Thursday, October 02, 2008

Edward Said's Orientalism

Edward W. Said

In 1978 Edward Said published his, Orientalism. Now Edward Said was a literary critic and writer on Palestinian issues. He was often very abrasive but always entertaining. In regards to the Palestinian cause, he was definitely not "politically correct". Certainly championing the Palestinian cause has not been terribly "correct" in the U.S.A., for 30+ years now. However his literary critical style of writing lead him to the occasional, (some would argue more than occasional), embarrassment. In Edward Said's case it was, Orientalism.

The book, Orientalism, is best characterized has a rotting bowel movement. In it Edward Said, makes all sort of embarrassing mistakes, which he neglected to correct in subsequent editions of the book.1 Edward Said's discussion of Orientalism is replete with omissions, ad-hominins and baffling ignorance. 2. For example There is Edward Said's incredible ignorance of Arab orientalist writings, and his studied ignoring of Soviet orientalist writings. While casting about blame upon imperialist western writing for denigrating Arabs and Islam, he manages to completely ignore Soviet lambasting of Arabs and Muslims.3

Of course one can critically examine the biases and motives of Westerners, (and others), who wrote about the middle east. But Edward Said's attempt is mired in polemics and absurdities.4 Edward Said has a "hermetics of suspicion" concerning western writers on the Middle East. A suspicion he doesn't have concerning Middle East writers unless they've been contaminated by western modes of thought.5

Its fascinating that Edward Said states that Orientalism is a tool of Western Imperialism and arose to serve that Imperialism while at the same time claiming it originated has far back as Homer and Aesychlus! Edward Said's sympathies are for the misrepresented Persians against the Greeks resisting Persian imperialism. I guess it depends on whose ox is being gored. And in other places Edward Said dates it to the 14th century. Carefully avoiding the fact if anyone one was a victim of Imperialism in those days it was Europe from Islam! In other words orientalism in the west arose originally, in response to Islamic imperialism or more specifically the advance of the Ottoman empire, that does not justify European imperialism of course.

Further Edward Said largely ignores all other types of Orientalism except that related to the area of Syria, Iraq, Arabia and Egypt, of that pays attention basically only to stuff about Arabs. A highly blinkered view of the field.

Orientalism, has been translated into 35 languages.6 Which is definitely a sign of fashionableness but also very worrying, given the shoddiness of the product.

1. For a list of some of Said's errors see, Irwin, Robert, For Lust of Knowing, London, 2006, pp. 282-283. See also Lewis Bernard, The Question of Orientalism, New York Review of Books, New York, 24 June, 1982, p. 53-60.

2. Irwin, pp. 282-309, Lewis, pp. 53-60.

3. For examples of Soviet contempt for Islam and Arabs see Irwin, pp. 229-233. This includes the idea of Mohammad has a myth.

4.Irwin's book is for all its purpose of defending orientalism is quite critical of many of its leading scholars and of many of their assumptions.

5. Which is ironic considering Edward Said's love of western Classical music and his denigration of Middle Eastern music. See Irwin, p. 308.

6. Irwin p. 281.


For Lust of Knowing, Robert Irwin, Penguin Books, London. 2006.

Orientalism, Edward, Said, Vintage, New York, 1979.

"The Question of Orientalism", Bernard Lewis, New York Review of Books, New York, June 24, 1982 p. 53.

Pierre Cloutier

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