Father of post-colonial studies

Edward Said – exiled between cultures

When people think of Edward Said, the first thing that generally comes to mind is his criticism of Orientalism. As a result, the theme of exile – which played no less significant a role in Said's writing and life – is often overlooked. By Tarek Azizeh

"A life of exile moves according to a different calendar, and is less seasonal and settled than life at home. Exile is life led outside habitual order. It is nomadic, decentered, contrapuntal; but no sooner does one get accustomed to it than its unsettling force erupts anew." (Edward Said)

It is no coincidence that Said's first book, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography, which was published in 1966, was about the author Joseph Conrad, in whose life he saw many parallels with his own experience. Of Polish origin, Conrad settled in England and became a British citizen in his late twenties. He felt a profound regret over the loss of his mother tongue and homeland.

In England, he found himself in a state of inner conflict and felt torn. For Conrad, it was a place where he was ultimately the perpetual foreigner. English critics sometimes spoke slightingly of his Polish roots, although he published his texts in English.

Driven into exile

Over 30 years after his first publication, Said returned to the subject of Conrad in an essay in one of his key works Reflections on Exile (1984), tracing the parallels between his life and Conrad's. In the process, the differences between the two also became evident: while Conrad moved from one European country to another, Said went through a much more profound change when he left Jerusalem for Egypt, before finally settling in America. Another difference between the two was that Said was driven into exile several times in his life.

The first time was when he, as a Palestinian, was driven from his native home. From that point on, he was labelled a 'refugee'. The second time was when he, as a person with an Arab background, found himself in a Western culture that was steeped in negative attitudes towards the Arab world. The third and final time was when he became, to a certain extent, exiled from his own people in his native home after turning his back several times on the prevailing opinion and going his own way. In this way, Said's exile was multiple and complex.

In After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives (1986), Said describes the cultural and political dimension of his exile. In addition to the geographic dimension of his exile and the pain of being separated from his home, Palestine, things were made more difficult by the fact that he was not only accused of betrayal, but also confronted with fatal misinterpretations of his own thoughts and writings by Europeans, Americans and also Arab Palestinians.

Accepting historical facts

In a departure from the stance of many Arab intellectuals, Said called for people to accept the persecution of Jews in Europe and the West as an historical fact. In particular, he took a stand against the denial of the Holocaust. Why deny what actually happened in the past when the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular were not responsible for this crime and the consequences associated with it, he asked.

According to Said, the first step was to accept historical facts and, in conjunction with this, for the Arab side to demand that the West assume full moral responsibility for this past. The West, he argued, should not seek to solve the problem on Palestinian soil and to resolve it at the expense of the rights of the Arab population.

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