Said was born in Jerusalem in 1935, raised in exile in Egypt, and relocated to the United States as an undergraduate student in the late '50s. He settled into a teaching position at Columbia University after earning a doctorate from Harvard in the early '60s - a position he held until his untimely passing last month.
Although a literary critic by trade, Said's consistently shrewd and unflappable analysis of first-world politics and their effect on the world's cultural climate placed him on the intellectual map. Since the publication of his tour de force Orientalism in 1978, Said's contributions to the humanities and social sciences were numerous, and pivotal in defining contemporary academic discourse.
Said later combined his literary and political ideals in Culture and Imperialism, published in 1993. As a scholar of 19th-century English literature, he revealed the subtle hegemonic devices imbedded in the work of authors like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad with rare insight.
Palestinian by birth and self-definition, Said was also staunchly secular in his world view, disdaining fanatical religious movements tied to nationalist struggles, while recognizing that such hybridized movements are natural, reactionary responses to the residuals of colonialism. This was perhaps his greatest achievement: to live the Palestinian diasporic experience while being aware - and avoiding the perils - of the shortsightedness that rules issues concerning in the Middle East.
Said was also a member of the Palestinian parliament-in-exile until 1991, and was one of the most outspoken critics of the failed Oslo Peace Accords, for reasons that have come tragically and prophetically to life in recent years.
In his later years, Said directed attention toward analyzing the practices of his fellow academics. His essays often evoked the tenets of ideological interconnectedness established by Michel Foucault. Said repeatedly reminded his peers that none of their ivory tower suppositions - be they political, anthropological, sociological, or even literary - occurs within a vacuum.
In other words, to criticize the world, one must actively be a part of it. Few could say that Edward Said didn't practice what he preached. He will be missed. •