A Distinguished Misfit’s Partly Palestinian Passage

Out of Place: A Memoir , by Edward W. Said. Alfred A. Knopf, 295 pages, $26.95.

Edward Said, an author with many claims to celebrity, has now written an account of his early life. Of Palestinian origin, he lived mostly in Cairo before going to an American prep school, Princeton and Harvard. His remarkable father was a United States citizen by virtue of having served in the U.S. Army during the First World War, and that made his son a citizen, too. Mr. Said’s academic career has been highly distinguished, and he is now, in his 60′s, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University and the author of several important works of literary criticism; but his international reputation probably depends more on his work as a political commentator, a noted and eloquent defender of the Palestinian cause. As if these talents were not enough, he is also a fine pianist and music critic, and a man of unostentatious personal charm.

Why, then, does he feel “out of place”? On one level, the feeling is understandable. He is not like other men, and not only because he is more gifted than most of them. Although his chief concern is with earlier years, he now and again reveals something of his strenuous life today. He sleeps very little and resents the time given over to that passive phase of existence (“Sleeplessness for me is a cherished state to be desired at almost any cost”). For some years now he has been suffering intermittently from a form of leukemia. The disease is incurable but controllable, and it has hardly slowed him down. He lectures everywhere and writes as he travels. This book, he says, was written over a span of five years or so, mostly in the hospital or in foreign institutions, in hotel rooms and other people’s houses, and always when he was never really well. And, though he does not say so, he was writing other books during the same period.

The son of a very rich businessman, he himself refuses to own a house. Although quite certain that his home base is New York, he is obviously a restless, unsettled man; far from complaining about his condition, he ends his memoir by saying he prefers “being not quite right and out of place.” It is in consequence of the style of upper-class Arab life in the Egypt of his day that he speaks English and Arabic, and also French, as befits an educated Cairene. The price of these privileges could be a certain sense of rootlessness.

Mr. Said is stuck with a forename he dislikes, a remnant of British imperial influence in Palestine and Egypt. He complains of much grossly inappropriate British schooling and even now rarely has a good word for the Brits. In this account of a life in many ways extraordinarily privileged (servants, cars, clubs) he says little, but not quite nothing, about anti-Arab behavior on the part of the British, who in his early years were virtually an occupying force. It was their general sense of superiority, their unquestioning assumption of colonial authority, that galled him. During his early education in Anglophone schools he was often bullied, beaten, accused of carelessness, of not trying, and so forth.

Some similar treatment was handed out by his irascible father, the most vivid character in this memoir. He seems to have been a business genius, a generous man with a taste for luxury, yet madly careful about the petty cash. His son always felt inferior and oppressed. He tells of a time when he was working for his father’s firm (“by far the largest office equipment and stationery business in the Middle East”), when he would line up with the other workers to get his weekly pay, but as soon as he got home his father would take the money back. (Perhaps he was thinking of what it would cost him to send the boy to Mount Hermon School for Boys, Princeton and Harvard.) Mr. Said was made to feel his inferiority to this powerful man in all manner of trivial ways–at backgammon, at pool, at bridge, at just counting. He was always at his father’s command. But he nevertheless expresses a sincere, indeed profound, love for the man, and as much or more for his conventional but almost equally infuriating mother.

Later on, Mr. Said came to attribute his rootlessness, his sense of exclusion, to the primal fact of the Palestinian diaspora, though his experience of it was not really firsthand. His parents were living in Cairo but made sure he was born in Jerusalem. There he stayed in a district occupied by Palestinian Christians, like his own family, but he seems to remember little about his not very extended visits there. It has been suggested (in an attack on Mr. Said in the September issue of Commentary ) that he sometimes exaggerates the importance of his intermittent residence in Jerusalem, but in this book, at any rate, he makes it perfectly clear that the family’s base was Cairo. So when Rommel threatened Alexandria and Cairo in 1942, the family got into a car and drove to Jerusalem; but when the battle of El Alamein stopped the German advance, they all went home again–to Cairo.

When Mr. Said speaks of the fate of the Palestinians at the hands of the Zionists, he is thinking about others, rather than of himself. In 1948, not yet 13 years old, he “saw the sadness and destitution in the faces and lives of people I had formerly known as ordinary middle-class people in Palestine, but I couldn’t really comprehend the tragedy that had befallen them … nor understand what had really happened in Palestine.” That there was a connection between the events of 1948 and his own sense of perpetual displacement was an insight that came much later. It is true that thereafter there was no Jerusalem to return to, but at the time the political issue seemed, not surprisingly, to have been of interest only insofar as it caused friction between Mr. Said’s father and his business partners, and their disputes were commercial rather than political in character. Three years later, in 1951, the young Mr. Said was off to America where he found a new life without, evidently, forgetting much about the old one.

Mr. Said remembers his childhood and especially his miseries at school, with what sometimes seems total recall. He was idle, messy, lonely and clever, and seems to have learned more from private reading and from the upper-class pleasures of Cairo–the opera house, Gielgud’s Hamlet , visiting orchestras–than from school. In fact, he was never very happy at any school. He greatly preferred American to British educational styles, but still has hardly a good word to say for his prep school, for Princeton or for Harvard, though by the time he got to Harvard he was very much his own man. And anyway, disillusion is the common fate of graduate students.

He was, in his own eyes at least, a failure at most sports and complains to this day of “feelings of physical incompetence” (“neither my body nor my character naturally inhabited my assigned spaces in life”). Yet he became a good tennis player and is reputed to have been, in later years, a terror on the Columbia squash courts (though he does not mention this aspect of his fame). The tone of the book is nearly always self-deprecating. Only toward the end is there any recognition of his successes, whether academic or sexual. One anecdote after another is of embarrassment or mild disgrace. It seems almost masochistic to remember so many occurrences of the same kind in such detail.

Out of Place , as an authoritative account of the early life of a distinguished and famous man, is obviously a work of some importance. One cannot say that the writing is as distinguished as the writer. It is, of course, fluent and civilized, but it does seem weighted down by repetitive detail. Rousseau to the contrary, it’s possible to believe that for the autobiographer it is sometimes as important to forget as to remember; however, I suspect Mr. Said would disagree, for he cherishes all the evidence he can lay his hands on that he was and, in the full flowering of his many and various careers, remains a kind of misfit. Modesty is a virtue, but that self-description is a little hard for disinterested observers to credit.