Edward Said died on September 25, 2003, after a long battle with leukemia, and along with him the foremost voice for justice for Palestinians in the United States. The six conversations herein took place between 1999 and 2003.
Despite the gravity of the subject material, this is an interesting and enjoyable read thanks to Said's towering intellect and Barsamian's perceptive and incisive questioning. The result is a perspective of events in Israel and Palestine filled with truth and passion, almost directly opposite that which is too often reported, or not reported, in the mainstream press.
Said expresses an enthusiastic interest in Middle Eastern poets and their poetry. He also was himself a pianist, and he talks about being involved in several important projects bringing together Arab and Israeli musicians for concerts transcending the political divide. He and Barsamian cover other cultural ground, but obviously, the focus of the book is politics, specifically the plight of the Palestinians.
A fundamental argument Said makes repeatedly is that the situation in Israel and the Occupied Territories cannot be understood without an understanding of the events of 1948, when Israel was declared a state. In the ensuing war with Arab countries, 800,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes and the same homeland that became Isreal, which they had occupied for millennia. More than 400 Arab villages were destroyed. Since then, Israel has denied any responsibility for these atrocities, using all kinds of propaganda. Today the Orwellianism has it that Palestinians were told to leave their homes by their leaders. Said expounds upon the completion of the conquest in the 1967 war.
Said states that since 1948, 78% of historic Palestine has become Israeli and that control of the remaining 22% is what the current fighting, the Second Intifada, is all about. Further, of this remaining 22%, Israel controls 60% of the West Bank, and 40% of Gaza. Illegal settlements continue apace, as does the pressure on the indigenous Palestinians.
It is pretty clear that the goal of Sharon's Likud government is the complete ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, increasingly referred to euphemistically as "transfer." Much of what remains of historic Palestine is divided up into small, non-contiguous pockets of autonomy, Bantustans, often locked down under curfews and checkpoints. Said maintains that these circumstances are the result of the peace process, and not war. Since publication of this book, a "security fence" is being erected, ostensibly to protect Israel from suicide bombers, but which in practice further isolates and dispossesses Palestinians.
Said's voice is consistent and adamant that a solution must be peaceful coexistence between the two peoples. He bemoans suicide bombings, bad enough for their violence and carnage, but also as being counterproductive to finding a solution. He says, however, that to understand these bombings it is important to see them in the context of the desperate circumstances of the Palestinian people. Israel, for example, portrays itself as a victim, when in fact it is an oppressor. Almost all the fighting between the two sides has occurred in Palestinian territory, so it is ridiculous to assert, as Israel does, that it is only defending itself. Moreover, Palestinians have little more than stones for weapons, along with some small arms, while the Israelis have tanks, helicopters, jets, and all kinds of modern weaponry, supplied to them by the US military.
Although practically an aside, Said makes some poignant observations of George Orwell; observations you, like me I'll bet, perhaps have never considered in our adorations of Orwell. He agrees that Orwell was a prescient witness to injustice, but managed himself to remain disentangled from it. He was probably correct, declares Said, in his bleak assessment of where we're headed, but limited: "I don't think he's in touch with hope, with liberation, with critical engagement, with association or affiliation between people. The idea of human progress is quite outside his vision."
Among many other political considerations examined outside the specifically Palestinian, is a look at the psychology of "terrorism" for example, that are compelling and of a delightful perspicacity:
"Terrorism has become a sort of screen created since the end of the Cold War by policymakers in Washington, as well as a whole group of people...who have their meal ticket in that pursuit. It is fabricated to keep the population afraid, insecure, and to justify what the United States wishes to do globally. Any threat to its interests, whether it's oil in the Middle East or its geostrategic interests elsewhere, is all labeled terrorism...which is exactly what the Israelis have been doing since the mid-1970s so far as Palestinian resistance to their policies are concerned. It's very interesting that the whole history of terrorism has a pedigree in the policies of imperialists...Terrorism is anything that stands in the face of what "we" want to do. Since the United States is the global superpower, has or pretends to have interests everywhere...terrorism becomes a handy instrument to perpetuate this hegemony...people's movements of resistance against deprivation, against unemployment, against the loss of natural resources, all of that is termed terrorism."
Said's voice is consistent and constant in finding actions such as suicide bombings inexcusable and in seeking a peaceful, just resolution to the Palestinian question. Indeed, his writings are often banned in the Arab world because of this position. His voice is also that of an admirable and unique intelligence. He affirms Israel's right to self-determination, but grieves that Palestinians also do not enjoy this right, especially in light of the historical realities. He thinks the two peoples are too inextricably linked in too small an area for their separation to be realistically viable, and therefore favors a binational state. He spells out the circumstances where, however, a two-state solution might be a means to this end. This hope of a binational state, necessarily long-term, must be a peace between two equals, Said says, with equal rights, protections, and responsibilities, and not a peace imposed on the weaker party by the stronger.