Stop-Time in the Levant | The Nation


Stop-Time in the Levant

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It is remarkable to what extent almost anything having to do with the Middle East in this country--be it political, cultural, historical or even personal--is permeated by the triumphalist vision of Zionism that followed the 1967 war. Even people not holding to prevailing assumptions feel compelled to position themselves in relation to them, if only to make themselves intelligible. As someone with long experience on these issues, I remain astonished by the still-reigning imbalances. What appears in the eyes of a Palestinian as simply a gesture of acknowledgment (e.g., the right of return) is already in the subconscious and even conscious social makeup of the Israeli Jew--and often those considered liberal--an admission of guilt and, in fact, a reversal of the entire value system and hierarchy of assumptions that he or she has been raised to believe or accept. This phenomenon extends itself to those identifying with Israel as well, if not more so. Thus, it appears preposterous and quixotic for a Palestinian born in Haifa, Jaffa or Jerusalem to wish to return to those places but entirely natural for a Jew born in Kiev or Brooklyn to "resettle" the homeland, possibly once ancestrally inhabited thousands of years ago, as if the interim--with all its mixture of peoples, histories, languages, buildings and ruins, its marks within and upon the terrain, and its myriad accomplishments and failures--were simply an inconvenience.

About the Author

Ammiel Alcalay
Ammiel Alcalay's books include After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture (Minnesota) and an essay collection,...

This amalgam of colliding realities manifests itself in a slightly more obfuscating but no less obtrusive manner in the United States, particularly in what passes for intellectual discourse, and even much scholarship, on the Middle East. Clearly, it is only in this biased American climate that racist propaganda campaigns guised in "objectivity," such as recent attacks on Edward Said's version of his own childhood, are given legitimacy at all. To get behind such static, to think about life as it was actually lived before these ideological categories determined who was who, where they might live, how they might think or, in fact, what they should even be allowed to consider thinking, is one of the implicit and explicit tasks Said has set for himself in writing Out of Place: A Memoir, almost as if he had anticipated the charges leveled against him.

If the grenade-launching, towel-headed terrorist remains the essence of the Arab in Palestinian form for too many Americans (whether they readily admit it or not), the suave, urbane and sophisticated face of Edward Said has become the essence of that figure for certain educated and even liberal Americans, cool and acceptable on the surface but potentially volatile nevertheless. Said's variegated intellectual trajectory is well-known and has taken him from fairly traditional literary criticism to seminal texts such as Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism (a work that should bear the same primary relationship to literary and cultural studies now that one of Said's intellectual models, Eric Auerbach's Mimesis, bore to previous generations). These two books have been enormously influential in redefining the nature, scope and relationship of diverse disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, not only in this country but throughout the world. In between these major works, Said has published voluminously in a variety of areas, from music criticism to media coverage of the Middle East. As we also know, from a certain point in his very public career, Said has written, worked tirelessly and served as a spokesperson (both officially and unofficially) for Palestinians and the Palestinian national movement, explicating Palestinian identity, history, politics and rights for an American audience completely unused to hearing about such things. In his efforts on behalf of Palestine, one can see the issue serve as a kind of moral litmus test, a way for Said to check the integrity of his intellectual peers. Much as Zola galvanized public opinion in the Dreyfus affair, Said has lifted the Palestinian cause out of the apologetic and beleaguered discourse in which it had been embedded, to lend it universal dimensions.

With the publication of Out of Place, these intellectual journeys and endeavors can finally be considered against the backdrop of other physical movements and psychological trials, as Said reaches back to recall a life lived before coming to such public, political consciousness. We can now examine, at precisely the leisurely pace Said allows us to, all the historical, geographical, cultural, political, linguistic and personal forces that went into creating his persona, this figure we now know as Edward Said, for, as he writes in the book's opening sentence: "All families invent their parents and children, give each of them a story, character, fate, and even a language." The pace at which Said unravels his tale to invent himself and his family proves to be the guiding structural irony of the book. He writes in great detail about all the mundane occurrences that he can remember, as if he has all the time in the world. Yet the impetus to finally record these memories is the very dramatic knowledge and experience of his own mortality. As he writes: "Out of Place is a record of an essentially lost or forgotten world. Several years ago I received what seemed to be a fatal medical diagnosis, and it therefore struck me as important to leave behind a subjective account of the life I lived in the Arab world, where I was born and spent my formative years, and in the United States, where I went to school, college, and university."

The Arab part of this world is a place that existed before the consolidation of nationalism and nation-states, in regions once ruled by empires but not yet fully independent, where much older familial, communal and economic ties crisscrossed an area stretching from the Maghreb to the Mashreq, from the west of North Africa east to Baghdad and India, with leaps beyond into China or the Americas. This is also a world whose intricacies and memories have been faithfully depicted by many, many writers and intellectual figures not that familiar to American audiences: from the Lebanese Etel Adnan and the Iraqis Jabra Ibrahim Jabra and Nissim Rejwan, to Egyptians such as Ahdaf Soueif, Wagui Ghali, Jacqueline Shohet Kahanof, Jacques Hassoun and Edmond Jabès. In fact, Beirut Fragments, one of the most powerful and moving memoirs of this Levantine world, despite ending in the paroxysms of the Lebanese civil war, was written by Said's sister, Jean Said Makdisi.

For those familiar with such writing, and the work of dozens of others, Said's lucid memoir offers yet another facet of an incredibly variegated prism, for, as he writes: "It is geography--especially in the displaced form of departures, arrivals, farewells, exile, nostalgia, homesickness, belonging, and travel itself--that is at the core of my memories of those early years. Each of the places I lived in--Jerusalem, Cairo, Lebanon, the United States--has 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." Within this geography, Said's memoir faithfully echoes themes, images, feelings, details and nuances that represent a very deeply embedded and, ultimately, common set of references. Here, for example, is a passage from a memoir written by Jacqueline Shohet Kahanof, who grew up in Cairo, with one side of the family from Iraq and the other from Tunis: "To those of us who were born in the communities of the Levant, the names of places that were once familiar--Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, Tunis, Algiers--are now the faraway places in that mythical geography of hearts and minds, where distances do not correspond to those on maps."

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