Orientalism

Cover of the book "Orientalism"

I’ve been reading Edward Said in class and just watched a documentary about him, so I thought I’d share some of his ideas on here. Said has got to be my all-time favourite person in the world. He is one of the only scholars to have emphasized how completely & totally subordinated the Arab world has been because of the west, and how it continues today.

Edward Said

Said points out that growing up, there was this constant disparity between what he experienced as being an Arab and the representations of Arabs in art and literature.  He discovered that the Orientalist discourse was structured and built upon itself: every writer, artist, politician etc simply built upon what earlier Orientalists had created, with the result being a discourse that was incredibly durable.  Said also points out that the Orientalist discourse is one that is closely linked to power, especially since it came about during imperialism, a time when Europeans needed to find out how to easily subdue the natives.

He writes that the same images keep coming up over and over: sensual woman there to be used by the man; the East as mysterious, full of secrets and monsters.  Orientals are all the same, whether in Egypt or India.  The Orient never changes or develops: it is timeless.  The Orient is also powerless in the sense that it does not speak for Europeans, whereas Europeans speak for the Orientals: the Europeans had the power to produce knowledge.

American Orientalism is different in the sense that it is more politicized, especially because of Israel.  He says it is virtually impossible for Americans to read books or watch programs that do not portray Arabs/Muslims in Orientalist fashion.  It is also a fact that Islamophobia is pretty much officially sanctioned, both in America and now also in Europe: it is no longer offensive to insult or degrade Muslims. This is certainly something I now see in the Netherlands.

Said describes the US media as lazy and controlled by interests, both commercial and political.  It also becomes clear in this documentary that Islamophobia was becoming an issue way before 9/11. I find this interesting since most westerners who attack Islam today do so based on 9/11 and terrorism since then.  The fact that Islamophobia was already on the rise may show that in fact the problem was coming from the western side.

Said then went on to discuss Hollywood. Common themes include sheikhs, women dancing, swords, violence, the desert. The movie either has a Muslim villain or fanatic, or there are large numbers of Muslims being killed, as if Islam is something to be wiped out.  There is the idea that Muslims are of a lesser breed and only understand the language of force. This is an argument that was often used by colonialists when they wanted to justify killing millions of “natives.”

Said also talked about Aladdin, a film I loved when I was little. Part of the song at the beginning goes like this:

It’s barbaric, but hey it’s home.

Wow! So basically kids are internalizing this from when they’re really young.

Then there is the point that the term Islam doesn’t even really mean anything: what does Indonesia have in common with Saudi Arabia? He argues that the west needs an enemy, otherwise how will they justify the massive amounts they are spending on the military?  This reminded me of what a professor of mine said the other day: the biggest industry in the US and UK is the weapons industry. Basically: the US and UK need wars.

The documentary then showed media clips of the Oklahoma bombing, and how EVERYONE thought it was the Arabs who did it.  The FBI even announced it was looking for 3 men of Middle Eastern origin and that they were treating it as a Middle Eastern incident. Only to discover later that a white, blue-eyed American had done it. Yeah.

He ended the documentary by talking about Palestine (he’s Palestinian). He points out that the Palestinians are paying for what the Europeans did to the Jews. He also said he doesn’t want to “kick the Jews out” – he wants coexistence.  He says that unless we find tolerance and ways of being different without hostility, violence will continue to escalate and we will have more Palestines, Bosnias, and Rwandas.

Ah, I love him. What do you guys think about his ideas?

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25 thoughts on “Orientalism

  1. Edward Said is the truth.

    Your post made me think about Eugenics, and my assumption that people still believe in it’s concept to this day, whether that be knowingly or unknowingly, and even if it is quietly and to themselves. How else can we account for such mass dysfunction?

    • Yes I’m sure many people still believe in that…interesting subject! By the way I thought of you while writing my new post on Jamaica Kincaid…let me kwow war you think!

  2. I tried to read his memoir, but didn’t finish it. I think I’ll go on and read this book then, it sounds very interesting.
    The documentary is spot on, and the final part about coexistence in Palestine is noble. I agree that Europe thought they’d get rid of the guilt by dumping them onto Palestine.

  3. Salam sara,
    I have to thank you for this post and introducing (yes, gasp now…LOL) me to Edward Said. I went straight watching some of his video’s and read a few of his article and he is absolutely amazing…for someone, who is really ‘new’ at this, knowing his work, open a whole other school of though. thank you again

  4. I enjoyed this. I am currently reading a book about coexistence between Muslims, Christians and Jews so I liked reading Said’s vision for coexistence in Palestine. Thanks for this great post!

  5. Salaam,
    Said is of course the starting point for much modern scholarship on representation and ethnicity. He had awesome ideas, but some of his later works (like ‘Covering Islam’) are more nuanced than ‘Orientalism.’
    In some of his early stuff, Said, understandably, lapses into Occidetalism, which is a force arguably as counterproductive as Orientalism.
    In any case, I’m glad you discovered him, but keep in mind, he wasn’t infallible. As with any scholar you admire, to avoid falling into the trap of idolizing one so much you accept flawed ideas, you have also to be critical in your own thinking and read the critiques of his work by other scholars.

    • Of course he wasn’t infallible. Nevertheless, it is striking that he is one of the few prominent defenders of Islam who managed to have such a major impact – and he wasn’t even a Muslim.

  6. When Said died my father was filled with grief 🙂 Said was first Palestinian than anything else and his thoughts were based on his nationality. I find it far-fetched though that he thought Europe had controlled the world for 2000 years! I also find it unfair that a scholar of his caliber and repute completely ignored how Arabs spread over half the world changing the original history, language and faith of people wherever they went.

    Or look at the works of local Indians like Manto and Munshi Premchand who openly wrote about the lives of the wayward Moguls – these were not Orientalists who would be painting false pictures of harems filled with veiled and sensuous dancers and courtesans. Anyone who reads The Chess Players will see how Muslims in India behaved which was the cause of their downfall. The Muslim rape and pillage that Manto describes in his short stories should hardly be seen as Orientalist work since he was Muslim and Indian.

    Orientalists based their views and writings on some truth. Certainly the picture they paint is extremely exaggerated (I am thinking Sex and the City 2!), but it is not always false. I was reading the work of a Saudi educated scholar against three writers whom he calls the *Orientalists* which includes Watt who was much maligned by the Christianity community for his faith in Islam! Watt’s work is not based on his own whims but on Quran and Hadith but because he didn’t convert to Islam, he was dismissed as an Orientalist.

    In fact, I have met Arabs who claim that Said was an Orientalist because he refused to see truth in Islam which they see and never converted to the religion! One woman sighed and told me that had Said accepted Islam Allah would have saved him from cancer!

    • We all do it to others to some extent. That is how the word stereotype came alive. We all think in stereotypes to some extent, but the people who hold power (Whites) who perpetuate these stereotypes are the ones able to do damage because they are telling the story to a very large audience and also hold the authority of “truth” behind their words. So you have to look at power also. Sure some random Arabs or scholars may make the statements and conclusions you mentioned, but it is about the overriding generalization and agreement about who Muslims/Arabs are, that is damaging. Who reaches the widest audience and gets their message across? Sure all stereotypes are based in some truth, that is why it is a stereotype, but when we start basing an entire discipline on these stereotypes, well then we have crossed over into prejudice and racism.

    • The reason Said never addressed the way Islam spread was perhaps because it wasn’t part of his argument. Can we only criticize the west if we criticize ourselves at the same time? When I complain about the US, it’s not that I don’t accept that Egypt has its own problems, even if I don’t mention them.
      In many his lectures Said criticizes Muslims and Arabs themselves. In fact in the documentary I mentioned, he said Arabs are partly responsible for Orientalism since they didn’t really resist.

    • Well said Sarah. I always take the term “orientalist” in a negative way because that’s how Said meant it, regardless of whether he resorted to Occidentalism at times or not. At the end of the day, it is about non-Arabs seeing Arabs in an essentialized way.

    • Sara and Sarah, I don’t know how many Arabs from the Gulf region you have met but after living for over a decade around them I can tell you that almost all of the Khaleeji (Gulf Arabs) I have met at least don’t even consider non-Khaleeji Arabic speakers as Arabs. Racism and stereotyping is hardly a case of “some random Arabs” or a purely Western problem like Said mentioned.

      The first time someone asked me where I was from and his further questions prompted me to tell that my mother is Egyptian, he told me that I should tell people that she is an “Arabic speaking Masri” but “NOT an Arab”! After that I have been very careful because I have faced perjudice many times after that (unless I am talking to an Egyptian!). I have been openly and rudely questioned by Pathaan taxi drivers why my father decided to marry a Masri because they “are fat whores”!! How does a taxi driver from Peshawar know this? Of course he has been fed stereotypes by the local people. My own students advised me to adopt a Khaleeji dialect so that “no one would find out I have Masri roots”! My hair is a dead give away, nevertheless 😀

      In the GCC countries the local Arab will get paid the highest then Americans and British, after that other Europeans, then “Middle Easterners” and after that South Asians. Racism is that bad.The reason powerful Arab states have forgotten to fight for the Palestinian freedom is because most don’t even think its their problem – “Palestinians are not Arab.” Stereotypes are so bad here I can’t even begin to describe them – Egyptians are cheats; Palestinians are opportunistic; Syrians are liars; Jordanians are thieves. And South Asians are janitors! I hear it all the time. And let’s not even go into African Muslims or Iranians! Those who live outside the GCC from where Arabs spread have no idea how bad racism is here – that is why people from Middle East working in the GCC are always looking for ways to migrate to the West.

      I didn’t say that Said should have discussed how Islam spread. I said that he should have addressed how *Arabs* (as from Arabia) spread because perhaps he never realised that he wasn’t even seen as an Arab by those who occupied Palestine 1400 years ago.

      The same is true for the colonist British as well. They colonised India for centuries and then when an Indian is born and brought up IN Britain and is very much as British as Tony Blair, he is seen as one belonging to another ‘ethnicity’ and told to go home.

      So while I see Orientalism and I understand how it is used and I wholeheartedly disagree with it, I am objective enough to accept that it is not just the West that sees the *Arabs* and Muslims in a stereotypical way.

      • Oh, thank you for clarifying. No I agree. I have known about hardcore racism happening in Arab countries for years. Orientalism for me is another term for white western racism, that is all I am saying. I thought you were saying it is not. As far as other cultures and countries being heavily racist, yea, for sure that is true. I think both are despicable.

  7. hi,
    explaining the concept of a writer in a language different from the east, but neither fully good nor fully understand the sense of bad for him to live in the East and the need to understand…

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