I am not sure why it is that certain dreams vanish from memory while others remain, and remain not only vividly but are then recalled by certain indefinable occurrences in the waking hours. Ten years ago I had one such dream. Edward Said is sitting on the floor, on the blue carpet that I remember so well, in our old dining room. It’s night-time. His back is resting against the cabinet that housed the plates and the glasses and the coffee cups, but in the dream it is instead filled with books. Edward Said here is in his mid-thirties; about the age I was when I had the dream. The pile of books on the floor beside him stood as high as his chest. He has one volume open in his lap; I had no idea what it was. In fact, I couldn’t tell what any of the books in the stack were, but they didn’t seem to be his in the dream. They seemed very much mine. And his expression of being at once grateful to have these books, their burden and pleasure, and somewhat daunted by them wasn’t his expression either.
The dining room in the dream was from the apartment we had in Cairo after my family escaped the dictatorship in our country, Libya. Our situation was not unusual, of course; Cairo, like London, was a city to which many Arab exiles went. Thirty years before my family arrived there, Edward Said’s family had also settled in the Egyptian capital. They had been expelled from Jerusalem, the city where Said was born and spent his formative years, when the family members were made into refugees in 1948. Even though my family’s temporary exile stretched into a lifetime, we did in those days in Cairo, and for a long time after, retain the realistic hope of returning to Libya in a year or two to resume our life in Tripoli. But I suspect the situation for Said’s family was different. Theirs was a bigger tragedy, one that involved a foreign occupation, which together with common colonial practices of appropriation of land and theft of resources included a third element, a theological claim to the land, and therefore had no implied end in sight and therefore must have seemed, even to the young Edward of those years, a long-term proposition. I picture Edward the boy thinking, in the still hours of his solitude, in his old bedroom in Jerusalem, occupied now by strangers, and the bedrooms of his parents and siblings, and those of the neighbouring houses of the relatives and friends he had grown up among: a map of stolen homes. I imagine him perceiving, in that quiet and unsolicited way in which some acts of dispossession are discerned, that his country and with it his own self were undergoing a very particular kind of violence, an assault that had the intention of erasure.
During those early years of my family’s new life in Egypt, I would stand on our street very early each weekday morning waiting for my American school bus to arrive. Every time it appeared, large and yellow and out of scale, it seemed once again utterly implausible. The school was in the suburb district of Maadi. With its wide avenues and tall eucalyptus trees and villas wrapped inside gardens, this was where American and British expats preferred to live. Most of my fellow pupils were the daughters and sons of American diplomats, agents and military personnel. They were peculiarly uninterested in Cairo, Egypt or anything Arab. It was as if they were simply holding their breath till they could return to the United States. Even the bread for our daily sandwiches was shipped in from America. Whereas my school wanted to turn me into an American, Edwards Said’s wanted to make an Englishman of him. Victoria College, which is also in Maadi and only a short walk from my school, was then, in Said’s words, ‘in effect created to educate those ruling-class Arabs and Levantines who were going to take over after the British left.’ From the earliest moment, Said’s life and education placed him at the fault line between the reality of Western dominance of Arab lands and the dream of Arab independence and sovereignty.
From that American school in Cairo, I came to Britain for school and then university in London. It was here that years later, in 2009, a few months after I had that dream of Said, I received an invitation to give a lecture at Columbia University, the very place where – having earned his PhD, the subject of which, incidentally, was Joseph Conrad – Edward Said secured a position in the English and Comparative Literature Department where he spent his entire academic career, from 1963 to his untimely death in 2003. I delivered my talk and a year later accepted a position at Barnard College – the liberal arts women’s college of Columbia University – where I continue to teach, spending the autumn of each year in Manhattan. And so I see that dream as at once being part of a private conversation I was having back then about my relationship to my work, and at the same time a portent forecasting the semesterly life I was to have in Edward Said’s university: a life of reading and learning and teaching.
Perhaps it wasn’t an accident that my imagination or subconscious or whatever it is that authors our dreams had chosen Edward Said as the protagonist of that dream. I was, at that moment in my life, seeking liberty. I yearned for a sense of expansiveness. And Said represented to me then, as he continues to do today, a thinker with an unusually broad repertoire. Growing up in a contested time, when the culture I had come from and the one where I was living were frequently talked about in terms of an opposition or a clash – sentiments that I don’t find to be true, interesting or useful – Said’s work offered an analysis of this malaise as well as an open invitation to a broader spectrum. He showed how one’s preoccupations and curiosities might be determined not by preordained cultural affiliations but rather by the private passions and compassion of a humanist. His intelligence and appetites gave me great confidence. He, along with other thinkers, poets and artists, helped convince me that the entire history of art and ideas was in very real and direct ways mine. His approach stood in constant praise for the spirit of imaginative enquiry and was therefore a direct affront to the limitations of incuriosity and prejudice.
I recall very clearly the first time I read Orientalism. The effect it had on me was more psychological than intellectual. It brought to the surface the complex web of tactics employed by one culture in order to dominate another, and how myths were integral to this project, those shadowy ghosts that seemed, to the young man I was then, impossible to grasp, and that any inexact attempt risked accusations of madness or superstition or, far worse, exaggeration. Said exposed a regime that relied on an intricate system of distortions and he did this with such relentless persistence and clarity that it left me deeply agitated. It literally made my heart race.
I was still at university and only occasionally then read writers like Said. I had, in the same section of my small bookcase, Aristotle and Ibn Rushd, Schopenhauer and Spinoza and Kierkegaard. And sometimes I would get the London Review of Books – to which Said was a regular contributor. But what I read mostly and more naturally was poetry and novels. Those were the places where I felt that inexplicable recognition of sensing myself to be remembered, where I came upon fragments of my own experiences, echoes of my consciousness. Poetry and fiction represented a mentality, a place for feeling and thinking. They had to do with my personal cognitive will.
One such writer who powerfully sustained my interest then, and to whom I have continued to return, was Joseph Conrad. His fascination with misaligned fates, the ineluctable force of human desires, the absence of an authoritative account, the inconsistencies between reality and the human mind, the nature of betrayal, the need for atonement and, perhaps most poignantly of all – and this is not so much a theme as a Conradian attitude – the searching anxiety of language, which is to be felt only in the subterranean depths of Conrad’s prose and is, I believe, a symptom of his need to catch in words the most fleeting and fluent of adjustments, an impermanent realisation, the daily delicacies of a lived life.
Strangely, it was Joseph Conrad who introduced me to Edward Said and not the other way around. My passion for Conrad led me to those who had fallen under his spell, and Said, of course, suffered an unshakeable interest in Conrad’s work. That PhD, which focused on a study of Conrad’s letters and short stories, became Said’s first book, entitled, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography. Over the following four decades the Palestinian scholar never really stopped writing about Conrad. Even Said’s late memoir, Out of Place, obliquely implicates him deeper into the novelist’s life and work and that ambiguous distance between fiction and autobiography. To Said, Conrad was the bass note, his cantus firmus as he liked to describe it, the melodic structure of a symphony. ‘No one,’ Said observed, ‘could represent the fate of lostness and disorientation better than [Conrad] did’. Conrad had offered Said a secret agent or a secret sharer with whom he could have the sort of conversation that he could have with no one else. The biographies of the two men shared several characteristics: occupied homeland, exile from the mother tongue, exceptional success in their adopted countries that nonetheless did not altogether protect or cure them from estrangement and dislocation. They also shared something much more private: mischievous trajectories that are too complicated to account for quickly to a new acquaintance, lives that make it difficult to be brief about oneself, and therefore it is forever tempting to altogether avoid the subject. Take, for example, my life. I have probably already confused you about where I am from exactly or the places that I have lived. And if I were to commit to brevity and try my best to explain myself – if I were, for example, to tell you that I was born in New York City and at the age of three moved back with my family to Libya and at nine to Kenya and then Egypt and at fifteen to Britain and that for the past eight years I have been spending my autumns in Manhattan – I would probably provoke more questions about the causes behind such an itinerary. It would, in other words, take us a bit longer before we could reach the business at hand. And even once we do reach the business at hand, I would remain oddly fragmented, or impermanent, in the ways that I suspect Conrad and Said, and for different reasons, have experienced their place in the world to be.
V .S. Naipaul wasn’t entirely wrong when he described Conrad as ‘a writer who is missing a society’, that his ‘experience was too scattered’ to make him an expert on any particular place. The same, of course, could be said of Edward Said. The difference, though, is that if not a society, Said had a people and a noble cause – virtues that could help a thinker and lend moral power to his or her work, but are not necessarily useful or even beneficial to an artist. If anything, Conrad’s evocations of disorientation and estrangement were made more poignant by his lack of confidence in the solidity of any place or position.
To Said, orientalism the idea, that library of prescribed notions one culture holds about another, is a theatre, a space for performance, what he called ‘an imaginative geography’. These weren’t concerns that Joseph Conrad was unfamiliar with. One senses the disquiet in his pages, which often have a near-manic appetite for comprehension and comprehensiveness. Conrad was worried about being misunderstood, or not understood at all. He recognised the dangers involved in leaving things out. Leaving things out, of course, is the privilege of the insider. If you and I belong to the same circle we don’t need to say much to be understood by one another: ‘Quite’, ‘Certainly’, ‘Indeed’; these might be some of our most frequent sentences. Something about this state in which one cannot afford to assume much makes one both wary of and fascinated by becoming ‘an enchanted man’, as Conrad calls Axel Heyst, the protagonist of his late novel Victory. Being enchanted must surely involve being able to presume a lot of things, as indeed Heyst does. Both Conrad and Said believed that language contains evidence and culture; they seemed to agree with Freud that one of the purposes of language is to expose us, to get us to say a little bit more than what we believe we are saying, and that assumptions and presumptions invariably reveal more about the speaker than they do about the subject.
When Said writes that the chief role of the critic is comprehension and that Conrad’s gift lay in his ability to fully expose his soul to ‘the vast panorama of existence’, he is recognising the contradiction that lies between critic and artist. Conrad, it seems, was condemned to progress without the prerequisite of comprehension. Like most artists, he journeyed without the full conscious command of his itinerary. Whereas Said, like most critics, had to carefully read the map and retrace the paths taken, illuminating their orientation. Orientalism was a study of a specific historical pattern, but also a desire for orientation and perhaps reorientation, of how to navigate the contested historical place the Arab world was at in the latter half of the twentieth century. The two figures, Conrad and Said, novelist and critic, were moving in opposite directions. They met at the most curious places. Looking at them from this vantage point, one cannot help but regard them as sharers of a tradition, honourable vagabonds – wary of fixed professions and identities – men determined, whether by nature or by the inconsolable gaps between their origins and where they found themselves, to remain forever guests.
Whenever I think of Conrad I do not think of the sea or the Congo or Siam but London, the city I have made my home ever since arriving there alone as a teenager. I remember that first day well. I went hunting for a place to live. I had limited time. I was seventeen and about to start university. It was late summer and the sun was out. I proceeded to do something I had never done before. Walking down the Bayswater Road I pulled out my shirt and began to unbutton it all the way down until I was bare-chested, the fabric winged behind me. Something about the city’s acceptance and indifference, its many secrets tucked away into the folds of its streets, its promises of possibility, made me feel reckless and bold. It was the mid-1980s. London was a centre of Arab intellectual life. This was where poets and novelists fled when life became impossibly restrictive or dangerous at home, and this was also where Arab journalism had flourished free of censorship and with minimal personal risk. A couple of Arab journalists had been assassinated here, but it remained a rare and unlikely event. Therefore Conrad, to my seventeen-year-old mind, was just another writer who had found refuge here, and who had also recognised that London was a city of confidences, a city interested in privacy and discretion, a city with a taste for the variances and subtleties found in spoken and unspoken codes, a city of insiders and therefore careful about who is included and who is kept out of the script.