Op-ed: Indestructibility of the human spirit
Said's writings return persistently to the common thread of unsettling departures and the constant strain of displacements from cities and languages, from the familiar to the new
Last week marked the passing away of two men who will be remembered for a long time. Each had a distinct domain. One, recognised at a global level as one of the foremost intellectuals of the century, the other a humbler but no less important figure on a national level. Both influenced whole generations, were outspoken advocates of the truth and in their individual lives served as role models.
Edward Said straddled both his worlds with a messianic spirit. His passionate advocacy of the Palestinian cause, the unrelenting pursuit of a secular culture which heroically challenged anti-Semitism and his enormously powerful critique of Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilisations’ thesis are only a few of the contributions he made to a world beset with demoniac spirits of intolerance.
For those of us who read him, avidly and repetitively, he brought an insightful understanding to the meaning of loss, the pain of departure and to the underlying motifs of the second self that we all leave buried within ourselves. Said’s writings return persistently to the common thread of unsettling departures and the constant strain of displacements from cities and languages, from the familiar to the new, moving him further and further away from a stable centre.
From birth in Jerusalem in 1935 through a childhood divided between Cairo and Palestine and adulthood in the United States, Said’s life was characterised by incongruities. One of them being his name itself, the English ‘Edward’ juxtaposed against the Arabic surname; being neither Egyptian nor Palestinian but perpetually caught up in a vortex that left him with an increasing sense of being located at the periphery and marginalised.
Debunking the ‘Clash of Civilisations’ theory, Said argued for a saner, scholarly understanding of the enormous complexities inherent in protagonists called ‘West’ and ‘Islam’. Citing the personification as ‘recklessly’ affirmative, he proceeded to deconstruct the thesis comparing the simplistic perception of ‘complicated matters like identity and culture’ as undertaken by Samuel Huntington to something akin to the pugilistic virtuosity of characters in a cartoon world where Popeye and Bluto bash each other mercilessly.
Said constantly argued for a detailed study of the ‘internal dynamics and plurality of every civilization’, dismissing the West’s sweeping generalisations about Islam as downright ignorance. Said emphasised that the Sep 11 suicide mission often cited as proof of Huntington’s thesis were to be seen in the cold logic of the morning sun as nothing more than a criminal act performed by a small group of ‘deranged militants.’ To ascribe to the crime a gigantism which embraced all Islam and its practitioners was tantamount to ignoring history and contemporary reality.
In a remarkably prophetic article written more than twenty years ago, Said lacerated the media for what he termed an ‘obsession’ which attributed only two meanings to Islam: a ‘resurgent atavism’ with its overt menace of a return to the Middle Ages effecting a destruction of the democratic order in the West and the inevitability of a subsequent defensive counter response to the ‘threat’ that the religion posed. Said rejected both interpretations as fundamentally narrow and constricted and informed largely by passion, distrust and political bias.
Damningly forthright, Said further elaborated that the United States simplistically viewed the Muslims and Arabs as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. The caricaturised worlds of both being reported upon by coteries of experts in academia, business and government with little, if any, detail of the human component of these societies. Consequently, a vulnerability to armed aggression and subsequent military intervention became inevitable.
That the West knows Islam as a depressing, antirational, antidemocratic religion is a direct result of the print and electronic media propaganda regularly aired or presented by an enormous machinery at pains to propagate a hostile image of what is perceived as a threat to the western way of life. Special interest groups have manipulated Islam’s image so that it appears to be a seriously flawed, anti-human religion whose practitioners are bearded militants with a horrendous record of human rights violations. As Said rightly pointed out, only when (if ever) politicised labels like East and West are discarded, will the ‘real’ world be understood with all its cultural diversity and complexities.
At home, we lost a veteran politician in Nawabzada Nasrullah. With his trademark hookah and fez, the ARD convener and PDP President will be remembered for his long and distinguished career marked by an uncanny ability to build opposition alliances. Like Said, the Nawabzada was a crusader by temperament. But unlike the intellectual, the Nawabzada had never been too far removed from the centre.
From his junior days in the pro-Congress Majlis-e-Ahrar to his membership of the PML and subsequent election to the Punjab Assembly in 1951, the old warrior’s career was distinguished by an indefatigable faith in democratic governance. Remaining in Opposition except for a brief spell as Chairman of the Kashmir Action Committee during Benazir Bhutto’s second tenure, the Nawabzada remained in the eye of the storm throughout the post-1988 political scenario.
His consummate skill as a deal-maker in cementing relationships between political adversaries took on a legendary status with his Nicholson Road residence in old Lahore serving as a centre for heated political activity. Widely respected across political divides, the grand old man was, until his death, the oldest living parliamentarian in national politics.
Pitching himself against what he perceived as the autocratic policies of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the Nawabzada cobbled together a formidable opposition force in the shape of the PNA with a single point agenda, to topple ZAB’s regime. Politics however, makes for strange bedfellows and it was an ironic turn of events which saw the same champion of democracy and his PDP joining Zia’s cabinet along with other PNA parties. Quick to accept that he had made a mistake, the Nawabzada then focused his energy and consummate skill as a tactician to ousting the Zia regime.
Edward Said stood centre-stage at a world forum. It is a task worthy of a finer mind than mine to list the many ways in which his writing touched our lives. To understand one of the foremost democratic spirits and intellectuals of our time, I suggest that we turn to his work for a deeper understanding of ourselves, the world in which we live and to aspire to the wisdom and courage which marked his life and death.
Similarly, Nawabzada Nasrullah’s commitment to the ‘cause’ signifies the indestructibility of the human spirit faced by unrelenting, overwhelming odds. Both men were uncompromising comrades in arms. In death, as in life — a fitting tribute to both would be in the Bard’s own words: Ripeness is all.
The writer is currently the consultant for the Beacon House National University, Lahore. Her e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org