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Friends and Family Celebrate the Life and Work of Columbia Luminary Edward Said

By Colin Morris

St. Paul's Chapel at Columbia University was filled to the brim on March 3, as family, close friends and colleagues of Edward Said gathered to remember and celebrate his life.

The music-infused service included a 22-minute visual tribute and two piano works performed by close family friend Daniel Barenboim. The film clips conveyed Said's indomitable zest for life, reverence for teaching, outrage at the world's injustices, and, above all else, his deep and abiding love for his family and friends.

In their tributes, the speakers, including daughter Najla and son Wadie, painted an intimate portrait of the renowned intellectual: a deeply caring human being whose formidable intellect and passionate devotion to friends and family fueled his remarkable talents as an educator and social activist. Said, whose seminal work of cultural theory, Orientalism, established him as one of the world's most revered intellectuals, joined the Columbia faculty in 1963. He is the author of more than 20 books, including his 1999 autobiography, Out of Place, which won the New Yorker Book Award for nonfiction.

While each speaker's tribute was unique, all conveyed how Said used his extraordinary talents to connect with others and to contribute so much to the University and the world.

President Lee C. Bollinger began the tributes by recalling an anecdote from his first meeting with Said, several years ago. Upon being introduced, Said had commented favorably on Bollinger's tie to which Bollinger had responded that he wasn't sure it went with his outfit. Said had answered that it doesn't matter whether everything goes together, noting that he loved just to pile colors one on top of the other. That comment, Bollinger said, served as a metaphor through which he came to know Said. "As a person, he exuded a seeming ease in almost any setting, but he also seemed slightly out of place wherever he was. Through all the complex layers that made up his personality, Said was always using his amazing talents to find a way to connect through the layers. That is why he contributed so much to Columbia."

Reflecting on his long years of friendship with Said, Jonathan Cole, John Mitchell Mason Professor and former provost of the University, echoed Bollinger's praise of Said's contributions to the life of the mind. It was through his relationship with Said, Cole said, that he came to understand the true role of an intellectual within the university. "He did not insist that he was right," Cole explained, "but insisted on the right to have a conversation. He helped me realize that he needed the University, and universities at their best were made for people like him. Only in this fragile and unique institution could [intellectuals] feel free enough and reasonably comfortable enough to develop and air new ideas that might offend those who refuse to confront new ways of thinking as well as their own biases and presuppositions."

Other friends who shared personal memories and professional accolades included: Gauri Viswanathan, Class of 1933 Columbia Professor of English and Comparative Literature; Vanessa Redgrave, a longtime friend of the Said family; and South African writer and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer. Each in her own way emphasized the genius and humanity of Said. Viswanathan offered a glimpse of Said's teaching style, noting that he would pace furiously in class. "To see him teach was to have an X-ray of a mind perpetually in motion. He never offered prepackaged ideas or theories; rather his teaching opened a window onto the thinking process itself."

Vanessa Redgrave told of the profound personal effect Said's works had and still have on her. "Reading Edward's writings has kept me sane -- the existence of Edward and his writing and what he's said and done," she said. "His unique intelligence, which surpassed boundaries and borders every day, helped me start to dismantle my own walls and barriers inside myself." From Nadine Gordimer: "If the great contemporary intellectuals can be counted on one hand, Edward Said is the index finger. He was an academic of celebrated originality of mind. Above all, Said had an intelligence of feeling. It glowed though his physical presence, and it continues to glow through his work. Said used his multiple identities to create a complete personality -- a man of genius with an invaluable perspective to offer the world. In him contradictions become a way of grasping something -- an elusive truth that is somewhere in our human existence."

Testimonials about Said's intense desire to continue to contribute to the University and the world despite his failing health came from other quarters of Said's life. His doctor, Kanti Rai, underscored Said's courage in the face of illness, for instance, and described how his professional relationship with his patient had evolved into a deeply personal one as well.

Conductor and friend Barenboim, after a poignant recital of Schubert's Impromptu in A-flat Major, Op. 142, No. 2 on the piano, discussed Said's complement of talents. "For me Edward was a musician -- not just because it's my field. Edward understood the world through music. Very often music has been used to escape from the world. But Edward understood that musical terminology was essential to understanding the world. In music you cannot compartmentalize as you can in other areas. Everything is interrelated. This is what made his conversation so breathtaking. All his interests were one," Barenboim explained.

Mustafa Barghouthi, secretary general of the Palestinian National Initiative, who came to the memorial from Palestine, said he had trouble thinking of Said in the past tense. "Edward will not disappear," he said. "He belongs to the future. He carried in himself the values of the future and the beauty of humanity in its ongoing search for better times: the same future we all dream about."

At Columbia , Said's legacy will indeed be preserved, thanks in large measure to the generosity of a group of longtime friends and colleagues. Confronted with the knowledge that Said was critically ill, these individuals turned their sadness into a successful effort to add a new dimension to Columbia's areas studies program and to honor his seminal scholarly contributions by supporting the hiring of a distinguished scholar in Arabic studies and literature. The Edward Said Professorship of Modern Arab Studies and Literature is now a reality, thanks to the following donors: Yusef Abu Khadra, Abdel Muhsen Al-Qattan, Ramzi A. Dalloul, Richard and Barbara Debs, Richard B. Fisher, Gordon Gray Jr., Daoud Hanania, Rita E. Hauser, Walid H. Kattan, Said T. Khoury, Munib R. Masri, Morgan Capital & Energy Company, Olayan Charitable Trust, Hasib Sabbagh, Kamal A. Shair, Abdul Aziz Shakashir, Abdul Majeed Shoman, Jean Stein and the United Arab Emirates.

The first professor to occupy the chair, Rashid Khalidi, was appointed this summer. Khalidi is a prominent scholar of the Middle East , past president of the Middle East Studies Association and a leading historian of the modern Arab world.

In a fitting end to a moving memorial, Said's children, Najla and Wadie, shared some of their intimate family rituals and rich personal memories of their father. Echoing what many at the service were feeling, Najla, now a law student at Columbia , said, "I would be happy to inherit one-tenth of his amazing ability to welcome and listen to and love each new person he encountered."

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Published: Mar 24, 2004
Last modified: Jan 10, 2005

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