Any biography of Edward Said is bound to surprise its author, as it did me, by concealing its point of entry. To find it, one must hack through a tangle of identities—author, pianist, filmmaker, State Department adviser, Council on Foreign Relations regular, New York belletrist. I knew him well enough to see him in unguarded moments, scotch in hand, but the more I wrote, the more he morphed before my eyes: half–literary theorist forcing universities to face the nonwhite world, half–media celebrity debating the likes of Jeane Kirkpatrick and Ariel Sharon on the nightly news.

Behind my turmoil—I re-wrote the book three times—stood an elusive fact. Said certainly did much, but what mattered more was his physical presence: this indelible performance of himself on the world lecture circuit. Aggressively curious, with piercing dark eyes, an angular jaw, a volcanic laugh, and a boyish informality, he struck some of us (his students at Columbia) as a slightly bullying older brother, whose vanities you forgave because of a loyalty that survived even anger. Forget his writings and just think of the charm behind the chutzpah. How else could he have managed to make the idea of a Palestinian state genuinely popular in the age of Reagan and, unlike his adversaries, do so without an army to back him up?