What consolation is there for the passing of a great man? He does not leave behind a great void—rather a heaviness of spirit, a weight almost unbearable that mercilessly seems to crush the heart and render each breath an ordeal.
But Edward Said was not just a great scholar, a brilliant mind, a creative artist, an ardent nationalist, an advocate of justice, a free spirit, an unrelenting force for integrity, an uncompromising fighter on behalf of human dignity, and all the other sets of superlative depictions that he so aptly deserves.
Edward was amazingly human, vulnerable in his larger-than-life status to all the personal pain and doubts that beset ordinary mortals, and never too self-preoccupied to let you gain entry to his life unnoticed.
He had a spring in his step and an almost-electrical spark in his gestures as he lectured us on literary criticism on an early visit to AUB, with Edward not much older than his student audience, Beirut, late 1960’s.
He had a tremor in his voice and excitement in his tone as he articulated the Palestinian Declaration of Independence, imbuing it with Palestinian authenticity and universal applicability, Algiers 1988.
He had sorrow in his heart at the passing of his friends—Iqbal Ahmad, Ibrahim Abu Lughod—and he grieved openly at their loss.
He had tears in his eyes when he told us that he had just been diagnosed with Leukemia, London 1991/92.
He had a ring to his laughter and a sparkle to his smile when he celebrated friendships that he never failed, nor they him—Abdel Muhsen Qattan, Shafeeq el-Hout, Hasib Sabbagh, Said Khoury, Rashid Khalidi, Daniel Barenboim, and many, many more.
He had a sharpness to his anger and moral indignation at the “indignity” of Oslo and the immorality of corruption in leadership.
He had a thunderous impatience with the obtuseness and deliberate ignorance of most Western media who insisted on reducing reality to an inane sound byte or a tepid dose of processed language.
He had a gentle identification with the oppressed and an intimidating rage against the oppressor, a warm embrace for the victim and a cold rejection of the culprit, a love for the post-apartheid South Africa and all that its struggle stood for, and a total loathing for discrimination, racism and the degradation of human life and rights.
He had the sharpest of ironic wits with which to deflate the most pompous of fools who were foolhardy enough to think that they could deceive or sustain their vacuous sense of self-importance.
He had the warmest sense of pride and love when talking about Wadi’ and Najla, the children who always filled his life, and Mariam, the gentle wife whose love was never in question.
He had a raging thirst for the recognition and validation of a human narrative to vindicate the almost unbearable suffering of the Palestinian people and to render them part of an inclusive human experience.
He had the integrity and compassion to extend recognition to the horrific suffering of the Jewish people and the unspeakable pain of the holocaust, and simultaneously to demand of Israel recognition of its own culpability for the plight of the Palestinian people.
He had the courage to seek solutions and alternatives, constantly on the lookout for a younger leadership, a mentor for those with promise.
He had the good humor not to take himself too seriously, accepting the burden of his fame and public adulation with humility, and granting his name to numerous Boards of institutions including MIFTAH and PICCR.
He had the restlessness of spirit that was singular to those whose “here and now” were too vast and swift to be accommodated by mundane space and time.
He had the energy of a man aware of his mortality, squeezing life out of every second, refusing to allow the dreaded disease to frame his space and time or to form his “context.”
Edward had a global/human context, a Palestinian context, a personal context. To me, he was mentor, brother, close friend. He was notes on my dissertation, phone calls on the Palestinian condition, hurried meetings in conferences or other public events around the world, and those rare relaxed visits in New York or Ramallah.
He was the Edward taking time off to have a home-cooked meal, sitting with the family around the table on the veranda overlooking the western hills of Ramallah, nibbling at food and conversation in a relaxed almost sleepy manner, shedding the intensity of his greatness for the luxury of being “at home” with friends.
Edward may have been “out of place” as his personal narrative encapsulated this unique form of Palestinian displacement, but he has always been “in place” for those of us who dared to take his genius and friendship for granted.
In addition to the unbearable burden of his death, we have to bear the knowledge that we had never been prepared to accept it.
For a man who has been described as “the conscience of Palestine,” his ultimate absence requires the greater affirmation of all that he had represented, both in the consciousness of a nation and in the hearts of those who loved him.