10 years ago today I stood in line in a coffee shop, waiting to get a cup of coffee. It was a local coffee shop in small town in Upstate New York. A friend of mine, a dear Pakistani historian, came up behind, with her eyes swollen: “Did you hear? Edward passed away.”
Not Said, not Professor Said, not the most eloquent and articulate critic of Empire, not the lone voice of Palestinians known to most Westerners. Edward.
My knees got weak, and something in my heart sank.
Edward. How I wanted my friend to take it back, to make Edward be un-dead.
How do you feel so close to someone you’ve never met?
I never did have the chance to meet Edward, but so much of my life has been shaped by Said, as much as it has been shaped by Rumi, the Prophet, and Martin.
Said was a complicated scholar, a deeply committed secular humanist, a Christian by birth, yet one who was called upon again and again to speak for Islam. It was Edward’s intelligence, his conviction, his refusal to bow before Empire, his deep and unrepentant humanism, and yes, his elegance that so touched and inspired me as a younger man—and continues to inspire me now.
Here is one of the themes that I have taken away from Edward: the need for all of us to be engaged in what he termed “criticism.” Criticism for Edward did not mean mere critique, but a profoundly humanistic engagement. Criticism for Said was a liberation-oriented process, ultimately life-enhancing:
Criticism must think of itself as life-enhancing and constitutively opposed to every form of tyranny, domination, and abuse; Its social goals are noncoercive knowledge produced in the interests of human freedom.
The intellectual for Said had to remain concerned precisely for the most downtrodden:
“The intellectuals’ representations–what he or she represents and how those ideas are represented to an audience–are always tied to and ought to remain an organic part of an ongoing experience in society: of the poor, the disadvantaged, the voiceless, the unrepresented, the powerless.”
Unlike many intellectuals of his generation, Said was not a pessimist. He was and remained committed that there is something ultimately redemptive about a face-to-face encounter of human beings with one another. This was at the heart of Said’s humanism, the stubborn faith in human-to-human encounter.
Here is a powerful tribute to Edward.
If you are not familiar with Edward’s legacy, here is a quick overview:
Edward on Orientalism:
Edward on his Palestinian roots:
Edward on American Empire:
Edward’s last interview:
I never had the chance to meet Edward face to face, but I am grateful for his presence in my life. He was and remains an iconic source of inspiration for an entire of generation of humanity who remain committed to liberation, to the profoundly redemptive nature of human-to-human encounter.
The anniversary of Edward’s passing echoes that of the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s historic March on Washington. The best way to honor Edward is not by iconizing him–as tempting as it may be–but to pick up the mantle of Edward and Martin, and carry on the humanistic struggles that they dedicated themselves to.