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Professor of error: Edward Said in Quincy, France Credit: Bloomsbury

Disorientated: the confusions of Edward Said

The dangers of imprisoning culture in political theories

By Sameer Rahim   June 2021

In November 1974, Yasser Arafat delivered a speech at the UN in New York. The PLO leader, viewed by the US government as a terrorist, attacked “Zionist racists and colonialists” and honoured the “popular armed struggle” to free Palestine. But he ended with a (qualified) peace offering: “Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom-fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.” Those resonant lines came from the pen of nearby Columbia University’s Edward Said. Some of his older colleagues might have been surprised that Said, an expert on Joseph Conrad, was moonlighting for Arafat. When he was first hired, it was rumoured he was an Alexandrian Jew.

Such paradoxes followed Said around. His close friends nicknamed him both “Abu Wadie,” echoing a militant’s nom du guerre, and “Eduardo,” a suave Renaissance man. At his most optimistic, Said saw himself as…

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