Salman Rushdie: The purpose of this evening is to talk about Edward’s new book, After the Last Sky. footnote First I would like briefly to introduce Edward—although, judging by the number of people who have come and are unable to get in, that may hardly be necessary. For those of us who see the struggle between Eastern and Western descriptions of the world as both an internal and an external struggle, Edward Said has for many years been an especially important voice. Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia and author of literary criticism on, among others, Joseph Conrad, Edward has always had the distinguishing feature that he reads the world as closely as he reads books. We need only think of that major trilogy which precedes After the Last Sky. In the first volume, Orientalism, he analysed ‘the affiliation of knowledge with power’, discussing how the scholars of the period of Empire helped to create an image of the East which provided the justification for the supremacist ideology of imperialism. This was followed by The Question of Palestine, which described the struggle between a world primarily shaped by Western ideas—that of Zionism and later of Israel—and the largely ‘oriental’ realities of Arab Palestine. Then came Covering Islam, subtitled ‘How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World’, in which the West’s invention of the East is, so to speak, brought up to date through a discussion of responses to the islamic revival.

After the Last Sky is a collaborative venture with Jean Mohr—a photographer who may be known to you from John Berger’s study of immigrant labour in Europe, A Seventh Man. Its title is taken from a poem, The Earth Is Closing on Us, by the national poet of Palestine, Mahmoud Darvish, and I would like to start by reading this.

The earth is closing on us, pushing us through the last passage, and we tear off our limbs to pass through.
The earth is squeezing us. I wish we were its wheat so we could die and live again. I wish the earth was our mother
So she’d be kind to us. I wish we were pictures on the rocks for our dreams to carry.
As mirrors. We saw the faces of those to be killed by the last of us in the last defence of the soul.
We cried over their children’s feast. We saw the faces of those who will throw our children
Out of the window of this last space. Our star will hang up mirrors.
Where should we go after the last frontiers? Where should the birds fly after the last sky?
Where should the plants sleep after the last breath of air? We will write our names with scarlet steam.
We will cut off the hand of the song to be finished by our flesh.
We will die here, here in the last passage. Here and here our blood will plant its olive tree.footnote1

After the last sky there is no sky. After the last border there is no land. The first part of Edward’s book is called ‘States’. It is a passionate and very moving meditation on displacement, on landlessness, on exile and identity. He asks, for example, in what sense Palestinians can be said to exist. He says: ‘Do we exist? What proof do we have? The further we get from the Palestine of our past, the more precarious our status, the more disrupted our being, the more intermittent our presence. When did we become a people? When did we stop being one? Or are we in the process of becoming one? What do those big questions have to do with our intimate relationships with each other and with others? We frequently end our letters with the motto “Palestinian love” or “Palestinian kisses”. Are there really such things as Palestinian intimacy and embraces, or are they simply intimacy and embraces—experiences common to everyone, neither politically significant nor particular to a nation or a people?’

Edward comes, as he puts it, from ‘a minority inside a minority’—a position with which I feel some sympathy, having also come from a minority group within a minority group. It is a kind of Chinese box that he describes: ‘My family and I were members of a tiny Protestant group within a much larger Greek Orthodox Christian minority, within the larger Sunni Islam majority.’ He then goes on to discuss the condition of Palestinians through the mediation of a number of recent literary works. One of these, incorrectly called an Arab Tristram Shandy in the blurb, is a wonderful comic novel about the secret life of somebody called Said, The Ill-Fated Pessoptomist. A pessoptomist, as you can see, is a person with a problem about how he sees the world. Said claims all manner of things, including, in chapter one, to have met creatures from outer space: ‘In the so-called age of ignorance before Islam, our ancestors used to form their gods from dates and eat them when in need. Who is more ignorant then, dear sir, I or those who ate their gods? You might say it is better for people to eat their gods than for the gods to eat them. I would respond, yes, but their gods were made of dates.’

A crucial idea in After the Last Sky concerns the meaning of the Palestinian experience for the form of works of art made by Palestinians. In Edward’s view, the broken or discontinuous nature of Palestinian experience entails that classic rules about form or structure cannot be true to that experience; rather, it is necessary to work through a kind of chaos or unstable form that will accurately express its essential instability. Edward then proceeds to introduce the theme—which is developed later in the book—that the history of Palestine has turned the insider (the Palestinian Arab) into the outsider. This point is illustrated by a photograph of Nazareth taken from a position in what is called Upper Nazareth—an area which did not exist in the time of Arab Palestine. Thus Arab Palestine is seen from the point of view of a new, invented Palestine, and the inside experience of the old Palestine has become the external experience in the photograph. And yet the Palestinians have remained.

It would be easier
to catch fried fish in the milky way
to plough the sea
or to teach the alligator speech
than to make us leave.footnote2