‘What do you think of Edward Said?’ Like anyone writing on the Middle East—or other subjects—I have learnt that this is never an innocent question, but is always taken as a litmus test for a whole range of political and intellectual issues. The tone of voice often indicates the answer required. You are expected to have a strong position on ‘Edward Said’. Yet the implied status of intellectual hero or bête noir is relatively recent. Orientalism, published in 1978, was not widely read for some years afterwards; and though now often treated by admirers and critics alike as a key text for our times, was not particularly well received on the Left. This journal did not even review it. Ironically, one might argue that the vitriolic attacks on it by critics like Bernard Lewis actually helped to draw attention to what was at stake in it, and make the book the phenomenon it became. For the Left, Orientalism was certainly not a historical materialist work: it bore no relation to the kinds of political economy dominant in the late 1970s. Terms such as ‘discourse’ and ‘representation’ aroused only suspicion—so, too, did the stance of a literary critic. When he was read at all, Said was often taxed with an ‘orientalism in reverse’, just as essentialist as the tradition he was criticizing. Students—who now sometimes have to be bullied to study Orientalism critically, rather than glibly using the term as a shorthand for ‘all the things we know we’re supposed to be against’—at that time found it difficult to understand.
Who was ‘Edward Said’? The name caused problems of pronunciation, even of comprehension. How could one person be a stolidly Anglo-Saxon ‘Edward’ and an apparently Middle-Eastern ‘Saeed’ at the same time? Out of Place shows it was by no means simple for Said himself. How could this individual be an Arab? Some years ago I recall one bright English undergraduate seeing him on television and trying to find words for his surprise at the masterful and persuasive figure he had watched: ‘Well, he seemed so . . . so . . .’ The sentence was blocked by a manifest sense of contradiction. Gently supplied with the phrases ‘un-Arab?’ or ‘intelligent, considering he is an Arab?’, he assented, with some embarrassment. These confusions were indicative of the moment. Orientalism was published at a time when the very idea of an Arab intellectual was difficult to grasp in the West. This was a period when ‘Palestinian’ was more or less synonymous with terrorist, and ‘Israel’ with political virtue; when the Third World had lost all glamour and Khomeini, a hitherto unknown Iranian cleric, had become the icon of a ‘fanatical Islam’ that is only now starting to recede as a media fixation. Politically informed cultural and colonial studies were still quite new.
If the underlying assumptions of that time have been challenged in the two succeeding decades, no individual has made a greater intellectual contribution to the change of climate than Said. Critical, argumentative, polemical, seemingly tireless—indeed, as this memoir tells us, sleepless—he has poured out books, articles, reviews, lectures and television programmes on subjects from European colonialism to American media, Schumann to Verdi, Camus to Foucault, Conrad to Arafat. Above all, he has given enduring voice to the cause of Palestinian freedom. As much of academia has sunk into market-driven, self-regarding professionalism, or the anxious guardianship of ever-smaller intellectual territories, Said has remained true to the passions of his interests, the embodiment of a sense of calling.
Out of Place is the record of an often painful interrogation, when a time came for Said to question himself. It opens: ‘All families invent their parents and children, give each of them a story, character, fate, and even a language. There was always something wrong with how I was invented and meant to fit in with the world of my parents and four sisters.’ The dislocated ‘I’ of his memoir enters with this telling shift of voice: from the active and general, authoritative and rather nineteenth-century in its literary tones, to the passive and specific. In the same move, the negative indeterminacy of ‘always something wrong’ goes clean against the grain of the public figure, the epitome of a confidently self-fashioned, combative intellectual, whom we know as ‘Edward Said’. The text undermines our assumptions about who he is, and some of what were once his own. Author of an early study entitled Beginnings: Intention and Method, Said is a profound reader of Joseph Conrad, whose narrative techniques he knows intimately and with whom he clearly has certain dark affinities.
The first three lines of the book draw the reader into a somewhat unexpected compact. This is the story of someone, deeply flawed in his making, who could not have been other than he is: child of Christian Palestinians in colonial Cairo, without social supports, sustaining themselves by a bricolage of habits and values patched together from multiple Arab, American and British sources. ‘William’ and ‘Hilda’ produced a son divided against himself, possessed by a fantasy of wholeness to which the memoir returns again and again. On the one hand there is ‘Edward’, experienced as both all too real and yet artificial, bearing a ‘foolish’ name which, like the family, is tied to him as a can to a dog’s tail. This boy exists in the social world: he speaks three languages, Arabic, English and French, but does not truly command any of them. He goes to schools he hates, where he is never quite ‘right’. He fails to fulfil the promise of his earliest years, when he was sometimes called ‘Eduardo Bianco’, and—so his parents insistently tell him—was prodigiously gifted in music, mathematics and memory. On the other hand, there lurks a secret sharer, the ‘quite different but quite dormant inner self’, an ‘I’ or ‘you’ who barely takes on the first person singular, let alone fully assuming a name or an identity. This ‘I’ is nurtured primarily by books, in which the boy imagines himself a figure wonderfully at home in fictional worlds, or even as one himself; by music; and by—inevitably disappointed—fantasies of unending narrative or musical bliss. Caught between what he experiences with desperation as ‘a discrediting past and an immoral future’, the child feels constantly at fault, the inner self perpetually stifled.