Meeting Edward Said at the Alamo
BY NAOMI SHIHAB NYE
ears ago, Edward Said telephoned my house from downtown San Antonio, only blocks away. He had just finished speaking to the World Affairs Council. “Don’t you think it’s time we met?” he asked.
I was startled and honored he would call. He suggested we meet at the Alamo. I ducked in out of the wind and there he was, tall and smiling, in a dark cable sweater. He waved his hand at the hallowed room. “Don’t you think it’s appropriate? Shrine of Independence and all?” We laughed. Things seemed more hopeful right then. We went for coffee on the river.
Sparrows were landing in the trees right next to us, hopping around our feet. Surely we talked about the self-determination of the Palestinian people, the wayward wanderings of politicians who manage not to solve anything, and the tragedies of all kinds of violence. I seem to recall discussing education (Said was a distinguished professor of English at Columbia University for many years), the friends I’d had who were lucky enough to take his classes, ancestry and exile, and poems that included figs. But what I remember best is simply the power of voice itself, Edward Said’s graceful, melodious language and manner. There was eloquence and insight in every line.
Whenever I saw him later, in other cities, on The Charlie Rose Show late at night, at podiums before large crowds, I always had the sensation of sparrows pecking around our feet.
He was a genius indeed, a giant of extravagant talents—born in Palestine in 1935, educated in Cairo, Beirut, and the United States. He became a passionate scholar, cultural critic, pianist, activist, and advocate, and author of landmark, wide-ranging books including Orientalism, Culture and Imperialism, Peace and Its Discontents, The Politics of Dispossession, many considered classics shortly after their publication. Some of us recommended widely his more personal books—After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives (“How much trivial malice can we bear?” he wrote) and Out of Place, his 1999 memoir which won the New Yorker Best Book of the Year award. He supported imaginative projects, such as the National Conservatory of Music–Palestine, headquartered in Ramallah, along with his dear friend, the musician Daniel Barenboim.
Edward Said spoke for a particularly unchosen people and he spoke for all people of conscience. He never stopped speaking, not after he was diagnosed with leukemia and besieged by complicated treatments, not when the world’s faulty maneuvers continued to disappoint and confound us all. He supported a single-state solution for Palestine and Israel, writing that “the question is not how to devise means for persisting in trying to separate,” Israelis and Palestinians, “but to see whether it is possible for them to live together as fairly and peacefully as possible.” His favorite poem, “Waiting for the Barbarians” by Constantine Cavafy includes the lines: What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum? The barbarians are due here today. Why isn’t anything happening in the senate? Why do the senators sit there without legislating? His own stunning intellect gave him a native ability to hear through the empty chatter and spirals of self-interest emanating from rooms of so-called power. Why couldn’t people see what was obvious? Why were they so obstructionist and dim? Many of us lived in great fear of the day he would depart from us, for there have been few human beings in any century as finely tuned, as genuinely cognizant of detail and implication, as Edward Said. We needed him.
In 2001, the Lannan Foundation awarded Said their Lifetime Achievement in Literature Award. The following year he introduced the poet Mahmoud Darwish on a stage before a packed house at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania when Darwish accepted the Lannan Foundation’s Cultural Freedom Award.
Patrick Lannan, the Foundation’s president, now writes that “Edward was one of America’s most important intellectuals. Never for a moment did he hesitate to write and speak the truth to power, no matter the personal attacks and criticism he had to endure for doing so. While all social injustice offended him he was especially committed to the cause of justice and equity for the Palestinians… the victims of both American foreign policy ambitions in the Middle East and the Zionist expansionism of Israel. Even here, involving a cause so loaded with emotion, Edward never lost sight of the shared humanity of both Palestinians and Israelis.” Widely circulated on the Internet has been the story that in the difficult days before his death Edward Said urged his family to encourage others to continue the struggle for justice in the Middle East. Whatever our own misgivings about speaking out might be, he urged us to move beyond them, to voice our opinions even when they are not popular, as he always did. He urged us to labor tirelessly, to double our efforts for human rights, dignity, and respect in all places on earth. And this we must try to do, with ongoing gratitude for his huge life. Naomi Shihab Nye is the Observer’s poetry editor. She is the editor of Is This Forever or What?, a collection of poems and paintings from Texas to be published in March by HarperCollins. Edward Said (“What’s Wrong with Utopia?” TO, February 15, 2002) died on September 25, 2002.