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Sonia Nettnin: Edward Said - The Last Interview

Edward Said: The Last Interview

By Sonia Nettnin

The film is an interview with the late Edward W. Said -- a writer, critic, political activist, teacher, scholar, and passionate spokesman for the Palestinian people.

Said is open, honest, articulate, expressive, and compelling. The interview feels like a conversation, intimate and personal. He answered challenging, political questions thoroughly…he spoke from his heart.

British journalist Charles Glass interviewed Said less than a year before his death.

Glass asked Said questions about exile, his life in America and Palestine. They talked about his incurable leukemia and how it affected his daily life. Despite the side effects of infections and treatments, Said worked on his writing and several projects. “I find it very difficult to turn myself off,” he added.

When the tragedy of 09/11 happened, Said felt he did not have the staying power to handle the media. He needed his friends.

Perhaps Said’s personal experience is a part of a larger context: the Arab-American experience after 09/11. Some Americans attacked the Arab-American community and many people showed their anger and resentment publicly. In difficult times, people must stay together. Otherwise, how can we find peace?

Said loved teaching and people can still learn from him. This last interview is not his final talk – it is just the beginning.

Memoir, Music and Exile

Said liked counterpoint. He said he became obsessed with it. Counterpoint is where two melodies – instrumental or voice - combine together. However, Said interpreted asymmetry in counterpoint, which would make it irreconcilable. Said’s affinity for this interpretation makes sense. For fifty years, he lived in exile in America. Yet, he longed for his family and his life back home.

When he was 15, Said moved to America to retain his inherited American citizenship. He was told he had to live in the United States for five years before he was 21 years-old. Later, they found out this stipulation was unconstitutional. Nevertheless, Said’s transatlantic move away from his family was a major turning point in his life. Said was in shock. He missed his family and the Arabic language.

During the summers, he flew to Cairo to be with his family. He dreaded leaving them. During Christmas and Easter, he stayed with relatives in New York.

However, Said made connections with people and he read extensively. At the age of 14, Said read works from Danish philosopher and theologian, Soren Aabye Kierkegaard, English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and Plato. He was fond of 18th century Neapolitan Latin scholar Giovanni Battista Vico. The works of writer Joseph Conrad haunted him.

Said’s wife, Mariam, changed his life. She helped him re-establish contact with the Arab world.

Said’s memoir, Out of Place, helped him clarify his own ideas. The memoir details his experiences in schools and how he discovered self-reliance through education. He grew up in colonial Egypt and Palestine, where he developed his interest in language and in music.

“I had a certain gift for self-expression, for articulation,” he said.

When he was seven, his father moved the family to Ramallah, where they rented a house. During this time, his father instilled the work ethic and he stressed the importance of tasks. As a result, education was top priority. Said lived the expression: “There was always something I should have done that I hadn’t done.”

With regards to music, Said had a gift. By the age of two, he learned forty to fifty folk songs and nursery rhymes. He learned piano. During opera season, the San Carlo Opera Company, performed in Cairo.

His exposure to music in early life helped Said with his musical development. Later in life, his friendship with music composer, conductor, teacher, and pianist, Daniel Barenboim, was instrumental as well.

“I had perfect pitch,” he said. “I had perfect memory.” He talked about his photographic memory, especially when it involved his library.

For Said, music and literature opened up unique landscapes.

Academia, Myths and Exile

Said remembers 1967 as a devastating year. It was the year of the six-day Arab-Israeli war. Said was in New York, where people walked down the street and asked: “How are we doing?” The question demonstrated the alliance of the U.S. and Israel.

Said experienced the library of clichés about Arabs. When he graduated from Princeton University in 1957, he remembers a gathering where people “dressed” like Arabs. They portrayed Arabs barefoot with their hands in the air. The idea was that Arabs were “primitive” and defeated into submission (thus Conrad’s Heart of Darkness takes on many forms).

Nevertheless, Said felt the battle for representation of Arabs in the West. His scholarly research led him back to the Middle Ages, where he explored the depiction of Muhammad in Dante’s work.

During a lecture at the University of Michigan in 1974, he discovered another explosion of myths about Arabs. His fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford birthed his phenomenal work Orientalism. Trained as a comparatist/comparator (people who study literature from different languages, cultures and literary canons), Said fulfilled one literary mission. Said’s counterpoint is that he wrote as a Western scholar, but the animus of his literary achievement was narrative accounts from the outside and his personal experience as a Palestinian. Up to that point in time, most literary work imposed a reality on people that did not render their own experience. In essence, Said demystified the “Other.”

When he talked about teaching, Said said: “for me, it’s terribly important.”

Said never taught politics in the classroom and popular literature was not on his syllabus. His writing was always important. With the Internet, Said had more access to the Arab world. His attraction to difficult subjects helped him focus on hard politics. He explained that writing should provoke people and stimulate resistance. The question of Palestine has a human dimension, which involves a relationship to the Palestinian people and a responsibility for their well-being.

Palestine, Politics and Exile

The Arabic word, samoud, means steadfast.

By staying in America, Said contributed to the Palestinian cause. He could address the injustices through the media, his work and his teaching. Moreover, he became a member of the Palestine National Council.

When the PLO emerged in Jordan in the late ‘60s, it made it possible for Said to go to the Arab world. During one sabbatical, he lived in Beirut. Said traveled to South Africa and he visited the late PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat in Tunisia. He brought people from America with him to speak with Arafat about negotiation strategies with U.S. officials. Despite disheartening conflicts, Said was determined. He persevered. In difficult times, people rise above the situation and take the high road.

In 1988, he could not enter Israel because of his PNC membership. After he resigned in 1991, he visited the West Bank. Said saw empty space full of barbed wire and soldiers.

While in Hebron, he witnessed land confiscation and tree razing for the expansion of a settler road. He confronted the soldiers. They stated it was in the name of progress. He saw tents destroyed and explained how it was heart-wrenching. Israeli attacks are the same dialectic as suicide bombings: they are two inhuman ideologies at work.

With regards to political negotiations, Said stressed that Palestinian leadership must know the land. The cantons of land for Palestinians are not contiguous for a state.

Said explained that Israelis and Palestinians should live together as equals. They cannot define the state by ethnos or religion.

“You cannot ignore the presence of people,” he said. “To decide by Draconian means…is fantasy.”

The alternative bloodshed is no longer an option. Said believes no one should be thrown out because the Palestinians can negate themselves. He said:

“One does not lose one’s ambitions that there are still avenues you can leave behind for people.”


This film is an ICA Project.

In Chicago, November is Arab Heritage Month. The Gene Siskel Film Center with Arte East and the Arab-American Action Network Arts Council sponsored the screening of the film.


Sonia Nettnin is a freelance writer. Her articles and reviews demonstrate civic journalism, with a focus on international social, economic, humanitarian, gender, and political issues. Media coverage of conflicts from these perspectives develops awareness in public opinion.

Nettnin received her bachelor's degree in English literature and writing. She did master's work in journalism. Moreover, Nettnin approaches her writing from a working woman's perspective, since working began for her at an early age.

She is a poet, a violinist and she studied professional dance. As a writer, the arts are an integral part of her sensibility. Her work has been published in the Palestine Chronicle, Scoop Media and the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. She lives in Chicago.


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