“Remember the solidarity shown to Palestine here and everywhere… and remember also that there is a cause to which many people have committed themselves, difficulties and terrible obstacles notwithstanding. Why? Because it is a just cause, a noble ideal, a moral quest for equality and human rights.”

    -Prof. Edward W. Said (1935-2003)

In memory of a Great Public Intellectual by Hala Abuateya

Dr Hala Abuateya, Leicester University, UK

Ladies and gentlemen, good evening. Thank you very much for coming tonight and for donating your precious evening to celebrate the outstanding life of late Professor Edward Said. Professor Said is a Palestinian/American world-leading public intellectual. He was born in Palestine in 1935 and died in the United States on 25th September 2003. Professor Said’s main passion was justice, he struggled for it, and he demanded it now. Thus, tonight I hope between us, ‘the speakers’ and you ‘the wonderful audience’ we can give this wonderful man the little bit of justice he always dreamt of.

Through Professor Said’s outstanding intellectual contribution to knowledge and his great personality, he had a significant impact on many people including myself. During my journey of intellectual development, he was in many ways my role model of how academics can be turned to activists and public intellectuals. He was an outstanding intellectual, an approachable academic, and a wonderful activist. He had a great impact on my thinking and analysis of our current world. In my speech tonight I would like to share with you my personal and professional encounters with professor Said highlighting the human side of his great character.

I was one of many fortunate people who know Professor Said during his regular visits to Palestine and the UK. Therefore, I am honoured to be associated with his outstanding intellectual work in the field of humanity and justice. Edward earned his place as one of America’s ten most influential contemporary public intellectuals. This is something that no other Arab-American academic had ever reached. Edward achieved this international prestige despite ferocious opposition and years of public attempts to discredit him.

On the 25th of September 2003, I heard the dreadful news of Professor Said’s death. I was shocked, became sad, had tears in my eyes and felt a deep sorrow in my heart. My initial reaction was Edward you are not allowed to die, not now and not ever. I need you, and we all need you now more than ever before, considering the horrible situation in the Middle East. After I calmed down, I discovered how selfish I was. I know he fought against his fatal illness for the last 12 years, and his enemies for almost all his life; meanwhile, he produced a remarkable amount of work around in Globe. Here I am expecting him to go forever and to do more as if he did not have enough. But I thought my frustrating reaction was justified, as the current complications of the Middle East conflict are getting worse. In these devastating conditions, who can explain the politics and the connections as clearly and fairly as Professor Said. My anger was slowly disappearing, and my search for alternative sources of knowledge started. I was thrilled to discover all those great writers who contributed to his website with outstanding articles. Reading many of these articles, strengthened me and showed me clearly that as Palestinians we are not alone and we are not forgotten. On the contrary, many great people around the world are supporting our struggle for justice and peaceful future. Edward made a start for all of us, and it is our responsibilities to continue.


I participated in events where I had personal and professional encounters with Professor Said. These encounters started in the 1980s when I was an undergraduate student and continued up until recently. My privileged connections with him and his great school of knowledge sharpened and polished my way of thinking, relating to other people and myself.

My first encounter with Professor Said’s school of thought was in 1983 when I was doing my undergraduate studies at the University of Birzeit in Palestine. During the four years of my undergraduate studies (1983-1987) at Birzeit University, I experienced several closures of the university by the Israeli Military Occupation. Each closure lasted for an average period of two months, which meant that neither university students nor staff could use the University facilities; and whoever caught breaking the military law would be imprisoned. I remember during the first session of any of our academic course, our tutors made sure they had written down our details to contact us in case of a sudden closure of the university premises. As university students and staff we decided that our academic life should continue despite the hard circumstances. Therefore, we all accepted the challenge and actively attended the make-up classes, which were administrated by university lecturers. We joined our tutors at their homes and public places (e.g. parks, mosques and churches) to be educated and to achieve our university degrees. Facing this challenge successfully, our determination in search for knowledge was deeply rooted in society; and our university premises became much bigger than the locked university buildings located in the small town called Birzeit. These abnormal educational conditions turn knowledge to public property, learning to a long life activity and many students to popular leaders.

In the middle of our hard educational conditions came Professor Said’s famous book Orientalism. During the 1980s, one of our sociology lecturers at Birzeit University included Orientalism in our teaching curriculum. I remember very clearly how much we all adored that book, for many of us it was the first time we started to understand what was happening around us and it placed the Palestinian cause within the international political arena. As much as we were worried about being arrested by the Israeli army for attending the make-up classes we were also worried that we would miss our lively discussion on Edward’s book. The book content was an eye-opener for many of my classmates and me. Understanding the main concept of the book was a turning point in my life. It helped me to understand the connections between local and international events; things started to make sense. Reading into his school of knowledge made me realise the huge gap in misrepresenting and misunderstanding of the non-Western countries in the Western world. It also assisted me in understanding the importance of power and control between the powerful and powerless nations of our World.

I first met Professor Said in the early 1990s when he visited Birzeit University to receive his Honorarium Doctorate in acknowledgement to his outstanding contributions to knowledge. By that time I had read many of his books, I was truly looking forward to meeting Edward, the man behind all those groundbreaking ideas. I remember sitting in the audience during his public lecture. He was emotional and started his lecture by stating that it was the first time in his life that he stood in front of an audience and felt speechless because he was thrilled to be acknowledged by a Palestinian leading academic institution working in Palestine. He added that he never thought that the day would come for him to receive an award from his best friend Dr Nasser ‘Birzeit’s University president’. The Israeli occupation deported Dr Nasser from Palestine to Jordan in 1976 for more than 15 years; he returned to Palestine during the peace process between Israel and Palestine in the early 1990s.

I sat during his lecture and was astonished by his outstanding ability to keep his audience awake and actively engaged for more than one hour. My immediate reactions were that this man was gifted, a great critical thinker, amusingly humble and extremely approachable. He spoke so clearly in fluent Arabic on very complicated issues of culture and conflict, without any hesitation and he managed to keep us fully awake and mentally engaged throughout his lecture and the following discussion.

Wherever Professor Said went, he had a very busy schedule; journalists and other important people always surrounded him, they were all in demand for his time and energy. Nevertheless, he always made time to meet lay people. I recall once a group of us started a debate with him on the Palestinian peace process when he was called for an interview. Although he had to leave us, he made sure that we waited for him, he joined us later for a very lively discussion. Although he challenged some of our views regarding the progress of the peace process in Palestine, he showed remarkable interests in our thinking process.

During the 1990s, many of us were living in an illusion of the implication of Palestinian/Israeli peace process on the politics of the Middle East. As Palestinians in Occupied Palestine, we witnessed several materialistic changes among Palestinians, such as the issuing of the Palestinian Passport/travel document, the establishment of the Palestinian police and civil administration, also the bloom of business in some Palestinian towns (e.g. Ramallah). These cosmetics changes encouraged many of us to believe that the peace arrangement was workable, which turned our attention from the real issues regarding the creation of real peace and justice for the Palestinians. Professor Said, however, viewed the situation differently, he did not give in, he knew the proposed peace process was not going to last because it was not built on justice and equal respect between Palestinians and Israelis. To our astonishment, within a short time, the troubled short-lived peace accord collapsed; and the new Uprising ‘Intifadat Al-Aqsa’ started on the 28th of September 2000. Once again, Professor Said was right not to surrender, he critically analysed the avoidances and anticipated the future much clearer than many of us.

My last personal interaction with Professor Said was in the mid-1990s when I was exploring the opportunities to resume my academic career. I was confused because I did not believe in titles; I was satisfied with my work; also I was short-listed for a few well-paid jobs with international agencies working in Palestine. Meanwhile, I was awarded a scholarship to carry out my doctorate qualification in Britain. I was at a crossroad and was not sure where to go because whatever path I chose would affect my future career development. At my confusing crossroads, Professor Said luckily was around. I remember being in his best friend’s office the late Professor Ibrahim Abu Loughd3 to discuss my options and confusion; Professor Said walked into the office with his charming smile he asked ‘what is your problem?’ When I informed him, his unforgettable, powerful statement was ‘women you have a brain, use it’. Recently, I achieved my PhD; I hope he was right about my brain, I promise him to use it to the best of my abilities.

School of thought

Professor Said is a phenomenon; his incredible range of work reached out across the Globe. He captured the attention of different the minds and hearts of many audiences and transformed the map of our current intellectual life. Professor Said meant several things to different people or even to the same people. For some, he created the beginnings, which was represented in some of his books such as ‘Orientalism’ and ‘Culture and Imperialism’. For others he established the after, that was illustrated in several books for example, ‘The Last Sky’, ‘Covering Islam’, ‘The Question of Palestine, Peace and its Discontents, Reflections on Exile, Freud and the Non-European’. For many people Professor Said is the Musical Notations, which are seen in his contribution to the ‘Literary Times Supplement’, the ‘London Review of Books’, ‘Al-Ahram weekly’, ‘Al-Hayat’, the ‘Nation and Harper’s’. For me, Professor Said is a unique public intellectual because the understanding of Orientalism would not be possible without the reading of The Question of Palestine. Also, the discussion of Culture and Imperialism would be hard without Covering Islam. Furthermore, it is hard to capture Professor Said’s notion of the exiled intellectual without viewing his Musical Notations.

Professor Said had a clear standing from those who claimed to be intellectuals; he argued that intellectual romantics have twisted the West’s view of the Middle East and the World of Islam. This became largely responsible for the influential school of literary and cultural criticism known as “postcolonial studies”. The way postcolonial attitudes were tickled, however, the debate on these hot issues had influenced and revolutionised all fields of modern social sciences. Equally important, he believed that the current American opinion of Arabs is largely conditioned by the hostile media towards them.

Political activist

Professor Said had always actively campaigned for the Palestinian cause.4 He was actively involved in the Palestinian struggle for almost all his life. He is a unique individual who came from a privileged background and was able to have a great education. Nevertheless, his privilege background did not stop him from struggling for justice. He served once as a member of the Palestine National Council for many years. However, he resigned in 1991 in protest against the Oslo peace agreements, which he thought deformed the real path to peace between the Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East. At some stage when the dispute became obvious between Professor Said and some members of the Palestinian leadership, for a short time, his books were withdrawn from the Palestinian market.

From an early age, Edward was very committed to the Palestinian cause, for those who know him, you can feel his commitment and passion, even in his famous temper. One of his students commented:

“Once, after returning from Gaza, he sat me in his office and recalled a meeting with Palestinian officials. “Did they give you a hard time?” I asked innocently. “Give me a hard time? I gave them a hard time. Shame on you, Moustafa!” He roared, and I smiled. There was something warm even in his rebukes.”

Mubadara ‘Initiative’

As a possible reaction to the on-going current uprising, on 17th of July 2002, Edward Said assisted in finding the Palestinian National Initiative know locally as ‘Mubadara’. This Initiative is a recently established Palestinian democratic opposition movement in the power of Palestinian domestic politics. The movement is co-founded along with well known local Palestinian intellectuals including Dr Mustafa Barghouthi, Dr Haidar Abdel-Shafi and Mr Ibrahim Dakak. The Mobadara attracted the attention of many local and international organisations, who believed in people, he valued dignity and human rights. One of the major work the Mobadara is involved in is the facilitation visits of members of the international solidarity campaign to Palestine. They are also challenging local politics and Israeli violation for human rights.

The little Arab child

Professor Edward Said’s name is interestingly a combination of British and Arab. The name Edward is given after the prince of Wales, whom his mother admired when he was born in 1935. While Said the Arab part of the name, he felt was a kind of intrusion when he was growing up going to various English schools in the Middle East. In his book ‘out of space’ Edward mentioned that although he lived in the Arab World for some time, he didn’t know it very well. On the contrary, he often felt as if he was in England because of the way in which the English speaking schools he attended operated. At that time the education focused on England as the centre of the world, and the rest didn’t matter. Therefore, Edward grew up knowing a lot about English history, geography and literature, and very little about Arab World where he was born and partly brought up. At his school’s Arab kids were known as the “little Arab children”. There were English children in some of the early schools he attended, many of those children were seen as superior compared to the Arab children. Edward often felt out of place, he said:

“When the word “home” was used everybody understood what it meant – except somebody like me because I never went to England. Both at school, and also something about our family, set us at odds with our surroundings. The songs I learnt as a child were almost all in English. My family was Arabic-speaking, so there was some Arab music. But it is Western music that means the most to me.”

Edward lived in the world as an exile, a condition from which he drew strength. Exile, as a symbolic state, was something we all should aspire to. Professor Said argued that the exile can be a great challenge as it gives the individual an outsider’s perspective on the inside world.

Public intellectual

Edward as a human was a hard working unique individual, simple, funny, witty and he hated snoopiness in dressing, thinking and writing. He was impatient with academic jargon, which few people can relate to or even understand. Therefore, he demanded that his students and people around him discard it in every way possible. One of his students commented:

“One day, in our graduate seminar on intellectuals and power, a student said, “Discourse.” Said exploded. Then the student nervously mumbled, “Foucault.” “That’s right,” Said scoffed. “That’s Foucault’s word. Where are yours?” Jargon corrupts our language and our thinking, he cautioned. Find your language. Develop your authority”.

Professor Said encouraged his students and people around him to develop the abilities to question beliefs, not for what they are in the abstract, but for how they influence the world. He taught me the importance of morality and to be critical of the double standard ethics used mostly the by West when dealing with the world disputes.

Professor Said was a theorist who disliked theory because he loved people. According to him a true public intellectual possesses not just through proper access to the media but a public region ‘constituency’ to which the individual can be accountable. He illustrated the importance of grounding the individuals into the world around them. He constantly promoted and demonstrated the idea of the public intellectual in the best tradition. He illustrated that the individual should be dissociated from power yet closely connected to it through oppositional practices and secular criticism. For him, the secular critic meant the individual’s abilities to speak both from within and without their context. In other words, he demonstrated that the ability to be in between places, in between homes, enable the individual to develop according to Edward “a simultaneous awareness of vision.” However, Professor Said argued that the specific threat to the public intellectual are neither the safe academic debuting environment, nor uncontrolled commercialism, but the popular notion of professionalisation. He stated:

“Not straying outside the accepted paradigms and limits, making yourself marketable and presentable, hence uncontroversial, and apolitical and “objective.”

It is this “cult of professionalisation” which Edward so passionately opposed. Due to his challenging views, he gained many enemies.

Last words

I have an optimistic nature, but recently, I grow to be impatient because of all the nonsense around me. I feel that hope fails me and I am about to lose my faith. I am saying this because I truly miss Professor Said now while I am delivering this speech. When I re-read his work, I feel as if he is coming to rescue me and if I am talking to him in person. For me, Professor Said was able to fill the gap of this frustratingly missing nearness. He was peace-loving and empty from violence, he entered the circle and continued to hammer on power loudly. The power of this outstanding public intellectual seems to be able to draw energy from a moral stance, as organic and pure as energy from the wind.

Professor Said, your body is gone, but your spirit and ideas will always be alive among all of us. Your outstanding energy motivated us and your remarkable abilities enlightened our darkest moments. You honour us with your great intellectuality. We mourn the feeling of not being ready for your departure yet. We guarantee you that you will always be among us in words and actions. We truly miss you, but perhaps collectively we will be able to follow the paths you already opened up for us.


This post currently has 2 responses

  • Dear Dr Hala Abuateya
    I was delighted to find this article you have written! Thank you it makes Said so accessible but also draws attention to his sophistication as an outsider and insider. I was looking up your name because I sent parts of your PhD dissertation (you gave me a copy of) to a Palestinian client who is studying a PhD in Germany. Perhaps you remember me? I certainly remember you and the simple candle holder you gave me. If you ever have time – do get in touch. Best wishes Sofia ( Dr Chanda-Gool)

  • Many thanks for this essay about a great man. I knew him quite well when i worked as physician at Columbia University in New York City. He was my patient for quite a while and we became friends in an odd way given the medical ties between us.
    As my surname suggests I am a Jewish human being. That said, I felt clearly that Ed was, first of all a good human being, who had real understanding about the plight of his fellow humans in Palestine and in Israel. He personified the Yiddish word Mensch that means good person.
    I continue to re-read many of his books and I am always inspired by their compassion and great skill.

    Peace and Love, Howard Schwartz

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