Exile’s Return

Exile’s Return

1.

On the first page of his memoir, Edward Said, professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, lately president of the Modern Language Association—a man well established in American academic and intellectual life—declares that he has always had an overriding feeling of being “out of place.”

Half a century of living and working in the United States seems only to have deepened the sensation for him. But, according to Said, it began earlier. Out of Place is a very personal, very subjective account of the life Said has led intermittently in the Arab countries and in the United States. There must be many reasons why a man feels as out of place as Said maintains he does. The reasons cannot be purely political, and Said, who together with his family has lived in exile from his native Palestine since the age of twelve, does not pretend that they are. This engrossing memoir by a critic and historian of ideas who has stimulated American and Arab thinking for many years is only marginally “political.” It is a family chronicle that deals more with Said’s internal makeup—the emotional minefields he crossed in his life—than with the strictly political events that have affected it.

Out of Place is not without self-irony, though one would have wished for a little more. “To me,” he writes, “nothing more painful and paradoxically sought after characterizes my life than the many displacements from countries, cities, abodes, languages, environments that have kept me in motion all these years.” “Ludicrous as it may sound,” he confesses, to this day he still feels that he is away from home. “Though I believe I have no illusion about the ‘better’ life I might have had, had I remained in the Arab world, or lived or studied in Europe, there is still some measure of regret.”

For thirty years now Said has also been one of the best-known and articulate spokesmen for the Palestinian cause. He has been the relentless advocate of the stateless, dispossessed, dispersed Palestinians, the innocent victims of the Arab-Israel conflict, the refugees—the “victims’ victims,” though this is not a term he uses in this book. Leaders make mistakes but the price is usually paid by the people. In half a dozen books and countless polemics in the press, he has spoken up for the disenfranchised Palestinians who, between 1948 and 1967, were oppressed by Jordanians and Egyptians and after 1967 fell under a harsh, increasingly brutal Israeli military regime which saw in them little more than a source of cheap labor for the Israeli economy and a captive market for Israeli goods. Years were wasted on a so-called peace process that never led to anything. Extensive tracts of private and so-called state lands in the occupied territories were expropriated by the Israeli military ostensibly for “public” purposes; the effect was to make room for more than 350,000 government-subsidized Jewish settlers. For all its celebrated commitment to human rights, the Israeli Supreme Court, on the few occasions it saw fit to intervene in these dubious expropriations, rejected appeals by landowners and human rights activists to annul them. Water resources were tightly controlled; settlers were able to luxuriate in swimming pools and water their lawns and roses, while nearby Palestinian villages rationed their drinking water from taps that might be dry for days.

Outside Palestine, the refugees were not treated more kindly. Arab rulers talked a lot about solidarity. But the Palestinians served only their propaganda purposes. In Lebanon and Jordan they were massacred. In the Gulf States and in Saudi Arabia they could make money but were given no permanent residence. Except in Jordan, where Palestinians are full citizens, they are hassled and discriminated against everywhere in the Arab world down to the fourth generation.

In the service of this unrewarding cause, Said has often seemed a driven man. A forceful and sometimes reckless advocate, he has provoked forceful and sometimes reckless responses in the West. Jewish Defense League hoodlums have accused him of being a Nazi. But he has also found sympathizers and friends. Some of them were Israeli liberals and Peace Now activists who quarreled with some of his political opinions but shared his basic view that the “Palestinian problem” was at the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict. They too believed that time was running out. Israeli settlements and construction projects on the West Bank and in Gaza were undermining the chance for a new partition of Palestine and consuming the space and resources that would make an independent Palestinian state workable.

Said’s rhetoric has sometimes been exaggerated. Some of it has been unjust, some perhaps overly personal (he once accused an innocent critic of being a Mossad agent) and, inevitably, a bit self-dramatizing. On television we all succumb to the theater of politics. Said has tended to abruptly dismiss arguments that the Palestinians might have done better for themselves if they had accepted some of the compromises offered during the 1930s, including the British White Paper of 1939, which, in effect, doomed the Jewish National Home to slow extinction. He argued that the Palestinians were right to reject partition in 1936 and 1947 because at that time they were still the majority, even though the result would have been a much smaller Zionist state established on territory largely occupied by Jews, while the new Palestinian state would have had more land and water. Much Palestinian political rhetoric, and much Israeli political rhetoric, can be characterized by Ernst Renan’s adage that getting one’s history wrong is part and parcel of being a modern nation.

But Said’s basic case, that the Palestinians are a people (Golda Meir famously asked, “Who are the Palestinians? I am a Palestinian”), was sound. The very people who made a fetish of “remembrance” denied the Palestinians’ right to a memory of their own. “Neither the Balfour Declaration nor the [Palestine] mandate ever specifically conceded,” Said pointed out, “that Palestinians had political, as opposed to civil and religious, rights in Palestine.”1 The Palestinians were not responsible for the breakdown of civilization in Europe. They were not responsible for the crimes against Jews in Europe, but in the end they were punished for them.

It is not difficult to understand Said’s pain and outrage. Ehud Barak confessed before his election as prime minister that had he been born a Palestinian he would have joined the PLO. It is also true that hundreds of thousands of Jews lost their homes or were expelled in the 1950s and 1960s from Iraq, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Iraq, Egypt, and Syria. But why must the Arabs of Palestine pay for this?

Said’s own family’s house and business in Jerusalem were expropriated by the Israelis in 1948 as “absentee” property and sold to private bidders. Though this did not cause his family material hardship, since they had considerable assets abroad, he has spoken on behalf of those who lost everything. He has evoked losses far beyond the material—the “loss of home” and “identity,” the abiding dislocation of hundreds of thousands of refugees suffering “raw, relentless anguish and pain.” He has spoken bitterly of the network of Palestinian towns and villages where his extended family once lived having become “a series of Israeli locales—Jerusalem, Haifa, Tiberias, Nazareth and Acre.” The pathos of the shattered past of his own family and their many relatives has never left him. The sincerity of the pain he felt is beyond doubt. An Israeli reader has much to learn from his book.

Some who condoned and sometimes even lauded Israeli acts of terror against civilians before and after the establishment of the state—two self-confessed terrorists served as Israeli prime ministers—have attacked Said as a “Professor of Terror.” They forget that he was one of the first prominent Palestinians who came out openly for a historical compromise with Israel on a two-state basis. In his many published comments he has made it clear that he abhors the crude cult in the PLO of the gun and of personality. He has insisted that there is no military solution to the conflict and deplored the widespread notion that Palestine could become another Vietnam. The solution, he said, must be political. It can be reached only if the two sides respect each other’s history and recognize the extent of the other’s disaster and pain. Some of this he said at a time when other Palestinians were gunned down by fanatics for conceding much less. He was realistic enough to know that there was no way to turn the clock back to the pre-1948, or pre-1917, past. His main demand was that Israelis put greater effort into recognizing that past and possibly make amends for it, materially but morally also.

The trouble over the years has been that both sides in the conflict claimed an absolute monopoly on suffering. Neither has ever seen itself as the aggressor, only as victim. The growing disparity of power, wealth, and influence between Israelis and Palestinians seemed, at times, so overwhelming it must have made Said fear that his cause was lost or betrayed by fools. But he never gave up.

In Out of Place he speaks of his pain and traces its psychic and material roots but touches upon political issues only now and then. He mentions only in passing the Israeli-Arab wars and the Oslo agreement. He opposed the Oslo accord as a sell-out to Israel by a Palestinian leadership that was discredited by its fatal mistakes during the Gulf War and was trying at all cost to stay in power. In his new book, the different phases of the conflict are only a backdrop to the story of his own life, and the lives of his parents and a large clan of uncles and aunts, first, second, and third cousins, their children and in-laws. All are now dispersed throughout the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas. He never mentions Yassir Arafat, whom he once intensely admired and for whom he served as a ghostwriter but now decries as a traitor or knave. Nor does he mention terrorism, about which, in a recent BBC documentary film, In Search of Palestine, he said only that it does more harm than good.

His story moves back and forth—from Egypt to America to Lebanon and from the mid-1940s to 1991. In the fall of 1991 he was suddenly diagnosed with chronic leukemia. He began to write Out of Place in 1994 while recovering from three early rounds of chemotherapy at Long Island Jewish Hospital. A first version was in the form of a letter to his late mother, trying to make sense of his life as “its end seemed alarmingly nearer.”

2.

Said was born in 1935 in Jerusalem during the British Mandate, delivered at home by a Jewish midwife. The former Said home is in a street now named for Chaim Brenner, a modern Hebrew classicist murdered by Arab rioters in 1921. (Brenner’s novels featured anxiety-ridden, antiheroic intellectuals much like Said himself). The Saids were a well-to-do family of Palestinian merchants. His grandfather was a “dragoman,” a businessman who accompanied the German Kaiser as interpreter and guide on his tour of Jerusalem. The family attended services at the local Anglican cathedral. The Anglicans first established themselves in Jerusalem during the nineteenth century as a “Mission to the Jews” led by an ex-rabbi recently converted to Christianity. He soon proved singularly unsuccessful in this task and turned instead to converting Greek-Orthodox Arabs like Said’s ancestors.

Said’s father, Wadie, was a naturalized American citizen who served in the US army during World War I and then returned to spend the rest of his life in the Near East. In partnership with a cousin, Wadie became a major importer of office supplies to the Near East with salesrooms in Jerusalem, Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, and Beirut. Said’s mother was a Baptist from Nazareth, of mixed Palestinian and Lebanese origin.

Jerusalem was too small for Said’s father. A year after Said’s birth his parents moved to Egypt. With their son and daughters they lived in Zamalek, an upper-class garden enclave in the otherwise teeming, dusty, treeless city. Zamalek was inhabited mostly by Europeans living in conditions of “semifantastic, comfortable but vulnerable marginality.” The family made frequent trips to Jerusalem, by car or by train, accompanied by at least two servants. These visits to Jerusalem during the mid-1940s acquired in Said’s mind a languid, almost dreamlike, but far from idyllic aspect. He writes of his experience there graphically but not without a measure of self-irony, recollecting his situation as a visitor to his increasingly tense birthplace.

He writes as well of an almost lifelong struggle to free himself from the shackles of a demanding family, the domineering virility of a self-centered father, the devouring love and emotional pressure of his mother. This is the main theme of his book and gives it a heavy dramatic tension. Wadie was a difficult, ferociously demanding man. His main preoccupations were making money and winning at cards, and he was good at both. He seems to have hated life in Jerusalem and in Palestine. Edward was supposed to become a good American. On Thanksgiving in Cairo the father insisted that the family have a turkey dinner, for “reasons of tradition.”

He feared that his son’s body might be “morally flawed,” that Edward might even be a “sissy.” He pushed his son to work hard and so carefully monitored his life that he even inspected his pajamas to make sure he was having wet dreams. If not, he might be punished for masturbating. Said was frightened by his father’s outrage at any young man who did no more than glance at his younger sister. During lunch at a fancy restaurant, the father leaped up, he writes, to yell at a young man at the next table: “I’ll tear your eyes out.” Turning to Edward he said: “I won’t let anyone look at your sister that way.” Said shrank back in consternation. “What if his eye turned on me,” he wonders, “who knows what he would have found in my feelings about my mother.”

Said writes that the “inviolate union” between him and his mother would, on the whole, “have shattering results for my later life as a man trying to establish a relationship of growing, maturing love with other women.” In later years, he says, their relations “darkened.” It was not so much that his mother “had usurped a place in my life to which she was not entitled, as that she managed to have access to it for the rest of her life and, I often feel, after.”

With an almost Proustian feel for smells, sounds, sights, and telling anecdotes, he describes his early days in Cairo and, after the 1948 war, in his family’s summer vacation house in the mountains above Beirut. It was not, on the whole, a happy, undisturbed life.

In a review in The New York Times, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt recently remarked that Said’s new book could be read as a classic immigrant’s voyage to America where, in an important sense, “everyone is out of place.” In his professional life, of course, Said more than fulfilled his father’s expectations. And yet, to him America is hardly a haven for the dispossessed. He is an American only by default. America, after all, is Israel’s principal ally; he considers that it shares re-sponsibility for the dispossession of the Palestinians. One might pursue Lehmann-Haupt’s thesis further and note the ironic resemblance between Said and a great many Jewish immigrants from Europe to America, and particularly their American offspring who believe they must be more pro-Israel than the Israelis and who, like Said, oppose the Oslo agreement as a treacherous sell-out of sacred rights as angrily as do the militants of Hamas and the extreme Israeli right wing. An advocate of an idealized binational state, Said must be bothered to find himself in such company.

Said’s problems with “alienation,” “place,” and “identity” started before his arrival in the United States as a boy of sixteen. It has taken him almost fifty years to become accustomed even to his own name, “more exactly, to feel less uncomfortable with the foolishly English Edward yoked forcibly to the unmistakably Arab family name Said.” His mother, who read Shakespeare’s Hamlet aloud with him when he was nine (she was Gertrude, he Hamlet), told him that she had named him after the Prince of Wales. In Cairo, Said grew up in the Shami, or Syrian, community and attended elite English schools. He was an Anglican Christian in a sea of Muslims, one minority within another, along with members of many other Levantine minorities in Egypt—Greeks, Copts, Jews, Italians, Maltese, Turks, Lebanese, and Armenians. He seems to have struggled with his several identities for years. He sometimes stressed the Edward of his name, at other times the Said. Arabic was his nursery’s language, English his school’s. The family used both languages among themselves. Most of his prodigious reading was in English. He says that he has never known which was his first and which his second language, that he never felt at home in either but dreams in both.

As soon as he became aware of larger issues, he says, he came to think of himself as having a discredited past. He remembers asking himself “why could I not have had a simple background,” wishing that he were all-American, or all-Arab, or all-Orthodox Christian (as most other Christian Palestinians were), or all-Muslim, or all-Egyptian, or something else, and did not have to face “the daily rigors of questions that led back to words that seemed to lack a stable origin.”

Wherever he refers to his father’s politics he gives the impression of subdued anger. There is in Said’s book a sadness about his father’s total lack of interest in Palestine but anger also at his own early indifference. That it took Said himself more than twenty years to shed his equanimity over the loss of Palestine suggests to him how overprotected and ignorant he was. The 1967 war changed him. Until then his only interest was English literature. His father had become almost immediately reconciled with the loss of Palestine in 1948. He himself, he remembers, never really confronted his father about this. “I had no available vocabulary for the question,” he writes.

Other relatives, except for one energetic aunt, were similarly fatalistic, paralyzed, and passive. This seems inexplicable to him now. In retrospect, their acceptance seems to him to have been shared by almost the entire Palestinian upper class of landowners, businessmen, and intellectuals who, even as they routinely blasted the Jews (and the British for supporting them), enriched themselves by selling them land. Like his own family, at the first moment of danger, in the winter of 1947-1948, they left Palestine for Egypt, Lebanon, and Europe, leaving the poor and the fellahin to fend for themselves.

Several years later, in Cairo, Said heard his father say of some relatives, “They had lost everything.” A moment later he added, “We lost everything too.” “When I expressed my confusion as to what he meant, since his business, the house, our style of life in Cairo, seemed to have remained the same,” all his father could say was “Palestine!” He felt protected by his talismanic American passport, Said says. What’s lost is lost, the father said, and there was no sense in harping on the past. He quoted a saying by Lord Bacon, as if it were “an authoritative seal to close a subject he didn’t want to discuss.” Both his parents deplored Said’s later involvement in Palestinian politics. In their opinion no good could come of it. He was a successful teacher of literature and should stick to his profession.

3.

Out of Place is essentially about Said’s formative years in Cairo and later in the United States. In Cairo he was technically a refugee, albeit a rich one, from the turbulence and wars of Palestine; he was a sensitive and precocious boy, an “uncomfortably anomalous student,” attending a foreign-run school with his “English first [and an Arab second] name, an American passport and no certain identity at all.” He was a rebellious boy. The language of instruction in Cairo was English; Indian history and geography were taught but little if any of Egypt’s or the Arab world’s. Said’s Arabic and English became inextricably mixed. His classmates were divided into “houses” named Kitchener, Cromer, Frobish, and Drake. The English director would not cane undisciplined pupils himself but had an Egyptian underling do it. The director would stand aside and nod with every blow and then say, “That’s all, Said. Get out and don’t misbehave again.”

The first rule at Victoria College (“Egypt’s Eton”) was that anyone caught speaking any other language than English would be punished. The school was designed to bring up generations of natives, cultivating their ties to an empire already in its death throes. Pupils were supposed to become, in British Foreign Office jargon, “Wogs”—Westernized Oriental gentlemen. Upon graduation they were expected to honor an unspoken compact according to which their status would still be inferior.

It did not make matters easier for me to have been born, baptized, and confirmed in the Anglican Church, where the singing of bellicose hymns like “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains” had me in effect playing the role at once of the aggressor and the aggressed against. To be at the same time a Wog and an Anglican was to be in a state of standing civil war.

The masters were all British, unmarried men of an uncertain age with a reputation as pederasts. The students (apart from the children of British officials and businessmen) were a motley group including rich Arabs from all over the Near East, as well as Armenians, Jews, Greeks, Italians, and Turks. Said’s contemporaries at Victoria included the future King Hussein of Jordan and a bully named Michel Shalhoub, later known as the film star Omar Sharif (at the time he was head prefect and Said’s chief tormentor). There was also Gilbert de Botton, the international financier, whose ravishingly beautiful mother was at the time a successful Israeli spy relaying vital information on Egyptian preparations for war to the Jewish high command in Palestine. It was a period of rising political unrest in Egypt, shortly before the revolution of the Free Officers. Said couldn’t bring himself to play the part of the ambitious young Wog and was thrown out of Victoria College for being a troublemaker.

His father sent him to attend Mount Hermon, a private boarding school in Massachusetts, in 1951. It felt like “banishment,” he writes. The chief reason for sending him to America was to keep him out of trouble in Egypt and make him qualify for American citizenship. (Regulations at that time still made it mandatory for foreign-born children of naturalized citizens to spend at least five years in America before reaching twenty-one.)

Mount Hermon was a weird place, founded in the late nineteenth century by the evangelist Dwight L. Moody. His stern instructions were designed to inculcate Christian and patriotic propriety. They were, Said writes, “an early analogue of Chairman Mao’s little red book” and were constantly quoted. The only Near Easterner at Mount Hermon, he saw himself as “marginal, non-American, alienated, marked, just when the politics of the Arab world began to play a greater and greater role in American life.” Even though he was either first or second in his class, he was never made valedictorian or salutatorian—probably, he suspects, because he was a Near Easterner. “With indifference that bordered on hostility” he sat through the graduation ceremonies. “This was their event, not mine.”

On the last page of Out of Place, from the perspective perhaps of his fatal disease, Said confesses that he has learned over the years to prefer being not quite accepted. It is a form of freedom and perhaps an engaged intellectual’s most precious gift. Out of Place was completed before the recent change of government in Israel, and his book leaves the reader searching for deeper reasons for his rigid opposition to the Oslo agreement, the only step forward, even if very flawed, in what has for eighty years been a hopeless and intractable situation. Even with Barak leading Israel it may fail. There is a chance, perhaps only an outside chance, that it won’t. I shudder at the thought of what the alternative might be.

At Oslo, Said claims, Arafat became Netanyahu’s henchman. In an article in The New York Times Magazine last January, Said despaired of the two-state solution and reverted to the old idea of a binational, secular, democratic, and pluralistic state. This idea now seems entirely utopian. Nor does the fate of other multinational states, from Cyprus to Lebanon to Yugoslavia, India, and the former Soviet Union, hold out hope that in Palestine it might be more successful.

The idea of a binational state may well be a pipe dream, but holding such a view is far from being a crime. Still, many people, it now seems, want to say that if Said is not a criminal he is, at the very least, a fraud and a cynical liar. Not surprisingly, the publication of his book coincided with a diatribe in Commentary magazine which purports to show that Said has no real Palestinian roots.2 In the author’s opinion, he did not spend his formative years there and now poses as a refugee even though during and after 1948 he “resided in luxurious apartments, attended private English schools, and played tennis at the exclusive Gezira Sporting Club.” The author of this diatribe is identified as a fellow of a little-known research institute in Jerusalem. He claims to have spent three years digging up such earthshaking news. Moreover, he professes to be shocked that the Said family home in Jerusalem, in which Edward was born, was registered not in Said’s father’s name but in his grandfather’s name and, after 1941, in that of an aunt and her children.

I don’t know what Said has said or not said in his many radio and television appearances. In an essay in the London Review of Books of May 7, 1998, he wrote that he was “born in Jerusalem and had spent most of my formative years there and, after 1948, when my entire family became refugees, in Egypt.” In the same essay, he also wrote, “I was an uncomfortably anomalous student all through my early years: a Palestinian going to school in Egypt with an English first name, an American passport, and no certain identity at all.” It would scarcely make a difference if he had spent all his formative years outside Palestine (as did David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir and a great many Israelis). Even if, as the author of the Commentary diatribe claims, his Palestinian birth certificate, issued in Jerusalem, gives his parents’ residence as Cairo, leaving blank the space for a local address, he would be a Palestinian citizen by virtue of his birth. In judging his views, it makes no difference whether he was rich or poor. He certainly became a political refugee in 1948; despite his Palestinian citizenship he was not allowed to return to Jerusalem. Nor were his parents and other members of his family allowed to return. They sought refuge from the war in Egypt, and the property they owned in Jerusalem was sequestered by the Israelis, as was his father’s business there. He was still a Palestinian even if as a child he made only periodic visits home.

At the end of his article the writer in Commentary reveals his true purpose. He describes Said’s alleged fraud as paradigmatic of the entire Palestinian case. For “Edward Said,” he tells the reader,

now substitute the Palestinian people…and one begins to gain some apprehension of the myth-driven passions that have animated the revanchist program of so many Palestinian nationalists whose expanding political ambitions often seem, even to sympathetic observers, permanently insusceptible of being satisfied through the normal processes of politics.

This is an outrageous extrapolation. It not only denounces the claims of Palestinians without seriously considering them. In addition, it evokes a most bitter irony: by casting Said as a dangerous, rootless cosmopolitan—a rich and privileged one as well—his detractor echoes, inadvertently, I hope, accusations that throughout the nineteenth century were leveled against Jews by anti-Semitic nationalists.

  1. 1

    “The One-State Solution,” The New York Times Magazine, January 10, 1999. 

  2. 2

    See Justus Reid Weiner, “‘My Beautiful Old House’ and Other Fabrications by Edward Said,” Commentary, September 1999. 

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