Edward Said to respond to claims he's not a true Palestinian

Middle East scholar is accused of misrepresenting his past.

Published August 26, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Perhaps the best-known Palestinian intellectual living in the United States, author Edward Said (pronounced 'Sa-eed') has been a spokesman (and a de facto statesman) on issues ranging from "Orientalism" in literature to the status of Middle East refugees. But as Said's autobiography, "Out of Place: A Memoir," comes out in September, an article challenges the Columbia University scholar's right to call himself Palestinian in the first place.

In the September issue of Commentary, Justus Reid Weiner's "My Beautiful Old House and Other Fabrications" begins with a major drive-by on Said. "In retailing the facts of his own personal biography over the years, he has spoken anything but the plain, direct, or honest truth," Weiner writes in a profile he says took him three years to complete. "Instead, he has served up, and consciously encouraged others to serve up, a wildly distorted version of the truth, made up in equal parts of outright deception and of artful obfuscations."

The scholar-in-residence at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Weiner takes issue with Said's account of his first 12 years in Palestine, from 1935 to 1947 -- the crucial years before the birth of Israel and the dispersion of Palestinian Arabs. Even though Said has called himself a refugee, Weiner claims that the scholar, an Episcopalian Palestinian, was hardly made a dispossessed exile by the Palestinian displacement -- if anything, Said spent most of his formative years in Cairo, where his family had a business and where his father, Wadie, was a permanent resident. He further contends that Said's family never owned the Jerusalem house that Said claimed it had to relinquish when Jewish forces took control of the neighborhood.

Needless to say, the article has outraged the Arab community. "It took him three years to write this? I could write this garbage in three weeks," Hussein Ibish, the communication director of the Arab Anti-Defamation Committee told Salon Books. Ibish argues that the house in question was owned by Said's father's sister, which in Arab culture would include it among the belongings of Said's family. "Basically this article sets out to imply that Said was not a Palestinian. What was he? An Egyptian? This is ridiculous."

Said, who is suffering from leukemia, notified Salon Books through his assistant that he would respond to these allegations in a column in the London Arabic daily Al Hayat Friday at midnight GMT. Apparently, Said will dispute Weiner's contention that his family didn't own the house in Jerusalem and will restate his claim that, contrary to Weiner's assertion, he did attend an Anglican elementary school in the holy city. Said will also take aim at what he maintains are Weiner's factual errors. "He will illustrate the poverty of the research," Ibish said.

Wednesday the New York Post ran an editorial about Commentary's take on Said, calling him the "Palestinian Tawana Brawley." The Post piece (edited by Commentary editor-at-large Norman Podhoretz's son John) also compared Said to Rigoberta Menchz, the Guatemalan Nobel Peace Prize-winner who falsified details of her memoir.

By Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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