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Out of Place: A Memoir, Page 5

Edward W. Said

  None of this, except as regretted memory, was meant to survive the dark days of 1942. We returned to Cairo after the battle of el-Alamein in November, and I went back to GPS, to become a thoroughgoing problem boy for whom one unpleasant antidote after another was devised, until by the age of nine and right through my fifteenth birthday I was constantly engaged in private remedial therapies after school and on weekends: piano lessons, gymnastics, Sunday School, riding classes, boxing, plus the mind-deadening rigors of relentlessly regulated summers in Dhour el Shweir. After 1943 we started to spend every summer in this dreary Lebanese mountain village that my father seemed more attached to than any other place on earth. My parents were at the heart of the entire administered system that determined my time minute by minute and my father’s attitude toward me for the rest of his life, a system that allowed me only the smallest of spots of relief to enjoy and feel that I was out of its clutches.

  He managed to combine harshness, unreadable silence, and odd affection laced with surprising generosity which somehow never gave me enough to count on, and which until very recently I could neither dismiss as no longer threatening nor fully understand. But as the core of the disciplinary structure devised for my life emerged out of the depredations of 1942, the danger of not keeping to its various prescriptions produced in me a fear of falling back into some horrible state of total disorder and being lost, and I still have it.

  This dangerous state soon came to be embodied for me in the physical and moral temptations of Cairo, which lay just beyond the carefully plotted, rigidly administered routine of my life. I never went out with girls; I wasn’t ever allowed to visit, much less frequent, places of public entertainment or restaurants; and I was always warned by both my parents not to get close to people on the bus or tram, not to drink or eat anything from a shop or stand, and above all to regard our home and family as the only refuge in that vast sty of vices all around us.

  Saving me from what was already happening: this was the paradox I lived. The only thing worse, I imagined, was total breakdown, perhaps of the kind my father experienced in the summer of 1942. After that my father began the serious task of reorganizing his business and his leisure, with a new emphasis on the latter, as his fortunes increased considerably. By 1951, he had stopped going to his office at all after lunch. Instead he started to play bridge, which, seven days a week, every week in the year except when he traveled, became his obsession. He would come home for lunch at one-thirty, eat, then sleep until four, when he would be driven to the club to play until seven-thirty or eight. He might play again after dinner.

  After our summer in Ramallah a large number of Ely Culbertson books appeared all over the Cairo apartment, in addition to several solo bridge sets and a new green felt cover for use on the two folding card tables we had. On Tuesday evening my father would go to Philip Souky’s house near the Pyramids to play bridge. When we started to spend our summers in Dhour el Shweir, he would play bridge in the morning at a café, then again in the afternoon, and finally at night he would preside over a game at our house or at a friend’s. The distance between us grew even greater as I, and alas he, discovered that I had no talent for or even interest in bridge. He seemed to have a phenomenal capacity for all indoor games, none of which I ever mastered. He tried to teach me backgammon, or tawlah, with, to me, appalling results. After watching me as I counted spaces laboriously, he would impatiently snatch the counter from under my finger and move it rapidly to the correct space: “Why are you counting like that”—here he would mimic my counting by affixing a crude moronic contortion to his face, as if I were a cretin trying hopelessly to go from three to four—“when this is the way it should be done?” Later he would ask me to play again but would end up playing the entire game for me. “It’s faster this way!” I was there just to sit opposite him and do nothing: he played both parts.

  There wasn’t a card game he didn’t know, or a casino ritual he didn’t unsuccessfully try to teach me. Having had them explained thirty times has not after all enabled me to play either poker or baccarat. During the summer of 1953, after a year of learning how to play pool at my American boarding school, I thought I managed slyly to cajole him into a game of 8-ball at a little café in Dhour across from the Cirque Café. I attributed his initial reluctance to apprehension that he might be beaten, but it was a trick. I realized later that he feigned reluctance, and even a little admiration, just to get me going. “This is the way we play it in the States,” I crowed to him, as professional to novice. “If you hit the ball on the side, it’s called English.” I put in two balls, then missed the third. Taking up the cue, my father seemed suddenly transformed from humbly nodding apprentice into fearsome pro. It was no contest at all, not even after we moved to the adjoining 3-ball billiard table, where I thought I might have a chance. I was reduced to a state of complete confusion, and a kind of babbling helplessness as I blamed the cue, the mocking waiter, the absence of practice. “So it’s called English,” he said caustically on the way home, and this from a player who seemed to have every spin and twist at his command.

  Games did not require him to say very much nor make more than a minimal emotional investment, and perhaps for this reason cardplaying became an obsessional and apparently life-sustaining habit. It was a way of sublimating his anxieties in an area of life in which the rules were set, and a routine order prevailed; an escape from any kind of confrontation with people, business, or problems.

  Bridge, and card games generally, were part of his regeneration from the ravages of 1942. “It’s a relaxation,” he said once or twice over the years, describing a pastime that occupied at least twelve hours a day during the summer holidays and up to four hours during his periods of work. I remember nothing with quite the same dispiriting blankness as those times when as a young boy I was compelled to watch him play. While I sat by his side, every card flipped onto the table, every bid, every laconic postmortem after the hand was played out signified my mental and moral subordination and increased my sense of his authority over me. He would not speak to me at all, nor point out what in a given hand might have been interesting; there was just the unending monotony of the card game, and his express desire to be in it for reasons I could never fully understand.

  Standing or sitting next to him during the first few years after 1942 was my punishment for misbehaving, and it constituted my parents’ primitive idea for keeping me out of trouble at times when I wasn’t at school and, worse, when we summered in Lebanon. Being forced to watch him playing bridge or tawlah for hours on end was a mind-numbing experience. These periods of enforced boredom were early avatars of a larger scheme to curtail my potential mischief-making: “Wadie, please take the boy with you,” my mother would say exasperatedly. “He’s causing a lot of trouble.” When Wadie’s services were not available, my mother would either send me on a long and pointless errand or pronounce the words “Take off your clothes and go right to bed.” Books, music, diversion of any kind were forbidden in bed, as were food and drink. I was forbidden to lock the bedroom door, allowing my mother unimpeded, extremely sudden, and unannounced entrances into the room to ascertain whether I was complying. The only benefit of this particularly deadening punishment was that having discovered three chessmen lying in the back of a drawer I practiced throwing them up and catching them until I had taught myself to juggle.

  My parents’ early disciplinary practices I associate first with the long vacations, when extended intervals of leisure might have allowed my inquiring and radically naughty self to go where it might be risky to trespass. But they soon extended to my Cairo life as well. I had an amazingly resourceful curiosity about people and things. I was frequently upbraided for reading books I shouldn’t have, and more damningly I was often found looking in the autograph books, notepads, pamphlets and comics, scribbled messages, and notes of my sisters, schoolmates, and parents. “Curiosity killed the cat” was the frequent verdict on me, but I wanted to get beyond the various cages in which I found myself pla
ced, and which made me feel so dissatisfied, and even distasteful to myself. Having to do my schoolwork, to play games like soccer at which I was manifestly unsuccessful, to be a dutiful, church-going son and brother, I soon began to take secret delight in doing and saying things that broke the rules or took me beyond the boundaries set by my parents. I always looked around doors that were ajar; I read books to find out what propriety kept hidden from me; I peered into drawers, cupboards, bookshelves, envelopes, scraps of paper, to glean from them what I could about characters whose sinful wantonness corresponded to my desires.

  I soon began to cherish the act of discovery that reading provided. About half our family business in Palestine—the Palestine Educational Company—was bookselling, and a small amount was publishing; in Egypt, however, my father ran a company (in partnership with his cousin Boulos and his children) entirely devoted to office equipment and stationery, some of which we also sold in Jerusalem and Haifa. Whenever some member of our Jerusalem family visited I would get presents of suitable books taken off the shelf with their price tags and inventory labels still in them. These suitable books seemed to fall into two general categories: children’s books in the A. A. Milne and Enid Blyton mold, and useful books of information like the Collins Junior Book of Knowledge, which was given to me when I was between nine and ten. It entertained me for long hours as I tried to grasp the mysteries of one Kalita, the girl fakir who performed miracles of strength and self-punishment at the Bertram Mills Circus. I had not yet even been to a circus—the Circo Togni was not to appear in Cairo until four years later—nor, apart from the anodyne suggestions provided in Blyton’s Mr. Galliano’s Circus books, did I have any conception of what life in a European circus was all about. It was enough for me that Kalita was of mysterious origin; in the tiny, grainy, and blurred photographs provided in the text, she wore what appeared to be a two-piece costume such as I had never seen, and she was able to do amazing, unimaginable things with her body.

  All of this defied the positive laws of respectability and decency under which I chafed. Her contortions were also at odds with nature, but that increased their excitement. She was described as lying on her back supporting a gigantic stone slab on her bare stomach; a large half-naked man in a turban stood over her with an enormous sledgehammer, which he brought down on the stone. A picture of the whole scene, with utensil caught in mid-descent, confirmed this feat. Kalita was also capable of walking in her bare feet on broken glass, lying on nails, and, for her major adventure, being buried underground for many minutes. Another photograph represented her in her bathing suit with a discernible smile of almost sensual satisfaction on her face and carrying a large and extremely fearsome-looking crocodile.

  I read and reread the three grittily printed pages on Kalita and I examined and reexamined the two photographs that drew me in every time I opened the book. But it was their very insufficiencies—their minuscule size, the impossibility of actually being able to see the woman’s body, the alienating distance between them and me—that paradoxically compelled, indeed enthralled, me for weeks and weeks. I dreamed of knowing her, being taken into her “caravan,” being shown some more horrible feats (for example, her imperviousness to, perhaps even enjoyment of, other forms of extreme pain and unknown types of pleasure, her disdain for domestic life, her capacity for diving to unusual depths, eating live animals and disgusting fruits) and hearing from her about her freedom from the ordinary talk and responsibilities of everyday life. It was from my experiences of Kalita that I developed the habit of mentally extending the story presented in a book, pushing the limits to include myself; gradually I realized that I could become the author of my own pleasures, particularly those that took me as far away as possible from the choking impingements of family and school. My ability to appear to be studying, reading, or practicing the piano and at the same time to be thinking about something completely different and completely mine, like Kalita, was one of the features of my life that irritated teachers and parents but impressed me.

  There were two main sources of stories whose boundaries I could expand: books and films. Fairy tales and biblical stories were read to me by my mother and grandmother but I had also been given an illustrated book of the Greek myths as a birthday present when I was seven. It opened an entire world to me, not only the stories themselves but the wonderful connections that might be made between them. Jason and the Argonauts, Perseus and the Gorgon, Medusa, Hercules and his twelve adventures: they were my friends and partners, parents, cousins, uncles, and mentors (like Chiron). I lived with them and meticulously imagined their castles, chariots, and triremes. I thought about them when they were not killing lions or monsters. I released them for a life of easy grace free of obnoxious teachers and hectoring parents, Perseus talking with Jason on some airy patio about what it was like to see Medusa in his shield, Jason telling Perseus about the pleasures of Colchis, the two of them marveling at Hercules’ killing of the serpents in his cradle.

  The second source was films, particularly those like the Arabian Nights adventures that regularly featured Jon Hall, Maria Montez, Turhan Bey, and Sabu, and the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan series. When I was in good favor with my parents, the pleasures of Saturday included an afternoon cinema performance, fastidiously chosen for me by my mother. French and Italian films were taboo. Hollywood films were suitable only if declared “for children” by my mother. These were Laurel and Hardy, lots of Abbott and Costello, Betty Grable, Gene Kelly, Loretta Young, many, many musicals and family comedies with Clifton Webb, Claudette Colbert, and Jennifer Jones (acceptable in The Song of Bernadette, forbidden in Duel in the Sun), Walt Disney fantasies and Arabian Nights films preferably with only Jon Hall and Sabu (Maria Montez was frowned on), war films, some Westerns. Sitting in the plush cinema seats, much more than in viewing the Hollywood films themselves—which struck me as a weird form of science fiction corresponding to nothing at all in my life—I luxuriated in the sanctioned freedom to see and not be seen. Later I developed an irrecusable attachment to Johnny Weissmuller’s whole Tarzan world, especially to the uxorial and, in Tarzan and His Mate at least, virginally sensual Jane cavorting in their cosy tree house, whose clever Wemmicklike comforts seemed like a pure, uncomplicated distillation of our life as a family alone in Egypt. Once “The End” appeared on the screen in Tarzan Finds a Son or Tarzan’s Secret Treasure, I began my ruminations on what happened afterward, on what the little family did in the tree house, on the “natives” they cultivated and befriended, on members of Jane’s family who might have visited, on the tricks that Tarzan taught Boy, and on and on. It was very odd, but it did not occur to me that the cinematic Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sinbad, whose genies, Baghdad cronies, and sultans I completely possessed in the fantasies I counterpointed with my lessons, all had American accents, spoke no Arabic, and ate mysterious foods—perhaps “sweetmeats,” or was it more like stew, rice, lamb cutlets?—that I could never quite make out.

  One of the rare moments of complete satisfaction I enjoyed before I was eighteen occurred during my first year at Cairo’s School for American Children (I was ten and a half). I was standing on the first landing of a grand staircase, looking down at a roomful of faces, and masterfully reciting narratives, drawing out the stories of Jason and Perseus. I gloried in finicky, unending detail—the identity of the Argonauts, what the Golden Fleece was, the reasons for Medusa’s horrible affliction, the later story of Perseus and Andromeda—and experienced for the first time the joys of virtuosity and emancipation denied me by the French and English language and history classes I seemed so poor at. I had a fluency and concentration in the telling and thinking through of these stories that supplied me with a unique pleasure I could find nowhere else in Cairo. I was also beginning to enjoy classical music quite seriously, but in my piano lessons, which began when I was six, my gifts of memory and melody ran aground on the need to practice scales and Czerny exercises, with my mother standing over or sitting next to me; the result was a feeling of being interrupt
ed in developing a musical identity. Not until I was fifteen could I buy records and enjoy the operas I chose on my own. The Cairo musical season of operas and ballets was still out of bounds to me: I therefore relied on what the BBC and Egyptian State Broadcasting had to offer, my greatest pleasure being the BBC’s forty-five-minute Sunday afternoon program “Nights at the Opera.” Using Gustave Kobbé’s Complete Opera Book I discovered quite early on that I really disliked Verdi and Puccini but loved the little I knew of Strauss and Wagner, whose works I did not see in an opera house until I was in my late teens.


  SCHOOLTEACHERS WERE SUPPOSED TO BE ENGLISH, I THOUGHT. Students, if they were fortunate, might also be English or, as in my case, if they were not, not. I attended the Gezira Preparatory School (GPS) from the autumn of 1941 till we left Cairo in May 1942, then again from early 1943 till 1946, with one or two longer Palestinian interruptions in between. During that period I had no Egyptian teachers at all, nor was I conscious of any Arab Muslim presence in the school: the students were Armenians, Greeks, Egyptian Jews, and Copts, as well as a substantial number of English children, including many of the staff’s offspring. Our teachers were, to mention the two most prominent, Mrs. Bullen, headmistress, and Mrs. Wilson, the ubiquitous all-purpose general head teacher. The school itself was located in a large Zamalek villa, once intended for living on a grand scale, its main floor now converted into several classrooms, all of which were entered from an enormous central hall with a platform at one end and an imposing entrance portal at the other. The hall was two floors high with a glass ceiling; a balustrade surrounded another set of rooms located directly above our classrooms. I only ventured there once, and not very happily at that. These struck me as secret places where mysterious English meetings took place and where the redoubtable Mr. Bullen, a large red-faced man only rarely glimpsed on the lower floor, might be found.