What people in the US know about Islam and the Arab world is a series of stupid cliches: Edward Said



New York: It’s a frigid morning on the urbane East Side and the hulky American-made Chevrolet Caprice Classic is guzzling its way past Central Park and its standard smattering of joggers and roller-bladers covered with lycra and spandex. Now and then the cab makes a loud clunkety sound, let off from somewhere within its mammoth eight-cylinder engine, and the Haitian born driver makes token protests in response, mostly in monosyllables.

“This car’s a piece of you know what man,” says Michael the cabbie. “But when we get there you say when to stop man and I make this thing stop as good as I can.” This is the last thing he says as we hurtle down a maze of city streets until we finally reach the Morningside Heights neighborhood, a sort of American equivalent of Kharadar gone help where Columbia University is located. “What you wanna do here man?” he says now, putting on a large pair of Rayban Wayfarer sunglasses and pointing to my Dictaphone. “You wanna interview somebody or what?” In truth, of course, it’s more than the mini tape recorder that’s giving away his passenger as a foreign journalist. Michael picked up his fare at the Overseas Press Club and he is probing to see if he has I a vulnerable newcomer on his hands.

The Fourth Estate is a worldwide victim of shark cab-drivers and New York is no different. To make matters worse, I am carrying a copy of The Jerusalem Post overseas edition in my hands, a sure sign for any driver that his passenger deserves no more than the full treatment. I peer at the meter, answer yes to his question, and hand him the exact fare. It’s a coup; he is shocked and dismayed. But he insists that he is genuinely interested and wants to know the subject of the interview. So, I say “Edward Said” and explain who Said is, unprepared for his response.

“Goddamned Arabs” he exults, guffawing, obviously unaware of the racist charge of his outburst. “You go put those Jews in their place brother,” he screams, loud enough for a group at a nearby bus stop to hear. “Show them man”, his voice booms as the cab clunkety-clunks once and disappears, leaving just his unreconstructed racism and a bad taste in the mouth. It will stay with me for the course of the day.

In a way, of course, it is relevant. Arab and Jew, Muslim and Palestinian. Wog and hymie. One only needs to visit New York, not to mention the Middle East, to realise that these distinctions, real and imaginary, convenient and hustling, continue to inform social and political discourse. “Compared to us”, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir once told the Palestinians, “you are like grasshopper.” And in America’s great universities and across Washington D.C, at well- funded think-tanks, it is still not passe to talk about ‘Arab attitudes’ and the ‘Muslim mind’. To regard peoples who are different from oneself and may have different beliefs or espouse a separate set of ideals as somehow less legitimate or inferior.

Edward W. Said, Professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia, friend and advisor of the Palestine National Council, writer, historian and critic, has been explicating these ugly truths for well over twenty years. A prolific producer of books and a relentless destroyer of wordprocessor keyboards, Said is seen by many as having singlehandedly wrought a sea change in the way the western mind perceives its oriental opposite, a process whose implications of knowledge and power he explained in his landmark 1978 work Orientalism.

His other works include Covering Islam, which documented in painstaking detail the hypocracies of mainstream US news coverage, and his three books dealing with the issue closest to his heart, Palestine: The Question of Palestine, Blaming the Victims, and After the Last Sky. The last book takes its title from a poem by Mahmoud Darvish, the national poet of the Palestinians, and was produced in collaboration with the photographer Jean Mohr.

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