On the first page of his memoir, Edward Said, professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, lately president of the Modern Language Association—a man well established in American academic and intellectual life—declares that he has always had an overriding feeling of being “out of place.”
Half a century of living and working in the United States seems only to have deepened the sensation for him. But, according to Said, it began earlier. Out of Place is a very personal, very subjective account of the life Said has led intermittently in the Arab countries and in the United States. There must be many reasons why a man feels as out of place as Said maintains he does. The reasons cannot be purely political, and Said, who together with his family has lived in exile from his native Palestine since the age of twelve, does not pretend that they are. This engrossing memoir by a critic and historian of ideas who has stimulated American and Arab thinking for many years is only marginally “political.” It is a family chronicle that deals more with Said’s internal makeup—the emotional minefields he crossed in his life—than with the strictly political events that have affected it.
Out of Place is not without self-irony, though one would have wished for a little more. “To me,” he writes, “nothing more painful and paradoxically sought after characterizes my life than the many displacements from countries, cities, abodes, languages, environments that have kept me in motion all these years.” “Ludicrous as it may sound,” he confesses, to this day he still feels that he is away from home. “Though I believe I have no illusion about the ‘better’ life I might have had, had I remained in the Arab world, or lived or studied in Europe, there is still some measure of regret.”
For thirty years now Said has also been one of the best-known and articulate spokesmen for the Palestinian cause. He has been the relentless advocate of the stateless, dispossessed, dispersed Palestinians, the innocent victims of the Arab-Israel conflict, the refugees—the “victims’ victims,” though this is not a term he uses in this book. Leaders make mistakes but the price is usually paid by the people. In half a dozen books and countless polemics in the press, he has spoken up for the disenfranchised Palestinians who, between 1948 and 1967, were oppressed by Jordanians and Egyptians and after 1967 fell under a harsh, increasingly brutal Israeli military regime which saw in them little more than a source of cheap labor for the Israeli economy and a captive market for Israeli goods. Years were wasted on a so-called peace process that never led to anything. Extensive tracts of private and so-called state lands in the occupied territories were expropriated by the Israeli military ostensibly for “public” purposes; the effect was to make room for more than 350,000 government-subsidized Jewish settlers. For all its celebrated commitment to human rights, the Israeli Supreme …