Palestinian Proust with a long tongue

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Out of Place by Edward Said (Granta £25)

Out of Place by Edward Said (Granta £25)

Edward Said's memoir of his first 25 years is an eye-opener right from the start. Diagnosed as having life-threatening leukaemia in 1994, he wrote much of the book in between bouts of debilitating chemotherapy. Famous and infamous as the most articulate, intellectual voice of the Palestinian Arab cause, in his acknowledgements Said gives thanks to the Long Island Jewish Hospital which saw him through the worst of his treatment. Indeed one of the most instructive features of this fine and beautifully written autobiography is the way Said stresses the essentially tolerant cosmopolitan nature of the "Levantine" outlook, always discernible underneath the tyrannies of colonial divide-and-rule or nationalistic hatreds. Recalling his Jewish, Coptic, Egyptian and Armenian schoolmates at the appalling English-run Victoria College in Forties Cairo, Said poignantly describes an inclusive and infinitely permeable milieu, "a dancelike maze of personalities, modes of speech, background, religions and nationalities".

Said was born in 1935 in Jerusalem, in what was then Palestine; his parents were both Arab Christians but his father was also a naturalised American citizen. Wadie Said, or "Bill", had emigrated and started work as a paint salesman in Cleveland by the age of 16. When war broke out, he enlisted and fought in the trenches in France, returning to Jerusalem in 1920. Thereafter he and his cousin Boulos started up the Palestine Educational Company and its sister business in Cairo, the Standard Stationery Company. By the time Edward was born, the family was phenomenally wealthy with a penchant for first-class travel and a summer retreat in the hill town of Dhour in the Lebanon.

Said's mother was almost 20 years younger than Wadie, and theirs was an arranged marriage. Daughter of a fundamentalist "native" Baptist minister and educated in the American School for Girls in Beirut, she cast a peculiar spell on her middle child Edward. Highly intelligent and artistically sensitive, by turns Hilda Said could be intimate and confiding, then outrageously manipulative and rejecting. This, coupled with the incredibly controlling authoritarianism of Wadie, left the young Said with a disabling lack of confidence which persists to this day. As one of the world's best known cultural critics balefully puts it, "I have no concept of leisure or relaxation, and, more particularly, no sense of cumulative achievement."

From the age of five, Edward was sent to a succession of expensive and snobbish foreign schools, and any free time was devoured by a rigid timetable of extra cramming and music lessons. Particularly after the Palestinian exodus of 1948, Wadie and Hilda projected their racial and religious insecurity in British-run Cairo on to their sole male descendant. This took the bizarre form of criticising literally every part of his body, as well as every aspect of his behaviour. Hilda denounced his hands as "deadly instruments", his tongue as "too long", while Wadi tried to correct his posture by slipping a cane between Said's elbows and forcing him at one stage to wear a corset. Obsessed with the dangers of self-abuse and nocturnal pollution, he once arraigned teenage Edward with the surreal injunction, "Go on then, have a wet dream!".

Bilious Levantine patriarchs like Wadie are standard figures of fun in the works of Egyptian novelists like Naguib Mahfouz and Albert Cossery. Yet Said's father confounded the cliches because, outside his Cairo mansion at any rate, he was a far- sighted and generous employer who cared for his employees and instituted bonus and incentive schemes before such things existed.

Wadie and Hilda are the towering figures in this memoir. Said is capable of writing like a gifted novelist, like a Palestinian Proust, when it comes to the nuances of his mother's caprices and his father's deadly mixture of worldly ebullience and inner coldness. Said also delivers some resonant pen-portraits. Outstandingly, there is his indefatigable and exasperated Aunt Nabiha who after 1948 devoted her time to badgering the indifferent Egyptian government about the wretched fate of the Palestinian refugees. Even more instructive is the complex figure of Said's relative Charles Malik, erstwhile Lebanese ambassador to the USA. In his youth a brilliant student of Greek philosophy and Christian theology, he turns from tolerant humanitarian to devious reactionary and finally, under the Phalangist Chamoun, invites in the Americans as a bulwark against Islam.

Malik, unlike Said, was unable to reconcile the tragic antagonisms of colonial demarcations, ethnicity and faith. Said, whose mature metaphysics seems to me to be very close to Buddhism, states his admirable recipe for sanity in his very last sentence: "With so many dissonances in my life I have learned actually to prefer being not quite right and out of place."