Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
9 - 15 September 1999
Issue No. 446
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Books Monthly supplement Antara

What's it all about
Mona Anis previews Edward Said's Out of Place: A Memoir, a reconstruction of the writer's childhood and youth, and an indictment of the moral capriciousness of power, a capriciousness that, ironically, even now continues to besmirch Said's reputation

Extract from Out of Place
After the fall of Palestine my father set about in earnest -- right until the end of his life -- to get my mother a US document of some kind

Urban entanglements
L'Urbanisation dans le Monde arabe: Politique, Instruments et Acteurs (Urbanisation in the Arab World: Politics, Instruments and Actors): Collected, introduced and edited by Pierre Signoles, Galila El Kadi and Rachid Sidi Boumedine. CNRS editions, Paris, 1999. pp373

Me and my fiddle
An Equal Music, Vikram Seth, New York: Broadway Books, 1999. pp381

Arbitrary Traps
Shakhs Ghayr Maqsoud (The Wrong Person), Muntassir El-Qafash. Cairo: Cultural Palaces Organisation, 1999. pp213

'Nice girls play with dolls'
A Daughter of Isis: The Autobiography of Nawal El-Saadawi, translated from the Arabic by Sherif Hetata, London & New York: ZED Books, 1999. pp294

Alexandria revisited
Alexandria Rediscovered, Jean-Yves Empereur, London: British Museum Press, 1998. pp253

The Marriage Bed
Sexuality in Islam, Abdelwahab Bouhdiba London: Saqi Books, 1998. pp268

Make yourself heard
Youssef Rakha speaks to Egyptian novelist Ala' El-Deeb about existence, censorship and his latest novel Oyoun Al-Banafsij (Violet Eyes), which appears next week in Al-Hilal Novels

Extract from Violet Eyes
By Ala' El-Deeb

At a glance
By Mahmoud El-Wardani

* Manakh Al-'Asr ('The Climate of the Age'), Samir Amin, Beirut and Cairo: Mo'assasat Al-Intishar Al-'Arabi and Sinai Publications, 1999. pp192
* Al-Romouz Al-Tashkiliya fil Sehr Al-Sha'bi (Plastic Symbols in Popular Magic), Soliman Mahmoud Hassan, Cairo: General Organisation for Cultural Palaces, 1999. pp.231
* Min Al-Sadd Ila-Toshka (From the High Dam to Toshka), Ahmed El-Sayed El-Naggar, Cairo: Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, 1999. pp177
* The Politics of Modernism, Raymond Williams, trans. Farouq Abdel-Qader, Kuwait: National Council for Culture, Art and Literature (Alam Al-Ma'rifa Series), 1999. pp283
* Balaghat Al-Kadhib (The Rhetoric of Lying), Mohamed Badawi, Cairo: General Organisation for Cultural Palaces, 1999. pp208
* Tohfat Al-Ahbab (Lovers Antics), Youssef El-Mallawani (Ibn El-Wakil), ed. Muhamed El-Sheshtawi, Cairo: Dar Al-Afaq, 1999. pp295
* Fusul min Tarikh Al-Islam Al-Siyassy (Chapters from the History of Political Islam), Hadi El-Alawi, Cyprus: Centre for Socialist Study and Research in the Arab World, 1999. pp379

Magazines and Periodicals

* Al-Kutub: Wijhat Nazar (Books: Viewpoints), No. 7, August 1999, Cairo: Egyptian Company for Arab and International Publication.
* Al-Tariq (The Path), No. 2, 1999, Beirut: Dar Al-Farabi.
* Al-Jasra, No. 2, Spring 1999, Qatar: Jasra Cultural and Social Society.
* Idafat (Additions), 1999, Tunis: Arab Sociology Association in Tunis.
* Afkar (Ideas), 1999, Amman: Ministry of Culture.

To see other book supplements go to the ARCHIVES index. 


Illustrations courtesy of International Commitee of the Red Cross
"Folk drawings and tales", Cairo, 1996

Edward Said's first volume of memoirs has already provoked a storm even before its appearance on 30 September

What's it all about

Edward Said Out of place
Mona Anis previews Edward Said's Out of Place: A Memoir, a reconstruction of the writer's childhood and youth, and an indictment of the moral capriciousness of power, a capriciousness that, ironically, even now continues to besmirch Said's reputation

In a review of Edward Said's book The Politics of Dispossession which appeared in the Sunday Times of 17 July, 1994, British writer and journalist Paul Johnson, a former editor of the left-of-centre British weekly The New Statesman, made an amazingly frank confession: Edward Said "irritated" him, he said. Why? "At the risk of being accused by Said of orientalism if not racism," he wrote, "I would say that he [Said] exhibits the most prominent characteristic of the Arab intellectual: he is unreasonable."

Perhaps by invoking such a 'risk' Johnson hoped to deflect attention from the real content of his statement. For, in his sweeping generalisation about Arab intellectuals and their supposed 'unreason', Johnson is merely reiterating a tired cliché -- the same kind of banal prejudice that one finds, in fact, in the work of the European orientalists that Said set out to criticise two decades ago in Orientalism. People like Duncan Macdonald, for example, who complained of "the oriental's liability to be stampeded by a single idea and blinded to everything else", or like Hamilton Gibb, who imagined that he had identified an "aversion" among Muslims "from the thought-process of rationalism".

Indeed, later in the same article Johnson treated his readers to a classic expression of the kind of old-fashioned colonialism once championed by such pillars of Empire as Lord Cromer. What in Cromer is the expression of a distasteful historical ideology, however, is, in Johnson, merely bizarre. What other words can one find to describe comments such as "It is an axiom of the Western mode of discourse that no really good case can be sufficiently understated... To orientals, and for the purpose of this argument I include Said among them, it has no appeal at all. They work on the principle that no good case -- or no bad case for that matter -- can be sufficiently overstated."

'Orientalism' aside -- for this is a term that contains a mixed bag of things -- Johnson's statement is obviously racist. Apparently, Edward Said's credentials as an academic, intellectual and polemicist, credentials to which Johnson cannot help but refer in his otherwise mean-spirited piece, cannot erase the fact that he is an 'oriental', and this makes him either unworthy to listen to or some kind of counterfeit. None of this would matter very much were Paul Johnson, whose ideological twists and turns have confused observers, the only writer to be 'irritated' by Edward Said. For more than 20 years now Said has been the bête noire of any number of otherwise ill-assorted bedfellows. The main reason for this, of course, is his powerful advocacy of the Palestinian cause in the West.

The real reason for Johnson's irritation, and the irritation of those who share his views, has nothing whatsoever to do with 'unreason'. Said, in fact, is all too reasonable as far as Johnson is concerned, and this is obvious if one considers that Said -- accomplished in many fields, multilingual, at ease across intellectual disciplines -- has, over the years, won many fair-minded Westerners to the cause he advocates. It is this that has angered his opponents. In campaigns that have run the gamut from the bizarre to the mendacious, they have for years been trying to besmirch his name.

Recently they have found a new accusation to level at Said, and this has been the object of an international press campaign. Not only is Said an irritating, over-stating oriental who at bottom condones terrorism -- the line adopted by the Zionist lobby in the US for years -- he is also, we are now told, an outright liar.

This, in sum, is the drift of a long-winded article recently published in the conservative American magazine, Commentary. Entitled "My Beautiful Old House and Other Fabrications by Edward Said" and written by an Israeli scholar who claims to have spent three years researching Edward Said's past, the article hits us with the 'discovery' that the house in Jerusalem in which Said was born was owned not by his father but by his father's sister. The Commentary article was picked up by the London Daily Telegraph, which dedicated three articles to the subject -- one, entitled "Said Deconstructed", written by none other than Paul Johnson's son, Daniel Johnson. Mainstream US newspapers and magazines, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Boston Globe then joined the fray over who owned the title deed to the house that Said was born in.

As André Sharon, a schoolmate of Said's at Victoria College in Cairo, wrote in a letter to the New York Times: "Such a fuss over a house! Again, with respect, you have missed the point. We are talking about extremely warm and closely-knit Middle Eastern communities." If the Said family house in Jerusalem was not owned by Edward Said's father, then neither were the places in which he lived during his long stay in Cairo. For here they rented apartments in which to live, in much the same way as Said now does in New York City.

Where does Edward Said belong? He is "homeless... unhoused and wanders across languages," as George Steiner once described "those who create art in a civilization of quasi-barbarism." Steiner was quoted recently in the The Observer as saying that Said's true home, like that of another 20th-century intellectual, Theodor Adorno, is the text. Commenting on the attacks on Edward Said, Steiner told The Observer this is "where my passport is, and this is where Edward Said's passport is also."

Steiner's remarks must have doubly pleased Said, who used the Steiner quotation about the artist in an age of quasi-barbarism in an article written for Granta almost a decade ago, an article in which he wholeheartedly endorses the proposition that a whole genre of 20th-century literature is 'extra-territorial', by and about exiles and symbolising the age of the refugee. And of Adorno, as those who know Said's work will appreciate, the German philosopher, critic, and musicologist has always been something of a maître à penser for Said who, in Representations of the Intellectual, writes: "Adorno was the quintessential intellectual... For him life was at its most false in the aggregate -- the whole is always the untrue, he once said -- and this placed an even greater premium on subjectivity, on the individual's consciousness, on what could not be regimented in the totally administered society....[T]he intellectual does not have a story, but only a sort of a destabilising effect; he sets off seismic shocks, he jolts people, but he can neither be explained away by his background nor his friends."

Those who want to discover where Edward Said belongs should look in his books and study his writings. But so much for this latest unpleasant episode, which nevertheless will not detract from the pleasures many readers will gain from Edward Said's latest autobiographical text, scheduled to appear at the end of this month.

Out of Place: A Memoir, is both a frank attempt to reconstruct the past and a chronicling of the life of a young man caught between the blandishments of the powers that be and a slowly emerging but stubborn selfhood. At the beginning of the book, and especially in the first chapter dealing with childhood in Cairo and Said's relation with his mother, there is a moving, Proustian tone. "I am still haunted," Said writes, "by the memory of the sound, at exactly the same time and place, of her voice calling me 'Edwaad', the word wafting through the dusk air at closing time of the Fish Garden, (a small Zamalek park with aquarium) and of myself, undecided whether to answer her or remain in hiding for just a while longer, enjoying the pleasure of being called, being wanted, the non-Edward part of myself taking luxurious respite by not answering until the silence of my being became unendurable."

As the memoir progresses, and especially in the sections where he narrates his experience as a boy of 16 at the evangelical US boarding school, Mount Hermon, one is reminded more of the young Stephen Dedalus of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Here Said writes "I soon discovered that I would have to be on my guard against authority and that I needed to develop some mechanism or drive not to be discouraged by what I took to be efforts to silence or deflect me from being who I was, rather than becoming who they wanted me to be. In the process I began a lifelong struggle and attempt to demystify the capriciousness and hypocrisy of a power whose authority depended absolutely on its ideological self-image as a moral agent, acting in good faith and with unimpeachable intentions. Its unfairness, in my opinion, depended principally on its prerogative for changes in its bases of judgement. You could be perfect one day, but morally delinquent the next, even though your behaviour was the same."

Out of Place cannot, of course, be reduced to passages that echo this or that great work for to do so would be to do great injustice to a richly textured and variegated book. Before anything else it issues from Edward Said's wish to write back, or counter-narrate, both as a means of recovering what for him is the true image of the past and of refuting present representations of it. Said has explained elsewhere the Palestinian's vital need to narrate and to renarrate: "With no acceptable narrative to rely on, with no sustained permission to narrate, you feel crowded out and silenced," he writes. His life, as an adult, and beginning it seems from childhood, has been a long battle against constant attempts to silence him.

The current volume ends before 1967: there is, then, plenty of time to be encapsulated in a second renarration. And there is little doubt that a great many readers, more generous of mind and less easily irritated than Paul Johnson, will be hoping it appears sooner rather than later.

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