Here is interesting news about Edward Said, Columbia University’s celebrity professor of English literature, Palestine, Islam, and what-have-you. Said has a long-standing connection to King’s College, Cambridge. He has the status of a member, and has been an occasional visitor there, most recently this past fall. The College is a redoubt of the left. Its provost, Patrick Bateson, signed a letter to The Guardian last April, calling for an academic moratorium on contacts with Israel. That unleashed a tidal wave of publicity and criticism that shook the Provost’s Lodge and the College.
So it was particularly unwise for Edward Said’s friends to choose this moment to nominate their hero for an honorary fellowship of the College. The inner deliberations of the College congregation are not public, but The Guardian picked up enough gossip to make a story. Details are murky, but the bottom line is that two fellows who had criticized Bateson also spoke persuasively against Said’s nomination, and apparently succeeded in nixing it.
It’s not often that Edward Said gets turned down for honors these days, and I find it refreshing. No one has done more than Said to confuse scholarship and advocacy, and it frankly looks pathetic when his partisans rush to his defense by declaiming his scholarly virtues. Edward Said is a package deal. At King’s College there are people who rightly understood that honoring Said would be interpreted as honoring his politics. I don’t know exactly how it happened, or what the arguments were, but King’s College has kept its honor.
Of course, in America it’s another story. Berkeley is about to enjoy a visit by Said, hosted by its (federally-funded) Center for Middle Eastern Studies, and paid for in part by the Chancellor’s fund. The Daily Californian carries a strange quote from the vice-chair of the Center: “We’re inviting him in his capacity as a university professor. Edward Said is an important advocate of Palestinians but also a professor of English.” You would think that Said had been invited to lecture on Austen or Conrad. But I doubt there will be much literature in a lecture with this title: “The U.S., the Islamic World and the Question of Palestine.” My prediction: the lecture’s only relationship to English will be that it is delivered in English. You can judge for yourself from the webcast, which is supposed to become available on February 20.
By the way, note this sentence in the report of The Daily Californian: “Born in Jerusalem in 1948, Said’s family was forced to settle in Cairo, Egypt after the establishment of Israel.” First, there is the grammar. Perhaps if Berkeley’s English department actually taught English, instead of The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance, this wouldn’t happen. Second, Said was born in 1935. Third and last, his parents were already settled in Cairo even before his birth, and Said has written a whole memoir of his Cairo childhood. The news item is more evidence of how people continue to assume that Said is a 1948 refugee. No amount of counter-evidence, or even Said’s own account, has made any difference. People believe what they need to believe, and I imagine that if Edward Said did not exist, the denizens of Columbia and Berkeley would have invented him. Perhaps they did.
ADDENDUM: I’ve been informed by a reader that The Daily Californian ran a correction. It admitted that its original article “erroneously stated that Said was born in 1948. Actually, he was exiled from Jerusalem in 1948.” Wrong again. Said went on an extended family visit to Jerusalem in 1947, and left it near the end of that year, returning home to Cairo. The crucial point of Said’s memoir is that as a boy, he didn’t feel the loss of Palestine, and that at home, the subject was “repressed, undiscussed, or even unremarked on.” The refugees, he wrote, were regarded as “those Others.” (Read the first part of Chapter VI.) His Palestinian awareness and activism flowered only later, in the 1960s. Said has given an accurate representation of himself. He’s acknowledged that his personal sense of exile (from more than one place) is a matter of sensibility, not a fact with a date. It’s others who keep stretching his biographic envelope, because they need him to be a perfect icon of dispossession. That need apparently extends to The Daily Californian, which cannot get it right in two tries.
ADDENDUM+: The administrators at Aston University, in Birmingham, England, have intervened to cancel a live video-link with Edward Said, organized by a student anti-war group. The reason: it might disturb public order. This is all too reminiscent of the mindset that almost kept Daniel Pipes off the York University campus in Toronto. Aston has an absolute obligation to rescind the ban and let the show go on.