On Sunday evening at the Miller Theatre, University President Lee Bollinger introduced the Fourth Annual Edward Said Memorial Lecture with remarks on his long friendship with Said, whom he called “the epitome of public intellectual—a charming and dashing friend as well as an engaged political actor.”
Before passing away in 2003 from leukemia, Said served as Columbia’s university professor of comparative literature. In Orientalism, simultaneously his most controversial and most celebrated book, Said examined what he saw as the bias of Western scholars in their perception of the Middle East. Said criticized America for depicting all Arab nations as resources for either oil or terrorists, and thus, in his view, failing to capture the diversity and vivacity of Arabic civilization.
Said, Williams said, “laid down the foundation of intellect in a way that combines the tragic splendor of Socrates with the clarity of Aristotle.”
In the spirit of Said’s desire to promote the Middle East’s unique culture, which he felt the West undermined, the organizers of the lecture had invited Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish to speak on Said’s life and theories. But in light of Darwish’s recent death, the lecture became a medley of performances beginning with renowned Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh.
After Azmeh, Syrian poet Adonis came onstage with C. K. Williams, an American poet and professor of creative writing at Princeton University. As Williams read English translations of Adonis’ poetry, Adonis recited his works in Arabic. After that, Saleem Abboud Ashkar, a Palestinian-Israeli pianist, took the stage with selections of Bach and Brahms on a grand piano. Following Ashkar, Adonis and Williams returned to the stage to read “The Funeral of New York,” a poem that invoked soft chuckles from the audience at the poet’s humorous yet truthful critique of the city. When Williams finished the poem’s English rendition and Adonis his Arabic recitation, Ashkar again regaled the audience with two Chopin pieces.
Said’s widow, Mariam, concluded the event with a comment on Mahmoud Darwish. “He, like Edward, left us too soon. Much too soon.”
Abdulrahman and Ahmed Albashir, a father and a son who speak Arabic, praised the accuracy of Adonis’ translated poems.
Amir Kiyaei, a consultant in the audience who said he usually prefers Metallica to classical music, commended Ashkar’s piano skills for their power to “resonate in your soul.”
But Kiyaei said he enjoyed Adonis’ Arabic readings the most. He said hearing them felt as though “Isaac Newton presented me with the apple.”
Surprisingly, few Columbia students attended the lecture. But despite the low student turnout, the event satisfied local fans of Said and Adonis and continued Said’s legacy of celebrating Arabic culture.