Edward Said’s last book, “From Oslo to Iraq and the Road Map,” published posthumously following his death last year, highlights the dangers of shaping a book out of otherwise unedited newspaper columns: what is perfectly palatable in small doses becomes far less appealing when consumed in large quantities.
“From Oslo to Iraq” is useful mainly because of its first chapter, “Palestinians Under Siege,” Said’s masterful explication, along with the requisite maps, of the topography of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These physical alterations to the Palestinian landscape, now most dramatically illustrated by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Great Wall currently snaking its way across the West Bank, constitute what Israeli sociologist Jeff Halper has aptly dubbed a “matrix of control” over the Palestinian people.
Said’s essay, and his maps, expose the absurdity of many of the arguments routinely presented in defense of Israeli actions, such as Alan Dershowitz’s ridiculous formulation that he is opposed to the “occupation of people,” but not to “occupation of the land.” They also demonstrate how deeply entrenched the occupation has become and how complex it would be to dismantle its infrastructure.
The rest of Said’s book consists mainly of his columns from Al-Hayat and the English-language Al-Ahram Weekly, which were certainly not among his finest works. Said returns time and again to themes which were already fully developed in his earlier writings: the suffering of the Palestinians and the nobility of their resistance; the atrocious leadership of Yasser Arafat; and the culpability of the Americans, the Europeans and the Arabs.
There is little to argue with, but almost nothing new either. Long sections of the book are mind-numbingly repetitive, in a way in which the original columns, because they came out periodically in newspapers, were not. The effect is like pouring endless teaspoons of syrup into a large beaker and then expecting people to drink it as they would a glass of beer. One can only assume that, had he lived, Said would have ensured that this effect, which is not to be found in any of his other books, would have been attenuated.
In spite of the extraordinary elegance of much of his prose, like many polemical writers Said was capable of creating a hectoring effect, making even the most sympathetic reader feel oppressed by righteous indignation. His penchant for hyperbole makes repeated appearances, as in his characterization of U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as Bush’s “psychopathic henchman.” Almost any other pejorative would have better described him, and many would have been accurate.
However, two of the columns in “From Oslo to Iraq” do reflect Said at his finest, and it is surely no coincidence that they were both written, back-to-back, in October 2001 in response to the terrorist attacks in the United States and their aftermath. One of the pieces, “Adrift in Similarity,” demolishes in a few short sentences entire discourses in both the Western and Islamic worlds where “hugely complicated matters like an identity and culture exist in a cartoon-like world where Popeye and Bluto bash each other mercilessly.” And can there be any doubt that Said’s plea for the development of “a new secular Arab politics … without for a moment condoning or supporting the militancy (it is madness) of people willing to kill indiscriminately” is as urgent today as when it was written three years ago?
“From Oslo to Iraq” chronicles the final stage in one of the most interesting aspects of Said’s career and intellectual development: his relationship with Palestinian nationalism. He was among the first to call for a two-state solution in the late 1970’s, and then among the first to turn his back on it in the mid-1990’s. Indeed, in most of his writing over the past decade, he has argued that partition of Israel-Palestine under existing circumstances is unworkable, both politically and because of the changing geography he described in “Palestinians Under Siege.”
Instead, Said advocated a binational state for Jews and Arabs that could transform rivals into partners and allow each to express their national identity without excluding or oppressing the other. Said had the intellectual integrity to admit that this was not, as others have disingenuously suggested, a return to previous Palestinian nationalist positions that envisioned a “secular, democratic state” which was also somehow “Palestinian and Arab” at the same time.
Instead, Said spoke in terms of Israelis and Palestinians transcending their ethno-nationalist identities. Unfortunately, neither he nor any other of the small group of thinkers on both sides of the divide who embrace this frankly utopian vision have been able to give us the slightest idea of how such an arrangement might work in practice – let alone how to get from here to there. As it stands today, binationalism exists only as an exceptionally ambitious project to change the way millions of different people think about their societies and the world around them.
Among the most fascinating passages in “From Oslo to Iraq” are the moments where one sees the visionary and the idealist reverting to the rhetoric of partition: “The only negotiations worth anything now must be about the terms of an Israeli withdrawal from all the territories occupied in 1967.” In another column from October 2001, Said demands a return to negotiations, and writes that “the great failing of Oslo must be remedied now at the start: a clearly articulated end to occupation, the establishment of a viable, genuinely independent Palestinian state, and the existence of peace through mutual recognition … have to be stated as the objective of negotiations, a beacon a shining at the end of the tunnel.”
American neoconservatives call this effect “being mugged by reality.” One can read in Said’s essays the ongoing tension between a desire to advocate an essentially undefined political agenda of binationalism and the lure of existing political structures Said understandably despised for being dysfunctional, but which, at least, are real. In the end, his break with the idea of partition and the end of the occupation as the primary goal of the Palestinian national movement was not as absolute as it sometimes seemed.