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Israel Studies 5.2 (2000) 182-198

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Remembering Talbiyah: On Edward Said's Out Of Place

Alon Confino

There is therefore this quite complicated mix between the private and the public worlds, my own history, values, writings and positions as they derive from my experiences, on the one hand, and on the other hand, how these enter into the social world where people debate and make decisions about war and freedom and justice. There is no such thing as a private intellectual . . . Nor is there only a public intellectual . . . There is always the personal inflection and the private sensibility, and those give meaning to what is being said or written.1

In Out of Place, Edward Said movingly recounts his life from 1935, when he was born in Jerusalem, to the mid-1960s, when he was a university student in the United States. 2 It is a personal memoir, and therefore, understandably, a subjective account. As an autobiographical act, it makes Said the shaper of his own image. At the same time, it was written by one of the premier political intellectuals of his generation, whose professional work has been fundamental to unmasking narratives of power and authority. His path-breaking study Orientalism, blending Antonio Gramsci's notion of hegemony and Michel Foucault's notion of discourse to understand the hegemonic structures of imperialism, has been, since its publication in 1978, one of the most influential books in the humanities. As a literary critic and political activist, he has illustrated Charles Péguy's definition of the intellectual: "Un intellectuel est celui qui réfléchit sur la réflection." In an essay published while he was working on his memoir, Said himself defined the intellectual as an individual "with a vocation for the art of representing." 3 Thus, a memoir by a self-conscious intellectual like Said should be welcome by lay persons, scholars, and intellectuals; it will stand, I believe, as one of [End Page 182] the more eloquent memoirs written by an intellectual in the last century. It is important, first, for the personal story Said has to tell. Given Said's status as a public intellectual, it is not surprising perhaps that a recent malignant attempt to delegitimize Said's Palestinian roots and personal memories has evolved around the question of his intellectual honesty. I will discuss the Palestine question of his memoir in the second part of this essay. But his memoir is no less significant for its insights into an intellectual's self-representation, which is the overall theme of this essay, as well as the focus of its first part. How does the representer represent himself? The tensions and ambiguities between his personal, political, and intellectual self-images are what make this memoir a fascinating document, also define its weaknesses.


"Out of placeness," Said's book begins, was his condition and predicament. His mother was a Palestinian from Nazareth, and his father, born in Jerusalem, emigrated to the United States in 1911, volunteered to fight in France, and returned to Palestine after the war. Said himself was born in Jerusalem, but lived in Cairo, where his father owned the biggest stationary business in the Middle East. He felt out of place as a Palestinian in Egypt (and in Lebanon, where the family had a summerhouse), as a Christian in a Moslem world, and as an Arab, holding an American passport, in a colonial world. All his life, he retained an "unsettled sense of many identities--mostly in conflict with each other . . . together with an acute memory of the despairing feeling that I wish we could have been all" of one identity. 4 It took him fifty years to become accustomed to his name "a foolishly English name yoked forcibly to the unmistakably Arabic family name Said." 5 He never felt at home in his mother tongue, which most of us acquire with a sense of naturalness and unself-reflection: "I have never known, what language I spoke first, Arabic or English, or which one was really mine without any doubt." 6 To cope...


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