Life beyond Edward: how Mariam Said is carving her own legacy
The no-nonsense cultural pioneer Mariam Said, widow of revered Palestinian scholar Edward, talks to us about helping young Arabs pursue careers in the arts
Yes, Mariam Said is guardian of the life’s work of one of the Arab world’s most revered thinkers, her late husband Edward Said. But she is also a straight talker who prefers to simply get on with things, and is creating a legacy of her own.
“I come from a family that deals with things directly. If there was something that needed to be done, we just did it,” she says. “Also, if there are some things that need to be said, I just tell you directly. I don’t really sugar-coat it.”
Said exhibits this unflappable, no-nonsense style as co-steward of the Barenboim-Said Akademie. The school is not only a champion of world music and diplomacy, but it is also an organisation that delivers real change to the lives of young Palestinians dispossessed of their land, by helping them pursue careers in the arts.
The idea for the academy was first formed in 1999, after conductor Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said held a workshop in Ramallah to help young musicians from the Arab world. The two men created the West-Eastern Divan orchestra that year,
a multi-faith collective that continues to tour the world – they performed in Abu Dhabi in 2014 – and spread a powerful message of peace in the face of an increasingly cynical Middle Eastern political landscape.
The academy opened in 2016, but Edward Said was not there to see it. His death 13 years earlier, at the age of 67, meant his widow took over the reins. Mariam’s co-management of the organisation has led her to help with musical workshops and training, as well as giving performance opportunities to young Arabs. She accepted this year’s Abu Dhabi Festival Award on behalf of the academy, an accolade that recognised this work.
Talking to The National after the ceremony, she says that the award offered a rare opportunity to reflect on what her career, and the organisation, is all about. “It is about getting to know the other. It is about working together and finding a way how to co-exist,” she says. “But the most important aspect is exposing one thing to the other. Music is the link that could carry us one step further.”
Growing up in a revolutionary Arab world
While her life is fulfilling, Mariam explains that this is not the life she imagined she would have 15 years ago. In 2003, her husband was being treated for a rare strand of leukaemia, and Mariam was planning to retire from her banking job to spend more time with him. She admits that his death in September that year – a loss that was mourned globally – left her uncertain of what to do. She continued to work as a means of coping.
“I didn’t want to just change everything in my life at the same time. So I kept working, but after five months I realised I had a lot more to do because of what Edward was involved in,” she says. “I had to deal with his projects, papers, the foundation and the whole legacy. So eventually I retired and focused on that fully. I didn’t want to make myself anxious.”
We grew up with the belief that all people are equal, and to respect any human being regardless of colour, religion or what have you.
It’s tempting to describe Mariam as simply the protector of her husband’s legacy, which is one of inclusion and education through the arts, but that would be unfair. Edward Said may have had the intellectual rigour and captivating stage presence to deliver his message to the world, but Mariam shares his philosophy, it is a view she grew up with.
Born in Beirut to a Quaker father and stern headmistress mother, Mariam says ideas were freely exchanged in the household. “We grew up with the belief that all people are equal, and to respect any human being regardless of colour, religion or what have you,” she says. “This was normal for the time. In fact, I would even say that my mother grew up in a more progressive and liberated time than I did.”
The 1950s were fertile ground for debate. Mariam eloquently describes it as a time during which the “Arab world was trying to define itself”.
“We are talking about the period from the early 1950s, when the region was in flux. All the countries around us just became new ones except for Egypt, which we all looked up to at the time,” she says. “My mother was very much pro Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul Nasser at the time, and his ideas of Arab nationalism. Then, of course, we also had to deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
Meeting Edward Said
Mariam fled to the relatively calmer social climate of New York City in the mid-1960s. It was there, in 1967, while obtaining her finance degree from Columbia University, that she met her future husband. He was not his usually composed self: “I met him in hospital actually,” Mariam recalls. “His sister was there because she broke her leg. I knew of him from the family, but that was the first time I met him.”
Edward was 32 at the time and a professor in Columbia University’s English and Comparative Literature faculties. But while she was impressed with his career, Mariam thought nothing more of their meeting. It was only when the pair ran into each other again two years later, at another family engagement, this time in Beirut, that they struck up a friendship that led to their marriage in 1970.
While Mariam readily recalls the strict working discipline that led Edward to write his career-defining work Orientalism – a seminal critique of European perceptions of the Middle East – her favourite memories remain the quiet moments in between the work. Mariam recalls a home where classical music was always on the record player. “He loved Schubert and Bach, that was always playing,” she says. “He enjoyed listening to recitals. Another artist he listened to a lot was Glenn Gould.”
Behind Edward’s supremely confident and erudite stage and screen presence, Mariam recalls another side of her late husband, and reveals that the scholar was often wracked with self-doubt. “He never felt he was good enough. He always wanted to do more and he never felt that he perfected things,” she says.
“I would say to him occasionally, ‘What are you talking about?’ And I would remind him of the things he did. People like him are rarely satisfied.”
Edward was grateful to have Mariam steering the ship and he often described her as a stabilising influence. “He once said in an interview that I was the anchor of the family,” Mariam says. “I never really thought of myself that way. I just got on with things and did what I did.”
A content life
Mariam, like her late husband, has worked to provide a clearer and more evocative understanding of the Arab world in the West. In addition to preserving Edward’s literary works and continuing the work of various organisations that he either established or took part in – something she wryly describes as akin to the folio management work she did as a former banker – in 2009, Mariam published the English version of A World I Loved: The Story of an Arab Woman, the memoir of her mother, Wadad Makdisi Cortas.
This is part of life. You are always going to be defined by one thing or the other. I grew up with a well-known mother in society, so from the beginning I was referred to as her daughter. Then came Edward … I am not really bothered about it.
Such was the acclaim it received that Mariam collaborated with Oscar-winning British actress Vanessa Redgrave to turn the book into a theatre production. A World I Loved was performed at the UK’s Brighton Festival and in New York’s Miller Theatre in 2012.Considering those achievements, I wonder if it irks Mariam that she is referred to constantly as “Edward Said’s wife”. I show her on my phone how that distinction is made regularly, but she brushes it off with a chuckle.
“This is part of life. You are always going to be defined by one thing or the other,” she says. “I grew up with a well-known mother in society, so from the beginning I was referred to as her daughter. Then came Edward … I am not really bothered about it.”
Is there anything left that she wants to achieve? “I think, what I wanted I got, in a way,” she says. “I am implementing this idea that Edward had. And that is of music education, of giving chances for Palestinians and others to achieve, have a career and a good life. And while there are still too many people out there that need help, at least I know I helped somebody.”
Updated: April 1, 2019 12:25 PM