An outsider's inside story

The Palestinians' champion is under siege again, as he has been since childhood

Stephen Howe
Tuesday 28 September 1999 23:00

Out of Place: a memoir by Edward W Said (Granta, £25, 298pp)

Out of Place: a memoir by Edward W Said (Granta, £25, 298pp)

In An Egyptian Childhood - the first modern Arab autobiography, and also the first modern Arabic literary work to gain international attention - Taha Hussein urges that "The memory of man plays strange tricks when he tries to recall the events of his childhood; for it depicts some incidents as clearly as though they had happened a short time before, whereas it blots out others as though they had never passed within his ken."

When the man recalling the child is so complex a mixture of scholar, political activist, aesthete and self-analyst as Professor Edward Said, the processes of selection and distortion are immeasurably elaborated. We all tell stories about ourselves which involve elements of retrospective self-fashioning and cannot easily be disentangled from any "straight" recall of the past. Moreover, our families and communities, even nations, forge collective narratives into which they expect us to fit. As Said says, "All families invent their parents and children, give them each a story, character, fate and even a language". He goes on, movingly and tellingly, "There was always something wrong with how I was invented and meant to fit in".

Out of Place is first a family story, above all one about how Edward Said and his parents invented each other. The relationship with his father was distant and sometimes tortured. Edward found Wadie mysterious, severe, taciturn, even terrifying. He could never do, or be, quite the right thing in his father's eyes. His mother, Hilda, was a far warmer personality, his only real childhood friend. It was a bond he has never managed to replace, to transcend, or fully to understand.

When Said was diagnosed as suffering from leukaemia in 1991, almost his first action was to write a long letter to his dead mother, seeking to explain his life. Out of Place is, in a way, the continuation of that letter. Said has insisted that he does not consider himself an artist, but a craftsman. On the whole that has been true of his vast mass of political and theoretical writing, but now the self-judgement can be revised. Out of Place is a major work of art: the great literary statement at which his previous books had only hinted.

It is not, in any obvious or conventional style, a political book. Indeed, one of its achievements is the way the political forces shaping Said's childhood are always visible but never foregrounded. Yet, like almost everything its author has ever done, it comes surrounded by political storms. Said's memoir arrives on the heels of an already notorious article in the US journal Commentary by Justus Reid Weiner. Weiner has charged Said with misrepresenting his own past for obvious political motives, posing as a Palestinian and a Jerusalemite (and thus a refugee, an exile and a victim of Zionist dispossession) when really he was brought up in Cairo.

Weiner's attack is malevolent, strident and, in many details, obviously wrong. It certainly fails to convict Said of deliberate dishonesty. Still, it poses a real challenge and has done damage to Said's reputation.

The impression gained by most readers of Said's earlier autobiographical writings is that Jerusalem was his home until the age of 12, when the family was forced to leave. Certainly this had been my perception - and I have read almost everything Said has ever published. Out of Place, however, makes clear that while the family made regular visits to Palestine, his upbringing and early schooling were indeed in Cairo, where the family's home and his father's main business were located. Some of Said's statements - even more, his admirers' statements about him - have created a misleading impression about the centrality of Palestine to his early life.

The pressures making for this are evident. They include the sheer weight of passion and symbolism carried by the ideas of Palestine, of Israel and of Jerusalem. That weight presses anywhere in the world that has been touched by the great triad of Western monotheisms. How much more so, then, on someone intimately involved in the history of those ideas, who has not only constructed an influential public narrative about them but has come himself to occupy a symbolic, even iconic place within it.

Amid these cross-currents, Said has now written of what was in part "an Egyptian childhood", like Taha Hussein's. Yet it was not a childhood as an Egyptian. The Said family clearly thought of themselves as Palestinian. But this was before a fully-fledged Palestinian nationalist ideology took shape.

Geographical mobility, homes in more than one city, intermarriage and kinship ties across the region were all commonplace among the Arab middle classes during Said's early years. To move within the Middle East was not, as it became, to traverse clearly defined, sovereign nation-states. To suppose that a family like Said's "must have been really" one thing or another, Palestinian or Egyptian or simply, generically "Arab" (or, indeed, American, as Said's father sometimes liked to insist) is to project backwards a more recent rigidity of national identities and boundaries.

Said's childhood was cosmopolitan from the start. It had very little in common with the experience of Palestinian peasants displaced by Israel. But he has never claimed otherwise. His compulsion to tell those peasants' story, and to champion their descendants' political cause, has been an act of solidarity, not of appropriation or mimicry. Something else, though, has also perhaps been going on.

Out of Place centres repeatedly around the schism between two personas. One is "Edward" - the personality the young Said presented to the world and to his intensely demanding parents, built from others' expectations but also self-fashioned to meet, or evade, their demands. The other is a far more troubled and ambiguous inner self. Perhaps we should see the persona of Edward Said as an emblematic Palestinian refugee as another reflection of other people's expectations.

The Jerusalem childhood the most prominent Palestinian intellectual should have had, the exile who lost everything in 1947-8, the political incarnation of a Palestinian will to endure and resist: these have been further, much later emanations of "Edward". The less easily labelled or located child, always out of place, depicted here would then be the product of that other, more private person.

Said has reflected many times on being an outsider. He has stressed the intellectual advantages of such a position; and has granted the figure of the exile or migrant a crucial role in modern culture. Most of his work's greatest insights have come from this position on the margins. Out of Place concludes by reaffirming the freedom that can be won by being always "not quite right" - never feeling fully at home, and experiencing one's life as an unstable "cluster of flowing currents" rather than a solid entity. Yet it is also testimony to the emotional costs which that stance exacts.

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