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Said's legacy

Edward W. Said will probably continue to influence the debates of his new exile.

(PS. This article is machine-translated from Norwegian)

It is difficult to map the Palestinian American literary critic and debater Edward W. Said's (1935-2003) history of impact. In some areas it is easier to point where he is not has had a breakthrough, for example in Norwegian refugee policy.

But even there they have Edward W. Said in mind, though they may not know it. Anyone who discriminates with a touch of bad conscience can, for good reason, blame Edward W. Said for just that.


The moral of "Orientalism" is so simple that today it almost seems banal: the West's view of "The Others", primarily Arabs and Muslims, has for hundreds of years been marked by stereotypes and prejudices. On the one hand, the East has been portrayed as an exotic and coveted continent of difference, on the other hand, the same people have just been feared and demonized.

The impact of "Orientalism", which was published 25 years ago, was that it claimed that this view of the barbaric and exotic East still characterized the way of thinking in the West. Said's main enemy in the book is the British Islam expert Bernard Lewis, a man who – not least after 11/25 – has still been allowed to influence the public discourse in European and American public. Last summer, in connection with the XNUMXth anniversary of "Orientalism", Said wrote an article in The Guardian in which he claimed that the condescending Western view of Arabs made it easier to attack both Afghanistan and Iraq. Orientalization is thus old – and new, we must believe Said.


Said can thus be reminiscent of the loser, if one compares him to Lewis' effective mass production of conflict-oriented bestsellers. Lewis is alive, Said is dead. But in that case it is only half the truth. Said's professional approach to "Orientalism" can be called deconstructionist. That is: He picks apart established truths, points out weaknesses and contradictions and shows an alternative truth – with a capital or small S, if you will.

"Deconstructionism" is originally a French invention, but paradoxically in the United States it has had the greatest impact. The reason for this may be precisely Said's influential classic from 1978. Seen from Norway today, the USA therefore appears to be a nightmare. The stories are rewritten to adapt to different groups' legitimate demands for a place in history, combined with screams and howls as soon as someone is banned and it is suspected that color or ethnicity is the reason. The modern term for this is "multiculturalism" – by some used as an insult because cultures are equal and equal, by others used as an honorific because it opens up that our white, Western and racist worldview is not always correct. "Norwegian immigration history" in three volumes is a good example of this.

The politician

The End of the Peace Process. Oslo and after Author Edward W. Said Granta 1999
The End of the Peace
Process. Oslo and after
Author Edward W. Said
Grant 1999

Although Said's main contribution to posterity will probably lie in the nuanced view of Asians and Africans, many will perceive him as an equally important champion of the Palestinians' right to self-government. "He reads the world as well as he reads books," as Salman Rushdie put it.

The book "The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After" was not only a harsh confrontation with the Oslo Accords' aggression against the Palestinians, it was also an attack on Arafat's all-encompassing power over the Palestinians. In one of his latest texts, the American also pointed a finger at the United States' evasive role in the Middle East: “We are still facing many years of upheaval and misery in the Middle East. One of the problems is, to put it bluntly: the power of the United States. What the United States refuses to see clearly, the country can hardly do anything about ".

Said was good at reading the world, and he was good at reading books. Often, however, it was difficult to see what he was doing when.

Some rate

The book "Reflections on Exile and Other Literary and Cultural essays" is a literary treat for those who like the idea that fiction can have a political significance. (Even Ernest Hemingway is subjected to a socially critical analysis!)

However, the role of the political critic and the literary critic slide into each other. In the book, he dissects Samuel P. Huntington's theory of "The Clash of Civilization" with the help of Joseph Conrad, Gabriel García Márquez and Aimé Césaire. He also tackles the writings of Nobel Prize winner VS Naipaul, in a text that deals precisely with the problem of fiction writers entering into politically heated topics, such as Islam, but refusing to be held accountable as knowledgeable, because they after all, "only" are fiction writers. He reads the Naipaul book "Among the Believers" as the political book it is, but at the same time submits to a literary critique and claims that the Arabic characters in Naipaul's travelogue are one-dimensional and the surroundings colorless. "How can we learn about Islam from him?" said Said.


Edward W. Said's worldview, despite the fact that there is still war in the Middle East and many Westerners still regard Islam with suspicion, has had a major impact. This is probably because Said has credibility. He was born in British-controlled Palestine in 1935, grew up in Egypt and lived most of his life in the United States. He has used a great deal of effort to defend Islam, but he is not a Muslim himself. He has spent a lot of time criticizing the United States, but is himself an American. He defended the Palestinians but criticized Arafat.

This is how he lives up to his own postulate that the world is too changeable, too limitless and too complicated for it to be possible to draw clear dividing lines between Islam and the West, between politics and literature, history and the present. Many will remember him for that. Others will remember the eminent music critic. One of the last articles he wrote in The Nation, September 1, 2003, was a tribute to Maynard Solomon's new book about the composer Ludvig van Beethoven: "Late Beethoven: Music, Thought, Imagination".

"I wish I had a greater opportunity to show how each chapter of Solomon's book is full of subtle, deeply satisfying reflections on what went through Beethoven's latest work, but – of course – it is not."


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