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Edward Said: A Profile

WEDNESDAY 11th June 2003
He hasn't lived in Palestine for more than half a century but, for many in the west, Edward Said remains the intellectual spokesman for the people of this far-off territory. In fact, his extended exile has only deepened his concerns for the plight of his former homeland.

Changing perceptions

Said was born in Jerusalem and raised in Egypt. Then, in what he called the biggest shock of his life, he was sent to boarding school in the United States.

He has been there ever since. A richly-educated, multi-lingual professor at Columbia University, he can speak with equal wit and authority on the ethics of war and the subtexts of Tarzan films. Huge crowds turn out for his public musings on all things cultural.

With his book, Orientalism, Said was credited with revolutionising Westerners' perceptions of their eastern counterparts. And his biggest mission has been to put the whole Palestinian question on the map for intellectual discussion.

A Jewish Palestinian?

Although a passionate advocate of self-determination for the territory, Said has been critical of Islamic fundamentalism, calling himself "perhaps a Jewish Palestinian". But he has also spoken out against Yasser Arafat, who then had Said's literature banned on the Gaza Strip.

His strong views have earned him such epithets as "professor of terror" and compromised his personal safety, but Said continues to dream out loud of an end to the violence and creation of a bi-national state, "a rich fabric, which no one can fully own".

New struggles

With his great friend, Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim, Said has taken this message all the way to his native land. In 1999, the pair brought together Jews and Palestinians to form an orchestra. Said himself is a concert-standard pianist, who turns to Bach in times of stress.

He is nostalgic, though, for "the old world, not the aggressively new one". And, now in the throes of another struggle, with leukaemia, he admits to feeling "basically powerless".

Nevertheless, he continues to be a symbol of his people's cause, and a persuasive ethical voice in the west. He admits that he remains "attracted to the difficult, and the question of Palestine, that's almost impossible".