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Edward W. Said | Biography

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Early Life and Education

Edward Said was born November 1, 1935, in Jerusalem to Palestinian Christian parents. His early life was characterized by numerous moves and feelings of displacement. In 1947 the United Nations allowed for the partition of Palestine into separate Arab and Israeli states, which led to a series of military conflicts over many years. That year, Said's family moved to Cairo, Egypt, where Said attended English schools until age 16, before his family moved again, this time to the state of Massachusetts in 1951. Said went on to earn a bachelor of arts degree at Princeton University in 1957 and his master of arts degree at Harvard three years later. He earned a PhD in English literature from Harvard in 1964. One year prior to receiving his PhD, Said joined the faculty at Columbia University as a professor of comparative literature (study of the interrelationships of literary works from differing cultures).

Said's doctoral thesis turned into his first book, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (1966), which was generally well received and recognized for its contribution to comparative literary studies. Said would later draw on his background in comparative literature to reveal the structure of Orientalism. In the following years, Said studied and explained the workings behind the Arab-Israeli wars (series of military conflicts over partition, 1948–49, 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982). Because of his Palestinian background, Said took an inherent interest in the topic of Middle Eastern politics and international relationships, and he became immensely political during this time. He supported the idea of a Palestinian state and argued not against Israeli rights, but rather against nationalistic powers, such as the United States, that pushed particular agendas. Rather than support one side over another, Said argued for an agreement that benefited—or appeased—both sides.

Career and Political Involvement

In 1977 Said was elected to the Palestine National Council with the goal of promoting Palestinian political views. However, in the early 90s he resigned to protest the Oslo Accords (set of peace agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization) and the perceived detrimental compromises and concessions of the Palestinian state. During this period, Said wrote a series of texts on the relationship between East and West. These include such titles as Orientalism (1978), The Question of Palestine (1979), Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World (1981), and Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature: Yeats and Decolonization (1988), among others. Said gave numerous public lectures and media interviews, and he was a vocal political advocate for the Middle East. While much of his work was initially well received, it was increasingly perceived as controversial because of the changing political situation in the East and the degree of United States involvement. At the time of the terrorist attacks in New York City on September 11, 2001, the American media was vehemently attacking Said's work as anti-Western.

Later Life and Death

Even after being diagnosed with leukemia (cancer in blood-forming tissues that affects the body's ability to fight infection) in 1991, Said continued to support the idea of a peaceful accord between Palestine and Israel. He used one of his other passions, music, to further this end by helping organize an orchestra with Israeli musician Daniel Barenboim that went on to become the West-Eastern Divan in 1999. Ultimately, 12 years after his initial diagnosis, Said succumbed to leukemia and passed away in New York City on September 25, 2003.

Over the course of his career, Said was an outspoken political activist, literary scholar, academic lecturer, and public speaker. He wrote on a variety of topics, from literary comparison to commentary on scholars' political activism. However, Said is best known for his contributions to the origin of power dynamics and the ways in which they contribute to colonialism.

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