Athens, September 30, 2003
In these times, when pettiness and small-mindedness reign, when the basic principles of human civilization are shamelessly torn, the death of a great one, an irreplaceable one, makes you grieve not just for him but for the world itself. With Edward Said’s death, our already impoverished world is now even poorer.
The horrific news found me in Galaxidi, my ancestral home. Said had asked me repeatedly about this house, to describe it, to tell him its story, to confirm for him all the images of the Mediterranean landscape he loved so much. He was delighted that an expatriated Greek still had his ancestral home, perhaps because he had lost his own, and with the generosity that defined him, he would transform his sense of loss to joy for the pleasures of his friends. During the summer of 2002, when he was also in and out of emergency rooms, he had phoned me in Galaxidi one afternoon to tell me how much he was training his mind to focus on the images of the sun, the sea, the olive groves of the Mediterranean in order to endure the torturous inactivity of hospital care. When I observed how well his voice sounded on the phone, he remarked “The voice is good, but the rest of it.” adding, in a more serious tone, “Don’t worry, as long as Sharon is alive I will not die.” He often said, “I will not die because so many people want me dead.”
Edward Said was a warrior. His life restores meaning to this otherwise bankrupt word. He was indefatigable and invincible. He fought against his illness with the same determination he fought on the side of justice and humanity for his entire life. Even until his final week, he lived according to a rhythm that would exhaust people much younger and healthier than him. He traveled incessantly. And even though obviously in the last years his body had lost its gigantic capacities, still he never gave you the sense of a person who needed the hours of rest that every traveler needs. He didn’t recognize the hour difference between time zones, just as he remained indifferent to attitudes that invested a certain place with some privilege or exclusivity. He had no sense of the enclosed, the bounded. Limits got on his nerves, except the limits of humanity which he saw violated everywhere.
He lived indeed in a global time and space, not necessarily because he sought it, but rather because he had accepted that this is where history had put him, his personal history but also the history of his people, the everyplace placeless Palestinians. And he lived this everpresent globality in almost inconceivable immediacy, having all over the world loyal friends, people who loved him and stood by him, sharing his battles and his agonies, his dreams, and his pleasures.
He was remarkably generous with his friends, as relentless as he was with his enemies. Often, his public image, based mostly on the second, created the impression of a difficult, perhaps distant, person. It is true that he never forgave stupidity and malice and that he abhorred pettiness and cowardice, the cheap narcissism of academics and the overt cynicism of politicians. He had told me more than once that he had more contempt for so-called “old leftists” than for anyone else. He considered this position incomprehensible, in the last instance unhistorical and in essence self-serving. The dogmatism of the “old leftist” – developed in his presumed self-criticism and repentance – was but an extension of the dogmatism under which he once served as a member of an already heteronomously derived political body.
Said had reason to stigmatize such behavior, particularly in people who considered themselves intellectuals. The basic element and chief responsibility of an intellectual, he argued, is the continuous critical re-examination and re-interrogation of the conditions and necessities of history, simultaneously with the conscious resistance to the seductiveness of power, authority, absorption into the safety of an already constituted political formation. Edward Said was at one time a member of the National Council of Palestine, having participated in the drafting of the Constitution during the Council’s meetings in Algiers in 1989, all the time from a position uniquely independent of any participant group or party. This enabled him to be one of the first to advocate a two-state solution, during a time that official Palestinian organizations still refused to acknowledge the right of Israel to exist. But it also enabled him to be the first to condemn Arafat and the Oslo Accords as the most cynical sell-out of people by its leadership in world history.
Recognizing at last that the so-called two-state solution facilitated the complete enslavement of the Palestinian people and produced desperate reactions (such as suicide bombing), Said proclaimed, as the only socially just solution, the creation of a single nation with democratic institutions, without racial or religious privileges, and with complete disengagement between religion and the State. Because such positions shook the principles of racist Zionist upon which the Israeli state is founded from their roots, Edward Said came to inherit the distinction of being called “Professor of Terror.” In 1996, Arafat banned the circulation of his books in Palestinian territories under his control, demonstrating thus the same fear of the power of Edward Said’s public voice that one sees – still sees and will continue to see – in the eyes of his Zionist enemies.
The tireless fighter Edward Said had not the remotest trace of self-righteousness, political correctness, or moralist misery. He lived his life with open arms and the most resilient optimism, like a genuine man of the world – this nation-less man, who had no property to his name other than his most personal possessions. He was an activist who never compromised his pleasures – music, literature, good company around the table, spirited and incisive conversation. He thirsted for knowledge, and he always asked you questions, demanding from you the same precision of speech, the same attention to history, and the same humorous response to daily life that he demanded of himself. Even if you ran into him on the street altogether by chance, he induced the sense that you must not let your mind atrophy by irrelevant or superfluous thinking, inspiring you with the pleasure of every moment.
He was an extraordinary pianist, though he refused to acknowledge it in public. His love for music was hardly a hobby. It was fully entwined with his way of thinking. He considered Adorno, a great thinker precisely because he recognized Adornian philosophy to be a musicological praxis. His knowledge of music and his personal experiences as a music lover over the years were unique. He had a long and deep friendship with the great Daniel Barenboim, and together they founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Weimar to train the most talented Israeli and Arab young musicians. Last time I saw Edward was last July in New York when he came to see Heiner Goebbels’ US premiere of Eislermaterial and the public discussion I held with the composer on Hanns Eisler in the context of the Lincoln Center Festival. Although demonstrably weak and exhausted, Edward came with his wife Mariam to both performances and insisted that we discuss the details of the Eisler case. As usual in such moments with him, a conversation about music and politics in mid-20th century directed us to broader matters: experimentalism in art, the significance of modernism today, the culture of German-Jewish intelligentsia, the demise of the community of leftist New York Jews after 1967, the peculiarities of American Zionism. It was then he confessed that a recent meeting he had with Colin Powell proved to him that the Secretary of State was a robotic bureaucrat and that any intervention at that level was worthless.
Even to those who knew him well, Said’s ability to think, converse, and write on such multiverse levels, without breaking up his attention, without losing track of his object or the precise nature of the audience, was uncanny. Perhaps the most profound lesson he endowed to me was this resilience in writing and the bravery to defend your positions unconcerned whether they might disturb those in power. He also taught me to find comfort and a certain privilege in a life where, no matter where you happen to be, you feel a bit of a stranger, so that you don’t lose sight of the fact that communities and identities are formed under altogether fluid historical conditions and whatever may be your affiliation with them it must never be intrinsic, necessary or inevitable but always a matter of critical thought and decision, itself always to be interrogated and reconstituted.
Said loved Greeks, if such a generality is permissible. He considered them kinfolk because they were very much part of his childhood world in Cairo. For him, Hellenism was essentially part of the greater Mediterranean civilization and had nothing to with the philhellenism or archeolatry of Northern Europeans, nor with some small-minded Christian Orthodox nativism. That’s why one of his favorite poets was Cavafy. During his funeral service, his daughter read her father’s favorite poem: “Waiting for the Barbarians.” Edward had told me once that, suffering under the exile’s compulsion to take wherever he went many more of his possessions than he needed, he carried Cavafy’s poems with him everywhere. Indeed, he had been planning for some years now an essay on Cavafy for his project on “Late Style.” He studied and wrestled with the material, and was very frustrated that he hadn’t brought it to a conclusion, but he ran up against what was, according to his principles, insurmountable: he could not read the poems in the original language. On this matter, he was rather traditional. The language of the text and the capacity for the closest possible reading were the non-negotiable elements of the literary critic. Nonetheless, he had promised me he would complete a draft of the essay on Cavafy for the occasion of his receiving an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Athens, but the event was canceled when the doctors refused to allow him to travel during May 2002.
My conversations with Edward Said made me feel profoundly Greek, in a way that nothing else did, even conversations with Greek friends, because he kept reminding me how Greek I am by joyfully recognizing it in my gestures and mannerisms, which he found so familiar, precisely because being Greek for him was not some national trait but a manner of thought and expression common to an enormous complex of societies and cultures within which he was nurtured and which he never abandoned, despite their historical shattering by the multiple nationalisms that took over the region in the course of the twentieth century.
His death still seems inconceivable to me. I had this terrible moment in my mind for years now, but when it came, like all his friends, even his family, I discovered I was entirely unprepared. Because he had taught us so himself. Not only to defy his death along with him but to resist against the tyranny of the probable, to live daily reality as something improbable, improbable but possible, feasible to the extent that we can imagine it, conceive it, practice it potentially. Together with him, therefore, during the years of his illness, we learned to think of him as invincible, unconquerable. He showed the way. He was a giant of strength because he was fed by the necessity of the world to fight oppression and injustice. He was fed by the desperation of an entire people who live in conditions of unprecedented barbarism, conditions of real annihilation. He was fed by the presence of his illness, which daily underscored the knowledge that one is mortal, that the entire world is mortal, and for that reason, every moment of our life that isn’t dedicated to life, to worldly, earthly life, is a criminal gesture against the world. He was also fed by the love of his friends, his many friends around the world – in the last instance many more than his enemies, a fact that his enemies never managed to swallow. It’s only now that I realize why he insisted so much that I call him on the phone (though we were neighbors and saw each other often) – why he reprimanded me because I did not phone him more often (which he did to all his friends). And I would respond by saying that I didn’t want to overburden him, but I didn’t understand until now that this simple phone call and two-three quick words – that’s all he asked for – helped him fight, regain strength, not feel that he is doing it all on his own. Though essentially he alone, from the core of his enormous soul, drew his vast unending strength that inspired us all.
Edward Said abhorred fans, schools of thought, disciples. He had little patience with the younger generations who merely followed and copied their masters. He made fun of grant theories and the armies of theoreticians fighting over the details. His oeuvre may, in fact, consist of the multiverse and multilateral structures, but carefully avoids the patents of a system. His favorite style of writing remained the essay. Any other mode he considered essentially susceptible to dogmatism, where the murky fluidity of history would be suppressed in favor of the safety of some metaphysical structure. If at this point he was to demand something of us – he who demanded nothing more than he demanded of himself – he would insist that we look forward, that we fight for what is just in the world using our autonomous capacities, loving life on earth and not wasting our time with metaphysical inanities, knowing that in history, with human capacity itself and nothing else, the improbable becomes probable, the impossible becomes possible.