Edward Said’s Out of Place: a Memoir

Posted: November 7, 2007 in Edward Said, Out of Place

Out of Place: a memoir is the account of Edward Said’s life prior to his professional career. As such, it helps to explain some of the many paradoxes of Said’s identity as a public intellectual, literary theorist and political activist. The conditions of Said’s life are crucial to an understanding of his theories, political and literary.

Faced with a possibly fast approaching death, Out of Place: A memoir was written with a sense of urgency: Edward Said tries to make sense of the early part his own life, to reflect on the past and how it has transpired into the present. Said, a distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia University, a celebrated public intellectual and one of the world’s best known advocates of Palestinian issues, was diagnosed with leukemia in 1991 and began to write this memoir in 1994. It was published in 1999 and won the New Yorker Book Award for non-fiction. According to him, the memoir’s central purpose is to record a subjective account of an “essentially lost or forgotten world” (Said 1999: ix), the world he lived in from his birth in 1935 until the completion of his P.H.D. in literature at Harvard in 1962. In the preface, he acknowledges that his account has some historical and political value as the “unofficial personal record of those tumultuous years in the Middle East” (Said 1999: xi) as it allusively makes reference to WWII, the loss of Palestine and the establishment of Israel, the end of the Egyptian Monarchy and the Nasser years in Egypt, the 1967 war and the Lebanese Civil War. Also he concedes: “… my political writings about the Palestinian situation […] must surely have fed into this memoir surreptitiously.” (Said 1999: ix) Yet political events appear only fugitively throughout the book and he repeatedly states that politics were not a strong preoccupation in his youth nor at the top of his agenda at the time of writing. Instead, what is explored in Out of Place is the gradual and tortured development of Said’s moral and intellectual self-identity and we are led to believe that it is secular, non-partisan and disinterested.

Before moving on to the contents of Out of Place, it is worth addressing the paradox of Said’s dual advocacy of Palestinian issues, as expressed in his more political writing, as well as his firm belief that an intellectual should be fundamentally detached from political structures. Said has long been a proponent of an idea he termed ‘secular criticism’ which, in the context of literary theory, meant the rejection of narrow, specialized analysis of texts exemplified by post-structuralism. It is by this concept that he characterizes his intellectual work as a whole and that he rejects tagging on specialized labels to it like “postcolonial criticism”. (Mufti 1998) In his book The World, the Text and the Critic he says that we have reached at point “at which specialization and professionalization, allied with cultural dogma, barely sublimated ethnocentrism and nationalism, as well as a surprisingly insistent quasi-religious quietism, have transported the professional and academic critic of literature […] into another world altogether. In that relatively untroubled and secluded world there seems to be no contact with the world of events and societies, which modern history, intellectuals and critics have in fact built.” (Ashcroft 2001: 30 cited from Said 1983: 25) In a nutshell, what secular criticism attempts to ensure is a freedom from the constraints of intellectual specialization. Said also advocates an ‘amateur’ approach to intellectual pursuits, by which he means a rejection of dogma, accepted ideas, orthodox habits of mind as well the adoption of a breadth of approach which ultimately situates the text in the world, anchoring it in a political, historical and social context. Establishing the connections between intellectual work and its political and social realities is at the base of what constitutes Said’s concept of ‘worldliness’. (Ashcroft 2001: 15) Admittedly, by acknowledging the materiality of the text, the work of the literary critic is implicitly politicized and this exposes the critic to paradox and contradiction: “Criticism is thus not a science but an act of political and social engagement, which is sometimes paradoxical, sometimes contradictory but which never solidifies into dogmatic certainty.” (Ashcroft 2001: 32) For Said, as elaborated in his influential book Culture and Imperialism, secularism attacks more than just narrow professionalism: it undermines feelings of nationalism, tribalism or geographically defined sense of identity (Ashcroft 2001: 107) This attack, aside from being an important component of his critique of Orientalism, explains and even justifies some of the apparent contradictions between his political voice and his professional status.


A life of exile, travel and immigration has shaped Said’s identity: “To me, 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.” (Said 1999: 217) Born in Jerusalem in November 1935, Edward Said has lived in Jerusalem, Cairo, Lebanon and the United States. Permanently leaving what was Palestine for Egypt in 1947, then going to school in the United States in the 1950s and not being allowed to live in Egypt in the 1960s, exile has been a reality for him for most of his 66 years. Physical displacement, the adjustment to different cultures, his early life shared between two languages all contribute to a “complicated, dense web of valences that was very much a part of growing up, gaining an identity, forming my consciousness of myself and of others.” (Said 1999: xii)

If Orientalism is a text that examines the worldliness of Orientalist texts, then Out of Place sheds light on the world of its author. Said has lived in a multi-cultural, multilingual environment since he was born. He doesn’t remember which language he spoke first, English or Arabic. He says that “the two [languages] have always been together in my life, one resonating in the other sometimes ironically, sometimes nostalgically, most often each correcting, and commenting on, the other. Each can seem life my absolutely first language, but neither is. I trace this primal instability back to my mother, whom I remember speaking to me in both English and Arabic, although she always wrote to me in English, once a week, all her life, as did I, all of hers.” (Said 1999: 4) This last admission, revealing because it highlights the close relationship he had to his mother, is also understandable in the greater context of his totally English or American schooling and his career as a Professor of English and Comparative Literature.

In Egypt, where he lived for most of his early life (his father having established a very successful business there), Said’s family was part of a privileged group of Arabic foreigners collectively known as “Shami”: “‘Shami’ (Damascene) is the collective adjective and noun used by Egyptians to describe both an Arabic speaker who is not Egyptian and someone who is from Greater Syria, i.e., Syria itself, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan; but ‘Shami’ is also used to designate the Arabic dialect spoken by a Shami.” (Said 1999: 5) His descriptions of Cairo in the early part of the book are that of a truly cosmopolitan city. Rich and vibrant, full of porous and overlapping cultures and very much a melding of the old and the new, his family’s environment was the antithesis of the Orientalist concept of “the Orient” as being somehow static, homogeneous and backward.

Said’s mother, born Hilda Musa in Nazareth, was Lebanese and his father, Wadie Ibrahim was born in Jerusalem later becoming an American citizen. An unlikely American connection was purely coincidental: Hilda’s father had been a Baptist minister in Nazareth that lived for a short time in Texas. She had studied at the American University in Beirut. Said’s father, at the turn of the 20th century, had spent 10 years in the United States, serving in the US forces during WWI and later starting his own business. He obtained American citizenship and subsequently returned to Palestine at his mother’s request. (He would have wanted to stay in the U.S. and practice law.) Of his mixed background, Said concludes: “I have retained this unsettled sense of many identities, mostly in conflict with each other, all of my life, together with an acute memory of the despairing feeling that I wish we could have been all-Arab, or all-Europrean and American, or all-Orthodox Christian [Said is Anglican], or all-Muslim, or all-Egyptian … [in order to] counter what in effect was the process of challenge, recognition, and exposure, questions and remarks like ‘What are you?’; ‘But Said is an Arab name’; ‘You’re an American without an American name, and you’ve never been to America’; ‘You don’t look American! …'” (Said 1999: 5) What Said was experiencing firsthand was more than just others’ curiosity about his unusual background, it was a manifestation of the kind of essentialism that he would later identify in Orientalism: how could he be all these things at once? At the time, this was confusing and traumatic.

Said contrasts his regimented life in Egypt with a relaxed and casual existence in Palestine where the family would vacation in Jerusalem before WWII. There, they would stay with his father’s sister, Nabiha, in what he thought was an idyllic setting: “I recall thinking that being in Jerusalem was pleasant but tantalizingly open, temporary, even transitory, as indeed it later was.” (Said 1999: 22) He points out that his memories of Palestine are basically unremarkable considering his deep involvement in Palestinian affairs later on: “It was a place I took for granted, the country I was from where family and friends existed (it seems so retrospectively) with unreflecting ease.” (Said 1999: 20) In Cairo, on the other hand, his life was on a strict schedule composed of school and a litany of parentally imposed extra-curricular activities including sports, which he didn’t show any particular talent for. The family lived in on a island in the Nile called Zamalek. It’s inhabitants were an insular group of foreigners and the wealthy Egyptian elite. The Said family kept to itself (Edward and his four younger sisters): “… Zamalek was not a real community but a sort of colonial outpost whose tone was set by Europeans with whom we had little or no contact: we built our own world within it.” (Said 1999: 22) Said had very few friends as a child.

As his life progresses, a disturbing trend emerges. The surrounding political and cultural climate goes from an atmosphere of relative peace to one of factionalism and ethnic/religious wars. The examples abound: the collapse of Palestine and subsequent ordeals of his family in less than welcoming neighbor states, the Nasser Years in Egypt, the Lebanese civil war. Maybe in reaction to this, his work has always stressed that “cultures are hybrid and interdependent, not water-tight and distinct entities.” (Roy 1999).

In 1947, Said’s family stayed in Jerusalem longer than usual and Edward had to miss several months at the Christian School for American Children. He attended St. George’s School in Jerusalem instead. (Said 1999: 107) Arabic was spoken almost exclusively and he felt like he was among people who were more like him. Jerusalem was divided into zones, a sign of the impending crisis of 1948 when Palestine became Israel. Said remembers a Jewish classmate he had at St. George’s: “One boy in my class has remainded clearly in my memory. I think David Ezra […] was the only Jew (there were several in the school) in Seventh Primary, and the thought of him still grips and puzzles me in light of the subsequent changes in my life and Palestine’s. […] When my family suddenly determined just before Christmas that we had better return to Cairo, my ruptured connection to Ezra soon came to symbolize both the un-bridgeable gap, repressed for want of words or concepts to discuss it, between Palestinian Arabs and Jews, and the terrible silence forced on our joint history from that moment on.” (Said 1999: 111) Said’s immediate family left in December 1947 and never went back. By mid-1948, his entire extended family had vacated the former Palestine. Said recalls with sadness the destitution among his relatives but, as a child, did not realize the magnitude of what had happened because he was largely sheltered from it by his parents. Said also remarks that his parents were quite ambivalent considering the scope of the tragedy: “It seems inexplicable to me now that having dominated our lives for generations, the problem of Palestine and its tragic loss, which affected virtually everyone we knew, deeply changing our world, should have been so relatively repressed […] or even remarked on by my parents.” (Said 1999: 117) At first, during Edward’s childhood and teen years, his parents distanced themselves from any kind of politics, sheltering him and his four sisters. As he got older, this would change but even until the very end of their lives, his parents were very cautious about politics, preferring not to be involved. He writes, “When I began to be involved in politics twenty years later, both my parents strongly disapproved. ‘You’re a literature professor’ said my father: ‘stick to that’.” (Said 1999: 117) The most contentious political episode was the 40 year quest to obtain a United States citizenship for Said’s mother. The father and five kids were American citizens, but it was practically on her deathbed that Hilda Said became American. (Said 1999: 117)

In the spring of 1948, the family went to the United States because Said’s father was in need of serious medical attention, and they spent the entire summer there. Edward went to camp, his first taste of life among Americans and his first separation from his parents for an extended period of time. He felt alien: “Nationality, background, real origins, and past actions all seemed to be sources of my problem; I could not in any convenient way lay the ghosts that continued to haunt me from school to school, group to group, situation to situation.” (Said 1999: 137) During the 1960s, Cairo’s cosmopolitanism was waning. Foreigners were becoming less welcome. He says “we were no longer just Shawam but knawagat, the designated and respectful title for foreigners which, as used by Muslim Egyptians, has always carried a tinge of hostility. […] I resented the implication that I was somehow a foreigner, even though deep down I knew that to them I was, despite being an Arab.” (Said 1999: 195)

At the age of fourteen, language became a “sensitive issue” in that he was beginning to feel uncomfortable in both English and Arabic. Arabic was unacceptable at school, English was the language of the dominating British. (Said 1999: 197) French, which he was learning at Victoria College, had a certain cachet within the upper class Cairo community. His mother, though she knew French, never felt obliged to speak it: “I was proud of my mother for conversing in Arabic, since she alone of the entire social group to which we belonged knew the language well, was literate in it, and seemed to feel no social disadvantage about using it, even though the prevailing atmosphere was such that using French gave one a higher (perhaps even the highest) status.” (Said 1999: 197) Ever since that time Said has been fascinated with language and can easily switch between all three (English, French, Arabic).

During the fifties, even while Said’s father’s business was expanding, Edward would come “home” to Cairo hoping to return to a comfortable normality. This was not possible: “the placid paradise for foreigners was beginning to lose its durability” as Nasser was taking over power from General Mohammed Naguib. (Said 1999: 272) Said, now living predominantly in the United States, became progressively more American in speech and behavior, and going back to Cairo on summer or school holidays required a conscious adjustment. He was growing independent of his parents and shaping a new self in the United States. In the summer of 1960, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s “Arab socialism” policies put a stranglehold on his father’s business by prohibiting or heavily taxing foreign currency exchanges. He had to resort to dubious and complicated business transactions in order to circumvent the crippling import/export and currency exchange laws. At this point Edward was a paper employee of his father’s enterprise (his father didn’t entrust him with any important tasks). One day, his father was not in the office and asked Edward to sign a contract as an executive of the company. The contract turned out to be illegal and Said, as its signatory, was unable to return to Egypt for 15 years, hence another exile.

In 1953, Said moves away from Mount Hermon, an American religious boys school where he finished secondary school, to Princeton University. Princeton was a homogeneous society: there were no blacks and few foreigners. Everyone wore the same clothes and tried to behave the same way. Said describes it as the same as Mount Hermon but with the “admixture [..] of beer and secular learning.” (Said 1999: 274) His reaction was to bury himself in his studies: “… my immersion in reading and writing was the only antidote to Princeton’s poisonous social atmosphere.” (Said 1999: 276) Said makes a point of mentioning that he majored in the humanities, and not in literature. This single choice allowed him to take a wide breadth of courses, strengthening the foundations of his “amateurish” approach. He was taught by “men of the utmost competence and philological rigor” (Said 1999: 277), who emphasized history: the courses were “all were systematically chronological, crammed with information, tremendously exciting to me…” (Said 1999: 276) Two professors were especially influential: a R.P. Blackmur, a literary critic and the reader of his thesis on Gide and Graham Greene, and Arthur Szathmary, a skeptical, irreverent Professor of Philosophy. His subsequent five years (1958-1963) at Harvard as a graduate student in literature were a continuation of the Princeton experience and were largely devoid of politics as he was immersed in Vico, Sartre, Lukacs, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty.

In his childhood, Said was a Christian among Muslims, an Arab among English, a Palestinian among Egyptians. Later, we find in Edward Said the contradictions of a Westernized persona and the political concern for his Palestinian homeland, the intermingling of professional and political goals. (Ashcroft 2001:5) The extent to which his parents raised him in the “Western” bourgeois culture is extraordinary: Said realized very late how insular his family “cocoon” had been, that it was “no model for future lives” (referring to his sisters and himself). His parents’ strong influence on him had in some ways reeked havoc on his personal development in addition to having had positive, educational effects in other domains. (Said 1999: 294) At the same time, in no way was he denying his Arabic heritage and felt terribly isolated during his first few years in the USA. If we accept that creativity often materializes at the crossroads of personal experience and one’s intellectual response to it, it is in many ways not surprising that an intellectual with Said’s past would produce works such as Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism. Edward Said is a quintessential counter-example of the kind of homogenization through nationalization that Orientalist doctrine would expect and prefer. Sweeping generalizations like “The Orient” used to describe the complicated histories and societies in the Middle East cannot explain the paradox of Edward Said’s identity.


It is clear from Out of Place that not being in one’s home country is but only one way, albeit a significant one, that Said felt “out of place”: supplementing his political or ‘physical’ exile, Said had a sense that he was not at home in his own skin, which is really what the title of the book refers to. If it would be adequate to draw one conclusion from such a rich autobiography, it would be that Edward Said was never once felt completely at home, that he has always been an outsider in some fashion. At the end of the book, he cherishes being out of place because it forced him to acquire a very defined sense of self and a unique and liberating intellectual perspective on society and culture, a quality he keeps coming back to: being out of place becomes, he writes, “a form of freedom, […], even if I am far from being totally convinced that it is. That skepticism too is one of the themes I particularly want to hold on to. With so many dissonances in my life I have learned actually to prefer being not quite right and out of place.” (Said 1999: 295) Or on an even more existential note, “Now it does not seem important or even desirable to be ‘right and in place’ (right at home, for instance). Better to wander out of place, not to own a house, and not ever to feel too much at home anywhere…” (Said 1999: 294)

His father, obsessively and uncritically pro-American, and his demanding and overprotective mother wanted to shape him according to a Victorian, bourgeois ideal, a stereotypical manhood. (Davidson 2001: 166) Out of Place is very much the story of Said’s relationship with his parents. Paradoxically, their concept of Edward stood apart from what the dominant imperial culture would want him to be, yet they could not escape the trappings of bourgeois life. For example, as a youngster, Said was part of the Cubs and had to learn traditional English Cub songs. His father was very annoyed at this: “My father said nothing very much until the day he heard me practicing the oath, in particular the part about God and King. ‘Why are you saying that?’ he asked me […] You’re an American, and we have no king, only a president. You are loyal to the President. God and President.’ […] I had no idea who the president was or what role he played in my life: the king after all was the latest I had studied in a long line from Edward the Confessor to the Plantagenets, the Stuarts, and beyond …” (Said 1999: 49)

Said’s father was very enigmatic about his stint in the United States, although it was clear that he became a staunch proponent of the American way: “Curiously, nothing of my father’s American decade survived except his extremely lean re-tellings of it, and such odd fragments as a love of apple pie a la mode and a few often repeated expressions, like ‘hunky-dory,’ and ‘big boy’. Over time I have found that what his stint in the United States really expressed in relation to his subsequent life was the practice of self-making with a purpose, which he exploited in what he did and what he made others around him, chiefly me, do. He always averred that America was his country, and when we strenuously disagreed about Vietnam, he would fall back comfortably on ‘My country, right or wrong.'” Said also mentions a few entries in a soldier’s log from 1917-1918, but in the end what mattered to him was that he “quite abruptly turned sober pioneer, hard-working and successful businessman, and Protestant …”. (Said 1999: 10) He had become dogmatically pro-American, hoisting the American flag on days of celebration, stubbornly eating Thanksgiving dinner in Egypt.

Regardless of his father’s biographical facts, Said was effectively ‘controlled’ by him throughout his youth. Said’s father became synonymous with rationalistic discipline, hectoring power, authoritarian patriarchy (Boullata 2000): “I called my father Daddy until his dying day, but I always sensed in the phrase how contingent it was, how potentially improper it was to think of myself as his son. I never asked him for anything without great apprehension or hours of desperate preparation. The most terrible thing he ever said to me, I was twelve then, was ‘You will never inherit anything from me; you are not the son of a rich man’, though literally of course I was. When he died he left his entire estate to my mother. From the moment I became conscious of myself as a child, I found it impossible to think of myself as not having both a discrediting past and an immoral future in store; my entire sense of self during my formative years was always experienced in the present tense, as I frantically worked to keep myself from falling back into already established pattern, or from falling forward into certain perdition. Being myself meant not only never being quite right, but also never feeling at ease, always expecting to be interrupted or corrected, to have my privacy invaded and my unsure person set upon. Permanently out of place, the extreme and rigid regime of discipline and extracurricular education that my father would create and in which I became imprisoned from the age of nine left me no respite or sense of myself beyond its rules and patterns.” (Said 1999: 19) Hence Said was very unsure of himself and this insecurity was manifested in the form of minor delinquency: “Sometimes I was intransigent, and proud of it. At other times I seemed to myself to be nearly devoid of any character at all, timid, uncertain, without will. Yet the overriding sensation I had was of always being out of place.” (Said 1999: 3) Even his name, “Edward”, which he qualifies as “a foolishly English name yoked forcibly to the unmistakably Arabic family name Said”, is the object of intense scrutiny by his peers. Was it Arabic? Was he English? His mother had named him after the Prince of Wales. (Said 1999: 3)

At home, distraction and pastimes were solitary (his sisters are remarkably absent from his memoirs). Aside from day trips by car out to the Pyramids, he had little time outside the daily routine to himself: “My parents were at the heart of the entire administered system that determined my time minute by minute, a system that allowed me only the smallest of spots of relief to enjoy and feel that I was out of its clutches.” Until his late teens, he was not allowed go out with girls, go to restaurants, go to places of public entertainment, to experience “the physical and moral temptations of Cairo”. As a consequence fantasy and escapism became somewhat of a coping mechanism, self-exploration and soul searching inevitable: “My greatest gift was memory, which allowed me to recall visually whole passages in books, to see them again on the page and then to manipulate scenes, characters, giving them an imaginary life beyond the pages of the book.” (Said 1999: 165) Books and literature were his personal methods of escape, a moment of respite from an otherwise extremely regimented life. His parents had very little confidence in him and maintained strict control over everything he did. It seems that literature was almost the only means for self-exploration that he possessed. Also, competitive things like football and bridge didn’t interest him as much as books and music, much to the chagrin of his overbearing father.

Starting in 1943 and until 27 years later, Said’s family would spend most of the summer in a Lebanese village called Dhour el Shweir, where his mother’s half of the family originated. This was their way to escape Cairo and their hectic lifestyle during the children’s school year: “The idea was that we would lead an austere, rustic, minimally comfortable existence stripped of any amenities that my father considered to be either too urban or too luxurious.” (Said 1999: 151) Said describes Dhour as being quite boring and as a result he plunged even more enthusiastically into the world of books and music: “Dhour drove me further into the world of print, which because I had so little time to read in Cairo, became for me a precious respite from the abysmal vacancy of my life there.” (Said 1999: 151) Dhour was the backdrop of some serious self-examination and intellectual exploration: “The sense of complexity beyond Dhour’s appalling limitations continued to grow in me after my departure to the United States in 1951; but the seeds had been planted paradoxically at a time of my greatest deprivation, while I wandered the summer resort’s bleak streets with only the heat and a generalized dissatisfaction to preoccupy me on the surface. Slowly I found ways to borrow books from various acquaintances, and by my middle teens I was aware of myself making connections between disparate books and ideas with considerable ease, wondering about, for example, the role of the great city in Dostoyevsky and Balzac, drawing analogies between various characters (money lenders, criminals, students) that I encountered in books that I liked and comparing them with individuals I had met or known about in Dhour or Cairo.” (Said 1999: 165)

Meanwhile his father developed a bridge and indoor game playing obsession which effectively removed him from family life except as it’s material provider: “Games did not require him to say very much nor make more than a minimal emotional investment, and perhaps for this reason card-playing became an […] apparently life-sustaining habit. It was a way of sublimating his anxieties in an area of life in which the rules were set, and a routine order prevailed; an escape from any kind of confrontation with people, business, or problems.” (Said 1999: 30) Edward was completely uninterested by bridge, cards, backgammon etc. and his non-cooperation was the source of extreme frustration for this father who was clearly disappointed by his incompetence, but mostly by his unwillingness to compete: “… there wasn’t a card game he didn’t know, or a casino ritual he didn’t unsuccessfully try to teach me. Having had them explained thirty times has not after all enabled me to play either poker or baccarat.” (Said 1999: 29) His father would take him gambling or card playing as a punishment for misbehaving and he would stand by his side for hours of “enforced boredom”. But no matter what his parents did in the name of education, his curiosity always came out on top: “I had an amazingly resourceful curiosity about people and things. I was frequently upbraided for reading books I shouln’t have, and more damningly I was often found looking in the autograph books, notepads, pamphlets and comics, scribbled messages, and notes of my sisters, schoolmates, and parents.” (Said 1999: 31)

Books were not difficult to obtain: half of the Palestine Educational Company, the family business, was bookselling. First it was children’s books by A.A. Milne and Enid Blyton mold then “useful” books like the Collins Junior Book of Knowledge. In this book, Said discovered Kalita “the girl fakir who performed miracles of strength and self-punishment at the Bertram Mills circus.” (Said 1999: 32) At that point he had no idea of what life in a European Circus was. She was exotic: a half-naked contortionist that could stand gigantic slabs of stone being broken on her stomach, or cavort with the most dangerous of animals. Edward fantasized of visiting her in her caravan, getting to know her, experiencing her life of freedom and her disdain of the mundane. Of his limitless capacity for fantasy he says: “It was from my experiences of Kalita that I developed the habit of mentally extending the story presented in a book, pushing the limits to include myself; gradually I realized that I could become the author of my own pleasures, particularly those that took me as far away as possible from the choking impingements of family and school.” (Said 1999: 33) Later, source material for escapism would come in two formats. First, in the form of fairy tales and biblical stories read to him by his mother, as well as illustrated Greek myths. Secondly, films like the Arabian Nights, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Westerns, Walt Disney. French and Italian movies were taboo, forbidden by his parents presumably because they believed the films had too much sexual content. Typical incarnations of Orientalism that he would later define, at the time he didn’t think of the movies as being part of a greater discourse: “It was very odd, but it did not occur to me that the cinematic Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sinbad, whose genies, Baghdad cronies, and sultans I completely possessed […] all had American accents, spoke no Arabic, and ate mysterious foods, perhaps ‘sweetmeats’, or was it more like stew, rice, lamb cutlets?, that I could never quite make out”. (Said 1999: 34) The Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan series made him reflect on his own family: “… in Tarzan and His Mate at least, virginally sensual Jane cavorting in their cozy tree house, whose clever Wemmicklike comforts seemed like a pure, uncomplicated distillation of our life as a family alone in Egypt.” (Said 1999: 34) He pondered about what happened after Tarzan and Jane got a son, what their family life was etc. What is interesting about most of the examples of ‘escapist’ texts he mentions in Out of Place are their obvious Orientalist content. They are the proof that Said had, at various points in his early life, bought into aspects of Orientalist fantasy, hence silencing any determinist critique which would have him formulating Orientalism purely as the natural intellectual outcome of someone with his personal history or political agenda.

During his teens, music was, on the one hand, a boring series of piano drills and on the other a devotion to the “private experience of music” (Said 1999: 96) which was helped by his parents’ impressively broad and random collection of records. Also, in the late 1940s (and with his ever watchful parents), he went to the theater and the opera with great enthusiasm, to experience a world of “magnificent sounds and sights” (Said 1999: 96). Opera and ballet performances represented to his “erratically nourished imagination a gala of wonderfully ornate sexual exhibition and impossibly brilliant musical performance, sometimes orchestral in the manner of an MGM film …” (Said 1999: 97). He mentions a particularly memorable Salome in a modified bathing suit, transforming the opera into the “embodiment of an erotic world whose incomprehensible languages, savage plots, unrestrained emotions, and dizzying music were extremely exciting.” (Said 1999: 97) Said would later become an accomplished musician, studying with Julliard teachers. (Said 1999: 281)

Said looks back on his parents’ attitude to his education as paranoid and prudish: “It must also have been part of my parents’ plan to get me out of Cairo’s putative (because never actually seen or experienced) fleshpots during the summer, and deposit me in a place where there weren’t and could never have been any temptations.” (Said 1999: 156) Said’s parents were very conservative and displayed the utmost prudery when it came to addressing anything sexual. He recalls one night in the summer of 1946 in Dhour when one of his uncles payed the family a visit and suggested that they go and watch a cabaret act in the local cafe, which advertised ‘international’ variety performers: they were only acrobats and dancers wearing skimpy costumes. (Said 1999: 157) That night the two main dancers were “George and Adele, whose last name seemed Hungarian”, and Adele reminded him of Kalita. (Said 1999: 157) His mother disapproved: “Bare flesh always caused her to frown and then ‘tsk’ exasperatedly with unconcealed distaste.” (Said 1999: 157)

In Dhour, Said would borrow books from Munir Nassar, a neighbor who was a medical student in Beirut and they would discuss philosophy, art, music: “Munir had been influenced by two Americans, Dick Yorkey and Richard Scott, both products not of missionary piety but of the secular liberal arts, and this opened new intellectual doors for me that I first reacted to defensively, then entered with surprising enthusiasm.” (Said 1999: 164) Slowing but surely, Edward critical capacities were expanding: “Such relatively modest, even imperceptible breaks in the dullness and enforced monotony of our ‘relaxation’ in Dhour provided me with a gradually emerging sense of complexity, complexity for its own sake, unresolved, unreconciled, perhaps finally unassimilated. One of the themes of my life as conceived by my parents was that everything should be pushed into the preordained molds favored by my father and embodied in his favorite adages: ‘Play cricket’; ‘Neither a borrower not a lender be’; ‘Take care of your mother’; ‘Protect your sisters’; ‘Do your best.’ All this was what ‘Edward’ was supposed to be […]” (Said 1999: 165) Said’s mother was more forgiving and sensitive toward Edward, ultimately showing more interest for his own self-development: “And yet there survived an unspoken compact between us that encouraged me in music, literature, art, and experience […]” (Said 1999: 165)


The schools he attended have a particularly prominent role in his narrative, precisely because they illustrate the subtle (and not so subtle) ways in which the cultural and social environment challenged him: “[…] schools have a privileged place in the story, microcosms of the cities or towns where my parents found these schools and put me. Since I am myself an educator it was natural that I should have found the school environment particularly worth describing and telling about…” (Said 1999: xii) As a public intellectual, he has always sided with the underdog and he highlights stirring episodes during his schooling which provided some of the underpinnings of his skepticism towards authority and his tireless opposition to the mainstream. Privileged because of his parents’ wealth, he nevertheless felt intense persecution. Wealth was in this sense a double-edged sword: it kept his family afloat during the exile from Palestine but also allowed him to attend English colonial schools where he faced the muted wrath of the dying British Empire. He would no doubt draw on these vivid experiences and encounters with imperialism to formulate his literary theories and shape his political voices. He says: “One of the things I tried to explore implicitly is the hold those very early school experiences had on me, why their hold persists, and why I still find them fascinating and interesting enough to write about for readers fifty years later.”

From 1942 through to 1946 he attended the Gezira Preparatory School in Cairo. There, he recalls feeling like an anomaly as well as a deep pressure to be English when he was not: “All around me were Greenvilles, and Coopers, and Pilleys: starchy little English boys and girls with enviably authentic names, blue eyes and bright, definitive accents. I have no distinct recollection of how I sounded in those days, but I know that it was not English. The odd thing was that we were all treated as if we should (or really wanted to) be English”, alluding to the fact that the classroom was full of Armenians, Greeks, Egyptian Jews, and Copts in addition to the English kids.

The “mongrel-like collection of children” (Said 1999: 38) was inculcated with English colonial education. The study of history was especially significant because questions of power and authority, identity and nationalism are so embedded in it. Said is of the opinion that the study of history is too often a “nationalist effort”. (Said 2000: 1) He talks about the lessons in English “glory”: “[…] we read about meadow, castles, and Kings John, Alfred and Canute with the reverence that our teachers kept reminding us they deserved. Their world made little sense to me, except that I admired their creation of the language they used, which I, a little Arab boy, was learning something about. A disproportionate amount of attention was lavished on the Battle of Hastings along with lengthy explanations of Angles, Saxons and Normans. Edward the Confessor has ever since remained in my mind as an elderly bearded gentleman in a white gown lying flat on his back, perhaps as a consequence of having confessed to something he shouldn’t have done. There was never to be any perceived connection between him and me, despite our identical first name.” (Said 1999: 39) He was caned by the headmaster on one occasion for some minor infraction and when his parents found out, they reprimanded him: “So I became delinquent, the ‘Edward’ of punishable offenses, laziness, loitering, who was regularly expected to be caught in some specific unlicensed act” (Said 1999: 42) The English presence at school didn’t seem unusual or unsettling at the time even if he clearly didn’t like his school teachers: he thought of himself as the problem. The guilt was his: “The atmosphere was one of unquestioning assent framed with hateful servility by teachers and students alike. The school was not interesting as a place of learning but it gave me my first extended contact with colonial authority in the sheer Englishness of its teachers and many of its students.” (Said 1999: 42) However, the privileged remoteness and hauteur of the head-masters and teachers at GPS made an impression on him even as a young child. In Orientalism, he would come back to the implicitly held Orientalist view that Western civilization was at the pinnacle of history. (Said 1978: 32)

Said remembers the atmosphere being significantly different after WWII: “Postwar Cairo gave me, for the first time, a sense of highly differentiated social strata. The major change was the replacement of British institutions and individuals by the victorious Americans, the old empire giving way to the new, while my father enjoyed even greater business success.” (Said 1999: 82) In 1946 he started at the Cairo School for American Children where, in contrast to the “collection of mongrels” at GPS, most of the students were Americans. Like the British school, he felt foreign. There was a big difference between the English and American educational systems, the former hierarchical and rigid, the latter tailored down to the entertainment level. Though less heavy-handed, it was still inculcation. (Said 1999: 84) Interesting is his recollection of different representations in the American ‘workbooks’. He writes: “[…] to write in one of our GPS [Gezira Preparatory School] textbooks was a serious misdemeanor; in American workbooks, the idea was to write in them.” (Said 1999: 84) Their essence could be boiled down to a crude sort of propaganda: “At the core of each subject there seemed to be a family to whom one was introduced at the outset: there was always a Sis, a Mom and a Dad, plus assorted family and household members, including a large black woman housekeeper with an extremely exaggerated expression of either sadness or delight on her face. Through the family one learned about adding and subtracting or civics, or American history. The idea seemed to be to make learning a painless process, on par with getting through the day on a farm or in a suburb of St. Louis or Los Angeles.” Just like the Kings and Queens of England, these representations mystified him. These face-to-faces with Western educational systems would later haunt him as an intellectual writing about “citizenship and a common intellectual history” or the “Western Cannon” of literature.

The CSAC [Cairo School for American Children] experience was supposed to be fun but soon his antagonism with Miss Clark, one of his teachers, was to cast a shadow on the whole thing to a point where he was “longing for the GPS, with its clear lines of authority, its cut and dried lessons, its very strict rules of deportment.” Miss Clark picked on him consistently, and did not hesitate to embarrass him in front of his class: “… Miss Clark, whose single-minded persecution of me crippled my already uncertain sense of self.” (Said 1999: 83) He recalls a particularly humiliating moment when his class visited a sugar refinery: he was totally bored. Apparently, he had not paid attention during the guide’s ramblings and the next day Miss Clark publicly embarrassed him for this display of “abominable” behavior in front of the whole class. What was more incomprehensible to him was that later his parents found out and were decidedly on Miss Clark’s side: “It never occurred to me to ask my mother why she allied herself so unskeptically with someone who seemed to be moved not by pedagogical but by sadistic, instinctual imperatives”.

On another occasion, he was on his way the sporting club to which his family belonged and was told by one of the European members to get out because he was an Arab. When his father found out about this encounter with racism, his reaction was noncommittal and said he would talk to the offending member, but never mentioned it again. Of this event, Said says “What troubles me now, fifty years later, is that although the episode remained with me for such a long time and although it smarted both then and now, there seemed to be a fatalistic compact between my father and myself about our necessarily inferior status. […] Yet neither of us saw it then as worth a struggle of any kind, and that realization shames me still. Such disparities in perception and reality could only become apparent to me decades and decades after I had left GPS.” The silence of his father on this matter was all the more incredible considering how strong he was in all other aspects of life. This was one of the rare moments of weakness in his father that Said documents.

Said started at Victoria College (Cairo) in 1949. There he would return to a multi-cultural environment: “I entered a mongrel-like world made up of miscellaneous last names, Zaki, Salama, Mutevellian, Shalom…” (Said 1999: 179) He makes a brief allusion to “divide and conquer” imperialism as it was instituted at school: the authorities had divided the students into ‘houses’ to better control them and to more easily naturalize the ideology of empire. (Said 1999: 181) The atmosphere was oppressive and speaking Arabic was forbidden (Said 1999: 184) Said comments on what was also a poor education: “The school provided no moral or intellectual framework […] for us to evaluate our development. I often felt that we had all been judged before we ever got to the place [and that we were] not really teachable.” (Said 1999: 203) He explains the irony of the whole situation, which he did not appreciate at the time: “The students were seen as paying members of some putative colonial elite that was being schooled in the ways of a British imperialism that had already expired, though we did not fully know it.” (Said 1999: 185) Like at the GPS, they learned about English life, literature, government. Arabic culture and language were delinquent. At VC, however, he was beginning to challenge his own education and the values inculcated in him both by his parents and British colonialism: “… the screen devised by my parents, the pretense of being American, was over, and that we all felt that we were inferiors pitted against a wounded colonial power that was dangerous and capable of inflicting harm on us…” (Said 1999: 186) Part of the harm he was referring to was the physical beatings that students would be administered if they misbehaved.

Despite every indication that the experience at Victoria College was painful, he finds a positive aspect of it: “For me [the low expectations of his teachers] was strangely relaxing, since at last I could be as I was without trying hard to be better, or work harder. […] The result was a curiously weightless life …” (Said 1999: 203). Indeed, Said lived up to his parents’ expectation as an unruly, difficult child. He was once behind a successful plot to trap the English teacher inside a storeroom adjacent his classroom. Upon the plan’s success, he recalls exclaiming to his classmates that the captive Englishman (the teacher) was “in his natural state”. (Said 1999: 207) He was eventually kicked out of Victoria College. He remembers walking home with an eerie sense of freedom after being booted: “I experienced a floating, literally utopian sensation of not being there, of being disembodied, relieved of all my customary encumbrances, obligations, restraints. I had never felt quite so dangerously free and undirected as I did then; after years of timetables, chores, errands, assignments, I was simply walking in the direction of home, with no purpose except that at some point I knew I would have to end up there.” His parents responded by sending him off to a strict American religious boarding school in Massachusetts, the all-male Mount Hermon School in the fall of 1951. He would be turning 16 and in order to obtain American citizenship, he would have to live 5 years there before he was twenty-one: “the move was imperative”. (Said 1999: 211) Thirty-eight years later, Said would return to Victoria College and discover that it had been renamed Victory College after the Suez War in 1956: “The British Eton in Egypt had now become a new kind of privileged Islamic sanctuary […].” (Said 1999: 213) A new kind of dogma had settled in.

His schooling at Victoria College would prove to be the end of an era of relative political ignorance. He writes: “Victoria College and our circle of family friends were totally non-political. The vocabulary of Arab nationalism, Nasserism and Marxism was to come five or six years later, while we still lived deep in the illusions of hedonism, British education, and luxurious culture. Cairo was never more cosmopolitan.” (Said 1999: 200) The family would often go to the movies, the theater and opera together. Said and his family very much enjoyed these not quite Western freedoms but simultaneously felt the oppression of colonialism: “The only Arabic I ever heard there [the Tewfiqya Club] was in the form of orders barked at Nubian suffragis, perspiring in their heavy white galabiyas, bringing pitchers of shandy and orders of riz financiere (I pleaded with my mother to let us have that at home, but she refused) to wonderfully tanned swimmers like Coco Hakim and his friends, who danced and played Ping-Pong near the crowded piscine, as even I began to call it.” (Said 1999: 199) Ironically, a product (and a symbol for Said) of the same “non-political” institution was the head boy for Said’s class, a certain Michel Shaloub, later known as Omar Sharif, whose 1962 breakthrough role was in David Lane’s Lawrence of Arabia, a classic example of Orientalist popular culture. (Said 1999: 201)


The only positive experience at Mount Hermon School for Said seems to have been his English class with Mr. Jack Baldwin. Under his tutelage, Said’s critical self would blossom. Baldwin’s approach was “more rational and thoughtful than in previous schools, this system invigorated and challenged me, particularly by comparison with the Anglo-Egyptian style of studying literary texts where all we were required to do was to articulate the very narrowly defined ‘correct’ answers.” (Said 1999: 231) He praises Baldwin for lighting fire to an aspect of himself that had previously been pushed down and for allowing him to grapple with his intellectual, not social, position in life: “For literally the first time in my life a subject was opened up for me by a teacher in a way that I immediately and excitedly responded to. What had previously been repressed and stifled in academic study, repressed in order that thorough and correct answers be given to satisfy a standardized syllabus and a routinized exam designed essentially to show off powers of retention, not critical or imaginative faculties, was awakened, and the complicated precess of intellectual discovery (and self-discovery) has never stopped since.” (Said 1999: 231) At Mount Hermon, he also further developed his musical abilities “which, along with religion, played a substantial role in the school’s programs.” (Said 1999: 232) Otherwise, daily life was boring and he did not develop any real friendships: “There was no cultural background for friendship of the kind I had experienced at VC. […] I felt that there was no depth, no ease, to the Americans, only the surface jokiness and anecdotal high spirits o teammates, which never satisfied me. […] They seemed less emotional, with little interest in articulating their attitudes and reactions. This was the extraordinary homogenizing power of American life, in which the same TV, clothes, idealogical uniformity, in films, newspapers, comics, etc., seemed to limit the complex intercourse of daily life to an unreflective minimum in which memory has no role.” (Said 1999: 233)

Mount Hermon School was originally founded by the evangelist Dwight L. Moody in the 19th century. A very strict religious school, it required each student to do manual work for 10 to 12 hours a week: the goal of this was “[…] according to Moody, whose quotations were an early analogue of Chairman Mao’s little red book, inculcating in us ‘the dignity of manual labor.'” Said’s task was to pick the eyes out of potatoes. (Said 1999: 226) Said did not adjust well: he was totally bored. The atmosphere was stifling and all of the cosmopolitan luxuries of Cairo were hopelessly far way. (Said 1999: 226) Said was homesick: “[…] what I suffered from was the social vacancy of Mount Hermon’s setting. I had spent all my life in two rich, teeming, historically dense metropolises, Jerusalem and Cairo […] the nearest town of Greenfield has long symbolized for me the enforced desolation of middle America.” (Said 1999: 235)

Said contrasts the brutality of the British colonial schools with the more subtle form of moral pressure at Mount Hermon: “There [the Palestinian schools], at least you knew that they were your enemies. At Hermon, the going currency was ‘common or shared values’ […] Judgment in the United States was constant but concealed under a teasing fabric of softly rolling words and phrases, all of them in the end borne up by the unassailable moral authority of the teachers. I also soon learned that you could never really find out why or on what basis you were judged, as I was, inadequate for a role or status that relatively objective indicators like grades, scores or match victories entitled you to.” (Said 1999: 229) Which is why Said was never appointed as floor officer or valedictorian although he had the qualifications. Said was slowly forming an identity as an outsider critical of accepted authorities: “In the process I began a lifelong struggle and attempt to demystify the capriciousness and hypocrisy of a power whose authority depended absolutely on its ideological self-image as a moral agent, acting in good faith and with unimpeachable intentions.” (Said 1999: 230)

He endured Mount Hermon stoically: “I never lost my sense of dislike and discomfort at Mount Hermon, but I did learn to minimize its effect on me, and in a kind of self-forgetting way I plunged into the things I found it possible to enjoy. Most, if not all, were intellectual.” (Said 1999: 244) Moreover, when he went back to Cairo for the Summer of 1952 after the Free Officers’ revolution and King Farouk was exiled to Italy, he became disillusioned with Egyptian life. There, nothing had changed whereas he had gained some control over his own destiny in the United States: “I experienced the Egyptian part of my life in an unreflecting, almost sham, way during the summer, slipping into it the moment I arrived in Cairo, whereas my American life was acquiring a more durable, more independent reality, unrelated to Cairo, my family […]” (Said 1999: 246)

He encountered for the first time a kind of cultural denial where he met the tennis coach, Edmund Alexander, who was also from Cairo. Edward approached him in English, but wanting to break the ice, switched to Arabic only to be stopped: “‘No brother’, a very Arab locution, I thought, even though uttered in English, ‘no Arabic here. I left all that behind. Here we are Americans’, another Arabic turn of phrase, instead of ‘We’re in America now’, ‘and we should talk and act like Americans.” (Said 1999: 228) In addition, he points out that his father had ‘warned’ him about Arabs in America: “Alexander’s behavior proved the sagacity of my father’s minatory observation that in the United States one should stay away from the Arabs. ‘They’ll never do anything for you and will always pull you down.’ […] ‘They neither keep what’s good about Arab culture, nor show any solidarity with each other.'” Said visited his cousins in New York several times for Thanksgiving, where he also felt totally out of place: “… I found the elderly Arab-Americans lost in a world of commerce, rug selling, groceries, furniture. They were strange, almost Swiftlike creatures with Poconos summer homes, fragmentary 1920s Arabic, and studiously patriotic Americanism: the phrase ‘Uncle Sam’ appeared regularly in their speech, although they spoke more about the ‘Communist threat’ than (to the disappointed ears of a Palestinian teenager) about Israel.” They were denying aspects of their identity instead of expanding their concept of it. (Said 1999: 240)

If his cousins were assimilated by the commercial aspects of American culture, at Mount Hermon it was the “mythology” of D.L. Moody that was pervasive: “There seemed to be an unquestioning assent to the man’s incredible importance: it was my first encounter with enthusiastic mass hypnosis by a charlatan, because except for two of us, not one teacher or student expressed the slightest doubt that Moody was worthy of the highest admiration.” Another dissenter, also a foreigner, exclaimed “Mais c’est degoutant” pointing at one of the many hagiographical studies of Moody on the premises. Exaggerated religious enthusiasm was especially repulsive to Said: “And so it was with religion, […] dreadful, pietistic, non-denominational (I disliked that form of vacillation in particular) full of homilies, advice, how-to-live. Ordinary observations were encoded into Moodyesque sturdy Christianity in which words like ‘service’ and ‘labor’ acquired magical (but finally unspecifiable) meaning, to be repeated and intoned as what gave our lives ‘moral purpose.'” (Said 1999: 234)

Religion had become something to be very cautious around, even though it also seems to have had very little influence in his early life. His parents sent him to Mount Hermon more for the Protestant work ethic than for any kind of worship. One of his early influences was his great-aunt Melia on his mother’s side, who “was a tiny woman but had the strongest will of anyone I knew.” (Said 1999: 15) She was an Arabic teacher at the American College for Girls in Cairo (eventually became its director) and her father had been the first native Evangelical minister in Lebanon. She was probably quite atheist and independently minded as she boycotted the church services which were a very important part of her school and mission life. In 1956, shortly before her death, Said asked her “Is there a god?”, and she replied “I very much doubt it.” (Said 1999: 15)

In contrast, Edward’s aunt Nabiha (his father’s sister) was deeply religious and moved to Egypt, and established herself an active participant of the relief efforts for Palestinian refugees in Egypt. Her charity work and her presence among the people she dealt with was “nothing less than Hippocratic”, so total was her efforts to address the Palestinians’ suffering. This was a selfless act: “Whatever political ideas she may have had were hardly ever uttered in my presence: they did not seem necessary at the time.” (Said 1999: 121) She was the first to really communicate to him the desolations of exile: “It was through my Aunt Nabiha that I first experienced Palestine as history and cause in the anger and consternation I felt over the suffering of the refugees, those Others, whom she brought into my life.”

Nabiha had a medical partner, Dr. Wadie Baz Haddad whose son Farid, also a doctor involved in considerable charity work, was a communist. Farid was jailed in 1948 for his political activity and again in 1959 where it is rumored that he was later beaten to death. Said was curious about Farid’s politics but never got a chance to discuss them with him: “That I had never been able to discuss the question of Palestine with Farid during his lifetime is another example of its suppression as a political issue in my early life.” (Said 1999: 126) The story had a significant impact on him however: “Farid’s life and death have been an underground motif in my life for four decades now, not all of them periods of awareness or of active political struggle.” (Said 1999: 124)

By the time he was 14 years old, Said’s religious education was attended to weekly at the All Saints’ Cathedral on Sharia Maspero. The church was part of a “grand compound” of buildings and communicated a sense of British Imperial power. All of the religious staff were British, and despite learning the Book of Common Prayer and appreciating “the spirited parts of the Gospels” there was always a “rift between white man and Arab as separating us in the end, maybe because he was in a position of authority and it was his language, not mine.” (Said 1999: 144) Said took his first Communion in July 1949 out of family obligation not because of religious faith: Communion was “important because my family was set on this confirmation ritual, not because God had moved me.” (Said 1999: 144)

Said became critical of his mother’s side of the family’s pronounced religiousness: they “had an embattled, even belligerent, sense of what it meant to be Christian in a Muslim part of the world” (Said 1999: 168) His mother’s first cousins and her uncles were educated at the American University and held “too close an identification with American views on Islam as a depraved and unregenerate religion”. (Said 1999: 169) Edward found this attitude very difficult to accept: “Later I thought this aggressively Christian ideology was very paradoxical and difficult to accept, so little did I, or anyone in my immediate family, have any sense of primarily religious hostility toward Muslims.” (Said 1999: 169)

After July 1952, the beginnings of the Egyptian revolution, the sheltered life in their Lebanese summer retreat in Dhour el Shweir, was ending. This period in time happened to coincide with Said’s father’s accumulating health problems. Said recalls the family’s general approval of Nasser’s sweeping reforms, which would ironically force Said into exile later. Most supportive of them was his mother; most skeptical was his father. This political position, though by no means flamboyant nor fanatical was not appreciated by the Dhour Christian circle: “Unbeknownst to us, the political alignments in Lebanon, sectarian, byzantine, and often invisible, were beginning to respond to Nasser’s stature as Arab super-person, and although we did not realize it, to our little Christian circle in Dhour, he began to seem like an emanation from not Cairo but Mecca, a pan-Islamist with evil designs not only on Israeli Jews but on Christian Lebanese.” (Said 1999: 262)

There was a civil war in Lebanon in 1958, and that summer the Said family did not go to Dhour, the first summer since 1943. The war was between partisans of Camille Chamoun, the Maronite (Christian) president who unconstitutionally wanted to renew his term. Under Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, the United States would send “pro-Western” troops to Lebanon to support Chamoun, the Arabist parties reportedly having ties to the Soviet Union. The Saids had the uncomfortable position of being non-Partisan, mildly pan-Arabist, a cause for suspicion among Hilda’s Christian relatives. Ironically, it was his mother who was the biggest proponent of Nasserism out of them all: “It took courage to go against her upbringing and family.” In Said’s mind, his mother had acquired the “status of a true, believing Nasserite, a mirror image of her no less doctrinaire cousins and friends in the ultra-right Christian factions.” Said admits to being irritated by her “preachy” idealism but also to noticing that she was thinking beyond the isolated confines of a privileged life that was, after all, far removed from politics. By 1962, the family had moved to Beirut and Dhour was a memory: “After 1958 Dhour felt even more alien, our friends less secure, the fault lines clearer, and our strangeness more evident.” (Said 1999: 263)

During the 1960s, Said would occasionally come into contact with Charles Malik while in Lebanon: Malik was married to his mother’s first cousin. Malik had been Lebanon’s ambassador to the United States, and foreign minister under Chamoun. Malik is perhaps most famous for his work at the United Nations and the vital role he had in shaping the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Said notes that he was directly involved in the decision to call on Dulles for U.S. troops in 1958. Said remembers: “Not very big in size, he conveyed an impression of extraordinary gravity and massiveness that he exploited during his years as a teacher, diplomat, and politician. […] an extraordinarily overpowering personality, which I found attractive initially but later increasingly saw as troubling.” (Said 1999: 264) According to Said, by the 1970s Malik had become a symbol of everything most incompatible with the Islamic Middle East. Having started out at the U.N., the spokesperson for Palestine, he aligned himself with Israel during the Lebanese civil war. Looking back, Said considers Malik to be a remarkable failure, as “the great negative intellectual lesson of my life.” (Said 1999: 264) At first Malik had been an interesting, intriguing personality. Said could discuss literature, philosophy and politics with him: “[…] Charles’ conversation, and my aunt’s evident liking for me further provoked my thirst for ideas, for the great issues of faith, morality, and human destiny, and for a whole gamut of authors.” (Said 1999: 265) But Said also sensed condescension and conceit. Said observed in Malik many of the characteristics he would later ascribe in the Orientalists: “From Uncle Charles, as we all called him, I learned the attractions of dogma, of the search for unquestioning truth, of irrefutable authority. From him I also learned about the clash of civilizations, the war between East and West, communism and freedom, Christianity and all the other, lesser religions.” (Said 1999: 265) Said also accuses him of having the conceit to formulate these ideas on the world stage: he may have been involved heavily in the formulation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but he proved to be unyielding and fanatical, becoming the intellectual leader of the Christian Right during the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-1988: “But it was his spiritual force, which had once moved people to conversion, that as he became more political deviated into prejudice and resentment against those who could neither accept the idea (it could only be an idea, since Lebanon was multiconfessional) of a Christian Lebanon nor of Lebanon as an Arab country entirely within the American camp.” (Said 1999: 267)

He spent some time with the Maliks in Washington and was beginning to question Charles’ political agenda, but was unable to effectively argue with him. Said admits to initially succumbing somewhat to Malik’s charisma, Malik being a significant figure of resistance. (Said 1999: 268) Only later did he begin to unravel Malik’s dogmatism, to understand “that Nasser’s approach to the Soviet Union coupled with his Islamic faith were the real problem [for Malik]; [for him] hidden beneath the discourse of statistics and demographic trends were Communism and Islam.” (Said 1999: 280) What troubled Said was Malik’s sense of his (and through religious and familial affiliation, Said’s) Christian community being necessarily opposed to the majority culture as a self-preserving measure. Out of observing Malik, he says that “the inherent irreconcilability between intellectual belief and passionate loyalty to tribe, sect, and country first opened up in me, and have remained open. I have never felt the need to close the gap but have kept them apart as opposites, and have always felt the priority of intellectual, rather than national or tribal, consciousness, no matter how solitary that made one. But such an idea during my undergraduate years was difficult for me to formulate, although I certainly began to feel it keenly.” (Said 1999: 280)

Malik’s character lead Said to speculate about how the insular environment in Dhour could have pushed him to such granitic politics: “I have sometimes speculated that Dhour, with its insidious but ultimately false embodiment of bucolic authenticity, had corrupted us all into believing that its unfertile sparseness, policed simplicity of life, enforced Christian unanimity, played some role in its own and Malik’s later political extremism.” (Said 1999: 268) Dhour was a sheltered, insular environment an attempt to duplicate the sheltered, insular environment his parents had created in Cairo: “Well past the colonial period, we collectively thought of ourselves as being able to lead an ersatz life, modeled on European summer resorts, oblivious to what was going on around us. My parents tried to reproduce our Cairo cocoon in the Lebanese mountains […]” (Said 1999: 268) The “cocoon” is especially problematic for Said as he looks back. It was a natural response to exile and dispossession yet it was not satisfying. One of the lasting images Said has of Dhour is that of a neighbor, Emile Nassar, who would invariably copy out passages from the day’s newspapers verbatim, no matter how late it was or how many guests he was entertaining: referring to Lebanon, “I have retained this curious scene in my memory for all these years as a symbol of the triviality and impermanence of what so many of us lived out in Dhour, the unrepaid, unrequited attempt to belong to and somehow retain a place that in the end was set on its own course as part of a country more volatile, more fragmented, more bitterly divided than any of us suspected.” (Said 1999: 271)

Until the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, politics were almost completely absent from his life at school. Indeed 1967 changed his life. (Ashcroft 2001: 3) Neither Princeton nor Harvard had been very political. After the Suez invasion in the fall of 1956, he vaguely remembers heated conversations that occurred between him and another student on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. At Princeton, communism was totally ignored, Marx was not taught and McCarthy was dismissed as insignificant. However, Said wrote his first political piece in the Princeton University newspaper. Expressing the Arab point of view, it induced practically no response. According to Said, the political passions of the time were “quiescent”: Eisenhower had compelled Israel to withdraw from the Sinai peninsula, and that because of this he was able to publish it quite easily. (Said 1999: 280)

The Palestian-Israeli conflict was a nevertheless a background constant. A few of the significant Middle Eastern political events of the time occurred while he was studying in the U.S., namely the Lavon Affair, in which an Israeli plot to blow up American affiliated cinemas and libraries in Cairo was devised to sour relations between Nasser’s government and the United States. After the dismal and alienating 1948 camping trip referred to above, Edward returned to New York where his father was recovering from a successful kidney operation. Palestine was “imperceptibly” appearing and disappearing in their New York lives as they would read the newspapers and find out about Truman’s support for Zionism. In New York, the family blended in like everyone else, the city “reduced one to an inconsequential atom, making me question what I was to all this, my totally unimportant existence giving me an eerie but momentary sense of liberation for the first time in my life.” (Said 1999: 140) Later, Said would have conflicted opinions, and would reflect on the opinions of others, about the complex relationships between the U.S., Palestine and Israel: “… my Palestinian contemporaries, who see [the United States] as a Zionist power pure and simple, but do not acknowledge any contradiction in the fact that they also send their children to college here, or do business with U.S. corporations. Until 1967 I succeeded in mentally dividing U.S. support for Israel from the fact of my being an American pursuing a career there and having Jewish friends and colleagues. The remoteness of the Palestine I grew up in, my family’s silence over its role, and then its long disappearance from our lives, my mother’s open discomfort with the subject and later aggressive dislike of both Palestine and politics, my lack of contact with Palestinians during the eleven years of my American education: all this allowed me to live my early American life at a great distance from the Palestine of remote memory, unresolved sorrow, and uncomprehending anger. […] Eleanor Roosevelt revolted me in her avid support for the Jewish state; despite her much-vaunted, even advertised, humanity I could never forgive her for her inability to spare the tiniest bit of it for our refugees. The same was true later for Martin Luther King, whom I had genuinely admired but was also unable to fathom (or forgive) for the warmth of his passion for Israel’s victory during the 1967 war.” (Said 1999: 141)

Active political life began to dawn on him, even if whenever he went “home” to Cairo (or later Lebanon), his concern for politics gave way to family obligation. But even there he could not help noticing the precariousness and oddity of their family’s economic and social situation. The privileged life was somehow unreal: “… I also had the feeling that beneath the surface of bonhomie and rowdy fun where men and women in short shorts and very abbreviated bathing suits mixed easily there was an undercurrent of foreign unrest at what Egypt was becoming, a place no longer hospitable to foreigners, and particularly to privileged enclaves like Tewfiqya, where an extroverted non-Arab, non-Muslim life that was not quite European, because tied to Oriental luxury, service, and sensuality, could take place with relative freedom from outside interference.” (Said 1999: 199) The club’s atmosphere was thick with a “sense of foreboding I had then was real, that the beginning of the end for our community of Shawam, Jews, Armenians, and the others hung in the heavy but somehow pleasurable air of the Tewfiqyia [club].” (Said 1999: 199) Slowly, members of this community began to go elsewhere, some to Israel, others to Europe and a tiny number to the United States, some suffering considerable financial loss due to the Suez and 1967 war. (Said 1999: 199)


Despite all of the different attempts to educate or indoctrinate him, or perhaps precisely because they were all different in some capacity, Out of Place demonstrates, that Said’s critical thinking and skepticism about himself and others was informed in large part by a non-partisan and strong sense of outsiderness. One reviewer suggests that Out of Place “reveals the origins that informed his writing of such ground-breaking texts as Orientalism, and Culture and Imperialism.” (Rhodes 2000) Perhaps more importantly, what the memoir also reveals is how his post-1967 intellectual work might NOT have come about by illustrating with Proustian memory the “complex web of valences” (Said 1999: xii) which he had to struggle with in order to, over time, arrive at his own conclusions.


Ashcroft, B. and Ahluwalia, P. (2001) Edward Said, London: Routledge.

Boullata, J. (2000) Book review in World Literature Today v74: 252.

Davidson, L. (2001) Book review in Middle East Policy v8: 166.

Mufti, A. (1998) Auerbach in Istanbul: Edward Said, Secular Criticism, and the Question of Minority Culture: Critical Inquiry.

Rhodes, F. (2000) Book Review in the October 2000 issue of The Middle East.

Roy, P. (1999) Interview with Edward Said, Ideas: The Ideas of Edward Said: CBC recording.

Said, E. (1978) Orientalism, New York: Vintage Books.

Said, E. (1983) The World, the Text and the Critic, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Said, E. (1994) Afterword in Orientalism, New York: Vintage Books.

Said, E. (1999) Out of Place: A Memoir, New York: Vintage Books.

Said, E. (2000) Invention, Memory, and Place: Critical Inquiry.

Source: http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~ikalmar/426/essays/saidbiobright.htm


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