On Edward Said: The Stupidest Word

Christopher Hitchens reflects on his friend and foe

Vanity Fair columnist and Middle Easternphile Christopher Hitchens first met Edward Said in 1976. Here he discusses their combative friendship with Emran Qureshi

Emran Qureshi: So this is a special issue dealing with icons, and…

Christopher Hitchens: Oh is it? Right. Well, I should first say that I think that the word “icon” is the stupidest word in our current discourse, and it would be no one poorer if we gave it up. It’s a fatuous word, it’s a concession by intellectuals to celebrity culture, and would be better off banned. But to the extent that it has any meaning at all, and to the extent that it could be applied to my late friend Edward, it would be that he was a great writer about western culture, and especially English literature. He had a sense of humor and a sense of irony that allowed him to participate in very high level literary discussions in the West while coming from a people whose place on the map was not secure.

EQ: Right.

CH: That’s the iconographic part of him if you, if you like. As a person, he was furthermore iconic by being very charming, very humane and very dynamic, and very difficult.

EQ: Difficult in what way?

CH: Well, there was an element in him, that all of his best friends have testified to, that presumably originated in part from being a privileged member of a dispossessed people. I remember him very well saying to me once when I was interviewing him that he himself did not suffer the pain of being a refugee or a forcibly expelled Palestinian. Though he had lost his home, and his family had lost their patrimony, he had not actually himself been kicked out at the point of a boot or a point of a gun, so he has a double ambiguity. He felt, as a privileged member of this oppressed, scattered, forgotten, and dispersed people, that he had an obligation to speak up. But of course that also exposed him to the criticism that he was overstating the case, or that actually he was understating it. So he was out of place, as he put it, at one end of the narrative, and out of place at the other end by living in the West, and by being very successful and admired here.

Anyway, the self-pity that he sometimes evinced, which all of his friends became used to, was one of the very extreme over-sensitivities of being criticized. He would never quite agree, or had difficulty in thinking anyway, that any criticism of him, however mild, wasn’t in some way personal, or based on that fateful prejudice, and I think that was his biggest disadvantage.

EQ: When was the first time you met Edward?

CH: I met him in 1976 in Cyprus, in Nicosia, at a conference on the rights of small nations, of small peoples. I was speaking on behalf of the Greek Cypriot cause, and he was speaking on behalf of the Palestinian one. We met, and instantly became friendly. I was on my way to Israel and the West Bank and he gave me some suggestions about people I might look up, some people at Birzeit University I might consult, and so forth. At that point he wasn’t willing to come himself because he didn’t want to see his old home with Israeli soldiers standing outside. And I met him again the following year in New York, when I went to see him at Columbia, and I think he then invited me to his home. I believe that around that time he had published Beginnings.

EQ: When did you start socializing, meeting him on a regular basis?

CH: Well, he was often a visitor to London — where I still lived, I didn’t remove myself to the United States until 1981 — at that point, and I remember introducing him to the editors of the New Left Review, who were most interested to meet him. I’m thinking of Perry Anderson and Robin Blackburn; I can remember a wonderful lunch we all had in London to discuss matters of common interest. Then I introduced him to Alexander Cockburn in New York in 1981, when I moved there. I kept trying to put him in touch with people who would publish him in England. In late 1977 and early 1978, I remember getting him to write for the newspaper where I then worked.

EQ: Do you think Edward was a symbol of a somewhat more hopeful world order, someone that crossed borders?

CH: Well yes! Edward to me was a prefiguration of what one hoped Palestine, the future Palestinian state would be like — educated, democratic, secular. And internationalist. He had all the qualities that one hoped would adhere, or inhere, in the state. And for this reason he was, for a while anyway, very much esteemed as a spokesman for the Palestinian cause on television and in the media, because he appeared to contradict the general impression given by Arafat as someone shady, demagogic, corrupt, Levantine, whatever slander you want to adhere to.

Let me mention another thing I feel I ought to say — that Edward was happiest when talking about music (which is not my special subject at all).

EQ: Regarding his musical sensibilities, he, toward the end of his life, set up — co-founded the East-West Divan Orchestra. Did you ever catch it play?

CH: I did not, but I felt I was there in spirit. I’m not musical, I don’t go to these things, and I’m not competent to judge. I did notice that it was based in its name on Goethe’s famous essay on Orientalism, and I liked that, as a joke, and I liked a lot of what Edward had written about Orientalism. He certainly opened up an extraordinary discussion in that great book of his. But as time went by, I was able to see that it suffered, as all great books do, of diminishing returns, and that, alas, led to a much greater disagreement with him.

EQ: What was that disagreement?

CH: Well, I noted several times during the eighties and nineties that Edward was a little bit alarmed by the effect he was having in the academy. The rise of what we commonly call political correctness, of explicit emphasis on gender, or ethnicity, or race, the use of these standards to evaluate literature, I knew distressed him. And I knew it also distressed him because he felt that sometimes these were his — if not his children — people who wished to adopt him as a father. And I know that he had this dismay, and he reported to me many bleak occasions of dogmatism in the academy that he’d encountered as a result. When it came time for him to re-publish Orientalism on its twenty-fifth anniversary, and to reevaluate it, and to write a new introduction, he somehow did not in public affirm, or even allow, what he had conceded to me in private. He made a relatively staunch defense of what people had been mistaking his position for, namely that everything is either imperialist or postcolonial, that there’s no autonomy to the different areas in which the impact of East and West can be evaluated. And I had to review that new version for the Atlantic Monthly, and I had to say what I felt its shortcoming were, and I knew that Edward would be touchy about it, and he was.

EQ: In the Atlantic piece you wrote that Said was a cosmopolitan child of privilege, who might have been the great explainer, but chose a one-sided approach and used a rather broad brush. What did you mean by that?

CH: I meant that for someone who was rather Christian and had an Anglican background in Jerusalem, who had no sympathy for Turkish imperialism, say, or for Islamic fundamentalism, and who’d often confessed to me that he wouldn’t be able personally to live in an Islamic state, let alone an Islamic fundamentalist one, that he nonetheless felt that living in the West, as he did, it was more his job to convey the criticisms from that world to westerners, who were in need of punctures to their complacency, than it was for him to use his authority to rebuke the Islamists, and the latent totalitarians in the other, so to speak, the eastern sphere. I began to think over time that he’d increasingly got this balance wrong, and that instead of being a great translator, mutual translator, interpreter, he had rather preferred to ventriloquize the views of often very intolerant, very menacing forces. My specific example here would be his worst book by far, which is a book called Covering Islam that he wrote after the Khomeini counterrevolution, as I would describe it, in Iraq, in which he felt that his main obligation was simply to show the western press that it had underestimated the fact that Khomeini had fundamentalism, and had done so for postcolonial and ethnically questionable, culturally biased reasons. To the extent that that was true, it was true, but there was undoubtedly in it a vicarious approval of the Khomeini counterrevolution. And I thought…

EQ: How can you say that…

CH:…I felt that from the first time we ever discussed this, which was at a Carnegie evening in about 1980–81 in New York, that one day this was going to lead to a larger quarrel between us, which indeed it did.

EQ: But that seems at odds with my reading of him. Everything that I’ve read of Edward’s was harshly critical of fundamentalism. In the afterward to the new introduction of Orientalism he lamented how it had been appropriated by Islamists and you’d see it at Islamist book fairs, and things of that sort. So how is it that you felt that he was…

CH: Ah, well here’s the difference, here’s exactly…

EQ: But, but you…

CH:…That’s why the shoe began to pinch, because, though in any formal statement Edward every made, whether it was about censorship in the Arab world, the backwardness of the Arab university, the repressiveness of the Arab or Muslim regime, the nastiness and stupidity of Islamic Shari’ah law rule, or Islamic terrorist subversion, he was invariably formally correct. He would always say what one would expect from a humanist, and a lover a literature and a lover of pluralism, but I began to notice — it became impossible not to notice — that while he thought this, he could never agree that any policy of resistance to it by the West, especially by the United States, was justifiable.

EQ: Perhaps he was looking at the world through the prism of Palestinian consciousness, and being skeptical of the role that he saw the United States and the imperial powers play there, and was skeptical of it generally elsewhere.

CH: Well, I have no doubt that that’s true, but the argument from double standards is not an argument that the intellectual can really involve himself in. Any fool could say, well if you are willing to contest Saddam Hussein, why are you not simultaneously willing to contest Robert Mugabe. It’s a way of changing the subject. Of course such people never are in favor of doing both. And it isn’t as if the question of Palestine was being ignored by anyone who disliked, say, Saddam Hussein, or Osama bin Laden, or the Taliban. I think it has a very regrettable effect of reinforcing in the mind of the audience the idea that all non-white people who live in the greater Middle Eastern region are all the same, and that their religion is a religion for dark-skinned or brown-skinned people, and that, therefore, no one question can be separated from another. I don’t have to prove to you why that’s not true.

EQ: I recall that you debated Bernard Lewis and Leon Wieseltier alongside Said in 1986, and it seems that you and Edward were on the same side. However, after 9/11 your politics veered sharply from Edward’s. How has it veered, what direction has it moved?

CH: Well, it doesn’t matter what my politics were.

EQ: I’m trying to get a sense of the disagreements between you and Edward.

CH: These disagreements were a much more intensified version of our disagreement about Bosnia, where the United States had intervened to save a Muslim, formally Ottoman, minority from physical erasure, which I thought was necessary and desirable. Indeed I would have criticized, and had been criticizing, the United States for not acting. Where it would appear to be deaf to the implications of this, and where he would have considered his region of greater confidence or greater authority, he appeared to have the same problem. He would reply that, yes, Saddam Hussein is an awful despot and murderer, but he would not agree to any course of action that would remove him if this course of action originated in the United States. In other words, he said the United States has no right to take a position on this. That view struck me then, and strikes me now, as entirely sterile, to say no more about it.

EQ: You once appeared on stage with Edward Said, but now I see you on stage with David Horowitz, who describes Edward as an authentic terrorist. What happened?

CH: I’ve had a series of quarrels with David Horowitz, and Daniel Pipes, and a number of other — what should one call them? Partially Neo-Con, partially Zionist, probably simply right-wing critics — in print and in person about their defamation of Edward, and their belief that there was no injustice against the Palestinians to begin with, no attempt to rewrite the history of 1947, 1948. Anyone who wants to defame Edward, or say that he invented his life story, or that he confected or exaggerated the sufferings of the Palestinian people will, they should know by now, always have a very stern enemy in me.

EQ: Would you consider yourself a Neo-Con?

CH: I’m no kind of conservative. Never have been, and never will be. That’s the simple answer, and the misnomer Neo-Con, which was coined, I believe, by my old friend Mike Harrington…

EQ: That’s right, Michael Harrington.

CH: Well, some say Peter Steinfeld popularized the word, and he may have done, but I’m certain that it was the coinage of Mike Harrington, who was, alas, a sad figure, a loser, a Dorothy Day supporter — a Catholic liberation theology pseudo-socialist whose organization ceases to exist.

EQ: If Edward were alive today what would he be working on, what would he be doing?

CH: Well if Edward were alive today, which I wish for many reasons he was, because I used to always cheer up when I heard his by his company, and always enjoy our discussion even when they became…even if either one or the other of us became incensed. So I miss him; I wish he were still alive for all those reasons, but I would very much like to know, would like to have heard from him what his reaction would be, in particular to the removal of at least immediate Syrian power from Lebanon, which is something I knew he cared about a lot. He loved Beirut; he didn’t like seeing it under Syrian occupation. I’d like to have known what his reaction to that would have been. I would of course have liked to see his response to the Iraqi election, and to all the developments in the region that were in effect, especially in Egypt, when — now we have the judges saying they won’t go on certifying bogus elections. These were things that he had in fact been calling for, and calling attention to. I would love to know, from him, and I’d love to have the argument in public: Can you really say, Edward, that this is nothing to do with American policy in region? Is it really your view that these things would have happened anyway, or shouldn’t have happened if they involved the use of American military power? Because that was the position he was stuck in over Bosnia. And I wonder how long he could’ve kept up the argument with me, with Azmi Bashara, and with others.

EQ: Is there anyone else that you can think of that could be a person that could be crossing boundaries and borders today as brilliantly as he did?

CH: No, well I don’t know about the latent or potentials ones, but I know that there’s no one who has the, would ever have the ear of people in the West, in Europe I mean to say — where we can speak at least some of the languages — and in America, who would be the dragoman, the interpreter, the bringer of news and interpretation. There’s no one like him who can do that now in one direction, and unfortunately the job of doing it in the other direction, which is the job that he slightly refused — the task, the responsibility that he eventually declined — won’t come up, oh, unless it’s a person of similar experience and authority. So, really, what I feel about his life and his work, is that there’s an element of the tragic in it; that here was a huge opportunity he missed for an interpreter, a translator, someone of mutuality who wanted less imperialism in the West and more democracy in the East, shall we say, to put it very, very simply. To see if those two positions could not be synthesized. Whereas his view invariably was, when it came to a test that these positions were opposed, not reconcilable.

If I ask myself what my strongest memory of Edward is…the memories are all strong. They include speaking with him at a huge rally at Columbia in defense of the first Intifada, many discussions with him about his meeting with George Schultz and others, in an attempt to establish an independent Palestinian voice in the negotiations in the Middle East, evenings in London, and Paris, and elsewhere, and in New York. I still could easily tell what the best evening I had with him. I had to write an article about George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda— the one about the secret Jewishness within English society — and Edward gave me a sort of tutorial after dinner at his apartment on the Upper West Side, and a reading list. It really made me wish that I had been his student when I was young. It was everything you could possibly have wanted as a guide to what to read about the novel, how to think about it, how who’s who felt on it. And he had no advance notice of my question. None. He didn’t know when I came to dinner that I wanted to ask him about this; it was a completely informal, improvised discussion for the sheer love of literature and criticism, and any merit that my article on George Eliot has comes entirely from him. And he could do this, really, as far as I could see, on all subjects. He really loved literature and humor and had assimilated, in his second language, the beauty and the importance of English literature, whether it was Austen or Kipling. Some people attack him, saying, “Oh why can’t he stay off the subject of slavery when he’s doing Jane Austen?” Well, excuse me, if you’re reading Mansfield Park with any attention at all, slavery is a subject that runs right through the story. I mean you can’t be expected to leave it out, as many people have. He didn’t try to politicize it at all; he tried to universalize these things. And he should be given every sort of praise for his skill and wit in this, and for his care with students and with anyone who came to him.