I enjoy unlikeliness and it seemed unlikely to me that Candia McWilliam would find herself in Edward Said’s memoir of his early life; Out of Place: A Memoir [Granta 1999]. That she does so in her own memoir [What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness Cape 2010/Vintage 2011] is one of many endearing things about it and its author. Also a high recommendation for Said and his own memoir.
I spent a number of mornings in June this year running past one end of Edward Sa’id Street in Ramallah, actualising the way he and his work feature near the beginning of my adult life and have been returned to repeatedly ever since. I’m posting an old review I did for The Independent of his collection of pieces The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and after [Granta 1999 -out of print/PenguinRandomHouseUS 2001 -linked] [BELOW]. Read almost anything of Said’s [especially on the question of Palestine] and the absence of a voice like his today makes you weep.
I’m one of those who thought that when Palestinians -massacred, dispossessed, brutalised- reached a stage in 1987 of throwing what they had left; the dust at their feet, back at the ogre the ogre would understand that the game was up. It would realise that even if it restored all the Palestinians are due it would still represent a substantial success for its project -despite having then to embrace human law, secularism and actual democracy. I thought it would recognise that it held all the cards, that it was time to deal from a position of strength and recover some civility -whatever else one thinks. I assumed it would seize the day unhesitatingly, even if only strategically.
So I’m shocked still by the despotic depths, mortifying violence and delusion that built through the 1990s post-Oslo and out-peaks itself almost daily. I’m one whose gradual realisation/recognition of the depravity [not mere political/philosophical wrongness] of the Zionist project in practice or historical actuality exposed my own elemental but extravagantly stupid scale of good faith towards Israelis, i.e. the uncomfortable majority of people who elect and embody, arm and fight for, believe and believe in this state of Israel and what it has done in their name. I was wrong to allow a general empathy and my life-long personal affections to bloom into degrees of trust at that juncture, as has long been obvious.
I confess this as someone who lost their student union because we sent money to the PLO, marched, cheered on the first intifada and marched again, for example, in memory of Abu Jihad in April 1989, a particularly signficant victim of a mass murdering machine. But my error is also why I can speak clearly and cleanly now and voice my repulsion and contempt when critics of Israel are ranted at by apparently insatiable murderous racists. So much blind self-righteousness/-immersal combined with so many pulverised bodies and dwellings of the repeatedly dispossessed over such a sustained period of time embodies the most terrifying abyss.
There are certainly other things to say about the state of Israel but the last two decades alone make them seem worthless, collaborative even. Israelis will have to take responsibility for what they have pursued so relentlessly first. In this piece I tried to find a form of words and a way to say these things as gently as possible because indirection on this subject was and still is more or less the only way in Britain. One of the things that my recent Residency in Ramallah, in which I ran as well as walked the wadis and hills in every direction as far as the prison walls allowed, made starkly clear is that a two-state ‘solution’ is untenable. If it ever had life, and perhaps it did when the PLO first offered it, it has none now. The Occupation has seen to that.
No, there is only a single state solution to come in one of two forms; a violently racist dictatorship, or a brand new secular democracy of the peoples of Palestine. That is, there’s a single solution, it is a matter of how long it takes and how much it will cost. The little circus of a ‘peaceprocess’ that will play out this year is inconsequential [as all players know] in this shameful tragedy. The only real question is how much more would have been achieved if, instead of offering compromise, Arafat, the PLO and the Palestinians had maintained the original intifada -whatever the cost- until achieving the perfectly reasonable goal of a single secular state of equal citizens. Only those full of racist delusions now would require Hamas to repeat the PLO’s fateful errors -and they do. They do!
Meanwhile, yes I had the privilege of brief email exchanges with Edward Said and spoke on the phone too. We were due to meet, he called me to finalise arrangements, offering two dates. I knew how hard he was to pin down from some of those close to him and my own previous experience. I knew that now is always better than later. I also knew how extremely ill he was. However, I was forced to postpone meeting because -and here I have to be discreet- of a very unusual set of circumstances which kept me poised that day/week to fly to India at any minute on a real emergency which was resolved too late in even more unlikely ways. We’d laugh together if I could explain, but the result is that I never did meet with Edward Said.
There are very few modern regimes or states who seriously pretend to any sacred/eternal link between a set of ‘pure’ [!?] genes and a particular piece of the earth’s crust. In India the previous government was formed by the BJP which is the acceptable face of groups that claim India is both ‘Fatherland’ and ‘Holyland’. In Gujarat, these people -whom, so far as science can tell, descend from immigrant ‘Aryans’- led state sponsored pogroms or “mass massacres” in which thousands of Muslims were butchered and hundreds of thousands displaced in the early part of this decade. Their idealogues claimed direct inspiration from Nazism and its notion of an eternal Reich -and of course Zionism and its eternal gift/priority. The ethnic cleansing of Palestine is one of their principle inspirations.
Before you accuse me of anything I’d like to hear you accusing the murderous racists of India’s sangh parivar first and then perhaps you might, for example, go and read up on the history/archeology of Ariha/Jericho and oh, say, Eliot Weinberger’s early writing, like The Falls in his Karmic Traces. Whatever. But mainly understand that there can be no justification for the scale of what Israel has done, even if there was a time when it was important to understand [even sympathise with] how and why it had become such a monster. All of which is now and forever more academic.
I prefer the various uses Palestinians make of the ground which has sustained them continuously for generations and centuries, ground in which they have long been buried [in graves that Israel even now is bulldozing in the name of ‘tolerance’ -literally!]. Even the use made of the ground in near final despair; to throw it at their merciless oppressors with defiant resistance. So here is another stone thrown with them; with Edward Said and all other clear-sighted brave and humble souls of all ethnicities and none who stand on this earth.
I write this in the week that Tony Blair’s laughably vulgar foundations for his notion of humanitarian intervention emerged from a Steven Spielberg movie. It wouldn’t be so pitiful if he’d learnt the actual lesson in any profound way [Never Again was a universal credo or it was nothing…] and instead of watching, cheering on and facilitating the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestine, he’d voiced opposition to the uniquely chronic array of what we now call Crimes against Humanity when it might have made a difference -and it always makes a difference.
I realise how generous and lenient a punishment it would be, but I’d like the multitudinous Blairs of this world and our time -who always go with the flow because ‘it works’, for them- to be sentenced to a lifetime of perpetually re-reading all of the works of Edward Said. That’s my idea of justice anyway; temporal please note, not eternal. It also rehearses my principal point which is not to outrage you with bald truths rarely voiced but to get you to turn or turn back to the richly urgent, exact and exacting words of Edward Said.
Given the neurotic disingenuity on this subject in the UK I ought to distance both ES and especially Candia McWilliam from the views I express which are of course entirely my own. I don’t think CM mentions Palestine as such in her brilliant-in-parts memoir* [though she does mention Gujarat, where I witnessed those “mass massacres”, Parsis and Karachi as well as sharing love poems to Edinburgh and the Western Isles. See? You do need to read it!] which, if it won’t be perceived as a curse, I heartily and headily recommend to you.
Some of ES’s work and the writings about him is still available online in his old archive here.
*Candia McWilliam is capable of writing, sheer writing, that surpasses anyone else alive in Britain. You may need to put aside some prejudices of your own to read and experience it but you should do so. My ‘brilliant-in-parts’ remark diminishes little; she is a writer of prose not poetry, however richly dimensioned, condensed and poetically agile her prose is in its brilliant parts.
At last, a genuine Palestinian authority
The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and after by Edward W Said (Granta, £15)
By Guy Mannes-Abbott
Wednesday, 4 October 2000
What exactly is an intellectual nowadays, and do we need them? Edward Said recently described meeting Jean-Paul Sartre a year before Sartre died in 1980. Sartre’s stance on Israel disappointed Said, but he remained a “great intellectual hero” to Said’s generation because he invested his “insight and intellectual gifts” in the service of “nearly every progressive cause of our time”.
Sartre’s notion of an intellectual, someone whose learning and achievement in one field is applied elsewhere, describes Said himself. He is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Colombia University, and the author of influential works such as Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism. But he has also been active in Palestinian politics and a prolific analyst of dispossession in books likeThe Question of Palestine.
So, although Said updates this definition, the question remains whether we need such intellectuals in the 21st century. It’s one that this collection of essays answers unequivocally.
The End of the Peace Process contains 50 polemical articles written between May 1995 and January 1999. Most are re-publications of his columns in Al-Hayat and Al-Ahram, periodicals based in London and Cairo respectively. Other pieces have also been published across the Middle East and Europe and even, occasionally, in the US. The distribution is important, because Said remains almost the only sceptical commentator on the territorial negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians in the Western media.
Just as every acre is contested by overlapping claims, so are many of the terms used in these essays. Just as the facts on the ground change, so has Said’s position moved. It is a decade since he broke with Arafat, opposing what he regarded as the PLO’s embrace of defeat in the Oslo deal which gave Palestinians some authority over the West Bank and the Gaza strip. But Said also regards a Palestinian state as unworkable, and these essays chart his shift towards an alternative.
Said’s alternative would be a single, secular state for Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs that guaranteed equality for all its citizens. That this initially sounds wilfully irresponsible demonstrates the peculiarity of the situation. That it seems eminently viable by the end of this collection testifies to Said’s rigorous intellectual effort to see beyond the cruel absurdities of a messy “peace process”.
One notable piece, “On Visiting Wadie”, is about his son’s work for an NGO based in Ramallah. Wadie, a “New York City kid”, reveals himself to be at home in Arabic, and among a new generation of Palestinians. Said invests his hope with them after discovering their shared impatience with the Palestinian Authority and Arafat’s security forces. Throughout, he is at least as scathing about the Palestinians’ corrupt incompetence and self-betrayal as he is of the Israelis’ brutal exploitation of that “sloppiness”.
Said’s reporting here is acute and affecting as he carefully assembles anecdotes and facts towards a larger picture. It exemplifies all those yardsticks for cultural criticism established in his early work, The World, the Text and the Critic. Criticism should be “situated… sceptical, secular, reflectively open to its own failings”. It should remain concrete and focused on “existential actualities” and resist the political configurations that incorporate us by origin or affiliation.
Said’s writing enacts this complexity with style. These essays are brilliant displays of rigorous perspective, relentless concentration and impassioned dedication. He is uniquely impressive in the way that he combines appeals to the largest of categories – justice, humanity, civility – with attentiveness to detail.
Said avoids infantile loyalties in order to shore up truths, and emerges from this collection as a vital ethical thinker. The important thing, he writes, is “to think new thoughts and open lines of reflection that convention and orthodoxy have closed to us”. The End of the Peace Process is the work of the kind of non-aligned intellectual that we need more than ever today.