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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1484

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 love for the only son among four daughters. He was easily her favorite. They shared a love of music; they read Shakespeare’s Hamlet together. From their first distant separation, when Edward entered Mount Herman in Connecticut, to her last months of confining illness in Washington, D.C., while he taught in New York, Hilda Musa Said defined her son’s lifelong sense of estrangement. Exile, Said writes, is the sense of being somewhere one does not wish to be. Where he wanted to be was with his mother.

Everywhere he goes in the Islamic world, he complains that he is either the wrong kind of Arab or, if in an Arabic city such as Cairo, where the dominant culture was British, an Arab of any sort. Although Said’s parents are members of an exclusive club, he is persona non gratathere: “Arabs aren’t allowed here, and you’re an Arab!” he is told. He reports the incident to his father, who is only “mildly disquieted.”

About his father, Wadie Ibrahim Said, the son is much more than mildly disquieted. Even after a half-century, he is unable to resolve the Janus-faced force that his father represented. Always a “demanding and hectoring presence”—a formidable figure who lectured Said for not having semen stains on his pajamas, a sure sign that instead of having wet dreams, he was masturbating—the elder Said accords only formal acknowledgement to the boy’s talents. Yet when the father suffers a decade’s physical decline, the son fears he will be left unprotected and vulnerable.

Melanoma, his father’s doctor warns, is “very treacherous, the worst of the cancers.” Although “escaping” the Arab world for the United States and beginning the American education that will lead to Princeton and a distinguished career as a literary and Middle-East scholar at Columbia University, he lives in a haunted house where he envisions his father’s body “being taken over by a dreadful, creeping invasion of malignant cells, his organs slowly devoured, his brain, eyes, ears, and throat torn asunder by this dreadful, almost miasmic, affliction.”

Perhaps most of all, Said blames his father for the “fatalistic compact” cosigned by parent and son to accept “a necessarily inferior status.” He was saved the shame of accommodation by the emergence of “the polarizing, charismatic figure” of Charles Malik, who became Lebanon’s leading player on the world scene in the 1970’s. Malik, husband of Said’s mother’s first cousin Eva, was not only a regular visitor to the Saids’ Lebanese Christian circle at their vacation refuge in idyllic Dhour but the first person of intellect to spur the young man’s literary and political passions. Although later disenchanted by his mentor’s uncompromising espousal of a Christian Lebanon, Said credits Malik with being the major liberating influence of his life:

[At Dhour], Malik represented our first symbol of resistance, the refusal of Christian Lebanon to go along with Arab nationalism, the decision to join the Cold War on the United States’s side, to fight and turn intransigent rather than to enthuse about . . . [Gamal Abdel] Nasser’s rousing exhortations.

Out of Place will reward the determined reader many times over. Said writes out of near total recall in a belle- lettristic idiom that links the inventive and the necessarily self- referential, and affirms at all points a keen awareness of the frequent complicity between culture and state power. In those instances, mostly in the last two chapters, where he is obliged to flash forward forty years and more, Said never leaves the reader adrift. The early nineties not only bring him to America (1991), but to the crushing knowledge, in 1993, that he suffers from chronic lymphatic leukemia (CLL). He still writes letters to his mother—herself dead of cancer eighteen months before his diagnosis—and he finds himself “thinking regressively about hiding a place to die in.” Instead, Said clings to the “second self he had discovered during an abortive love affair—a long-buried response to the world traveler’s secret fear of not returning.” Especially since receiving his sentence of death, Said has exorcised fear of not returning in favor of a chronic zest for setting out: “I say to myself: if you don’t take this trip, don’t prove your mobility and indulge your fear of being lost, don’t override the normal rhythms of domestic life now, you certainly will not be able to do it in the near future.”

In 1992, with his second wife Mariam and two children, he revisits his birthplace in Jerusalem after forty-five years. A year later he goes on his own to Cairo, all this time being monitored, without treatment, by his oncologist, Dr. Kanti Rai, to whom, along with Mariam, this book is dedicated.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wisely concludes in The New York Timesthat, although Edward W. Said claims to dissociate American attitudes from those of Israel more than other Palestinians, he cannot help seeing his adopted country as “less of a haven for the dispossessed and more of a refinement of the colonialist outlook toward third-world people.” Yet what an extraordinary mind has enabled Edward Said to transcend his Palestinian-Arab-Christian-American out-of- placeness—at least for the purposes of writing his remarkable story.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 96 (September 1, 1999): 66.

The Economist 352 (September 25, 1999): 102.

Library Journal 124 (September 15, 1999): 84.

The New York Times Book Review 104 (October 3, 1999): 10.

Publishers Weekly 246 (July 12, 1999): 84.

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