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Anna Furman: Meeting Edward Said

Imagining a meeting with the post-colonial scholar.

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Image courtesy of the author

By Anna Furman

Ed and I would visit the farmer’s market on Sundays. We’d walk along Broadway, across the asphalt, littered with corn husks, and take in the late-summer heat in all its rank, sticky beauty. He in pursuit of the perfect pomegranate, I in search of a half-decent avocado. The two of us New York transplants, seeking out the fruits of our respective homelands: he an olive-treed (and freed) Palestine and I the orange grove-dotted Central Valley.

I’d watch as his pupils scan the horizon, carving out little spaces for Jaffa oranges from the bayarat, Battiri eggplants, carmel boxes, simsim—those round sesame cakes dipped in that tangy mixture of thyme and suma, durra—boiled corn sprayed with salt. I’d find his tenacity of conscience—a tenacity to locate the voids around him and fill them with a hybridized, postcolonial sense of self—to be the quality most compelling about his character. Ed is a memory-rich man, I’d tell myself, early on in our walks. He carries memories he may not know first-hand, but has absorbed in service of a greater purpose, a collective cultural history.

One Sunday a new vendor would appear from behind the familiar flanks of sourdough rolls and loaves of rye. Ed would make express note of the change while observing a precariously positioned bread plate, full of samples that are, fittingly enough, neither here nor there. He’d always track these sort of things—banal bits that could be ripe with metaphor, if peeled back just so. Meanwhile I keep my own internal log, a comically shallow and flimsy list of banalities compared to his: I watch the rain clouds pass overhead, count the beads of sweat accumulating on the small of my back, imagine how many text messages I’ve received.

I imagine he’d speak to me as if guiding script across a page: elegantly, skillfully, without error.

After buying our lunches we’d turn East, walking towards campus. We’d pass under those loopy wrought iron gates, slicked black from years of morning dew and fresh coats of paint and the promise of a new class of students. The crowded, fruit-dense streets of 114th and 115th would loom behind us, as tangible and unreal fragments. And then we’d find ourselves on the library steps, sitting within a comfortable distance of one another. The sun high above us, sweat gathering along his brow, he’d take out sunglasses and a small notebook from a shirt pocket.

I imagine he’d speak to me as if guiding script across a page: elegantly, skillfully, without error. We’d stare out at the meticulously manicured lawn, gaze over its partitions, separated as they are into three parts. Silently, I’d visualize Israel, the West Bank, Gaza. These blocks of perfect, verdant green are Palestinian life. They remind me of a line from After the Last Sky, about land that is marked by the artificial and imposed arrangements of interrupted or confined space, by the dislocations and unsynchronized rhythms of disturbed time.

One day, I’d think to myself, I’ll tell my grandchildren how Professor Said’s eyes were—how luminous, almond brown with pitch-black pupils, all-knowing and yet somehow distant. (And when I do, they’ll surely say: “Oh bubbe, that sounds so 20th century, so Orientalist. Please don’t say that in public.”)

“I came to you,” I would tell him, “I came to you, to After the Last Sky, to your talks on Orientalism, by way of Mona Hatoum.” I’d explain, with too much formality, how “it was that catalogue essay—the one you wrote for her solo exhibition at the Tate—that struck me, instilled in me a kind of hunger to know the narrative. The Palestinian narrative. The one I don’t know.” I set an intention: to untangle the cobweb of ideologies that swaddles me and inhibit my ability to grow. If only I could visualize the contours of my worldview in a real, physical way, as easily as I’m able to trace the Zionist-inflected disdain in my father’s words (“Arab violence”). Only then could I understand how my interpretation of history, as Ed once described it, my identity, relates to a Palestinian one.

We authorize no part of the world and only influence increasingly small bits of it, his words would remind me. I take this as a stroke of assurance; confidence in my ability to change; validation of my quest; a token of comfort that feels like a wonderful, if vague, expression of paternalistic love.

When I went to Hebron, I walked under a cross-linked fence, stared up at blue graffiti that read DEATH TO ARABS, GAS THEM ALL!

And then we’d get to it, Ed and I. I’d bring up that en-dash between post and colonial, using a boring rhetorical device as a crutch to enter more complicated conversational waters. I’d proceed to ramble on about Gaza Kitchen, an article my grandma once clipped from Times of Israel, tzedakah boxes and pens marked blue-and-white with spirited, nationalistic branding, unopened donation envelopes from AIPAC, the seed I didn’t plant, but swallowed. I’d lay out these initial topics—proper grammar, cuisine, Hebrew school—before diving in deep to confront the waves of difference ingrained in our beings.

These waters intimidate me—they’re massive and may crash down at any moment as some parlance of international law arises or some historical event evades me, something like Israel and Lebanon’s relations in the 80’s (which I have a hard time remembering, let alone making any real sense of). Maybe I’d bring up a phrase like “human shield” or “civilian death toll” or “religious right,” but I’d probably do it without proper context or timing.

I’d continue. I’d tell him how, when I went to Hebron, I passed through an alleyway, walked under a cross-linked fence, stared up at a patchwork of beige stones and encountered blue graffiti that read DEATH TO ARABS, GAS THEM ALL! Death, all, gas. Those words—taken from a specific episode of genocide, one that needn’t be named here, it’s too terribly specific—cried out to us foreigners, not in Arabic or Hebrew or in a slangy mix of the two, but in English. And with exclamation!

Those words, a direct message of hate, found an unknown crevice in me—a blind spot—and burrowed down, filling it, perniciously, with a deep and pervading sadness. The concept that Jews—with our history of oppression, persecution, landlessness—could (and indeed do) re-purpose the language of hate and oppression for a new geopolitical reality, this concept hadn’t occurred to me. Staring out at the divided sections of library lawn, I’d hold Ed’s unwavering attention, amazingly, while reckoning how our ancestors are so terribly alike in their misfortunes—two communities of suffering, as he eloquently put it. Mine as victims and his the victims of victims.

As I speak in nonsequitous, staccato digressions, he’d respond with a sort of measured calm and precision of language. One that echoes, that is characteristic of, his prose. I’d wonder if he’s always this monastic—this peaceful and fierce in the same instance. He listens to my babble with remarkable patience and a certain generosity of spirit.

The settlers—grown adults, Israeli citizens—throw stones at schoolchildren. They poison their neighbor’s olive trees. “So how,” I say, “can we go from such violence and sectarian hate to a borderless place full of love and justice and true equality?” And who am I to subsist, to exist, to speak as part of that we? I’d think of something he wrote, about Palestinian identity as found in things like exile, dispossession, habits of expression, internal and external landscapes, stubbornness, poignancy, and heroism. The fragments, memories, disjointed scenes, intimate particulars.

It’s times like these that Ed reminds me: it is important to dot i’s and cross t’s, to be clear about who’s responsible. “Yes,” I’d say. “I understand.” I’d rip into the hunk of bread in my lap—compulsively, nervously—hoping it would absorb my anxiety and leave the conversation alone, to be pristine, clean, as preserved as I’d like.

“We come from histories of hate and oppression. We are diasporic people,” I say. He’d nod along. “But this does not exclude our ability, as the oppressed, to become the oppressor.”

I digress. I tell him about wandering through Nablus. How little boys stared at my friend and me as we squatted on plastic chairs by the roadside, shoving masses of kanafeh into our mouths, gracelessly, with wild abandon, honey oozing out from all sides. Maybe he’d laugh. Maybe his mother made kanafeh when he was little, and he used to play with the gelatinous cheesy stuff with his hands. Later, after our meeting, I’d ruminate on this anecdote, trying to extract any and all meaning I can from kanafeh: the ritual of making it, the significance of its survival after all this time, Ed’s childhood memories. I’d laugh at how poetic, how romantic, how very exotic I build it up to be, when for him it is a very real, physical thing. Sustenance. A child’s treat.

I’d talk knowingly about souks in the West Bank, those big industrial buckets of pickled beets, carrots, cauliflower. Pickled things always remind me of my father’s grandfather, a man who loved pickled herring and cherries. I’d point out how curious it is, that our ancestors shared a love of that same sour, pickled taste—or maybe I’d hold this back. We’d get up and head towards Broadway, returning to where we came from, awdah.

*                      *                     *

Sometimes I imagine time and space could collapse. Or maybe just the opposite—that space-time could unfold to accommodate a shift in consciousness, to fill in the constellations of unknowns and voids. Then, maybe then, I could actually meet Edward Said. I’d find the place where dark fragments of the past—pasts of homelessness and existential threat—overlap, become chiasmic, can mend and be healed. Maybe then I could see how my identity relates to a Palestinian one.

I’d be the same nervous, curious sputtering of a person; he would be an elegant collection of a man, disarming and kind, brilliant and inimitable.

If space-time collapsed, the fifty-five years between Ed and me would dissolve. After all, there is a formal instability, an almost metaphysical impossibility of representing the present, his words remind me. We wouldn’t have a professor-student relationship, nothing like that. We’d meet on humble terms. I’d be the same nervous, curious sputtering person; he would be an elegant collection of a man, disarming and kind, brilliant and inimitable. Where would our worldviews overlap and converge? Where would they meet at sharp angles and crash into each other?

As I grapple with Palestinian suffering, my yearning to no longer sympathize with, but to actually empathize with, those dispossessed families only intensifies. I want to transcend these very dumb categories of nation-states and see, as Edward Said once wrote, inside and outside the world, with double vision. We are one people, at once our grandparents and grandchildren, oppressor and oppressed, woven together by our fates. The only way we can survive is by identifying the myopias, the blind spots in our understandings of history, and fill them with an empathetic, nuanced narrative. And this is what I seek to find: a most critical, radical sort of love.

Anna Furman is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY.

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One comment for Anna Furman: Meeting Edward Said

  1. Comment by Fred Skolnik on May 16, 2016 at 11:03 am

    Believe me, Ms. Furman, Israelis do not pronounce the words “Arab terror” with disdain but with fear, and if you did not open your mouth when Arab terrorists were blowing apart Israeli women and children in buses and restaurants, you’re a hypocrite and a fraud.

    Israel hatred is pathological phenomenon, so allow me to offer my own understanding of it:

    http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/15005

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