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Conversations With Outstanding Americans: Edward Said

A Christian Palestinian born in Jerusalem, Professor Said is a passionate and influential voice in literary, musical, and political worlds. A prolific writer, he is known also for his courageous expression of unpopular views on the Middle East

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When Edward Said recently visited his family home in West Jerusalem after 50 years, he could remember every tree, every wall, every window. He could point to the rooms where as a boy he read "Sherlock Holmes" and "Tarzan," and where he and his mother read Shakespeare to each other. He knew the road to the Sea of Galilee where the Said family swam in summers and ate roasted corn.

What Dr. Said could not make himself do was enter the house - the home the Saids fled in a panic in 1947 when a Jewish forces sound truck warned Arabs to leave the neighborhood.

Though young Said did not know it at the time - "I was shielded from politics by my parents until I got older" - that 1947 displacement set the course for his life.

He eventually came to America and established himself as a leading thinker, teacher, and writer - author of 18 books translated into 24 languages. His literary theory of "Orientalism" has acquired "near paradigmatic status" as one scholar puts it - shaping the way a generation of students think about history and culture from Africa to the American West. His political views on the Middle East are literally read around the world.

In some ways, Said's is a classically American story: "I came here quite young, and I came alone. From the beginning I took advice from my father: Don't spend your time 'being an Arab.' That is, studying the Arab world in an American university, which I think is a tremendous mistake. I figured the best thing is to learn as much about this country and its backgrounds and traditions - to assimilate - without losing my origins. I've maintained that. To this day, I've never taught a course having anything to do with the Middle East, or even with Arabic literature ... even though I study and read in this area all the time."

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