The loss of Professor Edward Said, after an arduous battle with demoralizing illness that he bore very bravely, will be unbearable for his family, insupportable to his immense circle of friends, upsetting to a vast periphery of admirers and readers who one might almost term his diaspora, and depressing to all those who continue hoping for a decent agreement in his birthplace of Jerusalem.
To address these wrenching thoughts in their reverse order, one could commence by saying quite simply that if Edward's personality had been the human and moral pattern or example, there would be no "Middle East" problem to begin with. His lovely, intelligent, and sensitive memoir Out of Place was a witness to the schools and neighborhoods in Jerusalem and Cairo where fraternity between Arabs, Jews, Druses, Armenians, and others was a matter of course. (His memory also comprised a literary Beirut where the same could be said.) He took an almost aesthetic interest in the details, eccentricities, and welfare of his own particular confession—the Anglican Christians of Jerusalem and especially St. Georges school in the eastern part of the city—but it's hard if not impossible to imagine anyone with less sectarian commitment. When talking to him about the various types of sacred rage that poison the region, one gained the impression of someone to whom this sort of fanaticism was, in every declension of the word, quite foreign.
Indeed, if it had not been for the irruption of abrupt force into the life of his extended family and the ripping apart of the region by partition and subpartition, I can easily imagine Edward evolving as an almost apolitical person, devoted to the loftier pursuits of music and literature. To see and hear him play the piano was to be filled with envy as well as joy: One was witnessing a rather angst-prone person who had developed the perfect recreation to an extraordinary pitch. To ask him for a tutorial and a reading list, as I more than once did, was to be humbled by the sheer reach of his erudition. I can still hear the doors that opened in my mind as he explicated George Eliot's rather recondite Daniel Deronda.
Nor did he mind being slightly teased at his advanced appreciation of the finer points: He was always faultlessly dressed (as far as I could tell, anyway) and used to delight in buying clothes for his wonderful wife, Mariam. On one occasion in New York, after giving us a tremendous tour of the Metropolitan Museum during its show on the art of Andalusia (and filling out the most exquisite details on the syntheses and paradoxes of Islamic, Moorish, and Jewish Spain), he took my own wife on a tour of the shops to advise her expertly on the best replacement for a mislaid purse. I never met a woman who did not admire him, and I never knew him to be anything but gallant. As I look back, I am inclined to be overcome at the number of such occasions, where his bearing and address were so exemplary and his companionship such a privilege.
His feeling for the injustice done to Palestine was, in the best sense of this overused term, a visceral one. He simply could not reconcile himself to the dispossession of a people or to the lies and evasions that were used to cover up this offense. He was by no means simple-minded or one-sided about this: In a public dialogue with Salman Rushdie 15 years ago, he described the Palestinians as "victims of the victims," an ironic formulation that hasn't been improved upon. But nor did he trust those who introduced pseudo-complexities as a means of perpetuating the status quo. I know a shocking number of people who find that they can be quite calm about the collective punishment of Palestinians yet become wholly incensed at the symbolic stone he once threw—from Lebanon! Personally, I preferred his joint enterprise with Daniel Barenboim to provide musical training for Israeli and Palestinian children. But for Edward, injustice was to be rectified, not rationalized. I think that it was, for him, surpassingly a matter of dignity. People may lose a war or a struggle or be badly led or poorly advised, but they must not be humiliated or treated as alien or less than human. It was the downgrading of the Palestinians to the status of a "problem" (and this insult visited upon them in their own homeland) that aroused his indignation. That moral energy, I am certain, will outlive him.
I knew and admired him for more than a quarter-century, and I hope I will not be misunderstood if I say that his moral energy wasn't always matched by equivalent political judgment. Indeed, it should be no criticism of anyone to say that politics isn't their best milieu, especially if the political life has been forced upon them. Edward had a slight tendency to self-pity, and the same chord was struck even in the best of his literary work, which often expressed a too-highly developed sense of injury and victimhood. (I am thinking of certain passages in his Orientalism and some of the essays in Culture and Imperialism as well.) He was sometimes openly alarmed at the use made of his scholarship by younger academic poseurs who seemed to despise the classical canon of literature that he so much revered. Yet he was famously thin-skinned and irascible, as I have good reason to remember, if any criticism became directed at himself. Some of that criticism was base and outrageous and sordidly politicized—I have just finished reading the obituary in the New York Times, which in a cowardly way leaves open the question as to whether Edward, or indeed any other Palestinian, lost a home in the tragedy of 1947-48—but much of it deserved more patience than he felt he had to spare. And he was capable of stooping to mere abuse when attacking other dissidents—particularly other Arab dissidents, and most particularly Iraqi and Kurdish ones—with whom he did not agree. I simply had to stop talking to him about Iraq over the past two years. He could only imagine the lowest motives for those in favor of regime change in Baghdad, and he had a vivid tendency to take any demurral as a personal affront.
But it can be admirable in a way to go through life with one skin too few, to be easily agonized and upset and offended. Too many people survive, or imagine that they do, by coarsening themselves and by protectively dulling their sensitivity to the point of acceptance. This would never be Edward's way. His emotional strength—one has to resort to cliché sometimes—was nonetheless also a weakness.
I was astonished, when reading his memoirs, to learn that such a polished and poised fellow had never lost the sense that he was awkward and clumsy. And yet this man of enviable manners could be both those things when he chose. He did come, as a member of Yasser Arafat's Palestine National Council, to meet at Reagan's State Department with George Shultz. (Indeed, he could claim to have been the intellectual and moral architect of the "mutual recognition" policy of the PLO at the Algiers conference in 1988.) When invited to the summit between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat in Washington in 1993, however—which I happen to know that he was earnestly entreated to attend by the Clinton White House—he told me that it was quite simply beneath his dignity to take part in such a media farce. Now, by no standard did the 1993 meeting sink below the level of the Shultz one, and by no means had Arafat become on that day any more contemptible than Edward later discovered him to be. But it wasn't just that inconsistency that distressed me: It was the feeling that Edward was on the verge of extreme dudgeon before I could press the matter one inch further. I can't shake the feeling that a microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian agony is contained in this apparently negligible anecdote.
There is at present a coalition, named the Palestinian National Initiative, which never gets reported about. It is an alliance of secular and democratic forces among the Palestinians that rejects both clerical fundamentalism and the venality of the Palestinian "Authority." It was partly launched by Edward Said, and its main spokesman is Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, a distinguished physician and very brave individual, to whom Edward introduced me last year. In our final conversation a few weeks ago, Edward challenged me angrily about my failure to write enough on this neglected group, which certainly enjoys a good deal of popular support and which deserves a great deal more international attention. Perhaps then I can do a last service, and also dip a flag in salute to a fine man, if I invite you to direct your browsers toward the sites for Barghouthi and the PNI.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.