“PLACES OF MIND A Life of Edward Said” By Timothy Brennan

An interesting new book on Edward Said by T. Brennan worths reading.  Below is Ayten Tartici’s comment on the book

The Restless, Eclectic and Contradictory Passions of Edward Said


Edward Said, at his office at Columbia, seven months before his death in 2003. Timothy Brennan’s biography, “Places of Mind,” draws on an imposing array of material to write the first comprehensive portrait of one of America’s most distinguished postwar intellectuals.

A Life of Edward Said
By Timothy Brennan

In 1986, Edward Said published “After the Last Sky,” a collaboration with the Swiss photographer Jean Mohr. The book blended photographs of the daily lives of Palestinians dispersed across the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan and Lebanon with commentary by Said. At the time, he had not been back to the place of his birth, what was then Mandatory Palestine, since fleeing in December 1947 at the age of 12. Narrating Mohr’s photographs was a kind of surrogate return. Looking back on the project 13 years later, Said wrote, “It is an unreconciled book, in which the contradictions and antinomies of our lives and experiences remain as they are, assembled neither (I hope) into neat wholes nor into sentimental ruminations about the past.”

The phrase “unreconciled book” aptly describes not only “Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said,” the new biography by his former student Timothy Brennan, but also — at least the “unreconciled” part — the snapshot of the contrarian thinker that emerges from it: Palestinian and American, Cairene and New Yorker, boastful and insecure, a Burberry-clad backer of anticolonial insurgencies and a public partisan of Palestinian self-determination who never once taught a class on the Middle East.

Brennan draws on an imposing array of material to write the first comprehensive portrait of one of America’s most distinguished postwar intellectuals: interviews with Said’s family, friends and colleagues; correspondence, essays, unpublished poetry and fiction; as well as the F.B.I. files on him. Yet in recording the mile-wide scope of Said’s influences, the book at times comes off as merely an inch deep. Several ideas Brennan introduces — why we should look to poetry as opposed to fiction as the key to Said’s intellectual formation, for example — are subsequently abandoned, like an undeveloped roll of film.

Born in Jerusalem in 1935 and raised in Cairo, Said was in part able to pursue an Ivy League education by dint of inheriting an American passport. His father had briefly immigrated to the United States and become a citizen during World War I, but returned to the Middle East, operating a successful business selling stationery to the British colonial bureaucracy. After getting into trouble at Victoria College, an elite British school in Cairo, Said was sent packing to Mount Hermon, a boarding school in Massachusetts, where he first studied philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle and Kierkegaard. Arriving at Princeton conflicted over whether to pursue music (he was a gifted pianist) or medicine, he instead chose to follow an honors track called “special humanities.” The program enabled him to combine coursework in literature, music, French and philosophy and to study with the prominent critic R. P. Blackmur. At Harvard, where he completed his Ph.D., he wrote a dissertation on Joseph Conrad under Harry Levin, a pioneer of comparative literature. Said would later refer to himself as a comparatist and was as enthralled with the medieval Arab historian Ibn Khaldun as he was with the Italian Enlightenment philosopher Giambattista Vico. Brennan’s early chapters, which explore several aspects of Said’s life, including his two marriages, familial pressures, friendships and advisers, as all constitutive of the provocative polymath he became, are some of the finer pages in “Places of Mind.”


Upon graduation, Said was quickly hired by Columbia, and despite occasional flirtations with other institutions, he remained there for the entirety of his career. As Brennan observes: “If along with Chomsky, Hannah Arendt and Susan Sontag he was the best-known U.S. public intellectual of the postwar period, he was the only one of them who taught literature for a living. Said reveled in this fact.” Yet, Said’s view of the American university as “a quasi-utopian place” of reflection did not mean he embraced a secluded existence. The enduring riddle of his career was his ability to remain at once inside and outside the halls of power. Echoing his references to the Lebanese civil war in “Orientalism” (1978), which situated his literary criticism in a contemporary historical and political context, Said conceived of literature as inextricable from time and place. Although raised an Anglican, he was an outspoken defender of the Islamic world against both Western predations and the misrepresentations that bolstered them. Despite that activism, he fretted over his political impact. “Although he let few see it,” Brennan writes, “he lived in agony.


One day on campus soon after “The World, the Text, and the Critic” (1983) appeared, Brennan ran into Said, who insisted that the scholar’s job was “first of all to have something to say,” but also that it was “crucial not to get caught up in the displaced aesthetic longing of the critic as an artist.” We now know that alongside his academic work, Said had long nurtured artistic ambitions. An admirer of Gerard Manley Hopkins, he wrote poems and attempted two novels, one during graduate school, in the summer of 1962, and another 25 years later. Studying one of the surviving manuscripts, Brennan judges the prose to be “fluid, assured and quite complete.”

Said was famously not one for acolytes and disciples, and it is good that Brennan is willing to read Said against Said. He notices in his former professor’s intellectual restlessness a tendency to press ahead just as the ideas he had helped popularize were gaining ground. Said initially acted as a key transmitter of French theory in the late 1960s and early 1970s, writing about developments in Continental thought for American readers and drafting thoughtful, appreciative essays on Michel Foucault. Yet by the time American universities were experiencing peak theory fever, Said had already sworn off the stuff, dismissing the obscurity of philosophers like Jacques Derrida as indicative of a retreat from the political world. Even the field Said was said to have given birth to, postcolonial studies, left him feeling ambivalent.

So, too, in politics, Said’s views were subject to change. A confidant of Yasir Arafat, he supported a two-state solution long before it was fashionable. He notably revised that position after the Oslo accords, which he considered a massive betrayal of any hope for an independent Palestine, and advocated during the remainder of his life for a single binational state. Changing one’s mind, publicly at that, was simply part of the intellectual’s evolving understanding of the world.

While brimming with this kind of detail, “Places of Mind” is strangely cursory in other ways. Critical Saidian concepts, such as filiation and affiliation, flicker into view, assuming an unwarranted familiarity. Brennan often proposes suggestive angles only to dispose of them abruptly, as when he glosses over Said’s intellectual engagement with feminism. Part of the problem may be Said’s prolificness, his leaping eclecticism and relentless energy. Despite a long-term battle with leukemia (he died of the disease in 2003), he continued to teach at Columbia, published book after book and co-founded with Daniel Barenboim the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in a quest, criticized by some of his own family members, to bring young Arab and Israeli musicians together each year in Spain.

In an era of professional specialists and self-declared experts, Said doggedly praised the amateur, the humanist who endeavored not to make audiences feel good but to be a nonconformist, embarrassing and roguish when it mattered. He stood for the relevance of the humanities in directly addressing the ethical and political concerns of our time and taught us to pay heed to what was omitted from narratives, to the strain “between what is represented and what isn’t represented, between the articulate and the silent.”

Without quite succeeding, “Places of Mind” aims to capture the thick Rolodex of names that steered Said as he developed those insights. In a chapter of “After the Last Sky,” Mohr included a portrait of an elderly Palestinian woman in a hairnet, smiling with a hand on her cheek, above the caption “Amman, 1984.” As Said noted in the accompanying text, he was taken aback when his sister reminded him that he personally knew the sitter, a Mrs. Farraj. “I do not know whether the photograph can, or does, say things as they really are,” he wistfully observed. “Something has been lost. But the representation is all we have.”


Ayten Tartici is an American Council of Learned Societies Emerging Voices postdoctoral fellow at Georgetown University.

A Life of Edward Said
By Timothy Brennan
Illustrated. 437 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $35.

Why can’t Britain handle the truth about Winston Churchill? P. Gopal



Why can’t Britain handle the truth about Winston Churchill?


Nothing, it seems, can be allowed to tarnish the national myth – as I found when hosting a Cambridge debate about his murkier side

Winston Churchill speaking at Wolverhampton football field in 1949
Winston Churchill speaking at Wolverhampton football field in 1949. Photograph: Mark Kauffman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

In a sea of fawningly reverential Churchill biographies, hardly any books seriously examine his documented racism. Nothing, it seems, can be allowed to complicate, let alone tarnish, the national myth of a flawless hero: an idol who “saved our civilisation”, as Boris Johnson claims, or “humanity as a whole”, as David Cameron did. Make an uncomfortable observation about his views on white supremacy and the likes of Piers Morgan will ask: “Why do you live in this country?


Not everyone is content to be told to be quiet because they would be “speaking German” if not for Churchill. Many people want to know more about the historical figures they are required to admire uncritically. The Black Lives Matter protests last June – during which the word “racist” was sprayed in red letters on Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square, were accompanied by demands for more education on race, empire and the figures whose statues dot our landscapes.

Yet providing a fuller picture is made difficult. Scholars who explore less illustrious sides of Churchill are treated dismissively. Take the example of Churchill College, Cambridge, where I am a teaching fellow. In response to calls for fuller information about its founder, the college set up a series of events on Churchill, Empire and Race. I recently chaired the second of these, a panel discussion on “The Racial Consequences of Mr Churchill”.

Even before it took place, the discussion was repeatedly denounced in the tabloids and on social media as “idiotic”, a “character assassination” aimed at “trashing” the great man. Outraged letters to the college said this was academic freedom gone too far, and that the event should be cancelled. The speakers and I, all scholars and people of colour, were subjected to vicious hate mail, racist slurs and threats. We were accused of treason and slander. One correspondent warned that my name was being forwarded to the commanding officer of an RAF base near my home.

The college is now under heavy pressure to stop doing these events. After the recent panel, the rightwing thinktank Policy Exchange, which is influential in government circles – and claims to champion free speech and controversial views on campus – published a “review” of the event. The foreword, written by Churchill’s grandson Nicholas Soames, stated that he hoped the review would “prevent such an intellectually dishonest event from being organised at Churchill College in the future – and, one might hope, elsewhere”.

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It’s ironic. We’re told by government and media that “cancel culture” is an imposition of the academic left. Yet here it is in reality, the actual “cancel culture” that prevents a truthful engagement with British history. Churchill was an admired wartime leader who recognised the threat of Hitler in time and played a pivotal role in the allied victory. It should be possible to recognise this without glossing over his less benign side. The scholars at the Cambridge event – Madhusree Mukerjee, Onyeka Nubia and Kehinde Andrews – drew attention to Churchill’s dogged advocacy of British colonial rule; his contributing role in the disastrous 1943 Bengal famine, in which millions of people died unnecessarily; his interest in eugenics; and his views, deeply retrograde even for his time, on race.

Churchill is on record as praising “Aryan stock” and insisting it was right for “a stronger race, a higher-grade race” to take the place of indigenous peoples. He reportedly did not think “black people were as capable or as efficient as white people”. In 1911, Churchill banned interracial boxing matches so white fighters would not be seen losing to black ones. He insisted that Britain and the US shared “Anglo-Saxon superiority”. He described anticolonial campaigners as “savages armed with ideas”.

Even his contemporaries found his views on race shocking. In the context of Churchill’s hard line against providing famine relief to Bengal, the colonial secretary, Leo Amery, remarked: “On the subject of India, Winston is not quite sane … I didn’t see much difference between his outlook and Hitler’s.”

Just because Hitler was a racist does not mean Churchill could not have been one. Britain entered the war, after all, because it faced an existential threat – and not primarily because it disagreed with Nazi ideology. Noting affinities between colonial and Nazi race-thinking, African and Asian leaders queried Churchill’s double standards in firmly rejecting self-determination for colonial subjects who were also fighting Hitler.

It is worth recalling that the uncritical Churchill-worship that is so dominant today was not shared by many British people in 1945, when they voted him out of office before the war was even completely over. Many working-class communities in Britain, from Dundee to south Wales, felt strong animosity towards Churchill for his willingness to mobilise military force during industrial disputes. As recently as 2010, Llanmaes community council opposed the renaming of a military base to Churchill Lines.

Critical assessment is not “character assassination”. Thanks to the groupthink of “the cult of Churchill”, the late prime minister has become a mythological figure rather than a historical one. To play down the implications of Churchill’s views on race – or suggest absurdly, as Policy Exchange does, that his racist words meant “something other than their conventional definition” – speaks to me of a profound lack of honesty and courage.

This failure of courage is tied to a wider aversion to examining the British empire truthfully, perhaps for fear of what it might say about Britain today. A necessary national conversation about Churchill and the empire he was so committed to is one necessary way to break this unacceptable silence.


“Women’s Day”- 8th of March: Equality, Dignity & Justice are still far ahead

Gender equality is one of the main topics I was interested in since my childhood. No prospects of any bright future for our human race on this small planet without attaining full equality between men and women at all levels: economic, social, legal, heritage, political representation, equal opportunities, choices & livelihood. Centuries of discrimination by a patriarchal structure, built on specific limited and politicized interpretations of customs, traditions, and religions pre and post BC (apart from one era where motherhood was dominant): all religions, mainly the monotheistic, and huge default representational policies that are still dominant worldwide, including Denmark,  and excluding two or three countries that insisted on 50% equal representation in politics: the majority of the UN 194 countries are still far away from the basic equality demand, covering themselves here and there by quota politics to women, which is partly positive but far from being enough. CEDAW -The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women- is a necessary international treaty that should be signed and implemented worldwide, without reservations. In this regard, special thanks to Moroccan and Tunisian women’s organizations for their remarkable achievements by adopting the “MUDAWANA”,  (short for mudawwanat al-aḥwāl al-shakhṣiyyah) which symbolizes the personal status code, or family code in law. It concerns issues related to the family, including the regulation of marriage, polygamy, divorce, inheritance, and child custody

Together with the environmental question,  and the freeing of peoples from discriminatory colonial/occupational policies,-especially in Palestine- gender question remains a priority worldwide to open the horizon for milliard of misused and suppressed histories and voices of women during millennia calling for just, equal, and full representational policies at all levels of social scala. 

(The photo above is of an international conference in Beirut with representatives from 13 different Arab and Scandinavian countries  – one out of four other conferences in Amman, Cairo & Ålborg –  I conducted when worked as a senior consultant with one of the best research centers on women and gender in the world: KVINFO (The Danish Center for Research on Women and Gender).  

A comment on “Empire, Colony & Genocide”, el-Araqeeb village & Macron’s apology to Ali Boumendjel’s grandsons

19 chapters of the book are covering a series of articles that extend from Old Empires as the Roman to the newly Empires of our era, analyzing the relationship between these three concepts (Empire, Colony, Genocide), and the interrelationship that bound them together, although seen sometimes differently in the context of each empire and its way to colonize, eliminate and /or assimilate the indigenous populations they occupy. Genocide was embedded in the structural form of the colonization process, whether the empires acknowledge it or not. Frances modern day of Macron tries to approach the issue without daring to fully investigate the colonial past. Macrom apologizes to the grandsons of (Ali Boumendjel) for the assassination of their grandfather, after 64 years of independence. The official report said he killed himself in prison. The chief of intelligence services admitted in 2000 that he ordered one of his soldiers to kill Ali in prison and wrote a report that he committed suicide,,,,, 15 million Algerians perished in the 132 years of colonization. They demand at least recognition from the earlier colonial power. The definition of cultural genocide was discussed at length, although not mentioned in the UN charter on defining genocide. Interesting contribution from experts on this domain. Nevertheless, and apart from one article by Lorenzo Veracini; Colonialism and Genocide- Notes for the analysis of a settler archive (pp 148-161). The same pattern that was employed in other colonies is applied as well in Palestine, as the article demonstrates. Anyway, there is a lack of a wholeness approach to the systematic uprooting and expropriating of the land of indigenous Palestinians, confiscation of their heritage, land,  libraries, properties, and hundreds of villages¨disappearance and the continuation until recent days of demolition of an el-Araqeeb village (see the photo of them above) in Naqab, for the 180th time until now, in 2021; and the insistence of its population to rebuild it again, a clear example of an ethnic and extirpation process that never stopped since the Nakba- 73 years ago.  Not a word of apology to Palestinians.

(NB) The International Criminal Court (ICC) will start investigating crimes committed in parts of occupied Palestine after five years of waiting. Coming late, for the sake of justice, is better than not coming at all.