Stop-Time in the Levant | The Nation


Stop-Time in the Levant

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

For those unfamiliar with this world, with what I have elsewhere defined as Levantine culture, much of what Said writes about growing up between Egypt, Palestine and Lebanon may seem utterly exotic and unlikely. This "unlikeliness" ranges from his father, an American citizen by circumstance, raising the American flag in front of the family business in Cairo, to young Edward's moving between British and American schools, seeing Jennifer Jones play Bernadette of Lourdes in the Greek-owned Diana cinema, or scouring the Egyptian press for items about Wilhelm Furtwängler once the boy's interest in music has been piqued by his mother. Such hybridity represents what is both most familiar and most "out of place" for young Edward within the oddly autonomous but generally oblivious pockets of communal life operating at a privileged remove from the great majority of mostly very poor people around them. Written during periods of illness or treatment, Said's memoir depicts this world in exacting and painstaking detail, as if each incident, image or place recollected can offer some lifeline to a future rapidly receding from him. Much in the manner of the early sections of Elias Canetti's memoirs, The Tongue Set Free, Said allows the chronology of events to dictate his changing state of consciousness, without imposing an overarching structure or ending to them, despite his certain knowledge of the personal and political fates that doom this world to oblivion. In describing friends of the family, of mixed Lebanese, Egyptian, Armenian and Turkish origin, Said writes:

About the Author

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

But like us they were marked for extinction in the worldly Cairo environment that was already beginning to be undermined. We were all Shawam, amphibious Levantine creatures whose essential lostness was momentarily stayed by a kind of forgetfulness, a kind of daydream, that included elaborate catered dinner parties, outings to fashionable restaurants, the opera, ballet, and concerts. By the end of the forties we were no longer just Shawam but khawagat, the designated and respectful title for foreigners which, as used by Muslim Egyptians, has always carried a tinge of hostility. Despite the fact that I spoke--and I thought looked--like a native Egyptian, something seemed to give me away. 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.

The accounts and impressions of everyday life, of various schools, teachers, headmasters, relatives, acquaintances and incidents, are punctuated by Said's ongoing quest to get at the truth of his relationship to his parents, who, as he writes, "were themselves self-creations." The portraits he paints of them are indeed memorable, particularly filtered through his own relationship to Palestine--from his first feelings of being acknowledged and recognized at the St. George's School in Jerusalem ("for the first and last time in my school life I was among boys who were like me"), to reuniting with displaced family members in exile and seeing "the sadness and destitution in the faces and lives of people I had formerly known as ordinary middle-class people." Throughout the book, the text is peppered with questions directed at his parents and himself, questions that the young Edward could never formulate but that, alas, can now only be answered rhetorically. These acutely painful passages are the turns of the screw that lock this memoir into place, as in this incident about his father:

I was no more than four when he took me for a walk near the Fish Garden in Cairo (I do not think he ever entered the place, which seemed exclusively my mother's domain). I scampered along behind him, while he pressed on with his hands behind his back at a resolute pace. When I stumbled and fell forward, scratching my hands and knees badly, I instinctively called out to him, "Daddy...please," at which he stopped and turned around slowly toward me. He paused like that for a couple of seconds, then turned back, resuming his walk without a word. That was all. It was also how he died, turning his face to the wall, without a sound. Had he, I wonder, ever really wanted to say more than he actually did?

Yet, like Edward Said's own public intellectual trajectory, there is no sense of finality to this memoir. In fact, Said's relationship with his parents--and particularly his mother--continues. Despite her death, Said prolongs his treasured colloquy with her, through ruminations, conversations and even letters. It is this lack of finality, perhaps, that makes Out of Place such a unique document and highlights a crucial part of Said's invention of himself within an American context. Both because of and despite the sense of America conveyed through his father, Said has grown into ways of being an American that are extremely instructive at this juncture of our own cultural and political history. As he writes:

The sheer gravity of my coming to the United States in 1951 amazes me even today. I have only the most shadowy notion of what my life might have been had I not come to America. I do know that I was beginning again in the United States, unlearning to some extent what I had learned before, relearning things from scratch, improvising, self-inventing, trying and failing, experimenting, canceling and restarting in surprising and frequently painful ways. To this day I still feel that I am away from home, ludicrous as that may sound, and though I believe I have no illusions about the "better" life I might have had, had I remained in the Arab world, or lived and studied in Europe, there is still some measure of regret.

What is perhaps most ironic about this is the fact that American culture is only now striving toward a formulation and practice of the kind of fluidity among diverse peoples that characterized the Levantine world of Said's childhood. His first winter away from home at boarding school yields the realization that "I had spent all my life in two rich, teeming, historically dense metropolises, Jerusalem and Cairo, and now I was totally bereft of anything except the pristine woods, apple orchards, and the Connecticut River valley and hills stripped of their history." In many ways, the memoir itself seems a long-delayed reaction against some of his earliest and most acute impressions of American behavior, as when he writes of "the extraordinary homogenizing power of American life," which "seemed to limit the complex intercourse of daily life to an unreflective minimum in which memory has no role."

Part of this need to reassert and validate personal experience also comes as an antidote to the very marked American tendency to relegate individuals to the role of surrogates, standing in as representatives of the race, the tribe or anything not completely domesticated or reducible to the already known. The most immediate form of this, of course, occurs through naming and the pronunciation of "non-American" names. The accessibility of being named Edward proved deceptive to Said, and the ways in which realities left behind were either mispronounced or left unpronounced is clearly another major theme of his memoir. As an extension of this practice of domesticating things whose names we cannot utter, Said's role and persona is often referred to, tongue in cheek, using classically anti-Semitic terminology--as someone so much like the "rootless, cosmopolitan Jewish intellectual." That is, someone almost like us but whom we can still hold at arm's length by not fully embracing his own context, by displacing him again, using terms familiar to us. Whatever parallels might exist, we must also remember that the experience of dispersion, exile and rootless cosmopolitan life has been the fate of almost all Arab writers and intellectuals this century. While enriching the possibilities of our own cultural horizons, in retrospect, Edward Said's Out of Place clearly joins itself to that embattled, often heroic and altogether much-neglected tradition.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size