I must confess to my own sins here: there is a small part of me that has fallen in love with Edward Said. I do not mean this in the sense that I admire his scholarship and think of him as a role model (though that is very much the case). I mean that I have actually fallen in love with this man—the way that Patti Smith wrote about falling in love with the poet Rimbaud, who died many years before she was even born. Even as I confess to this, I wonder if I am falling into the trap that Edward Said has warned us against–if I am romanticizing the other, am I creating an idea of this other person to fill some need that I have in my own life? Looking at photographs of Said as a young man–and even as a middle-aged man–it is apparent that he cut a dashing figure, contesting the portrait I have seen of Derrida in a trench coat, walking along the streets of New York, collar up against the wind, smoking, and actively participating in the spiritual recreation of Humphrey Bogart as an Algerian philosopher.
I do not, at least, write Edward Said’s name with little hearts around it in my diary.
I recently saw a speech by Dr. Colleen Clemens exploring the way that the Malala narrative has been utilized in American discourse. She connected this narrative with the story of Mukhtar Mai, and I began to wonder where the differences lay. The attention paid to women’s rights in the context of Muslim and Middle Eastern identity, she says, shows less care for the rights of women specifically than for a desire to boost support for military operations: “I do not want to see the same thing done with Malala or her story, when she and it are no longer serving this country’s military or nationalistic needs.” I began to think as well about the ways in which particular women seem to come forward, hold a moment in light as the oppressed Muslim woman, suffering under terrorism and misogyny (which is a form of terrorism under a different label). Soon after, these women disappear, often without their situation vastly improving, or rather without a serious shift within the larger culture they belong to. Things go back as they were until the next military intervention. I see these books come in at my store all of the time–I am Nujood: Aged 10 and Divorced by Nujood Ali, My Forbidden Face by Latifa, and even Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s duel memoirs, Nomad and Infidel—the former of which includes the subtitle I’m sure so many of us would itch to deconstruct: “From Islam to America.” There is something about these narratives that suggest sympathy and apathy at one. If they cause a change of heart in the ideological xenophobe, I have not yet seen it. I notice none of the people who read these books have any interest when I talk to them about Nawal El Saadawi.
I think of the picture of the “Afghan Girl,” a 1985 cover image for National Geographic that became synonymous with the refugee crisis arising from the Afghan War. Her name is Sharbat Gula. No one knew her name for almost twenty years after the picture was taken because the photographer did not record her name at the time. In 2016, she was deported from Pakistan back to Afghanistan for living there with false documents. Her children were deported with her. At the same time, her image was reprinted all over the world as the cover of various collected editions of the “Most Iconic Photographs” ever taken. Gula went to court before she was deported in a full burqa. Newspapers remarked on the fact that these famous eyes were now covered by the veil, forgetting perhaps that her eyes and her image belongs first and foremost to her—not any photographer on the court steps. There was a moment in which her image served a purpose (be it a valuable one) before she was abandoned and marginalized once the interest of the mainstream discourse shifts.
There is a need to develop a critical awareness of what the term “Orientalism” specifically means in this context. The specific locale, what might be termed the “Middle East” in the 21st Century (engulfing the idea of a “Near East”), and what was called “the Orient” until the mid-20th Century. Said places his primary focus in Orientalism on American, French and British perceptions of the “Orient.” The history of the term is a study of the varying ways in which a geographical territory was interpreted by three primary colonizing powers. The after-effects of these particular divisions in thought, and the discourses produced by them, are still lingering with us in some of the examples previously given.
Orientalism is the perpetuation of a “once-removed” perspective. The Orientalist perspective expands, cuts and repeats the narratives of other writers–journalists and travel writers–to create a fictional sense of a place as it sees fit. The Orient, as presented in the minds of these writers to their readers, is not a coherent place that can be marked as individual countries and cultures. These works were the frame on which to hang forbidden desires, the thirst for the exotic and fantastic, and the desire for adventure–often without direct experience of the lands being described. Talking for a moment about German perceptions, Said notes:
There is some significance in the fact that the two most renowned German works on the Orient, Goethe’s Wesröstlicher Diwan and Friedrich Schlegel’s Über die Sprache und Weisheit see Indier, were based respectively on a Rhine journey and on hours spent in Paris libraries. What German Oriental scholarship did was to refine and elaborate techniques whose application was to texts, myths, ideas, and languages almost literally gathered from the Orient by imperial Britain and France. (85-86)
It is through these manipulations, craftings, and reworkings of another culture that these Western empires were able to better to envision themselves. While one can question the importance of hindsight in analyzing how much of this was a consciously sustained practice (like the production of nationalist propaganda in a Presidential campaign), there is little doubt that this series of motifs were (and to an extent still are) perpetuated in a meaningful and detrimental way. Said again, “Orientalism, therefore, is not an airy European fantasy about the Orient, but a created body of theory and practice in which, for many generations, there has been a considerable material investment” (75).
Music by Mohammet Fairouz, who has incorporated Said’s work into several of his compositions.
Orientalism “is rather a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts” (80). It is a way of confronting the way in which colonialism is constructed. “…nearly every nineteenth-century writer (and the same is true enough of writers in earlier periods) was extraordinarily well aware of the fact of empire,” Said writes (81). This awareness of empire did not always connect to a critical awareness of the mechanisms of empire, and Said acknowledges examples of thinkers whose works advocated for republics and self-government for the “west” and colonization with limited control for the “east” (81-82). There is the Dr. Schweitzer quote that has followed all humanitarians either as a warning or an implicit guide: “The African is my brother, but he is my younger brother.”
I think it is important to recognize the directness with which Said situates himself within the context of his study. He addresses what he perceives as a misconception about the divisions in the Middle East and the way in which his experience has been, occasionally, misconstrued as perpetuating or condoning antisemitism:
In addition, and by an almost inescapable logic, I have found myself writing the history of a strange, secret, sharer or Western anti-Semitism. That anti-Semitism and, as I have discussed it in its Islamic branch, Orientalism resemble each other very closely is a historical, cultural, and political truth that only needs to be mentioned to an Arab Palestinian for its irony to be perfectly understood (92).
As a term that historically does not always equate itself with specifically Jewish identity, Said finds an irony that he–a person who would be described as Semitic–could be accused of perpetuating antisemitism in a whirlpool of learned self-hatred. The famous photograph of Said—by this point no longer living leukemia but dying of it—throwing a rock (or a broken cell phone, depending on which story you have heard) at an Israeli guardhouse in Lebanon is a gesture not of antisemitism but of aggravation towards a body of power, as if to say, “Words have failed to impress you. Let me show you my feelings.” It was something little children do, and had been doing that day before Said came upon the scene and joined them.It was a moment in which the individual sees the power of the state and chooses to stand anyway.
Said suggests these Semitic, colonized cultures which are perpetually presented in the West as if they were doomed to perpetual struggle have, in reality, more in common with each other through their shared history of misrepresentation and abuse than they do with their colonizers or imperial allies. Said never loses the sense of urgency behind the cool collectiveness of his prose, and the passion of his debates are apparent in this text, which serves as the introduction not only to a particular book, but also to a life’s work.
A Late interview with Edward Said, discussing Reflections on Exile and other essays
An earlier version of this column appeared in PostColonial Minds as “The Love of Edward Said”