Intellectual guns fire salute to Edward Said
By Waqar Gillani
LAHORE: Edward Said was a profound visionary and true humanist who will be remembered for a long time, said speakers at an event in memory of the late intellectual at the Punjab University on Monday.
Lectures on Said’s literary criticism, his advocacy of the Palestinian cause, and on his relations with Eqbal Ahmed were the highlights of a tribute arranged by The Friday Times and Punjab University’s English Department. Department faculty and students read out pieces of literature highlighting Said’s intellectual concerns and poems in tribute to him at the event held in the English Department.
Najam Sethi, editor of The Friday Times, described the versatile Said as a human rights activist, intellectual, writer, musician and, most importantly, a visionary. “He was a man of profound vision who will be with us for a long time,” he said.
Mr Sethi talked about the first time he met Said, accompanied by Eqbal Ahmed, and “wonderful evenings” spent discussing the Palestine issue. At that time, Said was associated with Yasser Arafat, but broke way from the Palestinian leader when the latter signed the Oslo peace accord for the creation of a separate Palestinian state. Said believed this would lead to disaster, and the only viable solution to the violence in the Middle East was a bi-national country of Jews and Muslims. Events since then, Mr Sethi explained, had in his opinion vindicated Said’s position.
“He (Said) has been proven right. We were wrong,” Mr Sethi said.
He also warned of the effects of a resolution in the US Congress which calls for cuts in government funding to think tanks and universities which do not agree with American foreign policy, particularly those that teach the ‘subversive’ ideas of Edward Said.
Physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy gave an emotional talk about Said’s essential humanism and his mentor Eqbal Ahmed.
He said Said lived two lives, one as a voice for the Palestinian cause and the other as an academic at Columbia University in New York. “He was firmly wedded to the Palestinian cause. He was declared ‘professor of terror’ because of it.”
Mr Hoodbhoy said Said’s opponents wrongly claimed he wanted the elimination of Israel. Jewish students wanted him expelled from the university after he symbolically threw a stone across from Lebanon into Israel.
Said acknowledged intellectual Eqbal Ahmad as his mentor, and the two had a very close relationship. Mr Hoodbhoy recalled an incident two days before the death of Eqbal Ahmad in hospital in May 1999 when he had gone to visit him. Ahmad was in a semi-conscious state, when a call came in from Said. Despite his poor health, Ahmad spoke to Said for 15 minutes, spending much of the time asking how he was coping with leukaemia.
Edward Said, he added, believed in non-violent protests by the Palestinians. This was why he had broken with Arafat. “He was a humanist,” Mr Hoodbhoy said. Said’s critique of the West was based on Western moral principles, he pointed out.
Journalist Khaled Ahmad spoke about Said’s most influential book, Orientalism, and the danger of taking an extreme interpretation of it. Orientalism referred to conflict between East and West, and the colonial arrogance of much literature written by Western authors about the East, or Orient.
Part of the reason Orientalism was misinterpreted was that Said never defined what the Orient was. Orientalism discussed the imperialism of France and Germany, whose legacy had been passed on the US, but not that of Russia and Germany.
Mr Ahmad stressed that Said must be remembered as writing for an American audience, and as suggesting ways America could reform and humanise itself. His theories could only carefully be used by outsiders as a weapon against America, said Mr Ahmad, because on a true understanding Said’s message was one for the US and the West to reform itself.
Ejaz Haider, news editor of The Friday Times, spoke about Said’s universalist view of the Palestine issue, and how he disagreed with Said that the Oslo accord was a bad thing. His work stood out in its moral integrity, and this adherence to morality affected his political judgement. Yasser Arafat had learnt to cheat and had thus survived and was still the Palestinian leader. But Said’s morality and other fine qualities which made him stand out did not allow him to engage in less idealistic, practical politics. “This in no way takes away from the greatness of the man,” Mr Haider added.
Zareena Saeed of the Punjab University English Department presented a paper on why Said’s work had been included on the literature syllabus. Amra Raza, Sheerin Rahim and Rubina Tahir, all faculty members, and several students presented readings from Shakespeare, Joseph Conrad, Paul Scott and Ben Okri.
The tribute ended with a poem by Pablo Neruda, read out by Ms Rahim, in memory of Said.
Poster competition: Quddus Mirza, a noted artist and art critic, gave certificates to the winners of a poster competition amongst the students depicting the themes of Edward Said’s writings. The competition was arranged by the English Department.
The organisers of the event also thanked the Royal Palm Golf and Country Club for its cooperation and support.