Said, a comparative literature professor at Columbia, was a literary critic and theoretician and a prominent Palestinian activist. He died on Thursday after a battle with leukaemia.
“With his departure, humanity has lost its eminent genius who had actively contributed to every cultural, intellectual and creative fields,” said Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) executive committee in a joint statement.
Arab commentators said he would be remembered as a Palestinian patriot and a towering intellectual who broke ground in the theory of literature and Orientalist studies.
His theory of Orientalism said that false and romanticized images of the Middle East and Asia were used to justify Western colonialism and imperialism there.
“He distinguished himself as an advocate of human rights and believed in free thought and its enlightenment,” said the statement published by the Palestinian official press agency Wafa.
His “important and active role” within the Palestinian national movement as a member of the Palestinian national council – the Palestinians’ parliament in exile – between 1977 and 1991 was noted in the statement.
It failed to mention that Said had quit the parliament in 1991 because of Arafat’s rapprochement with Israel.
“Said maintained an active and important status in the Palestinian national struggle,” Arafat said.
With his friend and collaborator, the Jewish musician Daniel Barenboim
Supporter of the one state solution whereby Israelis and Palestinians would live together rather than in two separate countries, Said first denounced the 1993 Oslo peace agreement between Israel and the PLO as “an instrument of Arab surrender” and publicly asked for Arafat’s resignation.
Annan admired passion
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan “always enjoyed his company, savoured his wit, and admired the passion with which he pursued his vision of peace between Israelis and Palestinians,” chief UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said.
Friends recalled Said saying in recent months he was “not dead and not alive” as doctors increased his chemotherapy.
“We lost a peak of Arab intellect,” said Abd al-Wahab al-Badrakhan, deputy editor of the leading pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat in London. “Edward Said set himself apart by knowing the feelings of the street. He articulated the basis for Palestinian patriotism and added to his fundamental rejection of Zionism the idea of Palestinian-Israeli coexistence.”
In Jerusalem, senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said, “I am so sorry that he died before seeing the Palestinian people free and liberated.”
The Palestinian Authority representative in the United States, Hassan Abdel Rahman, said that Said’s attacks on Arafat did “not in any shape or form take away from his place in Palestinian history and society.”
Abd Allah Schleifer, head of the Adham Centre for TV Journalism at the American University in Cairo, praised Said for denouncing suicide bombings but said he failed to highlight Arab suffering elsewhere in places like Iraq: “He was unable to see problems in other parts of the Arab world, such as the massacre of Kurds and Shias.”
Said fought for a single state solution to the Israel-Palestine problem
Danny Rubinstein in the Israeli center-left paper Haaretz wrote that “his influence far exceeded the Palestinian and Arab question and marked new directions in the study of the Orient, Islam and perhaps the developing world at large.”
He said Said had “many Israeli acquaintances and had many Jewish friends in the United States. However, among the American Jewish establishment, he was considered public enemy number one.”
Tom Segev in the same paper recalled Said’s fervent opposition to “terrorist attacks in Israeli cities.”
“But he was not against Palestinian attacks against Israeli soldiers,” he wrote.
“The Israeli media remembers him especially for having thrown a stone on the Israeli-Lebanese border a few years ago. And in his brilliant and somehow escapist way, he said it was joke.
“Well aware of the power of symbols, he signed a petition against Holocaust revisionism,” wrote Segev.
Haaretz stressed his well-advertised opposition to Arafat.
And Israeli left-wing rights activist Uri Avnery said his death is “a great loss. There is no second Edward Said. He always impressed me by the seriousness and richness of his thought.”