Colonial rule and school

December 18, 1998

Edward Said, next year's MLA president, recalls the colonial schools that have shaped his life and work

The American academic Edward Said once wrote that the best schools of the British and French empires taught "important truths'' of history, science, and culture to generations of the native bourgeoisie. But for Said, who made his scholarly career as the great critic of colonial thought, the schools - including the celebrated Victoria College in Cairo, where Said was a pupil - were inevitably biased towards the conquering powers.

"Since one of the purposes of colonial education was to promote the history of France and Britain,'' he wrote, "that same education also demoted the native history."

It is only recently, however, that Said, professor of English literature at the University of Columbia, and next year's MLA president, has started talking about his experience of colonial schooling. Some of his most vivid memories are drawn from his time at Victoria College, where the cream of Britain's colonial crop was educated for its role as a subordinate elite in the British Middle East.

Said describes his very British education in Palestine and Egypt in his recently completed memoir, Not Quite Right (to be published next year). Author of 15 books, including the classic Culture and Imperialism, he began writing the memoir in 1994, as he began chemotherapy for leukaemia. The memoir was a bid to "try to make sense of my own life as its end seemed alarmingly nearer".

His days, first at an Anglican mission school, St George's, which he called "the best boys' school in Palestine'' and then at Victoria College (he was expelled in 1951), are seared on his memory. In a brief interview in New York, he lucidly recalled the English schoolmasters who, between whippings and beatings, attempted to instil imperial values in Arab schoolboys during a period when both sides knew the British Empire was crumbling fast. Victoria College had all the pretensions and harshness of a little Eton or Westminster but with all the complications of an imploding empire thrown into the mix. "The main thing was the continual war between us and the teachers,'' said Said. "We were extremely cruel, but so were they."

Said's head boy was Michael Shalhoub, who as Omar Sharif became Egypt's biggest movie star and thrilled international audiences in Lawrence of Arabia and in Dr Zhivago. "I have a whole section about him,'' Said says of the Alexandria-born actor. "He used to beat us little ones up.'' Other celebrated classmates and contemporaries included King Hussein of Jordan - "still the head of the Old Boys' Association'' - the future King Faisal II of Iran and the arms dealer Adnan Kashoggi.

Every one of the teachers at Victoria College was an Oxbridge graduate imported by the British Council. Said particularly remembers the history teacher, Mr Maundrell. "He was obviously a very smart man, but he could be reduced to a terrified, quivering inarticulateness. If we organised a massive shout all of sudden, he would turn into a wreck. At the time, I didn't know anything about shell shock, but I assume this was somebody who was a neurological casualty of the war."

The pupils at Victoria were mostly Arabic, "but there were lots of Jews, Italians, all the expatriates, Greeks, Armenians, Egyptians, Jordanians, Palestinians, Iraqis, it was really a kind of Mediterranean mix''. New arrivals were given the school handbook, and the main rule was that anyone caught speaking any language but English would be severely punished. "So, of course, the idea was as much as possible to speak other languages in order to taunt the professors, the teachers, and so on. This was near the end of British rule in Egypt, the end of the monarchy.

"There was a lot of corporal punishment,'' he adds. "I can't tell you how many times I got caned and whipped and slapped, and beaten on the head. We had a teacher called Mr Hines, the maths teacher, and he had a blackboard eraser constructed for him, made of a bit of felt and about an inch of wood. It was quite large and then if you misbehaved or gave the wrong answer he'd come over and smash you on the head with the wooden part.

"There was an ailing headmaster in one year, Mr Price. I remember being called in several times for whipping, and he could not do it, he was too sick. So he would ask his secretary to come over, and you would stand against the wall and put your hands up and bend down, and the secretary would administer six of the best to your backside and then go back to his typewriter, and you would stumble out. It was a very peculiar place."

His experience at Victoria, he says, was "a very colourful period of my life. I was very happy in the school, though it was a dreadful experience in a way.'' It ended at age 15, when he went on to an austere and pious boarding school in New England, America. His rigorous English education ironically propelled him to the top ranks of his class but he deeply missed the camaraderie of old classmates. At Victoria, "at least you knew where you stood, because there was a position of enmity between us and them".

Said's life's work has indubitably been shaped by his reaction to his early British schooling. Victoria College, in particular, held up the model of the British gentleman, but also made Said feel very much the colonial "Other".

"It couldn't be any other way,'' he says. "The colonial experience was very powerful in my life, and figures in a lot of what I've written. This is the first time I've done it in a personal way." TC iv modern language associationThe Times HigherJdecember 18J1998modern language association v jacky chapman Said: 'The main rule was that anyone caught speaking any language but English would be severely punished' montage by steve place

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