In the mourning for Edward Said, the preeminent Palestinian public intellectual in America, several alert listeners have prompted me to liberate a remarkable interview that Professor Said gave me three years ago. Listen here. To me the striking thing on rehearing it is the degree to which the warrior intellectual, the controversialist of Orientalism, also Culture and Imperialism and the long drive for Palestinian statehood, had become in recent years an ardent champion and practitioner of reconciliation. I asked: had he not become almost the Rodney King of Jerusalem, pleading “can’t we all get along?” He answered with a laugh: “No, I’m still a militant intellectual. My tone is very sharp, and I give and trade blows with people who disagree with me. That’s part of the deal. But I think there are other relationships and other avenues that I explore that are to me more interesting.”
Said’s relationship with music and his deep fraternity with the Israeli pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim are essential parts of the story which we’ll come to. On Said’s death, Barenboim wrote: “The Palestinians have lost one of the most eloquent defenders of their aspirations. The Israelis have lost an adversary — but a fair and humane one. And I have lost a soul mate.” That spirit of adventure in difference was the memorable core of Said’s conversation with me in April, 2000. “You cannot live with ethnic and racial fear,” he said. “And you have to find a way to live with The Other, given–and this is I think the most important point with regard to Palestine–two things. Number One is that more than one people claim that place. You can’t say it’s exclusively the right of the Jews or the Arabs. Both of them have equal rights in my opinion in that place. And Number Two, it’s too small a place to divide. I mean: if you look at the area between Ramallah in the North and Bethlehem in the South, we’re talking about 20 miles, north to south, that contains about one million people, Arab and Jew. It’s impossible to divide them. So you either find them a way to live equitably together, each in his own way, of course. But you cannot have one people with all the rights and the other without any rights. That’s apartheid.”
Said was fiercely engaged as a writer and lecturer till the end. His commentaries on the Iraq War, available online mainly through the London Review of Books and Al-Ahram Weekly, were essential to the big picture. But of course he knew that he was living, for more than a decade as it turned out, under a death sentence from leukemia. So he was persistently working to frame the big picture of his own experience and the epic lessons of his own times. That problem–living with the other–“has preoccupied me most of my life, intellectually and politically,” he reflected in our conversation. “I think it’s the main problem. I think fear and ignorance are the two main factors here–that somehow contact with the other will somehow threaten your identity; and second, I think we all have a mythological view of identity as a single thing that is basically intact and has to be protected. I think that’s simply nonsense. History teaches us that all of us are mixed, that every individual is made up of sevaral maybe competing strands, and that is to be cherished. Rather than laundering out the strands that are competitive or contradictory, I think one ought to encourage them… well, in the way, in music, there’s this thing called counterpoint, where you manage the voices in a fugue and it makes it more interesting that there are more voices working together than less. And I think the same thing applies in society. And I think we’re moving gradually in that direction.” Listen here.