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Exile’s Return

1.

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 Court, on the few occasions it saw fit to intervene in these dubious expropriations, rejected appeals by landowners and human rights activists to annul them. Water resources were tightly controlled; settlers were able to luxuriate in swimming pools and water their lawns and roses, while nearby Palestinian villages rationed their drinking water from taps that might be dry for days.

Outside Palestine, the refugees were not treated more kindly. Arab rulers talked a lot about solidarity. But the Palestinians served only their propaganda purposes. In Lebanon and Jordan they were massacred. In the Gulf States and in Saudi Arabia they could make money but were given no permanent residence. Except in Jordan, where Palestinians are full citizens, they are hassled and discriminated against everywhere in the Arab world down to the fourth generation.

In the service of this unrewarding cause, Said has often seemed a driven man. A forceful and sometimes reckless advocate, he has provoked forceful and sometimes reckless responses in the West. Jewish Defense League hoodlums have accused him of being a Nazi. But he has also found sympathizers and friends. Some of them were Israeli liberals and Peace Now activists who quarreled with some of his political opinions but shared his basic view that the “Palestinian problem” was at the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict. They too believed that time was running out. Israeli settlements and construction projects on the West Bank and in Gaza were undermining the chance for a new partition of Palestine and consuming the space and resources that would make an independent Palestinian state workable.

Said’s rhetoric has sometimes been exaggerated. Some of it has been unjust, some perhaps overly personal (he once accused an innocent critic of being a Mossad agent) and, inevitably, a bit self-dramatizing. On television we all succumb to the theater of politics. Said has tended to abruptly dismiss arguments that the Palestinians might have done better for themselves if they had accepted some of the compromises offered during the 1930s, including the British White Paper of 1939, which, in effect, doomed the Jewish National Home to slow extinction. He argued that the Palestinians were right to reject partition in 1936 and 1947 because at that time they were still the majority, even though the result would have been a much smaller Zionist state established on territory largely occupied by Jews, while the new Palestinian state would have had more land and water. Much Palestinian political rhetoric, and much Israeli political rhetoric, can be characterized by Ernst Renan’s adage that getting one’s history wrong is part and parcel of being a modern nation.

But Said’s basic case, that the Palestinians are a people (Golda Meir famously asked, “Who are the Palestinians? I am a Palestinian”), was sound. The very people who made a fetish of “remembrance” denied the Palestinians’ right to a memory of their own. “Neither the Balfour Declaration nor the [Palestine] mandate ever specifically conceded,” Said pointed out, “that Palestinians had political, as opposed to civil and religious, rights in Palestine.”1 The Palestinians were not responsible for the breakdown of civilization in Europe. They were not responsible for the crimes against Jews in Europe, but in the end they were punished for them.

It is not difficult to understand Said’s pain and outrage. Ehud Barak confessed before his election as prime minister that had he been born a Palestinian he would have joined the PLO. It is also true that hundreds of thousands of Jews lost their homes or were expelled in the 1950s and 1960s from Iraq, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Iraq, Egypt, and Syria. But why must the Arabs of Palestine pay for this?

Said’s own family’s house and business in Jerusalem were expropriated by the Israelis in 1948 as “absentee” property and sold to private bidders. Though this did not cause his family material hardship, since they had considerable assets abroad, he has spoken on behalf of those who lost everything. He has evoked losses far beyond the material—the “loss of home” and “identity,” the abiding dislocation of hundreds of thousands of refugees suffering “raw, relentless anguish and pain.” He has spoken bitterly of the network of Palestinian towns and villages where his extended family once lived having become “a series of Israeli locales—Jerusalem, Haifa, Tiberias, Nazareth and Acre.” The pathos of the shattered past of his own family and their many relatives has never left him. The sincerity of the pain he felt is beyond doubt. An Israeli reader has much to learn from his book.

Some who condoned and sometimes even lauded Israeli acts of terror against civilians before and after the establishment of the state—two self-confessed terrorists served as Israeli prime ministers—have attacked Said as a “Professor of Terror.” They forget that he was one of the first prominent Palestinians who came out openly for a historical compromise with Israel on a two-state basis. In his many published comments he has made it clear that he abhors the crude cult in the PLO of the gun and of personality. He has insisted that there is no military solution to the conflict and deplored the widespread notion that Palestine could become another Vietnam. The solution, he said, must be political. It can be reached only if the two sides respect each other’s history and recognize the extent of the other’s disaster and pain. Some of this he said at a time when other Palestinians were gunned down by fanatics for conceding much less. He was realistic enough to know that there was no way to turn the clock back to the pre-1948, or pre-1917, past. His main demand was that Israelis put greater effort into recognizing that past and possibly make amends for it, materially but morally also.

The trouble over the years has been that both sides in the conflict claimed an absolute monopoly on suffering. Neither has ever seen itself as the aggressor, only as victim. The growing disparity of power, wealth, and influence between Israelis and Palestinians seemed, at times, so overwhelming it must have made Said fear that his cause was lost or betrayed by fools. But he never gave up.

In Out of Place he speaks of his pain and traces its psychic and material roots but touches upon political issues only now and then. He mentions only in passing the Israeli-Arab wars and the Oslo agreement. He opposed the Oslo accord as a sell-out to Israel by a Palestinian leadership that was discredited by its fatal mistakes during the Gulf War and was trying at all cost to stay in power. In his new book, the different phases of the conflict are only a backdrop to the story of his own life, and the lives of his parents and a large clan of uncles and aunts, first, second, and third cousins, their children and in-laws. All are now dispersed throughout the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas. He never mentions Yassir Arafat, whom he once intensely admired and for whom he served as a ghostwriter but now decries as a traitor or knave. Nor does he mention terrorism, about which, in a recent BBC documentary film, In Search of Palestine, he said only that it does more harm than good.

His story moves back and forth—from Egypt to America to Lebanon and from the mid-1940s to 1991. In the fall of 1991 he was suddenly diagnosed with chronic leukemia. He began to write Out of Place in 1994 while recovering from three early rounds of chemotherapy at Long Island Jewish Hospital. A first version was in the form of a letter to his late mother, trying to make sense of his life as “its end seemed alarmingly nearer.”

2.

Said was born in 1935 in Jerusalem during the British Mandate, delivered at home by a Jewish midwife. The former Said home is in a street now named for Chaim Brenner, a modern Hebrew classicist murdered by Arab rioters in 1921. (Brenner’s novels featured anxiety-ridden, antiheroic intellectuals much like Said himself). The Saids were a well-to-do family of Palestinian merchants. His grandfather was a “dragoman,” a businessman who accompanied the German Kaiser as interpreter and guide on his tour of Jerusalem. The family attended services at the local Anglican cathedral. The Anglicans first established themselves in Jerusalem during the nineteenth century as a “Mission to the Jews” led by an ex-rabbi recently converted to Christianity. He soon proved singularly unsuccessful in this task and turned instead to converting Greek-Orthodox Arabs like Said’s ancestors.

  1. 1

    The One-State Solution,” The New York Times Magazine, January 10, 1999.

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