Introductory Remarks for Edward Said

Peter Schmidt
Swarthmore College, April 28, 2002
Celebration of the Music and Poetry of
Marcel Khalife and Mahmoud Darwish

On behalf of Swarthmore College and everyone in the audience, I welcome to this campus the world-class poets, musicians, and intellectuals who are our guests today. I greet all members of the audience, those who came a few steps and those who came great distances, those who are merely curious or skeptical and those for whom these artists are as dear as their own life’s blood. I also would like to thank the Lannan Foundation, the Office of the President of Swarthmore College, and the Swarthmore College staff for making possible this event.

Professor Edward Said of Columbia University will introduce the others on our program, Marcel Khalife and musicians, the poet Mahmoud Darwish, and the poets and translators Naomi Shihab Nye and Carolyn Forché. Before I say a few words about what brings Professor Said here today I would like to pay homage to Swarthmore’s Quaker heritage and make a statement of first principles, a guiding inner light for an event such as this. We need to pause and look within ourselves. Institutions and nations need to look for a guiding light, or else they begin to lie to themselves.

One of the functions of a liberal arts college in a democracy is to teach us to ask dangerous questions. I do so now not as a spokesperson but as an individual and a U.S. citizen. Consider these ideas from Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, words that we have heard so often we have perhaps forgotten how to listen to them: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men….” How well does current U.S. foreign policy honor these principles? The U.S. government and corporate media portray our Middle Eastern policies as neutral, rational, honorable, and fair—forever urging intractable foes toward something we mysteriously called “the peace process.” Yet, if so, why does the U.S. government demand that one side be nonviolent, while to the other it says, please do not use our weapons so much? Are we in this College and in this country having a truly democratic discussion about how U.S. taxpayers’ money is being spent in the Middle East? During the next two hours or so, while we are enjoying speeches, poetry, and music, about $1 million will flow from the U.S. treasury to one particular Middle Eastern country, $3 billion a year, far more than any other nation in the region receives. [cf. Jimmy Carter, The New York Times, 4-21-02, Op Ed, p. 13.]

Edward Said’s Orientalism, his history of how Western colonialism justified itself, and Covering Islam, his critique of contemporary Western media, teach us to beware of authorities who claim neutrality and objectivity and then act otherwise. Professor Said has posed similar challenges to the rich Arab states, asking why they have not done more with their oil wealth to promote democracy and Palestinian rights, or to narrow the gap across the Arab world between the rich and the poor. Here are some other imperative questions for us all. Can any homeland’s security be built on an escalating cycle of violence and colonization? Is not the temptation of a military solution a kind of modern golem—a mechanical monster—that will eventually turn on its makers? And where can we find the strength to answer those who claim that in the Middle East terrorism exists only on one side of the conflict, or that co-existence is impossible because Judaism and Islam supposedly have so few values in common?

Those of us here who want not to choose sides but to seek solutions know that the arts and the life of the mind always play a crucial role in creating a just peace. The great U.S. poet William Carlos Williams said, “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.” I also cite Edward Said, from his book Representations of the Intellectual: “I think the major choice faced by the intellectual is whether to be allied with the stability of the victors and rulers or ... to consider that stability as a state of emergency threatening the less fortunate with the danger of complete extinction.” Professor Said adds, the real intellectual must “take into account the experience of subordination itself, as well as the memory of forgotten voices and persons” (35).

Poetry—and the arts in general— are homeless; they “dwell in possibility,” as Emily Dickinson said. The best art gives voice to facts and truths that are not allowed to speak in other media. Poetry and the other arts may restore a people’s memory, recover their tragic dignity. They make a space of freedom where risks may be taken, perseverance recovered, authority challenged, healing begun.

In the past month or so in the Philadelphia area, at a Sufi mosque on Overbrook Avenue, more than 100 people—Muslims, Jews, Christians, and others—came to read poetry and discuss what might be done for peace. At another event, the Arab American writer Elmaz Abinader and Kathryn Hellerstein, a Jewish studies professor and poet at the University of Pennsylvania, came onstage together to read the poetry of Jewish and Arab American women. [Philadelphia Inquirer, 4-9-02, p. A12]. Yet as I invoke these examples of daring, shared vision, I tell you that the Sakakini Arts Centre in Ramallah, where Mahmoud Darwish has an office, was vandalized during the recent invasion: windows shot up, books dumped from shelves, paintings and sculpture trashed. Ministry buildings for Finance, Public Works, and Education have been attacked, and destroyed are whole archives of property, tax, marriage, and birth records, plus computer and telephone networks. Even as a recent poll found that 52% of Israelis support the Saudi Arabian peace plan, the cultural and social infrastructure of Palestine is being deliberately obliterated. [email from Sarah MaGuire of the U.K., translator of the Palestinian poet Zakaria Mohammed, after contact with him, 4-16-02; Trudy Rubin, “Torn Curtain,” Philadelphia Inquirer 4-24-02, A19; Martin Merzer, “Israeli Soldiers Accused of Vandalism,” Philadelphia Inquirer 4-24-02, A1, A8.]

Edward Said has discussed brilliantly and without academic jargon all the issues I have mentioned and more. He has the multi-cultural literacy of a truly global citizen. Conrad and Nietzsche, Vico and V.S. Naipaul, Austen and Woolf, Hemingway and Mahfouz, Melville and Malcolm X, Um Kalthoum and Tahia Carioca, Lukacs and Foucault, James Baldwin and Johann Sebastian Bach, Constantine Zurayk and Ghassan Kanafani, even Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Tarzan movies—Edward Said has written insightfully about them all. Plus meditations on the importance of cities, or travel, or reflections on exile and the honor of lost causes. Professor Said has visited Swarthmore before, in the early 1990s, when he spoke to a packed house from this very stage.

I leave you with these words. The late poet Agha Shahid Ali—may he rest in peace and live in song—liked to describe himself as Kashmiri-American-Kashmiri. Ali too was a poet moved by the pain of a land and a people under siege (his native Kashmir). Ali paid special homage to one of the artists Edward Said will now introduce. Here are two couplets from a ghazal published in 1997, near the end of Ali’s life:

The only language of loss left in the world is Arabic—
These words were said to me in a language not Arabic.
From exile Mahmoud Darwish writes to the world:
You’ll all pass between the fleeting words of Arabic.
(The Country Without a Post Office, 73)

Please welcome back to Swarthmore College Edward Said.