Edward Said: The Undying Legacy of an Exceptional Thinker

Edward Said rose to prominence and came to international fame following his ground-breaking contributions in the field of postcolonial studies. He is deservedly recognized as the father of postcolonialism, having presented theories that still exert influence on scholars worldwide.

Born in Jerusalem in 1935, Edward Said moved with his family to Cairo where he started school at Gizera Preparatory School. Later, he attended Saint George’s American School where he spent his early formative years. In 1949, Said’s parents enrolled him at Victoria College, a school notorious for its British imperial education and prominent subscribers from Egyptian, Iraqi, Jewish and Maltese notable families, only to be dismissed from it two years later for misbehaviour. During the Cairo stage of his life, Said had demonstrated that he was multitalented and had gained a mastery of several languages. He was especially fluent in English, French, and Arabic. However, he was also labelled a “troublemaker” and his teachers frequently reported him for his “misbehaviour, loitering, carelessness, or fidgeting,” as he recalls in his memoir entitled Out of Place.

In Cairo, Said constantly bore the burden of his double-consciousness emanating from the conflicting identities of being named Edward, a Western name his parents gave him after the Prince of Wales, and also Said, his Arabic family name. He was also a Christian Arab, a Palestinian-American who lived neither in America nor in Palestine, but in Cairo, Egypt, and a native Arabic speaker whose English seemed better than his Arabic.  In fact, Said always retained this unsettled sense of identity throughout his life, and it had a very clear influence on his writings.

At the age of 15, Said moved to the United States to attend an elite boarding school in Massachusetts, the Mount Hermon School, where he developed diverse academic and personal interests. By the time he graduated from the Mount Herman School, he had won several awards in swimming and tennis, he had done brilliantly in his academic work, and he had become a distinguished pianist. Later, he attended Princeton University where he studied the humanities until his graduation in 1957. The social atmosphere at Princeton University, however, was poisonous and anti-intellectual. Said felt especially uncomfortable with the Princeton student and teacher culture of endless drinking, pipe-smoking, and partying. His only refuge during this tumultuous stage of his academic life was isolation and thorough immersion in reading and writing. After obtaining his doctorate in literature from Harvard University, he joined the faculty at Columbia University as a lecturer in English and comparative literature, where he remained for the rest of his life. On September 23, 2003, Said succumbed to leukaemia and died, leaving behind a treasured legacy of intellectual contributions.

In 1966, Said published his first book on Joseph Conrad entitled Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography. The book was primarily straight literary analysis of the cultural dynamics of Conrad’s narrative style in his short storiesWhile not as famous as his later ones, this book signalled the beginnings of his later ground-breaking book called Orientalism. In fact, it was Orientalism that brought Said to the forefront of academia as an internationally known, erudite thinker.

As a Palestinian who had witnessed the affects first hand of Israeli occupation on Palestinians since 1947, especially the waves of thousands of land-robbed Arabs, Edward Said was profoundly touched by the experience of colonialism and occupation. Said’s interest in the analysis and deconstruction of colonial discourse, and the politics and poetics of power, grew after the humiliating defeat of the Arab states in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. This defeat marked Said’s sudden change from a pure literary figure to a political activist and an ardent pro-Palestinian advocate.

The publication of Said’s seminal book Orientalismin 1978 opened the floodgates to numerous other theorists and theories to flourish in various disciplines and academic circles.  They built upon his theoretical foundations with respect to identity, culture, discourse, representation, difference, race, and colonial resistance. However, the bulk of Said’s academic contributions were in the field of postcolonialism. Some critics consider him to be the founder of the field.  Ali Behdad, for instance, believes that Said was the founder of postcolonial discursivity. Aijaz Ahmad, Mustapha Marrouchi, and many other critics and cultural theorists agreed. It was only after the publication of Orientalism that postcolonialism gained its momentum. Postcolonialism also built upon the contributions of many other earlier activists, thinkers, and freedom fighters such as Amílcar Cabral, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Ho Chi Minh, Kenneth Kaunda, Jomo Kenyatta, Patrice Lumumba, Albert Memmi, Mohamed Ben Abdelkarim El Khattabi, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and many others who initiated the intellectual and armed struggle to achieve mental and territorial decolonization.

Postcolonialism questions power relations and reconceptualises historical events which have long been viewed from the perspective of the colonial powers. In the 19th century, European powers, Britain and France in particular, believing in their racial and cultural superiority, expanded their empires over ninety-percent of the entire land surface of the globe. In fact, colonial and imperial endeavours were supported by then current anthropological research that legitimized colonialism on the assumption that Western culture was superior and the rest of the world was inferior and incapable. Such distorted representations of cultural alterity, or “otherness,” in Western colonial discourse were used to justify the atrocities perpetrated by colonialism in various parts of the world. Postcolonialism, thus, seeks to redress the balance between the oppressor and the oppressed by giving a voice to those who have been kept permanently voiceless under the oppressive rule of colonial administration. In other words, Postcolonialism is an attempt at writing “history from below” by elaborating a historical narrative that accounts for history from the perspective of the subordinated classes, the disenfranchised, the non-conformists, and the oppressed in general, or what the Indian postcolonial feminist critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak calls the “subaltern classes.”

Postcolonial literary criticism investigates the politics and poetics of representation in colonial and postcolonial texts whether written by the colonizer or by the colonized. It was Edward Said who first laid the cornerstone for postcolonial literary criticism by investigating a number of Orientalist texts by prominent European scholars, including poets, philosophers, anthropologists, travel writers, historians, political theorists, and politicians. Said’s main finding was that Western representations of the Orient are deeply fraught with distortions and misrepresentations. Even those who have attempted to empathize with the Orient, such as Richard Burton and T.E. Lawrence, are nonetheless complicit with the dynamics of colonial discourse and Western power. Their Eurocentric ideas rise above their claims of objectivity, humanism, and good intentions.

Said argued that the body of knowledge produced by the West about the East was deeply flawed. The Orient was repeatedly rendered “the primitive Other,” whose people are irrational, mysterious, weak, depraved, and backward. This set of fabricated clichés served only to pave the way for Western colonial encroachments into the East and the ensuing cultural displacement, economic exploitation, and military aggression. The stereotypes and distorted representations produced by Orientalism were meant to give a pretext for colonial intervention and also convince the colonized subjects of their subordinate rank relative to the colonizers. In postcolonial criticism, this is called “the colonization of the mind” and it involves epistemic authority exercised by the power of the word rather than the sword. More accurately, the colonization of the mind is manifested by the colonized subject’s acquiescence and malleability in the face of hegemonic domination.

Said’s Orientalism, though acclaimed by his admirers, also garnered much criticism. Said was particularly criticized for his “essentialization” of many key concepts in his work of Orientalism, such as dealing with “the West” and “the East” as autonomous and homogenous spheres. In fact, “there are many Wests, some antagonistic some not,”[1] as Said himself later admitted, and there are many Easts and, therefore, these concepts should not be dealt with en bloc. Colonial discourse, which is consistently homogenous for Said, is characterized by ambivalence, contradiction, and heterogeneity. In colonial discourse, the colonial subject was at once the object of desire and derision, acceptance and disavowal, fear and attraction.  Hence, colonial discourse “speaks in a tongue that is forked not false,”[2] as Bhabha states in The Location of Culture.

Edward Said was also criticized for silencing the subjects he claimed to defend. The colonized subjects in Said’s Orientalism are seen as submissive and passive, exhibiting no resistance to colonialism whatsoever. Said sought to rectify this oversight in his book Culture and Imperialism, where he studied the themes of culture and resistance and how the colonized people produced their multiple forms of cultural, political and ideological resistance and opposition. In his introduction to Culture and Imperialism, he states in this regard that “[n]ever was it the case that the imperial encounter pitted an active Western intruder against a supine or inert non-Western native; there was always some form of active resistance.”[3]  In a chapter entitled Themes of Resistance, Said investigates the various forms of ideological resistance invented by the natives to reconstitute their contaminated collective identity and rebuild their nationalist shattered community against outside domination.

In summary, Edward Said remains to the present day one of the most controversial scholars. Postcolonialism, which is the offspring of his book Orientalism, is highly disturbing to power, inequality, and injustice as well as to those benefiting from them, because it destabilizes the foundations of power, uncovers its ideologies, and shatters the discourse on which it rests. Bernard Lewis, Albert Hourani, Nikki Kiddie, Ibn Warraq, Simon Leys, among many others, accused Said of attacking the West on unreasonable grounds while cherishing the privileges the West provides. Some Pro-Israeli critics indicted Said for teaching, preaching, and endorsing terrorism after his support of the Palestinians. Yet through his books such as Orientalismthe Question of PalestineCovering Islam, and Culture and Imperialism, Said did indeed speak truth to power. He confronted orthodoxy and dogma, he was not easily co-opted by governments or corporations, and his main raison d’être was to represent all people and issues which are forgotten or swept under the rug.


[1]Quoted in: Mustapha Marrouchi, Edward Said at the Limits (New York: State University of New York Press, 2004), p. 6.

[2]Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 85.

[3]Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), p. xii.