When Words Fail

In memory of Edward Said


The eye sees but cannot tell

The heart knows but cannot say

The mind weeps but cannot cry

Such feelings do no more

than announce such a death


To feel this loss

alone in moments of shared silence
comes closer to words than words

as even apt and precious words

die of grief on our tongue

never to be born

or possibly, stillborn

escaping as if exhaled smoke

escaping as birds streaking south

as autumn vanishes


And yet this loss is far from forgetfulness

the heartbeat of memory lives as before

his words, his passion, his grace
remind us daily of anguished absence

yet equally of haunting presence

as vital as the lives we lead.


When Edward Said died on September 25th I lost a close and beloved friend, and the world lost a powerful and distinctive presence, one of a handful of public intellectuals whose words literally resonated throughout the entire planet. Edward was an eloquent and distinctive voice on behalf of the Palestinian people, but he was also a most gifted interpreter of the interface between culture and politics, especially in the context of the imperial relationship between the West and the world. His book Orientalism is as widely read and discussed as any single book written in the past several decades, brilliantly accounting for the distorted renderings of the Arab world by Western colonial and post-colonial scholars, and indeed, depicting a whole way of mis-representing that has lethal consequences when enacted in political action. Said’s illuminating critique of how to not see “the other” remains of acute relevance, especially during these days of American military preeminence and expansionist ambitions. Never has our citizenry and leadership been more in need of “self-scrutiny,” beginning with the challenge of listening closely to those others whom we seek to subjugate by force of arms.

The originality of Edward Said cannot be separated from his life and work. Perhaps, alone among world class scholars and intellectual figures, Edward as a Palestinian living in the United States, was able to express both the reality of Palestinian victimization and the dangerous reality of the United States with its self-anointed mandate to rule the world. His experience and insight were deeply affected by this interplay between a dual identity as a Palestinian “out of place” (as suggested by the title of his autobiography) and as a widely admired American professor of comparative literature at a leading university, but in fundamental respects, also out of place.

Those of us who had known Edward for a long time were deeply moved by his brave struggle against leukemia for an anguishing period of twelve years. During these years, despite many torments, Edward sustained his struggle and continued to write at a furious pace, and to travel around the world giving lectures to overflowing lecture halls. Periods of exertion alternated with periods of relapse, the disease retreating and advancing in sinister fashion. Toward the end of his life, when asked how he was doing, he would often respond, “It is my anger that keeps me going.”

It would be a mistake to think of Edward only as an exceptional literary scholar or eloquent advocate of Palestinian rights and critic of Israeli and American wrongs. He was, above all, a complete human being, with a range of talents and appetites, and frailties. I heard him perform as a classical pianist at a wonderful concert given at Columbia University. Edward served for many years as the music critic of The Nation, and was especially appreciated for published commentaries on opera. He was a talented squash and tennis player as I discovered to my despair. Edward cared about all facets of life, valuing friendship, collecting fancy pens, delighting in gourmet food, and indulging in playful banter. It was always hard for me to comprehend how one person could be so accomplished in so many different domains of life. Edward’s son, Wadie, delivering the eulogy at his father’s funeral noted that he never understood how his father managed to write so much because he always seemed to be talking on the phone. And it was astonishing and humbling how he managed to keep in close contact with friends and colleagues, as well as a wide array of journalists from around the world, and yet be so productive even during this last period of illness.

Edward’s life, scholarship, and personality are inseparable from his engagement with the struggle of the Palestinian people. Ever since the Oslo years, beginning in 1993, Edward stood outside the Palestinian mainstream by his refusal to see any hope for a just peace emerging from such a one-sided process. I recall trying to persuade him to stand within the debate, but he stubbornly refused, and has been vindicated by subsequent developments. Edward resigned from the Palestinian National Council and rejected the leadership of Yasir Arafat, yet remained steadfast in his commitment to Palestinian self-determination. When all realist voices on both sides were trying to craft the contours of a two-state solution, Edward insisted that only a state that brought the two peoples together in a unified political community could bring enduring peace and justice. Again, his prophetic voice is only recently gaining adherents, as more and more observers on both sides, come to realize that the Israelis have created so many “facts on the ground” as to make it impossible at this point to imagine a workable two-state outcome. What is most impressive to me, however, is not this gift of political insight and individuality exhibited by Edward, but rather his strength of will and character, ignoring on principled grounds the pressures of “responsible” and “reasonable” people. I found this capacity and willingness to stand by unpopular beliefs part of what made Edward such an inspirational figure for me and for so many others.

If we ask about Edward’s legacy, I think it safe to conclude that his such main works as Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism will be read within academic circles for as long as serious cultural and literary reflection persists. As well, Edward is likely to be singled out as an, and possibly as the, exemplary public intellectual of this era, combining first-class scholarship with lucid media commentary on the great events of the day. And finally, Edward’s role in articulating the Palestinian struggle, while appreciating the need to safeguard the future of the Jews in Israel, was a characteristic of his approach that was not appreciated by extremists in either camp. I was struck at the funeral that the great Israeli pianist, David Barenboim, was the only person listed on the formal program who was not a member of the Said family, contributing three beautifully rendered musical works. It was a final expression of Edward’s extraordinary combination of passionate engagement with his even more extraordinary insistence on reconciliation and empathy with the supposed enemy. Edward is gone, but he and his work will not be forgotten.

A line from the great Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, perhaps best summarizes both Edward’s life and his legacy: “What use is our thought if not for humanity.” [from “The Hoopoe,” Unfortunately, It Was Paradise] And in a more personal final note, I would endorse the spirit of another line of poetry, this from May Swenson: “Don’t mourn the beloved. Try to be like him.” Edward’s last words to his children was to carry on with the struggle, and in some attenuated sense, I would like to think that we are all Edward’s children!

*Richard Falk is chair of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara.