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Patrica Watson, Editor
Sara Burke, Assistant Editor
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
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Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.
"Good Questions" with Edward Said
Culture and Resistance: Conversations with Edward W. Said, Interviews by David Barsamian. Co-authored by David Barsamian and Edward W. Said. South End Press, Cambridge, MA, 2003
Hilda Silverman, who grew up putting quarters in blue boxes (for Jewish National Fund trees for Israel), was a convert to Middle East activism when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. She is a member of the National AFSC Middle East Committee, the Cambridge Peace Commission and Holocaust Commemoration Committee, and the Board of the Gaza Mental Health Foundation. Last summer she was one of two non-Quaker members on an International Quaker Working Party to the Middle East.
I just love this book! It is based on a series of six interviews broadcast on KGNU in Boulder, CO over a four-year period (February, 1999 to February, 2003). While the subject matter is far-ranging, Edward Said returns again and again to what he has elsewhere called “The Question of Palestine.” For novices, the book could serve as an accessible primer; for the rest of us, it offers new angles of vision.
David Barsamian, producer of the award-winning syndicated program, Alternative Radio, treats Said with obvious affection and respect, and shares many of his political views and much of his broad knowledge of cultural trends, current and historical events, and resistance movements. In his introduction, Barsamian notes, “It’s hard to convey on the printed page the tremendous energy, intellectual excitement, and enthusiasm Said generates.” It may have been hard, but these “conversations” succeed brilliantly in doing just that.
To this reader—who has read several of Said’s 15-plus
books and dozens of his articles, heard him speak many times, and met
him on a number of occasions*—the words simply leap off the page!
As a Jew who came rather late in life to some understanding of the Palestinian experience, I find it impossible to exaggerate how much I have learned in the past two decades from the words and the very being of Edward W. Said. Still, I’m too old to be a groupie, I sometimes disagree with him on matters of nuance or interpretation or—albeit rarely—even of fact, and in any event I would find it hard at this stage in my life to suspend my critical thinking. Nor, I believe, would Said want me—or anyone—to do that. Here he tells Barsamian about his role as a teacher [at Columbia University, where he is University Professor of English and Comparative Literature]:
“You can bring up printed items that have the air of a certain kind of authority and finality which it seems to me the critical mind is obligated to question... The point I want my students to reach is that knowledge and reading are always unfinished... They require an endless amount of questioning, discovery, and challenge. If I succeed in nothing else, it's to plant the seed of dissatisfaction and relentless questioning in them that doesn’t remove at the same time the taste for pleasure and for learning which are at the core of what we do.”
Said’s books have even been banned in areas under Arafat’s control. He was once told by a Palestinian bookseller, “I have your books, but I keep them under the counter, just in case some member of the Authority comes by”—as if they were some kind of political pornography!
Several years ago in the New York Times, Said noted that he had received his most virulent criticism for his insistence that it is imperative for Palestinians to learn about the Holocaust and its effect on Israeli and other Jews—and that all of that criticism had come from the Arab side. Given the understandable resentment among Palestinians and other Arabs over the political uses of the Holocaust to justify any and all Israeli behaviors, Said’s consistent position on this issue has been remarkable indeed.
Still, as a Jew I find that I sometimes bring a different sensibility to the text. I am simply puzzled, for example, when Said says, “Historically, in nineteenth-century Europe, anti-Semitism included both Jews and Arabs.” While I understand that many people held anti-Arab views at that time, the term “anti-Semitism” had been coined (rightly or wrongly) to apply specifically to animus towards Jews. And when he says, as preface to a powerful condemnation of provocative actions by right wing Jewish religious settlers in Hebron, “The town of Hebron is essentially an Arab town. There were no Jews in it before 1967,” I am reminded of the old saying that history depends on when you begin. I agree with Said about the settlers; but I would add, there was an ancient Jewish community in Hebron, evacuated in 1929 after 64 were killed by Arab militants from the Jerusalem area (although many others had been saved by Arab neighbors).
For me, one of the most moving sections of the book is a discussion between Said and Barsamian, an Armenian, about memory and suffering. Said argues against comparative suffering and adds, “...you can’t say suffering begins here and ends there. It goes on. It’s written into the experiences of people—of the Armenians, of the Jews, of the Palestinians—and nobody’s in a position to say, ‘Well, you’ve talked enough about suffering. Let’s move on to something else.’ There’s no calendar for when something begins and when something ends. The distortions that are imposed upon the lives of people, even several generations after the actual suffering, continue for a long time.”
Another particularly moving section of the book is Said’s description of his friendship and musical collaboration with world-renowned pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, a Jew born in Argentina, raised in Israel, living in Germany. In a February, 1999 interview, Said describes how he has just arranged for Barenboim to play a recital at the leading West Bank university:
“It took a long time to work out. There were all sorts of problems... Bir Zeit was shut down by the Israelis for four years during the Intifada. The president had been deported for twenty years... Only a couple of months ago, a student was killed by Israeli troops near the campus. There’s this long history of animosity and hostility between Bir Zeit and the Israelis.
“So it was difficult to accept at first the idea of an Israeli coming to play there. But it worked over time, and it was a fantastic success. It was one of the great events of my life, and if I can speak for him, of his life, that he was able to do this and transcend in an act that was purely cultural but also a human act of solidarity and friendship... He brought his own piano with him...to play a recital for an essentially Palestinian audience, ironically, in the hall in the university called Kamal Nasser Hall, named after a cousin of the president, who had been assassinated in Beirut in 1973. He was a very good friend of mine, and I was there when it happened. The assassination team was led by Ehud Barak...
“All of that gave the evening a very high emotional and I would say cultural resonance that was lost on absolutely no-one there. Zubin Mehta came, a great friend of Daniel’s. He’s the conductor of the Israel Philharmonic. He’s an Indian...avidly pro-Israeli. He’d never been to the West Bank. But he came. Tears were streaming down his face...”
And mine as I read this.
(For more on the extraordinary relationship between Said and Barenboim, see their co-authored Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society.)
One cannot read these interviews without gaining a deep sense of Said as an engaged intellectual—one with an encyclopedic knowledge of language, literature, poetry, music. He speaks powerfully of the role culture can play in resistance movements generally and in the Palestinian resistance movement specifically—“In the case of a political identity that’s being threatened, culture is a way of fighting against extinction and obliteration.” But for Edward Said, the fight is a personal one as well. Asked how he responds to his many critics, he replies, “I don’t. It’s a total waste of time... I respond to them by producing more. I think what they want is my silence. Unless I die, it’s not going to happen.”
Said has been waging an extraordinary battle with leukemia—in and out of hospitals and treatments for over a decade, a period during which he has nonetheless been astonishingly prolific. For him, continuing to speak and write—and just to stay alive—is a most profound form of resistance.
He gives much credit to his doctor. “His ingenuity in dealing with this insidious and cruel disease has inspired me to keep fighting. Which is what I do. And I enjoy life, I must say. I’m surrounded by people I love. I love teaching. I get a tremendous energy out of the students I interact with—not as much as I would like to these days, because my teaching is curtailed. But being a member of an academic community, and a wider political community of activists and people who feel they are moving toward liberation and understanding is very exhilarating. In fact, I can’t think of anything better I’d like to be doing.”
*To my surprise, I’m actually quoted in the book—about a dozen pages from the end, in Said’s description of the dramatic episode around which we first met (although I had heard him speak on previous occasions).