“A Bitter Disappointment,” Edward Said on His Encounter with Sartre, de Beauvoir and Foucault

In 1979, Edward Said was invited by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir to France for a conference on Middle East peace. It was in the wake of the Camp David Accords that ended the war between Egypt and Israel, that the author of “Orientalism” and ardent supporter of the Palestinian people, was invited to contribute with other prominent thinkers.

Said offered effusive praise for Sartre when recounting his adventure, writing for the London Review of Books:

“He was never condescending or evasive, even if he was given to error and overstatement. Nearly everything he wrote is interesting for its sheer audacity, its freedom (even its freedom to be verbose) and its generosity of spirit”

But despite admiring Sartre and de Beauvoir, Said was disappointed after meeting his intellectual heroes. Upon arriving in France, Said received a mysterious note informing him that, for security reason, the proceedings were to be held in the home of Michel Foucault.

Upon arriving, Said encountered de Beauvoir, who was lecturing against chadors, a cloak worn by Iranian women that leaves only a woman’s face exposed.

Beauvoir was already there in her famous turban, lecturing anyone who would listen about her forthcoming trip to Teheran with Kate Millett, where they were planning to demonstrate against the chador; the whole idea struck me as patronising and silly, and although I was eager to hear what Beauvoir had to say, I also realised that she was quite vain and quite beyond arguing with at that moment. Besides, she left an hour or so later (just before Sartre’s arrival) and was never seen again.”

30 years later, the point of conflict between Said and de Beauvoir is still hotly debated following Western assaults on hijabs, niqabs, burqas and other traditional Muslim attire. The defense of these garments, taken on by thinkers like Saba Mahmood and Lila Abu-Lughod is often deeply indebted to Said’s work on racist Western conceptions of the East.

Said continues:

“Beauvoir had been a serious disappointment, flouncing out of the room in a cloud of opinionated babble about Islam and the veiling of women. At the time I did not regret her absence; later I was convinced she would have livened things up. Sartre’s presence, what there was of it, was strangely passive, unimpressive, affectless. He said absolutely nothing for hours on end. At lunch he sat across from me, looking disconsolate and remaining totally uncommunicative, egg and mayonnaise streaming haplessly down his face. I tried to make conversation with him, but got nowhere. He may have been deaf, but I’m not sure. In any case, he seemed to me like a haunted version of his earlier self, his proverbial ugliness, his pipe and his nondescript clothing hanging about him like so many props on a deserted stage. “

But the dissapointment for Said was in Sartre, de Beauvoir and even Foucault’s unflinching support of Israel.

Foucault “very quickly made it clear to me that he had nothing to contribute to the seminar and would be leaving directly for his daily bout of research at the Bibliothèque Nationale,” Said recounts, “I was pleased to see my book Beginnings on his bookshelves, which were brimming with a neatly arranged mass of materials, including papers and journals.”

But Said was baffled by Sartre, whose position in support of the Algerian people was not enough to invoke a similar sense of outrage over the plight of the Palestinians.

“Sartre struck me as worth the effort simply because I could not forget his position on Algeria, which as a Frenchman must have been harder to hold than a position critical of Israel. I was wrong of course.”

Later, Sartre would present comments that Said suspected was written by a colleague of his. He further recounts:

“Sure enough Sartre did have something for us: a prepared text of about two typed pages that – I write entirely on the basis of a twenty-year-old memory of the moment – praised the courage of Anwar Sadat in the most banal platitudes imaginable. I cannot recall that many words were said about the Palestinians, or about territory, or about the tragic past. Certainly no reference was made to Israeli settler-colonialism, similar in many ways to French practice in Algeria…I was quite shattered to discover that this intellectual hero had succumbed in his later years to such a reactionary mentor, and that on the subject of Palestine the former warrior on behalf of the oppressed had nothing to offer beyond the most conventional, journalistic praise for an already well-celebrated Egyptian leader.  For the rest of that day Sartre resumed his silence, and the proceedings continued as before. I recalled an apocryphal story in which twenty years earlier Sartre had travelled to Rome to meet Fanon (then dying of leukemia) and harangued him about the dramas of Algeria for (it was claimed) 16 non-stop hours, until Simone made him desist. Gone for ever was that Sartre.”

Frantz Fanon was friends with both Sartre and de Beauvoir, and Sartre would write the preface to Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth.”

“All I do know is that as a very old man he seemed pretty much the same as he had been when somewhat younger: a bitter disappointment to every (non-Algerian) Arab who admired him,” Said concludes.

Read the full diary from Said here.

  • EditeVidins

    reads like a character assassination after being ignored

  • Zahra Aamer

    reads like orientalism embedded in even the greatest minds of europe. for the orient, however, there is no scholar greater than said!

    • P Oktori

      Your comment, Said would say, is very orientalist and would hold him to be one too, and not necessarily in a positive sense.

  • Steven Churchill

    I remember reading Edward Said’s reflections on Sartre a while back. What I find odd is that Said never seemed to take into account that the Sartre he encountered at that time in 1979 was an elderly, sick version of the man that he admired; from around 1970 onward, Sartre suffered badly from various health issues, losing his sight altogether in 1973, not to mention heart-attacks, strokes and cognitive disabilities due to insufficient oxygen to the brain. (This is all recounted in detail in de Beauvoir’s final memoir). Said seems to interpret Sartre’s illness as a kind of ‘moral failure’ or at least, as an indication that Sartre wasn’t really the person he thought he was, but that only demonstrates that Said didn’t know much about Sartre beyond his books.

    • Silvercrimson

      Sadly, that still doesn’t justify Beauvoir’s position on the zionist problem… much less Foucault’s.

    • Umair Tamim

      It’s a fair point. I think Said had a larger than life view on the man based on his works and was disappointed (unjustifiably perhaps). But I think he does hint at not understanding whether the man had changed physically or whether his views had changed. In any case, “gone was the Sartre” he had known and read about.

  • shareena


    Said’s narration in the book is more based on a preconceived paper writing on Orientalizing which Foucault’s material on critical tradition of the French on discipline and madness and civilization was a misappropriation but emotional despite being placed as the only one on the other side of the figured story; as ideological rather than a more comprehensive but partial ideology of the ‘other.’

  • saidhamideh

    Said’s seminal book “Orientalism” couldn’t have been made possible without Foucault’s central ideas about power and discourse. Yet he barely mentions Foucault in his book. Perspective.

  • weareallmonkeys

    As a female POC in graduate school at one of the top schools, I can relate with Said’s experiences of having conversations with white (mainly male) people from the academe at dinner parties and social events, and then feeling really disappointed – and at times disgusted – with the conversations at hand. The roots of structural and institutionalized racism run deep; I love theory, but before theory can have deeper impact on society, the root problems must be addressed. If not, theory can only provide as a blanket to cover the systemic issues at hand.

    • peen

      Interesting perspective. I too have conversations with (mostly American born black) individuals and they seem to be the most racist and disgusting of any person I have had the displeasure of meeting. There is a cultural difference that when addressed, American born blacks deflect, play the role of victim, refuse to denounce the glorification of drugs, alcohol and prostitution in rap videos, the fact that 67% of American born black kids are born absent their biological father, and refuse to take responsibility for actions with phrases like ‘he didn’t do nuffin’. Terrible.

  • Dadler

    The hijab is disgusting, as is ALL religious attire designed to “cover” women. Because it was sanctioned by men in order to treat women like property, Monotheism was the sad and violent shift from goddess to God. The world has never recovered. All three monotheistic religions, as they currently exist, are entirely worthless and destructive to humanity, just as state monotheisms are. That said, who ISN’T disappointed by celebrity when you come to meet it face to face?

  • Sara Hassan

    very interesting