Edward W. Said Biography

The American writer and academic Edward Said (1935–2003) has been ranked among the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century, with much of the field of postcolonial studies springing directly or indirectly from his ideas. He was also an intellectual in action, devoting much of his energy to advocacy for the Palestinian people and their aspirations.

Controversial in his work, Said had both admirers and detractors. Few statements beyond the bare facts of his life would meet with universal agreement from observers, and even those bare facts were sometimes in dispute. But divergent views of Said were, in a way, inevitable, for Said was a man of many contradictions. He was an academic, and yet he spent much of his time addressing the public, often having to cancel classes he taught at Columbia University because he was booked for television appearances. He was a Christian Arab who both defended the Islamic world and, by his own testimony, felt close to Jews for much of his life. He spent many years working toward the goal of Palestinian nationhood but renounced that goal in the last decade of his life. He was attacked by Israelis as a terrorist, and by Palestinians as too accommodating to Israel. Said's scholarly works indicted Western cultural traditions as complicit in colonialism, but he played and wrote about European classical music extensively and enthusiastically.

Grew Up in Cairo

Said (sah-EED) was born in Jerusalem on November 1, 1935, when the city was part of British-occupied Palestine. His father was an American citizen who had fought for the United States in World War I, and Said himself was named after Britain's King Edward VIII. Said's father, Wadie, who preferred the name of Bill, operated a profitable stationery business, and Said was discouraged from speaking Arabic while growing up; the household language was English. He was a member of the Anglican church. Later in his life Said occasionally spoke of himself as a refugee displaced by the formation of the country of Israel in 1948, but he actually spent much of his childhood in Cairo, Egypt, sometimes traveling to Jerusalem to spend time with relatives, or to Beirut, Lebanon.

The family moved permanently to Cairo in 1947, and for a time Said attended Victoria College, an upscale British preparatory school there. Among his classmates were actor Omar Sharif and Jordan's future King Hussein. At 15, Said came to the United States to attend Mount Hermon School, an elite boarding institution in Massachusetts. Said, who had already traveled through many countries but never really called any of them home, felt out of place at Mount Hermon and frequently circulated among a group of Jewish friends. He did take to American classroom teaching, which encouraged more independent thinking than had the British instructors he had experienced previously.

Said, a charismatic figure who favored tailored suits, found a natural place in academic life. He spoke English, French, and Arabic fluently, and he could read Spanish, German, Italian, and Latin. He attended Princeton University, graduating in 1957, and earned master's and Ph.D. degrees at Harvard, receiving his doctorate in 1964. Hired at Columbia University in New York as an instructor in 1963, Said spent the rest of his working life there, becoming assistant professor in 1965, associate professor in 1968, and professor of English and comparative literature in 1970;

later his title of professor was attached to several endowed chairs at Columbia. He was married twice; with his second wife, the former Mariam Cortas (a Quaker), he raised a son and a daughter.

Said's first book, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography , published by Harvard University Press in 1966, dealt with an author to whom he felt a kinship (Conrad, Polish by birth, traveled the world and learned English later in life). The following year, Israel defeated the combined forces of several Arab countries in the Six-Day War, an event that began to awaken Said's political consciousness. He wrote a book called Beginnings: Intention and Method (1975) about literary creativity, but he was at work on a larger project that broke new ground in literary studies.

Examined Language of Western Enlightenment

That book, Orientalism , was published by Pantheon (a mainstream, not an academic publisher) in 1978. It remains Said's best-known and most influential work. The book took issue with Western depictions of the Middle East, and the methods of analysis Said employed were quickly applied to the West's relations to other cultures of the developing world by other scholars. Indeed, Said observed that the "East," as opposed to the "West," was an invention partly designed as an ideological underpinning for Western colonialism. Said's central thesis was that Western views of Middle Eastern cultures were rife with stereotypes of irrationality, degeneracy, and violence. His demonstration of this thesis was perhaps the book's most original component, as he showed how such stereotypes found their way into scholarly writings, literary and popular fiction, and journalistic writing in an interconnected web.

Some reviewers felt that the book painted the works of Western writers with too broad a brush, but Said's elegant style (his writing was free of academic jargon) quickly made the book a favorite. Said's work opened up numerous new avenues for investigation of Western representations of other cultures—and of indigenous responses to such representations in so-called post-colonial literature. Three decades after it was written, Orientalism has remained a solid part of reading lists in college and graduate-level English courses in the United States and beyond. The book's tone, sharp and provocative yet with arguments buttressed by an obvious depth of knowledge, have made it ideal for educational uses. The ideas of postcolonial studies and of the relationships between language and power became fodder for academic studies and graduate school papers over the next few decades, and these ideas were traceable to Said's innovations.

Said expanded and generalized on the ideas in Orientalism in Culture and Imperialism (1992). He was also a prolific writer of both academic and general articles, and bits and pieces of his ideas on Western culture emerged in such writings as his introduction to a new edition of Rudyard Kipling's Kim , and in several collections of writings by others that he edited. In the 1980s, however, Said became equally well known for purely political writings and public appearances, in which he argued for recognition of the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people. According to the New York Times , Said describe himself as "a man who lived two quite separate lives," although one could equally well describe him as an intellectual in action. Indeed, Said's book The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983) dealt with how literary critics could come to terms with their own cultural assumptions.

In 1977 Said became a member of the Palestinian National Council, a provisional parliament established with the goal of pursuing eventual Palestinian nationhood; he was an independent, not a member of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization or any other group. Said wrote his first book on the Middle East situation, The Question of Palestine , in 1979. He rejected the use of violence (although in some statements he argued that it was understandable) and accepted the existence of Israel, saying in an interview quoted in the London Guardian , "I don't deny [Israel's] claims" to land in the Palestine region, "but their claim always entails Palestinian dispossession." In the 1980s Said favored a two-state solution, with Israel and a Palestinian state existing side by side. In 1988 he was sent by Arafat to negotiate on the Palestinians' behalf with U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz.

Became Disillusioned with Peace Process

Said's attitudes changed during the negotiations leading to the so-called Oslo Accords of 1993 (the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements), which called for Israeli withdrawal from parts of the territories it had occupied in the Gaza Strip and West Bank areas, as well as for the establishment of the Palestinian Authority as a governing body, and for continued negotiations on remaining issues such as the status of the city of Jerusalem. Said became a critic of the Palestinian leadership, which he felt was giving up too much in the negotiations, and he resigned from the Palestinian National Council in 1991.

Specifically, Said objected to the lack of provision in the PLO's position for the so-called right of return, the right of Palestinians to inhabit lands from which they had been expelled when the Israeli state was established. In the 1990s he began to advocate the peaceful coexistence of Palestinians and Israelis in a single democratic country—a solution viewed by many Israelis as tantamount to the destruction of their country as it had existed. "I see no other way than to begin now to speak about sharing the land that has thrust us together, and sharing it in a truly democratic way, with equal rights for each citizen," Said wrote in the New York Times .

Said outlined his case for Palestinian aspirations in The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination (1994) and End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After (2000), as well as in numerous shorter writings and in U.S. television appearances. But he had many interests other than those of politics and scholarship. A pianist of near concert-level skill, he wrote extensively on classical music, penning a column for the Nation magazine. In the early 1990s he was diagnosed with leukemia but was able to continue his public activities after treatment. One of several books published after Said's death (he wrote voluminously during his final years) was On Late Style (2006), an examination of works produced by literary and musical artists toward the ends of their lives. Beginning in 1999, he and conductor Daniel Barenboim co-founded the East West Divan Orchestra, a joint Israeli-Palestinian youth ensemble that continued to win acclaim after Said's death. In 2002 Barenboim and Said published a joint book of their collected conversations, Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society .

Controversy continued to envelop the ailing Said, with the magazine Commentary referring to him (according to the Guardian ) as a "professor of terror." He was photographed throwing a stone at an Israeli guardhouse, but maintained that his gesture was symbolic and that he had not aimed the stone toward any individual; Columbia, despite calls for his censure, found in his favor and took no action. Said participated vigorously in the give-and-take of debate, carrying on long disputes in print with Princeton scholar Bernard Lewis and other conservative thinkers. In 1999 an article in Commentary by an Israeli scholar charged that Said had deliberately falsified the details of his childhood in order to heighten the impression that his family had been refugees displaced from their Jerusalem home in the 1940s. The article pointed to such statements by Said as one that appeared in the London Review of Books: "I was born in Jerusalem and spent most of my formative years there and, after 1948, when my entire family became refugees, in Egypt." But Said's memoir Out of Place , which appeared that same year, went into detail about his Cairo childhood. "I don't think it's that important, in any case," Said told the New York Times . "I have never represented my case as the issue to be treated. I've represented the case of my people, which is something quite different.

Said's medical condition worsened in 2002, and he worked against the clock to finish several new books, including On Late Style, From Oslo to Iraq and the Road Map , and Humanism and Democratic Criticism . All were published after his death from leukemia on September 25, 2003, in New York. Among the literary awards he received in his last years was one for lifetime achievement, bestowed by the Lannan Foundation in 2001.


Said, Edward, Out of Place: A Memoir , Knopf, 1999.

Sprinker, Michael, ed., Edward Said: A Critical Reader , Black-well, 1993.


Commentary , September 1999.

Daily Telegraph (London, England), September 26, 2003.

Economist (U.S.), October 4, 2003.

Financial Times , September 26, 2003.

Guardian (London, England), September 26, 2003

Irish Times , September 27, 2003.

New Statesman , March 29, 2004; June 14, 2004; May 29, 2006.

New York Times , September 26, 2003.


Contemporary Authors Online , Gale, 2007, http://www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (January 7, 2007).

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