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The False Prophet of Palestine

Justus Reid Weiner- Tuesday 30th Sep 2003

This article is adapted from the September issue of Commentary magazine.

Few spokesmen for the Palestinian cause in our day are as articulate, or as well-known, as Edward W. Said. The holder of an endowed chair in literature at Columbia University, president of the Modern Language Association, a prolific author of books and articles both scholarly and popular, a frequent lecturer and commentator on radio and television, a sometime diplomatic intermediary and congressional witness, Mr. Said has earned a reputation not only for polemical brilliance but for a fierce pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel zealotry. His most famous book "Orientalism," with its bold thesis that the Western study of Islam is itself a form of "colonialism," has had a profound and radicalizing influence on literary studies. A great deal of Mr. Said's moral authority derives from his personal credentials. As a living embodiment of the Palestinian cause, he has made much of his own birth, childhood, and schooling in Palestine, telling a story of idyllic beginnings and violent dispossession. Here is Mr. Said's own oft-recited outline of his early life (in Harper's, 1992): "I was born, in November 1935, in Talbiya, then a mostly new and prosperous Arab quarter of Jerusalem. By the end of 1947, just months before Talbiya fell to Jewish forces, I'd left with my family for Cairo."

And again (in the London Review of Books, 1998): "I was born in Jerusalem and spent most of my formative years there and, after 1948, when my entire family became refugees, in Egypt."This same rendering of his early years recurs many times in writings both by and about Mr. Said. It undergirds his self-definition as an archetypal exile--one who, like his people, was separated from his homeland in a sudden act of historic violence. But except for the detail of his birth, it is a tissue of falsehoods.

Here are the bare bones of the truth: Mr. Said's father, Wadie, grew up in Jerusalem but evidently emigrated in 1911 to the U.S. During World War I, Wadie reportedly served with American forces in Europe before returning to the Middle East with a U.S. passport to start what would become a successful business career. For at least nine years prior to his son's birth in 1935, Wadie Said was residing permanently in Cairo, where he and his family remained until 1962. And Jerusalem? In that city lived Wadie Said's sister and her family. To these relatives, as to other destinations throughout the Middle East, the affluent Cairo-based Saids made periodic visits. In November 1935, during one of those visits, Edward Said was born. On his birth certificate, prepared by the Ministry of Health for the British Mandate, his parents specified their permanent address as Cairo, and, indicating that they maintained no residence in Palestine, left blank the space for a local address.

As for the family residence in Talbieh (Talbiya), Mr. Said had this to say in an interview with the Jerusalem Times in March: "I feel even more depressed when I remember my beautiful old house surrounded by pine and orange trees in Al-Talbiyeh in east [he means west] Jerusalem. . . . I went there a few days ago and took several photographs." During a visit in 1992, according to Mr. Said, he was able to locate this house with the aid of a hand-drawn map and "a copy of the title deed." But if Mr. Said really had in hand a copy of the title deed, then he could not have helped noticing the absence on it of his parents' names, his siblings' names and his own name. The house in question belonged first to Mr. Said's grandfather and then to his aunt and her five children. Until 1942, it was wholly rented out to others, and thereafter one apartment in it was occupied by Mr. Said's aunt and her children (and, no doubt, occasional family visitors).

Nor is this the only way in which Mr. Said's account of an upbringing in "his" beautiful old house has proved baseless. He has spoken with characteristic vehemence about a famous later tenant. Pressing his role as victim, he has stated: "The house from which my family departed in 1948--was displaced--was also the house in which the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber lived for a while, and Buber of course was a great apostle of coexistence between Arabs and Jews, but he didn't mind living in an Arab house whose inhabitants had been displaced."

The truth is the other way around. It was Mr. Said's aunt who evicted Buber, and not in 1948 but in 1942--the very period when the young Edward Said was supposedly residing in the house. That brings us to another element in Mr. Said's reconstruction of his Jerusalem childhood: his schooling. According to his standard version, he attended St. George's Anglican preparatory school in eastern Jerusalem. In a recent BBC documentary, Mr. Said is seen touring this school and turning the pages of an old, leather-bound student registry from his youth, where he points to the entry for one of his Jewish "friends."

Interestingly, we are not shown or told about any listing for Mr. Said himself in the St. George's student registry. And for good reason: Neither in the particular registry shown on camera nor in the school's other two registry books is there any record of his having attended this institution as he has claimed (although he might have been a temporary student on one or more of his brief visits with his Jerusalem cousins). Nor does the Jewish student he claims to recall remember Mr. Said. What about the family's departure as "refugees" from Jerusalem to Cairo? Mr. Said has repeatedly placed this event in mid-December 1947, citing the "panic" caused in Talbieh by the threat of Jewish forces. Yet, in the 51/2-month period leading up to the establishment of the state of Israel in May 1948, voluminous documents record only two incidents of intercommunal violence marring Talbieh's calm, and neither of these resulted in the permanent departure of local Arabs. The inevitable conclusion is that just as Edward Said and his immediate family were not long-term or permanent residents in Talbieh in the 1930s and '40s, so they were not resident there during the final months of the British Mandate. They cannot be considered "refugees" or "exiles" from Palestine in any meaningful sense of those two very weighty and politically charged terms.

Nor, of course, did they arrive in Cairo for the first time in late 1947. As scores of public records attest, Cairo is where the young Mr. Said grew up. There he resided with his family in luxurious apartments, attended private English schools, and played tennis at the exclusive Gezira Sporting Club as the son of one of its few Arab members until he was sent in 1951 to complete his schooling in America.

Mr. Said himself has now confirmed all this in his forthcoming memoir, "Out of Place." In this book, the man who for decades has presented himself to the world as a professional refugee, who has powerfully described the traumatic effect on himself and his family of their sudden, panicked exile from the beloved city of his birth and childhood, sharply reverses course. Jerusalem, it turns out, was not the soul and center of Mr. Said's youth; it was an occasional vacation spot. But nowhere in his new book does Mr. Said acknowledge that he is now telling a tale egregiously different from the version he has woven over three decades.

As Mr. Said would have it, his alleged 50-year exile from Palestine has been the "central metaphor" not only of his personal biography but of his very identity, driving his campaign for redress from Israel; he has repeatedly expressed interest in seeking reparations for "his" property in Jerusalem. In fact, he has no claim against Israel, and tellingly has never filed one. He does have one against Egypt, where his father's stores were first burned down by a revolutionary mob in 1952 and then nationalized by President Gamal Nasser. About these losses, however, Mr. Said has been silent. Edward Said has written that the intellectual's responsibility is "to speak the truth, as plainly, directly, and as honestly as possible." In his own case, the plain, direct and honest truth is radically at odds with the parable he has been at pains to construct over the decades. That parable, designed to augment the passions that have animated the revanchist program of so many Palestinian nationalists, is a lie.



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