November 20, 2010
Edward Said and Mathematical Demonstrations
When studying geometry with my eldest son, I like to review the intricate steps with him. He has to demonstrate the hypothesis, use a geometric theorem and then conclude that his hypothesis was correct or incorrect.
Edward Said also had a studied message when he wrote his celebrated "Orientalism": that the West had traditionally portrayed Eastern countries in a such a way as to justify colonising and exploiting them. Very few people have actually read Orientalism in its entirety. Like me, they have probably been intimidated by the in depth literary references the author uses to demonstrate his hypothesis.
In order to appreciate "Orientalism", you would need to have read most of the primary sources he refers to and equally understand his delicate dissection of them. Edward Said made no shortcuts and Orientalism is an academic gem that has transformed the way the West is permitted to treat the East. He certainly was a pioneer of cultural relativism. In the end, however, many of us managed to understand Edward Said's message without having to read the book. "Orientalism" becomes his developing demonstration, as would be the demonstration of a geometrical hypothesis.
I have had the pleasure of meeting the late Edward Said up close and personal, as well as listening to him from afar when he gave talks in university auditoriums. I have enjoyed his political diatribes, as he always expressed his opinion without any constraints. He was a politically engaged intellectual, living and teaching in York City, the bastion of modern judaism, where he was nevertheless respected for his genius and could legitimately critique the government of Israel because he spoke intelligently and eloquently.
I particularly remember a message he once made to Arab students in the United States, urging us to leave our academic ghettos "of Middle Eastern studies", which I happened to have specialized in, and pushing us to study other fields, namely American studies, considering many of us were also citizens of the US. "Stop looking at yourselves and stretch your sight to others", was what I remember him telling us. When I applied to his Ph.D program in Comparative Literature at Columbia, I brandished my Latin American Literature BA degree before mentioning the M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies. I believe that is one of the factors that enabled my acceptance to his rprogram. I also was accepted for a Ph.D program at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
I was then faced with a great dilemna. I couldn't decide whether to pursue the Ph.D degree with the most talented intellectual from the Middle East, or International Law and Diplomacy for which I had already acquired all the course work during my M.A., and considered to be a more professional degree? I ended up opting for Fletcher, and as destiny would have it, I also met my future husband there. A few years later, I had the honor to sit next to Dr. Said at a dinner and I told him how divided I had felt when I chose the path of international law instead of comparative literature.We got too busy talking about his various passions to dwell on regrets.
Dr Said's book of memoirs, entitled "Out of Place", is the closest written work to "Les Confessions" by Rousseau. This book is about his para-academic life. I savoured every sentence and enjoyed discovering the childhood of the genius. His predilections were music and politics, and his childhood stories reminded me of the nostalgic memoirs by French writer Marcel Pagnol ("La Gloire de Mon Pere" and "Le Chateau de Ma Mere"). Some have wondered why he lingered on his self portrait while barely painting a clear picture of his family members and loved ones. I believe this focus on the self is the backbone of a memoir, an attempt to delve into and find one's self through the act of writing. His title tells us that he always felt "out of place" and this particular endeavor was a way to rediscover himself through his past.
Edward Said was our era's Renaissance man. An academic, musician, and engaged intellectual. He corrected Western misconceptions of the Orient, and most importantly he gave us, Middle Easterners, the confidence to benefit from our education in the West. He opened doors in the West for future Arab scholars, spearheading subaltern studies in history and supporting new writers as a fine literary critic that he was. While only a small percentage of the intelligentsia has actually read Orientalism, it is certain that the demonstrations of his theory are his most prized legacy.