Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 17, 2006

Out of Place

Filed under: Film,middle east — louisproyect @ 7:32 pm

Now playing at the Anthology Film Archives in New York, “Out of Place: Memories of Edward Said” is a complex and moving tribute to the postcolonial scholar and voice of the Palestinian people. Based loosely on his memoir of the same name, directed by Sato Makoto and with music by Daniel Barenboim (who collaborated with Said on a number of groundbreaking projects in the Middle East), it is about as fitting a tribute to Said as can be imagined.

The film weaves together reminiscences of Said by his wife and children, his colleagues at various universities (including Columbia where he was a renowned department chair), and those of Palestinian political leaders. It also includes the voices of ordinary Palestinian and Israelis who have been locked in struggle since Said’s youth. It is a sign of the director’s affinity with his subject’s self-declared mission that he can discover the humanity of those on either side of the divide. In keeping with the spirit of “Orientalism,” “Out of Place” refuses to stereotype Arab and Jew alike.

“Out of Place” is structured around a series of visits to places where the Said family resided during his years living in the Middle East and to various emblematic sites in the region including a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria and a Kibbutz in Northern Israel. It has an uncanny ability to draw out the deepest insights from people living in these places whose lives have been indelibly marked by war and racism in the 20th century. To an individual, the Palestinians are aware of the historic injustice done to them and express their absolutely determination to redeem themselves through struggle.

Wadie Said, Edward’s father, was the owner of the largest business supply store in the Middle East. The documentary interviews a number of men who knew or worked for him in Cairo, when Edward was a child. He is described as a highly respected and outspoken man of the community. In the 1950s, the family lived in fairly opulent circumstances on an island on the Nile River that was home to members of the Egyptian ruling class and to foreign diplomats and business men. Time and time again, when we see the life of privilege that Edward Said enjoyed growing up, we are reminded of how he transcended this environment and became a tribune of his people. He could have enjoyed the life of a pampered academic and could have even left his Palestinian identity behind him. But history summoned him to rise to the occasion and assume that identity. As a writer, a scholar and an activist, he literally made history.

Edward Said devoted every ounce of his energy and talents to the cause of people like those we meet in a Lebanese refugee camp. Despite being poor, they show every hospitality to the film crew which is welcomed into their house for a three day period necessitated by curfews and other travel restrictions. Like just about every Palestinian family shown in the film, they retain vivid memories of the villages from which they were expelled.

One of the more interesting revelations comes in the form of a ‘Mizrahim’ family originally from Alleppo, Syria. This is the name reserved for that branch of the Jewish people that is native to the Middle East. The matriarch, who grew up there, insists that Moslems, Christians and Jews lived in complete harmony there until the 1948 war forced a population transfer throughout the Middle East. Even though this family came out on top, there is a certain sadness when considering how Israeli society will eventually rob them of their customs and their particular relationship to the Arab world they lived in. As her children and grandchildren are assimilated into the Sabra mold, they will begin to forget about life in Alleppo and what it meant to be Mizrahim. The Zionists never appreciated the Jewish capacity for blending its own identity into that of the larger community around it. As masters of adaptation, the Jews were always creating something new with the culture they were surrounded by. The Yiddish language itself, with its quirky blend of Hebrew and German, is the best expression of it. It is no surprise that this language was frowned upon in Israel, which was attempting to create a pure blood nation based on Biblical myths.

Among the progressive minded Israelis who were touched by Said’s greatness, Michael Warshawski has some of the most interesting things to say in his interview. He described Edward Said as somebody who chose to live on the border between different identities. He was a Christian in a predominantly Moslem community. He sought to mediate between Jew and Arab. He was an intellectual and an activist. By refusing to conform to fixed categories, he pointed in the direction of the kind of transcendent humanity the planet’s population has to move toward in order to survive.

A day or so after seeing “Out of Place”, I dwelled on Warshawski’s description of Said. It dawned on me that he was describing something like the non-Jewish Jew of Isaac Deutscher. As the quintessential “rootless cosmopolitan”, the Jew was simultaneously no place and in every place. Driven from country to country by the forces of reaction and racism, the Jews lacked the power to defend themselves by ordinary means. Their oppression also made them more sensitive to oppression in general and eventually led many to embrace socialism, a secular faith that seemed to embody the best that religion had to offer but on the basis of modern science rather than superstition. Now that the Jewish people have redefined themselves on the basis of the gun and the gate, it will be up to the people they have disenfranchised to take up this historic mission. Like the Jews of an earlier period, people like Edward Said held up a lantern to throw light on a path toward a better world for everybody.

Scheduling information on “Out of Place” is at: http://www.anthologyfilmarchives.org/

I give this film my highest recommendation.


  1. Thank you for the excellent review of the film, which I hope will be seen by Columbia students and other students in campuses in the U.S., and elsewhere.

    Comment by Tanweer Akram — October 19, 2006 @ 4:48 am

  2. Mizrahim is plural.

    Comment by F 16 Friedrich — October 21, 2006 @ 11:07 pm

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