Opinion: No one today is purely one thing


Published: 09-24-2023 6:00 AM

Robert Azzi is a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter. His columns are archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com.

While T.S. Eliot argued in “The Waste Land,” that “April is the cruelest month ... mixing memory and desire ...” I would argue that September, in my experience, often fits that definition.

September is when I first left the United States to travel and explore the world of my origins, lands my parents sailed from; The Levant and its neighbors where I discovered a world of extraordinary diversity, beauty, and conflict previously unknown to me, worlds that today form the core of my memories and desires.

Where I learned, as Palestinian American public intellectual, literary critic, and Columbia University Professor Edward Said wrote, that “No one today is purely one thing. Labels like Indian, or woman, or Muslim, or American are not more than starting-points, which if followed into actual experience for only a moment are quickly left behind.”

September is the month my father, a union organizer, celebrated Labor Day; a month, too, when my younger brother and mother died, seemingly within days of each other.

Each September I remember my daughter’s first day of school and celebrate all she has become, all she has shared with me. I remember the look on her face just before she got into the car to be driven to her first day of classes, remember that she and her family are not “purely one thing.”

It is a month where memories of Black September, the Munich Olympics Massacre, Sabra and Shatila, the Oslo Accords, and 9/11 flood my consciousness, and I recall how each tragedy shaped and reordered my memories and desires in ways that persist to this moment.

Today, Sunday, September 24, 2023, I remember my friend Edward Wadie Said who died on this day 20 years ago.

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He, too, was not purely one thing.

I first met Edward over coffee in the early 70s in Lebanon at the home of a colleague and friend, the late James Markham, the New York Times Beirut bureau chief.

It was five years before he published “Orientalism,” in which he demonstrated how Western Orientalist prejudices, ideologies, writing and art not only shaped the world they described but stereotyped Middle Easterners as unworthy, ignorant and inferior, as when he wrote, “Arabs, for example, are thought of as camel-riding, terroristic, hook-nosed, venal lechers whose undeserved wealth is an affront to real civilization.”

“Always there lurks the assumption,” he continued, “that although the Western consumer belongs to a numerical minority, he is entitled either to own or to expend (or both) the majority of the world’s resources. Why? Because he, unlike the Oriental, is a true human being.”

We met 20 years before he wrote of the secretly negotiated Oslo Accords, perceived by many as a betrayal on Palestinian national aspirations, in the London Review of Books:

“... With its well developed institutions, close relations with the US and aggressive economy, Israel will in effect incorporate the [occupied] territories economically, keeping them in a state of permanent dependency. Then Israel will turn to the wider Arab world, using the political benefits of the Palestinian agreement as a Springboard to break into Arab markets, which it will also exploit and is likely to dominate.”

Today, evidenced by Israel’s continued colonization and appropriation of Palestinian territory in occupied East Jerusalem and The West Bank, Edward Said could not have been more prescient.

Edward, himself living in exile, was speaking truth to power and too few people were listening.

Edward, as he later wrote in his autobiography “Out of Place,” believed that “Being myself meant not only never being quite right, but also never feeling at ease, always expecting to be interrupted or corrected, to have my privacy invaded and my unsure person set upon.”

Edward, in the end, whether one agreed with him or not, whether one admired his sartorial expressions or not, taught us to be attentive to disharmony, to discord, to do the hard work of being truly human.

I get that — and I miss him.

This September, as I witness the rise of book bannings, renewed assaults on educators, the dismissal of science, the denial of bodily autonomy to women, and the attempted exiling, marginalization, and disenfranchisement of the Other, of communities of color and LGBTQIA+ peoples, all by people who want to focus on their own identities and prejudices to the exclusion of people unlike themselves, I fear for the nation that once educated and empowered a public intellectual, living in exile in America, who felt free to speak truth to power.

Free, whether we agreed with him or not.

This September I mourn the loss, as Rumi describes them, of “...secret places inside this violent world where [lovers] make transactions with beauty.”

This September I mourn, too, those who stubbornly believe we can be purely one thing.

On October 17, 2002, five months before the United States invaded Iraq and 11 months before he succumbed to leukemia Edward wrote in The London Review of Books, “‘We’ know who ‘we’ are”:

“As someone who has lived my life within the two cultures, I am appalled that the ‘clash of civilizations’, that reductive and vulgar notion so much in vogue, has taken over thought and action. What we need to put in place is a universalist framework for dealing with Saddam Hussein as well as [Ariel] Sharon, the rulers of Burma, Syria, Turkey and a whole host of countries where depredations are endured without sufficient resistance. The only way to re-create or restore this framework is through education, open discussion and intellectual honesty that will have no truck with concealed special pleading or the jargons of war, religious extremism and preemptive ‘defense’.”

If only we could recognize who ‘we’ are.

“No one today is purely one thing.”