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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

December 05, 2002

Edward Said CRASSHes.

Enough Said. Wherein the clever professor is exposed as fakir
Edward Said, celebrity professor and advocate for Palestine, has just ended a stretch at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities—acronym CRASSH—at Cambridge University in England. Between his lectures on "The Example of Auerbach's Mimesis" and "Return to Philology" (serious people never left it), Said huddled in his rooms to settle an old score with the Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya. The result is an emission that is truly breathtaking for its sheer hypocrisy.

The Said-Makiya feud is more than a decade old, and it's not easy to map all its labyrinthine passages. So here is a crib note. Makiya, an Iraqi who first found politics in the bosom of the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, later went into exile and set about exposing the regime of Saddam Hussein. His book, Republic of Fear, shattered the complacency surrounding the Iraqi regime, bringing evidence that situated Saddam and his gangs outside civilization. A subsequent book, Cruelty and Silence, brought more evidence of Saddam's crimes, and also served an indictment against Arab writers who either swooned before the Iraqi dictator, or didn't see his misdeeds as sufficient cause for America to act. (For more, see my review of the book.)

Palestinian "intellectuals" beat loud drums for Saddam; some of them played shrill flutes against American intervention. Edward Said was the first flautist. In the fray, Makiya accused Said of sacrificing the Iraqi people to the unappeasable god of "Palestine first." Said in turn denounced Makiya as a traitor to the mother of all Arab causes. The feud later subsided, but the current U.S.-led drive for "regime change" in Iraq, coming as it does in the midst of yet another Palestinian drama, has gotten Said stirred up again—and against Makiya. That's because it's hard to read a major newspaper, or listen to National Public Radio, or even thumb your favorite magazine, without bumping into Kanan Makiya. One reason: Makiya is prominent in the "Democratic Principles Working Group," composed of some 30 Iraqis who belong to the State Department’s "Future of Iraq Project." This has enraged Said to the boiling point; in his column in the Ahram Weekly, he boils over. Take a deep breath, and read it.

Makiya doesn't need me to defend him, and I won't. I'm more interested in the patent hypocrisy of Said's charges. He hardly makes an accusation against Makiya that couldn't be made—usually with more justification—against himself. I'd describe it as a suicide character-bombing.

For example, Said tells us that that before Makiya went into exile, he was "an associate of his father's architectural firm in Iraq." That firm did business with the regime. In the next paragraph, Said steals second base: Makiya was a "beneficiary of the Iraqi regime's munificence." By the end of that paragraph, Said has stolen home plate: "Makiya himself had worked for Saddam." It's a crude spin on a typical case of son-works-for-dad. And the irony here is that Said's own father, a Cairene businessman, also kept his son in the office, and compromised him. In fact, according to Said's own memoirs (p. 289), he signed a business contract for his father that criminalized him. "For the next fifteen years," writes Said, "I was unable to return to Egypt because that particular contract, and I as its unsuspecting signatory, were ruled to be in contravention of the exchange-control law." So shall we visit the sins of businessmen fathers on their sons? If we were to apply Said's severe judgment of Makiya to himself, we would have to include money laundering among his past occupations. (On Makiya's tortured relations with his father, see the chapter "Oedipus in Samara" in Lawrence Weschler's Calamities of Exile.)

Said then announces that Makiya "never wrote in an Arab country...whatever meager writing he produced had been written behind a pseudonym and a prosperous, risk-free life in the West." And just where in the Arab world would it have been safe for Makiya to have written and published Republic of Fear under his own name? Come to think of it, has Said ever written in an Arab country? Said told an interviewer in 1989 that even were a Palestinian state created, he wouldn't live in it. "It's too late for me," he said. "I'm past the point of uprooting myself again." "I could have gotten a job at Bir Zeit," he later said. "But I realized this is something I cannot do. My fate is to remain in New York.
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