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A Tale of Two Saids

Out of Place: A Memoir. By Edward W Said, Viking 1999. Rs 500.

A schoolboy Said looks out at you from the dust-jacket of Out of Place; a boy with large, dark, vulnerable eyes. His father figures centrally in creating those eyes that we see on the cover. Four-year-old Edward goes for a walk with his father: "When I stumbled and fell forward, scratching my hands and knees badly, I instinctively called out to him, "Daddy . please," at which he stopped and turned around slowly toward me. He paused like that for a couple of seconds, then turned back, resuming his walk without a word."

Nearly 60 years later, diagnosed with leukemia, Edward Said tries to understand this in a moving act of emotional archeology and memory. But as you begin reading this extraordinary memoir, you realise that this is the story of two Saids, not one: the one "outer" Edward, "buffeted and cosseted" by parental injunctions, and an "inner, far less compliant and private self". The outer "Edward" seems to himself "to be nearly devoid of any character at all, timid, uncertain, without will". This pathetic self-image is repeatedly reinforced by his parents -- father William A Said (formerly Wadie Ibrahim), an astonishingly successful businessman, and mother Hilda, whose deep ambivalence towards Edward and his four sisters ensured that they slowly but surely drifted away from each other.

This sense of being a misfit within his own family echoes his sense of being "out of place" in the world (a lack of "at-homeness" in George Steiner's awkward but arresting phrase). Born in Jerusalem and living in Cairo; named after the Prince of Wales ("Edward, a foolishly English name yoked forcibly to the unmistakably Arabic name Said"); his parents "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"; father, an American citizen -- the hybridities are many and deeply unsettling. At an American school in Cairo, he observes, "the overall sensation I had was of my troublesome identity as an American inside whom lurked another Arab identity from which I derived no strength, only embarrassment and discomfort."

The Arab identity too is profoundly problematic. For one, Arabic is prohibited in the "Victoria College" he attends (a prohibition his Arabic-speaking classmates and he subvert scatologically). For another, his parents hardly ever discuss the "problem of Palestine and its tragic loss". The repression of Palestine "occurred as part of a larger depoliticization on the part of my parents, who hated and distrusted politics, feeling too precarious in Egypt for participation, or even open discussion. Politics always seemed to involve other people, not us." Neither Yasser Arafat, nor terrorism are ever mentioned in this book; Out of Place in that sense is only marginally a "political" book, describing the trajectory of a life that was to become intensely politically engaged -- Said has been writing and speaking on Palestine for the last 30 years.

But of course, the silence within the family notwithstanding, political events were not to leave the prosperous Saids untouched either: "my aunt Nabiha's family would be driven out of Jerusalem in stages" he says. After 1948 Nabiha came to Cairo and "began her lonely exasperating charity work on behalf of the Palestinian refugees in Egypt." Later, in the rioting in 1952 as monarchial Egypt disappeared, Wadie Said's businesses were "totally gutted" by a mob. The extraordinary Said senior simply said, "let's roll up our sleeves, and begin again"!

The emotional counterweight to the Victorian father is Hilda, Edward's mother. "It was my mother's often melting warmth which offered me a rare opportunity to be the person I felt I truly was in contrast to the "Edward" who failed at school and sports, and could never match the manliness my father represented. And yet my relationship with her grew more ambivalent, and her disapproval of me became far more emotionally devastating to me than my father's virile bullying and reproaches."

It is from Hilda that Edward gets his abiding love for music and books. He recalls luminously one instance of that shared love: "The two of us sat in the front reception room, she in a big armchair, I on a stool next to her, with a smoky smoldering fire in the fireplace on her left, and we read Hamlet together.... Reading Hamlet as an affirmation of my status in her eyes, not as someone devalued, which I had become in mine, was one of the great moments in my childhood."

Hilda speaks to and awakens that "other Edward", who could read, think, and even write independent of "Edward". Even before his departure for USA in 1951 and his subsequent brilliant academic career, "I was aware of myself making connections between disparate books and ideas with considerable ease.... My greatest gift was memory, which allowed me to recall visually whole passages in books, to see them again on the page, and then to manipulate scenes, characters, giving them an imaginary life beyond the pages of the book. I would have moments of exultant recollection that enabled me to look out over a sea of details, spotting patterns, phrases, world clusters, which I imagined as stretching out interconnectedly without limit".

However, these were numinous moments; Said's portrayal of himself throughout his childhood is that of "a growing sense of discomfort, rebelliousness, drift, and loneliness". Both as narrator and as character, Said says in the Preface, "I have consciously not spared myself the same ironies or embarrassing recitals". While that soul-baring is often searing, it does occasionally verge on self-pity.

Still, after a life so closely examined, how many can say the following? "As I write now, it gives me a chance, very late in life, to record the experiences as a coherent whole that very strangely have left no anger, some sorrow, and a surprisingly strong residual love for my parents."

As Salman Rushdie notes, this "is an intensely moving act of reclamation and understanding". No surprise then, to learn that Out of Place has won the New Yorker Book Award.

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