Edward W. Saʿid A German-Egyptian Memory

Decolonisation – An image of cartoon character Handala is seen depicted on a rock of the Gaza port at sunset,
The cartoon character Handala on the breakwaters of the Gaza Strip, next to a line by Mahmoud Darwish “On this earth what makes life worth living”, 10 April 2015. The boy Handala, created by Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al-Ali in the late 1960ies became a symbol of Palestinian defiance. Handala stopped growing at the age of 10, the age when the artist was expelled from Palestine. In Arabic, the plant “al-handal” refers to the bitter apple, desert gourd or vine of Sodom. Mahmoud Darwish was one of the closest companions of Edward W. Said. | Photo (detail): Mohammed Saber © picture alliance / dpa

Though it was hardly the career his family had envisioned for him, Edward Said’s critique of a ubiquitous Eurocentrism and the infamous knowledge-power nexus in “North-South” relations has shaped disciplines across the board and beyond the humanities.

By Sonja Hegasy

“Edward Said loved music, and I loved his love of music, as well as the musicality that characterized everything, he did.”

Teju Cole in “A Quartet for Edward Said”

In 1989, freshly arrived at Columbia University, I had to smuggle myself into Edward Said’s first seminar in Cultural Studies at Columbia University. There were simply too many students who wanted to audit his course. I keep a cassette from those days. To hear Said’s musings on audio today might be nothing special in the digital age with its countless interviews and recorded lectures on YouTube and other sites. Worse, my cassette is hardly audible. But gluing to an old cassette recorder allows me to relive the atmosphere of the class, the laughter, the passion for the literature we read and some loud door banging by latecomers. The distinct voice – as any voice from the past - does the rest to revive my memories: Edward Said was a charismatic person - never arrogant nor detached. It would have been difficult not to notice his stylish outfit in class, and I would not have mentioned it here, were it not for Teju Cole who admitted (his own term) that as an impoverished student at Columbia University he first noticed Said’s suit and noble figure and that he was awed by “the flash of glamour, a glamour present each time I caught sight of Said’s noble figure on campus.” (min. 0:50-60)

Ability for self-correction

One quality, that comes to my mind, was Said’s interest in and - more important - ability for self-correction. Since my early studies, I have been interested in thinkers who fundamentally revise their own theory-building later in life; something that is not very common. Edward Said engaged in detail with his reviewers, answered their critique and re-thought his theories in a continuous exchange with their positions. This can be seen well in his article “Traveling Theory”, in which Said asks what happens to a theory once it moves out of its original context. Said sets out to examine the transtemporal and translocal entanglements of theories and argued that in travelling they are often domesticated and stripped of their original force. I was never convinced that a theory loses its rebelliousness when it moves out of its original context – quite the contrary. Where many see a process of “commodification” or even “Disneyfication” at work with Western cultural globalisation overriding local ideas and unifying the world, I am rather interested to investigate the creative part, because people universally like to take “things” in and at the same time shape them with their own original imprint. So it was rewarding for me to read many years later, how Said altered his approach to “Traveling Theory” incorporating how it can be enriched and fused with life and originality exactly outside of its original context.

A “music buff” 

Many people do not know that Said was in fact since 1986 the music critic of the US-American weekly The Nation. More than 50 reviews give us an introduction into one of Said’s obsessions and what a “music buff” (Mariam C. Said) he was. Said was highly influenced by the German composer, philosopher, musicologist and founder of the Frankfurt school Theodor Adorno. He uses Adorno'sanalysis to cognise what composers like Pierre Boulez and Arnold Schoenberg or performers like Glenn Gould intended to do or what they reacted to. Reading these reviews today, draws you into a parallel world: we can see the young András Schiff through Said’s eyes at Carnegie Hall in 1989.  At the same time, we can see and hear Sir András Schiff today at the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin. This is a fascinating game of shifting perspectives (Vexierspiel, I like to call it) that Said has left for us. The lesson he and Daniel Barenboim as co-founders of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra insist on, is that we learn from music that one voice is nothing without the other. Counterpoint “makes music more beautiful”, we hear. Music accepts dissent and subversion, says Daniel Barenboim. But can this really be transposed from music to the political sphere?

Out of Place

Edward Said lived to see the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and died on 24 September 2003, half a year into it. Misinformation about Iraq continues Said’s seminal work on Covering Islam. How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World. The arc from 1981 to today’s continuously increasing Islamophobia and the way the media still base their reporting on well-known stereotypes and the expected is obvious. The tank drivers heading towards Baghdad in 2003 were listening to combat playlists to prop up their willingness to fight, ease their own fear, and subdue their pain. Music, like Touchdown by T.I. and Eminem or Indestructible by Disturbed, was a constant during their deployment.

Said’s memoir Out of Place (first edition in 1999), which he started writing after his diagnosis with leukemia, is itself a work of “late style”, I would say. Said took this term from Adorno to examine what happens to an art work towards the end of the life of its originator. What aesthetic quality do these works develop? “[W]hat of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution but as intransigence, difficulty and unresolved contradiction? What if age and ill health don’t produce the serenity of >ripeness is all<?”, Said asked (in: On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain.p. 7) His own memoir is in fact not more intransigent than his other works, but it is a keystone in the project of retaining first-hand narratives of forced displacement, lost land and “non-existing people”. This endeavour was worth for him to change the genre. The memoir gives us a rare glimpse into a contemporary witness of the 1948 nakba (catastrophe) from the perspective of a 12-year-old. Out of Place only covers Said’s childhood and teens until the end of his education in the United States. It is important to bear this generational trait in mind. Today, after the so-called nakba law of 2011, which entitles the Israeli Ministry of Finance to divest public money in case an entity uses it for (amongst other stipulations): “Commemorating Independence Day or the day of the establishment of the state (of Israel - author's note ) as a day of mourning”, voices that can tell the event of the Palestinian expulsion are more indispensable than ever for the generations to come.

The family silenced the nakba at home, so that he heard almost nothing about what had happened in Palestine except that he could remember himself: Palestinian refugees flocking into Egypt and his aunt Nabiha taking care of them. In many instances in the book, he recalls that his mother kept news from the children saying they should not ‘break their little heads over this or that’. However, concealing the expulsion of one’s own people surely was more than simple “news”. Edward Said recounts family silences more than once in his memoir:

“The subject of Palestine was rarely talked about openly although stray comments by my father suggested the catastrophic collapse of a society and a country’s disappearance. […] It seems inexplicable to me now that having dominated our lives for generations, the problem of Palestine and its tragic loss, which affected virtually everyone we knew, deeply changing our world, should have been so relatively repressed, undiscussed, or even remarked on by my parents.”

Edward Said: “Out of Place: A Memoir”. p. 116, 117)

Said was a chief critic of the Oslo Process. Today, his views on the Oslo process read like the most apt comment on the present situation of Israel and Palestine. “How Do You Spell Apartheid? O-s-l-o”, published in Ha’aretz in 1998 for instance ties directly into the debates that exploded (one needs to call it this way) in 2020 in Germany around Achille Mbembe’s criticism of Israel’s occupation. Mbembe and Said obviously speak well to each other. One should recall Said’s words in Ha’aretz: “Zionism appealed to a European audience for whom the classification of overseas territories and natives into various uneven classes was canonical and “natural.” That is why, for example, every single state or movement in the formerly colonized territories of Africa and Asia today identifies with, fully supports and understands the Palestinian struggle.” In this vein Mbembe (and others) search for ways of civil disobedience to counter the occupation. Would for example a call for a boycott similar to the boycott against South Africa under apartheid be a legitimate option? Or would that rather remind us (that is in particular the German but also the global memory community) of the boycott of Jews and Jewish businesses in Nazi Germany after 1 April 1933? With two resolutions by the German Bundestag over the last three years, which set a frame to easily defame criticism of Israel’s policies as anti-Semitic, Achille Mbembe, who had been awarded many important prizes in Germany, suddenly was treated as a pariah: From winner of the Geschwister-Scholl Prize to “Holocaust relativiser” seems to be a short but elegant road in Germany these days. Obviously, it did not take long till Edward Said (who is not well known in Germany outside university circles) was defamed in the German printing press. Said’s article “How Do You Spell Apartheid? O-s-l-o” reminds us of the historicity of the term "apartheid" within the Israeli-Palestinian context as well as the networks of solidarity stemming out of the 19th and 20th century.
  • Decolonisation – Edward Wadie Said, Portrait © Bruni Meya /picture-alliance / akg-images
    Edward Wadie Said, Portrait 1999. The US-American literary scholar of Palestinian origin was born in Jerusalem in 1935 and died in New York in 2003.
  • Decolonisation – Syllabus of the Seminar in Cultural Studies taught jointly by Jean Franco and Edward Wadie Said at Columbia University in 1990. © Foto: Sonja Hegasy, Montage: Tobias Schrank / Goethe-Institut
    Syllabus of the author from the Seminar in Cultural Studies taught jointly by Jean Franco and Edward Wadie Said at Columbia University in 1990. Jean Franco was the first Professor of Latin American Literature in England and joined Columbia University in 1982. Said was Professor of Literature at the English and Comparative Literature faculties from 1963 till 2003.
  • Decolonisation – Conductor Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra at the final concert of the US tour in Los Angeles on 11 November 2018. © Manuel Vaca
    Conductor Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra at the final concert of the US tour in Los Angeles on 11 November 2018. The origins of the West-Eastern Divan lie in the conversations between its founders, Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim. Over the course of their great friendship, the Palestinian author/scholar and Israeli conductor/pianist discussed ideas on music, culture and humanity. In their exchanges, they realized the urgent need for an alternative way to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
  • Decolonisation – The Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  Richard Drew © picture alliance / AP Photo
    The Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York
  • Decolonisation – Media representatives photograph traces of the damage to a sarcophagus of the Prophet Ahmose at the Neues Museum in Berlin. On Berlin's Museum Island, around 70 works of art in the Pergamon Museum, the Neues Museum, the Alte Nationalgalerie and other locations were splashed with an oily liquid on 3 October 2020. Recording date 21.10.2020 Bernd von Jutrczenka © picture alliance/dpa
    Media representatives photograph traces of the damage to a sarcophagus of the Prophet Ahmose at the Neues Museum in Berlin. On Berlin's Museum Island, around 70 works of art in the Pergamon Museum, the Neues Museum, the Alte Nationalgalerie and other locations were splashed with an oily liquid on 3 October 2020. Recording date 21.10.2020
During his lifetime, Said incessantly addressed all sides of the conflict through Hebrew as well as Arabic media. It would, for instance, take little courage to write in the New York Times: “We must recognize the realities of the Holocaust not as a blank check for Israelis to abuse us, but as a sign of our humanity, our ability to understand history, our requirement that our suffering be mutually acknowledged.” However, Said wrote this in 1998 in the widely circulated pan-Arab daily newspaper al-Hayat.
Decolonisation – Handala, a Palestinian national symbol of the “right of return” in Palestinian culture Handala, a Palestinian national symbol of the “right of return” in Palestinian culture | © Naji al-Ali
Last but not least, among the reviews he wrote, I stumbled across one which resonated especially with me: “Egyptian Rites” published in New York’s Village Voice (Said would probably be blogging today). Which “rites” did he mean, I wondered. He actually reviews here the Metropolitan Museum’s new Egyptian wing with the complete Temple of Dendur on display and a film series accompanying the exhibition’s opening in 1983. Said wrote:
“Egypt isn’t just another foreign country; it is special. Everyone has some acquaintance with it, whether through photographs of Abu Simbel, busts of Nefertiti, school courses in ancient history, or images of Anwar Sadat on television. Historical characters—Cleopatra, Ramses, Tutankhamen, among many—have been drafted for service in mass culture, and they continue to exist and function as symbols of passion, conquest, and wealth complicated by an exotic remoteness that remains attractive in the late twentieth century.” (The World, the Text, and the Critic,1983, p. 43)
I like the “everyone” at the start of this review. Pictures of the pyramids always from the same outbound angle, Nefertiti or Nofretete, as the Germans call her, in Berlin, and Tutankhamun (real or as a replica) are today among the best-known global icons, who remain in a gluey and already deadly spiderweb of foreign ascriptions. On 3 October  2020, during German Unity Day, unknown vandals damaged Egyptian and further artefacts in the New Museum in Berlin with an oily liquid. We do not need to refresh the memory of Edward Wadīʿ Saʿīd – current circumstances do this for us.
Sonja Hegasy, Berlin, December 2020
I thank Teju Cole for providing me with this script and Roni Mann for her comments on an earlier version of the text.
– Sonja Hegasy, Berlin, December 2020


  • Teju Cole, A Quartet for Edward Said. 7 April 2018, Berlin. 
  • Teju Cole, „A Quartet for Edward Said“, In: Black Paper (University of Chicago Press), forthcoming 2021.
  • Mike Dibb: Edward Said: The Last Interview. First Run/Icarus Films, 2004, 120 Minutes.
  • Edward W. Said: On Late Style: Music and Literature against the Grain. New York: Vintage Books, 2006, p. 7.
  • Edward W. Said: Out of Place: A Memoir. Berlin: Berlin Verlag, 2002, p. 186f. Translated from English by Meinhard Büning.
  • Edward W. Said: The World, the Text, and the Critic. Harvard University Press, 1983, p. 43.
  • Edward W. Said: “Traveling Theory”, In: Die Welt, der Text und der Kritiker. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1997, p. 284f. Translated from English by Brigitte Flickinger.
  • Edward Said: “Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims”. In: Social Text, 1 (Winter, 1979), pp. 7-58.