Two-thirds of the way into this engrossing memoir, Edward W. Said describes his temporary expulsion at fifteen from Cairo’s Victoria College, the school he disdainfully calls, with a nod to the bitter satires of George Orwell (1903-1950) and others, “the British Eton in Egypt.” A Christian native of Palestinian Jerusalem and born to privilege, the boy finds himself losing his sense of self as an unchallenged student on a new campus where family and class count for nothing—dress code and colorless British teachers and textbooks everything.
Said recalls a prank involving Lowe, his “blustering, weak, and incompetent” English teacher. Young Said locks Lowe inside a windowed cubicle in full view of the class. Assuming the role of circus barker, he points to the hapless Englishman in captivity: “Take a look [at Lowe] in his natural state.” Later the same Lowe calls for the boys to take out their Shakespeare readings. They set up a chorus of protest and demand Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) instead. Lowe goes on the attack and picks out his chief tormentor for special punishment. Classmates come to Said’s rescue, but their teacher’s anger frightens them off. Lowe bodily ejects his most gifted student.
Griffiths, the acting headmaster, tells Said’s parents that were it not for their son’s superior intelligence he would have been sacked long ago. Looking back fifty years, Said finds it “ironic that a teacher should feel that a bright student was an impediment to his authority.” Irony aside, might Griffiths not have tolerated his tormentor out of respect for him as the brightest of the boys, one worth salvaging?
For Said, misadventures such as the ones just described and an even earlier instance of caning are evils of the empire, “colonial” experiences. Yet, as writer Tan Buruma points out, the treatment given to Edward was no more or less than what most British private-school students of his age underwent.
Born in Jerusalem because his mother did not trust Egyptian hospitals, Said dates his endless suffering from the family’s having been uprooted to move to Cairo, where his dominating father Wadie set up a prospering business a decade before his son’s birth in 1935. It was there that Edward began to feel—perhaps even to cultivate—the persona of the misfit that would give his memoir its inevitable title.
Deep down, although an Arab, he believed he would always be a foreigner to the Egyptians. In passages like the following, Said reverses Blanche Dubois’s play-ending words, being always ungrateful for the [feigned] kindness of strangers: The Saids became
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 I looked—like a native Egyptian, something seemed to give me away.
What, in a sense, will give Edward W. Said away for some readers is the inherent nature of this genre. As long as memoirs remain anecdotal—items of personal biography of the great by the ungreat (although sometimes “ingrate” might not be amiss), self-aggrandizing can be held in check. A memoir that mounts its author as hero, however, can be self-serving. The memoirist claims to set the record straight while actually attempting to mitigate guilt or get back at his enemies. The self- chronicler usually cannot be monitored. “As-I-remember” should be “as-I-want-to-remember.”
In the relentless selectivity of memory as decoder of experience, only Edward Said’s mother, Hilda, remains inviolate, her caretaking inseparable from...
(The entire section is 1484 words.)