Edward Said was a Palestinian born American professor and scholar. A literary theorist and academician, he wrote many books on literary criticism, musical criticism, and issues of post-colonialism. He was one of the most influential advocates in the U.S. who campaigned for the political rights and independence of the Palestinians—he was called ‘the most powerful voice” for Palestinians. He served as a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in a teaching career that spanned four decades. He is best known for his book ‘Orientalism’, published in 1978. In the book he discussed how certain assumption of the Western world leads to the misinterpretations of the cultural symbols of the Orient, particularly the Middle East. The book, considered to be a very significant writing on the post-colonial theory has been translated into many languages, and is a part of the prescribed reading for many political science courses. He was also a musical theorist who could play the piano very well; he also wrote several books on music. A public intellectual, he had interests in a variety of topics ranging from politics, literature, music, culture, teaching, and writing. He took an active interest in politics and served as an independent member of the Palestinian National Council (PNC).
Childhood & Early Life
Edward Said was born as one of the two children of businessman Wadir Said and Hilda in Palestine. His father had served in the U.S. Army due to which his family was granted U.S. citizenship. His parents practiced Christianity, but he grew up to be agnostic.
He attended the Anglican St. George’s School in Jerusalem in 1947 after which he went to the Egyptian branch of Victoria College. However, he was expelled from there in 1951 due to his misbehavior in school. He was then sent to study at the Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts, where he excelled academically.
He enrolled at the Princeton University and earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1957 and Master of Arts in 1960.
For his doctorate, he went to Harvard University and received his Doctor of Philosophy in English Literature in 1964.
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He accepted a teaching position in the Columbia University and joined the faculty of the English department and the department of Comparative Literature in 1963. He worked at the University lifelong.
His doctoral dissertation was on the criticism of the works of the novelist Joseph Conrad which he expanded into a full length book, ‘Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography’, published in 1966.
He served as Visiting Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard College in 1974, and became a Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Science at Stanford University for the term 1975-76.
He had a deep interest in politics and represented the Palestinian National Council (PNC) as an independent member from 1977 to 1991.
In 1978, he published his seminal work, ‘Orientalism’ in which he discussed how the cultural prejudices and false assumptions of the Western World distort the understanding of the cultural elements of the Orient. The book became very popular, though it also generated much controversy.
He published ‘Covering Islam’ in 1981 in which he analyzed how the countries like France, Britain, and the U.S. view the Islamic nations and Arabs.
Over the next few years he wrote ‘The World, the text and the Critic’ (1983), ‘After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives’ (1986), and ‘Nationalism, Colonialism and Literature’ (1990).
He supported the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and voted for the establishment of the State of Palestine in 1988.
As an accomplished pianist, he had worked as the music critic for ‘The Nation’ magazine. He brought out his first book on music titled, ‘Musical Elaborations’ in 1991.
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His book ‘Culture and Imperialism’, the sequel to his highly influential work ‘Orientalism’ was published in 1993. In a series of essays, he discussed the impact of mainstream culture on imperialism and colonialism.
Some of the other books he published over the next few years are: ‘Peace and Its Discontents: Essays on Palestine in the Middle East Peace Process’ (1995), ‘Out of Place: A Memoir’ (1999), and ‘Reflections on Exile and Other Essays’ (2000).
He was a vocal critic of Yasser Arafat, and the Palestinian Authority, enraged by Said’s political activism, banned the sale of his books in 1995. The ban was however lifted in 2000 when Said publicly praised Arafat.
Over his long and illustrious career, he had served as the president of the Modern Language Association, as a member of the executive board of International PEN, in the Council of Foreign Relations and as a member of the American Philosophical Society.
The work for which he is best known is the 1978 book ‘Orientalism’. The basic premise of the book was that the Western knowledge about the East is not based upon facts or reality but on certain preconceived ideas and notions.
He is famous for being an outspoken advocate of the rights of Palestinians in the U.S. He took a deep interest in the well being of Palestinians even though he had moved out of there when young, and campaigned for their independence.
Awards & Achievements
He received three awards for his memoir, ‘Out of Place’: New Yorker Book Award for non-fiction (1999), Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Non-Fiction (2000), and the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award in Literature.
He won the Lannan Literary Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2001. These awards are given to “honour both established and emerging writers whose work is of exceptional quality”.
He is also the recipient of around 20 honorary degrees which were bestowed upon him by several universities over the course of his career as an educator and critic.
Edward Said married Marie Jaanus in 1962; the couple divorced in 1967.
In 1970, he married Mariam Cortas, a Quaker. They had two children. His daughter Najla, is an actress and playwright.
He died of leukemia on 25 September 2003 after battling the disease for 12 years.
Barack Obama was one of his students in Columbia College.
The Birzeit University in Palestine renamed its music school the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music in 2004.