/Edward Said, photo via reformancers/
In ten days, on 25th of September, will be twelve years since Edward Said died. This month Middle East Revised will publish excerpts from Said’s books, interviews and films about Said and his work.
The following is an excerpt from Culture and Resistance, Conversations with Edward Said, Interviews by David Barsamian (South End Press, 2008.).
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After you visited Israel, you went to Egypt, where you encountered some parochialism. Did that take you by surprise?
No, because I confronted it before. That is to to say, what you notice amongst Palestinians, whether inside Israel or on the West Bank and Gaza, is a sense of isolation. There’s no question that they live under the shadow of Israeli power. What is missing is easy and natural contact with the rest of the Arab world.
As a Palestinian, you can’t get to any place in the Arab world from Israel or the West Bank and Gaza without going through a fairly complicated procedure, which causes you to think three or four times before you do: crossing the border, you need permits, you go through endless customs. I must say, for Palestinians traveling throughout the Arab world – and this is also true of me, and I have an American passport, but the fact that it says on it that I was born in Jerusalem means that I’m always put to one side – you’re automatically suspected. So traveling and being in contact with the Arabs in the Arab world for Palestinains is very difficult.
More important even that is that very few Arabs who are not Palestinians come into Palestinian territories, and hardly any at all, practically none, go to Israel. One of the themes – and this is kind of complicated thing to explain, amongst the nationalist and radical intellectuals of most Arab countries, which would include the Gulf people, it certainly includes Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan – has been the opposition to what they called “normalization,” tatbee in Arabic, meaning the normalization of life between Israel and, in the case of Jordan and Egypt, Arab states who have made formal peace with Israel.
The peace with Egypt is described, as it is with Jordan, as a cold peace. The peace with Egypt is described, as it is with Jordan, as a cold peace. In other words, ordinary Jordanians or Egyptians, don’t go to Israel, have nothing to do with Israelis. Israeli tourists go to Jordan and Egypt and visit the historic sites in buses for short periods of time. But beyond that, there’s very little in the way of the kind of intercourse, say, exchanges between universities, learned societies, businesses, and so on, that occur between European countries or neighboring countries otherwise at peace in any other part of the world. One of the reasons for this has been the general refused, as an act of solidarity with Palestinians, of these intellectuals to have anything to do with Israel.
The problem this poses for Palestinians, trying to build institutions, is they are being cut off from the kind of help they can get from Arabs. For example, physicians and other medical professionals from Egypt, Syrian, Lebanon or Jordan could come and assist Palestinians in setting up clinics and hospitals. They could be involved in a whole range of activities from administration to the production of pharmaceuticals. But it doesn’t happen because of this stance against normalization. Similarly, university students who read important scholars, journalists, writers, and poets from various Arab countries don’t get the opportunity to meet them.
When I now encounter Arabs and go to those Arab countries, I say to them, especially to to the Egyptians, you can go to Palestine. You can go through Israel, because Israel and Egypt are at peace. You can take advantage of that to go to Palestinians and go to their institutions and help them, appearing, speaking, being there for some time, training them. No, they say, we can’t possibly allow our passports to be stamped. We won’t go to the Israeli embassy and get visas. We won’t submit to the humiliation of being examined by Israeli policemen at the border or their barrier.
I find this argument vaguely plausible on one level but really quite cowardly on the other. It would seem to me that if they took their pride out of it, if they did go through an Israeli checkpoint or barricade or border, they would be doing what other Palestinians do every day and see what it’s like. Second, as I keep telling them, by doing that it’s not recognizing Israel or giving Israel any credit.
On the contrary, it’s going through that in order to demonstrate and be with Palestinians and help them. For example, as Palestinians face the Israeli bulldozers as they expropriate land and destroy houses for settlements, it would be great if there were a large number of Egyptians and Jordanians and others who could be there with Palestinians confronting this daily, minute-by-minute threat. And the same in universities. Well-known writers, intellectuals, historians, philosophers, film starts could go, but they say, We don’t want to have to request visas from the Israeli consulate in Cairo. I said, You don’t even have to do that. You can ask the Palestinian Authority, which has an ambassador in Cairo, to give you an invitation to go to Gaza, and then you can go to the West Bank.
So there are ways of getting around it. It’s not so much only parochialism as also a kind of laziness, a kind of sitting back and expecting somebody else to do it. I think that’s our greatest enemy, the absence of initiative [my emphasis]. We’re always expecting that the Israelis are out there, the Americans, concocting conspiracies, the Ford Foundtion. Many people want to work with these people groups but are afraid to do it publicly. They do it surreptitiously.
And in public they express opposition and say, We are going to remain untouched by this. We are not going to normalize. We refuse to have anything to do with imperialism. We refuse to sit down and plan something that could actually help Palestinians and actually deal with Israel, not as a fictional entity but as a real power that is in many ways negatively affecting Arab life.