Posted by on June 25, 2014 in Blog

Edward Said, a Palestinian American literary theorist and leading public intellectual, was born in 1935 in Jerusalem. He spent his childhood living between two worlds: Jerusalem and Cairo, and spent his summers visiting his mother’s family in Lebanon.

The Said family was granted citizenship in the United States in recognition of Mr. Said’s military service for the US Army during World War I.  After moving to the United States in 1951, Edward attended high school in Massachusetts. Edward excelled academically and musically, and graduated at the top of his class. He went on to earn a Masters from Princeton University and a Ph.D. in English Literature from Harvard University.

Said joined Columbia University’s Department of English and taught Comparative Literature and Literary Criticism.  Born to be a leader, he was president of the Modern Language Association, and was editor of the Arab Studies Quarterly in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was also a member of the executive board of International PEN, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Royal Society of Literature, the Council of Foreign Relations, and the American Philosophical Society.

Said quickly became an important writer and intellectual in American academia and popular culture. His defining academic achievement was Orientalism, a landmark publication that used careful literary analysis to uncover the problematic ways the West perceives peoples, cultures, and states of the Middle East. He believed that inaccurate and racist stereotypes are the foundation of Western thought towards the Middle East, and that such perceptions have served to justify western colonial and imperialist ambitions throughout history.

Much of his work following Orientalism revolved around political issues for English and Arabic periodicals, journals, and publications. He was a leader of the Palestinian solidarity movement just beginning in the United States and a fierce critic of U.S. foreign policy which he believed to be imperialistic. A main claim Said propagated asserted that America’s self-congratulatory ideals lead US citizens to see their country’s imperialistic tendencies as altruistic efforts to promote democracy and freedom, not as oppressive and problematic. His writings and public lectures won him many fans, including the young Barack Obama who was studying at Columbia while Said was there. Edward Said’s activism and criticism of the government, a quality that he believed was healthy to instill in the students he taught, attracted much opposition and suspicion. In 2006, it was revealed that the FBI had been spying on Said’s activities since 1971.

An accomplished public intellectual, referred to by some as an academic ‘super star,’ Said won dozens of awards for his work and received over twenty honorary university degrees. Following his death in 2003, Birzeit University, in Palestine, named its music school in his honor, and Columbia University, the University of Warwick, Princeton University, Adelaide University, the American University of Cairo, and the Palestine Center conduct an annual lecture series in his memory.

Beyond his intellectual prominence, music was always one of Said’s defining passions. It was discovered at a young age that Said had perfect pitch. He enjoyed attending the Cairo Opera growing up and was an accomplished pianist who was often more musically skilled than his teachers. In fact, Said was a prolific music critic for The Nation magazine.

A bold leader in the Arab American community, Edward Said’s work revolutionized the study of the Middle East, helping to create entire new fields of study, including most notably post-colonial theory, and stimulating fields as diverse as political science, history, English, anthropology and cultural studies. His contributions to American intellectual thought were ground-breaking, to say the least, continuing to incite scholarly discussion and debate for years to come. 


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