Living among the locals

Edward Said’s disappointment after meeting Sartre, Foucault and De Beauvoir

Palestinian-American scholar, Edward Said (1935-2003,) is considered one of the region’s most significant literary critics, dedicating most of his work to the struggles of Palestine and the Arab world. His 1978 book, Orientalismhas become integral to post-colonial schools of thoughts.

Said was fascinated by French philosophers like Jean-Paul SartreSimone de Beauvoir, and Michel Foucault.

Sartre was a leading Existentialist thinker, de Beauvoir’s writings on gender significantly contributed to the second wave of feminism, and Foucault’s skepticism made him a renowned philosopher and historian.

Eager to discover the three philosophers’ perspectives on the Arab region’s issues, Said was thrilled when he received an invitation from de Beauvoir and Sartre in 1979 to attend a conference on the Middle East in Paris. 

“It might just as well have been an invitation from Cosima and Richard Wagner to come to Bayreuth, or from T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf to spend an afternoon at the offices of the Dial,” he recalls in his diary.

When Said reached Paris, he was surprised to learn that the proceedings had been shifted to Foucault’s house for ambiguously unexplained security reasons. The next few days continued in the same chaotic manner.

The themes of the event had been chosen by an acquaintance of Sartre without consulting with any of the participants. None of the Arab scholars were happy with the selected topics “covering more or less familiar ground, with no real meeting of minds” and neglecting the struggle of the Palestinians. 

“It soon enough became clear that Israel’s enhancement was the real subject of the meeting, not the Arabs or the Palestinians,” Said wrote

Such was the attitude of Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Foucault, Said discovered. 

Even though Said and Foucault chatted amiably – and Said was pleased to see one of his books on the latter’s bookshelves – Foucault was reluctant to discuss anything regarding the Middle East.

Stories of Foucault leaving Tunisia – where he was a professor in the philosophy department at the University of Tunis – were never proven completely. A fellow professor told Said that Foucault left after anti-Israel riots filled the streets in Tunisia, while others suggested his homosexual activities with students was the reason he was deported from the country.

Pro-Palestine French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, had also told Said that he had fallen out with Foucault because of the latter’s Zionist views. 

Based on such accounts, Said assumed that Foucault’s reluctance to discuss Arab affairs was due to his anti-Palestinian sentiments.

As for de Beauvoir, Said remembers her as “lecturing anyone who would listen about her forthcoming trip to Teheran with Kate Millett, where they were planning to demonstrate against the chador.”

To the Palestinian-American writer, who had been looking forward to discussions with her, the idea seemed “patronising and silly” and he soon realized that she was vain and beyond arguing with.

Despite the disappointment in de Beauvoir and the strange encounter with Foucault, Said still maintained high expectations of his hero Sartre. 

After all, he had opposed his own country’s occupation of Algeria, a position that “as a Frenchman must have been harder to hold than a position critical of Israel.”

However, he was wrong. Sartre was a staunch supporter of Israel. In fact, his pro-Zionist views had ruptured his friendship with the pro-Palestine French novelist Jean Genet.

The Existentialist thinker showed up late and contributed little to the seminar. Sartre praised the former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who had just signed the Camp David Accords – a peace agreement between Egypt and Isreal – with no mention of the Palestinian struggle.

Said was “shattered” to discover that “the justice of the Arab cause simply could not make an impression on [Sartre] … whether that was because he was afraid of seeming anti-semitic, or because he felt guilt about the Holocaust, or because he allowed himself no deep appreciation of the Palestinians as victims … or for some other reason, I shall never know.”

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About Yasmin Helal

Having lived in the GCC, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran, Yasmin is a journalist who enjoys writing travel and culture features.

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