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Mark Walhout


Edward Said: Secular Protestant

Reflections on Exile and Other Essays
by Edward W. Said
Harvard Univ. Press, 2001
617 pp.; $35

Edward Said may be the world's most famous English professor, and its most famous Palestinian after Yasir Arafat. In the academy, he is best known for his influential critique of "Orientalism," that is, of those images and judgments by means of which the West has stereotyped and devalued the Arab world over the centuries. Outside the academy, he is best known for his harsh criticism of the state of Israel and, in recent years, of Arafat himself.

Said turned 65 last year, having survived a life-threatening disease of the blood diagnosed nearly a decade ago. It is not surprising, therefore, that his recent publications have taken a retrospective turn, most notably his intriguing memoir of his early life, Out of Place. His latest book, Reflections on Exile—a monumental collection of essays spanning his 35-year career at Columbia University—is another result of his effort to impose thematic unity on his wide-ranging intellectual life.

Not that Said is preparing to go gentle into that good night—far from it. He remains as controversial a figure as ever. Last summer, while visiting Lebanon, he was photographed in the act of tossing a rock at the Israeli border. When the photo appeared in the world press, many were outraged at what they took to be Said's endorsement of political violence. At Columbia, the administration was pressed to investigate the case. When it responded with a ringing endorsement of Said's academic freedom, one bemused reporter decided to toss a rock at Columbia University in the name of free speech, only to be warned off by campus police.

Another mark of Said's intransigence in the face of illness and age is his continuing hostility to religion, at least in its public manifestations. A self-proclaimed secular intellectual, Said loathes all forms of theocratic politics, from Zionism to Islamic fundamentalism to the Christian Right. (Ironically, ...

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