What nations are for

Tom Nairn

  • The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination, 1969-1994 by Edward Said
    Chatto, 400 pp, £20.00, July 1994, ISBN 0 7011 6135 3
  • Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures by Edward Said
    Vintage, 90 pp, £4.99, July 1994, ISBN 0 09 942451 7

The politics of dispossession is nationalism – an over-generalisation which at once calls for precise qualification. It is quite true that not all nationalists are dispossessed: possessors have their own (often strident) variations on the theme. It is also true that nationality politics did not originate among the crushed and uprooted: indeed its primary source was the nouveaux riches or upwardly mobile of Early Modern times, in Holland, England and France.

However, their national-state politics only became national-ism later on, when these entrepreneurial societies inflicted their success on the rest of the world in the 19th century. This infliction was Progress, which caused the un-progressed to feel for the first time dispossessed in the general and inescapable sense which amounts to an ‘-ism’. And it was out of that sense that the storm of modernisation emerged. The rest of humanity’s patchwork-quilt could neither evade industrialisation nor put up with it on the imperial terms initially offered. The result was a counter-blast aiming at modernity ‘on our own terms’ – the terms (inevitably) of what existed before the newly-rich (and armed) nations emerged to rewrite the entire script.

That script – the ‘history’ which some imagined terminating around the year 1990 – was mined by the very reality which it sought to recompose. In the dominant storm-centre itself a certain calmness could prevail: a false calm, as Edward Said repeatedly says in these books, founded on arrogance, ignorance and superior military force. The metropolitan view was that Progress was greater than its bearers and destined to triumph, regardless of the particular language it spoke. The Russo-Soviet or Anglo-British empires were simply vehicles for its dissemination. But outside the centre, wherever the contemporary frontiers of ‘development’ happened to be, metropolitanism was perceived as the exploitation of Progress in order to eternalise a particular national hegemony. Their civilisation will end by dispossessing us.

For collectivities, dispossession brings decease. The same is not of course true for individuals. All individual Palestinians could theoretically have opted to become, or at least have tried to become, Israeli, Jordanian, Syrian or (one of Said’s own identity-dilemmas) American. This option has always been warmly viewed in imperial or sub-imperial capitals like Tel Aviv. But in practice it applies only to the educated. The unvoiced logic beneath it goes like this: if only the ‘intellectuals’ (trouble-makers) would mind their own (individual) businesses and honestly assimilate, then the non-intellectual majority would, after a certain lapse of time, well ... disappear. Before nationalism arrived to change things, most ethno-linguistic communities we know about did disappear – or more accurately, were ‘disappeared’ in the Argentinian sense, like the Picts of North-Eastern Scotland. There was a time not long ago when the Palestinians looked like ideal candidates for disappearance. They could see the last sky coming, and after it nothing. Right up until the peace agreement last year there was no certainly of reprieve.

Another way of reading nationalism is just that: no more disappearance. For the majority of the collectivity, the collectivity itself remains the sole redemptive possibility. Hence its ‘death’, though metaphorical, is all too easily translatable into individual or familial terms. On the West Bank and Gaza, even though many Palestinians became successful exiles and émigrés like Said, there could never have been two million individual escape-routes of that kind. If ‘Palestine’ doesn’t make it, few Palestinians will. The point is not quite that nationalism is a matter of life or death – like the rawer nature which once prevailed – but that ‘nationalism’ has altered the nature of the species to make it such a matter.

The Politics of Dispossession and Representations of the Intellectual can be read as a single meditation on this theme. An intellectual ear marked for escape and successful metropolitan assimilation has turned back, and tried to assume the burden of those left behind. The burden is a crushing one. In a sense frankly admitted in these pages, it is too much for him or for any other individual. He has become the best-known intellectual spokesman of the Palestinian cause, yet was always far too honest and too honourable to be merely its loudspeaker. As the gross contradictions and failings of the cause have accumulated over thirty years, he has been unable to avoid registering and criticising them. So more is collected in Politics of Dispossession than scattered essays and reviews. It reads like a memoir of the Stations of the Cross, one continuous journey through the agonies and humiliations which have broken him apart – above all when inflicted, as so often, by those ‘on his own side’. The critique of Arab nationalism and Palestinian parochialism in these pages is more devastating than anything put out by Zionists or the US Israeli lobby.

Said suffers from acute identity problems. So do all nationalist intellectuals. But since he is a famously fashion-conscious individual critics have rarely resisted the temptation to mock his identity-pangs. Paul Johnson wrote of him recently in the Sunday Times as ‘a fashionable figure’ with ‘modish problems of identity ... It is not clear to me,’ Johnson continued, ‘who, or what, the real Edward Said is.’ The implication is that ‘identity’ in the political or nationalist sense is something like posturing in front of a mirror, but Johnson is the poseur here, not Said.

My father as a boy sold crowns of thorns to tourists near the Sepulchre ... Yet a few yards away, underneath a declivity in the city wall, we stumbled on Zalatimo, the renowned pastry shop whose speciality mtaqaba was a great family favourite. A wizened old baker was in there stoking the oven, but his ancient form suggested something only barely surviving.

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