Stop-Time in the Levant

Stop-Time in the Levant

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


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.

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.”

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:

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.

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