Out of Place: A Memoir

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Out of Place is an extraordinary story of exile, a narrative of many departures, a celebration of an irrecoverable past. A fatal medical diagnosis in 1991 convinced Edward Said that he should leave a record of where he was born and spent his childhood, and so with this memoir he rediscovers the Arab landscape of his early years - "the many places and people [who] no longer exist....Essentially a lost world." Vast changes occurred as Palestine became Israel, Lebanon was transformed by twenty years of civil war, ...
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Out of Place: A Memoir

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Out of Place is an extraordinary story of exile, a narrative of many departures, a celebration of an irrecoverable past. A fatal medical diagnosis in 1991 convinced Edward Said that he should leave a record of where he was born and spent his childhood, and so with this memoir he rediscovers the Arab landscape of his early years - "the many places and people [who] no longer exist....Essentially a lost world." Vast changes occurred as Palestine became Israel, Lebanon was transformed by twenty years of civil war, and the colonial Egypt of King Farouk disappeared forever by 1952.. "Underscoring all is the confusion of identity as Said had to come to terms with the dissonance of being an American citizen, a Christian and a Palestinian, and, ultimately, an outsider.
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Editorial Reviews

Chris Colin

When a philosopher publishes a memoir, he or she threatens to make the inaccessible accessible. A career's worth of abstrusity promises to be illuminated by that ultimate searchlight, the personal narrative. So when America's foremost Palestinian intellectual, Edward Said—admittedly not so abstruse in the murky theory department—released his long-awaited Out of Place, it seemed that he, too, just might snap open the shades and show us night in broad daylight for a moment.

Out of Place is a guilty pleasure for the recovering theory nut. With Barthes and then Foucault, we renounced our fascination with the author of a text, recognized that his or her religion, family life—even his or her other texts—have no bearing on the work in question. The domain of the enlightened critic, it was decided, is textual interplay and nothing more; to let the author's biography color our reading in any way is to grant him or her an undemocratic tyranny over a text that should belong exclusively to the reader.

But then Said's work has always collapsed text and "text producer," as theory's unbearable prose would put it; we read about Palestine, visions of the East, even Joseph Conrad, and Said is always present as a persona, weaving in his own experience and biases. The Columbia English professor's scholarship comes with a self-consciousness that constantly directs our attention to the scholar responsible. What facilitates this criticism? he asks. How does my background inform my perspective?

This time, though, the background is the foreground. From birth in Jerusalem in 1935 to his childhood years divided between Cairo and Palestine, then on to boarding school and university in the United States, the book traces a life characterized predominantly by exile and displacement. As a Christian Palestinian, and a Palestinian outside Palestine, Said suffered—and occasionally nurtured—a perpetual sense of marginalization. Out of place became something of a hometown.

If Said's story unfurls in a jumble of alien places, these places assume an impressive vividness. He describes his life as a series of incongruities and amalgams, each sending him further from what he deems center. First his name: the English Edward, the Arabic Said. Throughout the book, as the apparent contradictions in his life grow more pronounced—his mother's love was "both beautiful and withheld"; he's neither 100 percent Palestinian nor 100 percent Egyptian; he supports Palestinian self-determination but criticizes the PLO—he returns to the dissonance in his name as a sort of de-centering mantra.

As Said grows from nervously resourceful child to thoughtful/rebellious teen to dedicated scholar, we see his sense of perpetual displacement evolve into a comfort zone. Being out of place, he recognizes, affords him not only an ideal vantage point from which to consider the world, but also a rich vocabulary of images, metaphors and narratives with which to evaluate criticism itself.

But for all the relevance of marginalization in Said's life, the book sometimes stalls in its exhaustive exploration of periphery. While he clearly gets de-centered more than the average world citizen, his memoir neglects to recognize displacement as a fairly universal psychological condition. Who, as a child, doesn't feel out of place? The disservice lies not in some insensitivity toward Everyman's childhood, but rather in Said's own failure to distinguish between two distinct forms of displacement. He treats familiar experiences of personal estrangement with the same attention and intensity as his family's forced expatriation. Yet for American-born readers—with emigration in our history—tales of displacement and cultural hybrids rarely elicit shock.

Though Out of Place illuminates the liminal space Said inhabits throughout his personal and political life (liminality, with its suggestion of in between, is a central theme in his criticism), it neglects to consider the most interesting space of all: the intricate path his theoretical work snakes amid theoretic schools—post-structuralism, post-colonialism, liberal enlightenment and deconstruction.

It's in his intellectual work that we see Said live up to the rebel reputation so often ascribed to him on his book jackets. Unlike postmodernists such as Derrida and Baudrillard, who dispensed with the very notion of authority altogether, he still believes in truth and the possibility of speaking it. Where Derrida might explore his own subjectivity ad nauseam, Said never renounces the authority to fight concrete battles (Palestinian self-determination, for example) and use theory as one of his weapons.

Though he doesn't discuss it in terms of his intellectual work, his ambivalent relationship to authority plays out emotionally in Out of Place. Cold, reserved and critical, Wadie Said raised his son with dramatic scoldings and mysterious silences. Said writes:

"The most terrible thing he ever said to me—I was twelve then—was, 'You will never inherit anything from me; you are not the son of a rich man,' though literally of course I was."

In response, Said spent years attempting to secure the affections of this distant man. Said loves his father with a mix of rebellion and reverence. The hot and cold of this relationship is echoed and elaborated in his dealings with all sorts of authority structures. He describes himself, early on, as "the boy who went to school and unsuccessfully tried to follow (or ignore and circumvent) all the rules."

Said's memoir, of course, comes with baggage: Reading Out of Place means reading it against allegations of dishonesty recently leveled against him. In the September Commentary—published before Said's memoir hit bookshelves—Justus Reid Weiner accused him of fudging his Palestinian heritage. Said, he claimed, was not expelled from Palestine and did not attend school there as he has suggested. The Said camp fought back. Supporters cast Weiner as a Zionist Kenneth Starr: You're wrong, and even if you are right, get a life.

Wait until the book comes out, said Said's defenders, then we'll be vindicated. Indeed, Out of Place offers sufficient evidence to exonerate Said of any blatant obfuscation. (Christopher Hitchens and others have offered thorough, point-by-point refutations of the allegations.) But at the same time, the book allows, inadvertently, an understanding of why a Justus Reid Weiner might choose the road he did. While Weiner's critique homes in, piddly-like, on the minutiae of the personal as opposed to the political, it was Said who first made the details of his personal life so politically important.

But the most remarkable thing to see in the debate was the reduction of two decades of scholarship to a week of tit-for-tat quibbling. Critics split into two camps; suddenly the way to think about Said was simply liar or not liar. Ostensibly, Said fought such party-line thinking all his professional life. His scholarship revolves around the ideal of the "secular critic"—that intellectual who eschews "filiation" (alliance based on birth, nationality or profession) in favor of "affiliation" (allegiances born out of "social and political conviction, economic and historical circumstances, voluntary effort and willed determination"). Yet like so many public intellectuals, he has used the facts of his biography to bolster the authority of his ideas.

Out of Place lets us see him better than any of his previous writing has, and this seemed to be what he was after. Diagnosed with leukemia in 1991, he decided it was time to look back on a life largely obscured by the movement of exile. And as in the best of his criticism, he is able to make beautiful sense of the abstract and complex:

I occasionally experience myself as a cluster of flowing currents. I prefer this to the idea of a solid self...These currents...at their best, they require no reconciling, no harmonizing. They are "off" and may be out of place, but at least they are always in motion...

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
An influential literary critic (Culture and Imperialism, etc.), writes movingly and honestly about his life of dislocation and exile. Prompted by a diagnosis of leukemia in 1991, Said's new book is infused with a desire to document not only a life, but a time and place—Palestine in the 1930s and '40s—that has since vanished. Born in 1935 to a Lebanese mother and Palestinian father who had American citizenship, and raised in Palestine, Egypt and Lebanon, Said has always lived with a divided identity. Even as a child he realized that his first name was British, his last name was Arabic and his nationality was American. In a straightforward, often poetic style, Said charts his family history, his education in British and American schools and his move to the U.S. in 1951 to attend Princeton and begin what was to become a distinguished career as an academic and intellectual. The memoir's most engaging elements are the little personal details that help us understand his later work: the young Said's love of such Hollywood films as Arabian Nights, with Maria Montez, or the novels of Twain and Cooper, offer fresh insights into his later writings about orientalism. Said can be frank about his personal life—whether it's learning about masturbation or his intense relationship with his mother, whom he identifies as Gertrude to his Hamlet—which gives the book moments of deep, intimate openness. In the end, this memoir is less a tidy summing-up than an acceptance and exploration of what has been. As Said says, he has "learned actually to prefer being not quite right and out of place."
Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Possibly the best-known Arab American intellectual of his generation, Said (English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University) offers a riveting account of a tough but successful youth caught between two very different worlds. Said's writings range widely from classical music criticism and political commentary to groundbreaking research in comparative literature; Orientalism (1978), an examination of the way the West perceives the Middle East and Islam, is arguably his most influential book and continues to enjoy worldwide success. To many, especially Middle Easterners, he is also famous for his advocacy of Palestinian self-determination. In this new memoir, Said sheds light on his formative years—from his childhood as the son of a wealthy Palestinian Christian businessman in Jerusalem and his days as a young exile in Cairo to his graduate education at Harvard. A sense of sadness permeating this book may result from his having written most of it while recovering from leukemia in the mid-1990s. Highly recommended for large collections.
Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
—Ali Houissa, Cornell Univ., Ithaca, NY
Said writes with great passion and wit about his early life in the Middle East and the US in the 1930s and 1940s, sharing his journey from schools in Cairo and summers in the mountains above Beirut to camp in Maine, boarding school in Massachusetts, and college at Princeton University. He tells of his lifelong process of coming to terms with the dissonance of being an American citizen, a Christian, and a Palestinian. Said is a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. He is the author of 17 books, including Orientalism, which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR booknews.com
Times Literary Supplement
The impression [of the book] which endures is of a restless spiritual energy ceaselessly grappling with contradictions, complexities and injustices of the world from the perspective of privileged marginality he inherited from his wealthy but dislocated family. The circumstances in which the book was written, in periods of remission or between bouts of chemotherapy, add to its testamentary force...[It is] a thoroughly convincing statement about a man who has helped to illuminate our crisis-ridden world with its contradictions and complexities.
This engaging and touching memoir—by a brilliant, controversial professor—recalls his sad, priviledged coming of age in the Middle East and the U.S.
Kirkus Reviews
Said's compassionate and lyrical memoir explores his feelings of displacement in both his cultural setting and his family, revealing the roots of his intellectual, political, and personal unfolding. A distinguished cultural critic (The Politics of Dispossession, 1994, etc.), Said has gained a reputation as a bold intellectual and a noted spokesperson for the Palestinian cause. Faced with a diagnosis of leukemia in 1991, Said decided to recapture the world of his early childhood in Palestine, Egypt, and Lebanon, followed by what turned out to be a permanent move to the US. The result is a "record of an essentially lost or forgotten world." This is a bittersweet memoir of a boyhood in a sleepy summer town in Lebanon, of the cosmopolitan, colonial world of Cairo in the '40s and '50s, and of the dramatic changes in Palestine before Israel gained statehood. It's also the story of Said's early sense of alienation, the distinct (and eventually cherished) feeling of being an outsider. A Christian Palestinian in Cairo with a proper British name and a father with American citizenship, the young Said felt out of place early on. Said is an insightful and close observer of the details of daily life that create an entire mood in a people or family. The subject of his own family—a pampered and eerily sheltered group—is equally central to Said's critical yet tender account of his growth from the confused and insecure "Edward" (a creation of his parents) into an emotionally and intellectually mature man. Said devotes enormous lyrical and emotional energy to presenting his parents' role in his life, describing in heart-wrenching detail the domineering father and the influential,manipulative mother who watched his every move. Both culturally and emotionally, maturity for Said could only come from a separation from his early life. A beautiful and moving account that stands on its own as a classic in the art of memoir and as a key to understanding the genesis of Said's intellectual work.
From the Publisher
"Absorbing. . . . An almost Proustian portrait." --The New York Times

"Said has turned the writing of a memoir itself into perhaps the most profound type of homecoming a perennial exile can know." --The Village Voice Literary Supplement

"Engrossing. . . . [Said has] an almost Proustian feel for smells, sounds, sights, and telling anecdotes." --The New York Review of Books

"If autobiography is above all a means of explaining one's self to oneself, then Out of Place . . . must be seen as a triumph." --The Boston Globe

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781862070110

Meet the Author

Edward Said is University Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia Universtuy. He lives in New York City.
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Read an Excerpt

Auntie Melia took Hilda in hand, showed her where to shop, where to send her children to school, whom to talk to when she needed something. She supplied her with maids, piano teachers, tutors, names of ballet schools, dressmakers, and, of course, endless, very quietly stated advice. She always appeared for lunch on Tuesday, a habit begun before I was born and continued until she left Egypt in 1953 for her brief period of retirement in Lebanon, where she died in 1956. I was born and continued until she left Egypt in 1953 for her brief period of retirement in Lebanon, where she died in 1956. I was particularly fascinated by two things about her. One was her way of eating. Perhaps because of defects in her molars, tiny morsels of food were carefully deposited between her gums and her front teeth; they did not make their way back to where they could be chewed and then swallowed. Instead she worked on the food in the front part of her mouth by pressing it down with her tongue and then sucking from it a minuscule portion of juice and, say, a grain of rice, or a tiny chunk of meat, which she abruptly and almost imperceptibly gulped down. Then with her fork she extracted what was left--which always looked pretty intact to me--and laid it down precisely on the plate's far corner. By the end of the meal, which she was always the last to finish, her plate contained seven or eight little mounds of food, neatly ringing the surface, as if they had been put there by a guileful chef.
The second thing that transfixed me were her hands, always encased in black or white lace gloves, depending on the season. She wore bracelets but not rings. Herleft hand always held a small rolled-up handkerchief in the palm next to the thumb, where she could open and reroll it all day. Whenever she offered me candy--bastilia, she called it--it always emerged from the hankie, always smelling of lavender cologne, always covered in cellophane, always of some gentle, unassertive flavor like quince or tamarind. Her right hand either carried her bag or rested on it.
Auntie Melia's relationship with my father was very correct, respectful, even at times cordial; it was quite unlike his attitude toward her sister, the kind and patient and hopelessly good Munira, whom he called mart "ammi, mother-in-law (literally, "my paternal uncle's wife"), and whom he always treated with a sort of playful condescension. As for his four brothers-in-law, he seemed to have qualified affection, and a great deal of criticism, for them. Hilda's brothers--Munir, Alif, Rayik, and Emile--lived in Palestine, and we would visit them there with some regularity; after 1948 they flowed in and out of Cairo, refugees mostly, variously "hard up," as my father would say, in need of help. They were more numerous than my father's relatives, especially if to their Palestinian number were added a whole host of Hilda's Lebanese relatives. One of my father's ironclad rules was never to discuss the Said family at all; he often told me that a man's family is his honor. But he had no qualms about discussing his wife's family, for whom (this must have greatly complicated my mother's life) he seemed to be, according to him, an unending source of loans. He was always wealthy, whereas Hilda's brothers were not. One of them borrowed money from my father to get married. The others borrowed sums for various unsuccessful business enterprises, and I was led to believe that these sums were never returned. My father told me all these things with distaste, and because of that information I must have subliminally developed a sense of discomfort and mild disapproval that made my adolescent interaction with them awkward and just short of pleasant.
But his main objection to them over the years started with his marriage to Hilda. I never had all the details, but it had something to do with the fact that my mother's oldest brother, Munira's favorite, had sold off the small plot of family land in order to get married. This left the widowed Munira, plus Hilda and her other three brothers, without adequate means to live. I have long (perhaps inaccurately) supposed that part of the marriage arrangements made with my father by Hilda's family included stipulations for Munira's subsistence. She ended up spending many years with us, but it was quite routine for us to hear stories of her mistreatment at her oldest son's house, or of her other sons' inability--my father always called it unwillingness--to contribute to her upkeep. My father had a righteous sense of achievement after he had persuaded one of her sons to take my grandmother out to Groppi's for ice cream once a week.
For my father all this represented a classic, not to say definitive, example of how sons should not treat their mother--and, he began after 1948 regularly to say, "their sister." This kind of talk, expressed in my father's laconic style, pervaded the family ambience for me in both a general and acutely personal way. Not only did it seem to put my mother's family under a permanent cloud of disapproval and fundamental disqualification, but as a brother and son I felt acute discomfort. The implicit syllogism, according to which I grew up, ran as follows: "Edward" resembles his maternal uncles (talih" mikhwil is the Arabic expression for the process; it also suggests that the older one got, the more strong the resemblance); his uncles are irrecusably bad sons and brothers; therefore "Edward" is far too likely to end up like them, and must thus be broken in his course, reeducated, re-formed to be less like them.
This was awful for my mother, of course. To have her son, her mother (whom she always treated in my presence with an almost sneeringly cold dislike), and her brothers singled out for such a Darwinian fate turned her into an intolerable mix of defender-cum-agent of her original family, executor of my father's injunctions in her new one, and prosecutor of, as well as defense lawyer for, me. Whatever she did fell into these three categories of judgment simultaneously, and ended up tangled inside her, with very disorienting consequences for me, her admired and yet unfortunately wayward son, the child who confirmed the worst of her lineage. Her love for me was both beautiful and withheld, and also endlessly patient.
I grew up sliding between being--in my estimation of my father's attitude to me--a delinquent son and my uncles' all-too-dutiful nephew. I called my father Daddy until his dying day, but I always sensed in the phrase how contingent it was, how potentially improper it was to think of myself as his son. I never asked him for anything without great apprehension or hours of desperate preparation. The most terrible thing he ever said to me--I was twelve then--was, "You will never inherit anything from me; you are not the son of a rich man," though literally of course I was. When he died he left his entire estate to my mother. From the moment I became conscious of myself as a child, I found it impossible to think of myself as not having both a discrediting past and an immoral future in store; my entire sense of self during my formative years was always experienced in the present tense, as I frantically worked to keep myself from falling back into an already established pattern, or from falling forward into certain perdition. Being myself meant not only never being quite right, but also never feeling at ease, always expecting to be interrupted or corrected, to have my privacy invaded and my unsure person set upon. Permanently out of place, the extreme and rigid regime of discipline and extracurricular education that my father would create and in which I became imprisoned from the age of nine left me no respite or sense of myself beyond its rules and patterns.
And thus I became "Edward," a creation of my parents whose daily travails a quite different but quite dormant inner self was able to observe, though most of the time was powerless to help. "Edward" was principally the son, then the brother, then finally the boy who went to school and unsuccessfully tried to follow (or ignore and circumvent) all the rules. His creation was made necessary by the fact that his parents were themselves self-creations: two Palestinians with dramatically different backgrounds and temperaments living in colonial Cairo as members of a Christian minority within a large pond of minorities, with only each other for support, without any precedent for what they were doing except an odd combination of prewar Palestinian habit; American lore picked up at random in books and magazines and from my father's decade in the United States (my mother did not even visit the United States until 1948); the missionaries' influence; incompleted and hence eccentric schooling; British colonial attitudes that represented both the lords and the general run of "humankind" they ruled; and, finally, the style of life my parents perceived around them in Egypt and which they tried to adapt to their special circumstances. Could "Edward's" position ever be anything but out of place?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 2.5
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  • Posted September 12, 2012

    What a waste--Out of Place, what could have been a fascinating a

    What a waste--Out of Place, what could have been a fascinating account of a childhood spent torn between worlds, turned out to be a dry, repetitious, disjointed grind through a life of vapid privilege. Edward Said might have turned out to be an original thinker in analyzing the conflict and interplay between European and indigenous cultures and a champion of the Palestinians, but none of that comes through in his rote description of his life through his twenties. People come and go in endless succession, being granted a line or at best a paragraph; virtually the only people given three dimensions are his mother and father. Even his siblings are given short shrift. We get little more than their names. His first wife doesn't even rate that, appearing out of nowhere and disappearing just as suddenly. What is most astonishing is that Said is jaw-droppingly oblivious to privilege and class. He had to have known, even as a child, that he was living a life far more Westernized and privileged than the overwhelming majority of people in Cairo, Jerusalem, Lebanon, and more comfortable even than most people in America, yet people outside of his wealthy bubbles are virtually not mentioned. If Said made any attempt to mingle with the less than rich Egyptians, Lebanese, or Americans (or Palestinians, for that matter) we never hear of it. The comparisons to Proust in terms of his writing are undeserved. His prose is merely descriptive, utterly lacking in the barbed humor of memoirs like Mary Karr's The Liar's Club, Said Sayrafiezadeh's When Skateboards Will Be Free, or Helene Stapinski's Five Finger Discount, or the quiet dignity of Cheri Register's Packinghouse Daughter. (Said doesn't have the energy to even name the chapters, they're merely numbered, and pointlessly so, since they don't seem to be divided according to portions of his life.) He doesn't give the background sweep of Pablo Neruda's memoirs, or the moving account of someone really experiencing being out of place in Leo Spitzer's Hotel Bolivia, his wrenching account of being moved from Vienna to La Paz to escape the Nazis. If someone British growing up in Egypt had written the same account as Said of a privileged upbringing in private schools, Ivy League colleges and travel, with long whiny sections over his problems with his parents, it would have been dismissed--rightly so--as oblivious and elitist. Are we supposed to ignore that because of his Arab-American heritage? Ultimately he fails at telling us what it's like to be out of place, since he gives no description of the places he's supposed to be alienated from or the roots of his alienation. Anyone looking for an account of being torn between cultures or the roots of an advocate for the Palestinians will need to turn elsewhere. Coming from a land of poverty, his strongest complaint is not being picked valedictorian at his Connecticut prep school. Maybe writing this helped Said deal with his illness, but that gives us no reason to spend three hundred pages being part of his therapy.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 14, 2005

    Out of place in the Said cannon...

    I found this memoir/autobiography really interesting and colorful, but not quite fulfilling. For sure it didn't quite have that Said caliber that you'll find in his scholarly works. Also, it's really repetitive, especially in terms of his relationships with either parent. A lot of the historical issues seem vague and insincere too. Like the way he says he doesn't know why his family chose to go to Jerusalem for him to be born... or the way he shrugs at the fact that his mother's Lebanese passport said her birthplace was Cairo instead of Nazareth. On the whole, I'm glad I read it, and I DO recommend it, but I definitely wouldn't call it a great work by any stretch at all.

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