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Out of Place: a memoir by Edward W. Said

Out of Place: a memoir (1999)

by Edward W. Said

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"Born in Jerusalem in 1935, Edward Said spent much of his youth in Cairo and
Lebanon. Out of Place is an act of emotional archaeology of that time, bringing
to life people and places many of which no longer exist. In this unstintingly
candid memoir - dominated by his ferociously demanding 'Victorian' father and
his adored, inspiring yet ambivalent mother - Said traces his growing sense of
himself as an outsider: Arab but Christian, Palestinian but the holder of a US
passport, having an improbably British first name yoked to an Arabic surname."
--back cover
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  collectionmcc | Mar 6, 2018 |
All families invent their parents and children, give each of them a story, character, fate, and even a language. There was always something wrong with how I was invented and meant to fit in with the world of my parents and four sisters. Whether this was because I constantly misread my part or because of some deep flaw in my being I could not tell for most of my early life. Sometimes I was intransigent, and proud of it. At other times I seemed to myself to be nearly devoid of any character at all, timid, uncertain, without will. Yet the overriding sensation I had was of always being out of place.

Edward Said was an important academic, intellectual and writer, known for his literary criticism and writings on orientalism and the politics of a Palestinian state. Having been diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, anticipated to be fatal, he set forth to provide a “subjective account” of his early years spent in the Middle East and later, in the United States. Edward Said passed away in 2003.

Said was born in 1935 in Jerusalem, in what was then Palestine, to Christian parents. Both of his parents were Palestinian by birth, although his father, Wadie, obtained American citizenship after fighting for the U.S. forces in World War I. His mother, Hilda, was mostly raised in Beirut, home to her maternal relatives, but returned as a teenager to Nazareth for an arranged marriage with the much older Wadie.

Said’s childhood was spent in Jerusalem, Cairo and Beirut, before moving to the United States, where he would complete high school at Mount Hermon School, secure degrees from Princeton and Harvard, and live out his adulthood. From an early age, he struggled with the ambiguities of speaking multiple languages and the national identity confusions of being a Christian Palestinian with American citizenship through his father, while residing in various Arab countries. His early education took place in schools for the children of American and British expatriates, where he was often treated as an outsider by his peers and as a disciplinary problem by his teachers.

Although recognizing that his childhood took place against a backdrop of major changes in the Middle East, the focus of Said’s memoir is personal, not political. His relationships with his parents are both a source of ambivalence and the most powerful force in shaping his development. Both parents were in their own ways loving but overly controlling. His father exercised a parental authority and discipline that was distant, critical, emotionally repressive, and focused on the requirements of his son achieving manhood. His mother vacillated between suffocating affection and harsh judgments, but remained Edward’s primary refuge and support throughout her lifetime. Raised in a culturally rich environment, he was introduced to great literature, theater and music at a young age. Yet despite his talents in these areas, the constant criticism he experienced, both at home and at school, left him with pervasive feelings of isolation, lack of belonging and self-doubt, and a poor body image. Separation from his family, and especially his mother, caused him great loneliness while in the U.S., although it was mainly during these years that he found the confidence and independence necessary to accept his own identity.

I cannot recall ever having read another memoir of childhood that was as painfully candid and amazingly detailed as this. The scope and depth of his memories are astonishing and their description is enriched by the insights of adulthood. Perhaps appropriately, Said ends his memoir with the death of his mother, providing only hints of his later life and its continued reflection of the confusions of his youth, even as he anticipated his own death.

I occasionally experience myself as a cluster of flowing currents. I prefer this to the idea of a solid self, the identity to which so many attach so much significance. These currents, like the themes of one's life, flow along during the waking hours, and at their best, they require no reconciling, no harmonizing. They are "off" and may be out of place, but at least they are always in motion, in time, in place, in the form of all kinds of strange combinations moving about, not necessarily forward, sometimes against each other, contrapuntally yet without one central theme. A form of freedom, I'd like to think, even if I am far from being totally convinced that it is. That skepticism too is one of the themes I particularly want to hold on to. With so many dissonances in my life I have learned actually to prefer being not quite right and out of place.

Highly recommended.
7 vote Linda92007 | Jan 26, 2014 |
Edward Said, the social commentator who revolutionized the way the US media covers Islam, tells the story of his youth in Egypt and Palestine. His parents, siblings and innumerable aunt and uncles make up an intriguing cast of characters, but far better is Said's own journey to self-acceptance. ( )
  cestovatela | Apr 9, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679730672, Paperback)

Edward Said is one of the most celebrated cultural critics of the postwar world. Of his many books of literary, political, and philosophical criticism, Orientalism--a brilliant analysis of how Europe came to dominate the Orient through the creation of the myth of the exotic East--and the monumental Culture and Imperialism are the best known. His books have redefined readers' understanding of the impact of European imperialism upon the shape of modern culture. Said's career as a thinker spans literature, politics, music, philosophy, and history. As a dispossessed Palestinian growing up in the Middle East and subsequently living in the USA, he has witnessed the impact of the Second World War upon the Arab world, the dissolution of Palestine and the birth of Israel, the rise of Nasser and the PLO, the Lebanese Civil War, and the faltering peace process of the 1990s. As a result, the publication of Said's memoirs, Out of Place, is a particularly significant event. The book offers a fascinating account of the personal development of a critic and thinker who has straddled the divide between East and West, and in the process has redefined Western perceptions of the East and of the plight of Palestinian people.

However, as the title suggests, Said's memoir is a far more ambivalent and at times personally painful account of his early years in Palestine, Egypt, and Lebanon, as well as the often paralyzing embrace of his loving but overbearing parents. Said's memoirs are powerfully informed by his sense of personally, geographically, and linguistically "always being out of place." Born to Christian parents and caught between expressing himself in Arabic, English, and French, he evokes a vivid, but often very unhappy, portrait of growing up in Cairo and Lebanon under the crushing weight of his emotionally intense and ambitious family. The early sections of the book paint a poignant picture of the oppressive regime established over the awkward, painfully uncertain young Edward by his loving mother and expectant, unforgiving father, both of whom cast the longest emotional shadows over the book. Those expecting an account of Said's subsequent intellectual development will be disappointed; apart from the final 50 pages, which deal with Said's education at Princeton and Harvard, Out of Place is, as Said himself says, primarily "a record of an essentially lost or forgotten world, my early life." It is this carefully disclosed record that accounts for Said's deeply ambivalent relationship with both his family and the Palestinian cause. Composed in the light of serious illness, Out of Place is an elegantly written reflection on a life that has movingly come to terms with "being not quite right and out of place." --Jerry Brotton, Amazon.co.uk

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:53 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

From one of the most important intellectuals of our time comes an extraordinary story of exile and a celebration of an irrecoverable past. A fatal medical diagnosis in 1991 convinced Edward Said that he should leave a record of where he was born and spent his childhood, and so with this memoir he rediscovers the lost Arab world of his early years in Palestine, Lebanon, and Egypt. Said writes with great passion and wit about his family and his friends from his birthplace in Jerusalem, schools in Cairo, and summers in the mountains above Beirut, to boarding school and college in the United States, revealing an unimaginable world of rich, colorful characters and exotic eastern landscapes. Underscoring all is the confusion of identity the young Said experienced as he came to terms with the dissonance of being an American citizen, a Christian and a Palestinian, and, ultimately, an outsider. Richly detailed, moving, often profound, Out of Place depicts a young man's coming of age and the genesis of a great modern thinker.… (more)

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