Edward W. Said was a linguistic virtuoso, and his theory of Orientalism is far too erudite, complex and nuanced for shorthand definitions. He wrote contrapuntally, thought in long circles and connected seemingly dissonant events, and so any brief account of his oeuvre is bound to fall short. In his magnum opus, Orientalism (1978), Said fused Michel Foucault’s notion of discourse with Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, and argued that British, French and American writings on Arabs and Muslims all belonged to a single Orientalist tradition, the effect of which was to prop up “racist colonial empires”, as one critic told a United States Congressional Committee in 2003. For Said, the way that Western writers approached the East reinforced the self-gratifying feeling that Europe, with its supposedly superior races, high culture and developed civilization had an obligation to uplift unsuspecting Orientals through imperialism. “And why should it have been otherwise”, he asks, “especially during the period of European ascendancy from the late Renaissance to the present? The scientist, the scholar, the missionary, the trader, or the soldier was in, or thought about, the Orient because he could be there, or could think about it, with very little resistance on the Orient’s part.”
Said connected this lack of resistance with the Orientals’ inability to speak for themselves (a point that would later become a prominent theme of postcolonial theory). This does not mean that they had to endure lives of monastic silence, but that their voices and the details of their vibrant lives were unheard or dismissed by Europeans as expressions of a primitive people. Over time, as European writers read, cited and referred to one another, a broad consensus emerged about what constituted the Orient. The earliest texts may have been based on empirical evidence, fanciful theories, or a combination of both, but the nature of these beginnings was forgotten as the texts became enmeshed into a narrative that was taken as reliable and foundational.
For Said, this narrative was closely intertwined with an impulse for military domination, as illustrated by Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt. Napoleon had been fascinated by Alexander the Great’s Orient since adolescence and read the Comte de Volney’s accounts of the region (1787). Dictating his reflections from Saint Helena, he recalled that Volney had identified the three main challenges to French domination of the Orient: the British, the Ottomans and the Muslims. To address the last, he attempted to appear as a Muslim savior to the Egyptians, proclaiming to the people of Alexandria that the invading French were the real Muslims (“nous sommes les vrais musulmans”). The French occupation-lived (they was shortd in 1801), but it injected new life into the Orientalist project with the publication of Description de l’Égypte, an enormous multivolume project that would serve as a reference for writers such as François-René de Chateaubriand, Gustave Flaubert, Edward Lane and Richard Burton, among others. When the French left Egypt, one Mathieu de Lesseps stayed on as an “unofficial French representative”. His son Ferdinand opened the Suez Canal in 1869, which brought the Orient closer to the West by facilitating long-distance maritime trade with Asia. While the papal envoy to the ceremonial dedication of the event celebrated the coming together of East and West, Said saw only the impulse for control and domination: “De Lesseps had melted away the Orient’s geographical identity by (almost literally) dragging the Orient into the West and finally dispelling the threat of Islam”.
If Said seems too cynical in his assessment of De Lesseps’s accomplishment, it is because his work on Orientalism was not only an academic matter, but also part of his lifelong attempt to make the voices of his own people heard, and to make sense of his own fate. Said was born in 1935 in Mandate Palestine, thirteen years before the creation of the state of Israel. Growing up, he was deeply aware of being an “Oriental” in a British colony. “In many ways”, Said wrote, “my study of Orientalism has been an attempt to inventory the traces upon me, the Oriental subject, of the culture whose domination has been so powerful a factor in the life of all Orientals. This is why for me the Islamic Orient has had to be the center of attention.”
Said’s awareness of his Arab Palestinian was sharpened when he moved to the United States as a student identity. There, he found
an almost unanimous consensus that politically [the Arab Palestinian] does not exist, and when it is allowed that he does, it is either as a nuisance or as an Oriental. The web of racism, cultural stereotypes, political imperialism, dehumanizing ideology holding in the Arab or the Muslim destiny is very strong indeed, and it is this web which every Palestinian has come to feel as his uniquely punishing.
Through the mechanisms of Orientalism, the Palestinian Arab’s existence had been practically obliterated. In a different essay, he made the point more succinctly: “It cannot fail to escape the Palestinian’s notice … how much his experience begins to resemble that of the Diaspora Jew”.
It is through the thorny question of Palestine that colonialism and Zionism, both outgrowths of nineteenth-century European nationalism, came together in the eyes of Palestinian Arabs, despite the differences that animate both ideologies. Before 1967, Said had tried to maintain the life of the quiet academic. But the Six-Day War, which left Israel with more Palestinian territory, awakened him to his Arab identity and pushed him – beginning with the essay “The Arab Portrayed” (1970) – into the kind of intellectual and political work for which he is now famous. Said’s book The Question of Palestine was published the year after Orientalism.
In that work, Said found traces of Zionism and of the erasure of Palestinian Arabs, even in seemingly apolitical novels such as Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814) and George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876). In both cases, he delved into the textual unconscious of the novel to show the violence against non-Europeans that underpinned the establishment of well-endowed estates in Britain, and of progressive nations in the Middle East. Said was anxious to warn against thinking that such novels were motivated by chauvinistic impulses or dismissing them as expressions of white privilege. He does, however, ask us to account for the global context in which the books were produced, the better “to see complementarity and interdependence instead of isolated, venerated, or formalized experience that excludes and forbids the hybridizing intrusions of human history.”
Reading Said, one gets the sense that his strong political convictions were constantly being modulated by the highly nuanced effect of his style. Although he was a fervent partisan in the struggle against Western hegemony, he considered a “critical consciousness” essential for the kind of “secular criticism” he valued, especially if such criticism was oppositional by nature. He was always a few steps ahead of his readers, making him difficult to pigeonhole. But his very particular style can mislead his supporters by making them believe that the world is too neatly between an aggressive West and its helpless divided others. Many professors and students are still invoking him to reject any hint of Western condescension or the slightest sign of Orientalism, even though the modern notions of “West” and “Orient” have long faded into rather meaningless categories in the age of Big Tech capitalism. Today, power is diffused throughout the world, and the Orient – especially China – has emerged as a global superpower. The West may still direct the global economic order, and its influence is felt on lives across the planet, but the geography of power has been scrambled and its analysis now requires new lenses. Netflix (to take just one example) is not the Hollywood of old – it now produces and broadcasts original content that is produced in East Asia and the Arab world.
Yet, it is in this changing, chaotic world order that Edward Said could come to new prominence as both a case study and a theorist of the condition of exile. Re-reading Said recently, I was surprised to find that his work struck me as the performance of a man wrestling with the question of identity in the aftermath of successive makings and re-makings of the Levant in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the small and large dislocations that ensued.
Born a United States citizen in Jerusalem to Palestinian parents, Said was named after Prince Edward of Wales and given a surname that is nowhere to be found in the official annals of the paternal family line. By the time Israel was established, he was a child within the elite circles of Cairo, speaking English at home, attending exclusive schools, celebrating the American holiday of Thanksgiving, and visiting the United States in his early adolescence. He enrolled in a boarding school in Massachusetts, majored in the humanities at Princeton and obtained a doctorate in English at Harvard. During this period, he navigated a family structure of complex geographical and cultural identities that was unusual even for the multi-confessional Levant of the early twentieth century.
Said later discovered that his maternal grandmother was Lebanese and her father (who Said never knew) a Baptist minister who had spent time in Texas. Said’s father, Wadie (anglicized into William), the son of a dragoman who went by the last name of Ibrahim, had already lived in the United States and even served in its army during the First World War. To be the descendant of a Baptist minister, the son of an American war veteran, and the husband of a Lebanese Quaker in an Arab culture heavily influenced by Islam was strikingly unusual. In his memoir, Out of PlaceSaid simply surrenders to this fact: “I have retained this unsettled sense of many identities – mostly in conflict with each other”.
It is against this background that Said’s affinity for itinerant European writers and intellectuals makes most sense. These included Joseph Conrad (the subject of his dissertation at Harvard), Theodor W. Adorno (whom Said considered to be “the dominating intellectual conscience of the middle twentieth century”) and Eric Auerbach (the German Jewish literary critic, philologist and author of Mimesis“of the most admired and one books of literary criticism ever written” according to Said).
When Said delivered the Reith Lectures on the BBC in 1993, he acknowledged that “exile is one of the saddest fates”. A cruel form of punishment in antiquity, banishment had become the fate of “whole communities and peoples, often the inadvertent result of impersonal forces such as war, famine, and disease”. What’s worse, it was now almost impossible to start over with a clean slate: “the normal traffic of everyday contemporary life” kept us “in constant but tantalizing and unfulfilled touch with the old place”. As a result, Said added, the exile “exists in a median state, neither completely at one with the new setting nor fully disencumbered of the old, beset with half-involvements and half-detachments, nostalgic and sentimental on one level, an adept mimic or a secret outcast on another.” By this point, Said had come to an uneasy truce with his identity, taking pleasure in the surprises and unexpected turns that are the fate of those who live at the margins, and seeing his exilic condition as almost inevitable for any intellectual.
Said’s first wife, Maire Jaanus, once wrote to her husband, telling him that he lived in three disciplinary worlds but was home in none. He “could have been a philosopher, a poet, or a critic – He is all 3 in one, a vexing trinity.”
Anouar Majid is Professor of English and founding director of the Center for Global Humanities at the University of New England in Maine, USA. He is the author of five academic books on Islam and the West, editor of Tingis magazine, and an occasional novelist. His most recent novel is Second Chance in Tangier2020
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