A Voice of Resistance Revisited

By David Finkel

Culture and Resistance
Conversations with Edward W. Said
By David Barsamian
Haymarket Books reissue (first publication South End Press, 2003),
193 pages + notes and index, $17.95 paperback.

WHAT WOULD IT be worth to have the wisdom and passionate commitment of Edward Said with us today? What would Said have to say about the U.S. confrontation with Iran, the Syrian catastrophe, the ever-deeper bloody impasse of Palestine/Israel, devastating climate change, Donald Trump and so much more — especially the apartheid-annexation “Deal of the Century” atrocity that Trump-Kushner and Netanyahu have dumped on the Palestinian people?

Sadly, we can’t know because Edward Said died in 2003 after a long and painful struggle with leukemia, “in and out of hospitals, about to begin treatments or recovering from them” as David Barsamian wrote at the time (Introduction, xvi).

This collection of extended interviews was conducted by Barsamian between 1999 and February 2003, and its welcome republication now by Haymarket Books serves as a reminder of Said’s thinking as well as a primer for readers who may not be familiar with this brilliant scholar, critic and engaged advocate of Palestinian freedom.

For those readers, Said’s political commentary and philosophical reflections may serve as bridge to the heavier lifting in reading Orientalism, his classic 1978 pathbreaking and controversial exploration of the distorted images of Arab and Eastern peoples in the imaginations of Europe and the United States, and how these have shaped dominant assumptions behind government policy, media portrayals and popular culture. Those topics are touched on here, but not in great depth.

For the most part, this collection could have been titled “Palestine and Resistance.” The role of culture is addressed mainly in the concluding discussion, “At the Rendezvous of Victory,” where Said refers to the “whole assembly of cultural expression that has become part of the consolidation of Palestinian persistence and identity,” an observation that obviously pertains to many other peoples’ struggles.

He continues: “Culture is a form of memory against effacement…But there is another dimension of cultural discourse — the power to analyze, to get past cliché and straight out-and-out lies from authority, the questioning of authority, the search for alternatives. These are also part of the arsenal of cultural resistance.” (159)

Grassroots Power

This means that cultural resistance threatens not only the direct oppressor — which is why Israel has gone to extreme lengths to smash up Palestinian institutions and steal their historical records and archives — but also established leaderships of oppressed people’s movements.

Although Said served for a time on the Palestine National Council, he was known as a fierce critic of the Palestinian institutional leadership for corruption, bureaucratic incompetence and accommodation to U.S. and Israeli dictates:

“There’s no way of overestimating the pressure that all Palestinians feel. Here we are, being killed by a ruthless enemy, and all we have in our defense are young men throwing rocks at tanks and missiles and helicopter gunships. That is the basic reality. We have a leadership that is unable to lead, for whatever reason. For one, the leadership is in prison…

“The other reason is ignorance. The Palestinian elites, including intellectuals, still think that there’s a shortcut to influencing America, which is the main actor in this besides Israel.”

Said points out that grassroots activism, directed toward the American people and targeting corporate complicity in the Occupation, gets results.

“But what you need is a new leadership, an alternative leadership of intellectuals who make that kind of action a principal focus and don’t get diverted by things like worrying about the Arab League or whether the British or the Germans are going to do something.” (76, 77)

This remark in 2001 presciently foreshadows the Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions (BDS) movement, which arose from Palestinian civil society — not the official leadership — four years later. Unfortunately, Said himself would not live to see it.

A committed humanist as well as a Palestinian partisan, Said was clear that Israeli society and its people “are not epiphenomena, like Crusaders or imperialists who can be sent back somewhere. It’s very important for us also to insist, as I often do, that Israelis are Israelis. They are citizens of a society called Israel. They’re not ‘Jews,’ quite simply, who can be thought of once again as wanderers, who can go back to Europe. That vocabulary of transitory and provisional existence is one that one has to completely refuse.” (22-23)

In other discussions here, Said lays out his views on “a one-state solution” for the Palestine/Israel crisis, the “origins of terrorism,” the Palestinian Intifada, the 9/11 catastrophe, and his own life trajectory. It’s remarkable how current many of his observations remain almost two decades later, except that in most respects things on the ground have become even worse.

The book comprises in all six extended interviews in the same style that David Barsamian has conducted with Noam Chomsky, Eqbal Ahmad, Arundhati Roy and Howard Zinn among others. Barsamian produces the Alternative Radio program (https://alternativeradio.org), which has been running for more than three decades.

The republication of the present collection reminds us of how much Edward Said gave us, and how much he’s missed in the present catastrophic global situation.

March-April 2020, ATC 205