Out of Place

Source: Edward W. Said, Out of Place: A Memoir (London: Granta Books, 1999), pp. 34-34

Text: There were two main sources of stories whose boundaries I could expand: books and films.

[…]

The second source was films, particularly those like the Arabian Nights adventures that regularly featured Jon Hall, Maria Montez, Turhan Bey, and Sabu, and the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan series. When I was in good favor with my parents, the pleasures of Saturday included an afternoon cinema performance, fastidiously chosen for me by my mother. French and Italian films were taboo. Hollywood films were suitable only if declared “for children” by my mother. These were Laurel and Hardy, lots of Abbott and Costello, Betty Grable, Gene Kelly, Loretta Young, many, many musicals and family comedies with Clifton Webb, Claudette Colbert, and Jennifer Jones (acceptable in Song of Bernadette, forbidden in Duel in the Sun), Walt Disney fantasies and Arabian Nights preferably with only Jon Hall and Sabu (Maria Montez was frowned on), war films, some Westerns. Sitting in the plush cinema seats, much more than in viewing the Hollywood films themselves – which struck me as a weird form of science fiction corresponding to nothing at all in my life – I luxuriated in the sanctioned freedom to see and not be seen. Later I developed an irrecusable attachment to Johnny Weissmuller’s whole Tarzan world, especially to the uxorial and, in Tarzan and His Mate at least, virginally sensual Jane cavorting in their cosy tree house, whose clever Wemmicklike comforts seemed like a pure, uncomplicated distillation of our life as a family alone in Egypt. Once “The End” appeared on the screen in Tarzan Finds a Son or Tarzan’s Secret Treasure, I began my ruminations on what happened afterward, on what the little family did in the tree house, on the “natives” they cultivated and befriended, on members of Jane’s family who might have visited, on the tricks that Tarzan taught Boy, and on and on. It was very odd, but it did not occur to me that the cinematic Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sinbad, whose genies, Baghdad cronies, and sultans I completely possessed in the fantasies I counterpointed with my lessons, all had American accents, spoke no Arabic, and ate mysterious foods – perhaps “sweetmeats,” or was it more like stew, rice, lamb cutlets? – that I could never quite make out.

Comments: Edward Wadie Said (1935-2003) was a Palestinian-American intellectual and cultural critic, best know for his 1978 book Orientalism. He was born in Jerusalem and his childhood was spent between that city and Cairo. At the time of this memoir he was aged around ten and going to school in Cairo. The films mentioned are The Song of Bernadette (USA 1943), Duel in the Sun (USA 1946), Tarzan and His Mate (USA 1934), Tarzan Finds a Son! (USA 1939) and Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (USA 1941).

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