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A Mentor Who Mastered Speaking Truth to Power
By Vera Ghattas Baboun
During the spring semester of 1992, I was one of three Palestinian students attending the Modern Critical Literary MA course at Hebrew University. On that day, as the discussion on Foucault’s Truth and Power was completed, our lecturer introduced Edward Said’s The World, the Text, and the Critic, and ended her introduction on Said by saying, “The attending Palestinian students will definitely feel proud now, and unquestionably, it is well-deserved.” My initial recollection of Edward Said’s name is always linked to that day and that particular comment by an Israeli scholar in the middle of an Israeli academic institution; a place where I was and will ever be considered the “Other.” In that instance, I felt the right to be the “One.” Whether my feeling was legitimate or not, I simply sensed it, and I will ever owe it to our most prominent Palestinian national advocate, secular critic, and humanist scholar, our Palestinian, Edward Said.
On September 23, 2011, our President Mahmoud Abbas audaciously addressed the world in the United Nation’s General Assembly emphatically emphasising the right of every Palestinian to have a decent living and a deserved independent state. Every Palestinian in Palestine and the diaspora was mesmerised in front of their TV screens, listening to how Abbas was speaking “truth to power,” exemplifying the core idea that Said diligently spent his scholarly life writing and lecturing about. Overwhelmed by the sincerity of the moment, I wondered what would have been Said’s reaction if he lived to witness this particular moment of truth?
In 1932, Said was born to a well-off Palestinian Jerusalemite Christian family that owned its own business in Egypt. Said spent his early life moving between both locations. Expressing his consequent displacement, Said reflects:
My father was from Jerusalem, but he was rather strange…we were always on the move… year in Egypt, part of the year in Palestine…my father had American citizenship, and I was by inheritance therefore American and Palestinian…I too, was this strange composite.
Said’s sense of displacement and being a “strange composite” was deepened in the aftermath of the 1948 war. Like many Palestinians, Said started another experience of displacement and dispossession; he lived an exiled life in the United States, though he was considered an American citizen. However, this exiled life was a double-edged sword. Though exile connotes loss and marginalisation, for Said it was a space for the exiled to live the double-consciousness of at least two cultures. Exile created a “plurality of vision” that paved the way to his secular theoretical discourse of “worldliness,” whether in his political, theoretical, or even cultural interpretation. Said emphasised the way that “exile sees things both in terms of what has been left behind and what is actual here and now.” In other words, “the sense of loss,” as Said points out, “is both deep and unremitting, but it is a sense of loss from which empowerment emerges.”
Said’s emerging “plurality of vision,” and the political realities that he lived had substantially affected his considerable contributions that he made to the emerging school of postcolonial studies through his book, Orientalism. Living the paradoxes of his complex identity as an American and an uprooted diasporic Palestinian, he could easily understand “the complex identities of diasporic and postcolonial peoples throughout the world today.” This ardent sense of complexity and paradox enhanced his capacity to speak truth to power, whether to his American government as he criticised it on numerous occasions, or as he spoke against the Oslo Accords, thus speaking his truth against his own national leaders. “Speaking the truth to power,” says Said, “is no panglossian idealism: it is carefully weighing the alternatives, picking the right one, and then intelligently representing it where it can do the most good and cause the right change;” a change that can only emerge when and if a human, secular, and “worldly” coexistence emerges.
In this diasporic and highly professional location, Said went through a creditable and significant transformation in his life at the moment he “began to construct himself as a Palestinian, consciously articulating the sense of a cultural origin which had been suppressed since his childhood and diverted into his professional career.” In 1978, almost eleven years after the 1967 Israeli-Arab war, Said wrote his groundbreaking trilogy, Orientalism (1978), The Question of Palestine (1979) and Covering Islam (1981), focusing his concern for the state of Palestine and the roots of his national plight. His sense of nostalgia, dispossession, resentment, and displacement in his diasporic location is genuinely expressed in the most nostalgic reflection he ever wrote, which was included in After the Last Sky (1986):
Identity-who we are, where we come from, what we are-is difficult to maintain in exile…we are the ‘other’, an opposite, a flaw in the geometry of resettlement, an exodus. Silence and discretion veil the hurt, slow the body searches, soothe the sting of loss.
However, Said the critic, the intellectual, scholar, and the advocate could never resign himself to silence. He could not do anything but master speaking truth to power. His trilogy of texts, mainly Orientalism and The Question of Palestine, are the best textual representation for such a speech. In Orientalism, which is translated into thirty-six languages, including Hebrew, Said does not only produce a prominent and global text in the field of postcolonial studies, but simultaneously reflects a notion of “worldliness,” reflecting Said’s “experience of living in the United States, where the ‘East’ signifies danger and threat” this “is the source of the worldliness of Orientalism,” as Said points out. Orientalism calls for “a new kind of dealing with the Orient, as if the binary between the “Orient” and “Occident” were to disappear altogether.
In this sense, Said links the Palestinian invisibility not only to the Zionist propaganda, but also to the emerging binary of West/East, Occident/Orient that constitutes the discourse of Orientalism. This discourse has indeed enhanced and supported the hegemonic Israeli Occupation, which is mainly derived from the “entrenched cultural attitude toward Palestinians deriving from age-old Western prejudices about Islam, the Arabs, and the Orient,” and which Palestinians themselves, as Gunn points out, have often concurred in their own derogation and invisibility. However, in his last speech in front the United Nation Assembly, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas deconstructed the Palestinian “derogation and invisibility” by adopting Said’s notion of speaking truth to power and demonstrating how “power operates in knowledge,” the main argument in Said’s Orientalism.
Whether the Palestinian plea in front of the United Nation for a permanent state is honoured or not, vetoed or not, Palestinians have exerted the power of utterance and expression against their “derogation and invisibility;” a power which could never have been exerted without the Palestinians’ knowledge of the nature of their audience in its disparity, affinity, support, or even denunciation.
Vera Ghattas Baboun is a lecturer of English Literature at Bethlehem University, a researcher in GRACE Network for Gender Research Through the Use of ICTs, as well as a lecturer on gender issues. Recently, she became the principle of the Greek Catholic Patriarchate School in Beit Sahour. Vera can be reached at email@example.com.