Edward Said: A Contested History

(PW, September 6, 1999)

In 1991, while attending a conference of Palestinian intellectuals in London, Edward Said received word that his New York-based doctor wished to speak with him about the results of his annual physical. Reached by telephone, the doctor was evasive. "Nothing to get excited about," he said. "I'm not a child," Said insisted, "and I have a right to know." The doctor's hesitation was understandable, as Said soon learned: a routine blood test indicated that he had a rare form of chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

The diagnosis transformed his life and served as the catalyst for his memoir, Out of Place, just published by Knopf. When PW visits Said in his cavernous office at Columbia University, where he is a professor of English and Comparative Literature, he has just returned from an experimental treatment at Long Island Jewish Medical Center. Haggard but serene, he explains how the book, which he started while recovering from three early rounds of chemotherapy in 1994, helped to sustain him through a most difficult period.

"It gave me something to look forward to," he says. "It gave me a purpose, because I was trying to recreate an earlier world."

Said is ambivalent about the current avalanche of memoirs flooding the literary world, and he certainly never planned to write one, but the onset of the disease impelled him to proceed. "I'm not a journal keeper," he says. "It was really something that both the disease and the death of my mother in 1990 sort of stimulated. Another purpose in doing it was that I wanted my children to have something to look at." (Said has two children, Wadie, 27, and Najla, 25.)

By any measure, Edward Said is a preeminent public intellectual, a man who, since taking a doctorate in English from Harvard in 1963, has pursued a dual career: literary and cultural critic (his 1978 book, Orientalism, is among the most influential works of critical theory in the postwar period) and uncompromising defender of Palestinian rights. The former made him a celebrated figure in the tidy corridors of academe; the latter transformed Said into a political lightning rod and object of death threats, hate mail and vandalism. Today, he remains highly visible and highly controversial. For admirers like Gore Vidal, Said is "that rare sort of intellectual who is able to illuminate even the stormiest of human prospects with a serene, often revelatory, light." His critics hold a different view: an anti-Said screed published in the conservative journal Commentary in 1989 was headlined: "Professor of Terror."

As a public figure, however, Said has remained an elusive presence: eloquent, imperious, indefatigable, but also inscrutable. Out of Place brings the man into focus, chronicling the emotional minefield of his youth and capturing "an essentially lost or forgotten world, that of my early life." The memoir depicts an upwardly mobile family shuttling between Palestine, Lebanon and Egypt, while at the same time living a life of luxury -- of "tennis, noisy cardplaying, and Ping-Pong." But it was a world tipping into disaster: in 1948, when Jewish inhabitants of the former colonial mandate of Palestine established the state of Israel, Said's entire extended family was driven out of Palestine; in 1952, his father's business was wrecked in Cairo street fighting; and in the 1970s, the family's long-time vacation spot, in the Lebanese mountains, was obliterated in the Lebanese civil war.

Recently, however, the details of Said's early life have been sharply questioned. Writing in the September issue of Commentary, Justus Reid Weiner, an Israeli scholar, challenged Said's contention that he was raised and schooled in and subsequently displaced from Palestine in the period leading up to Israel's birth -- a contention, wrote Weiner, that has served as a "powerfully compelling metaphor for the larger Palestinian condition."

Weiner's three-year investigation turned up no references to Said's parents in pre-1948 telephone directories and no references to Edward Said in the leather-bound registry books for St. George's preparatory school, where Said claimed to have been a student. As for the Jerusalem house where the family reportedly resided, Weiner found that it was registered to Said's relatives, not to his parents. "Jerusalem, it turns out," Weiner concludes, "was not the soul and center of Edward Said's youth."

In a blistering riposte published in London's al-Hayat and Cairo's al-Ahram Weekly, Said retorted, "It is part of the Palestinian fate always to be required to prove one's existence and history!" Had Weiner properly consulted Out of Place, Said wrote, he would have ascertained that the family divided its time between Jerusalem, Cairo and Lebanon in the years before 1948. In response to Weiner's accusations, Said affirmed that "the family house [in Jerusalem] was in fact a family house in the Arab sense, which meant that our families were one in ownership"; asserted that the records for St. George's school ended in 1946, a year before he enrolled; and, finally, accused Weiner of never bothering to contact him, and of threatening his relatives. "What he cannot understand," Said wrote, "is that I have been moved to defend the refugees' plight precisely because I did not suffer and therefore felt obligated to relieve the suffering of my people." But the real agenda of Commentary's editorial board, Said tells PW, is far more insidious. "If they can prove that the leading Palestinian intellectual is a liar, what d s this say about the rest of the Palestinians?"

But some facts are beyond dispute. Said was born to Palestinian parents in Jerusalem in 1935. His father, Wadie Said, founded the largest office equipment and stationery business in the Middle East. Said likens his childhood to "a gigantic cocoon," and some of the best passages in Out of Place are those that describe his parents and the tightly regulated universe they created for their precocious son and other four children, a universe imbued with British colonial attitudes, upper-class Egyptian habits and Horatio Alger ideology imported from the U.S. by Wadie. While his mother fussed over her children, and his father retreated into a private realm of commerce and card games, young Edward underwent a strict regimen of "piano lessons, gymnastics, Sunday School, riding classes, boxing," augmented by lazy afternoons reading Shakespeare and tuning in to BBC opera programs.

Yet reality interrupted his idyllic childhood, and the memoir, which unfolds against the backdrop of Britain's retreat from Egypt, contains radiant portraits of individuals who stirred his conscience, among them, his aunt Nabiha, who worked tirelessly on behalf of the broken Palestinian refugees in Cairo and who, Said says, "was interested in cultivating in me some sense of the Palestinian tragedy," and a family acquaintance, Farid Haddad, whose political outspokenness resulted in his arrest, torture and execution by the authoritarian regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Said's sense of displacement was reinforced by his youthful experiences in the U.S. In 1948, the family passed several tense months at the Commodore Hotel in New York while Wadie Said underwent kidney surgery. To relieve the burden, Edward was dispatched to summer camp in Maine, where his theft of a hot dog led to a traumatic confrontation with a counselor. In 1951, Said enrolled at the Mount Hermon boarding school in Massachusetts, which initially struck him as a kind of Siberian exile. Later, despite his Ivy League education and his meteoric rise to intellectual stardom, Said never lost his sense of rootlessness and dislocation, a sentiment that gives the memoir its title and its principal theme. "I was quite confused as to where one belonged," Said says.

A Life in Print

In spite of his illness, Said maintains a frenetic schedule. On the afternoon PW comes to visit, Said, a skilled pianist and music critic, is preparing to fly to Weimar, where, alongside Yo-Yo Ma and the Israeli composer Daniel Barenboim, he will lead a workshop for a group of young musicians from the Middle East. As a writer, Said remains astonishingly productive: In addition to a slew of recent essays, he is putting the finishing touches on a new collection of essays, The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After, which Pantheon will publish in the spring of 2000 and The Edward Said Reader, which Vintage will release in the fall of the same year. (Said's hefty backlist remains active: he recently signed contracts for Israeli, Estonian, Hungarian and Bulgarian editions of Orientalism, which has sold hundreds of thousands of copies in 31 languages.)

Said speaks warmly about his colleagues in the publishing world. Orientalism, which came out in 1978, was published by Pantheon's André Schiffrin. But when Said, on the recommendation of friends like Christopher Hitchens, left his long-time agent, Georges Borchardt, for Andrew Wylie, he also migrated to Knopf. ("I wanted more money," Said admits.)

These days, he works closely with Shelley Wanger of Pantheon, who, while editing Interview in the late 1980s, published Said's Q&A with Yasir Arafat -- one of the first sympathetic portraits of Arafat to appear in the U.S. media. He also collaborates with an English editor, Frances Coady, who, Said notes with dismay, was recently "made redundant" by Granta Books. He is on excellent terms with Knopf's Sonny Mehta, whom he refers to in the acknowledgments as "a rare publisher and comrade." Said is especially grateful that Mehta, along with Grand Street editor Jean Stein, hosted a private screening in New York for his 1998 BBC documentary, In Search of Palestine, a turn of events that led, eventually, to the film's acceptance by Channel 13 in New York.

Readers looking for Said's analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations will not find it in Out of Place. The memoir concludes with his graduation from Harvard in 1963, and one can easily imagine a companion volume covering Said's political awakening in the late 1960s, his road to academic fame, his 14 years on the Palestine National Council, his meetings with high-ranking U.S. government officials, his tumultuous relationship with Yasir Arafat and his behind-the-scenes account of the protracted struggle for Palestinian self-determination. "I have no plans to write that book," Said says. "I feel I've written so much about politics, and I would have to sort through all of it. That's enough of a record of what I want to say. Also, I don't really trust my memory. I'm OD'd on politics."

These days, much of Said's time and energy is given over to combating what he refers to in Out of Place as "an intransigent, treacherous leukemia, which ostrichlike I try to banish from my mind entirely." Said explains: "I had a temporary remission. The bad news is that the disease is coming back. The question is, what does one do now?"

Said may be weary of politics, but he continues working tenaciously on behalf of the unpopular cause to which he has dedicated half his life. We learn from Out of Place that Said's ongoing engagement with Palestine left his parents profoundly troubled. "You're a literature professor," Wadie Said pleaded. "Stick to that." His last words to his son a few hours before he died were: "I'm worried about what the Zionists will do to you. Be careful." Said's mother was equally skeptical of political engagement. "It will ruin you," she proclaimed.

All these years later, has it ruined him, or has it enriched him? "Unquestionably enriched me," Said replies. "Unquestionably. It has brought me a great deal in the way of insight, in the way of human enrichment of the spirit, and put me in contact with real people doing real things and suffering real crises. The fact that a lot of Palestinians think of me as somebody who has helped them is the greatest honor that I could be paid."