Edward W. Said (1935-2003)

Edward W. Said (1935-2003)

Ten Years have elapsed since the death of Edward Said and over thirty years since his celebrated book, Orientalism appeared in print. During all these years the book has never lost its intellectual appeal or failed to generate animated debate. It has gone through different editions and has been translated into more than twenty five languages. The amount of critical attention it has received is extraordinary. Besides reviews, critical essays and full-length studies which attempted to explain and analyse the contents of the book, there has been a large number of international conferences devoted exclusively to the study of the epistemological and theoretical questions and problematics which Orientalism raised.

Orientalism (1978)

Orientalism (1978)

In the early 1990s when Postcolonial Studies began to invade the academic arena in Anglo-Saxon universities in India, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, the seminal work of Edward Said was brought into further limelight. Orientalism, in particular, was turned almost into a manifesto by scholars who identified themselves as ‘postcolonialists’ .Even today accounts of the rise of Postcolonial Studies as a discipline continue to acknowledge the profound influence of Said’s work on a whole generation of scholars and critics. I remember that in 1994 when I decided to take an MA course in postcolonial studies at the University of Kent in England, it was essentially because Said’s books were part of the compulsory readings. The fascination I felt then for his ideas was shared by many students of my generation and it has since spread like an epidemic.

On the other hand, few books have been the object of such meticulous and sharp criticism as Orientalism has. Obviously the least to be impressed by the arguments put forward in the book was the tribe of Orientalists. The book was essentially an intellectual raid, as it were, right into their domestic territory. It contested their claim for expertise over the Orient, and exposed the manifold affiliations of their intellectual practices with political institutions. Even more, it showed that the Orient they represented was more or less a figment of their imagination and did not reflect the complex human experiences and aspirations of millions of so-called Orientals.

Besides Orientalists, a number of critics have found fault with Said’s method which they accused of being at once inconsistent, naïve, departing from foregone conclusions and leading to sweeping judgements and monolithic constructs. These are complex responses and it will require pages to spell out their theoretical orientations. But the genuine value of Orientalism, in my opinion, lies in this voluminous and divergent body of critical appreciation that it has engendered over the years. On several occasions when asked about whether or not he had envisaged such a phenomenal success for his book, Said answered that the wide attention it had drawn took him by surprise.

What has made Orientalism so popular? Is it the specific intellectual issues addressed in the book, or the particular strategies of analysis adopted? Or is it perhaps the amount of emotional investment laid in every page? It may be argued that Orientalism is not just a specialised study of Western representations of Muslims and Arabs, but also a vehement personal response to what has come to be seen as a recurrent pattern of denigration and denial of the Other in Western cultures.

Orientalism 22Orientalism 3









In one of his important interviews published in Diacritics in 1976, Said made it plain that there was a degree of militancy behind the writing of the book:

I feel myself to be writing from an interesting position. I am an Oriental writing back at the Orientalists, who for so long thrived upon our silence. I am also writing to them, as it were, by dismantling the structure of their discipline, showing its meta-historical, institutional, anti-empirical, and ideological biases.[1]

This personal dimension as Said describes it in his introduction to Orientalsim is worth exploring. Said always stressed the interconnectedness between his background as a Palestinian and Arab and his academic work. It was in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war that his political consciousness took a radical turn. Orientalism grew out of this new and rather traumatic awareness of the plight of Palestinians who were further dislocated by the war and turned into refugees. In writing the book Said not only embarked on an adventurous and highly controversial subject beyond the scope of his customary literary and theoretical interests, but also in a political sense redefined and renewed his commitment to the Palestinian cause.

His earlier books, particularly Beginnings (1975), established his reputation as a literary critic versed in modern French Theory, but conveyed little idea about his subsequent engagements. Hillis Miller in his review of Beginnings noted that it was not

 Easy or possible, for me at least, to predict on the basis of Beginnings that Said’s next book would be the impressively learned and yet polemical study of one aspect of modern Western intellectual and political history –Orientalism [2]

Beginnings: Intention & Method (1975)

Beginnings: Intention & Method (1975)

Yet more than signalling a major shift or transition in Said’s intellectual evolution, Orientalism indeed came to resolve the enduring paradox of a discrepant dual identity. In the same Diacritics interview Said declared:

 Until fairly recently I led two quite separate lives, which has always made me acutely appreciative of Conrad’s The Secret Sharer. On the one hand I’m a literary scholar, critic and a teacher. I lead a pretty uncontroversial life in a big university […] Yet I lead another life which most other literary people say nothing about […] My whole background in the Middle east, my frequent and sometimes protracted visits there, my political involvement: all this exists in a totally different box from the one out of which I pop as a literary critic, professor etc.[3]

The dynamic force of Orientalism and its quaint intellectual sophistication owes much to the reciprocity between Said’s personal conditions as an exiled Palestinian intellectual and his critical sensibility as an oppositional voice in the academic establishment and a staunch critic of hegemonic discourses such as Orientalism. Unlike many critics of his generation who continued to subscribe to the theoretical concepts and strategies of New Criticism or embraced the more radical practices of poststructuralist theory, Said always estimated the author’s location as central to any act of reading or interpretation. This had led some commentators to identify him sometimes as a conservative and traditional critic. But the gist of Said’s argument as he articulates it in the volume of collected essays, The World, the Text and the Critic (1983) is that texts do not exist in a vacuum. They cannot be isolated from authorial voice or intention, nor severed from the world of ideas and ideologies which they become part of by the very act of coming into the public sphere. Rather than being open to an infinite number of interpretations, as Roland Barthes would argue, texts have a certain semantic order and consistency that “place constraints upon what can be done with them interpretively”[4] .

In Orientalism too Said highlights the complex interplay between individual and society, text and tradition, personal views and cultural patterns. More specifically, Said points out, Orientalists could never get rid of the idea that they were part of a dominant and superior culture. They were forever encapsulated in the logic of power through which Europeans dealt with the Orient. The substance of their representations may have varied from one era to another, their images of Orientals may have been romantic at times, their aversion to Islam may have been attenuated by extended exposure to Islamic theology or actual travel and residence in Muslim lands, but the almost inevitable result according to Said is that these forms of contact with the Orient could only yield an imperfect and imaginary version of the Orient. Their productions of the Orient reflect not so much the reality of the so-called Oriental peoples as the projections, desires and fantasies of the Orientalists themselves.

الاستشراق،  ترجمة كمال لأبو ديب

الاستشراق، ترجمة كمال لأبو ديب

الاستشراق ترجمة محمد عناني

الاستشراق ترجمة محمد عناني









What condemns these accounts of the Orient to remain hopelessly exterior to their object of study, unable to contain its complex and elusive meaning and value is that their “truths like any truths delivered by language, are embodied in language”.[5] Hence the necessity to approach these accounts not as ‘natural depictions’ but as representations shaped and made meaningful by Western “institutions, traditions, conventions, agreed-upon codes of understanding”[6]. Said goes on to argue that in addition to being identifiably individual and subjective statements, Orientalist texts derive their meaning, structure and legitimacy from broader and more powerful entities such as culture, ideology, political institutions etc. As such Orientalism, Said maintains, can be read as the expression of European power and will to dominate the Orient, and not as a field of objective scholarly knowledge:

 Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient – dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.[7]

Drawing on Michel Foucault, Said uses the concept of discourse to account for the discursive nature of statements and representations made about the Orient. These statements are bound up together by internal consistency and cross-referencing and consolidated by a desire to dominate and rule over the Orient. The authority of Orientalism as a tradition, therefore, emanates from the “sheer-knittedness” of the textual and semantic fabric of individual works. Individual texts must be studied not as unique and original productions but as specimens of this enduring intellectual and political authority of the West over the Orient. Yet Said makes it clear that he differs from Foucault in underlying “the determining imprint of individual writers upon the otherwise anonymous collective body of texts constituting a discursive formation like Orientalism”.[8] Without a conscious and active role assigned to the individual author, Orientalism, we are led to understand, would not have acquired the vitality and diversity that distinguish it. Moreover, Said insists that Orientalism is not a hermetic science or an arcane doctrine, but an ensemble of ideas and practices grounded in worldly situations and geared towards political ends.

Said identifies the end of the eighteenth century as the beginning of modern Orientalism marked by Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt. He sees the campaign not only as an ambitious military operation conducted by an adventurous general in search of glory, but also as the expression of a will to dominate and subdue the East both militarily and culturally. Along with Napoleon’s army went a whole team of French scientists and artists whose task was to study Egyptian history, culture, religion architecture etc. The sum of their diligent work, which took many years, was a mammoth study entitled Description de l’Egypt which was the model of a new “scientific” knowledge about the Orient superseding traditional theological studies. As Said notes,

 After Napoleon, the very language of Orientalism changed radically. Its descriptive realism was upgraded and became not merely a style of representation but a language, indeed a means of creation”. P.87

What Said implies here is that the conquest of Egypt, albeit short-lived, caused a major rupture in the European perception and representation of the Orient. The Orient became more immediately available as a physical reality that could be appropriated and reshaped in concrete terms. De Lesseps project of digging the Suez Canal during the mid 1850s was a confirmation of this new form of physical authority over the Orient.

The effects of these imperial undertakings on the growth and evolution of Orientalism are profound. Unlike the ‘Bookish tradition’ of Sylvester de Sacy and Ernest Renan which approached the Orient through schematic and formulaic rules and structures, a new form of knowledge about the Orient based on actual travel and residence in the East emerged during the nineteenth century. English and French travellers drawing on previous Orientalist scholarship gave rise to a new secular tradition of Orientalism. Among the figures Said cites here are Edgar William Lane, Chateaubriand, Lamartine, Nerval, Flaubert, and Richard Burton. Their collective contribution to Orientalism was that they

domesticated this knowledge to the West, filtering it through regulatory codes, classifications, specimen cases, periodical reviews, dictionaries, grammars commentaries, editions, translations, all of which together formed a simulacrum of the Orient and reproduced it materially in the West, for the West.[9]

What did not change in this process of mutation in the Orientalist tradition was the positional superiority which the Orientalist felt in approaching his subject. Said uses the phrase ‘latent Oientalism’ to describe this positional superiority as opposed to ‘manifest Orientalism’ which implies “the various stated views about Oriental society, languages, literatures, history, sociology”.[10]  One concrete configuration of latent Orientalism was the persistence of binary oppositions such as the weak, decadent and primitive Orient versus powerful modern and civilized Europe, or the rational Orientalist versus the fatalist Oriental. There was always the inveterate claim that the Orient was the antithesis of the West, immersed in its own space and time, available for exploration, study and recreation but eternally irreconcilable with the West. Said reminds us, however, that the paradox of Orientalism is that eventually it was a meta discourse. Aside from being the sum of European knowledge about the Orient, it was also the expression of its own intellectual, moral, and political decadence. The symbiotic relation between European curiosity and obsession with the Orient and its imperial desire to conquer its lands and dominate its peoples eventually came to a point of crisis during the first half of the twentieth century.

In the aftermath of World War II and following the creation of the state of Israel, the United States became directly involved in the Middle East. Its strategic interests in the region have sparked a wide interest in the history, religion and culture of the Arabs. Yet unlike the ‘imaginative investment’ which characterized European tradition, American Orientalism, according to Said, is grounded in social sciences and dominated by pragmatic principles. Its practitioners belong to a new species of scholars whose expertise is often limited to a given domain of inquiry and overridden by a particular jargon. As with old Orientalist tradition Said sees little merit or value in this new form of scholarship except that it is made to serve administrative and policy-making institutions. His concluding statement carries an unmistakable, unmitigated sombre tone: “If the knowledge of Orientalism has any meaning, it is in being a reminder of the seductive degradation of knowledge, of any knowledge, anywhere, at any time.”[11]

In subsequent years Said continued to hold firm to this view. Political events related to the Middle East such as the Iranian Revolution, the first and second Gulf Wars, the Oslo Peace Process, the terrorist attacks against the United States and the invasion of Iraq by American-led forces have given new momentum to the old Orientalist tradition and consolidated current clichés and preconceptions about Arabs and Muslims. A plethora of American publications about these dramatic incidents deriving their arguments, images and rhetoric from traditional Orientalists, like Bernard Lewis, continue to flood the market. For Said these proliferating analyses and commentaries on Middle-East politics and culture confirmed his belief that Orientalism remains triumphant and that its political energy continues unabated.

Against this closed horizon Said advocates a humanistic perspective as the alternative to coercive and corrupt forms of knowledge. In one of his last essays written in 2003 on the eve of the American invasion of Iraq, Said notes that

 humanism is the only and I would go so far as saying the final resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history. We are today abetted by the enormously encouraging democratic field of cyberspace, open to all users in ways undreamt of by earlier generations either of tyrants or of orthodoxies. The worldwide protests before the war began in Iraq would not have been possible were it not for the existence of alternative communities all across the world, informed by alternative information, and keenly aware of the environmental, human rights, and libertarian impulses that bind us together in this tiny planet.[12]

Let me now conclude with two comments on the book. I have read a considerable number of reviews and essays which took issue with particular aspects of Said’s critique of Orientalism. Perhaps the most engaging and instructive of these critical responses, in my opinion, is James Clifford’s review essay contained in The Predicament of Culture. While I do not agree with many of the criticisms and accusations leveled against the book and its author, I believe that these exegeses have enriched and broadened my understanding of the book and the issues it addresses. It seems to me that the moral force of Said’s Orientalism, its militancy, and above all its humanistic vision give the book a value and a status far beyond what the strict protocols of academic evaluation can warrant. I continue to cherish and admire the moral stand of the book against injustice and denial of the Other. But as an analytical study of a remarkable intellectual tradition in modern European history, the book has raised more questions than provided answers.

First, there is a particular difficulty with Said’s definition of the Orient. Is it an imaginary space that exists only in the imagination of European and American Orientalists, or does it exist as a geographical, historical and cultural reality? Said states in the first page of his introduction that “the Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences”.[13] But a few lines down on the same page Said qualifies this definition by noting that “the Orient is not only adjacent to Europe, it is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies”.[14] There are important consequences to this oscillation between recognizing or suspending the correspondence between Orientalism as a discourse and domain of study and the Orient as a physical and cultural space. Reading Said’s book, we are never sure whether the object of study is the internal structure, power, motifs, imagery of Orientalist tradition or its concrete ethical political dimensions and affiliations with European imperialism. The source of perplexity is that Said’s choice is unsettled. His corpus consist of a selection of mainstream Orientalist texts varied in genre, rhetoric, theme and historical context but which to him seem to sum the processes of Orientalist thinking and reflect its complex ideological formations. This intentional condensation of Orientalism and delimitation of its massive archives led him to make statements that may be too vague or too radical to reconcile with the vast and heterogeneous body of Orientalist writing.

James Clifford made the sensible point that Said tried without being successful to combine Foucauldian discursive formations with traditional humanistic concepts such the authorial voice or intention:

 One cannot combine within the same analytical totality both personal statement and discursive statements, even though they may be lexically identical. Said’s experiment seems to show that when the analysis of authors and traditions is intermixed with the analysis of discursive formations, the effect is a mutual weakening.[15]

In an attempt to illustrate the internal consistency of Orientalist knowledge, Said is led to make careful choices of Orientalist texts. The particular circumstances and backgrounds of each Orientalist are never fully explored. The individual voice of the author matters only when it seems to echo or confirm a discursive pattern, hence the reduction into one broad category of discrepant subjectivities or the elimination altogether of particular authors or texts that are likely to disrupt the conceived homogeneity and inclusiveness of a given statement.

My second and last comment involves the systematic and intentional omission of North Africa in Said’s Orientalism. Said does not provide an explanation for such omission but his definition of the Orient being adjacent to Europe and the locus of its myths and fantasies, its imperial desires and colonial policies would equally be appropriate to apply to North African countries. Yet nowhere in Orientalism does said discuss European writings on North Africa or address European colonial experiences in this part of the Muslim world. Was it not the centuries-long clashes between Moroccans and Iberians and the cultural dynamics which the Andalusian model represented that shaped Europe’s early notions and images of Islam and Arabs? Did Iberian global and imperial reach not begin with the occupation of strategic outposts on the Atlantic coast of Morocco? Was it not the naval warfare tactics which North African corsairs used against expanding European trade in the Mediterranean and beyond since the Mid sixteenth century that had gained North African cities (Sale, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli) the notorious reputation of being nests of pirates and the prison houses of thousand of white Christian captives? There is a whole body of literature on captivity in Barbary dating back to the early seventeenth century that contributed to the perception of North Africans as fanatical populations ruled by brutal despots and misguided by a false religion. It is no coincidence that the Moor became an important figure in English drama or that one of the foundational fictional narratives in English, Robinson Crusoe should contain an episode of captivity endured by Crusoe in Salé reminiscent of that described by Cervantes in Don Quixote.

It is even more striking that in his discursive reading of nineteenth-century French Orientalist texts like Lamartine’s and Louis Massignon’s Said chose to ignore the pervasive and ubiquitous reality of French colonial presence in Algeria. The cultural and intellectual effects of this colonial moment on the growth of European Orientalism were deep and far-reaching as Patricia Lorcin demonstrates in her study, Imperial Identities: Stereotyping, Prejudice and Race in Colonial Algeria.[16] The French military expedition of 1830 transformed Algeria into a gigantic field of exploration and research conducted in institutes and polytechnics newly established in Algiers and Oran. The impact of these scholarly pursuits not only consolidated colonial authority and supplied useful knowledge about indigenous populations, customs, and languages in North Africa but it helped shape new visions and policies of dealing with the Orient farther to the east in the Arab peninsula and Mesopotamia.

In conclusion it must be reiterated that the genuine value of Said’s book lies in having been a powerful paradigm of resistance and contestation of hegemonic discourses such as Orientalism. Debates and controversies that the book has generated are clear evidence that the ultimate success of Said was not in setting up new truths and dogmas but in having enabled generations of readers and scholars to challenge orthodoxies, all orthodoxies.


[1] Edward Said, “Interview”, Diacritics (Fall 1976) 47.

[2] Hillis Miller, Theory Now and Then (New York: Harvester Wheastheaf, 1991) 133.

[3] Edward Said, “Interview”, Diacritics (Fall 1976) 35.

[4] Orientalism, 40.

[5] Orientalism, 203.

[6] Orientalism, 22.

[7] Orientalism, 3.

[8] Orientalism, 23.

[9] Orientalism, 166.

[10] Orientalism, 206.

[11] Orientalism, 328.

[12] Edward Said, “Orientalism Once More” Development and Change, 35.5 (2004) 879

[13] Orientalism, 1.

[14] Orientalism, 1.

[15] James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988) 269.

[16] Patricia M. E. Lorcin, Imperial Identities: Stereotyping, Prejudice and Race in Colonial Algeria ( London & New York: I B Tauris Publishers, 1999).