Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Out of Place

I've just finished reading Edward Said's autobiography Out of Place. Any book or article by the late Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, is a excellent source of enlightenment in many fields but especially so (at least for me) in the fields of Politics & Literature. (I am afraid his knowledge of classical music is way out of my league. Or maybe my knowledge of Pop music is way out of his!!)

Out of Place is Said's reflection on his earlier life were he is always wrestling with a foreignness whether he is in Jerusalem, Cairo, or America. Said, who is believed by many to be among the leading public intellectuals in the latter part of the twentieth century, does not shy from revealing how as a child, he has repeatedly failed to secure the respect (and sometimes even the love) of his parents and his teachers at the different schools he went to in Cairo & the US.

The only voice that believed in the Edward that we know today, was imprisoned inside "Edward the disappointment". Only after years of living away from his family & the British school system, had Edward stopped living up to his parents' and teachers' expectations of failure, and the confident & bright Edward was allowed to flourish and to take over. (Sometimes I too hear voices in my head about a great nahoul that is waiting to be discovered, but whenever I say this to my husband, he tells me that I am schizophrenic.)

The book is full of interesting thoughts that mainly revolve around his feeling of homelessness. For example, Edward Said says:"when I travel, I always take too much with me, and that even a trip downtown requires the packing of a briefcase stocked with items disproportionately larger in size and number than the actual period of the trip. Analyzing this, I concluded that I had a secret but ineradicable fear of not returning."

The book also includes many references to events and names that shaped the history of Egypt in the past century. The least significant, yet my favorite, is about an incident that took place during his Victoria College days. Said remembers how the school's arrogant head boy, had physically and verbally punished him and his closest friend (Mustafa Hamdollah) because they ridiculed him while watching a school sporting event. The next Said knew about the head boy Shalhoub was a decade later when he became my beloved Omar Sherif. (mental note: in my next life, I should not be mean to any of my schoolmates in case they later become famous and write an autobiography)

To be a reasonably objective critic, I have to admit that there is a disadvantage to all of Edward Said's work. I am rarely able to finish a page without needing to consult with the dictionary. But compared to the monologue from V for Vendetta (or even Nadia's comment), his books are not all that difficult after all.

On the last page of the book, Said comes to terms with his strangeness. He says:"Now it does not seem important or even desirable to be right and in place. Better to wander out of place, not ever to feel too much at home anywhere, especially in a city like New York, where I shall be until I die."

I highly recommend Out of Place.

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