Few books are as keenly awaited as Edward Said’s latest work, which began stirring up fierce debate weeks before it was published. “Out of Place,” a memoir of youth, first came to the international spotlight with the appearance of an article that attempted to discredit the Palestinian-American writer and literature professor.
The book, a mostly apolitical childhood narrative, is an intimate memoir of life in the bygone Levantine world in which young Said began his search for identity. He writes about growing up in Cairo’s wealthy expatriate community, spending summers in the Lebanese resort town of Dhour el Shweir, and about the many visits to the family home in Jerusalem. This “beautiful old house” in Jerusalem was the emblematic piece of real-estate used in a widely-publicized attack on Said’s life story.
Just a few short weeks before the memoir’s release, Commentary–a right-wing pro-Israel magazine in New York–ran an article by Justus Reid Weiner alleging that Said had lied about his childhood in Palestine. Weiner accused the most prominent Palestinian-American of being a fraud who “fabricated” his own childhood to invent himself as a “living embodiment of the Palestinian cause.”
The article appeared in the September 1999 issue of Commentary. Weiner says it took him three years to complete his research, published under the sarcastic title “‘My Beautiful Old House’ and Other Fabrications by Edward Said.” Weiner, a self-described scholar for an Israeli think tank, attempts to rip apart Said’s account of his first 12 years in Palestine, from 1935 to 1947–the crucial years before the dispersion. Though conceding that Said was, indeed, born in Jerusalem in 1935, Weiner claims he grew up in Cairo, where the Said family had a business, and that he never resided in the Jerusalem house he says he lived in, nor attended school there. Furthermore, Weiner claims that Said and his family were not driven out of Palestine in 1947 as refugees.
Compounding the attack in his Commentary screed, Weiner implied that Said had actually written “Out of Place” as a reaction to the impending unmasking Weiner was researching and planning. However, the memoir was commissioned in 1989, and Said has explained that he was moved to write it by his own personal grief; his mother was dying of cancer at the time. While suffering from leukemia himself, Said began writing the book as he started to undergo chemotherapy in 1994, and worked on it while he was confined to a bed or in the hospital for most of 1997. It was, he said, a “way of fighting the disease. It gave me strength and determination because I felt my life was slipping away, and it was a way to reconstruct its foundations.” The memoir was completed in 1998, and Said dedicated it to his doctor and to his Lebanese-born wife, Mariam. “Out of Place,” which recalls his life until the early 1960s, was a “conscious effort at a more literary form” by Said. It is the most personal and intimate of his 17 books to date.
Wiener claims he spent three years researching Said’s early life in archives in five countries on four continents, sifting through baptismal and tax records, business directories and student registration books in Jerusalem and Cairo, and that he conducted 85 interviews. Wiener never spoke with Said; he left one single message with Said’s assistant at Columbia University three years ago about a distantly related article Weiner was writing at the time. Interestingly, several weeks after the piece was first posted, more than 120 supporting footnotes with three appendixes were added to Commentary’s web site. Some of the notes seemed to be written in direct response to attacks on Weiner’s article.
A legal scholar with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, which describes itself as an independent think tank, Weiner emigrated from the United States to Israel in 1981 and spent 12 years working in the human rights department of the Israeli Ministry of Justice. The center’s leading benefactor is “junk-bond king” Michael Milken, who was convicted in 1991 in a massive insider trading scandal. Commentary magazine, whose major financial backer is the American Jewish Committee, has attacked Said in the past, denouncing him in a 1989 article as “The Professor of Terror.”
Said has been a regular contributor to the Arab press in the last few years, and he made his initial response to the article’s allegations in an article published in Al Ahram Weekly and other Arab publications. Under the title “Defamation, Zionist-style,” he wrote: “Weiner is a propagandist who, like many others before him, has tried to depict the dispossession of Palestinians as ideological fiction: this has been a constant theme of Zionist ‘information’ since the 1930s.” While not a single major U.S. paper would publish Said’s statement, it was published in Hebrew in Ha’Eretz in Israel, and CounterPunch ran it in its online edition on September 8, 1999.
The incident has filled thousands of media minutes and inches. Said addressed Weiner’s charges in interviews with Atlantic Monthly, Publishers Weekly and New York magazine, interviews in which he also discussed his new memoir. Other media figures have picked up the story, including Christopher Hitchens, who devoted two of his Nation magazine columns to attacking Weiner, calling him “a hack and a hireling, lacking in the skill to do serious work.” Alexander Cockburn derided Weiner in the New York Press.
“Out of Place,” now available from Knopf, has been reviewed–with plenty of background on the Weiner fiasco–by the Financial Times, Slate Magazine, the Los Angeles Times and others, and excerpts from the book have appeared in the New York Review of Books and Granta.
This essay appeared in appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 5, no. 28 (Summer 1999).
Copyright © by Al Jadid (1999)