My father’s strength, moral and physical, dominated the early part of my life. He had a massive back and a barrel chest, and although he was quite short he communicated indomitability and, at least to me, a sense of overpowering confidence. His most striking physical feature was his ramrod-stiff, nearly caricature-like upright carriage. And with that, in contrast to my shrinking, nervous timidity and shyness, went a kind of swagger that furnished another browbeating contrast with me: he never seemed to be afraid to go anywhere or do anything. I was, always. Not only did I not rush forward as I should have done in school games, but I felt seriously unwilling to let myself be looked at, so conscious was I of innumerable physical defects, all of which I was convinced reflected my inner deformations. To be looked at directly, and to return the gaze, was most difficult for me. When I was about ten I mentioned this to my father. ‘Don’t look at their eyes; look at their nose,’ he said, thereby communicating to me a secret technique I have used for decades. When I began to teach as a graduate student in the late fifties I found it imperative to take off my glasses in order to turn the class into a blur that I couldn’t see. And to this day I find it unbearably difficult to look at myself on television, or even read about myself.
It was my mother’s often melting warmth which offered me a rare opportunity to be the person I felt I truly was, in contrast to the ‘Edward’ who failed at school and sports, and could never match the manliness my father represented. And yet my relationship with her grew more ambivalent, and her disapproval of me became far more emotionally devastating than my father’s virile bullying and reproaches. One summer afternoon in Lebanon when I was sixteen and in more than usual need of her sympathy, she delivered a judgement on all her children that I have never forgotten. I had just spent the first of two unhappy years at Mount Hermon, a repressive New England boarding school, and this particular summer of 1952 was critically important, mainly because I could spend time with her. We had developed the habit of sitting together in the afternoons, talking quite intimately, exchanging news and opinions. Suddenly she said, ‘My children have all been a disappointment to me. All of them.’ Somehow I couldn’t bring myself to say, ‘But surely not me,’ even though it had been well established that I was her favourite, so much so (my sisters told me) that during my first year away from home she would lay a place for me at table on important occasions like Christmas Eve, and would not allow Beethoven’s Ninth (my preferred piece of music) to be played in the house.
‘Why,’ I asked, ‘why do you feel that way about us?’ She pursed her lips and withdrew further into herself, physically and spiritually. ‘Please tell me why,’ I continued. ‘What have I done?’
‘Some day perhaps you will know, maybe after I die, but it’s very clear to me that you are all a great disappointment.’ For some years I would re-ask my questions, to no avail: the reasons for her disappointment in us, and obviously me, remained her best-kept secret, as well as a weapon in her arsenal for manipulating us, keeping us off balance, and me at odds with my sisters and the world. Had it always been like this? What did it mean that I had once believed our intimacy was so secure as to admit few doubts and no undermining at all of my position? Now as I looked back on my frank and, despite the disparity in age, deep liaison with my mother, I realised how her critical ambivalence had always been there.
Hilda, my mother, was born in Nazareth in 1914, the middle child of five, and she was Palestinian, even though her mother was Lebanese. Her father was the Baptist minister in Nazareth. She was sent to boarding school in Beirut, the American School for Girls, a missionary institution that tied her to Beirut first and last, with Cairo a long interlude between. Undoubtedly a star there and at junior college (now the Lebanese American University), she was popular and brilliant – first in her class – in most things. Then, in 1932, she was plucked from what was – or was retrospectively embellished as – a wonderful life and returned from Beirut to dour, old Nazareth, where she was deposited into an arranged marriage with my father, who was at least nineteen years her senior.
My father, Wadie, never told me more than ten or eleven things about his past, all of which never changed and remained hardly more than a series of set phrases. He was born in Jerusalem in 1895 (my mother said it was more likely 1893), which made him at least forty at the time of my birth. He hated Jerusalem, and although I was born and we spent long periods of time there, the only thing he ever said about it was that it reminded him of death. At some point in his life his father was a dragoman who because he knew German had, it was said, shown Palestine to Kaiser Wilhelm. And my grandfather – never referred to by name except when my mother, who never knew him, called him Abu-Asaad – bore the surname Ibrahim. In school, therefore, my father was known as Wadie Ibrahim. I still do not know where ‘Said’ came from, and no one seems able to explain it. The only relevant detail about his father that my father thought fit to convey to me was that Abu-Asaad’s whippings were much severer than his of me. ‘How did you endure it?’ I asked, to which he replied with a chuckle, ‘Most of the time I ran away.’ I was never able to do this, and never even considered it.
Today none of us can fully grasp what my parents’ marriage was or how it came about, but I was trained by my mother – my father being generally silent on that point – to see it as something difficult at first, to which she gradually adjusted over the course of nearly forty years, and which she transformed into the main event of her life. She never worked or really studied again, and she never spoke about sex without shuddering dislike and discomfort, although my father’s frequent remarks about the man being a skilled horseman, the woman a subdued mare, suggested to me a basically reluctant, if also exceptionally fruitful, sexual partnership that produced six children.
But I never doubted that at the time of her marriage to this silent and peculiarly strong middle-aged man she suffered a terrible blow. She was wrenched from a happy life in Beirut. She was given to a much older spouse – perhaps in return for some sort of payment to her mother – who promptly took her off to strange parts and then set her down in Cairo, a gigantic and confusing city in an unfamiliar Arab country. My parents often returned to my father’s family home in Jerusalem – once for my birth, in 1935 – but Cairo was where my father had his business (office equipment and stationery), and it was where, mostly, I grew up.
In 1937, when I was two, my parents moved to Zamalek, an island in the Nile between the city of Cairo in the east and Giza in the west, inhabited by foreigners and wealthy locals. Zamalek was not a real community but a sort of colonial outpost whose tone was set by Europeans with whom we had little or no contact: we built our own world within it. Our house was a spacious fifth-floor apartment at 1 Sharia Aziz Osman that overlooked the so-called Fish Garden, a small, fence-encircled park with an artificial rock hill (gabalaya), a tiny pond and a grotto; its little green lawns were interspersed with winding paths, great trees and, in the gabalaya area, artificially made rock formations and sloping hillsides where you could run up and down without interruption. Except for Sundays and public holidays the Garden, as we called it, was where I spent all of my playtime, always unsupervised and always within range of my mother’s voice, which was lyrically audible to me and my sisters.
I played Robinson Crusoe and Tarzan there, and when my mother came with me, I played at eluding and then rejoining her. She went nearly everywhere with us, throughout our little world, one little island enclosed by another one. In the early years we went to school a few blocks away from the house – GPS, Gezira Preparatory School, which I attended from the autumn of 1941 till we left Cairo in May 1942, then again from early 1943 till 1946, with one or two longer Palestinian interruptions in between. For sports there was the Gezira Sporting Club and, on weekends, the Maadi Sporting Club, where I learned to swim. For years, Sundays meant Sunday school; this senseless ordeal occurred between nine and ten in the morning at the GPS, followed by matins at All Saints’ Cathedral. Sunday evenings took us to the American Mission Church in Ezbekieh, and two Sundays out of three to evensong at the cathedral. School, church, club, garden, house – a limited, carefully circumscribed segment of the great city – was my world until I was well into my teens.
During the GPS years I began slowly, almost imperceptibly, to develop a contestatory relationship with two of my younger sisters, Rosy and Jean, which played or was made to play into my mother’s skills at managing and manipulating us. I had felt protective of Rosy: I helped her along, since she was somewhat younger and less physically adept than I; I cherished her and would frequently embrace her as we played on the balcony; I kept up a constant stream of chatter, to which she responded with smiles and chuckles. We went off to GPS together in the morning, but we separated once we got there since she was in a younger class. She had lots of giggling little girlfriends – Shahira, Nazli, Nadia, Vivette – and I, my ‘fighting’ classmates such as Dickie Cooper or Guy Mosseri. Quickly she established herself as a ‘good’ girl, while I lurked about the school with a growing sense of discomfort, rebelliousness, drift and loneliness.
After school the troubles began between us. They were accompanied by our enforced physical separation: no baths together, no wrestling or hugging, separate rooms, separate regimens, mine more physical and disciplined than hers. When Mother came home she would discuss my performance in contrast to my younger sister’s. ‘Look at Rosy. All the teachers say she’s doing very well.’ Soon enough, Jean – exceptionally pretty with her thick, auburn pigtails – changed from a tag-along younger version of Rosy into another ‘good’ girl, with her own circle of apparently like-minded girlfriends. And she also was complimented by the GPS authorities, while I continued to sink into protracted ‘disgrace’, an English word that hovered around me from the time I was seven. Rosy and Jean occupied the same room; I was down the corridor; my parents in between; Joyce and Grace (eight and eleven years younger than I) had their bedrooms moved from the glassed-in balcony to another room as the apartment was modified to accommodate the growing children.
The closed door of Rosy and Jean’s room signified the definitive physical as well as emotional gulf that slowly opened between us. There was once even an absolute commandment against my entering the room, forcefully pronounced and occasionally administered by my father, who now openly sided with them, as their defender and patron; I gradually assumed the part of their dubiously intentioned brother. ‘Protect them,’ I was always being told, to no effect whatever. For Rosy especially I was a sort of prowling predator-target, to be taunted or cajoled into straying into their room, only to be pelted with erasers, hit over the head with pillows, and shrieked at with terror and dangerous enjoyment. They seemed eager to study and learn at school and home, whereas I kept putting off such activities in order to torment them or otherwise fritter away the time until my mother returned home to a cacophony of charges and countercharges buttressed by real bruises to show and real bites to be cried over.
There was never complete estrangement though, since the three of us did at some level enjoy the interaction of competing, but rarely totally hostile, siblings. My sisters could display their quickness or specialised skill in hopscotch, and I could try to emulate them; in memorable games of blind man’s buff, ring-around-the-rosy, or clumsy football in a very confined space, I might exploit my height or relative strength. After we attended the Circo Togni, whose lion tamer especially impressed me with his authoritative presence and braggadocio, I replicated his act in the girls’ room, shouting commands like ‘A posto, Camelia! ’ at them while waving an imaginary whip and grandly thrusting a chair in their direction. They seemed quite pleased at the charade, and even managed a dainty roar as they clambered onto bed or dresser with not quite feline grace.
But we never embraced each other, as brothers and sisters might ordinarily have: for it was exactly at this subliminal level that I felt a withdrawal on all sides, of me from them, and them from me. The physical distance is still there between us, I feel, perhaps deepened over the years by my mother. When she returned from her afternoons at the Cairo Women’s Club she invariably interjected herself between us. With greater and greater frequency my delinquency exposed me to her angry reprobation: ‘Can’t I ever leave you with your sisters without your making trouble?’ was the refrain, often succeeded by the dreaded codicil, ‘Wait till your father gets home.’ Precisely because there was an unstated prohibition on physical contact between us, my infractions took the form of attacks that included punching, hair-pulling, pushing, and the occasional vicious pinch. Invariably I was ‘reported’ and then ‘disgraced’ – in English – and some stringent punishment (a further prohibition on going to the movies, being sent to bed without dinner, a steep reduction in my allowance and, at the limit, a beating from my father) was administered.
All this heightened our sense of the body’s peculiar, and problematic, status. There was an abyss – never discussed nor examined, nor even mentioned during the crucial period of puberty – separating a boy’s body from a girl’s. Until I was twelve I had no idea at all what sex between men and women entailed, nor did I know very much about the relevant anatomy. Suddenly, however, words like ‘pants’ and ‘panties’ became italicised: ‘I can see your pants,’ said my sisters tauntingly to me, and I responded, heady with danger, ‘I can see your panties.’ I quite clearly recall that bathroom doors had to be bolted shut against marauders of the opposite sex, although my mother was present for both my dressing and undressing, as well as for theirs. I think she must have understood sibling rivalry very well and the temptations of polymorphous perversity all around us. But I also suspect that she played and worked on these impulses and drives: she kept us apart by highlighting our differences, she dramatised our shortcomings to each other, she made us feel that she alone was our reference point, our most trusted friend, our most precious love as, paradoxically, I still believe she was. Everything between me and my sisters had to pass through her, and everything I said to them was steeped in her ideas, her feelings, her sense of what was right or wrong.