Edward Said - Palestine:Memory, Invention, and Space

Professor Edward Said, from Columbia University, New York, delivered the key-note address to the Landscape Perspectives on Palestine conference currently underway at Birzeit University. BZU News presents an extract from the talk below. Also available below is Real Video footage of the address. Birzeit OutLoud will be broadcasting tomorrow, in its November 14 show, further parts of Professor Said's speech to the conference.

"This is and interesting and important conference, in which there will be discussion about developments in 2 areas of interest that have become important for a lot of historians, scholars and literary critics, namely memory and a new and developing interest in geography. In this way it might be possible to talk about the landscape of Palestine. I want to begin by talking about histories and places that are not Palestine and apply some of this to the landscape of Palestine as well as the histories and people of Palestine and the peoples who have a claim on it.

"The history of memory includes the writing of memoirs. There isn't a novelist or personality of note who hasn't published a volume of autobiography or memoirs - from Kissinger to movie stars, novelists and so on. But in addition to those kinds of books of memory and recollection, there has been a tremendous outpouring of memory of peoples, tribes, individuals. Let me give you a few examples.

"In Europe there has been a great deal of debate about the past 50 years. One of the great subjects in Europe as you know - in which Arabs have not participated - has been the study of the Holocaust and the efforts to destroy the memory of the Holocaust by people who deny it. This in turn has led to the whole question of the Vichy regime that was established in collaboration with the Nazi occupation of France. Recently, there has been the trial of Maurice Papon, a high-ranking official in charge of police in the Vichy regime. This public trial has been occasion for the display of memory and an attempt through memory to allocate responsibility for the crimes of the past.

"In Germany for example, debate was recently sparked by a book from a young American historian Daniel Goldhargen, entitled "Hitler's Willing Executioners", which is an attempt to show that all Germans wanted to kill Jews. This is also a book on memory and recollection.

"In the US there has been a tremendous attempt both to use memory as an attempt to reexamine the history of the US and by opponents in the official branches of the administration to deny this memory. The Smithsonian Institute, which is the official national museum, has tried on two occasions to mount exhibitions about the past. One of these occasions concerned an exhibition about the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. That display started so much discussion as to almost close the exhibition because Americans didn't want to be reminded about what the US had done. The exhibition got so much opposition from the Congress and people who though it was anti-American that the exhibition was finally reduced to just a display of the body of plane which carried the bomb, without any captions or any comments. Similarly another attempt to use the effect of memory for exhibition purposes was the attempt to have an exhibition during a conference at the Smithsonian on African-American life. There was such a tremendous argument that in the end the conference was entirely cancelled. These are all aspects of current interest in memory. Because memory and its representation touched very significantly on questions of identity, nationalism and power and authority. Far from being neutral exercises of fact and basic truths, the study of history and memory both in school and university is largely a nationalist effort based on the need to construct a desirable loyalty to and an understanding of one's country, tradition and faith.

"As some of you know there has been a very big debate on standards applied to schools on the study of history. Who should we study? Should we study heroes, the great events of the past or should we study the people whom history doesn't speak about? The ignored episodes could tell us much about racial hysteria and class struggle, about shameful moments in our overseas and continental exploits so we could see ourselves more honestly and clearly. This is all part of the debate on memory and representations of the past and what is recalled about the past. The past just doesn't just sit there - we have to study it and take from it what is important.

"Related to this question is the issue of nationalism and national identity in which memories of the past are shaped in accordance with what we, and they, really are. National identity always involves stories and narratives of the past, its founding fathers and documents, major events and so on. This is never undisputed, its not just a matter of facts. Again, in the US, the 500th anniversary of 1492 which was supposed to be a celebration of Columbus' discovery of America also turned into a revelation by the victims of Columbus. The coming of Columbus was a catastrophe for them, the Indians who were later destroyed have a different recollection of this history.

"Similarly, in our part of the world here there has been a great discussion on the Islamic past. What is the proper attitude towards Islam that we should have? Should we recollect traditional ways of Islamic behavior and law that are concordant with early memories or are there new ways of understanding the past?

"In addition to that, I'd like to indicate how even in the study of memory which everybody assumes is real and authentic, there has been introduced a new element namely the role of invention and lying. One of the most interesting developments in this has been the study of the role of invention. Of course the most important book is the "Invention of Tradition" by Eric Hobsbawm and Terrence Ranger. They study the way in which colonial officials have invented a past in order to subdue the natives. They discuss cases including India and Ireland. In France for example, the notion of Bastille Day didn't take place before 1880. It is a new and invented tradition although the event itself took place 100 years before that. Not only the invention but the use for the past is very much in evidence in this part of the world as well. For example, the study by the Israeli journalist and historian, Tom Segev, when it comes to recollections of the Holocaust.

"The conflict about memory and tradition is a very important one. The other big subject which concerns me is geography. That is to say geography as a science of place, of topography, of location and the science of space. Take the word globalization - that is a spatial or geographical term and that is what many studies of the current political scene are based upon. And then if you think abut the knowledge of particular places - for example, Jerusalem. Jerusalem is not just a city but also an idea. A specialized geographical locale often signified by the Dome of the Rock, the walls of the Old City and the houses as seen from the Mount of Olives. There is much more to it than just a place. There are all sorts of invented history and tradition emanating from it but in conflict with each other. The Israeli government says for example that Jerusalem represents 3000 years of history but, in my opinion, to say this is a historical fact is to enter into invention and mythology. The conflict of what people think about Jerusalem is intensified by Jerusalem's mythological as opposed to Jerusalem's geographical location. The actually streets are covered with symbolic association totally obscuring the reality of what - as a real place - Jerusalem actually is. The same can be said for Palestine. One of the strangest things for me to grasp is the powerful hold of this place on the European crusaders of 11th and 12th century despite their enormous distance from the country. Scenes of the crucifixion and nativity appear in European Renaissance painting in a denatured form. None of the artists had ever seen this place or been here but they imagined what it was like. It provoked hundreds of thousands of people to come here and fight. After hundreds of years of living in Europe, Zionist Jews could view Palestine as if it had remained the same in time. As though it had stood still despite the presence of history and actual inhabitants. This is an indication of how geography could be manipulated invented, characterized, over and above the site's physical reality.

"Two of my books, "Orientalism" and "Culture and Imperialism", are based not only on the notion of what I have called imaginative geography but the invention and construction of a space called the Orient which bears very little resemblance to the actuality of the geography and the inhabitants. These books are also studies of the mapping and the conquests of the territory of what Joseph Conrad called the "dark place of the earth". Places like India and Palestine.

"One of the things that fascinates me is that is always the conquerors that draw maps. If you want to conquer a place you send out cartographers. For example, in 1883 the British had what they called an ordinance survey of Ireland. What they did is they went out and mapped the major places of Ireland. The British, in order to consolidate their hold of it, created this map survey in which not only did they draw lines but they also renamed many of the Irish places and changed the Gaelic names into English names. They did the same in India in the 1860s and 70s and of course the major mappings of Palestine by the British and the Zionist were something that the local geographers - Palestinian geographers never did. Most of the maps used in the negotiations are Israeli maps. There are no Palestinian maps which are - if you like - part of the science of geography."