On Writing a Memoir
All families invent their parents and children, give each of them a story, character, fate, and even a language. There was always something wrong with how I was invented and meant to fit in with the world of my parents and four sisters. Whether this was because I constantly misread my part or because of some deep flaw in my being I could not tell for most of my early life. Sometimes I was intransigent, and proud of it. At other times I seemed to myself to be nearly devoid of character, timid, uncertain, without will. Yet the overriding sensation I had was of never being quite right. As I have said before in these pages, it took me about fifty years to become accustomed to, or more exactly to feel less uncomfortable with, ‘Edward’, a foolishly English name yoked to the unmistakably Arabic family name ‘Said’. True, ‘Edward’ was for the Prince of Wales who cut so fine a figure in 1935, the year of my birth, and ‘Said’ was the name of various uncles and cousins. But the rationale of my name broke down when I discovered no grandparents called ‘Said’, and when I tried to connect my fancy English name with its Arabic partner. For years, and depending on the exact circumstances, I would rush past ‘Edward’ and emphasise ‘Said’; or do the reverse, or connect the two to each other so quickly that neither would be clear. The one thing I could not tolerate, but very often would have to endure, was the disbelieving, and hence undermining, reaction: Edward? Said?
The travails of bearing such a name were compounded by an equally unsettling quandary when it came to language. I have never known what language I spoke first, Arabic or English, or which one was mine beyond any doubt. What I do know, however, is that the two have always been together in my life, one resonating in the other, sometimes ironically, sometimes nostalgically, or, more often, one correcting and commenting on the other. Each can seem like my absolutely first language, but neither is. I trace this primal instability to my mother who I remember speaking to me both in English and in Arabic, although she always wrote to me in English – once a week, all her life, as did I, all of hers. Certain spoken phrases of hers, like tislamli or Mish ‘arfa shu biddi ’amal? or rouh’ha – dozens of them – were Arabic, and I was never conscious of having to translate them or, even in cases like tislamli, of knowing exactly what they meant. They were a part of her infinitely maternal atmosphere, for which in moments of great stress I found myself yearning in the softly uttered phrase ya mama, always dreamily seductive then suddenly snatched away, with the promise of something in the end never given.
But woven into her Arabic speech were English words like naughty boy and of course my name, pronounced Edwaad. I am still haunted by the sound, at exactly the same time and place, of her voice calling me Edwaad, the word wafting through the dusk air at the Fish Garden’s closing time, and me, undecided whether to answer or to remain in hiding for just a while longer, enjoying the pleasure of being called, being wanted, the non-Edward part of myself finding luxurious respite in not answering until the silence of my being became unendurable. Her English deployed a rhetoric of statement and norms that has never left me. Once my mother left Arabic and spoke English there was a more objective and serious tone that mostly banished the forgiving and musical intimacy of her first language, Arabic. At age five or six I knew that I was irremediably naughty and at school all manner of comparably disapproved of things like fibber and loiterer. By the time I was fully conscious of speaking English fluently, if not always correctly, I regularly referred to myself not as me but as you. ‘Mummy doesn’t love you, naughty boy,’ she would say, and I would respond, half plaintive echoing, half defiant assertion: ‘Mummy doesn’t love you, but Auntie Melia loves you.’ Auntie Melia was her elderly maiden aunt, who doted on me as a very young child. ‘No she doesn’t,’ my mother persisted. ‘All right. Saleh loves you,’ I would conclude – Saleh was Auntie Melia’s driver – rescuing something from the enveloping gloom.
I hadn’t then any idea where my mother’s English came from or who, in the national sense of the phrase, she was: this strange state of ignorance continued until relatively late in my life, when I was in graduate school. In Cairo, one of the places where I grew up, her spoken Arabic was fluent Egyptian, but to my keener ear, and to the many Egyptians she knew, it was, if not outright Shami, then perceptibly inflected by it. Shami (Damascene) is the collective adjective and noun used by Egyptians to describe both an Arabic-speaker who is not Egyptian and someone who is from Greater Syria, i.e. Syria itself, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan; but Shami is also used to designate the Arabic dialect spoken by a Shami. Much more than my father, whose linguistic ability was primitive compared to hers, my mother had an excellent command of the classical language as well as the demotic. Not enough of the latter to disguise her as Egyptian, however, which of course she was not. Born in Nazareth, then sent to boarding school and junior college in Beirut, she was Palestinian, even though her mother Munira was Lebanese. I never knew her father, but he, I discovered, was the Baptist minister in Nazareth, although he originally came from Safad, via a sojourn in Texas.
Not only could I not absorb, much less master, all the meanderings and interruptions of these details as they broke up a simple dynastic sequence, I could not grasp why she was not a straight English mummy. I have retained this unsettled sense of many identities – mostly in conflict with each other – all my life, together with an acute memory of the despairing wish that we could have been all-Arab, or all-European and American, or all-Christian, or all-Muslim, or all-Egyptian, and on and on. I found I had two alternatives with which to counter the process of challenge, recognition and exposure to which I felt subject, questions and remarks like: ‘What are you?’ ‘But Said is an Arab name.’ ‘You’re American?’ ‘You’re an American without an American name, and you’ve never been to America.’ ‘You don’t look American!’ ‘How come you were born in Jerusalem and you live here?’ ‘You’re an Arab after all, but what kind are you?’
I do not remember that any of the answers I gave out loud to such probings were satisfactory, or even memorable. My alternatives were hatched entirely on my own: one might work, say, in school, but would not work in church or on the street with my friends. My first approach was to adopt my father’s brashly assertive tone and say to myself: ‘I’m an American citizen, and that’s it.’ He was American by dint of having lived in the United States followed by service in the Army during World War One. Partly because this alternative was not only implausible but imposed on me, I found it far from convincing. To say ‘I am an American citizen’ in the setting of an English school, with wartime Cairo dominated by British troops and what seemed to me a totally homogeneous Egyptian populace, was foolhardy, something to be risked in public only when I was challenged officially to name my citizenship; in private I could not maintain it for long, so quickly did the affirmation wither under existential scrutiny.
The second of my alternatives was even less successful. It was to open myself to the deeply disorganised state of my real history and origins as I had gleaned them and then to try to make some sort of sense of them. But I never had enough information; there was never the right number of functioning connectives between the parts I knew about or was able somehow to excavate; the total picture was never quite right. The trouble seemed to begin with my parents, their pasts and names. My father Wadie was later called William (an early discrepancy that I assumed for a long time was only an Anglicisation of his Arabic name, but soon it appeared to me suspiciously like a case of assumed identity, with the name ‘Wadie’ cast aside except by his wife and sister for not very creditable reasons). Born in Jerusalem in 1895 (my mother said it was more likely 1893), he never told me more than ten or 11 things about his past, none of which ever changed and which hardly conveyed anything except a series of portable words. He was at least forty at the time of my birth.