Remembering Childhood in the Middle East: Memories from a Century of Change

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Remembering Childhood in the Middle East: Memories from a Century of Change, ed. by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2002. viii + 354 pages. $65 cloth; $24.95 paper.

Review by Sabah A. Salih

The self for the Victorians was something to be suppressed because there was so much of it. Personal details, as Henry James once chided H. G. Wells, could do more harm than good to a novel. Even the flamboyant Oscar Wilde and the modernist T. S. Eliot considered the self too ordinary for good writing, which for Eliot was not an expression of personality but an extinction of it.

Today, thanks to the dramatic rise of postmodernism in the West, people are being encouraged to move away from the notion of being in touch with what Richard Rorty calls "something being and powerful and non-human,"1 and focus instead on the personal, the gut rather than the mind, the local rather than the universal, practices rather than ideas. Expanding on Raymond Williams's wry definition of culture as "food, sports, a little art,"2 we now understand culture to include also such things as place, affection, kinship, community, intellectual development, and, of course, memory. One result of this view of culture as an affirmation of a specific identity, as Terry Eagleton reminds us, is that cultural politics has become totally eclipsed by identity politics.3 Consequently, now all forms of writing are considered valuable, even if they are nothing more than little surveys of a person's background and career, as are many of these 36 personal narratives making up this book.

The men and women contributing to Remembering Childhood in the Middle East are mostly Muslim Arabs; there are also some Christians, Persians, Berbers, Turks, Circassians, Jews, even a token Kurd, whose narrative, in the manner of Turkey's most famous novelist, Yeshar Kemal, describes a southern Anatolia childhood rich in storytelling and free from racial tensions. The contributors, mostly Western-educated cultural hybrids belonging to both sides of the East/West divide, take us through the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, where, as the Jordanian novelist Janset Shami recalls, European-style clothing was being steadily adopted by the rich, and where, as one-time Iraqi prime minister Mohammed Fadhel Jamali remembers, European schools were making a concerted effort to move young people like himself away from Islamic orthodoxy. We also see young men and women coming of age under the shadow of European colonial rule, a source of deep resentment for some, a means for a better life for others, as Egyptian Oxford-educated Afaf Lutfi Al-Sayyid Marsot writes. …