from Harvard in 1964. He established his reputation as a scholar through his writings on 19th-century English fiction, especially the novels of Joseph Conrad. But it was the publication of Orientalism in 1978 that gained him recognition as an important public intellectual. Nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the book shows how Western scholars have misrepresented the East as a changeless, passive, dependent “other.”

Culture and Imperialism (1993) extended Said’s exploration of the interconnection between cultural life in the Europe and colonial rule in Africa, the Middle East, India, and other parts of the world. Culture and Imperialism shows how colonialism affected the work of writers like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Conrad, and how European notions of “civilization” were used to validate the conquering of “primitive” people.

As the most visible Palestinian intellectual in the United States, Said has also become an important political activist and commentator. From 1977 to 1991, he was a member of the Palestine National Council, the Palestinian parliament in exile. He has also written several books on the subject, including The Question of Palestine (1979), Covering Islam (1981), and The Politics of the Dispossession (1994).

Edward Said lives in New York, where he is Parr Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

Excerpt from Out of Place: A Memoir (1999)

All families invent their parents and children, give each of them a story, character, fate, and even a language. There was always something wrong with how I was invented and meant to fit in with the world of my parents and four sisters. Whether this was because I constantly misread my part or because of some deep flaw in my being I could not tell for most of my early life. Sometimes I was intransigent, and proud of it. At other times I seemed to myself to be nearly devoid of any character at all, timid, uncertain, without will. Yet the overriding sensation I had was of always being out of place. Thus it took me about fifty years to become accustomed to, or, more exactly, to feel less uncomfortable with, Edward, a foolishly English name yoked forcibly to the unmistakably Arabic family name Said. True my mother told me that I had been named Edward after the Prince of Wales, who cut so fine a figure in 1935, the year of my birth, and Said was the name of various uncles and cousins. But the rationale of my name broke down both when I discovered no grandparents called Said and when I tried to connect my fancy English name with its Arabic partner. For years, and depending on the exact circumstances, I would rush past “Edward” and emphasize “Said”; at other times I would do the reverse, or connect these two to each other so quickly that neither would be clear. The one thing I could not tolerate, but very often would have to endure, was the disbelieving, and hence undermining, reaction: Edward? Said?

The travails of bearing such a name were compounded by an equally unsettling quandary when it came to language. I have never known what language I spoke first, Arabic or English, or which one was really mine beyond any doubt. What I do know, however, is that the two have always been together in my life, one resonating in the other, sometimes ironically, sometimes nostalgically, most often each correcting, and commenting on, the other. Each can seem like my absolutely first language, but neither is. I trace this primal instability back to my mother, whom I remember speaking to me in both English and Arabic, although she always wrote to me in English–once a week, all her life, as did I, all of hers. Certain spoken phrases of hers like tislamli or mish “arfa shu biddi “amal? or rouh”ha–dozens of them–were Arabic, and I was never conscious of having to translate them or, even in cases like tislamli, knowing exactly what they meant. They were a part of her infinitely maternal atmosphere, which in moments of great stress I found myself yearning for in the softly uttered phrase “ya mama,” an atmosphere dreamily seductive then suddenly snatched away, promising something in the end never given.

Selected Work
Out of Place: A Memoir (1999)
The Politics of the Dispossession (1994)
Culture and Imperialism (1993)
Covering Islam (1981)
The Question of Palestine (1979)
Orientalism (1978)

Interview with Said