In a public dialogue with Salman in London he [Edward Said] had once described the Palestinian plight as one where his people, expelled and dispossessed by Jewish victors, were in the unique historical position of being 'the victims of the victims': there was something quasi-Christian, I thought, in the apparent humility of that statement.
Though he never actually joined it, he was close to some civilian elements of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which was the most Communist (and in the rather orthodox sense) of the Palestinian formations. I remember Edward once surprising me by saying, and apropos of nothing: 'Do you know something I have never done in my political career? I have never publicly criticized the Soviet Union. It’s not that I terribly sympathize with them or anything—it's just that the Soviets have never done anything to harm me, or us.' At the time I thought this a rather naïve statement, even perhaps a slightly contemptible one, but by then I had been in parts of the Middle East where it could come as a blessed relief to meet a consecrated Moscow-line atheist-dogmatist, if only for the comparatively rational humanism that he evinced amid so much religious barking and mania. It was only later to occur to me that Edward's pronounced dislike of George Orwell was something to which I ought to have paid more attention.
There came an awful day when I picked up the phone and knew at once, as one does with some old friends even before they speak, that it was Edward. He sounded as if he were calling from the bottom of a well. I still thank my stars that I didn't say what I nearly said, because the good professor's phone pals were used to cheering or teasing him out of bouts of pessimism and insecurity when he would sometimes say ridiculous things like: 'I hope you don't mind being disturbed by some mere wog and upstart.' The remedy for this was not to indulge it but to reply with bracing and satirical stuff which would soon get the gurgling laugh back into his throat. But I'm glad I didn't say, 'What, Edward, splashing about again in the waters of self-pity?' because this time he was calling to tell me that he had contracted a rare strain of leukemia. Not at all untypically, he used the occasion to remind me that it was very important always to make and keep regular appointments with one’s physician.
I take criticism so seriously as to believe that, even in the midst of a battle in which one is unmistakably on one side against another, there should be criticism, because there must be critical consciousness if there are to be issues, problems, values, even lives to be fought for... Criticism must think of itself as life-enhancing and constitutively opposed to every form of tyranny, domination, and abuse; its social goals are noncoercive knowledge produced in the interests of human freedom.
Arab nationalism in its traditional form was the way in which secular Arab Christians like Edward had found and kept a place for themselves, while simultaneously avoiding the charge of being too 'Western.' It was very noticeable among the Palestinians that the most demonstrably 'extreme' nationalists—and Marxists—were often from Christian backgrounds. George Habash and Nayef Hawatmeh used to be celebrated examples of this phenomenon, long before anyone had heard of the cadres of Hamas, or Islamic Jihad. There was an element of overcompensation involved, or so I came to suspect.
In the same essay, Said (who is reviewing Peter Stansky and William Abrams, co-authors obsessed with the Blair/Orwell distinction) congratulates them on their forceful use of tautology:This is rather extraordinary. Orwell did indeed meet Garrett in Liverpool in 1936, and was highly impressed to find that he knew him already through his pseudonymous writing—under the name Matt Lowe—for John Middleton Murry’s Adelphi. As he told his diary:Thus the evidence that supposedly shames Orwell by contrast is in fact supplied by—none other than Orwell himself! This is only slightly better than the other habit of his foes, which is to attack him for things he quotes other people as saying, as if he had instead said them himself. (The idea that a writer must be able to ‘afford’ to write is somewhat different and, as an idea, is somewhat—to use a vogue term of the New Left—‘problematic’. If it were only the bourgeois who were able to write, much work would never have been penned and, incidentally, Orwell would never have met Garrett in the first place.)
Edward had a personal horror of violence and never endorsed or excused it, though in a documentary he made about the conflict he said that actions like the bombing of pilgrims at Tel Aviv airport 'did more harm than good,' which I remember thinking was (a) euphemistic and (b) a slipshod expression unworthy of a professor of English.
Some lurid things have been said about me—that I am a racist, a hopeless alcoholic, a closet homosexual and so forth—that I leave to others to decide the truth of. I'd only point out, though, that if true these accusations must also have been true when I was still on the correct side, and that such shocking deformities didn't seem to count for so much then. Arguing with the Stalinist mentality for more than three decades now, and doing a bit of soapboxing and street-corner speaking on and off, has meant that it takes quite a lot to hurt my tender feelings, or bruise my milk-white skin.
Not long ago, having expressed some disagreements in print with an old comrade of long standing, I was sent a response that he had published in an obscure newspaper. This riposte referred to my opinions as ‘racist.’ I would obviously scorn to deny such an allegation on my own behalf. I would, rather, prefer to repudiate it on behalf of my former friend. He had known me for many years and cooperated with me on numerous projects, and I am quite confident that he would never have as a collaborator anyone he suspected of racial prejudice. But it does remind me, and not for the first time, that quarrels on the left have a tendency to become miniature treason trials, replete with all kinds of denunciation. There's a general tendency—not by any means confined to radicals but in some way specially associated with them—to believe that once the lowest motive for a dissenting position has been found, it must in some way be the real one.
It was at a conference in Cyprus in 1976, where the theme was the rights of small nations, that I first met Edward Said. It was impossible not to be captivated by him: of his many immediately seductive qualities I will start by mentioning a very important one. When he laughed, it was as if he was surrendering unconditionally to some guilty pleasure. At first the very picture of professorial rectitude, with faultless tweeds, cravats, and other accoutrements (the pipe also being to the fore), he would react to a risqué remark, or a disclosure of something vaguely scandalous, as if a whole Trojan horse of mirth had been smuggled into his interior and suddenly disgorged its contents. The build-up, in other words, was worth one's effort.
Inevitably came the time when he angrily repudiated his former paladin Yasser Arafat. In fact, he described him to me as 'the Palestinian blend of Marshal Petaín and Papa Doc.' But the main problem, alas, remained the same. In Edward's moral universe, Arafat could at last be named as a thug and a practitioner of corruption and extortion. But he could only be identified as such to the extent that he was now and at last aligned with an American design. Thus the only truly unpardonable thing about 'The Chairman' was his readiness to appear on the White House lawn with Yitzhak Rabin and Bill Clinton in 1993. I have real knowledge and memory of this, because George Stephanopoulos—whose father's Orthodox church in Ohio and New York had kept him in touch with what was still a predominantly Christian Arab-American opinion—called me more than once from the White House to help beseech Edward to show up at the event. 'The feedback we get from Arab-American voters is this: If it's such a great idea, why isn't Said signing off on it?' When I called him, Edward was grudging and crabby. 'The old man [Arafat] has no right to sign away land.' Really? Then what had the Algiers deal been all about? How could two states come into being without mutual concessions on territory?