A GERMAN-EGYPTIAN MEMORY OF EDWARD W. SAʿID

Edward Said loved music, and I loved his love of music, as well as the musicality that characterized everything, he did.

Teju Cole, “A Quartet for Edward Said,” from Black Paper  (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming 2021)[1]


[1] I thank Teju Cole for providing me with this script, and Roni Mann for her comments on an earlier version of the text.

In autumn 1989, freshly arrived at Columbia University, I had to smuggle myself into a class by Edward Said. There were simply too many students who wanted to audit his course and the room was packed. As I was an outsider to the US system, with its expensive university fees and student loans, I had only one year in town for my graduate studies in Middle East Languages and Cultures (MELAC) at Columbia University. So, I tried my luck in both seminars that Edward Said offered – his undergraduate, as well as his graduate class. The undergraduate classroom burst its seams. Said asked, “Who is not an undergraduate here?! Everybody who is not an undergraduate: please get out!” A considerable number of people shuffled through the narrow lines of chairs. I examined the wooden floor closely. When everybody had left, he pointed at me and asked: “What about you??” To this day, I have no clue how he could single me out. Columbia had stacked me in undergraduate housing on Riverside Drive with another 400 students–twelve to share the apartment, and one to share a room with. The latter wanted to join the Pentagon and planted articles on my desk about “Gorbachev, the Antichrist” – well, it was the year 1989/90. I stood up, and answered: “Me?? Uh, I am German!” This got me some nice laughs, but no permission to stay. Well, at least I suspect that this was my entry ticket to the graduate class: Finally, I was able to take Comparative Literature G8504, the first seminar in Cultural Studies at Columbia University, which Said co-taught with Jean Franco.

Though it was hardly the career his family had envisioned for him, Edward Said’s critique of a ubiquitous Eurocentrism and the notorious knowledge-power nexus in so-called North-South relations has shaped disciplines across the board and beyond the humanities (the study of medicine for example testifies of a pervasive Euro- and male-centrism). I keep a cassette from those days. To hear Said’s musings on audio today might be nothing special in the digital age with its countless interviews and recorded lectures on YouTube and other sites. Worse, my cassette is hardly audible. But gluing to an old cassette recorder allows me to relive the atmosphere of the class, the laughter, the passion for the literature we read and some loud door banging by latecomers. The distinct voice – as any voice from the past – does the rest to revive my memories: Edward Said was a charismatic person, who was never arrogant or detached. It would have been difficult not to notice his stylish outfit in class, and I would not have mentioned it here, were it not for Teju Cole who admitted (his own term) that as an impoverished student at Columbia University he first noticed Said’s suit and noble figure and that he was awed by “the flash of glamour, a glamour present each time I caught sight of Said’s noble figure on campus.” (min. 0:50-60)

One other quality, that comes to my mind, was Said’s interest in and – more important – ability for self-correction. Since my early studies, I have been interested in thinkers, who fundamentally revise their own theory-building later in life. Edward Said engaged in detail with his reviewers, answered their critique and re-thought his theories. This can well be seen in his article “Traveling Theory” in which Said asks what happens to a theory once it moves out of its original context? Here, Said sets out to examine the transtemporal and translocal entanglements of theories. At the time, he argued that in traveling they are often domesticated and stripped of their original force.

I was never convinced that a theory loses its rebelliousness when it moves out of its original context – quite the contrary. Where many see a process of “commodification” or even “Disneyfication” at work with Western cultural globalization overriding local ideas and unifying the world, I am rather interested to investigate the creative part, because people universally like to take “things” in and at the same time shape them with their own original imprint. So it was rewarding for me to read many years later, how Said altered his approach to “Traveling Theory” incorporating how it can be enriched and fused with life and originality exactly outside of its original context.

Many people do not know, that Said was in fact since 1986 the music critic of the US-American weekly The Nation. More than 50 reviews give us an introduction into one of Said’s obsessions and what a “music buff” (Mariam C. Said)  he was. Said was highly influenced by the German composer, philosopher, musicologist and founder of the Frankfurt school, Theodor Adorno. He uses Adorno’s analysis to cognize what composers like Pierre Boulez and Arnold Schoenberg or performers like Glenn Gould intended to do or what they reacted to. Reading these reviews in 2020, draws you into a parallel world: we can for example see the young András Schiff through Said’s eyes at Carnegie Hall in 1989. And at the same time, we can see and hear the Sir András Schiff today at the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin. This is a fascinating game of shifting perspectives (Vexierspiel, I like to call it) that Said has left for us. The lesson he and Daniel Barenboim as co-founders of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra insist on, is that we learn from music that one voice is nothing without the other. Counterpoint “makes music more beautiful”, we hear. Music accepts dissent and subversion, says Daniel Barenboim. But can this really be transposed from music to the political sphere?? 

With Orientalism Said carried out a contrapuntal reading of the European literary canon, thinking of works like Kim by Rudyard Kipling, Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, The Stranger by Albert Camus, or Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe; not surprisingly often children’s books shaping the image of “the Orient” from an early age on. Said strips bare the colonial gaze contained in such works. He used Karl Marx’s phrase “They cannot represent themselves. They need to be represented” from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte as his epigram to Orientalism (1978) to illustrate the infantilization and misrepresentation of communities defined as outside of Western modernity. His discursive analysis can be applied to Madame Bovary (1856) as much as it can be used to deconstruct news coverage or Hollywood films today. What is adorned in the frothing European oil canvases of the 19th and 20th centuries is very candidly so the beauty of one’s prey and its imagined twin. Sexual fantasies and essentialist readings of race, religion and gender were literally ‘framed’ and carved in stone. The wish for possession as well as repulsion, desire and aversion are ingrained in Orientalist fine arts, music and literature. Said’s readings show us how Empire and the anti-Empire are inscribed in the canon, and he turns our eyes to its inherent discrepancies. But he never claimed to be the first to make this argument. In contrast to what some critics wrote, he made it very clear in class (and in his writings) that he did not invent the critique of Orientalism; inter alia, he pointed to the works of Anouar Abdel-Malek, a Marxist Egyptian political scientist, who died in 2012, as one of his intellectual forerunners.[2]

In 2013, the eminent Algerian author Kamel Daoud wrote a novel, The Mersault Investigation, that rewrites Camus’ The Stranger from the perspective of Haroun, the brother of the nameless Arab killed in Camus’ novel. Daoud turns the disdain and the condescending views on Algerians and their struggle for independence between “Allah and ennui”, as the author puts it on its feet. As much of the postcolonial literature on trauma, he never gives us certitude about what has happened, is happening or will happen. Painfully, Daoud re-reads the original text to us or better with us, the bibliophiles, knowing Albert Camus as one of the big French icons of the 20th century, present in top-100 books list or the famous Magnum photos of Camus popping up in our lives. “Committing a real murder gives one some new, clear-cut certitudes”, the protagonist writes: “Read what your hero wrote about his stay in a prison cell. I often reread that passage myself, it’s the most interesting part of his whole hodgepodge of sun and salt. When your hero’s in his cell, that’s when he’s best at asking the big questions.” One could say with its multifarious repetitions and prompts, Daoud’s narrative takes the form of a (textual) reenactment.  It is the contrapuntal story already inherent in the original work that interested Edward Said as much as it interests Kamel Daoud.

Said lived to see the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and died on 24 September 2003, half a year into it. Misinformation about Iraq continues Said’s seminal work on Covering Islam. How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World. The arc from 1981 to today’s ever-increasing Islamophobia and the way the media still base their reporting on the expected stereotypes is obvious. The tank drivers heading towards Baghdad in 2003 were listening to combat playlists to prop up their willingness to fight, ease their own fear, and subdue their pain. Music, like “Touchdown” by T.I. and Eminem or “Indestructible” by Disturbed, was a constant during their deployment.

Said’s memoir Out of Place (London 1999)which he started writing after his diagnosis with leukemia, is itself a work of “late style”, I suggest. Said took this term from Adorno, to examine what happens to an art work towards the end of the life of its originator. What aesthetic quality do these works develop? “[W]hat of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution but as intransigence, difficulty and unresolved contradiction? What if age and ill health don’t produce the serenity of >ripeness is all<?”, Said asked (2006: 7). His own memoir is in fact not more intransigent than his other works, but it is a keystone in the project of retaining first-hand narratives of forced displacement, lost land and “non-existing people”. This endeavor was worth for him to change the genre. The memoir gives us a rare glimpse into a contemporary witness of the 1948 nakba (catastrophe) from the perspective of a 12-year-old. Today, after the so-called nakba law of 2011, which entitles the Ministry of Finance to divest public money in case an entity uses it for (amongst other stipulations): “Commemorating Independence Day or the day of the establishment of the state [of Israel, SH] as a day of mourning”, but voices that can tell the event of the Palestinian expulsion are more indispensable than ever for the generations to come. 

Out of Place only covers Said’s childhood and teens until the end of his education in the United States. It is important to bear this trait of the autobiography in mind. Like all traumatic experiences, the family silenced the nakba at home, so that he had heard almost nothing about what had happened in Palestine except that he could remember himself: Palestinian refugees flocking into Egypt and his aunt Nabiha taking care of them. In many instances in the book, he recalls that his mother kept news from the children, saying they should not ‘break their little heads over this or that’. But concealing the expulsion of one’s own people surely was more than simple “news”.

I can recall that I had no clue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict until the exact age of 19, when I went to the American University in Cairo to study Arabic. Although my aspiration had been to go to a “real” American university, which in my teen logic meant to move to the United States after high school, my father came up with the idea of the AUC in Egypt as a smart diversion. Over Christmas 1986, the university announced a trip to Israel and Palestine, which I signed up for. But the excursion was canceled at the last minute. It was only when I inquired among my fellow students why this was the case? that I learned about the conflict. Akram Khater from CASA, a Kaderschmiede for US citizens to study Arabic abroad (which I was for passport-reasons not part of), enlightened me. It sounds uncanny for a German-Egyptian household to keep the Israeli-Palestinian-Egyptian entanglement at the time of Sadat’s legendary trip to the Knesset outside. And if it were not for the oh so disappointing Christmas trip of December 1986, I would today surely not be able to pin down the exact moment when I learned about the nakba. Edward Said recounts family silences more than once in his memoir. The “unknowing witness,” as he calls it, aptly refers to children listening in to family secrets. Let me quote him here at length about these present absences:

What overcomes me now is the scale of dislocation our family and friends experienced and of which I was a scarcely conscious, essentially unknowing witness in 1948. As a boy of twelve and a half in Cairo, I often saw the sadness and destitution in the faces and lives of people I had formally known as ordinary middle-class people in Palestine, but I couldn’t really comprehend the tragedy that had befallen them nor could I piece together all the different narrative fragments to understand what had really happened in Palestine. (1999: 114)

The subject of Palestine was rarely talked about openly although stray comments by my father suggested the catastrophic collapse of a society and a country’s disappearance.[3] (1999: 116)

It seems inexplicable to me now that having dominated our lives for generations, the problem of Palestine and its tragic loss, which affected virtually everyone we knew, deeply changing our world, should have been so relatively repressed, undiscussed, or even remarked on by my parents. (1999: 117)

The silences that Said recounts evidently confirm what we know about traumatic events and intergenerational transmission. Many survivors of the Holocaust did not tell their children and grandchildren about what they had gone through. And when a culture of remembrance was endorsed by the mainstream media and subsequently the wider European and American public roughly since the late 1970s, it was possible for many to give their testimony to journalists and researchers  – but still not to family members.

Said was an outspoken supporter of the two-state solution, and a chief critic of the Oslo Process, as he did not see any mention of the crucial issues in the accords (as the right of return, self-rule etc.). Today his views on the Oslo process read like the most apt comment on the present situation of Israel and Palestine. How Do You Spell Apartheid? O-s-l-o, published in Ha’aretz in 1998 for instance ties directly into the debates that exploded (one needs to call it this way) in 2020 in Germany around Achille Mbembe’s criticism of Israel’s occupation. Mbembe and Said obviously speak well to each other; recall Said’s words in Ha’aretz: “Zionism appealed to a European audience for whom the classification of overseas territories and natives into various uneven classes was canonical and ‘natural.’ That is why, for example, every single state or movement in the formerly colonized territories of Africa and Asia today identifies with, fully supports and understands the Palestinian struggle.” In this vein, Mbembe (and others) search for ways of civil disobedience to counter the occupation since 1967. Would for example a call for a boycott similar to the boycott against South Africa under apartheid be a legitimate option? Or would that rather remind us (that is in particular the German but also the global memory community) of the boycott of Jews and Jewish businesses in Nazi Germany after April 1, 1933? With two resolutions by the German Bundestag over the last three years, which set a frame to easily defame criticism of Israel’s policies as antisemitic, Mbembe, who had been awarded many important prizes in Germany, suddenly was treated as a pariah: From winner of the Geschwister-Scholl Prize to “Holocaust relativizer” seems to be a short and elegant road in Germany these days. Obviously, it did not take long till Edward Said (who is not well known in Germany outside university circles) was defamed in the German printing press. Said’s article on O-s-l-o thus reminds us of the historicity of the term ‘apartheid’ within the Israeli-Palestinian context as well as the networks of solidarity stemming out of joint experiences in the 19th and 20th century.

During his lifetime, Said incessantly addressed all sides of the conflict through Hebrew as well as Arabic media. It would, for instance, take little courage to write in the New York Times: “We must recognize the realities of the Holocaust not as a blank check for Israelis to abuse us, but as a sign of our humanity, our ability to understand history, our requirement that our suffering be mutually acknowledged.” But Said wrote this in 1998 in the widely circulated pan-Arab daily newspaper al-Hayat.

Last but not least, among the reviews he wrote, I stumbled across one which resonated especially with me: “Egyptian Rites” published in New York’s popular Village Voice (Said would probably be blogging today). Which “rites” did he mean?? Said actually reviews here the Metropolitan Museum’s new Egyptian wing with the complete Temple of Dendur on display and a film series accompanying the exhibition’s opening in 1983. He wrote: 

Egypt isn’t just another foreign country; it is special. Everyone has some acquaintance with it, whether through photographs of Abu Simbel, busts of Nefertiti, school courses in ancient history, or images of  Anwar Sadat on television. Historical characters—Cleopatra, Ramses, Tutankhamen, among many—have been drafted for service in mass culture, and they continue to exist and function as symbols of passion, conquest, and wealth complicated by an exotic remoteness that remains attractive in the late twentieth century. (1983: 43) 

I like the “Everyone” at the start of this review. Pictures of the pyramids always from the same outbound angle, Nefertiti or Nofretete, as the Germans call her, in Berlin, and Tutankhamun (real or surreal) are today among the best-known global icons, who remain in a gluey and already deadly spiderweb of foreign ascriptions. On October 3rd, 2020, during German Unity Day, unknown vandals damaged Egyptian and further artifacts in the New Museum with an oily liquid. 

We do not need to refresh the memory of Edward Wadīʿ Saʿīd – current circumstances do this for us.

Sonja Hegasy, Berlin, December 2020 

The author is professor for Postcolonial Studies at the Barenboim-Said Akademie in Berlin and Vice Director of the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient. 

Sources:

Mike Dibb: The Last Interview, with Charles Glass and Edward Said. First Run/Icarus Films, 2004, 114.48 minutes (shot over 3 days, ca. Sept. 2002, i.e., half a year before the invasion of Iraq and a year before his death)

Edward W. Said: Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims. In: Social Text, 1 (Winter, 1979), pp. 7-58.

Edward W. Said: On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain. New York: Vintage Books, 2006.


[1] I thank Teju Cole for providing me with this script, and Roni Mann for her comments on an earlier version of the text.

[2] Abdel-Malek, Anouar: Orientalism in Crisis. Diogène 11, 1963, pp.103–140.

[3] This is at the turn of the year 1947/1948, SH.