Edward Said on the “Persian Psyche”

Innocence Abroad: Bruce Laingen’s Memo on “the Persian Psyche”
February 4, 1981

On August 13, 1979, a confidential tele­gram signed by Bruce Laingen, charge d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, was sent to then Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. On January 27, 1981, after the hostages had been released, excerpts were published on the Op Ed page of The New York Times.

Editors at the Voice thought the tele­gram so astonishing, so revelatory of an occidental, imperial mentality that we asked Edward Said, professor of English at Columbia, author of Orientalism, The Question of Palestine, and the forthcoming Covering Islam, to discuss the his­torical and cultural mindset that inspired it.

For those who did not read the excerpts published in the Times, here are its essen­tial points. The author set himself the task of analyzing the “Persian psyche” and the “cultural and psychological qualities” that accounted for difficulties experienced by Americans in their dealings with Iran.

“The single dominant aspect of the Persian psyche is an overriding egoism… an almost total Persian preoccupation with self.” The writer noted the “bazaar mentality so common among Persians, a mindset that often ignores longer-term in­terests in favor of immediately obtainable advantages.” He also stressed “a general incomprehension of causality,” partly to be accounted for by Islam’s “emphasis on the omnipotence of God,” which led to difficulty in “grasping the inter-relationship of events.” The writer suggested that this helped explain the “Persian aversion to accepting responsibility for one’s own actions.” He concluded that Persians had imperfect understanding of the notion of obligation and “given the Persian negotiator’s cultural and psy­chological limitations he is going to resist the very concept of a rational (from the Western point of view) negotiating process.”


At one point during the recent ABC special on the secret negotiations leading to the hostage release, Christian Bourguet describes his late March 1980 meeting with Jimmy Carter at the White House. Bourguet, a French lawyer with ties to the Iranians, acted as an intermediary be­tween the U.S. and Iran; he had come to Washington because, despite an arrange­ment worked out with the Panamanians to arrest the Shah, the deposed ruler had left suddenly for Egypt. So they were back to square one:

Bourguet: At a given moment [Carter] spoke of the hostages, saying, you under­stand that these are Americans. These are innocents. I said to him, yes, Mr. Presi­dent, I understand that you say they are innocent. But I believe you have to understand that for the Iranians they aren’t innocent. Even if personally none them has committed an act, they are not inno­cent because they are diplomats who represent a country that has done a number of things in Iran.

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You must understand that it is not against their person that the action is being taken. Of course, you can see that. They have not been harmed. They have not been hurt. No attempt has been made to kill them. You must understand that it is a symbol, that it is on the plane of symbols that we have to think about this matter.

In fact Carter seems to have viewed the embassy seizure very much in symbolic terms, but, unlike the Frenchman, he had his own frame of reference. From Carter’s perspective, Americans were by definition innocent and somehow outside history; Iran’s grievances against the U.S., he would say on another occasion, were an­cient history. What mattered now was that Iranians were terrorists, and perhaps had always potentially been a terrorist nation. Indeed, anyone who disliked America and held it captive was dangerous and sick, beyond rationality, beyond humanity, beyond common decency.

Carter’s inability to connect America’s longstanding support for local dictators with what was happening to the Ameri­cans held unlawfully in Tehran is ex­traordinarily symptomatic. Even if one completely opposes the hostage taking, even if one has only positive feelings about the hostages’ return, there are alarming lessons to be learned from what seems like the official national tendency to be ob­livious to certain realities. All rela­tionships between people and nations in­volve two sides. Nothing at all enjoins “us” to like or approve of “them,” but we must at least recognize (a) that “they” are there, and (b) that so far as “they” are concerned “we” are, at least in part, what “they” have experienced of us. Neither side in a conflict has such command of reality as to disregard totally the other viewpoint. Unless of course we believe as Americans that whereas the other side is ontologically guilty, we are innocent.

Consider now the confidential cable sent from Tehran by Bruce Laingen to Secretary of State Vance on August 13, 1979 — a document entirely consistent with President Carter’s attitudes in his con­versation with Bourguet. The cable was published on The New York Times Op Ed page January 27, 1981, perhaps to explain what Iranians are really like, perhaps only as an ironic footnote to the crisis. Yet Laingen’s message is not a scientific ac­count of “the Persian psyche,” despite the author’s pretense to calm objectivity and expert knowledge of the culture. The text is, rather, an ideological statement de­signed, I think, to turn “Persia” into a timeless, acutely disturbed essence, there­by enhancing the superior morality and national sanity of America. Each assertion about “Persia” adds damaging evidence to the profile, while shielding “America” from scrutiny and analysis.

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This self-blinding is accomplished rhetorically in two ways. First, history is eliminated unilaterally: “the effects of the Iranian revolution” are set aside in the interests of the “relatively constant… cultural and psychological qualities” un­derlying “the Persian psyche.” Hence modern Iran becomes ageless Persia. The unscientific equivalent of this would have Italians becoming dagos, Jews, yids, blacks niggers, etc. (How refreshingly honest is the street-fighter compared to the polite diplomat!) Second, the Iranian national character is portrayed only with reference to their imagined (i.e., paranoid) sense of reality. Laingen neither allows that the Iranians may have experienced real treachery and suffering, nor that they may have arrived at a view of the United States based on their understanding of U.S. actions in Iran. This is not to say that Laingen implies the U.S. did not do any­thing in Iran: only that the U.S. is entitled to do what it pleases, without irrelevant complaints or reactions from Iranians. The only thing that counts for Laingen is the constant “Persian psyche” that overrides all other realities.

Most readers of the Laingen message will accept, as doubtless he does too, that one should not reduce other people or societies to such a simple and stereo­typical core. We do not today allow that public discourse should treat blacks and Jews that way, just as we laugh off Iranian portrayals of America as the Great Satan. Too simple, too ideological, too racist. But for this particular enemy — Persia — the re­duction serves. The question is what ex­actly does it serve if, as I shall argue, it neither taught us anything about Iran nor, given the existing tension between the U.S. and Iran after the Revolution, did it help to guide our actions there.

Laingen’s argument is that no matter what happens, there is a “Persian proclivi­ty” to resist “the very concept of a rational (from the Western point of view) nego­tiating process.” We can be rational: Per­sians cannot be. Why? Because, he says, they are overridingly egoistical; reality for them is malevolent; the “bazaar mentali­ty” urges immediate advantage over long­term gain; the omnipotent god of Islam makes it impossible for them to under­stand causality; and words and reality, in their world, are not connected to each other. In sum, according to the five les­sons he abstracts from his analysis, La­ingen’s “Persian” is an unreliable nego­tiator, having neither a sense of “the other side,” nor a capacity for trust, good will, or character enough to carry out what his words promise.

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The irony of this cliché is that literally everything imputed to the Persian or Muslim without any evidence at all can be applied to “the American,” that quasi-­fictional, unnamed author behind the message. Who but “the American” denies history and reality in saying unilaterally that these don’t mean anything to the “Persian.” Now play the following parlor game: find a major Judeo-Christian cul­tural and social equivalent for the traits that Laingen ascribes to “the Persian.” Overriding egoism? Rousseau. Malevolence of reality? Kafka. Om­nipotence of God? Old and New Testa­ments. Lack of causal sense? Beckett. Bazaar mentality? New York Stock Ex­change. The confusion between words and reality? Austin and Searle. But few people would construct a portrait of the essential West using only Christopher Lasch on narcissism, the words of a fundamentalist preacher, Plato’s Cratylus, an advertising jingle or two and (as a case of the West’s inability to believe in a stable or bene­ficent reality) Ovid’s Metamorphoses laced with choice verses from Leviticus.

Laingen’s message is a functional equivalent of such a portrait. In a different context it would be a caricature at best, a crude though not particularly damaging attack at worst. It is not even effective as a bit of psy-war, since it reveals the writer’s weaknesses more than its oppo­nent’s. It shows, for example, that the author is extremely nervous about his opposite number; and that he cannot see others except as a mirror image of himself. Where is his capacity for understanding the Iranian point of view or for that matter the Islamic Revolution itself, which one supposed had been the result of in­tolerable Persian tyranny and the need to overthrow it?

And as for good will and trust in the rationality of the negotiating process, even if the events of 1953 and U.S. support for the Shah were not mentioned, much could be said about the attempted army coup against the Revolution, directly en­couraged by the U.S.’s General Huyser in late January 1979. Then too there was the action of various U.S. banks (unusually compliant in bending the rules to suit the Shah) who during 1979 were prepared to cancel Iranian loans contracted in 1977 on the grounds that Iran had not paid the interest on time. (Le Monde’s Eric Rouleau reported on November 25–26, 1979, that he had seen proof that Iran had actually paid the interest ahead of time.) No wonder that “the Persian” assumes his opposite number is an adversary. He is an adversary, and an insecure one at that: Laingen says it plainly.

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Let us concede that accuracy, not fairness, is the issue. The U.S. man on the spot is advising Washington. What does he rely on? A handful of Orientalist clichés that could have been taken verbatim from Sir Alfred Lyall’s description of the Eastern mind, or from Lord Cromer’s ac­count of dealing with the natives in Egypt. If poor Ibrahim Yazdi, then foreign min­ister of Iran, resists the idea that “Iranian behavior has consequences on the per­ception of Iran in the United States,” which U.S. decision-maker was prepared to accept in advance that U.S. behavior had consequences on the perception of the U.S. in Iran? Why then was the Shah admitted here? Or do we, like the Per­sians, have an “aversion to accepting re­sponsibility for one’s own action”?

Laingen’s message is the product of uninformed, unintelligent power, and certainly adds little to our understanding of other societies. As an instance of how we confront the world it does not inspire con­fidence. As an inadvertent American self­-portrait it is frankly insulting. What use is it then? It tells us how our representatives created a reality that corresponded neither to our world nor to Iran’s. But if it does not also demonstrate that such misrepresenta­tions had better be thrown away forever, then we are in for more international troubles and, alas, our innocence will again be uselessly offended.


Remembering Edward Said

Makoto Sato’s Out of Place: Memories of Edward Said, made after the Columbia scholar’s death from leukemia in 2003, combines biography with contemporary reportage from the places Said at times called home. The once elegant Said family vacation home in the hills of Beirut, where he spent stretches of his youth, now greets Sato’s cameramen as a dilapidated postwar manse filled with rubble and Syrian workers, who yield a few dusty French-language adventure story paperbacks from its attic—traces of young Edward’s former presence. But as Sato’s crew travels between Lebanon, Manhattan, Egypt, Israel, and the Occupied Territories, a view emerges not just of the memories Said and his family have left behind, but of the ongoing struggles of the Palestinian people to whom Said devoted his political writings and advocacy. Though Out of Place uses quotations from Said’s writings to frame its chapters, the result is less a picture of Said himself than of the environments that shaped him.

Such a goal is achieved in Edward Said: The Last Interview, a film with a setup so simple it shouldn’t engage as deeply as it does. A feature-length, relatively informal interview with Said by Charles Glass, the work consists primarily of long, unbroken shots of Said talking—about his childhood education, the writing of Orientalism and its effects on Middle Eastern studies, his role as an intellectual who “explain[ed] Arabs to Americans and Americans to Arabs,” the convolutions of Palestinian politics, and teaching. Of this vocation, Said explains his methodology: “I try to trouble their minds.” Though physically weakened and near the end of his life, his discourse is sharp and incisive, creating a remarkably compelling self-portrait.


Barney’s Rubble

Those who fear that the mainstream of contemporary art has become little more than an extension of fashion will find no comfort in Drawing Restraint 9, Matthew Barney’s latest big-budget ejaculation of ritual self-involvement and superficial foofery. Named as part of a series of installations and performances that stretch back to the late 1980s, this 135-minute film isn’t part of the artist’s overhyped Cremaster cycle, but continues in its vein: an unsatisfying marriage of excessive production values with insipid cinematography and flat-footed editing. Showing little of its titular quality, Restraint delivers yet another plodding nonsense-rebus of esoteric symbolism with the profundity of a Bloomingdale’s window display.

Whereas the last Cremaster installment explored a St. Patrick’s Day plethora of Celtic imagery, Restraint tortures the ghost of Edward Said with an Epcot Center parade of Japanalia. In an almost wordless narrative, Barney and his real-life spouse, Björk, star in the roles of “Occidental Guests” to a Japanese whaling ship. There, the pair are treated to a complicated regimen of shaving, bathing, costuming, and tea serving by their Eastern hosts, who fuss over them with a variety of fantastical props and garments, evidently made expressly to Barney’s specifications. Much of the film depicts various Japanese groups working to create elements of the artist’s grand vision; since Barney, in an empty legacy to Warhol, hires others to labor over his real-life gallery creations, this is simply art imitating life. And surely many of his upper-class collectors would understand his interest in the celebration of quiet, skilled servitude.

Apologists like to cite Barney’s skill at “spectacle,” and there are indeed some strange sights to behold here: a kimono made entirely of mammal furs, for example, or an enormous mold of chilled petroleum jelly. The impact of these artifacts rests not so much in their fussy design, but in the excess and expense of their making—a crassly American aesthetic to be sure. In keeping, the bisected-lozenge symbol appearing in various incarnations throughout Restraint seems as hollow and safe as a corporate logo. Björk’s appearance provides the visual comforts of a celebrity mug (though her musical contributions work against the film by outclassing it). The unintentionally enjoyable climax, a scene in which knife-wielding Barney and Björk slash at one another underwater and then devour their own leg meat sushi, is no doubt destined for YouTube-ing on Gawker.

Barney’s ultimate problem is not his penchant for personalized arcana: Great experimentalists like Jean Cocteau, Maya Deren, or Kenneth Anger likewise had their own internal mythologies. But those artists actually knew how to make films; Barney edits Restraint with the same badump-badump back-and-forth of his Cremasters, and his sense of composition and lighting could barely suffice for a music video. What Barney does not grasp is that the greatest avant-garde filmmakers astound us by conjuring powerful visions with limited means. Attempting to approximate this kind of poetic cinema with blockbuster production values becomes as absurd an endeavor as writing a haiku with ten thousand syllables.



“My sense of exile has been lifelong. It’s a question of articulating it.” So says the late literary critic, political activist, and Columbia professor Edward Said in Selves and Others. Throughout this hour-long documentary, shot during the final months before his death, Said does just that. Poring over childhood photos, he talks of his formative years in Egypt, Palestine, and later the United States, locating the roots of his work’s profound skepticism toward national identity. Valorizing the fluid over the fixed, Said rejects tribalism in all forms in favor of a humanistic (and academically unfashionable) sense of what he repeatedly calls “universal values.”

A nearly constant stream of talk, Selves and Others nevertheless succeeds as filmmaking. Picking up on an early Said comment extolling New York as a place of constant change and transition, director Emmanuel Hamon periodically inserts brief interludes of the city’s sights and sounds. These simple shots of people and cars in motion celebrate New York as the embodiment of Said’s ideals of flux and mutability.

Showing with Selves and Others is Driving an Arab Street, a 39-minute doc devoted to chitchat from Cairo taxi drivers on subjects from Egyptian class divisions to their favorite American presidents. The resulting film seems predetermined by director Arthur Hurley’s attempt to encompass the whole spectrum of Arab public opinion, but a view of a street lined with American fast-food joints, following a driver’s complaint that “America will always keep us hungry,” hints at the complexities of cultural imperialism discussed in much of Said’s work.


Edward W. Said (1935–2003)

My friend Edward Said lost his courageous battle with leukemia last week, and so the world feels hopelessly thin from the loss of a man who was—and not just to me—possibly the greatest intellectual of the last 50 years. Indefatigable, irascible, and devastatingly charming, he leaves legions of followers and fans in every corner of the world. I am lost without him.

I first encountered Edward in 1991 in an elevator in New York. I had just left Canada for graduate school at Columbia, and looked forward to studying with the author of Orientalism. Arabs in the West endure unending vilification and cultural distortions. Orientalism helped me to understand the stereotypes and connect them to imperialism and questions of power.

We were both headed to a see a visiting lecturer. I introduced myself to him, and then the doors opened and the speaker, an old friend of Edward’s, entered. He introduced me, placing his hand on my shoulder as if we had known each other for years. I was thrilled.

Said was incorruptible. He rejected slavish devotion to any ideology, and wore the label “humanist” like a badge. All ideologies, in the end, simply dehumanized, Said believed. He would frequently enlist the help of the poet Aimé Césaire, who wrote, “No race has a monopoly on beauty, on intelligence, on strength/and there is room for everyone at the convocation of conquest.”

To get to the convocation, one was expected to fight, and in his politics Said was equally veracious. Yes, he belonged to the Palestine National Council, but as an independent. He dreamt of a time when Palestinians would be free of the horrors and humiliations of Israeli occupation, but he excoriated Arafat’s leadership for its failures. Palestine was for him the world’s “touchstone case for human rights”; Zionism was a colonial project, and Palestinians its victims. Predictably, these views earned him many enemies.

I remember sitting in Philosophy Hall one day in the fall of 1993. He walked in and told me proudly how he had spurned the offer to attend the White House signing ceremony for the Oslo agreements, which he termed “an instrument of Palestinian capitulation,” negotiated in secret by a feeble leadership that had turned “a national liberation movement into a small-town government.” The agreement turned the PLO into Israel’s enforcer, he wrote, “an unhappy prospect for most Palestinians.” I remember the loneliness he felt in his position. Everyone thought him a knee-jerk rejectionist. He didn’t care. He knew he was right, and now nearly everyone does too.

My professor hated sloppiness, in dress, in thinking, in writing. He was impatient with academic jargon and demanded that we discard it. One day, in our graduate seminar on intellectuals and power, a student said, “Discourse.” Said exploded. Then the student nervously mumbled, “Foucault.” “That’s right,” Said scoffed. “That’s Foucault’s word. Where are yours?” Jargon corrupts our language and our thinking, he cautioned. Find your own language. Develop your own authority. Our age called for “secular criticism,” the ability to question all orthodoxies not for what they are in the abstract but for what they do in the world. He taught us Theodor Adorno, who wrote, “It is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.”

And he lived in the world as an exile, a condition from which he drew strength. Exile, as a metaphorical state, was something we all should aspire to, Said contended, since it gives one an outsider’s perspective on the world. He was a theoretician who hated theory because he loved people. A true public intellectual, he would say, possesses not just access to the media but a public (constituency would be his term) to which he or she is accountable. Ground yourself in the world.

You could feel his commitment even in his legendary temper. Once, after returning from Gaza, he sat me in his office and recalled a meeting with Palestinian officials. “Did they give you a hard time?” I asked innocently. “Give me a hard time? I gave them a hard time. Shame on you, Moustafa!” He roared, and I smiled. There was something warm even in his rebukes.

We relied on Edward Said. And we must stand collectively in his place and fight tirelessly, as he did. There is no alternative—but I miss him so.

Moustafa Bayoumi, an associate professor at Brooklyn College, edited The Edward Said Reader with Andrew Rubin.


The Liars Club

We have a right to expect consistency in scholarship. Integrity, honesty, good faith—without these qualities we have only more fiction. Of course, there are those who say that historiography is, in some sense, fiction, for it suffers from the creeping bias of the writer’s point of view. Thus, they claim, there is no history—only interpretation. And there is a good deal of truth in this, though not enough to make us surrender all pretense or approximation of objectivity. We want facts to be true.

Maybe this is why we are so prone to putting scholars, journalists, and other purported truth-tellers in the pillory when they lie—not in their work, but about their personal lives.

Commentary magazine did this to Edward Said two years ago, publishing a lengthy exposé of the Columbia professor’s early life in Egypt. Claiming that Said had lied (for political gain) about growing up in Palestine, the reporter proceeded to lay the evidence on the table as if it were a pat poker hand. Said denied the charges, and they have not since been proven to the satisfaction of anyone but inveterate Israeli sympathizers to whom Said’s inherent treachery always has been a foregone conclusion. Still, the damage to the man’s private life had been done, and yet another jaunty journalist had gotten his wings hurling ad hominem abuse of no historical or scholarly import. Then, this past month it was gay journalist Andrew Sullivan who had his private life (his preference for unprotected sex with other HIV-positive men, to be exact) dissected in print for the sole purpose of discrediting his unpopular political ideas. Again, neither history nor scholarship was in any way served by the intrusion.

Now, the most recent victim of the truth-and-consistency-in-all-things police has been Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, and Mount Holyoke professor, Joseph J. Ellis. Author of the highly acclaimed books Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation; American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson; and Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams, Ellis is widely respected among his peers. On June 18, The Boston Globe revealed that Ellis, who had spoken proudly and at some length about serving in Vietnam, as well as his involvement in the antiwar movement, hadn’t served in Vietnam at all, and had exaggerated his involvement in peace protests. Instead, he’d pursued a rather more staid graduate career at West Point and Yale.

When confronted with the Globe‘s bony, pointed finger, Ellis admitted that he had indeed distorted his past, and expressed deep regret for having done so.

Since then, public opinion has swirled feverishly around the obvious question: Why? Why would such an accomplished historian, someone whose profession it has been to uncover at least some scrupulously cobbled “truth” about the past, tell plainly detectable lies about his own history?

The answer may be simply that Ellis told a few unpremeditated, white-seeming lies of the kind we all tell from time to time when playing the raconteur. Or maybe it was a case of assuming a virtue if you have it not—a pose to which writers and scholars are especially prone, because they must appear to be omniscient, though they are, of necessity, as Socratically ignorant as the rest of us.

Whatever the reason, in this case it hardly matters. First, because Ellis had the rectitude to admit his fault openly, and what’s more, the good character to blame himself. Everybody lies, but the vast majority of people won’t admit it, much less take responsibility for their bad behavior. Because Ellis did both, perhaps we should admire him much more, not less, than we did before. Second, because Ellis’s professional reputation—and the high quality of his work—remains unblemished, we should get off our soapboxes and take aim at more worthy targets, like professional pseudologue David Irving, who has made a living denying the Holocaust.

One positive result of Ellis’s public humiliation may be a collective tendency to think a little harder about our own mistakes, in effect, to say to ourselves and to each other: Those among us who have never hedged, never embellished, never lied, nor ever been wrong may cast the first aspersion.

With any luck, the collective memory—which is these days notoriously short—will forgive by forgetting, and Ellis will emerge from this humiliating ordeal professionally unscathed. He deserves as much, and more.


The Jerusalem Problem

Last year, the ultraconservative Jewish magazine Commentary published an attack on Edward Said, the Palestinian advocate and professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. In the article, Justus Reid Weiner, a scholar in residence at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, accused Said of misleading the public about details of his early life in Palestine. Among other things, Weiner alleged that (1) Said did not grow up in Jerusalem; (2) Said’s family did not permanently reside in or own a house in Jerusalem, but rather lived in an affluent neighborhood in Cairo; and (3) Said did not attend St. George’s, an Anglican preparatory school in Jerusalem.

Now, a year later, Weiner—unsatisfied with Columbia’s reaction to Said’s purported mendacity—has published another fiery piece about Said, this time in Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars. In the article, Weiner compares Said to Charles Van Doren, a member of the Columbia English department in the 1950s who lost his job after he admitted to lying about his role in the Twenty-One quiz-show scandal. Weiner writes: “Said’s fraud clearly embodies far-reaching implications for the integrity of Columbia University.”

If Weiner had successfully shown that Said lied, he would have been right to demand that Columbia take disciplinary action. But a close look at the evidence shows that the most Said can be fairly accused of is de-emphasizing or failing to qualify relatively unimportant details about the amount of time he spent in Palestine as a child.

As evidence of Said’s lies, Weiner quotes a September 19, 1998, New York Times profile of Said: “Mr. Said was born in Jerusalem and spent the first 12 years of his life there. . . . The family moved to Cairo in late 1947.” Weiner then quotes Said himself: “I was born in Jerusalem and spent most of my formative years there . . . my youth, the first twelve or thirteen years of my life before I left Palestine.” This gives the impression that Said lived in Jerusalem nonstop from birth to age 12, though in fact he and his immediate family spent time in both Jerusalem and Cairo. Notice, however, that in Said’s words the phrase “first twelve or thirteen years” is referred to both as his formative years and the time before he left Palestine, all of which is true whether or not he only lived in Jerusalem for a few months out of every year. Nowhere does Said, or anyone else, say that Said spent every single day of his first 12 years in Jerusalem. What Said said and the impression he gave by what he said are two very different things. Minor imprecisions often crop up in profiles. They are not evidence of fraud on the part of the subject.

As for Said’s family’s house in Jerusalem and his schooling at St. George’s: Weiner points out that Said’s immediate family—his father and mother—did not own the house at 10 Brenner Street in Talbieh, Jerusalem. That is true—his aunt owned it. Said has never claimed otherwise. He has only referred to it as his family’s house, not his immediate family’s house. One’s aunt is a member of one’s family, after all, is she not? Said’s immediate family kept an apartment in an affluent Cairo neighborhood. Again, Said has never denied his haut-bourgeois roots or the time he spent in Cairo. Targeting St. George’s, Weiner says Said’s name doesn’t appear in the registry, but does appear in registries at schools in Cairo. Said says St. George’s records end in 1946. He was there in 1947. Said says his math teacher, Michel Marmoura, who now lives in Toronto, can verify this.

Strangely, Weiner admits that Said’s current memoir, Out of Place, hides nothing and gets all the missing details right, but he thinks Said may have revised the manuscript when he got wind of his investigations. Last week I spoke to Shelley Wanger, Said’s editor at Knopf. She put that myth to rest: “Edward Said’s manuscript for Out of Place was completed in 1998—most of it had been turned in at the end of 1997; it was then edited and copyedited for publication in the fall of 1999. No substantive or factual changes were made to the manuscript after 1998.”

OK, people? ‘Nuff Said?


Inspector Gadje

First-time filmmaker Jasmine Dellal knows that it can be hard to dispel myths without in some way reinforcing them, especially when approaching a culture from the outside. Her documentary, American Gypsy, focuses on what Edward Said has called the only ethnic group about which anything can be said “without challenge or demurral.” The Rom (the proper term for Gypsies) are dispersed yet insular and lack a written language, leaving them open to either unabashed racism or romantic mystification. The film presents a chilling history of persecution, slavery, and genocide; the Rom generally regard gadje (as they call all non-Rom) with suspicion. Dellal focuses on Jimmy Marks of Spokane, Washington, one of the only Rom who will return her phone calls. Embroiled in a civil suit against the city over an unlawful search of his house, Marks is something of a local celebrity. Though the police clearly proceeded illegally and offended Romany beliefs about privacy, his obsession with the spotlight sometimes undermines the narrative of injustice. Dellal avoids sensationalism and editorializing, but her portrait lacks intimacy and a knack for finding productive contradictions. The most fascinating character is Jimmy’s mother, Lippie. When Dellal calls her on a fib, Lippie proclaims, with a twinkle in her eye, “There is no truth.” The meaning is clear—not that truth doesn’t exist, or is relative, but only that the full truth can never be communicated to Dellal or us. As a Rom proverb says: “The deer in the forest is under no obligation to justify his existence to the hunter.”