Ten years after his death: remembering Edward Said and his quest for a just peace

Edward Said died ten years ago – September 25, 2003, after a twelve-year battle with leukemia.  One of the 20th Century’s great intellectuals, Said, author of the masterworks Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism, was also a beloved professor to generations of students at Columbia University, a gifted amateur pianist and an opera critic for The Nation magazine.  He was perhaps best known for his fierce defense of the rights of his people, the Palestinians, in numerous books and hundreds of essays and articles published worldwide.

September also marks another fateful anniversary – the 20th, of the now-infamous Arafat-Rabin handshake on the White House lawn, which sealed the Oslo accords.  The legacies of Oslo and its greatest critic, Edward Said, stand as polar opposites.  Indeed, it was Said who was among the first to sharply criticize the accords, in part because, unlike many satisfied pundits of the day, he had actually read them.  For this reason, his widow Mariam told me, he had declined a White House invitation to attend the ceremony in September 1993.  Today his words on Oslo are the soundings of a prophet.

“What Israel has gotten is official Palestinian consent to continue occupation,” Said wrote in “The Middle East ‘Peace Process’,” an essay in Peace and its Discontents.  “[A] kingdom of illusions, with Israel firmly in command.”  He wrote these words in response to “Oslo II,” of 1995, when Israel’s full military control of the West Bank shrank slightly, from seventy-two to sixty percent – the same as today, 18 years later.  Indeed his earlier concerns, written four days before the White House ceremony he had declined to attend, were born out.  “The ‘historical breakthrough’…leaves Palestinians very much the subordinates, with Israel still in charge of settlements, East Jerusalem, and the economy,” Said wrote in the Guardian and Cairo’s Al Ahram Weekly.  “Israel will control the land, water, overall security, and foreign affairs….  For the undefined future, Israel will dominate the West Bank, including…almost all the water and land, a good percentage of which it has already taken.  The question is, how much land is Israel going to in fact cede for peace?”

You are forgiven if it seems these words were written last week.  In the two decades since Edward Said wrote them, a succession of would-be peacemakers have recycled their failures an a diplomatic “Groundhog Day”:  Same old ideas, same failed “process.”

Yet Edward Said, despite the frequent vitriol of his critics (Commentary dubbed him “Professor of Terror”), was not an opponent of peace per se. He was, rather, an advocate of a just peace.

In 1998, nearly five years into the Oslo process, Said began investigating alternatives to the peaceful and just coexistence he deeply believed in for all of the people between the river and the sea – the Jordan and the Mediterranean.  This conviction led him into a friendship with the Argentine-Israeli conductor and pianist, Daniel Barenboim, which resulted in their founding the West Eastern Divan orchestra.  Today, ten years after the death of Edward Said, the Divan remains popular with audiences in the U.S. and Europe.  But with the spirit of rapprochement long faded from the Holy Land, the orchestra has fallen out of favor with many Palestinians.  Indeed, some of the orchestra’s Arab musicians have left out of frustration that the Divan is unwilling to make a unified public statement against the occupation of the Palestinians.

What follows is an excerpt from my forthcoming book (due out in fall 2014), tentatively titled Children of the Stones. The excerpt focuses on Edward Said’s determination to find what he called “an alternative way of making peace.”  The account is based on multiple interviews, video footage, secondary and first-hand accounts, including Tania Nasir’s remembrance in Al Ahram Weekly.


Children of the Stones

Excerpt © 2013 by Sandy Tolan

Edward’s skepticism of the peace accords deepened in the Spring of 1998, when he traveled across Israel and Palestine for an autobiographical film produced by the BBC to mark the 50th anniversary of the creation of Israel and the Palestinian “Nakba” (Catastrophe) of 1948.  One day he went to a rubble-strewn field where, hours earlier, a Palestinian home had been demolished by Israeli bulldozers.  “Every day, every hour, every minute for fifty years, and it’s continuing,” a visibly anguished Edward told the film crew.  Behind him, an old man in a checkered keffiyeh knelt beside the fallen stones outside his former home, praying to Mecca.  “Look, the little bits of plastic, the little logs, the bit of railing here, a tin can crushed here,” Edward said.  “These are the atoms out of which the tragedy of Palestine is constructed.”  Edward paused repeatedly, short of breath, holding back tears.  “It’s very very hard for me to stand here talking about it…when I see my own people going through this…without any relief, without any sympathy or support from the so-called civilized world. And we hear about the peace process, but who is protecting, who is giving these people peace?”

Edward had been battling leukemia for nearly seven years, and probing urgently for an “alternative way of making peace.”  Encounters like this drove him deeper into the search for new ideas.  He remained convinced that one day, Palestinian independence was inevitable  — just not through Oslo.  “Palestine and Palestinians remain, despite Israel’s concerted efforts,” he wrote.  “As an idea, a memory, and as an often buried or invisible reality, Palestine and its people have simply not disappeared.”  As he traveled the Holy Land that spring, Edward encountered artists, politicians and intellectuals on both sides who shared his views, and who were willing to try new things to put them into action.  This alternative thinking, he believed, should focus not on the details of a flawed agreement, but on bringing together the two peoples on equal footing.

In his search for alternatives based on equality, Edward had found a kindred spirit in Daniel Barenboim, the Israeli musician who had become his best friend, and with whom he traveled that spring. “We must do something for our people,” Daniel would tell Edward again and again.

Edward was in East Jerusalem, at the American Colony hotel, excited to share his ideas, and his friendship with Daniel, with his friends in Palestine.  He picked up the phone and got an outside line.  “Tania,” he said when he heard the voice on the other end.  “Keefek?  Keefcom? How are you and Hanna?”

Tania and Hanna Nasir were old friends of Edward and his wife, Mariam.  Edward and Hanna went back to the days of Palestinian West Jerusalem in the 1940s, before the war of 1948 resulted in the flight and expulsion of Palestinians from the western portion of the city.  Later, the two couples knew each other in the Palestinian diaspora, most recently in Jordan, where Hanna, the president of Birzeit University in the West Bank, lived in exile for nineteen years after his expulsion by Israel.  He’d been charged with “security violations” following protests at the university against Israeli rule. In the early days of Oslo, as a high-profile gesture of reconciliation, Israel had allowed Hanna to return.  When he crossed over the River Jordan and onto home soil for the first time in nearly two decades, Edward and Mariam had been watching the historic event on television.  That evening, from New York, they called their old friends in celebration.

Now Tania and Hanna were back together in the home they had shared with their children before his exile.  It was the same house in which Hanna’s Christian family had established the Birzeit Higher School in the 1920s.  That school would evolve into Birzeit University, eventually under Hanna’s leadership.  Hanna’s sister, Rima Tarazi, was a co-founder, and his nephew, Suhail Khoury, the new director of the Palestine National Conservatory of Music (the Mahad), which was established under the auspices of the university.  Tania, trained as a soprano, collaborated frequently with Rima, a pianist, on Palestinian songs of liberation, set in a classical vein.

Now Edward had a proposal for Tania, with whom he shared a deep love of classical music.

“Tania,” Edward said from his room at the American Colony, his voice energized and urgent.   “I am here with my close friend Daniel Barenboim. He is a wonderful man, a great human being.”  Tania knew of Daniel’s reputation as an advocate for the Palestinian cause.  As a musician, she had long been familiar with Barenboim, and she knew the two men had become close friends.  “It was part of the general atmosphere of people seeking rapprochement,” she recalled.  Edward had taken a stand against the Oslo accords, but nevertheless, a sense of possibility was in the air.  “It was all part of our inner dialogue: to where will this lead us?”

Now, Edward was suggesting, it could lead Tania to a concert hall in West Jerusalem.

“Daniel is giving a concert this weekend in West Jerusalem,” Edward told her.  “You’re invited, Tania.  We want you to come.”

Tania paused, unsure of how to respond.  Under different circumstances, she would have said yes immediately. She wanted to preserve the remnants of positive feeling she and Hanna had felt since their return from exile, despite the growing violence and expanding settlements – including one on the hill just outside her living room window.  But attending a concert in West Jerusalem would be a huge leap.  She’d been born there nearly fifty-seven years earlier, in 1941, but hadn’t been back in decades.  She was not allowed, in fact, to go by the authorities.  Even if she obtained a permit, crossing from occupied territory to the land of her long-time enemy might be more than she could handle.

Tania believed as a musician that the arts could be a vehicle for understanding.  But with the facts on the ground being what they were, she did not feel comfortable traveling to West Jerusalem, now part of another country, when that country still held her people under occupation.  The situation was not normal and she did not want to suggest by going to Israel that it was.  Still:  Why should she decline to attend a piano recital in West Jerusalem by one of the world’s great musicians – and a defender of her people’s rights – on the invitation of her dear friend, Edward Said?  What purpose would that serve?

Tania promised Edward she would think about it.  She trusted and believed in Edward, and admired that he was trying to open new possibilities.  “Edward was hungry,” she recalled.  “He wanted to know what could change.  There was this feeling that we could push for something.  His friendship with Daniel was part of this.”  Tania felt she owed it to Edward, and to Daniel for his invitation, and to herself, to find out what this was all about.

Soon she called Edward back, and found herself not only accepting the invitation to the concert, but inviting Edward and Daniel to dinner at the family home in Birzeit.


The guests arrived in the early evening, walking into a family room of twelve-foot cross-vault ceilings and foot-thick plaster walls draped with Palestinian embroidery, and framing an upright piano, above which hung Nasir family photos dating back to the 1930s.  Persian carpets covered the red-tiled floors.

Daniel, Edward and their hosts settled into couches, sipping Arak and snacking from plates of grape leaves and candied almonds.  Daniel asked about Hanna’s experience of deportation and exile.  In November 1974, the university president explained, following the demonstrations of his students, he was arrested, handcuffed, blindfolded, place in a van with other deportees, and “driven for seven hours towards an unknown destiny.”  Soldiers removed the blindfold and told Hanna he was in Lebanon.

“And then you moved to Jordan?” Daniel asked.

Yes, Hanna replied.  In exile.

Tania noticed the concern on Daniels’ face.  She was struck by his respectful, probing questions.  She told him about the years of shuttling their children back and forth between Birzeit, where their family was determined to remain present, and Amman, where their father now lived.  They needed travel permits, which required multiple stamps of approval from various occupation authorities.  “From the municipality, the police station, the ministry of education, the tax center, whatever,” Tania said.  “I would sometimes have to do this over several days, because you’d have such long lines, and all this waiting.  And all of a sudden there would be a soldier there, and someone would be out of line, or if whimsically he would just decide that we had misbehaved, he would start scolding us like children, and kick us all out.  I would have been waiting for three or four hours, from the morning.  ‘We’re finished now.  Come tomorrow.’  That’s when you really feel occupied.  And there was a fear inside you, that he would never stamp your permit, so you would shut up.  And I would burn inside, because I had to get to Amman, to my husband, to the children, who had to go back to school.”

At the Allenby Bridge at the River Jordan, the dividing line between the West Bank and the kingdom of Jordan, “we would wait for eight hours, the children would have no food, no water, no diapers, no changing.  I would be terrified if they would find a piece of paper in the children’s clothes, like a chocolate wrapper or something.  And then they would send you all the way back to the end of the line.  They knew it was chocolate, but it was an excuse: ‘You never know what’s on that piece of paper.’”

When Oslo arrived, Hanna said, as a kind of confidence-building measure in the peace process, Israel allowed him to come home.  Tania went to Amman to accompany him, and Hanna made a point of saying that he would never cry and kiss the ground upon seeing Palestine again, like so many of the more sentimental refugees had done.  The moment they crossed the Jordan and reached Palestinian soil, however, Hanna leapt from the bus in tears, kneeling down and kissing the ground.  “Right on the bridge!” Tania laughed.  “He was the first to go down from the bus!”

In nearby Jericho, throngs of jubilant Birzeit students cheered their president’s triumphant return.  She and Hanna returned, Tania said, in a “genuine spirit of hope and reconciliation.  We shared a sense of cautious joy.”

Five years later, the hope was dimming, Tania said, amidst an “avalanche of militancy and violence,” and the ever-expanding settlements.  She pointed through the living room’s twin arched windows.  Daniel looked to the southeast, beyond the darkened palm and cypress trees, to the bright yellow lights of a hilltop settlement a mile away.

Throughout the cocktail hour, and over a dinner of stuffed chicken and red wine, Tania sensed Edward’s pleasure at being with friends from both sides of the divide.  He was listening intently; he knew all these stories, but his friend Daniel did not.  “This was the first time I was confronted with people who had lived such a destiny,” he said years later.  “I was very, very moved by that.”

Politics dominated the evening, but music was never far away.  Hanna’s sister Rima, was a co-founder of the Palestine National Conservatory of Music. In the future, Daniel would play concerts there.  Now, Edward and Daniel were in the nascent stages of a grand project – something that would focus on musicians from both sides, in a way that could promote a just peace and show what was possible.  This was the idea.

The project still hadn’t taken shape.  But soon Daniel would be considering an invitation by the city of Weimar, Germany, to play as part of the 250th birthday celebration of Goethe, a son of Weimar.  Goethe sparked Edward’s sense of the possible. Unlike the “Orientalists” he regularly skewered as representatives of Western imperial and military domination, Edward saw Goethe as the epitome of a Westerner reaching out to understand the “other.”  Goethe began his inquiry into Islam and the Arab world after receiving a torn page of the Koran from a returning German soldier in the early 19th Century.

Such an inquiry, Edward believed, represented what could be possible, two centuries later, as a kind of parallel alternative to what he saw as a collapsing peace process.  No place would be more appropriate for this than Weimar, where the currents of high culture and terrible history swirled together.  It had been home to Bach, Liszt, Wagner, Nietzsche, and the death camp at Buchenwald.  The Weimar invitation excited the imagination of the two friends, and soon they would begin thinking about bringing together young musicians from across the Middle East.

It was close to midnight by the time Edward and Daniel rose to leave and summoned their driver for the ride back to Jerusalem.  Again, Daniel extended his invitation to Tania to attend the concert the next night in West Jerusalem.  Tania assured him she would be there.  There was risk involved, everyone knew – if caught trying to enter Israel without a permit, Tania could be arrested.

Late the next afternoon Edward sent a taxi eight miles north from Jerusalem to Birzeit.  Tania climbed into the back alone, heading for the first time in decades to the city of her birth.  Hanna had also lived in Jerusalem as a child, and as she rode, Tania recalled his old haunts:  the Cinema Rex, the coffee shops, the YMCA, where he played tennis and studied Arabic typing, where his family attended concerts by the Palestine Symphony, and where the Palestinian musician Salvador Arnita gave his organ recitals.  Now, without a permit, Tania would recall, “I had to come to Jerusalem in secrecy.  I had to infiltrate it like an outlaw.”

Alone at the piano, Daniel played the first notes of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony in B minor, the Pathetique.  Tania began to weep.  She longed to disappear into the music, and for moments, she would, only to be gripped by doubts over whether she should have agreed to come.

An hour later, after Daniel had played the last notes of Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor, the audience rose in a standing ovation.  Tania and Edward rose, too.  Daniel walked forward, closer to the audience, spoke briefly in Hebrew, then switched to English.

“Last night I was in the West Bank, at the home of a Palestinian academic, who has recently returned from an unjust twenty-year deportation by the Israeli government,” Daniel said.  “He and his family received me not just as a friend, but more as a member of the family.”

Tania was astounded.  She and Edward looked at each other.  What was Daniel trying to say?  It was silent in the auditorium.  Daniel stood in the small pool of light, speaking into the darkened hall.  He spoke of peace and justice, and of the need to end the suffering on both sides.  Suddenly Tania heard him say:  “I am happy to have my Palestinian hostess of last night with us here this evening.  She has accepted my invitation to come to Jerusalem, despite prohibitions and many reservations.  To thank her, I would like to dedicate my encore to her.”

Edward was embracing Tania.  “Only Daniel can do it,” he said.  “Only he has the guts.”  Tania was overcome with emotion, which only grew deeper as Daniel sat down at the piano to play a Chopin nocturne.  As a child, Tania had danced to the nocturnes.