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‘No more disappearance’: Tom Nairn on Edward Said and Palestinian identity

An excerpt from Tom Nairn’s Faces of Nationalism reviewing two books by Edward Said, The Politics of Dispossession and Representations of the Intellectual, with reflections on Ernest Gellner’s attack on Orientalism. The essay is framed by the fact of the non-disappearance of the Palestinian people, and the role of ‘nationalism’ in this. It was first published in the London Review of Books on 8 September 1994.

Tom Nairn11 January 2024

‘No more disappearance’: Tom Nairn on Edward Said and Palestinian identity

The politics of dispossession is nationalism – an over-generalisation which at once calls for precise qualification. It is quite true that all nationalists are not dispossessed: possessors have their own (often strident) variations on the theme. It is also true that nationality politics did not originate among the crushed and uprooted: indeed its primary source was the nouveaux riches or upwardly mobile of early-modem times, in Holland, England and France.

However, their national-state politics only became national-ism later on, when such entrepreneurial societies inflicted their success upon the rest of the world in the nineteenth century. This infliction was Progress, which caused the un-progressed to feel for the first time dispossessed in the general and inescapable sense which amounts to an '-ism'. And it was out of that sense that the storm of modernisation emerged (since the first innocence, Progress has been constantly relabelled). The rest of humanity's patchwork-quilt (most of it, mostly due for dispossession) could neither evade industrialisation nor put up with it on the imperial terms initially offered. The result was a counter-blast aiming at modernity 'on our own terms' - the terms (inevitably) of what existed before the newly rich (and armed) nations emerged to rewrite the entire script.

That script – the 'history' which some imagined terminating around the year 1990 – was mined by the very reality which it sought to recompose. In the dominant storm centre itself a certain calmness could prevail: a false calm, as Edward Said constantly repeats in these books, founded upon arrogance, ignorance and superior military force. The metropolitan view was that Progress was greater than its bearers and destined to triumph, regardless of the particular language it spoke. The Russo-Soviet or Anglo­ British empires (e.g.) were simply vehicles for its dissemination. But outside the centre, wherever the contemporary frontiers of 'development' hap­pened to be, metropolitanism was perceived the other way round. The driving-cabin view was different from that beneath the wheels. For the latter, these 'vehicles' were exploiting Progress in order to eternalise a particular national hegemony. Their civilisation will end by dispossessing us.

For collectivities, dispossession brings decease. The same is not of course true for individuals. All individual Palestinians could (theoretically) have opted to become (or at least try to become) Israeli, Jordanian, Syrian or (one of Said's own identity dilemmas) American. This option has always been warmly viewed in imperial or sub-imperial capitals (like Tel Aviv). But in practice it applies only to the educated. The unvoiced logic beneath it goes like this: if only the 'intellectuals' (trouble-makers) would mind their own (individual) businesses and honestly assimilate, then the non­ intellectual majority would, after a certain lapse of time – well, disappear. Before nationalism arrived to change things, most ethno-linguistic com­munities we know about did disappear – or more accurately, were 'disappeared' in the Argentinian sense, like the Picts of north-eastern Scotland. There was a time not long ago when the Palestinians looked like ideal candidates for disappearance. They could see the last sky coming, and after it nothing. Right up until the peace agreement last year there was no certainty of reprieve.

Another way of reading nationalism is just that: no more disappearance. For the majority of the collectivity, the collectivity itself remains the sole redemptive possibility. Hence its 'death', though metaphorical, is all too easily translatable into individual or familial terms. On the West Bank and Gaza, even though many Palestinians became successful exiles and emigres like Said, there could never have been two million individual escape routes of that kind. If 'Palestine' doesn't make it, few living Palestinians will. The point is not quite that nationalism is a matter of life or death – like the more raw nature which once prevailed – but that 'nationalism' has altered the nature of the species to make it such a matter.

The Politics of Dispossession and Representations of the Intellectual can be read like a single meditation on this theme. An intellectual earmarked for escape and successful metropolitan assimilation has turned back, and tried to assume the burden of those left behind. The burden is a crushing one. In a sense frankly admitted in these pages, it is too much for him or for any other individual. He has become the best-known intellectual spokesman of the Palestinian cause, yet was always far too honest and too honourable to be merely its loudspeaker. As the gross contradictions and failings of the cause have accumulated over thirty years, he has been unable to avoid registering and criticising them. So more is collected in Politics of Dispossession than scattered essays and reviews. It reads like a memoir of the Stations of the Cross, one single journey or travail through the agonies and humiliations which have broken him apart – above all when inflicted, as so often, by those 'on his own side'. The critique of Arab nationalism and Palestinian parochialism in these pages is more devastating than anything put out by Zionists or the US Israeli lobby.

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Said suffers from acute identity problems. So do all nationalist intellectuals. But since he is a famously fashion-conscious individual, critics have rarely resisted the temptation cheaply to assault his identity pangs along those lines. Paul Johnson, for example, wrote of him recently in the Sunday Times as 'a fashionable figure [with] modish problems of identity. It is not clear to me who, or what, the real Edward Said is.' The implication is that 'identity' in the political or nationalist sense is something like posturing in front of a mirror. It is not: Johnson is the poseur here, not Said.

My father as a boy sold crowns of thorns to tourists near the Sepulchre. Yet a few yards away, underneath a declivity in the city wall, we stumbled on Zalatimo, the renowned pastry shop whose speciality mtaqaba was a great family favourite. A wizened old baker was in there stoking the oven, but his ancient form suggested something only barely surviving.

Astonishingly, Said Snr the Jerusalem relic-vendor turned into an ace moderniser: he was the man who, via his Egyptian business, introduced filing and the typewriter into Arabic culture. He saw identity as principally a question of backbone, and was chronically upset by his son's inability to stand up straight, in the ramrod style approved by the Boy Scouts and Victoria College, Cairo. The family were Greek-Orthodox Christians, con­verted to Anglicanism in the late nineteenth century. When young Edward's vertebral slackness got too pronounced for them he was packed off to America, aged fifteen. He had never seen snow, and was compelled to invent a new personality at a puritanical New England boarding-school. A few years later he escaped to Princeton, and then in 1963 to New York's Columbia University as a teacher, where he has remained for thirty years. 

This background provided a very unusual identity humus. What he likes most about New York is its anonymity. Paradoxically, self-consciously nationalist intellectuals are often very susceptible to cosmopolitanism: secretly (or in Said's case openly) they feel most at home on the neutral terrain of exile and alienation. This is because the very mechanism of identification - 'standing up for' a people and a cause - can unfold only out of a certain distance, an implicit separation of the self from background and community. A nation can only realise itself – register its patent rights, so to speak - via another community of voice. But that voice is also for others: it would fail unless the rights acquired an outside or international resonance. So those articulating the message, the intellectuals, necessarily risk standing in an ambiguous position, one exposed to accusations of betrayal from both sides. Said has had more than his fill of these.

Conservative metropolitans like Johnson like to portray nationalism as an invention of intellectuals. There is some trite truth in this: all ideologies, including fogeyism, must initially be synthesised by the educated, a process which may then be misrepresented as wilful 'forging', 'dreaming up', etc. However, an ideology which has convulsed the world must be more than wilful. At this deeper level it is nationalism which has invented modern intellectuals, rather than vice versa. Their pre-history lay in the European Renaissance and Enlightenment; but those only prepared the ground for the increasingly extra-European modernity of which nationalism is an inescapable part. 

The development of industrial modernity could not avoid gross unevenness; the antagonisms created from such disparity were bound to be registered; those observing and reacting to them sought another language for the new facts; that language had to be at once vernacular (accessible to the less educated) and universal (translatable into rights and principles). The parochial and ethnic had to be transcended (rather than disappeared). It had to establish a new connection with the universal and only the paradox of 'nation-ism' (as it might also have been called) could do this. Its machinery for doing so was distinct nationalist intelligentsias: egg-heads of ethnos, laying (as Said does) an increasing emphasis upon the choice of what once lay far beneath any conscious choice: 'identity'. 

'Nationalism' is in one sense no more than a general title for this language - the evolving tongue of modernity. Said began to speak it in earnest in 1967, after the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War: 'That awful week in June', he calls it, when he grasped more fully that 'I was an Arab, and we - "you" to most of my embarrassed friends - were being whipped.' From this cat-o'-nine-tails initiation was born Orientalism, his most celebrated work. Imperialism had fostered a self-interested mythology of the Arab Orient, he argued, in which academics and poets had colluded with missionaries, statesmen and entrepreneurial desperadoes. The result was a romantic conception frequently exalted by love. But (alas) this was love for the noble natives as they were, or rather as they were imagined to have been - infants of an Edenic Islam untarnished by Atlantic pollution (including filing cabinets and typewriters). The converse of such affection was of course contempt, mutating into hatred whenever the natives went 'beyond them­ selves'. Orientalist duty demanded they stick to their true, veiled selves. Failure to do so merely revealed (as in the 1967 war) their congenital inadaptation to modem ways: as useless with tanks as with democracy and women.

Arabism and anti-Arabism have something in common: the belief in a pan-Arab Geist capable of effective, nationalist-style unity. Although he started off wanting to subscribe to this, an irreverent observer like Said could not long put up He soon realised that it was no better than Pan-Hellenism and Pan-Slavism: conservative ideological trances employing a rhetoric of racial solidarity to stifle popular and national trouble-makers - notably trouble-makers like him. In the 'Introduction' to Politics of Dispossession (one of the best parts) he recounts how an earlier study of Palestine failed to find an Arab publisher:

It's an interesting footnote to all this that when The Question of Palestine came out a Beirut publishing house approached me about an Arabic translation. When I agreed, I was stunned to learn a moment later that I would be expected to remove from the text any criticism I had made of Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the rest. I refused, and to this day none of my books on Palestine has been translated into Arabic.

His new one stands even less chance, unless West Bank self-rule makes unexpectedly quick progress.

To get anywhere Palestinian nationalism had to distinguish itself from this miasma. The author's quaint way of putting it is as 'a reductive process', or 'an attempt to decompose Arab nationalism into discrete units finely sensitive to the true cost of real independence'. It took the Palestinians twenty-five years, through a series of fearful defeats - the worst of them at Arab hands, in Jordan, Lebanon and Kuwait. 'The countries that make the loudest noise in support of Palestine treat Palestinians the worst', he remarks angrily. On the other hand, when the intifada mobilised the population of the occupied territories directly against Israeli control from 1987 onwards, it met with at least limited success quite rapidly. 'Recognition' is no gratuitous extra benefit for a nationalist movement: in a sense it is the whole point (even if elaborate negotiations are needed subsequently to establish a polity). By March 1988, Said recalls, this was in effect won and symbolised in the meeting between himself, another Palestinian professor, and Secretary of State George Schulz: the world now had to confront the reality of a limited but indefeasible national demand, one which would not be disappeared. Even so the effects of the confrontation were further postponed by the Gulf War, and the PLO's reckless support for Saddam Hussein.

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Said sometimes wobbles badly on the latter topic. 'Both wrong and embarrassingly silly', he concedes; but at the same time he denounces Israeli peaceniks for using such support as an excuse to break off relations – 'as if the Palestinian situation under Israeli military occupation had been just wonderful before the Gulf War'. This is feeble rhetoric. I shouldn't imagine the Israelis thought that for a second; but the Iraqi government had just been raining missiles down on them (as well as preparing a new big-gun variant of the Final Solution).

Orientalism was a scathing analysis of metropolitan-racialist nonsense. But nationalist counterblast always carries its own danger: an obsessive sensibility over-attuned to its object of denunciation. The cat-o'-nine-tails never ceases its work (one feels in these pages), the skin will never grow back over the tortured nerve endings. In part this has been due to Said's particular circumstances. In New York he has had to endure daily combat with another kind of exile intelligentsia, the formidably organised Israeli-American lobby. Not all European readers may be aware of just how aggressive and unscrupulous that mode of nationalism can be, and if so they will find The Politics of Dispossession enlightening. It must have been like fighting the Six­ Day War over and over again.

The obsessive undertow accompanying Orientalism brought the author into conflict with Ernest Gellner. Reviewing a successor volume, Culture and Imperialism, in the Times Literary Supplement, Gellner accused him frankly of 'inventing a bogy called Orientalism' and attributing far too much to its pervasive cultural influence:

Truth is not linked to political virtue (either directly or inversely). To insinuate the opposite is to be guilty of that very sin which Said wishes to denounce. Like the rain, truth falls on both the just and the unjust. The problem of power and culture, and their turbulent relations during the great metamorphosis of our social world, is too important to be left to lit crit.

This must have been like having a cheese-grater applied to the raw nerve endings. The resultant row has become famous. Famous but (it seems to me) mistakenly blown up into a supposed clash of Weltanschauungen. In fact, asperity on one side was matched by an exaggerated touchiness on the other.

There were two sides to Gellner's attack. He was accusing Said of not locating his chosen cultural polemic accurately enough within a grander or epochal framework of development - the 'transition from agrarian to industrial society' which has long been Gellner's own preferred theme. Lacking this degree of theoretical articulation, the anti-Orientalist crusade had too often sunk into a banal vindication of its victims. If most Western scholarship and writing about the East is Orientalist conspiracy, then hope must lie solely on the other side: in the camp of those put down, crassly categorised, or adored for the wrong reasons. But the trouble with this anti­imperialist 'camp' is the hopelessness of so much of it: vile dictators, censorship, clerical mania, and traditionalism incompatible with any sort of modernisation (Western-led or not).

On the first count I feel Gellner is quite right. Said is no theorist, and rarely situates his cultural forays within a wider historical perspective. It is quite true that Progress was bound to take off in one region of the world rather than another. Unevenness could only have been avoided by guidance from outer space by something like the miracle-stones in Arthur C. Clarke's 2001. It might, for example, have erupted out of China, in which case some Atlantic equivalent of Edward Said might by now be denouncing Occidentalism and the near-universal contempt for the bulbous-nosed and straight­ eyed displayed by the academic lackeys of Peking. Or it might (like Homo sapiens itself) have come out of Africa. In that case both Said and Gellner would today be fulminating over Septentrionalist delusions about colourlessness: the vacant brain-pans supposed natural to the pigmentally challenged, in spite of their charming irrationality. In fact, for reasons still imperfectly understood, it originated in Atlantic seaboard societies and gave initial leverage to a congerie of pinkoid clans.

On the second count, I am not so sure. Out of unevenness came nationalism, including the sort Edward Said defends, and I would have thought that in the long run the victims would be likely to tell a better and more accurate story about what happened to them, and about their own social and cultural histories before the big developmental change. The truth-rain has never fallen evenly. After the change, as during it, it will have a differential distribution, and probably one closer to the kind of justice dreamt of by anti-Orientalists.

The trouble is, we live in the short run. And within this they will go on finding it extremely difficult to do anything like that – except in terms of rhetorical aspiration (which is what Gellner was denouncing). The reasons for this are not (as the victim ideology tends to assume) subjective and moral ones – betrayal, bad faith and so on. They are institutional. Colonised and less-developed societies lack the means to evolve an adequate cultural riposte to the 'advanced' offensive. By contrast the imperialists are over­ endowed with professorships, research institutes, well-heeled anthropologists and literary periodicals (as well as with missiles and aircraft-carriers). Most serious inquiry can only be done from their point of view, even if the risks of Orientalist astigmatism remain inherent in it. To get a sense of the opposite and what it means one need not tum to Gellner: Edward Said's Politics of Dispossession will do. 

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'There isn't a single decent library in the entire Arab world', he complains. 'To do research on our own past, our culture, our literature, we still have to come to the West, to study at the feet of Orientalists, many of whom have openly declared themselves enemies to Islam and the Arabs ... [but neither has there been] any effort to pour money into Western universities to promote the study of Arab and Islamic civilisation, to promote that study in our interests. On all sides it is evident that as Arabs we are the world's intellectual and moral lumpenproletariat.'

So what 'the long run' entails is long indeed: a more integral process of modernisation, within which 'lumpenproletarian' status can be left behind, and both state and civil institutions built up. That is what nations are for. Or at least, no better way of doing it has yet been lastingly demonstrated. 'The Arab world', he goes on, 'is undergoing a premature technocratisation' on the lines laid down by his own father: typewriters before democracy, as it were, leading to the ascendancy of the right-wing brutalism typified by Saddam Hussein and President Assad.

However, 'the Arab world' is a large part of this problem, not a solution. It denotes not a nation but something more like a 'people', in that purplish after-dinner sense so dear to Winston Churchill: 'the English-speaking Peoples' who have spread themselves round a bit, acquired a sense of destiny, retained certain elements of common culture - and never quite got over it. Under Thatcher some of us thought the bloody thing would never go away. Feeling that 'a world' is on one's side is a serious malfunction, something like the nationalist equivalent of muscular dystrophy. Yet victim status makes it more tempting to indulge such feelings, since 'worlds' may always be imagined as possessing a redemptive secret denied to mere nationalities. If the secular version lets down the dispossessed, then an even headier possibility can step in: the 'other world' of a common faith, in this case Islam. 

Not that Said can be accused of wobbling in that direction. He remains aggressively secular: 'We must see the issues concretely, not in terms of the happy and airy abstractions that tend to dominate our discussions. What distinguishes the truly struggling intellectual is, first, his or her effort to grasp things as they are in the proper methodological and political perspective, and, second, the conception of his or her work as activity, not as passive contemplation.' This is the struggle recipe which is also outlined in Representations of the Intellectual Said has nobly lived up to its criteria during his long activity as champion of the Palestinian national cause. Among nationalist intellectuals I know or have read about, I cannot think of anyone less like the 'Professor of Terrorism' so often invoked by the US­ Israeli lobby. 

The accusation has been revived none the less, in connection with his denunciation of last year's agreement between Arafat and Rabin. The story here is mainly in the Introduction and the Epilogue to The Politics of Dispossession. The former recounts his mounting disillusionment with the PLO leadership long before the Historic Accord. The most surprising aspect of this to many readers will be the practically •bottomless and mulish parochialism of that leadership. In Said's account it had no idea at all of how American politics and public opinion functioned. 'All through this period' (the 1980s),

Arafat was neither fighting to expand solidarity for Palestinians in the West nor nurturing the logical Palestinian constituency of liberals, dissenters, the women's movement, and so on. Instead he and his associates seemed to be looking for patrons in the West who would get them a solution of some sort. This quixotic fantasy originated in the notion that the United States worked like, say, Syria or Iraq: get close to someone close to the Maximum leader and all doors will open.

When the door did inch open at last, Arafat rushed to get his foot in. In 1985 he had told Said that he had no intention of ending up as the Mufti of Jerusalem had done at an earlier stage of Palestine's Calvary, and 'ending up with nothing to show for his decades of effort against the Zionist movement'. Said now accuses the PLO of accepting something uncomfortably close to nothing: the tiny roof of Gaza and Jericho against the last sky, the most cramped space for manoeuvre one can imagine as qualifying for 'self-government'.

But it is also characteristic of Said that his denunciation of this climb­down is at once accompanied by modest, practical proposals for making the most of it - for enlarging the space and turning his country, Palestine, into a genuine nation. He contrasts the old nation-building slogan of Zionism - 'another acre, another goat' - to the apocalyptic assertiveness which has dogged both Arab and PLO rhetoric. In the new situation, he suggests, a version of the former must now be worked out for Palestinians. 'An idea like "limited autonomy"', he goes on,

might lead to independence or it might equally well lead to further domination. In either case the main task for Palestinians is to know and understand the overall map of the territories that the Israelis have been creating, and then devise concrete tactics of resistance. In the history of colonial invasion, maps are always first drawn by the victors, since maps are always instruments of conquest [but] Geography can also be the art of resistance if there is a counter-map and a counter-strategy.

This counter-strategy has nothing to do with what the Professor of Terrorism was once regularly convicted for. It is a nation-building prospectus founded upon maximisation of the very few assets the Palestinians possess. This almost uniquely dispossessed people, he argues, has one hugely under-exploited advantage: perhaps the largest, most able and most dispersed intelligentsia any national movement has ever been able to claim. Zionism is the obvious historical precedent; but it should also be remembered how divided Jewish intellectuals were, and how strong anti-Zionism remained among them until World War II. By contrast, Said observes how

Throughout the Arab world, Europe, and the United States there are extraordinarily large numbers of gifted and successful Palestinians who have made a mark in medicine, law, banking, planning, architecture, journalism, industry, education, contracting. Most of these people have contributed only a tiny fraction of what they could to the Palestinian national effort. 

Thus the new national effort called for is different in quality from both the old one of the PLO and the intifada. It should be an international effort at nation-state building, an invention of 'ways of countering the facts with our own facts and institutions, and finally of asserting our national presence, democratically and with mass participation'. Small-country, secular, democratic, institutional, acre-and-goat nationalism, in other words. It resembles Jewish nationalism minus the Zionist component. Also, it is virtually the opposite of what Saddam Hussein, King Hussein, President Assad and (intermittently) the PLO have stood for: the 'Arab world' of dictatorial cliques, violent paranoia, mass oppression and (potentially) theocratic convulsions. No wonder they hate Palestinians so much: both in spite of and because of its extraordinary dispossession, its diaspora and prolonged sufferings, 'Palestinism' (if one can call it that) should be the one sign of political hope within that world.

'Happy the nation without heroes' is often quoted these days as self­ evident truth. I'm not so sure. I feel more confidence saying 'Happy the nation - or the nationalism - with intellectuals like this to speak of and for it'.



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