Middle East studies in the News
Edward Said's Legacy
by Martin Peretz
Edward Said died three years ago, and some people are in mourning still. But his star in the academy is dimming, although there is still a 15-year backlog of underemployed graduate students who were trained in his flashy glaze. How far can one really go with endless versions of "Imperialism and Demasculinization in the Sahara"? There is something quite desperate in the effort to perpetuate this gloss, as when you try to revive scarred pine floors with polyurethane. In Wednesday's Times there was a review by Jeannette Catsoulis of two documentaries about Said. Alas, it's clear that Catsoulis knows little about Said, almost nothing about his theories and less about the conflict to which he added so much rancor and deceit.
So her article is no less than cloying: There are "scars of dispossession," "meditation on exile," "melancholy," "searching," "modestly buried in a Quaker cemetery in Lebanon," and all this in less than two sentences. She also doesn't grasp who was asking the questions in one of the movies under review, The Last Interview, although she said it "begins to crackle ... when the conversation shifts to Arab-Israeli politics and his involvement with what Mr. Said terms the 'creative chaos' of the Palestine Liberation Organization." Now, the interviewer is Charles Glass, identified merely as a "journalist." He's actually less than a journalist; he's a rhetorical street-fighter against Israel. That's OK. But he certainly wasn't going to ask Said tough questions. About, for example, what in hell Said meant by the PLO's "creative chaos." The PLO was, is a disaster. Because of it, the Palestinians may be farther from having parts of Palestine than any time since before Israel's peace treaty with Egypt, that is, farther than in more than a quarter-century.
One suspects that Catsoulis doesn't even know that Said was an Anglican, and that the Christian slant in Palestinian nationalism is an embittering one, especially if the Palestinian Christian in question was born to the elites. In any case, Said's life as published by himself is made up of facts, half-truths, and irrefutable but meticulously constructed lies. Said rushed into print with a memoir called Out of Place, the name of the other reviewed film. And he rushed into print when Justin Reid Weiner had published a painstakingly precise, even obsessive, examination of Said's life in Commentary (September 1999). I confess it had been sent to me first, and I didn't run it. It was one of my greatest journalistic mistakes in then already a quarter-century of editing The New Republic. The sheer facts amounting to a great truth are so dispiriting, and one is led to the conclusion that Said--whatever his manic genius--was a fraud. No doubt about it. Please read this article. It is an eye-opener and a mind-sharpener.
These three paragraphs above make for a long prelude to what I was going to write about in the first place. That is the thuggish environment that Edward Said left as a legacy to Columbia University. I want explicitly to say that I do not mean Rashid Khalidi who--though I differ with him on many matters of fact and interpretation--has never in so far as I know behaved in non-civil matter either in person or on paper. But this cannot be said for either Joseph Massad, also a Palestinian Christian, or Hamid Dabashi. Massad's case is well-known from his behavior, in class and out, towards Jewish and pro-Zionist students. Even a patsy committee (see here) appointed by the president, Lee Bollinger, had misgivings about Massad, but not really serious misgivings. But is was a patsy committee. Even one of its Jews is known as hostile to Zionism and had signed the Columbia disinvestment petition, a sure sign that on matters touching Israel the signatory cannot be thought neutral. Then, of course, almost the whole committee was palpably biased, and its conclusions confirmed it.
Given other issues that have come up at Columbia, it is finally time to say that Bollinger is a coward. He won't take a stand, and he hides behind the First Amendment to foreclose the question of what is actually proper in an academic institution and what is not. Of course, also, there are many Columbia alumni who are committed Jews, and Columbia exists in the largest "Jewish" city in the world. So Bollinger can't quite walk away from the matter altogether. Watch Columbia now: It will suddenly have over the next few years many additions to its always modest--in fact, impoverished--Israel and Jewish studies offerings. Henceforth, it will be "enriched" this and "enriched" that. These programs are now in the pipeline, because now is the time when they are necessary. Maybe academically necessary? Believe me, this is not motivation. They are needed to cover Columbia's ass ... and Bollinger's, more precisely.
So let me get to Hamid Dabashi, the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and member of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. He is an hysteric, as you can tell from two articles by Daniel Pipes (see here and here). OK, you may not trust Pipes. Too ideological, all that. Why don't you, then, dear reader, just Google Habashi and see what you find by him that is merely sane? He has written an especially vicious attack on Azar Nafisi, author of the stirring memoir about the heavily policed cultural life in Iran, Reading Lolita in Tehran. So where did he publish this invective essay? Not even in the London Review of Books. Did its editors reject it? Where else did he submit? In any case, Habashi got it published in the English-language June 1 (Cairo) Al-Ahram Weekly. This is not exactly a choice venue.
We learn now from an article ("A Collision of Prose and Politics") by Richard Byrne in The Chronicle of Higher Education that Habashi actually wrote his screed "a few years before." Byrne does not tell us why the author kept it in the drawer. But writing put in the drawer is often best left there. Still, it is valuable to see the conjured universe in which some, alas, many Muslim and Muslimophile intellectuals live today. The proximate cause of Habashi's exhumation of this particular writing was another article that also might have been best kept under wraps, that is, if truth had any relevance to the question of whether to print or not to print. It was one of Seymour Hersh's crank caprices in The New Yorker, asserting that President Bush plans to attack Iran's nuclear installations, perhaps with tactical nukes. Now, as everyone knows, the Pentagon has a plan to attack many countries. These are ordinarily far-fetched contingencies. While there may be drawing plans for such an assault on Iran--I think, with good reason--this is no proof of an intention to do it. In any event, Hersh's "evidence," such as it is, proves exactly nothing.
But it did excite Habashi. In retaliation, so to speak, the Hagop Kevorkian professor takes out his big guns and aims at Ms. Nafisi. He actually shoots. But his targeting is so wild that he misses. Nonetheless, it's worthwhile to cite from his text:
Three years after the publication of Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, and right in the middle of a global concern about yet another American military operation in the region, one can now clearly see and suggest that this book is partially responsible for cultivating the US (and by extension the global) public opinion against Iran, having already done a great deal by being a key propaganda tool at the disposal of the Bush administration during its prolonged wars in such Muslim countries as Afghanistan (since 2001) and Iraq (since 2003).
Did you notice that this sentence is 91 words long? And so on from this prelude point:
A closer examination of this text thus reveals much about the way the US imperial designs operate in its specifically Islamic domains.
These are some of the demonic conspiracies, fleshed out in the rest of the text.
And, then, there are Dabashi's sexual explications of America's (and Nafisi's) view of the world. For example: "the Armageddon crumbling of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, more than anything else, staged the vulnerability of the principal imperial memento projecting the cause of the globalised capital--its titular totemic poles, phallic symbols of its monumental potency" He must have been very proud of this sentence. Maybe he thinks it elegant.
Yet another: "The denoted message
The Chronicle article alludes to an interview, "Lolita and Beyond," with Dabashi by ZNet magazine. In it, Dabashi leaves go of his senses. With a tip of his cap to Noam Chomsky, as if what follows were his idea, the Columbia scholar asserts, "To me there is no difference between Lynndie England and Azar Nafisi. But I am trying to see how these two complementary types operate in legitimizing and executing the banality of this empire." Over what kind of a faculty does Lee Bollinger actually preside?
Now, Bernard Lewis is Dabashi's anointed villain in his epic tale of sexual derangement and imperial design. There are far too many virulent adjectives to choose but one or two as examples. You can use the "search" mechanism yourself. By the way, Fouad Ajami, who last wrote in TNR on the late Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, is Dabashi's next most hated scholar.
And now I have entered his universe. In fact, I am first in line on a long list. "If you put Martin Peretz, the New Republic, Bernard Lewis, Azar Nafisi, Benador Associates, Paul Wolfowitz, Fouad Ajami, Amir Taheri, and Leo Strauss' ideas together, what you get is not a conspiracy to write RLT but a collusion of interests that makes the writing of that book beneficial to a whole range of common objectives." Now, I don't know who or what Benador Associates is. So leave it out, unless someone can tell me that it is a private offshoot of the CIA. But the rest of the sentence reads like one of those "objective" intrigues so common in the Stalinist imagination. Every thing fits together. Like in Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. We are all guilty, even the one long dead, he perhaps most of all. But, I am sad to say, I have been derelict. I haven't read much of Strauss, not much at all.
Back to Edward Said. It is true that I seemed to be one of his obsessions. He found ample reason to target me in his books. There is a similarity between Said and Dabashi, between mentor and mentee. The stuff they wrote for the respectable press were kept within some bounds, flimsy bounds, to be sure, of civil discourse. It is true that Said once wrote about Bobby Griffin, a Yale PhD in English, a friend of mine who had played basketball for Tel Aviv Maccabi and went on to teach English literature at Tel Aviv University. It was in response to a response of Griffin to a Said article in Critical Inquiry, a portentous journal. Said succeeded in keeping Griffin's letter out of print for, as I recall, more than two years. Then when it was finally published, Said answered, and through the body of the response called Griffin "this creature." Said once wrote an article mostly about me. It was in The Muslim, a Karachi English-language newspaper, that presumably not many in the States read. In that publication, his continuing allusion to me was as "the New York Jew." I wouldn't be a bit surprised if nobody had ever really read this article, or nobody of any consequence. Except those to whom I showed it.
So it is with Dabashi. He keeps his hands relatively clean in the books he publishes with Routledge. He puts out his contracts, or at least this one contract on Nafisi, in the well-thumbed Al-Ahram English weekly. To use the sexual metaphors so pleasing to Dabashi (and to Said, too), the professor of Iranian Literature and senior member of the Middle East Institute at Columbia had gotten their rocks off in private. That's OK, too. But soon everyone will know. The stain is now there for all to see. This is also Said's legacy. Bollinger will have much trouble tending to it.
P.S. Even before Nafisi published her intellectually and morally galvanizing book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, she had written two articles in TNR. Since Dabashi considers her so evil, you might want to read them. They are here and here.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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