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Cairos of the mind
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 22 - 12 - 2005

-- Teta, Mother and Me, Jean Said Makdisi, London: Saqi Books, 2005. pp320;
-- Out of Place, Edward W. Said, New York: Granta Books, 1999. pp320; Zamalek:
-- The Changing Life of a Cairo Elite 1850-1945, Chafika Soliman Hamamsy, Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2005. pp392;
-- Oleander, Jacaranda, A Childhood Perceived, Penelope Lively, London: Penguin Books, 1995. pp192
The late Palestinian-American writer and academic Edward Said was born on 1 November 1935, and the recent commemoration of what would have been his 70th birthday has attracted renewed attention to his childhood years spent in Cairo. As a boy belonging to Cairo's elite, Said's experiences were shared by other children from the same generation and affluent social class, although not all of them shared the same background, and their childhood experiences are recounted in the books reviewed here. All of these young people lived in Cairo, more particularly in its opulent suburbs, between 1935 and 1951, a time of political turmoil, world war, and war in Palestine, a war in which Egypt was directly involved.
Comparing these individuals' recollections of the place and the period shows how informed they are by their subjects' characters and circumstances, and the books constitute evidence of how the minds of the young work over often mundane occurrences, transforming the world around them according to their own inner needs while trying to absorb a reality that sometimes baffles them.
Deaths, marriages, divorces, parental arguments, or ill-perceived public events are all fodder for such youthful imaginations, which are rarely rooted in reality. At the same time, the attempts made by parents described in these books to shield their children from painful sights and situations may have themselves created a climate of nervousness and insecurity that was clearly perceptible to the children in each case, but was never fully explained. We should remember, after all, that these memoirs refer to a time when Egypt's very poor amounted to a staggering 90 per cent of the population, and to a country which, if not actually at war during the period from 1939 to 1945, was at the very least heavily involved in allied operations. When war did come, with the 1948 Palestine conflict, the debacle came directly to Cairo doorsteps.
However, the outside world does not seem to have impinged overmuch on the cosseted lives of these memoirists. "What overcomes me now," writes Edward Said in his memoir Out of Place, memories of a Cairo childhood , "is the scale of dislocation our family and friends experienced, and of which I was a scarcely conscious, essentially unknowing witness in 1948. As a boy of twelve and a half in Cairo, I often saw the sadness and destitution in the faces and lives of people I had formerly known as ordinary middle-class people in Palestine, but I couldn't really comprehend the tragedy that had befallen them, nor could I piece together all the different narrative fragments to understand what had really happened in Palestine."
In much the same way, the British author Penelope Lively, writing in her memoir of a childhood spent in Cairo, Oleander, Jacaranda, is aware of the war and even sees young officers visiting her parents' house in Bulaq el-Dakrur only to disappear forever leaving only a bag or a package behind. However, she, too, is reluctant to broach the subject of what is really going on beyond the nursery walls, perhaps sensing the existence of a taboo, and she manages to convince herself that this is the normal state of the world's affairs, even if she fails to grasp its mechanisms.
In Chafika Soliman Hamamsy's Zamalek: The Changing Life of a Cairo Elite, a sort of upstairs- downstairs saga of an Egyptian family moving from Minya and Sohag to Abbassiya, Munira and finally to Zamalek in Cairo, news of the war does reach the children through their governesses. However, it is still experienced more as gossip than as looming reality, and family incident continues to take precedence over external noises.
One cannot, therefore, ascribe the general malaise that the youngsters in all these books appear to have suffered from simply to wartime fears. Rather, it seems to have stemmed from the normal processes of growing up, of having to negotiate the barriers between good and bad, and of having to choose between resisting, or aligning themselves to, the strict moral values in fashion at the time.
Since Said's untimely death two years ago, the publication of memoirs of this sort, pre- eminently Hamamsy's Zamalek and Jean Said Makdisi's Teta, Mother and Me, An Arab Woman's Memoir, have brought an added dimension to Said's own recollections of his Egyptian childhood, as recounted in his autobiography Out of Place. Makdisi's book is of additional interest as she is the youngest sister of Edward Said.
Furthermore, since Said himself expressed a yearning in his book to be either one thing or another, either purely English or purely Egyptian but not somewhere in-between, as he believed himself to be, it is tempting to glance at the impressions of his contemporaries, who enjoyed the privilege of being secure in their origins and culture. Penelope Lively, for example, expresses the point of view of an English girl, the daughter of an English civil servant, growing up in Egypt courtesy of Britain's imperial arrangements at the time. Though Lively had no doubts about her Englishness and its desirability, a state that Said envied, she lived an isolated life in a villa in Bulaq el-Dakrur with parents who relinquished her to the care of her governess, Lucy.
She did not go to school (correspondence courses seem to have sufficed), she had no playmates her own age, and Egypt does not seem to have figured much in her life. Yet, Lively seems never to have seriously questioned this state of affairs: "children do not contemplate an alternative to the status quo," she explains. In a similar way, Cha (Chafika Soliman Hamamsy) experienced a life divided between her school, run by nuns, her parents' villa in Zamalek, and her grandparents' big house in Munira. She was constantly supervised by Mme Duprée, her governess, whenever she was not in the nuns' care. Her playmates were her siblings, who would roam the family's large Zamalek garden together, and, again, Cha seems to have accepted without question the conventions governing her life in a specific, upper-class milieu.
The young Edward Said, on the other hand, seems to have considered life at home in Cairo to be dreary. He had difficulty submitting to parental rules and school discipline, and he seems to have often tried to stretch the limits of both in order to escape what appears to have been a permanent state of anxiety.
"'You're very clever,' I'd be told over and over," he writes, "'but you have no character, you're lazy, you're naughty,' etc.--and I was also made aware of an earlier Edward, sometimes referred to as 'Eduardo Bianco,' whose exploits, gifts, and accomplishments were recounted to me as a sign of pre-1942 promise betrayed."
Presumably, this was a ploy by his parents to curb their child's natural turbulence, or cause him to perform at school to the highest possible standards. It seems, however, that these entreaties cut deep into Said and sowed the seeds of self-doubt, discontent or mild depression, which can befall many, if not all, exceptionally talented children.
Born in Jerusalem, Edward grew up between Palestine, Lebanon and Zamalek in Cairo, dividing his time between his parents' apartment at 1 Aziz Osman Street, the Fish Garden opposite, the English Preparatory School nearby and the Gezira Sporting Club. He was restricted by parental discipline, and he felt earthbound. At a time when other children were still defining the boundaries between themselves and the outside world, Said was dreaming of flight and adventure, hiding from his mother in the garden and refusing to answer her calls, as if enjoying his isolation.
Said never appears to have wished for material possessions or to have defined himself by them. He did not identify himself, as many children do, as being the "owner" of a particular toy bear, train, or bicycle. He never mentions clothes (an important part of his sister Jean's recollections), nor toys, nor the books that other children possessed and he did not. At no point in his account do material considerations enter the narrative, and there is no sibling rivalry about presents or the allocation of pocket money.
It seems, instead, that even at this very early age Said was already having problems of self- recognition and evaluation. "From the moment I became conscious of myself as a child, I found it impossible to think of myself as not having both a discrediting past and an immoral future in store," he writes. "My entire sense of self during my formative years was always experienced in the present tense, as I frantically worked to keep myself from falling back into an already established pattern, or from falling forward into certain perdition. Being myself meant not only never being quite right but also never feeling at ease, always expecting to be interrupted or corrected, or to have my privacy invaded and my unsure person set upon."
"And thus I became 'Edward'," he goes on, "a creation of my parents whose daily travails a quite different inner self was able to observe, though most of the time was powerless to help. 'Edward' was principally the son, then the brother, then finally the boy who went to school and unsuccessfully tried to follow (or ignore or circumvent) all the rules. His creation was made necessary by the fact that his parents themselves were self- creations; two Palestinians with dramatically different backgrounds living in colonial Cairo as members of a Christian minority within a large pond of minorities with only each other for support, without any precedent for what they were doing except an odd combination of pre-war Palestinian habits...and...the style of life my parents perceived around them in Egypt and which they tried to adapt to their special circumstances."
Meanwhile, not far away and perhaps on the same Cairo streets, other young Egyptian children, steeped in their community and religious tradition, were painfully coming to term with the dualism encouraged by their education. Part of this was eastern, inculcated by members of their extended families, the other western, fed to them by the foreign schools they attended and by the rules of the ubiquitous French, English (or sometimes German) governesses who were the necessary appendages and status symbols of any upper-class Egyptian family.
Turning to Said's sister Jean's account of her childhood years, however, one is struck almost by disbelief. Can the memory of the same events, shared by two siblings, really be so different, even though Jean was five years younger? Jean remembers her childhood as a hymn to a happy family life, encompassing a community gathered around a loving, socially active mother, a cheerful, even boisterous father and relatives who doted on the Said children.
Said senior, so feared by his son, appeared to Jean as an even- tempered parent with a boyish sense of humour, whom she does not remember "as ever [doing] the punishing or the disciplining, at least not to his daughters. My brother has a different memory of this," she writes, but comments no further. "My father often laughed indulgently at our naughtiness, sometimes undermining mother's discipline if we were crying. I remember mother complaining to him: 'You spoil them.' He only became strict if one of us badgered mother too far, thus challenging her authority; he always saw himself as her protector..."
Is this the same father who, criticising his brothers-in-law for not caring enough about their mother, "put [Edward's] mother's family under a permanent cloud of disapproval and fundamental disqualification," and making Edward, "as a brother and son, [feel] acute discomfort"? Is this the same father who, "exasperated by his son's resistance," "pummel [led] [him] painfully around the shoulders and once even deliver[ed] a solid blow to [his] back?" "He could be physically violent," writes Said in Out of Place, "and he threw heavy slaps across my face and neck, while I cringed and dodged in what I felt was a most shameful way. I regretted his strength and my weakness beyond words, but I never responded or called out in protest...I much preferred the studied care he took with my canings --using a riding crop--to the frightening, angry and impulsive force of his slaps and swinging blows to my face."
Whatever the truth of the matter may be, with such painful self-perceptions it is no wonder that Edward paid so little attention to his surroundings when he was a child. Indeed, the outside world represented a particular hazard, and Said comments that the "dangerous state [of perdition] soon became 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; I was always warned by both my parents not to get close to people on the bus or tram, nor 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 vice around us."
Yet, Jean tells a different story from within the Said family, and one wonders what the differences between the two accounts can mean. "My parents had joined the Maadi and then the Gezira Sporting Club," she writes. "We also went, though less frequently to the Tewfikiyya Club mostly to play tennis...Once a week the Maadi Club showed children's films and we attended quite regularly. We saw ...the old Tarzan films that had such a huge effect on our imagination, especially Edward's..."
"In those days, membership of the Gezira Club was controlled by the foreign, mostly English management and was closed to all but a very small, elite group of Egyptians...In this beautiful place we swam in a large pool; we played tennis on clay courts, and croquet on the grass; my brother and older sister took riding lessons until one of their friends fell off the horse and was severely injured. My father played golf and tennis, and bridge in the clubhouse. Mother took tea with her friends on the wide and elegant lawns as she watched her younger children play on the swings and see-saws."
"Occasionally one or more of us children, depending on our age, were taken by our parents for a special evening at the St James's Hotel...We often went to Groppi's that most famous of Cairo's culinary institutions, either to the indoor teahouse on Midan Suleiman Pasha or to Groppi's open air location on Queen Farida Street, where we were allowed to run in the garden...We were often taken for tea or lunch at the world famous Mena House Hotel at the foot of the Pyramids where we were allowed to run loose among the antelopes and peacocks...When we went there we would always pay homage to the great pyramid and sometimes to the Sphinx as well..."
Perhaps, in trying to understand what it is that this generation of Cairene youngsters has to tell us, we should accept that they rarely actually saw their surroundings. And when they did see them their memories prove selective. For the most part, they lived in a landscape of their own invention, where trees could talk, gardens were jungles, and streets and buildings were the theatre for any adventure they cared to invent. An outing could be a feast for one child, a nightmare for another. Edward enjoyed the Fish Garden because he could be like Tarzan climbing among its trees, Jean enjoyed the Naguib el-Rihani theatre, Cha her family garden in Zamalek, and Penelope Beit el-Kritliya. Each had their own bit of Cairo that they cherished, and they were oblivious to the rest.
Finally, perhaps it is their perceptions of Cairo that have endured, rather than the reality, for the Shawam have emigrated, the British are gone and the pashas are no more. In the end, it seems that these people, too, were "out of place," a place that has now well and truly disappeared.
Reviewed by Fayza Hassan

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