Mourning what is Said: Memorable encounters with a Mensch

I recall the first time I met him was in Chicago 1990. I was a South African fellow at the University of Chicago, doing research for my doctoral dissertation. Ibrahim Abu Lughod, a lifelong friend of Edward W. Said, teaching at Northwestern University at the time introduced us at a party at the home of Rashid Khalidi, the well-known Palestinian-American historian at Chicago. Edward had just delivered a major lecture, perhaps early drafts of Culture and Imperialism, at the University of Chicago. After being introduced, the fact that I could speak Arabic and had an interest in things Middle Eastern/Islamic as well as being from South Africa, just created the right set of ingredients and commonalities so that we clicked almost immediately.

At the party Edward sought me out every half an hour or so, as we shuffled in the confined space. He talked to me about an invitation from the University of Cape Town. His questions and queries were whether he should go, concerned about the effects of the cultural boycott of South Africa. He had many questions. The reason he was so concerned, I now gather in hindsight, was because in his own mind this was going to be an important trip for him personally and he did not want it to be marred by controversy. So this visit was on his mind all evening; and, whenever, a new query came to his mind, as he was mingling with dozens of people, he would pop a question to me, and I was more than delighted to serve as his sounding board. His frequent conversations with me that evening made me the envy of everyone in attendance. For here was the extraordinary Edward Said talking to Ebrahim from South Africa. In fact, the next day, inquisitive graduate students were asking me: “what's going on between you and Said?" I realize in hindsight, Edward was just full of life and energy and always in search of stimulation. Come to think of it, he was extremely generous, loving and caring towards me in the few and memorable encounters we had over the years. At smaller meetings during his 1990 visit to Chicago or in South Africa in 1991, after his talk or meeting was over and students and admirers would flock around him, he would make it a point to introduce me to others.

A few weeks later, perhaps in January of 1991 he was back in Chicago, en route somewhere and had spent the night either at the home of Rashid and Mona Khalidi or at a Hyde Park hotel, I am not sure. The next morning, I think it was Friday, he somehow either sought me out or we bumped into each other accidentally. All I know is that we both, dressed heavily for the Chicago winter, with warm overcoats and head covering walked around the campus for almost an hour, talking animatedly about everything, including religion. Religion was sparked in the conversation when we passed the Rockefeller Chapel. I informed him that later in the day Jum`a prayers would be held in the portal of the chapel. Somehow that prompted him to tell me the genealogy of his family's religious orientation. His great grandfather, he told me, was affiliated to the Eastern Orthodox Church. It was his grand father who may have switched to Anglicanism, if I recall correctly. One of his ancestors his grandfather or great grandfather was referred to as an Episcopalian, uskufi.

"So what religion do you follow, Edward?" I asked unabashedly. "I am secular," he replied. I remember retorting that he was dodging my question. Then he said something that startled me: "I am Muslim," he said teasingly. For a moment I thought he was playing me, and perhaps he did, for he knew that Islam was an important aspect of my identity. "You mean Islam culturally, right?" I queried. "I am Arab and I am Muslim. I am also American, Brahim," Edward replied and then went on to explain his complicated identity. As we talked, I got the sense that for him at least, Islam was not a religion, but that his Arab-Palestinian identity implied that his cultural formation was partly Islamic; or that he was in some sense part of "Islamicate" society, as Marshall Hodgson would frame it. Years later, I realize that what Edward said to me was a comment in an unguarded moment. He trusted me not to confuse or make any conclusions about his identity or reach any conclusions about his religiosity or the absence of it. I am glad I did neither. But I know he found Freud’s view of Moses, in Moses and Monotheism, as both insider and outsider, to be an extraordinarily fascinating and challenging idea.

When he came to Cape Town later in 1991, he delivered the T B Davie academic freedom lecture at the University of Cape Town. It was a brilliant lecture; classical Said. The entire Jameson Hall, packed with over a thousand people rose to give him a standing ovation. Even some diehard pro-Israeli folks dared not show their dissent and even they stood up for the ovation. We went to other neighboring universities around Cape Town. For the deal was that Edward would not only speak at the premier liberal, and once ethnically white university, but that he would also speak at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), designated for coloreds, in the color-coded schema of apartheid South Africa. There at UWC, Edward delivered a talk on his favorite topic, nay his passion, the Palestinian question.

I readily volunteered to be his unofficial host in Cape Town. I recall telling him that I did not have much of a taste for western classical music. He of course disagreed with me. I obviously did not know of his vast talent for music. He then went on to teach me the finer points of Western classical music. “You read texts, right? You interpret texts, don’t you?” he said in a stern professorial voice. Then he went on telling me that despite my preference for eastern music, I should try and listen to Beethoven and Bach and imagine the music to be a "nass", the Arabic word for an authoritative text, and then attempt to interpret such texts. That piece of advice, I must admit, gave me some entry in beginning to understand and appreciate the genre of western classical music.

It is rare for Edward to be at the mercy of other people’s charisma. But I saw it once. He was like a child, gleaming with pride after he met Nelson Mandela. "Brahim," he told me, rubbing the palms of his hands and beaming, "I met the big man," he said in Arabic. For on his way to Cape Town he visited Johannesburg and had a session with the ANC leadership at their headquarters in Shell House. It is there that he had a chance to meet Mandela and talk to him. He always took immense interest and demonstrated tremendous pride in the South African struggle.

Then I recall the memorable evening we had at The Blues restaurant in Sea Point one evening. Imagine the privilege to have Edward and his wife all to oneself for an entire leisurely evening? It was a long and beautiful evening. I still remember that he ordered one of his favorite dishes, rack of lamb.

One talking point that did come up over dinner that night, was someone I did not know: Eqbal Ahmad. Edward spoke about this man as if he was some prophet. He waxed about this man's brilliance and intelligence and their close friendship to the extent that my ignorance and Edward’s respect for this man puzzled me. I thought I was on top of the major movers and shakers of the field of Middle Eastern studies and here was Edward telling me about someone I had not heard of. I felt left out deprived not knowing who Ahmed was. Once I came to learn about Eqbal Ahmed then what Edward said about the man made eminent sense.

The Cape winters are not only cold, but could be windy and rainy. Edward felt deprived, not able to see the breathtaking landscapes of Cape Town due to bad weather conditions. Being a voracious person, he wanted to take in everything around him. So he was frustrated and angry. At one point in the corridors of the Vineyard hotel in Claremont where he stayed, he said to me half-frustrated and half-jesting: "Brahim, just make this fuckin rain go away!" I laughed out loudly, amused, and retorted: "Do you not like the cold? How do you handle the snow in New York?" "No," he said, "the cold I can handle, its the rain; I hate it." I realized then, like I do now, that this man had no minute to waste and he had to live each moment to the full. He accomplished in 67 years that many a mortal twice that age could hardly achieve.

Then he insisted that when I came to New York, I must call him. It was also after he returned from South Africa that he was diagnosed with leukemia. Who would pass up an opportunity to be with Edward Said in order to enjoy his savoir, grace and company? So when I was in New York in 1995 or 1996, during one of my many trips to the US, I went to visit him at his Riverside Drive apartment. I saw his daughter Najla briefly, but he also kept on talking about his son, Wadi who was away at school. He and his wife Mariam insisted that we go to a restaurant for dinner. We went to a fabulous Lebanese place, where we dined. I also brought along two very expensive cigars for the evening, and the Lebanese American manager towards the end of the evening allowed us to smoke, much to the annoyance of the remaining late night patrons. I was obviously unaware of the no smoking rule applicable in New York restaurants. But we smoked, every moment well spent in brilliant conversation; and, he drove me back to the train station so that I could head back to Princeton, where I was visiting my friend Shamil Jeppie. That was the last time I saw him and touched him. Edward always remembered me to his friends. His place in my heart too was indelible. Before Mahmood Mamdani, the outstanding Ugandan intellectual set off to take up a position at the University of Cape Town in 1996, he spoke to Edward. Edward told him to look me up. Thanks to Edward, this opened up a whole and splendid chapter of my family’s friendship with Mahmood, Mira Nair and their son Zohran.

Since then I kept in touch with Edward regularly by phone or email. I saw him once at a distance at a packed-to-capacity talk he delivered at Berkeley about his memoir, Out of Place, around 2000. The crowd was huge and it was late at night. Regrettably, I could not make it to the social, earlier that evening where I could have had the chance to meet him one-on-one. But our subsequent phone conversations were always reasonably long and intense. The man was just very generous with his time towards me. In those conversations, occasionally, he would remind me of one disagreement we had in our friendship: it was over Palestine.

This story goes back to May 1994. I was covering the run up to the South African elections in April for the London-based television network Middle East Broadcasting Company (MBC) when I found some time during my teaching and researching my doctoral dissertation. I went up to Johannesburg to cover the inauguration of Mandela, for a live broadcast the next day, the only Arabic channel to cover the event. Late the evening before the inauguration, exhausted but flush with the excitement of the nascent and delicate new democracy ushered into South Africa, I thought of calling Edward to share with him the moment. My naïve thoughts were that one day he too would be celebrating Palestinian independence.

Mariam answered the phone in New York. No, Edward was not in the US, he was in Cairo, Mariam informed me. He was researching his memoirs. She gave me his telephone number in Cairo and since we were on the same time zone I called his Cairo apartment. I only got him in late that evening. We spoke animatedly about the April 27 elections in South Africa, my interesting sideline work of experimenting as a television broadcaster in Arabic for MBC, and urging him to watch me tomorrow broadcasting live on MBC from the steps of the Union Buildings in Pretoria where Nelson Mandela, F W De Klerk and Thabo Mbeki were to be sworn-in, as the president and his two deputies of a democratic South Africa.

I then mentioned to him that Yasir Arafat was also in town to attend the inauguration. He did not rant at the mention of Arafat, for despite his major disagreements with Arafat, he paradoxically had a soft spot for the man. But then I mentioned that in time Palestinians too would have their own state, now that Oslo was underway. I should not have mentioned Oslo. Edward was not pleased and began reciting a litany of corrupt practices committed by the Palestinian Authority. Well, I said, the PA is the elected authority of the Palestinian people and we here in South Africa recognize the PA as the democratically elected leadership of the Palestinian people. Obviously, I was drawing too close a parallel between the PA and our liberation movement in South Africa represented by the ANC (African National Congress) and PAC (Pan-African Congress), among others.

Edward was certainly not pleased either, when I told him that, he among others should have exposed the corruption of the Palestinian leadership long ago, if he was so indignant about it now in 1994. While with a heavy heart and with too much realpolitik in the equation, I had favored the partition of historical Palestine and a two-state solution in 1994, as everyone knows, Edward detested the idea. Since then, whenever I spoke to Edward and complained about the anguish I feel at the suffering of the Palestinian people, he would not fail to needle me and remind me of my support for the Oslo brokered negotiations with Israel. As the situation for Palestinians worsen by the day, and as thinking Israelis despair of their own leadership, I will be more than happy to see Edward being right in terms of a unitary state as a solution for that tragic conflict, instead of the bantustan that is now being turned into a prison by Sharon’s wall. In my own mind Oslo and the Road Map to Peace are in hindsight both non-starters. In fact, both were roadmaps of deception, denial and dispossession.

The last time I spoke to Edward was in May or June this year. I called early in the morning and he had just returned from playing tennis. The man was indefatigable! We spoke about several things after our normal tomfoolery of pretentious accents before the conversation got serious. I told him that Syed Hussein al-Attas wanted his Myth of the Lazy Native, re-issued and I was wondering if he would not write a foreword for it. He complained of being over committed and insisted that I should write it: “hadhratak, anta…” you sir, he said in Arabic, you should do it. I of course feigned humility, but quietly felt honored by his good thoughts and confidence in me. We talked of him coming to North Carolina and just relax with no commitments to do a public talk. We could explore the idea, he said, but he made it clear that it would be difficult if not possible. Too many things had to be done. There was impatience in his voice. “Take care Brahim,” were his last words to me.

On Friday 12 September 03, I was in New York and wanted to visit Edward. Mahmood Mamdani, now at Columbia, with whom I had dinner and a neighbor of Edward, told me that it was not possible to see Edward since he had a high fever and had no immunity. I left the book I had brought for Edward with Mahmood, requesting him to deliver it to the Said residence, if he could.

Last Wednesday, September 24, I was also in New York. I was with Muhammad Sid-Ahmad, political analyst and al-Ahram columnist, who shared with me his phone conversation he had with Mariam Said earlier in the day, about Edward’s declining health. It did not look too good, Muhammad reported. I still did not get it; partly because I knew Edward was a fighter. On previous occasions Edward used to exclaim: “Brahim, I nearly died,” I can still hear him say, complaining about his agony during and after treatment regimes. What made me hopeful as well as furthered my complacency on those occasions, was that despite his terrible suffering, here I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to speak to the man again.

On the plane ride back to Raleigh-Durham on the evening of Wednesday September 24, I read Edward’s lengthy and brilliant essay: Freud and the Non-Europeans. For a moment a thought flashed in my mind, and I asked myself: I wonder where Edward would like to be buried? For the essay is intensely about Palestine as it is about Freud, identity and archaeology. I wondered if he had a will and last wishes. Of course he would, but I quickly suppressed the dreadful thought of his death out of my mind, promising myself to call him the next day or inquire about his health. I was hoping to hear him repeat those words again: “Brahim, I nearly died.” But, alas! To use a magnificent phrase from Edward’s book Beginnings, this time the final hour was not subject to primordial molestation.

Last Thursday morning September 25, my colleague Bruce Lawrence called early to break the news about Edward’s death. Within minutes Mahmood Mamdani called to share the same sad and devastating news. Three days prior to Edward’s death, Mahmood told me, that he had phoned the Said residence to ask about Edward’s health. Mariam said that Edward had gone to hospital. As they were speaking, Edward returned and asked to speak to him. He told Mahmood that he lacked sodium and could not walk and write since his hands and limbs were shaking. He was most concerned about the fact that he could not write! In the meanwhile, he was asking his secretary and sister Grace to take down notes. A heart-broken Mahmood summed up Edward Said brilliantly, after relating this incident to me: “Ebrahim, he was as undefeated as his people.” Writing was Edward’s life. He complained once that he failed to persuade Eqbal Ahmed to write more. Once he also angrily or in frustration said, that Ibrahim Abu Lughod, not he Edward, should be writing the most definitive history of the Palestinian people. Only Ibrahim was qualified for the job, he said. He had an almost reverential respect for Ibrahim Abu Lughod and Eqbal Ahmed. We of course hear you Edward, what you said about writing.

Edward clearly heard, the Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, sing:

I shall not cease to cherish tablet and pen
I will go on recording what passes over the heart
I will go on collecting the attributes of the grief of love
I will keep on pouring bounty on the desolation of the age
Yes, the bitterness of the times will grow still greater
And yes, the tyrants will continue to practice their tyranny.

Given Edward’s immense admiration for the struggle against apartheid which he viewed as parallel to the Palestinian struggle, I can only recall in this moment of my own very personal sadness at Edward’s passing, the passion contained in the words of Don Mattera, that brilliant South African poet who in his Azanian Love Songs, thought of his comrades in struggle elsewhere in a poem called, “Elegy for Beirut.”

Where was I
On that grim night
When the gun-mongers
Danced in the blood
Of Palestinian exiles

Where was I
In only to fling
A handful of stone
At those killers

Blow loud the ramshorn
Snuff out the unholy candles
The dying
Is not over yet
Palestine shall be avenged!

But I also think that for many of us, Edward also wrote our destiny, that the intellectual struggle is one of justice. And above all, his favorite refrain taken from Gramsci shall remain with us: optimism of the spirit, pessimism of the will. Again, I think Mattera had someone like Edward in mind when he composed, “Salute the Warrior.”

The Spear is broken,
Dark streams pour out their contents
Across the barren sands
Where hope lies wounded
And love is a shattered song
               Salute the warrior
               Motionless on the battlefield
               Shorn of life
               Yet living evermore
               He who gave his last
               Gave his sacred best
               That we might be free
               Carrying our load
               He wrote our destiny…
Sleep well my flesh
Congeal the blood
And mark the spot
Where comrades fell
Where riveted hippos shot
Their dum-dum hell
Sleep well my country
It is not over yet
               In the long black night
               We nurse the agonizing seed
               And wait the unfailing dawn
               To inflame the frightened breed
               Who cringe to brutality
               And to murder…
The Spear is broken
And solemn graves
Heavy with the foetus of vengeance
Cry out against the uncaring foe:
               It is not over yet…
               It is not over yet…

Hamba kahle Edward! Hamba Kahle Qhawe Lama-Qhawe (Xhosa expression used to say farewell to the dead: Go well, Edward. Go well, tower of towers!)

Inna lil- lahi wa inna ilayhi raji`un! (Indeed we come from Allah, and indeed unto him do we return-Qur’an)

(Durham, North Carolina, September 28, 2003)

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