Tribute to Edward Said
Dignity, Solidarity and the Penal Colony
By EDWARD SAID
[An Excerpt from The Politics of Anti-Semitism, edited by Alexander Cockburn
and Jeffrey St. Clair]
Aside from the obvious physical discomforts, being ill for a long period of
time fills the spirit with a terrible feeling of helplessness, but also with
periods of analytic lucidity, which, of course, must be treasured. For the past
three months now I have been in and out of the hospital, with days marked by
lengthy and painful treatments, blood transfusions, endless tests, hours and
hours of unproductive time spent staring at the ceiling, draining fatigue and
infection, inability to do normal work, and thinking, thinking, thinking.
But there are also the intermittent passages of lucidity and reflection that
sometimes give the mind a perspective on daily life that allows it to see
things (without being able to do much about them) from a different perspective.
Reading the news from Palestine and seeing the frightful images of death and
destruction on television, it has been my experience to be utterly amazed and
aghast at what I have deduced from those details about Israeli government policy,
more particularly about what has been going on in the mind of Ariel Sharon.
And when, after the recent Gaza bombing by one of his F-16s in which nine
children were massacred, he was quoted as congratulating the pilot and boasting of
a great Israeli success, I was able to form a much clearer idea than before of
what a pathologically deranged mind is capable of, not only in terms of what
it plans and orders but, worse, how it manages to persuade other minds to
think in the same delusional and criminal way. Getting inside the official Israeli
mind is a worthwhile, if lurid, experience.
In the West, however, there's been such repetitious and unedifying attention
paid to Palestinian suicide bombing that a gross distortion in reality has
completely obscured what is much worse: the official Israeli, and perhaps the
uniquely Sharonian evil that has been visited so deliberately and so methodically
on the Palestinian people. Suicide bombing is reprehensible but it is a
direct and, in my opinion, a consciously programmed result of years of abuse,
powerlessness and despair. It has as little to do with the Arab or Muslim supposed
propensity for violence as the man in the moon. Sharon wants terrorism, not
peace, and he does everything in his power to create the conditions for it. But
for all its horror, Palestinian violence, the response of a desperate and
horribly oppressed people, has been stripped of its context and the terrible
suffering from which it arises: a failure to see that is a failure in humanity, and
that context doesn't make the violence any less terrible but at least
situates it in a real history and real geography.
Yet the location of Palestinian terror-of course it is terror-is never
allowed a moment's chance to appear, so remorseless has been the focus on it as a
phenomenon apart, a pure, gratuitous evil which Israel, supposedly acting on
behalf of pure good, has been virtuously battling in its variously appalling acts
of disproportionate violence against a population of three million
Palestinian civilians. I am not speaking only about Israel's manipulation of opinion,
but its exploitation of the American equivalent of the campaign against
terrorism without which Israel could not have done what it has done. (In fact, I
cannot think of any other country on earth that, in full view of nightly TV
audiences, has performed such miracles of detailed sadism against an entire society
and gotten away with it.) That this evil has been made consciously part of
George W. Bush's campaign against terrorism, irrationally magnifying American
fantasies and fixations with extraordinary ease, is no small partof its blind
destructiveness. Like the brigades of eager (and in my opinion completely corrupt)
American intellectuals who spin enormous structures of falsehoods about the
benign purpose and necessity of US imperialism, Israeli society has pressed
into service numerous academics, policy intellectuals at think tanks, and
ex-military men now in defense-related and public relations business, all to
rationalize and make convincing inhuman punitive policies that are supposedly based on
the need for Israeli security.
Israeli security is now a fabled beast. Like a unicorn it is endlessly hunted
and never found, remaining, everlastingly, the goal of future action. That
over time Israel has become less secure and more unacceptable to its neighbors
scarcely merits a moment's notice. But then who challenges the view that
Israeli security ought to define the moral world we live in? Certainly not the Arab
and Palestinian leaderships, who for 30 years have conceded everything to
Israeli security. Shouldn't that ever be questioned, given that Israel has wreaked
more damage on the Palestinians and other Arabs relative to its size than any
country in the world, Israel with its nuclear arsenal, its air force, navy
and army limitlessly supplied by the US taxpayer? As a result the daily, minute
occurrences of what Palestinians have to live through are hidden and, more
important, covered over by a logic of self-defense and the pursuit of terrorism
(terrorist infrastructure, terrorist nests, terrorist bomb factories, terrorist
suspects-the list is infinite) which perfectly suits Sharon and the
lamentable George Bush. Ideas about terrorism have thus taken on a life of their own,
legitimized and re-legitimized without proof, logic or rational argument.
Consider for instance the devastation of Afghanistan, on the one hand, and
the "targeted" assassinations of almost 100 Palestinians (to say nothing of the
many thousands of "suspects" rounded-up and still imprisoned by Israeli
soldiers) on the other: nobody asks whether all these people killed were in fact
terrorists, or proved to be terrorists, or were about to become terrorists. They
are all assumed to be dangers by acts of simple, unchallenged affirmation. All
you need is an arrogant spokesman or two, like the loutish Ranaan Gissin, Avi
Pazner or Dore Gold, and in Washington a non-stop apologist for ignorance and
incoherence like Ari Fleischer, and the targets in question are just as good
as dead. Without doubts, questions or demurral. No need for proof or any such
tiresome delicacy. Terrorism and its obsessive pursuit have become an entirely
circular, self-fulfilling murder and slow death of enemies who have no choice
or say in the matter.
With the exception of reports by a few intrepid journalists and writers such
as Amira Hass, Gideon Levy, Amos Elon, Tanya Leibowitz, Jeff Halper, Israel
Shamir and a few others, public discourse in the Israeli media has declined
terribly in quality and honesty. Patriotism and blind support for the government
has replaced skeptical reflection and moral seriousness. Gone are the days of
Israel Shahak, Jakob Talmon and Yehoshua Leibowitch. I can think of few Israeli
academics and intellectuals-men like Zeev Sternhell, Uri Avnery and Ilan
Pappe, for instance-who are courageous enough to depart from the imbecilic and
debased debate about "security" and "terrorism" that seems to have overtaken the
Israeli peace establishment, or even its rapidly dwindling left opposition.
Crimes are being committed every day in the name of Israel and the Jewish
people, and yet the intellectuals chatter on about strategic withdrawal, or perhaps
whether to incorporate settlements or not, or whether to keep
building that monstrous fence (has a crazier idea ever been realized in the
modern world, that you can put several million people in a cage and say they
don't exist?) in a manner befitting a general or a politician, rather than in
ways more suited to intellectuals and artists with independent judgment and
some sort of moral standard. Where are the Israeli equivalents of Nadine
Gordimer, Andre Brink, Athol Fugard, those white writers who spoke out unequivocally
and with unambiguous clarity against the evils of South African apartheid? They
simply don't exist in Israel, where public discourse by writers and academics
has sunk to equivocation and the repetition of official propaganda, and where
most really first-class writing and thought has disappeared from even the
But to return to Israeli practices and the mind-set that has gripped the
country with such obduracy during the past few years, think of Sharon's plan. It
entails nothing less than the obliteration of an entire people by slow,
systematic methods of suffocation, outright murder and the stifling of everyday life.
There is a remarkable story by Kafka, In the Penal Colony, about a crazed
official who shows off a fantastically detailed torture machine whose purpose is
to write all over the body of the victim, using a complex apparatus of needles
to inscribe the captive's body with minute letters that ultimately causes the
prisoner to bleed to death. This is what Sharon and his brigades of willing
executioners are doing to the Palestinians, with only the most limited and most
symbolic of opposition. Every Palestinian has become a prisoner. Gaza is
surrounded by an electrified wire fence on three sides; imprisoned like animals,
Gazans are unable to move, unable to work, unable to sell theirvegetables or
fruit, unable to go to school. They are exposed from the air to Israeli planes
and helicopters and are gunned down like turkeys on the ground by tanks and
machine guns. Impoverished and starved, Gaza is a human nightmare, each of whose
little pieces of episodes-like what takes place at Erez, or near the
settlements-involves thousands of soldiers in the humiliation, punishment, intolerable
enfeeblement of each Palestinian, without regard for age, gender or illness.
Medical supplies are held up at the border, ambulances are fired upon or
detained. Hundreds of houses are demolished, and hundreds of thousands of trees and
agricultural land destroyed in acts of systematic collective punishment
against civilians, most of whom are already refugees from Israel's destruction of
their society in 1948. Hope has been eliminated from the Palestinian vocabulary
so that only raw defiance remains, and still Sharon and his sadistic minions
prattle on about eliminating terrorism by an ever-encroaching occupation that
has continued now for 35 years. That the campaign itself is, like all colonial
brutality, futile, or that it has the effect of making Palestinians more,
rather than less, defiant simply does not enter Sharon's closed mind.
The West Bank is occupied by 1,000 Israeli tanks whose sole purpose is to
fire upon and terrorize civilians. Curfews are imposed for periods of up to two
weeks, without respite. Schools and universities are either closed or
impossible to get to. No one can travel, not just between the nine main cities but
within the cities. Every town today is a wasteland of destroyed buildings, looted
offices, purposely ruined water and electrical systems. Commerce is finished.
Malnutrition prevails in half the number of children. Two-thirds of the
population lives below the poverty level of $2 a day. Tanks in Jenin (where the
demolition of the refugee camp by Israeli armor, a major war crime, was never
investigated because cowardly international bureaucrats such as Kofi Annan back
down when Israel threatens) fire upon and kill children, but that is only one
drop in an unending stream of Palestinian civilian deaths caused by Israeli
soldiers who furnish the illegal Israeli military occupation withloyal,
unquestioning service. Palestinians are all "terrorist suspects". The soul of this
occupation is that young Israeli conscripts are allowed full rein to subject
Palestinians at checkpoints to every known form of private torture and abjection.
There is the waiting in the sun for hours; then there is the detention of
medical supplies and produce until they rot; there are the insulting words and
beatings administered at will; the sudden rampage of jeeps and soldiers against
civilians waiting their turn by the thousands at the innumerable checkpoints that
have made of Palestinian life a choking hell; making dozens of youths kneel
in the sun for hours; forcing men to take off their clothes; insulting and
humiliating parents in front of their children; forbidding the sick to pass
through for no other reason than personal whim; stopping ambulances and firing on
them. And the steady number of Palestinian deaths (quadruple that of Israelis)
increases on a daily, mostly untabulated basis. More "terrorist suspects" plus
their wives and children, but "we" regret those deaths very much. Thank you.
Israel is frequently referred to as a democracy. If so, then it is a
democracy without a conscience, a country whose soul has been captured by a mania for
punishing the weak, a democracy that faithfully mirrors the psychopathic
mentality of its ruler, General Sharon, whose sole idea-if that is the right word
for it-is to kill, reduce, maim, drive away Palestinians until "they break". He
provides nothing more concrete as a goal for his campaigns, now or in the
past, beyond that, and like the garrulous official in Kafka's story he is most
proud of his machine for abusing defenseless Palestinian civilians, all the
while monstrously abetted in his grotesque lies by his court advisers and
philosophers and generals, as well as by his chorus of faithful American servants.
There is no Palestinian army of occupation, no Palestinian tanks, no soldiers, no
helicopter gun-ships, no artillery, no government to speak of. But there are
the "terrorists" and the "violence" that Israel has invented sothat its own
neuroses can be inscribed on the bodies of Palestinians, without effective
protest from the overwhelming majority of Israel's laggard philosophers,
intellectuals, artists, peace activists. Palestinian schools, libraries and universities
have ceased normal functioning for months now; and we still wait for the
Western freedom-to-write groups and the vociferous defenders of academic freedom
in America to raise their voices in protest. I have yet to see one academic
organization either in Israel or in the West make a declaration about this
profound abrogation of the Palestinian right to knowledge, to learning, to attend
In sum, Palestinians must die a slow death so that Israel can have its
security, which is just around the corner but cannot be realized because of the
special Israeli "insecurity". The whole world must sympathize, while the cries of
Palestinian orphans, sick old women, bereaved communities and tortured
prisoners simply go unheard and unrecorded. Doubtless, we will be told, these horrors
serve a larger purpose than mere sadistic cruelty. After all, "the two sides"
are engaged in a "cycle of violence" which has to be stopped, sometime,
somewhere. Once in a while, we ought to pause and declare indignantly that there is
only one side with an army and a country: the other is a stateless,
dispossessed population without rights or any present way of securing them. The
language of suffering and concrete daily life has either been hijacked, or it has
been so perverted as, in my opinion, to be useless except as pure fiction
deployed as a screen for the purpose of more killing and painstaking torture-slowly,
fastidiously, inexorably. That is the truth of what Palestinians suffer. But
in any case, Israeli policy will ultimately fail.
Anyone who believes that the road map devised by the Bush administration
actually offers anything resembling a settlement or that it tackles the basic
issues is wrong. Like so much of the prevailing peace discourse, it places the
need for restraint and renunciation and sacrifice squarely on Palestinian
shoulders, thus denying the density and sheer gravity of Palestinian history. To read
through the road map is to confront an unsituated document, oblivious of its
time and place.
The road map, in other words, is not about a plan for peace so much as a plan
for pacification: it is about putting an end to Palestine as a problem. Hence
the repetition of the term "performance" in the document's wooden prose-in
other words, how the Palestinians are expected to behave, almost in the social
sense of the word. No violence, no protest, more democracy, better leaders and
institutions, all based on the notion that the underlying problem has been the
ferocity of Palestinian resistance, rather than the occupation that has given
rise to it. Nothing comparable is expected of Israel except that a few small
settlements, known as "illegal outposts" (an entirely new classification which
suggests that some Israeli implantations on Palestinian land are legal) must
be given up and, yes, the major settlements "frozen" but certainly not
dismantled. Not a word is said about what since 1948, and then again since 1967,
Palestinians have endured at the hands of Israel and the US.
Nothing about the de-development of the Palestinian economy as described by
the American researcher Sara Roy in her forthcoming Scholarship and Politics.
House demolitions, the uprooting of trees, the 5000 prisoners or more, the
policy of targeted assassinations, the closures since 1993, the wholesale ruin of
the infrastructure, the incredible number of deaths and maimings-all that and
more passes without a word.
Nonetheless It may seem quixotic for me to say, even if the immediate
prospects are grim from a Palestinian perspective, they are not all dark. The
Palestinians stubbornly survive, and Palestinian society-devastated, nearly ruined,
desolate in so many ways-is, like Hardy's thrush in its blast-beruffled plume,
still capable of flinging its soul upon the growing gloom. No other Arab
society is as rambunctious and healthily unruly, and none is fuller of civic and
social initiatives and functioning institutions (including a miraculously vital
musical conservatory). Even though they are mostly unorganized and in some
cases lead miserable lives of exile and statelessness, Diaspora Palestinians are
still energetically engaged by the problems of their collective destiny, and
everyone that I know is always trying somehow to advance the cause. Only a
minuscule fraction of this energy has ever found its way into the Palestinian
Authority, which except for the highly ambivalent figure of Arafathas remained
strangely marginal to the common fate. According to recent polls, [in the early
summer of 2003] Fateh and Hamas between them have the support of roughly 45
percent of the Palestinian electorate, with the remaining 55 percent evolving
quite different, much more hopeful-looking political formations.
One in particular has struck me as significant (and I have attached myself to
it) inasmuch as it now provides the only genuine grassroots formation that
steers clear both of the religious parties and their fundamentally sectarian
politics, and of the traditional nationalism offered up by Arafat's old (rather
than young) Fateh activists. It's been called the National Political Initiative
(NPI) and its main figure is Mostapha Barghuti, a Moscow-trained physician,
whose main work has been as director of the impressive Village Medical Relief
Committee, which has brought health care to more than 100,000 rural
Palestinians. A former Communist Party stalwart, Barghuti is a quiet-spoken organizer and
leader who has overcome the hundreds of physical obstacles impeding
Palestinian movement or travel abroad to rally nearly every independent individual and
organization of note behind a political program that promises social reform as
well as liberation across doctrinal lines. Singularly free of conventional
rhetoric, Barghuti has worked with Israelis, Europeans, Americans, Africans,
Asians, Arabs to build an enviably well-run solidarity movement that practices
the pluralism and co-existence it preaches. NPI does not throw up its hands at
the directionless militarization of the intifada. It offers training programs
for the unemployed and social services for the destitute on the grounds that
this answers to present circumstances and Israeli pressure. Above all, NPI,
which is about to become a recognized political party, seeks to mobilize
Palestinian society at home and in exile for free elections-authentic elections which
will represent Palestinian, rather than Israeli or US, interests. This sense of
authenticity is what seems so lacking in the path cut out for Abu Mazen.
The vision here isn't a manufactured provisional state on 40 percent of the
land, with the refugees abandoned and Jerusalem kept by Israel, but a sovereign
territory liberated from military occupation by mass action involving Arabs
and Jews wherever possible. Because NPI is an authentic Palestinian movement,
reform and democracy have become part of its everyday practice. Many hundreds
of Palestine's most notable activists and independents have already signed up,
and organizational meetings have already been held, with many more planned
abroad and in Palestine, despite the terrible difficulties of getting around
Israel's restrictions on freedom of movement. It is some solace to think that,
while formal negotiations and discussions go on, a host of informal, un-coopted
alternatives exist, of which NPI and a growing international solidarity
campaign are now the main components.
In early May, I was in Seattle lecturing for a few days. While there, I had
dinner one night with Rachel Corrie's parents and sister, who were still
reeling from the shock of their daughter's murder on March 16 in Gaza by an Israeli
bulldozer. Mr. Corrie told me that he had himself driven bulldozers, although
the one that killed his daughter deliberately because she was trying valiantly
to protect a Palestinian home in Rafah from demolition was a 60 ton behemoth
especially designed by Caterpillar for house demolitions, a far bigger machine
than anything he had ever seen or driven. Two things struck me about my brief
visit with the Corries. One was the story they told about their return to the
US with their daughter's body. They had immediately sought out their US
senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both Democrats, told them their story
and received the expected expressions of shock, outrage, anger and promises of
investigations. After both women returned to Washington, the Corries never
heard from them again, and the promised investigation simply didn't materialize.
As expected, the Israel lobby had explained the realities to them, and both
women simply begged off. An American citizen willfully murdered by the soldiers
of a client state of the US without so much as an official peep or even the de
rigeur investigation that had been promised her family.
But the second and far more important aspect of the Rachel Corrie story for
me was the young woman's action itself, heroic and dignified at the same time.
Born and brought up in Olympia, a small city 60 miles south of Seattle, she
had joined the International Solidarity Movement and gone to Gaza to stand with
suffering human beings with whom she had never had any contact before. Her
letters back to her family are truly remarkable documents of her ordinary
humanity that make for very difficult and moving reading, especially when she
describes the kindness and concern showed her by all the Palestinians she encounters
who clearly welcome her as one of their own, because she lives with them
exactly as they do, sharing their lives and worries, as well as the horrors of the
Israeli occupation and its terrible effects on even the smallest child. She
understands the fate of refugees, and what she calls the Israeli government's
insidious attempt at a kind of genocide by making it almost impossible for this
particular group of people to survive. So moving is her solidarity that it
inspires an Israeli reservist named Danny who has refused service to write her
and tell her, "You are doing a good thing. I thank you for it."
What shines through all the letters she wrote home, which were subsequently
published in the London Guardian, is the amazing resistance put up by the
Palestinian people themselves, average human beings stuck in the most terrible
position of suffering and despair but continuing to survive just the same. We have
heard so much recently about the road map and the prospects for peace that we
have overlooked the most basic fact of all, which is that Palestinians have
refused to capitulate or surrender even under the collective punishment meted
out to them by the combined might of the US and Israel. It is that
extraordinary fact that is the reason for the existence of a road map and all the numerous
so-called peace plans before it, not at all some conviction on the part of
the US and Israel and the international community for humanitarian reasons that
the killing and the violence must stop. If we miss that truth about the power
of Palestinian resistance (by which I do not at all meansuicide bombing, which
does much more harm than good), despite all its failings and all its
mistakes, we miss everything. Palestinians have always been a problem for the Zionist
project, and so-called solutions have perennially been proposed that minimize,
rather than solve, the problem. The official Israeli policy, no matter
whether Ariel Sharon uses the word "occupation" or not or whether or not he
dismantles a rusty, unused tower or two, has always been not to accept the reality of
the Palestinian people as equals or ever to admit that their rights were
scandalously violated all along by Israel. Whereas a few courageous Israelis over
the years have tried to deal with this other concealed history, most Israelis
and what seems like the majority of American Jews have made every effort to
deny, avoid, or negate the Palestinian reality. This is why there is no peace.
Moreover, the road map says nothing about justice or about the historical
punishment meted out to the Palestinianpeople for too many decades to count. What
Rachel Corrie's work in Gaza recognized, however, was precisely the gravity and
the density of the living history of the Palestinian people as a national
community, and not merely as a collection of deprived refugees. That is what she
was in solidarity with. And we need to remember that that kind of solidarity is
no longer confined to a small number of intrepid souls here and there, but is
recognized the world over. In the past six months I have lectured in four
continents to many thousands of people. What brings them together is Palestine
and the struggle of the Palestinian people which is now a byword for
emancipation and enlightenment, regardless of all the vilification heaped on them by
Whenever the facts are made known, there is immediate recognition and an
expression of the most profound solidarity with the justice of the Palestinian
cause and the valiant struggle by the Palestinian people on its behalf. It is an
extraordinary thing that Palestine was a central issue this year both during
the Porto Alegre anti-globalization meetings as well as during the Davos and
Amman meetings, both poles of the world-wide political spectrum. Simply because
our fellow citizens in this country are fed an atrociously biased diet of
ignorance and misrepresentation by the media, where the occupation is never
referred to in lurid descriptions of suicide attacks, where the apartheid wall 25
feet high, five feet thick and 350 kilometers long that Israel is building is
never even shown on the networks (or so much as referred to in passing
throughout the lifeless prose of the road map), and where the crimes of war, the
gratuitous destruction and humiliation, maiming and death imposed on Palestinian
civilians are never shown for the daily, completely routine ordeal that they
are, one shouldn't be surprised that Americans in the main have a very low
opinion of Arabs and Palestinians. After all, please remember that all the main
organs of the establishment media, from left liberal all the way over to fringe
right, are unanimously anti-Arab, anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian. Look at the
pusillanimity of the media during the buildup to an illegal and unjust war
against Iraq, and look at how little coverage there was of the immense damage
against Iraqi society done by the sanctions, and how relatively few accounts
there were of the immense world-wide outpouring of opinion against the war. Hardly
a single journalist except Helen Thomas took the administration directly to
task for the outrageous lies and confected "facts" that were spun out about
Iraq as an imminent military threat to the US before the war, just as now the
same government propagandists who cynically invented and manipulated "facts"
about WMD are let off the hook by media heavies in discussing the awful, the
literally inexcusable situation for the people of Iraq that the US has
irresponsibly and almost single-handedly created there. However else one blames Saddam
Hussein as a vicious tyrant, which he was, he had provided the people of Iraq
with the best infrastructure of services like water, electricity, health and
education of any Arab country. None of this is any longer in place.
With the extraordinary fear of seeming anti-Semitic by criticizing Israel for
its daily crimes of war against innocent, unarmed Palestinian civilians, or
seeming anti-American for criticizing the US government for its illegal war and
its dreadfully run military occupation, it is no wonder, then, that the
vicious media and government campaign against Arab society, culture, history and
mentality that has been led by Neanderthal publicists and Orientalists like
Bernard Lewis and Daniel Pipes has cowed far too many of us into believing that
Arabs really are an underdeveloped, incompetent and doomed people, and that with
all the failures in democracy and development, Arabs are alone in this world
for being retarded, behind the times, unmodernized and deeply reactionary.
Here is where dignity and critical historical thinking must be mobilized to see
what is what and to disentangle truth from propaganda.
No one would deny that most Arab countries today are ruled by unpopular
regimes and that vast numbers of poor, disadvantaged young Arabs are exposed to the
ruthless forms of fundamentalist religion. Yet it is simply a lie to say, as
The New York Times regularly does, that Arab societies are totally controlled,
and that there is no freedom of opinion, no civil institutions, no
functioning social movements for and by the people. Press laws notwithstanding, you can
go to downtown Amman today and buy a Communist Party newspaper as well as an
Islamist one; Egypt and Lebanon are full of papers and journals that suggest
much more debate and discussion than these societies are given credit for; the
satellite channels are bursting with opinions of a dizzying variety; civil
institutions are, on many levels having to do with social services, human rights,
syndicates and research institutes, very lively all over the Arab world. A
great deal more must be done before we have the appropriate level
of democracy, but we are on the way.
In Palestine alone there are over 1000 NGO's and it is this vitality and this
kind of activity that has kept society going. Under the worst possible
circumstances, Palestinian society has neither been defeated nor has it crumbled
completely. Kids still go to school, doctors and nurses still take care of their
patients, men and women go to work, organizations have their meetings, and
people continue to live, which seems to be an offense to Sharon and the other
extremists who simply want Palestinians either imprisoned or driven away
altogether. The military solution hasn't worked at all, and never will work. Why is
that so hard for Israelis to see? We must help them to understand this, not by
suicide bombs but by rational argument, mass civil disobedience, organized
protest, here and everywhere.
The point I am trying to make is that we have to see the Arab world generally
and Palestine in particular in more comparative and critical ways than
superficial and dismissive books like Lewis's What Went Wrong and Paul Wolfowitz's
ignorant statements about bringing democracy to the Arab and Islamic world even
begin to suggest. Whatever else is true about the Arabs, there is an active
dynamic at work because as real people they live in a real society with all
sorts of currents and crosscurrents which can't be easily caricatured as just one
seething mass of violent fanaticism. The Palestinian struggle for justice is
especially something with which one must express solidarity, rather than
endless criticism and exasperated, frustrating discouragement, or crippling
divisiveness. Remember the solidarity here and everywhere in Latin America, Africa,
Europe, Asia and Australia, and remember also that there is a cause to which
many people have committed themselves, difficulties and terrible obstacles
notwithstanding. Why? Because it is a just cause, a noble ideal, a moral quest for
equality and human rights.
I want now to speak about dignity, which of course has a special place in
every culture known to historians, anthropologists, sociologists and humanists. I
shall begin by saying immediately that it is a radically wrong, Orientalist
and indeed racist proposition to accept that, unlike Europeans and Americans,
Arabs have no sense of individuality, no regard for individual life, no values
that express love, intimacy and understanding which are supposed to be the
property exclusively of cultures that had a Renaissance, a Reformation and an
Enlightenment. Among many others, it is the vulgar and jejune Thomas Friedman who
has been peddling this rubbish, which has alas been picked up by equally
ignorant and self-deceiving Arab intellectuals-I don't need to mention any names
here-who have seen in the atrocities of 9/11 a sign that the Arab and Islamic
worlds are somehow more diseased and more dysfunctional than any other, and
that terrorism is a sign of a wider distortion than has occurred in any other
We can leave to one side that, between them, Europe and the US account for by
far the largest number of violent deaths during the 20th century, the Islamic
world hardly a fraction of it. Behind all of that specious, unscientific
nonsense about wrong and right civilizations, there is the grotesque shadow of the
great false prophet Samuel Huntington, who has led a lot of people to believe
that the world can be divided into distinct civilizations battling against
each other forever. But Huntington is dead wrong on every point he makes. No
culture or civilization exists by itself; none is made up of things like
individuality and enlightenment that are exclusive to it; and none exists without the
basic human attributes of community, love, value for life and all the others.
To suggest otherwise as he does is the purest invidious racism of the same
stripe as that of people who argue that Africans have naturally inferior brains,
or that Asians are really born for servitude, or that Europeansare a
naturally superior race. This is a sort of parody of Hitlerian science directed
uniquely today against Arabs and Muslims, and we must be very firm as to not even go
through the motions of arguing against it. It is the purest drivel. On the
other hand, there is the much more credible and serious stipulation that, like
every other instance of humanity, Arab and Muslim life has an inherent value
and dignity that are expressed by Arabs and Muslims in their unique cultural
style, and those expressions needn't resemble or be a copy of one approved model
suitable for everyone to follow.
The whole point about human diversity is that it is in the end a form of deep
co-existence between very different styles of individuality and experience
that can't all be reduced to one superior form: this is the spurious argument
foisted on us by pundits who bewail the lack of development and knowledge in the
Arab world. All one has to do is to look at the huge variety of literature,
cinema, theater, painting, music and popular culture produced by and for Arabs
from Morocco to the Gulf. Surely that needs to be assessed as an indication of
whether or not Arabs are developed, and not just how on any given day
statistical tables of industrial production either indicate an appropriate level of
development or show failure.
The more important point I want to make, though, is that there is a very wide
discrepancy today between our cultures and societies and the small group of
people who now rule these societies. Rarely in history has such power been so
concentrated in so tiny a group as the various kings, generals, sultans and
presidents who preside today over the Arabs. The worst thing about them as a
group, almost without exception, is that they do not represent the best of their
people. This is not just a matter of no democracy. It is that they seem to
radically underestimate themselves and their people in ways that close them off,
that make them intolerant and fearful of change, frightened of opening up their
societies to their people, terrified most of all that they might anger big
brother, that is, the United States. Instead of seeing their citizens as the
potential wealth of the nation, they regard them all as guilty conspirators vying
for the ruler's power.
This is the real failure, how during the terrible war against the Iraqi
people, no Arab leader had the self-dignity and confidence to say something about
the pillaging and military occupation of one of the most important Arab
countries. Fine, it is an excellent thing that Saddam Hussein's appalling regime is
no more, but who appointed the US to be the Arab mentor? Who asked the US to
take over the Arab world allegedly on behalf of its citizens and bring it
something called "democracy", especially at a time when the school system, the
health system and the whole economy in America are degenerating to the worst levels
since the 1929 Depression? Why was the collective Arab voice NOT raised
against the US's flagrantly illegal intervention, which did so much harm and
inflicted so much humiliation upon the entire Arab nation? This is truly a colossal
failure in nerve, in dignity, in self-solidarity.
With all the Bush administration's talk about guidance from the Almighty,
doesn't one Arab leader have the courage just to say that, as a great people, we
are guided by our own lights and traditions and religions? But nothing, not a
word, as the poor citizens of Iraq live through the most terrible ordeals and
the rest of the region quakes in its collective boots, each one petrified that
his country may be next. How unfortunate the embrace of George Bush, the man
whose war destroyed an Arab country gratuitously, by the combined leadership
of the major Arab countries. Was there no one who had the guts to remind George
W. that he has brought more suffering to the Arab people than anyone before
him? Must he always be greeted with hugs, smiles, kisses and low bows? Where is
the diplomatic and political and economic support necessary to sustain an
anti-occupation movement on the West Bank and Gaza? Instead all one hears is
foreign ministers preaching to the Palestinians to mind their ways,
avoid violence and keep at the peace negotiations, even though it has been
so obvious that Sharon's interest in peace is just about zero. There has been
no concerted Arab response to the separation wall, or to the assassinations, or
to collective punishment, only a bunch of tired clichés repeating the
well-worn formulas authorized by the State Department.
Perhaps the one thing that strikes me as the low point in Arab inability to
grasp the dignity of the Palestinian cause is expressed by the current state of
the Palestinian Authority. Abu Mazen, a subordinate figure with little
political support among his own people, was picked for the job by Arafat, Israel and
the US precisely because he has no constituency, is not an orator or a great
organizer, or anything really except a dutiful aide to Yasser Arafat, and
because I am afraid they see in him a man who will do Israel's bidding. How could
even Abu Mazen stand there in Aqaba to pronounce words written for him, like a
ventriloquist's puppet, by some State Department functionary, in which he
commendably speaks about Jewish suffering but then amazingly says next to nothing
about his own people's suffering at the hands of Israel? How could he accept
so undignified and manipulated a role for himself, and how could he forget his
self-respect as the representative of a people that has been fighting
heroically for its rights for over a century just because the US and Israel have told
him he must? And when Israel simply says that there will be a "provisional"
Palestinian state, without any contrition for the horrendous amount of damage
it has done, the uncountable war crimes, the sheer sadistic, systematic
humiliation of every single Palestinian, man, woman, child, I must confess to a
complete lack of understanding as to why a leader or representative of that people
doesn't so much as take note of it. Has he entirely lost his sense of dignity?
Has he forgotten that he is not just an individual but also the bearer of his
people's fate at an especially crucial moment? Is there anyone who was not
bitterly disappointed at this total failure to rise to the occasion and stand
with dignity-the dignity of his people's experience and cause-and testify to it
with pride, and without compromise, without ambiguity, without the half
embarrassed, half apologetic tone that Palestinian leaders take when they are
begging for a little kindness from some totally unworthy white father?
But that has been the behavior of Palestinian rulers since Oslo and indeed
since Haj Amin, a combination of misplaced juvenile defiance and plaintive
supplication. Why on earth do they always think it absolutely necessary to read
scripts written for them by their enemies? The basic dignity of our life as Arabs
in Palestine, throughout the Arab world, and here in America, is that we are
our own people, with a heritage, a history, a tradition and above all a
language that is more than adequate to the task of representing our real
aspirations, since those aspirations derive from the experience of dispossession and
suffering that has been imposed on each Palestinian since 1948. Not one of our
political spokespeople-the same is true of the Arabs since Abdel Nasser's
time-ever speaks with self-respect and dignity of what we are, what we want, what we
have done and where we want to go.
Slowly, however, the situation is changing, and the old regime made up of the
Abu Mazens and Abu Ammars of this world is passing and will gradually be
replaced by a new set of emerging leaders all over the Arab world. The most
promising is made up of the members of the National Political Initiative; they are
grassroots activists whose main activity is not pushing papers on a desk, nor
juggling bank accounts, nor looking for journalists to pay attention to them,
but who come from the ranks of the professionals, the working classes, the
young intellectuals and activists, the teachers, doctors, lawyers, working people
who have kept society going while also fending off daily Israeli attacks.
Second, these are people committed to the kind of democracy and popular
participation undreamt of by the Authority, whose idea of democracy is stability and
security for itself. Lastly, they offer social services to the unemployed, health
to the uninsured and the poor, proper secular education to anew generation of
Palestinians who must be taught the realities of the modern world, not just
the extraordinary worth of the old one. For such programs, the NPI stipulates
that getting rid of the occupation is the only way forward, and that in order
to do that, a representative national unified leadership must be elected freely
to replace the cronies, the outdated perspectives and the ineffectiveness
that have plagued Palestinian leaders for the past century.
Only if we respect ourselves as Arabs and understand the true dignity and
justice of our struggle, only then can we appreciate why, almost despite
ourselves, so many people all over the world, including Rachel Corrie and the two
young people wounded with her from ISM, Tom Hurndall and Brian Avery, have felt it
possible to express their solidarity with us.
I conclude with one last irony. Isn't it astonishing that all the signs of
popular solidarity that Palestine and the Arabs receive occur with no comparable
sign of solidarity and dignity for ourselves, that others admire and respect
us more than we do ourselves? Isn't it time we caught up with our own status
and made certain that our representatives here and elsewhere realize, as a
first step, that they are fighting for a just and noble cause, and that they have
nothing to apologize for or anything to be embarrassed about? On the contrary,
they should be proud of what their people have done and proud also to
Edward Said is a professor at Columbia University. He is a contributor to
Cockburn and St. Clair's, The Politics of Anti-Semitism (AK Press).
New York — Edward Said, a Columbia University professor and leading spokesman in the United States for the Palestinian cause, has died. He was 67.
Mr. Said had suffered from leukemia for years and died at a New York hospital late Wednesday, said Shelley Wanger, his editor at Knopf publishers.
Mr. Said was born in 1935 in Jerusalem, then part of British-ruled Palestine, but he spent most of his adult life in the United States.
He was a prominent member of the Palestinian parliament-in-exile for 14 years, until stepping down in 1991. He also wrote passionately about the Palestinian cause, as well as on a variety of other subjects, from English literature, his academic specialty, to music and culture.
"He was a man of intellect and courage who maintained a deep and abiding commitment to his humanity and to the Palestinian cause," said Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi, who first met Mr. Said in the 1960s.
"He remained unwavering in his commitment to the Palestinian cause for justice and freedom and never ever allowed himself to be intimidated or silenced."
Read on The Globe and Mail
Read on Arab News
Jean-Claude Pressac passed away - more details later
[An angry Edward Said at his eloquent best.]
An unacceptable helplessness
Al-Ahram Weekly online
16 - 22 January 2003
Issue No. 621
Will the last person
to leave please turn out the lights? Edward Said urges an
Arab alternative to the wreckage that is about to engulf our world
One opens The New York Times on a daily basis to read the most recent article about the preparations for war that are taking place in the United States. Another battalion, one more set of aircraft carriers and cruisers, an ever-increasing number of aircraft, new contingents of officers are being moved to the Persian Gulf area. 62,000 more soldiers were transferred to the Gulf last weekend. An enormous, deliberately intimidating force is being built up by America overseas, while inside the country, economic and social bad news multiply with a joint relentlessness. The huge capitalist machine seems to be faltering, even as it grinds down the vast majority of citizens. Nonetheless, George Bush proposes another large tax cut for the one per cent of the population that is comparatively rich. The public education system is in a major crisis, and health insurance for 50 million Americans simply does not exist. Israel asks for 15 billion dollars in additional loan guarantees and military aid. And the unemployment rates in the US mount inexorably, as more jobs are lost every day.
Nevertheless, preparations for an unimaginably costly war continue and continue without either public approval or dramatically noticeable disapproval. A generalised indifference (which may conceal great over-all fear, ignorance and apprehension) has greeted the administration's war- mongering and its strangely ineffective response to the challenge forced on it recently by North Korea. In the case of Iraq, with no weapons of mass destruction to speak of, the US plans a war; in the case of North Korea, it offers that country economic and energy aid. What a humiliating difference between contempt for the Arabs and respect for North Korea, an equally grim, and cruel dictatorship.
In the Arab and Muslim worlds, the situation appears more peculiar. For almost a year American politicians, regional experts, administration officials, journalists have repeated the charges that have become standard fare so far as Islam and the Arabs are concerned. Most of this chorus pre- dates 11 September, as I have shown in my books Orientalism and Covering Islam. To today's practically unanimous chorus has been added the authority of the United Nation's Human Development Report on the Arab world which certified that Arabs dramatically lag behind the rest of the world in democracy, knowledge, and women's rights. Everyone says (with some justification, of course) that Islam needs reform and that the Arab educational system is a disaster, in effect, a school for religious fanatics and suicide bombers funded not just by crazy imams and their wealthy followers (like Osama Bin Laden) but also by governments who are supposed allies of the United States. The only "good" Arabs are those who appear in the media decrying modern Arab culture and society without reservation. I recall the lifeless cadences of their sentences for, with nothing positive to say about themselves or their people and language, they simply regurgitate the tired American formulas already flooding the airwaves and pages of print. We lack democracy, they say, we haven't challenged Islam enough, we need to do more about driving away the specter of Arab nationalism and the credo of Arab unity.
That is all discredited,
ideological rubbish. Only what we, and our American instructors, say about the
Arabs and Islam -- vague re- cycled Orientalist clichés of the kind repeated by
a tireless mediocrity like Bernard Lewis -- is true. The rest isn't realistic or
pragmatic enough. "We" need to join modernity, modernity in effect
being Western, globalised, free- marketed, democratic -- whatever those words
might be taken to mean. (If I had the time, there would be an essay to be
written about the prose style of people like Ajami, Gerges, Makiya, Talhami,
Fandy et. al., academics whose very language reeks of subservience,
inauthenticity and a hopelessly stilted mimicry that has been thrust upon them).
The clash of civilisations that George Bush and his minions are trying to fabricate as a cover for a preemptive oil and hegemony war against Iraq is supposed to result in a triumph of democratic nation-building, regime change and forcible modernisation à l'américaine. Never mind the bombs and the ravages of the sanctions which are unmentioned. This will be a purifying war whose goal is to throw out Saddam and his men and replace them with a re-drawn map of the whole region. New Sykes Picot. New Balfour. New Wilsonian 14 points. New world altogether. Iraqis, we are told by the Iraqi dissidents, will welcome their liberation, and perhaps forget entirely about their past sufferings. Perhaps.
Meanwhile, the soul-and-body destroying situation in Palestine worsens all the time. There seems no force capable of stopping Sharon and Mofaz, who bellow their defiance to the whole world. We forbid, we punish, we ban, we break, we destroy. The torrent of unbroken violence against an entire people continues. As I write these lines, I am sent an announcement that the entire village of Al-Daba' in the Qalqilya area of the West Bank is about to be wiped out by 60- ton American-made Israeli bulldozers: 250 Palestinians will lose their 42 houses, 700 dunums of agricultural land, a mosque, and an elementary school for 132 children. The United Nations stands by, looking on as its resolutions are flouted on an hourly basis. Typically, alas, George Bush identifies with Sharon, not with the 16-year-old Palestinian kid who is used as a human shield by Israeli soldiers.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority offers a return to peacemaking, and presumably, to Oslo. Having been burned for 10 years the first time, Arafat seems inexplicably to want to have another go at it. His faithful lieutenants make declarations and write opinion pieces for the press, suggesting their willingness to accept anything, more or less. Remarkably though, the great mass of this heroic people seems willing to go on, without peace and without respite, bleeding, going hungry, dying day by day. They have too much dignity and confidence in the justice of their cause to submit shamefully to Israel, as their leaders have done. What could be more discouraging for the average Gazan who goes on resisting Israeli occupation than to see his or her leaders kneel as supplicants before the Americans?
In this entire panorama of desolation, what catches the eye is the utter passivity and helplessness of the Arab world as a whole. The American government and its servants issue statement after statement of purpose, they move troops and material, they transport tanks and destroyers, but the Arabs individually and collectively can barely muster a bland refusal (at most they say, no, you cannot use military bases in our territory) only to reverse themselves a few days later.
Why is there such silence and such astounding helplessness?
The largest power in history is about to launch and is unremittingly reiterating its intention to launch a war against a sovereign Arab country now ruled by a dreadful regime, a war the clear purpose of which is not only to destroy the Baathi regime but to re-design the entire region. The Pentagon has made no secret that its plans are to re-draw the map of the whole Arab world, perhaps changing other regimes and many borders in the process. No one can be shielded from the cataclysm when it comes (if it comes, which is not yet a complete certainty). And yet, there is only long silence followed by a few vague bleats of polite demurral in response. After all, millions of people will be affected. America contemptuously plans for their future without consulting them. Do we reserve such racist derision?
This is not only unacceptable: it is impossible to believe. How can a region of almost 300 million Arabs wait passively for the blows to fall without attempting a collective roar of resistance and a loud proclamation of an alternative view? Has the Arab will completely dissolved? Even a prisoner about to be executed usually has some last words to pronounce. Why is there now no last testimonial to an era of history, to a civilisation about to be crushed and transformed utterly, to a society that despite its drawbacks and weaknesses nevertheless goes on functioning. Arab babies are born every hour, children go to school, men and women marry and work and have children, they play, and laugh and eat, they are sad, they suffer illness and death. There is love and companionship, friendship and excitement. Yes, Arabs are repressed and misruled, terribly misruled, but they manage to go on with the business of living despite everything. This is the fact that both the Arab leaders and the United States simply ignore when they fling empty gestures at the so-called "Arab street" invented by mediocre Orientalists.
But who is now asking the existential questions about our future as a people? The task cannot be left to a cacophony of religious fanatics and submissive, fatalistic sheep. But that seems to be the case. The Arab governments -- no, most of the Arab countries from top to bottom -- sit back in their seats and just wait as America postures, lines up, threatens and ships out more soldiers and F-16's to deliver the punch. The silence is deafening.
Years of sacrifice and struggle, of bones broken in hundreds of prisons and torture chambers from the Atlantic to the Gulf, families destroyed, endless poverty and suffering. Huge, expensive armies. For what?
This is not a matter of party or ideology or faction: it's a matter of what the great theologian Paul Tillich used to call ultimate seriousness. Technology, modernisation and certainly globalisation are not the answer for what threatens us as a people now. We have in our tradition an entire body of secular and religious discourse that treats of beginnings and endings, of life and death, of love and anger, of society and history. This is there, but no voice, no individual with great vision and moral authority seems able now to tap into that, and bring it to attention. We are on the eve of a catastrophe that our political, moral and religious leaders can only just denounce a little bit while, behind whispers and winks and closed doors, they make plans somehow to ride out the storm. They think of survival, and perhaps of heaven. But who is in charge of the present, the worldly, the land, the water, the air and the lives dependent on each other for existence? No one seems to be in charge. There is a wonderful colloquial expression in English that very precisely and ironically catches our unacceptable helplessness, our passivity and inability to help ourselves now when our strength is most needed. The expression is: will the last person to leave please turn out the lights? We are that close to a kind of upheaval that will leave very little standing and perilously little left even to record, except for the last injunction that begs for extinction.
Hasn't the time come for us collectively to demand and try to formulate a genuinely Arab alternative to the wreckage about to engulf our world? This is not only a trivial matter of regime change, although God knows that we can do with quite a bit of that. Surely it can't be a return to Oslo, another offer to Israel to please accept our existence and let us live in peace, another cringing crawling inaudible plea for mercy. Will no one come out into the light of day to express a vision for our future that isn't based on a script written by Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, those two symbols of vacant power and overweening arrogance? I hope someone is listening.
Kissinger to meet PM
By Luke McIlveen
The Australian www.news.com.au/
HENRY Kissinger, the man George W. Bush wanted
to investigate the September 11 attacks, will meet John Howard to discuss
Australia's involvement in a possible war on Iraq during a low-key visit to
Sydney next week.
Dr Kissinger, 79, a former US secretary of state, has approached a cluster of high-ranking politicians for private discussions during his visit to Sydney on Monday and Tuesday, including Mr Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.
While Dr Kissinger will not visit in an official capacity, the opportunity for a one-on-one discussion was seized by the Prime Minister.
When Mr Howard announced the deployment of defence personnel to Iraq last week, he said he had not spoken personally with Mr Bush since November.
Although retired from public life, Dr Kissinger was asked by President Bush to investigate the facts behind the US failure to thwart the September 11 attacks "wherever they lead." However, Dr Kissinger declined to take up the role after the Democrats insisted that he first stand down from the chairmanship of his international consultancy firm, Kissinger Associates.
Dr Kissinger has been critical of the Bush administration's handling of Iraq and has warned that any pre-emptive strike would set a "dangerous precedent".
As National Security Adviser to Richard Nixon
and Secretary of State to both Nixon and Gerald Ford, Dr Kissinger oversaw
crucial foreign policy decisions including the engagement and ultimate
withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam and the secret bombing of Cambodia
that preceded the rise of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge.