He was both an icon and an iconclast

The last time I saw Edward Said, I asked him to go on living. I knew about his leukaemia. He had often pointed out that he was receiving “state-of-the-art” treatment from a Jewish doctor and – despite all the trash that his enemies threw at him – he always acknowledged the kindness and honour of his Jewish friends, of whom Daniel Barenboim was among the finest.

Edward was dining at a buffet among his family in Beirut, frail but angry at Arafat’s latest surrender in Palestine/Israel. And he answered my question like a soldier. “I’m not going to die,” he said. “Because so many people want me dead.”

On Wednesday night he died in a New York hospital, aged 67.

I first met him in the early years of the Lebanese civil war. I’d heard of this man, this intellectual fighter and linguist and academic and musicologist and – God spare me for my ignorance in the 1970s – didn’t know much about him. I was told to go to an apartment near Hamra street in Beirut.

There was shooting in the streets – how easily we all came to accept the normality of war – but when I climbed the steps to the apartment, I heard a Beethoven piano sonata. No, it wasn’t the “Moonlight”- nothing so popular for Edward – but I waited outside
the brown-painted door for 10 minutes until he had finished.

“You’ve read my books, Robert – but I bet you haven’t read my work on music,” he once scolded me. And of course, I scuttled off to Librarie Internationale in the Gefinor Building in Beirut to buy his definitive book to add to my collection; his wonderful essays on the Palestinians, his excoriation of the corruption and viciousness of Yasser Arafat, his outraged condemnation of the criminality of Ariel Sharon.

He was not a flawless man. He could be arrogant, he could be ruthless in his criticism. He could be repetitive. He could be angry to the point of irradiation. But he had much to be angry about. One afternoon, I went to see him at the Beirut home of his sister Jean – a fine lady whose own account of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Beirut Fragments, is worthy of her brother’s integrity – and he was half-lying on a sofa.

“I’m just a bit tired because of the leukaemia treatment,” he said. “I keep on going. I’ll not stop.”

He was a tough guy, the most eloquent defender of an occupied people and the most irascible attacker of its corrupt leadership. Arafat banned his books in the occupied territories – proving the immensity of Said and the intellectual impoverishment of Arafat.

At that first meeting in Beirut in the late Seventies, I had asked him about Arafat. “I went to a meeting he held in Beirut the other day,” he said. “And Arafat stood there and was questioned about a future Palestinian state, and all he could say was that ‘You must ask every Palestinian child this question.’ Everyone clapped. But what did he mean? What on earth was he talking about? It was rhetoric. But it meant nothing.”

After Arafat went along with the Oslo accords, Said was the first – rightly – to attack him. Arafat had never seen a Jewish settlement in the occupied territories, he said. There wasn’t a single Palestinian lawyer present during the Oslo negotiations. Said was immediately condemned – all of us who said that Oslo would be a catastrophic failure were – as “anti- peace” and, by vicious extension, “pro-terrorist”.

Said would weary of the need to repeat the Palestinian story, the importance of denouncing the old lies – one of them, which especially enraged him, was the myth that Arab radio stations had called upon the Palestinian Arabs of 1948 to abandon their homes in the new Israeli state – but he would repeat, over and over again, the importance of re-telling the tale of Palestinian tragedy.

He was abused by anonymous callers, his office was visited by a fire- bomber, and he was libelled many times by Jewish Americans who hated that he, a professor of literature at Columbia University, could so eloquently and vigorously defend his occupied people.

An attempt was made, in his dying days, to deprive him of his academic job by some cruel supporters of Israel who claimed – the same old, mendacious slur – that he was an anti-Semite. Columbia, in a long but slightly ambivalent statement, defended him. When the Jewish head of Harvard expressed his concern about the rise of “anti-Semitism” in the United States – by those who dared to criticise Israel – Said wrote scathingly that a Jewish academic who was head of Harvard “complains about anti-Semitism!”

As his health declined, he was invited to give a lecture in northern England. I can still hear the lady who organised it complaining that he insisted on flying business class. But why not? Was a critically ill man, fighting for his life and his people, not allowed some comfort across the Atlantic? His friendship with the brilliant Barenboim – and their joint support for an Arab-Israeli orchestra that only last month played in Morocco – was proof of his human decency. When Barenboim was refused permission to play in Ramallah, Said rearranged his concert – much to the fury of the Sharon government, for which Said had only contempt.

The last time I saw him, he was exalted with happiness at the marriage of his son to a beautiful young woman. The time I saw him before, he had been moved to infuriation by the failure of Palestinians in Boston to arrange his slides to a lecture on the “right of return” of Palestinians to Palestine in the right order. Like all serious academics, he wanted accuracy. All the greater was his fury when one of his enemies claimed that he was never a true refugee from Palestine because he was in Cairo at the time of the Palestinian dispossession.

He had no truck with sloppy journalism – take a look at Covering Islam, on the reporting of the Iranian revolution – and he had even less patience with American television anchors. “When I went on air,” he told me once, “the Israeli consul in New York said I was a terrorist and wanted to kill him. And what did the anchorwoman say to me? `Mr Said, why do you want to kill the Israeli consul?’ How do you reply to such garbage?”

Edward was a rare bird. He was both an icon and an iconoclast.

Courtesy Josh Kirby

Correspondent for the Independent, Robert Fisk is resident in the Middle East and comments on events unfolding there