In 1983, when I worked in the library at Columbia University, I checked a book out to Edward Said, the Palestinian-American author of Orientalism who died this past September. I didn’t know much about Said at the time, but I retain an impression of a severe and slightly arrogant presence standing across from me at the library’s front desk. Handsome and well-dressed, he looked like the kind of man who could not only destroy you in an argument, but thrash you on a squash court as well.
Recently, late at night on some far-flung university channel in the cable galaxy, I came across a film of Said delivering what would be the last speech of his life, on June 15 of this year at the annual meeting of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, D.C. As ever, he was perfectly turned out in a checked sports jacket, white shirt and patterned tie, but there was no disguising the dreadful emaciation wrought by a decade-long battle with leukemia — hollow cheeks, staring eyes and a frighteningly liquid cough.
It was a far cry from the image one had of Said in the mid- to late-1980s, when, dapper and haughtily articulate, he would pop up on programs like The MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour to defend the Palestinian cause. Back then it was so rare to see anyone stick up for the Palestinians that one could be forgiven for thinking Said was the only person in the United States who did so.
Now all that has begun to change, even if U.S. government policy on Israel and the Occupied Territories has barely budged. In most of the world, Said’s impassioned denunciations of Israel have become orthodoxy. “The struggle of the Palestinian people is now a byword for emancipation and enlightenment,” he noted approvingly in his speech, though he didn’t mention that its political expression is often savagely violent (suicide bombings) and intellectually grotesque (anti-Semitic and conspiratorial ravings).
Sadly, it appeared that Said had become an ivory-tower scold, out of touch with contemporary reality. The American media were “anti-Arab and anti-Muslim” from far left to far right, he said, which would be news to readers of our painstakingly P.C. newspapers. He claimed that “hardly a single journalist” had taken the administration to task over Iraq, even as Paul Krugman was blasting away from the op-ed page and Big Lies; Dude, Where’s My Country?; Lies, and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, etc., etc., were being readied for print and the best-seller lists. The Arab press, on the other hand, was not “totally controlled.” In downtown Amman, he said, you can buy a Communist Party newspaper, as well as an Islamist one. What a choice.
Those who disagreed with Said were stupid, racist, Orientalist or deluded. Samuel Huntington was “dead wrong on every point he makes,” which must have called for considerable skill on Huntington’s part. Thomas Friedman was “vulgar and jejune.” Bernard Lewis wrote “the purest drivel.” Even the Arab-friendly U.N. did not escape Said’s ire. Its recent Arab Human Development Report was “immature and puerile.” As for the American occupation of Iraq, that was “arrogant, hubristic” and “absolutely ridiculous,” which made it sound like a co-production of the fascists and Keystone Kops. Oh well. Fascism the Iraqis were already familiar with; at least we brought some comedy into their lives.
I thought of Said a couple of days later, while watching ESPN2’s broadcast of the “Freestyle World Championships Wrestling” — or wrastling, as they pronounced it — at Madison Square Garden. For who should turn up in the midst of all this male and female grappling but one of Said’s bête noires, the former college wrestling champion and celebrated Pentagon comedian Donald Rumsfeld. Fortunately for the other wrastlers, he was in the audience rather than on the mats, where one of ESPN’s eagle-eyed commentators was quick to spot him.
“Mr. Secretary, I’m sure that every day you’re doing a lot of mental wrastling, so [your background as a wrestler] does serve you well in your work every day?” an interviewer asked, sticking a microphone in his face.
“It does,” affirmed Rummy, flashing his shark’s smile before launching into a brief flurry of non sequiturs. “First of all, the friendships, the discipline, the reality that you have to produce and make a contribution. So I feel very fortunate that I was able to wrestle for all those years.”
The reality that you have to produce. Hmm. Leaving aside the role played by wrastling in our politics (Speaker of the House and former wrestling coach Dennis Hastert was also interviewed ringside) or the possibility that Rumsfeld was merely being philosophical, perhaps here, hidden in plain sight, was the high-level admission of deliberate government mendacity about Iraq’s weapons programs (“the confected facts” of which Said spoke) the administration’s critics have demanded.
“If you want to hide something, hide it in the eye of the sun,” counsels an old Arab proverb. Better yet, slip it into an interview during a wrestling tournament at Madison Square Garden. After all, who would look for it there?