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As an indictment of English and French scholarship on the Arab and Islamic worlds, Orientalism made its overall case clearly enough. The field of Oriental studies had managed to create a fantastical projection about Arabs and Islam that fit the biases of its Western audience. At times, these images were exuberant and intoxicating, at times infantilizing or hateful, but at no time did they describe Arabs and Muslims accurately.
Over centuries, these images and attitudes formed a network of mutually reinforcing clichés mirrored in the policies of the media, the church, and the university. With the authority of seemingly objective science, new prejudices joined those already in circulation. This grand edifice of learning deprived Arabs of anything but a textual reality, usually based on a handful of medieval religious documents. As such, the Arab world was arrested within the classics of its own past. This much about Orientalism, it seems, was uncontroversial, although readers agreed on little else.
While drafting the iconoclastic book, Said found his friendship with Noam Chomsky valuable. Chomsky’s jeremiads had given him plenty of experience with bad press. Said was familiar with his critique of the complicity of academic institutions in the Vietnam War, and Said briefly considered writing with Chomsky a book on spurious cultural portrayals of the Middle East. Chomsky, though, was unable to see the project through because of other commitments, so Said forged ahead alone. Orientalism was the result.
The MIT linguist lent a hand in other ways. He was the first to read Said’s initial draft, absorbing the manuscript, he wrote to Said, “virtually at a sitting.” He admired its penetrating analytical rigor but cautioned Said to pay more attention to “the balance between analysis and direct quotation.” His critics “will not be few,” Chomsky added, and are likely to seize on the relative lack of documentation. “It might be useful to add something about the matter of racism, Orientalism, and the Vietnam war — I think we’ve discussed it.”
The brunt of the first draft was composed, oddly enough, at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, in Stanford, Calif., where Said was a fellow in 1975-76. Humanists were not typically welcomed to the center, and Said was the lone literary critic in his cohort. The fellowship, interestingly, was then not one for which one could apply. Those selected were plucked out of the academic crowd by an anonymous list of venerables. One day a letter of invitation mysteriously arrives in the mail. What did the philosophers of science, sociologists, and psychologists in those rarefied circles see in Said?
There seemed to be two reasons for his invitation. First, the center apparently wanted to learn more about the Middle East, and Said’s stated aim to study “the rise of the discipline of Oriental philology” and “the contemporary Arabic novel, particularly the cultural and political role played by the novel,” fit the bill. Second, in the politically progressive interregnum of Jimmy Carter’s America — which led to the most promising White House openings for the Palestine Liberation Organization — Said’s comparative radicalism was itself a draw for the open-minded Californian researchers.
Despite writing to friends in England that he was “not enjoying the Center that much,” the California weather reminded Said of the eastern Mediterranean, and he soon discovered a Lebanese restaurant in Berkeley. His “high, tennis-playing spirits” made him sociable, particularly with women, in whom he found it easier to confide. Jonathan R. Cole, later provost at Columbia, was a fellow that year as well and remembers Said being the center of attention, at ease with others in long and lively conversations over lunch.
With uncanny symmetry, one of Said’s co-fellows that year was Yehoshafat Harkabi, the former head of Israeli military intelligence and a renowned Israeli Arabist. Deeply cultivated, a lover of Arabic poetry, “secret-policelike” in his quiet reserve, according to the art historian Svetlana Alpers, he described himself as a “Machiavellian dove.” Some feared the duo might prove combustible and start a Middle East proxy war at the center. In fact, Said and Harkabi retained their decorum and if not warm were mostly polite to each other.
In the years before arriving at the center, Harkabi had evolved from a hard-liner (his “clever innovations,” Chomsky drily observed, included “letter bombs in the Gaza strip in the 1950s”) into an outspoken proponent for a Palestinian state. In Orientalism, he made an appearance briefly as “General Yehoshafat Harkabi,” a man characterized as arguing that Arabs were “depraved, anti-Semitic to the core, violent, unbalanced.”
Even before Stanford, Harkabi and Said had a tense history. Five years earlier, the Association of Arab-American University Graduates, of which Said was a member, held its annual convention in the Orrington Hotel, in Evanston, Ill., and by coincidence Israeli students based in the United States were holding their annual meeting only a few blocks away, with Harkabi their keynote speaker. Impulsively, the “good general” apparently led 90 of them without advance notice to the Orrington for a good-faith dialogue.
Enraged by what he considered sheer “provocation,” Said led his group to confront them. As they approached, Said shouted, “Provocateurs!” After a tense standoff on the stairs, with Harkabi shouting over the noise that they had come in peace, the Israelis backed off and left.
At first glance, The Country and the City would seem to have little to offer an exposé on Arab stereotypes, for it was about 18th- and early 19th-century English rural life as seen through the prism of country-house poems — paeans, basically, to the estates of wealthy landowners. Behind this screen, though, Williams was interested in how the utopian idylls of the gentry had subverted the histories of terrain and landscape, superimposing on harsh rural conditions a distorting self-portrait.
Nor was the anti-imperial thrust of The Country and the City buried. Williams wrote of poems that bore witness to a transitional era of English social life in which a new kind of political control was being exerted over the colonies both within and outside the country. The war between rural and urban territories within England mirrored the antagonism between the periphery and the global metropolis, reproducing each other on a different scale. For Williams, it is the critic rather than the poet who leads us out of euphemism to the crescendo of his argument: “One of the last models of ‘city and country,’ is the system we now know as imperialism.” Long before the rise of postcolonial studies — the field Said was said to have founded — Williams had already moved beyond his contemporaries in search of alternative traditions.
So too had Antonio Gramsci, a prisoner in Mussolini’s fascist jails, one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party, and a culturally Catholic revolutionary in a 20th-century milieu dominated by Jewish Marxists. A geographic imperative shaped Gramsci’s identity. As a Sardinian from Italy’s rural South, he pursued his studies in Italy’s industrial North, and so was seen there as racially and ethnically inferior. In “Some Aspects of the Southern Question” (1926) — an essay Said taught frequently — Gramsci found in this clash between country and city an instance of what Said in Orientalism calls “imaginative geography,” where land itself becomes a symbol of invidious cultural distinctions.
Said’s overstatements were designed to unleash a purifying indignation in his readers.
Even more important, for Gramsci it is language that defines territorial conflict. Gramsci had studied under Matteo Bartoli, one of the era’s most outspoken proponents of a school known as spatial linguistics. Bartoli and his circle had argued that language was the embodied record of migration and foreign conquest, not only the “soul of a people,” as the Romantics had it. In territorial conflicts, two idioms are violently thrust together and forced to compete for prestige.
With these sources in mind, Orientalism mobilized a series of spatial metaphors. One of these, “strategic location,” referred to how an author is positioned in regard to his or her own writing; another, “strategic formation,” to how works acquire more “referential power” so long as they are positioned within a constellation of complementary works rather than standing on their own.
Said was obsessed with learning about how certain texts gather force and influence whereas others do not. By “imaginative geography,” then, he was referring to the paradox that the proximity of the Middle East made the Oriental especially potent and dangerous in the Western mind. Precisely because of the region’s adjacency to Europe, it could be more easily visited by travelers, colonial adventurers, and missionaries. Their experiences, then, had to be managed by a shared story that gave them their “true” meaning. Land may be the material stuff of geography, but ideas tend to dematerialize place, making neighbors appear distant.
Said’s sudden global fame had the unfortunate effects that pride often bestows, and because everyone wanted a piece of him, he took advantage. His sister Grace complained of a new haughtiness, a “nastiness” that strained family relations. There were other effects as well: Apart from the president of Columbia’s office, only Said’s had bulletproof windows and a buzzer that would send a signal directly to campus security.
In time, the book’s detractors grew as invigorated as its champions. The assaults came from four angles: First, from contemporary scholars of Arabic, Islam, or the Near East who believed that Said had recklessly ventured into a field whose demands on knowledge overwhelmed him; second, from Pakistani and Arab Marxists who felt that his East-West line in the sand was undialectical and gave comfort to the Islamic Right, which was as paranoid as he about a ghostlike, undifferentiated Europe; and, most hurtful of all, from his mentors in Middle East studies, who thought his training in literature an obstacle to his grasping the sheer disciplinary variety of Oriental studies in practice. A fourth group was ensconced in right-wing think tanks or hostile media whose task was not only to undermine Orientalism but to erase Said’s entire career. Their titles betrayed their contempt: Martin Kramer’s Ivory Towers on Sand (2001), the pseudonymous Ibn Warraq’s Defending the West (2007), and Joshua Muravchik’s “Enough Said” (2013).
However incongruous their starting points, most of the critics of Orientalism kept coming back to the same kinds of points. Daniel Martin Varisco, an anthropological expert on 13th-century Yemeni agricultural texts, for example, claimed that Said’s enthusiasm for the role of the amateur in intellectual inquiry only dressed up his own amateurism when entering his field half-cocked. For Varisco, Said’s “problem is with reality, not about it.” Ibn Warraq complained, similarly, of Said’s “endless postmodern jargon.”
Robert Irwin particularly pushed the assault to the limits in For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies (2006). A student of Said’s nemesis, Bernard Lewis, and a medieval specialist on the Mamluks, Irwin mocked Said for suggesting that Orientalists could have lent their services to the empire when the truth was that no one cared what they had to say. Nor was there the coherence to the field that Said implied; it was little more than a baggy collection of devotees, bookworms, librarians, and eccentrics. Irwin and Varisco together added that Said’s constant recourse to literary examples from Flaubert, Dante, and Greek tragedy expanded the field of Orientalism to the point of meaninglessness.
Even those who admired Said concurred with some of these accusations: “As a specialist of English and comparative literature, he is inadequately versed in the practical work of the Orientalists,” wrote Maxime Rodinson. The Lebanese Marxist Mahdi ‘Amel — often called the Arab Gramsci — denounced Said’s gratuitous jibes against Marx and noted that Orientalism was guilty of attributing unchanging characters to entire cultures. To make matters worse, some of Said’s former students revolted.
David Stern felt that a book with the title Orientalism should have dwelled on the Hungarian Jew Ignác Goldziher, the most important Orientalist of them all. Alan Mintz worried that Said missed an opportunity by not making the book about Jews and Muslims together, the joint Western fantasy objects of Orientalist discourse. Said’s old confidant Jacques Berque probably struck the most damaging blow when he implied that Orientalism’s thesis was not so much outrageous as commonsensical: “Obviously . . . every work, whether of science or art, reflects the conditions of its composition.” So it was not really news that scholars of the Victorian era reflected Victorian biases.
Few of these critics, though, knew anything about Said’s earlier work, and for some, there were personal scores to settle. Irwin, for instance, left academia to write novels with titles like The Mysteries of Algiers and The Arabian Nightmare, and his profile was strangely similar, in fact, to that of Ernest Renan, who is unsparingly dealt with in Orientalism as a 19th-century popularizer and independent spirit with an unquenchable hunger for all things Oriental (Irwin briefly converted to Islam while studying in Algeria). Whether noticing these parallels or not, Irwin pronounced Orientalism “malignant charlatanry.”
In 1982, Said wrote to Westminster College, Oxford, complaining of Irwin’s crudely ideological review of his book, his “scarcely veiled innuendoes about my racial origins.” Bernard Lewis, Irwin’s teacher, was a renowned Orientalist at Oxford and Princeton, and the one with whom Said most prominently sparred over Orientalism in the pages of The New York Times and The New York Review of Books. More than a public drawing of swords, these encounters were often bitterly personal, in part because Orientalism portrayed Lewis, along with State Department intellectuals like Fouad Ajami and, somewhat later, Daniel Pipes, as the modern descendants of the racialized scholarship his book set out to expose.
It was inevitable that Orientalism’s fame would force a public confrontation between Said and his detractors. The definitive showdown took place between Said and Lewis on November 22, 1986, at a meeting of the Middle East Studies Association in Boston. With the large assembly room packed, and 600 more attendees outside, many had to sit on the floor. Said’s animosity was clear from his mischievous humor before the event, conspiratorially whispering in Arabic to a confidant at lunch, “I am going to f—— his mother.”
In fact, Lewis appeared to have lost the encounter, evading questions about his scholarly independence and jesting lamely about popular Middle East stereotypes. Because Western travelers to Arabia, he quipped, were obsessed by the unbridled sexuality of the sultans’ harems and travelers from the East found Western women licentious, it is a mystery the two sides did not get along better. His debate second, the New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier (one of Said’s former students and an antagonist), proclaimed the evening “a nightmare for me.” Lewis was Wieseltier’s “brother from another Orientalist planet, saying outrageous things. I felt horrible, startled, because I am not like that. He gave the debate away.”
As for the familiar charge that Said was a postmodernist who believed there was no reality, he went to great lengths in lectures on the eve of Orientalism’s publication to attack postmodernism. He was equally unyielding toward poststructuralism, arguing against Jacques Derrida’s position that reality “is literally a textual element with no ground in actuality.” Said disliked Derrida’s writing and thought him a “decadent thinker, mannerish, a dandy fooling around.” When he declared in an exchange on deconstruction that “there is no such thing as a ‘real’ Orient,” he meant not that people do not exist in Jordan or Iraq, walk the land, feel pain, or die. His point was simply that their reality is inaccessible without shared conceptions communicated by words. This view would have been common sense to anyone schooled in literary theory.
That said, not all of the book’s supposed weaknesses could be explained away. Even admirers found Orientalism at times unalert to contradiction, too willing to corral unlike thinkers into the same camp. For instance, could any European on Said’s terms ever work cross-culturally without an entirely dominating disposition? His sarcasm often overwhelmed those moments when he praised the Orientalists’ sheer range of learning, and overstatements marred his argument, for example, when he claimed that “rarely were Orientalists interested in anything except proving the validity of these musty ‘truths’ by applying them, without great success, to uncomprehending, hence degenerate, natives.” Such a claim clashed with his own vignettes of the careers of Raymond Schwab, Edward Lane, and other scholars whose crime, if anything, was excessive rapture over the triumphs of the Arab and Islamic past.
Wanting to stake out an indigenous Arab theory that owed nothing to Europe, Said downplayed the anti-imperial novelty of Western philosophers and campaigners like Michel de Montaigne, Denis Diderot, Johann Gottfried von Herder, and Victor Schoelcher. At times he sounded close to denying that any non-Oriental could ever write an account of the Orient without identifying with his or her own country’s foreign policy. In one passage, for example, he declared that one is always a “European or American first … an individual second.” The risks of such a comment should have been obvious: There can no longer be an interpretation that is unswayed by one’s identity. Nineteenth-century Europeans as a whole, he continued, were “almost totally ethnocentric.”
On the other hand, such rhetoric had a very specific goal. Said’s overstatements were designed to unleash a purifying indignation in his readers. Close friends observed that Said knew he ought to qualify his statements more, but he felt he had to be strong and definite for political reasons. Subtlety, generally, was his beat, but “he didn’t want to get lost in it,” as his colleague and friend Michael Wood put it. Said raised this very point in Orientalism itself. The danger was that he might end up with “a coarse polemic” so unacceptably general “as not to be worth the effort”; on the other hand, he might lose track of the “general lines of force informing the field.”
While he warned against seeing Orientalism as “some nefarious ‘Western’ imperialist plot to hold down the ‘Oriental’ world,” his presentation had to be blunt enough to be heard. His politics of blame brought a number of scholars from the former colonies on board and had everything to do with the book’s international success.
As one hostile critic observed, “It became a manifesto of affirmative action for Arab and Muslim scholars and established a negative predisposition toward American (and imported European) scholars.” Having single-handedly put an institution under a magnifying glass, Orientalism also gave safe haven to English-department misfits, Latin American exchange students, and shipwrecked Arab activists in Middle East area studies. The scholar Aijaz Ahmad, who like others was scathingly critical of the book from the left, put his finger on the book’s immense demographic implications: It had opened the doors of academia by giving power to “the social self-consciousness and professional assertion of the middle-class immigrant and the ‘ethnic’ intellectual.”
Orientalism’s success had unforeseen consequences. The book’s implicit call that the formerly colonized tell their own story led logically to openings for non-white scholars in the academy. Said personally secured a toehold for postcolonial study’s most vocal partisans. However, the new wave, mostly upper middle class with political connections, and steeped in poststructuralist “difference,” had little use for his own focus on the national liberation movements of the 1940s-1970s. To him, anti-colonialism meant the creation of states and pitched battles over policy in the media; to them, it meant to reject “modernity” while stressing the “in-betweenness” of the postcolonial predicament — a safe professional gesture during the Reagan-Bush years. Postcolonial “identity,” in his mind, was uncomfortably reminiscent of the logic of the communalism he saw tearing Lebanon and the Occupied Territories apart. Despite Orientalism’s triumph, he spent the last two decades of his life trying to undo this improvisation on his message, most clearly by embracing a humanist universalism that then (as now) was quite out of fashion in the very field he had so enriched and transformed.
This essay is adapted from the author’s forthcoming book, Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).