Clif's Reviews > Out of Place

Out of Place by Edward Said
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Dec 09, 2011

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Read in December, 2011

If only everyone had the parents they deserve! It's an unfortunate fact of life that the physical requirements to produce offspring have very little to do with the ability to raise a child to be a self assured, responsible and socially productive adult. There are plenty of psychological children in adult bodies who are overseeing the development of children.

Perhaps our expectations of child rearing are way beyond what nature intended - that small two footed animals unable to protect themselves should be protected until they are able to go out and forage on their own. This might allow for successful hunters and gatherers, but it leaves the psyche out on a limb.

Edward Said (sah-EED) was a child of two Palestinians. His father had been to America, had learned business and was hugely successful running a office supply business in Cairo, Egypt. His parents had an arranged marriage, his mother being 20 years younger than his dad.

With his three sisters, he lived a life free from financial need, so this is not a story of material, but emotional deprivation.

As he searched for identity he was alternately receiving adoration then, often in the next sentence, stern criticism from the same person - his mother. Not surprisingly this left him anxious and insecure. Dad was emotionally and physically distant, limiting conversation to short admonitions to behave while being the kind of large, well built man that could easy make a young boy feel inadequate. Edward simply could not do well enough, he could not stand straight enough, he could not apply himself as he should in the eyes of his parents. Each day was filled with such remarks as "why can't you be like your sister?", "why do you stand so stooped like you do?"

His childhood is exactly the opposite of the kind of modern over-praised, over-prized, "you're the best" no matter how insignificant the activity, that we hear about.

But, it was the 1950's and it sure sounds familiar to the kind of family experience many American children had at that time, including my own. The desire for a child to model some ideal of masculinity of femininity was very powerful in those days.

Edward Said's parents were over-protective to an extreme. He laments that he could not participate in outside activities. He was literally kept in a compound in Cairo that exposed him only to the children of the wealthy British or Americans who lived there. He father was very proud of his American background, always favored English over Arabic and kept everything under control - even to the point of vacations that always had the same itinerary and always kept the family apart from others. Claustrophobic is the word that springs to mind. He lived in Cairo for years but never saw anything beyond the few blocks where he lived. Within the immediate family, politics have no place so he looks for opportunities to find out what is happening in the outside world through more or less distant relatives who visit.

He had the British empire view (they were only kicked entirely out of Egypt in the 50's) pumped into him through the early education he received, but he never accepted it and was constantly aware that as an Arab he just didn't measure up no matter what he did.

Top this off with a strait-laced view from his parents that sex was not to be spoken of, or if mentioned, clearly put into the category of the disgusting or disagreeable and one can understand how poor Edward was very late in having his first encounter with a girl. There is an incredible scene in which his parents burst into his bedroom when he is about 12 holding a pair of his pajama pants. They are outraged that he is "abusing" himself. This all comes as a complete surprise to young Edward who hasn't the slightest idea about masterbation. What is their proof of his crime? That his pajama pants show no indication of wet dreams, so he must be doing it to himself!

I kept longing for him to break out, particularly when he was ordered off to America for his high school education by his father (all expenses paid, of course). But he never makes the rebellious break and continues to whine about how much he finds this activity or that person lacking as he keeps to himself.

This is the account of a rich kid who is under the command of strict and demanding parents. It does have interest because he a combination of elements that are never all acceptable in any place he finds himself - the reason for the title - he is always placed somewhere instead of making his place.
The book was written, as he explains to the reader, after he found out he had incurable cancer. This may explain why it is so somber. There is scarcely a moment of joy or happiness in it, elements that should be a large part of childhood. Looking back on his life, he feels he was two people, one of them Edward and the other his intellectual self that made its mark in his writing and teaching.

Said is best known for his excellent book, Orientalism, that I've read and reviewed (5 stars). He was an outstanding intellectual and a powerful spokesman for the plight of the Palestinians.


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