- Blank Spaces: Talbiyah and Rehavia
My keen interest in Edward Said’s memoir Out of Place should not be surprising: during decades of involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both as a practitioner and as an observer, I have been informed, challenged, and infuriated by Said’s writings. His stature as the most articulate spokesmen for the Palestinian cause in the Western world and the vehemence of his polemics have left no one indifferent. Indeed, for Israelis Edward Said has become the peg on which they hang their ideological convictions and feelings of guilt. Questions about his integrity, raised for political reasons by right-wing Jewish detractors (for instance, Justus Reid Weiner’s sensational article, “My Beautiful Old House and Other Fabrications by Edward Said,” in the September 1999 Commentary), have been angrily rejected as false by his Israeli left-wing supporters who—regardless of the truth—viewed them as a personal affront. Said’s life, and therefore his memoir, is perceived in a political context. Although Out of Place is intended to tell the reader about Said’s family, his personal emotions, and his internal landscape, it is the political—not the personal—aspect, which readers and reviewers seek or read into this book. Yet, the author has no one but himself [End Page 215] to blame. For it was he who attempted, and succeeded, to turn his own life as a Palestinian exile into the embodiment of a people “out of place,” cruelly evicted from their homeland by the “wicked” Jews.
My initial interest in the book was also political. I wanted to find in it a narration of Said’s political journey from his early pan-Arab days to his position as a spokesman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and confidant of Yassir Arafat, then to his fierce opposition to the Oslo process, and most recently, to his advocacy of a binational Arab-Jewish state. I found very little of all this in Out of Place. Yet, as I read further I realized that this book was not simply a political memoir, but a clue to Said’s metapolitical worldview. The unashamed exposure of his complicated relationship with his father and sisters, his sexual desires, and his biases revealed to me the foundation of his political thinking and maybe even the reasons for his radical stances.
Ironically, I only understood the underlying political relevance of Said’s tale after juxtaposing it with my own personal journey. For it so happened that both Edward Said and I are not only of almost the same age but also of the same neighborhood in Jerusalem. The distance between his family house in Talbiyah and my home on Gaza Road is less than five hundred yards. Yet, while we shared the same physical space, we lived in two different universes. The gulf that separated us was not caused by the fact that Said’s “real home” was in Cairo, as his recent detractors would have one think. Indeed, his memories of life in Jerusalem during the 1940s ring true enough to give credence to his feelings of belonging, and no unearthed documents that prove otherwise are relevant to one’s subjective memory. I needed only the references to the Rex cinema on Princess Mary Street, to the YMCA pool, and especially to the British Army roadblock halfway between my house and his, to accept his statement that “[he] spent most of [his] formative years there.” The point is not for me to condescendingly give Said permission to belong, but I certainly wish to caution outsiders not to interfere in a brawl between natives about which he/she understands nothing.
It is precisely because we shared a neighborhood and similar formative years that I am so aware of the two different universes we inhabited. Said never saw our Jewish presence in or around his neighborhood. Indeed, the only Jews he recalls are the midwife who delivered him, “the briefest glimpses of orthodox Jews,” and his schoolmate David Ezra. “I saw none of the newly resident Jewish [End Page 216] immigrants except elsewhere in...