Edward Said is known as a founding member of postcolonial studies and a professor of literature. He was born in Mandatory Palestine, a geopolitical formation in the region of Palestine that existed between 1920 and 1948. Since he was a Palestinian American, the issue of absence of a separate state for people who name themselves Palestinians was important for him. Said dedicated a paper called “States” to the Palestinian question. The main argument of his work is that Palestinians, deprived of their own territory that they could call their motherland, are gradually losing their national identity, and soon, Palestinians may cease to exist.
It is vital to notice that, apart from the occupations mentioned above, Said was also engaged in the United Nations (UN) as a consultant for the International Conference on the Question of Palestine. One of his suggestions was to put pictures of the Palestinians in the hall of the UNs building in Geneva. He was permitted to arrange this exposition with the only promise not to put any words on the images. Thereby, the essay “States” became a continuation of the exhibition, where he put all the words he wanted to say on the issue of the Palestinian question.
In “States,” the author writes about the Palestinians who are alienated from whatever geopolitical society and describes them as people who have their identity taken away. He uses photographs of Palestinian people to show their real lives, their deprivations, and fears. Among these pictures, there are photos of smiling children playing together, a street vendor, a newly married couple. At the same time, there are images of houses destroyed during the fighting. The key argument of the paper is concerned with the issue of stolen identity and the attempt of the Palestinians to keep on existing within the lost identity. Throughout the article, Said narrates about challenges that the Palestinians have to endure. The writer also draws readers’ attention to the way other people perceive Palestinian Arabs. For instance, he cites an assertion of a Lebanon citizen who says that “Palestinian children in particular should be killed because each of them is a potential terrorist” (Said 25). Thus, the people of Palestine are unjustifiably conceived as enemies. Said strives to reassure the readers and humanize the Palestinians by telling a story of this historical region in the Middle East.
In order to better understand what Said is writing about, it is essential to be aware of the history of the Palestine question. In 1947, the UN proposed partition of Palestine into two independent states: one belonging to Jews and another – to Palestinian Arabs. A year later, Israel proclaimed its independence and started a war with the neighboring Arab States. As a consequence, more than half of Palestinian Arabs were expelled or had to flee. Thus, the Palestinians spread all over the world, but none of the surrounding countries accepted their entrance. Despite the absence of political unity, expelled people left poorly united by the reminiscence of their country of origin.
Even 50 years later, the Palestinian people remained to be the unwanted guests to most of the sates. Given by the author, a quote of a Palestinian peasant during the negotiations in the USA at the end of the 20th century proves it. This man had to go to Lebanon in 1948, but then he was made to move to Africa, Europe, and the USA. The man continues, “today I received a paper telling me to leave this country. Would one of your scholars tell me, please: Where am I supposed to go?” (Said 32). This quotation makes the reader think that people without any logical reason have to move from one country to another, deprived of civil rights and the possibility to live without fear of the upcoming day.
As a result of the industrial revolution that ended in the mid-19th century, the identity of people shifted from their professions and families and became broader. Since that time, people began to identify themselves with states where they were born or live. This new system of identification united people, and, in the case of Palestine, this linkage between people became unbreakable. Although Palestine did not exist as a sovereign state, people proudly called themselves the Palestinians and suffered because of that. At the same time, it is difficult to maintain identity in exile, and, in contrast to citizens of other states, the people of Palestine do not take their identity for granted (Said 30). Said emphasizes that, from the Western rhetoric, the Palestinians, who were exiled from the place to which they possess primordial rights, are equated to “Nazis and anti-Semites” (Said 17). And this view is wrong since the Palestinians had never committed any crimes against humanity. The photographs prove that they are ordinary people and should be treated equally to all others.
Talking about the crimes against humanity, the Palestinian people have never officially experienced genocide in the way that Jews, Armenians, Serbs, Gypsies, and Pygmies experienced it. The goal of genocide is to utterly destroy people who identify themselves with some religion, nation, or country. The Palestinian culture and identity slowly evaporate with every new generation, for whom the initial events of the middle of the 20th century are very distant. It becomes difficult to save identity in this globalized world where all cultures merge one into another. Therefore, it is logical to assume that one day, people who have ancestors from Palestine will no longer be concerned with the issue of their national belonging. At this moment, the Palestinian identity will cease to exist, and no Palestinians will be left.
Scholars reviewing Said’s “States” agree with the author’s argument that it is a painful phenomenon when people are deprived of their nation and have to struggle to preserve their identity. Young explains Said’s concern about the Palestinian question by the fact that he grew up in the time when “even to cite the very name of Palestine bizarrely became a heretical act” (131). Hence, Palestinians were not only deprived of their motherland but also lost the mere possibility to reckon themselves among the members of the Palestinian community. They became people without a cultural identity, their country being destroyed and their nationality being erased. Said, in his “States,” clearly depicts how forsaken, lost, and unwanted Palestinians felt after they became exiles for some inexplicable reason. Lindholm argues that Said vividly shows exile as “a state of sadness, a loss not only of home and spatial relations but of community and sociality” (16). Said has managed to convey the strong spirit of Palestinians, but, deprived of their homeland and the national unity with their countrymen, they are almost doomed to extinction.
I would like to conclude with my own reflection about the Palestinians and exile as a whole. I think that Said did the right thing by turning public attention to the Palestinian question. What political leaders consider a mere reallocation of territories may turn into a personal and national tragedy for ordinary innocent people living in these territories. However, what is more disappointing is that prosperous nations refuse to lend a helping hand to exiles, like Palestinians, and accept them as members of their communities.
Lindholm, Helena. “Emotional Identity and Pragmatic Citizenship: Being Palestinian in Sweden.” Diaspora Studies, 2019, pp. 1-19.
Said, Edward. “States”. After The Last Sky. Columbia University Press, 1999, pp. 11-50.
Young, Robert J. C. “‘We belong to Palestine still’: Edward Said and the Challenge of Representation.” Conflicting Humanities, edited by Rosi Braidotti and Paul Gilroy, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016, pp. 129-143.