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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Places of Mind

A Life of Edward Said

Timothy Brennan

Farrar, Straus and Giroux




Father and mother dear,

Brothers and sisters are in Christ not near

And he my peace my parting, sword and strife.

—GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS, “To seem the stranger…”

On November 1, 1935, a mild sunny afternoon in Jerusalem, Edward William Said was born to the soothing melodies of Mme Bear, a Jewish midwife. She had been asked to deliver the family’s firstborn at the suggestion of the father Wadie’s sister, Nabiha, in the family house at which they stayed when in that city. Said’s initial world, then, was a home impressive for its grandeur and surroundings, situated in the still uncrowded neighborhood of West Jerusalem known as Talbiya, enclosed within gardens, and with open land beyond.

At his birth, the midwife chanted at times in Hebrew, at others in Arabic: “Ya sayyidna Nouh / khalis rouh min rouh” (Oh, our lord Noah, save one soul from the other)—a caution, perhaps, in that the baby was born unusually thin and had to be cared for by a child specialist, Dr. Grunfelder, a German Jew. Why “Edward”? His mother, Hilda Musa Said, would write in her journal, “Don’t ask me why. We both liked the name. There was so much talk about Edward, Prince of Wales, and we chose that name, though the adult Edward hated it and would have preferred an Arabic name.”1

Members of the extended clan crowded around the birthing room, his delivery in every way arranged to exorcise Hilda’s traumatic experience in a maternity ward only a year and a half earlier in a Greek hospital in Cairo. On that earlier occasion, when Hilda was nineteen, a distinguished Austrian doctor, purportedly drunk at the time, had over-administered painkillers during labor with the result that the baby—also a boy—was born dead. That sadness would weigh on both parents in subsequent years and may explain some of the excessive affection his mother showered on the young Edward. His mother’s evident joy in his presence, he would later recall, had to do with the fact that she had had “a child before me that did not survive,” while his father “kept hoping he’d have one more son.”2 For the ill-fated delivery of the first child, Wadie had insisted on the latest medical technologies and practices, the most modern hospital, the doctor with the best Western education. When it ended disastrously, the parents were determined to rely next time on traditional ways, the reassurance of the homeland, choosing provincial Jerusalem over cosmopolitan Cairo—a pattern they followed for his sister Jean as well. They made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem in order to ensure that the new birth would take place in the capital of Palestine.

In family films from the 1940s, Said in Jerusalem—about age ten—appears rambunctious, somewhat chubby, stoop shouldered as in later life, and very aware of the camera. He is, in fact, at the center of the camera’s focus in these home movies, jumping, climbing, a miniature version of the adult Said without the reserve. Throughout childhood, he has the appearance of a grown man in miniature, older than his years but immature at the same time. Today he might have been called hyperactive. In a few years, he would appear in college photographs more strapping than his classmates, a man among boys (though this would even out in high school). He was, along with everything else, simply big. Later, when added to the intimidating depths of his character and his sharp tongue, it was all in all an imposing presence. In family lore he claims he was considered a “delinquent” and a “fibber,” but none of the family seems to have agreed with this harsh judgment. In their accounts, very little about him bore witness to that “solemn and repressed young man” that he described in an interview in the film Selves and Others while looking at a photograph of himself at age thirteen. He might have had bouts of brooding, but to those around him he was, as man and boy, “tempestuous, forceful, uncompromisingly outspoken to the point of rudeness, relentlessly restless, theatrical, and always very funny.”3

In his generation, if not his social class, boys were forgiven everything. Tales of the mischievous young Edward fell, for that reason, short of disapproval. He loved playing on the armoire in his parents’ bedroom during the day, and from atop a cupboard he would throw walnuts into the corridor at his sisters and their friends below, who squealed with pleasure as they dodged his missiles.4 Inevitably, with all that climbing and jumping, the heavy piece of furniture once toppled over. The mirror on the front shattered, cutting his young sister Grace just above her eye. Beaten for the infraction, he became at the same time the subject of affectionate stories about this and other misdeeds told to visitors.

Said’s family lived at 1 El-Aziz Osman Street in the Zamalek section of Cairo in a building that had a beautiful art deco lift, the signature architectural style of their neighborhood. Unlike other posh areas—the planned urban oasis of Garden City by the British embassy, or the suburb of Ma?adi farther to the south—Zamalek was both central and isolated, a picturesque island in the middle of the Nile that formed a stepping-stone by means of urban bridges from downtown to Giza and the Pyramids farther west. Unlike today, the island in the 1940s was filled with vast stretches of undeveloped parkland, woods, riding paths, golf courses, and exotic fishponds. The famous Gezira Sporting Club, the city’s swankiest, can be found only blocks from their home.

This colonial dream of polo fields, bowling greens, and red-clay tennis courts “insulated from the fellahin,” as Said later put it, was also a kind of nature park where he rode horses and bicycled in his family’s “own private playground” free from the crush of humanity and surrounded by Europeans with whom they scarcely interacted.5 When they tired of the Gezira club, there was always the Tewfikiyya Club for tennis and the Ma?adi club, where they would go for children’s films featuring Tom Mix, the Lone Ranger, and Roy Rogers, but especially the Tarzan films that Said kept close throughout his life. In the 1860s, Egypt’s khedive, Isma’il, remodeled Cairo along the lines of Haussmann’s Paris. A socially engineered “greenbelt” separated the “dilapidated medieval city, with its winding corridors and overpopulated slums,” forming a buffer zone for Cairo’s bourgeoisie.6 Zamalek (from the Turkish for “vineyard”) was called by Isma’il the Jardin des Plantes, and indeed the Grotto Garden across the street from the Said residence had a rare collection of African fish, its gardens the brainchild of a British captain.

The Gindy sisters, Hoda and Nadia, who lived in the same apartment building as the Saids, recalled that garden with fondness. There Said would compete with them to see who could climb to the top of the artificial grotto first. It was invariably Edward, who, once there, “danced and sang that most colonial of songs that we learned at school: ‘I’m the king of the castle, and you are the dirty rascals.’”7 Being the boy, he played the ringleader as the kids ran up and down the stairs of the apartment building making a racket and angering the parents. Yet his mother would tell of his transgressions to visitors with a sparkle in her eyes. It was all of a piece with the more constant refrain of “your brother”—an admonition to achieve as much as he, to match his triumphs, and be as good-looking. Not only their mother, but even the teachers at school, would flay the sisters with the refrain that their brother was the model of excellence. But then, in turn, springing from behind a doorway, letting loose the earsplitting Tarzan cry made famous by Johnny Weissmuller, he was a brother who tormented his sisters, learning how to burp on demand in order to annoy everyone.8 The instigator of pranks, he was also simply the doer while others looked on, their job—according to the privileges of an only son, apparently—to assist, praise, and comfort him, or to attend his tennis matches, turn the pages of the Beethoven sonata scores, and carry the wild fowl he had slain during his rare hunting expeditions in the mountains around Dhour el Shweir. Once, while forced to pose with his sisters for family photographs in Cairo, he refused to put his left arm on the one beside him as all the others had down the line.9

Not that the sisters never held their own. They competed with him then as later, especially Rosy and Jean, who, although not as close to him in age as Rosy, would herself become an intellectual and author of a Middle East war memoir (Beirut Fragments, 1990) published before his own had appeared. The devotion to music of the two siblings was equal in intensity, and they talked about music often throughout their lives. As a middle child, Jean missed out on the alliances formed among her other sisters, gravitating to Edward, whom she “adored” and who affectionately called her “shrimp.”10 “We were from a culture of men,” moaned Grace, who, being the youngest, took to calling her brother Uncle Edward whenever he reappeared during the summers from his studies abroad. Although Grace shared a room with Joyce, and Jean with Rosy, Edward had his own. That injustice felt keener whenever their mother stated plainly that Edward was her favorite.

There seemed to be two parallel streams in his life. The first—discipline, family order, schooling—dutifully performed but disavowed. The other, an “underground or subterranean” Edward who longed not only to read but to be a book.11 Everything artistic belonged to this second version: his tastes in reading, his love of music, the creativity he unpersuasively palms off in the memoir as “fibbing.” His childhood friends agreed: “Said was never really part of us … He lived a life separate from us, coddled, spoilt and adored in true Middle Eastern fashion by his parents and relatives.”12

In revolt against his parents, he nevertheless complemented their traits. Hilda, his mother, was sociable and outgoing, whereas Wadie was “introverted and reticent.” The same father whose shadow darkens Said’s every phrase in his memoir, Out of Place (1999), had “a boyish sense of humour” that covered over his own “tendency towards morbid anxiety.”13 Indeed, there are hints of future self-criticism when Said casts his imperious paternal double as “an absolute monarch, a sort of Dickensian father figure, despotic when angered, benevolent when not.”14 The broad chest, the stooped shoulders, the athletic prowess, the fighting spirit, all repeat themselves in the relay from father to son, though tempered by Hilda’s conviviality.

The Said sisters were appalled by his portrait of their parents in the memoir.15 Quite unlike the stiff tyrant and emotional illiterate who had suffered nervous breakdowns and dealt out “harsh whippings,” Wadie struck his daughters as a tender, quiet man who spoiled them with love and kindness, once holding Jean through the night when she was ill, singing to her, and doing magic tricks. Nadia remembers Wadie as a sometimes taciturn “smiling Santa Claus figure” who played that role at Christmas, visiting the children of the building.16

Although Said—the misfit “Cairo wonder,” as his camp mates in Maine called him—portrays his private imaginative life as an escape from the harsh demands of an upwardly mobile family of overachievers, the burdens of a childhood without relaxation or leisure seem more the outcome of a relentless inner drive than the work of meddling parents for whom every achievement was a flaw.17 The chronic sleeplessness, the cultivated solitude, were used to clear a space for what he felt needed to be done.

Andre Sharon, a lifelong friend and schoolmate at Victoria College (VC) in Cairo, hinted at other demons. A brilliant student with a talent for entertaining, Said was always tightly on display, gritting his teeth through a show of nonchalance.18 The need for constant external validation had its flip side in a feeling of emptiness. Nabil “Bill” Malik, who had known him from early youth, recalled that every time he would approach Edward to play, he would back out, using piano, tennis, or French as an excuse. Around the immensely popular George Kardouche, another VC classmate, Edward shyly hung back.19 George and his pack of admirers could see dark rumblings beneath Said’s careful demeanor, but he labored to be fun as though it were another task on the day’s agenda and largely succeeded, for, although he was better read, no one thought him a bookworm.

* * *

FOREIGNERS WITH LARGE BANK accounts and professional skills like the Saids got by fine in mid-century Cairo, although there were barriers to their climb up the social ladder. In a city of famed cosmopolitan openness, the Saids were a tiny Anglican religious minority within a Christian minority of roughly 10 percent dominated by the Eastern Orthodox Church. However small their faction, because they were congregants in the Christian denomination favored by the British, they might have been expected to receive preferential treatment. In fact, this was not the case. In Egypt as in Palestine, “Arab Episcopalians began during the mandate to face accusations of collusion and collaboration with the British occupying powers and, by extension, with the Zionist movement.”20 Because his father’s business was the major supplier of office equipment to the British occupying army in Egypt, the family worked overtime to demonstrate their authenticity as Palestinian Arabs. In Cairo, they were seen by the British primarily as Shawwam—expatriates from Greater Syria, or Bilad al-Sham, an area that covered today’s Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine and that had been divided between French and British protectorates after the collapse of the Ottoman empire.21 To be Christian, or Jewish, was simply to be the member of another tribe, although the tribes interacted in relative harmony. “We used to say about ourselves,” explained his childhood friend Sharon, “‘Je suis Syrien-chrétien,’ or ‘Je suis Syrien-juif’” (I am Syrian-Christian; I am Syrian-Jewish).22

Said was, however, harder still to assimilate because, like his sisters, he was issued an American passport at birth on the strength of his father’s American citizenship. His Americanness was, moreover, a cultural, not only a legal, status given his father’s various quirks, which included turkey dinners at Thanksgiving and a taste for the American songbook. At the age of fourteen, he struck his Cairene cohort as more imposing for being American, and they were awed by his “American gadgets.”23 This aura was still apparent on his visits home each summer while an undergraduate at Princeton. By then, Hoda recalls, “he had become, to the rest of us left behind drearily continuing our schooling, an object of romance and envy as he was being ‘educated abroad,’ a phrase oft repeated in hushed, awestruck voices.”24

Made up of writers, intellectuals, businessmen, and industrialists, the Shawwam constituted a closely knit social circuit, and much of the Saids’ life was shaped by it. If they mixed also with non-Syrian Egyptians, and to a lesser extent with Europeans, these two groups remained marginal to their social lives.25 For all the appearance of the Saids’ elite status, they never occupied the highest ranks of Cairene society.

But Cairo was Said’s childhood anchor all the same. While Jerusalem might have been the center of historical Palestine, the site of his birth and baptism, of frequent family pilgrimages and early schooling, he spoke of it only as sleepy and unwelcoming alongside Cairo’s edgy urban excitements. Behind the latter’s citadels of power stood a demimonde of pimps, con men, and shady characters who had fled to Cairo from Europe and elsewhere. By the 1920s, a fifth of the population were foreigners—native Copts mixed with Sephardic Jews, Greeks, Italians, French, and “uncounted numbers of White Russians, Parsees, Montenegrins, and other exotica” that Said dubbed a “crowded but highly rarefied cultural maze.”26 Between 1930, shortly before Said’s birth, and 1950, the year before he departed for the United States, Cairo’s population doubled. In time, the Zamalek of his childhood had become little more than “a bazaar.”27 Jerusalem’s Talbiya, by contrast, sported mainly elegant homes with architectural motifs drawn from Moorish and Arab styles, tastefully surrounded by trees and gardens.

Even if they brushed shoulders with one another, the various tribal faiths of Jerusalem stayed mostly to themselves. The city’s humorless doctrinal air was matched by a tacky religious tourism of “frumpy, middle-aged” men and women poking about the “decrepit, ill-lit” environs of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.28 Said considered the less bourgeois towns of Safad and Nazareth, where his mother had her roots, preferable to his father’s “mortuary Jerusalem.” Even his warmest recollections of the place, although respectful, are de rigueur: the cricket team photograph of his father on the wall of St. George’s School that Said proudly shows his son on a visit in later life, his chipper memories of Jewish classmates when he attended the school in 1947 at the age of thirteen, and a shot of the family in storybook fashion facing the King David Hotel, replete with its Assyrian lobby, Hittite lounge, and Phoenician dining room. Jerusalem might have been the homeland but was never home.

Egypt, for its part, stood at the forefront of the Arab world with a revered literary culture and established newspapers read avidly throughout the Middle East. “Of all the countries of the Near East,” a later mentor observed, “Arab and non-Arab, the first to attain her modern form and structure was Egypt. The westernizing reforms of the great soldier-leader, Mohammed Ali, resulting in some modest industrialization and in the emergent middle class, antedate the reforms of Ataturk and Reza Shah by well over a century.”29 More than any other Arab capital, Cairo was where the Arab world sent its children to be educated. During Said’s time, it was still an enchanting, relatively uncrowded, largely secular cosmopolis on the threshold of radical political change. Not for the last time, Said was blessed by fortunate timing.

The daunting mélange of religious minorities in Cairo, at any rate, was offset by a radical division of space about which Said became increasingly sensitive: the less well-off Muslim denizens described in Naguib Mahfouz’s novels Palace Walk and Midaq Alley, on one side, and the designer suburbs inhabited by upwardly mobile immigrants, on the other. Whatever his weaknesses, the great Egyptian novelist had accurately chronicled a trajectory he himself embodied, moving in his fiction (as in life) from the crowded working-class Muslim section of the old city (Gamaliyya) to the European-style inner suburb of Abbasiyyah.

The transformations of Said’s Cairo were no less brash and theatrical. Between his father Wadie’s escape to the United States during World War I to avoid conscription into the Ottoman army until Said’s graduation from college in 1957, the country had gone from Turkish rule to a sultanate backed by British military occupation to the Free Officers revolution of Nasser. Said’s youth and early adulthood, therefore, spanned two epochs, the major historical transitions of the Levant matching the arc of his life perfectly, from the end of khedival Egypt in the person of King Farouk through the interwar heights of British power over the Suez Canal to the era of Arab nationalism. Because of the strategic interests of the Suez Canal, Egypt had been occupied to varying degrees by the British military from 1882 until 1954, and their presence affected the culture in every possible way, from the organization of its clubs to its educational institutions. Behind the facade of Farouk, a foreign business elite thrived.30 This khawagat (roughly what “gringo” means in the American context) had come to own an astonishing 96 percent of the nation’s capital by the turn of the century.

By way of missionary schools, the American presence in Cairene society was palpable, although it was ultimately as marginal as the Anglican shamis themselves. Neither provided access to the most influential networks. And yet there was a distinction to being from America in the years just after World War II, before the United States’ expanding empire had come to rival the British for most rapacious foreign occupier. Wadie had immigrated to the United States, where he was granted U.S. citizenship, as part of a more general movement of Arabs west during the Nahda—the Arabic “awakening” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Part of Manhattan became known as Little Syria in the early twentieth century, its inhabitants winning a court case that gave them the right to be considered Caucasian under U.S. law.31 The victory predictably led them to identify with everything mainstream, right down to America’s racial prejudices, and their patriotism seemed more natural for embracing a country that had thrown off British rule.

Copyright © 2021 by Timothy Brennan