Orientalism by Edward Said (original publication 1978) is a fascinatingly interesting book. It is also a book that is virtually required reading if you are going to say anything at all about post-colonialism. Whether you agree or disagree with the central theme of the book is almost beside the point. This work is seminal and landmark – so it can be avoided only at your own cost.
I’ll get to the central idea of the book in a second, but first some advice for people thinking of reading it. I think, if I only wanted to get an idea of what the book was about, but didn’t have time to read 305 pages or so, that I would read the preface to the 2003 edition and then read the afterword (actually, you could probably read those the other way around if you wanted, that would probably make even more sense). The point being that he is so clear and so ‘summary’ in these two parts of the book that as an overview and a way to get at the meat of his argument you would struggle to get a better grounding than those parts of his book. The rest of the book is a bit more for the kind of person who likes ‘completeness’. Look, it is all beautifully written and utterly fascinating too – but like I said, life is short and this is the sort of book that covers more ground that you might feel you really need covered.
So, what’s it all about? Well, Orientalism probably doesn’t mean what you might first think. You might assume that it has something to do with China – which isn’t quite where he is coming from. Said is tracing the history of an idea and in that idea the exotic East was the Middle East long before it was the Far East. That is what makes this book essential reading. If there is one thing that is increasingly being used to define our understanding of the world today – in the way that the Cold War defined our world for large parts of the 20th Century – it is the relationship between the West and Islam. We are constantly told that Islam is monolithic, that Islamofascists are wanting to impose Sharia Law on a hapless and ‘too democratic for our own good’ West. That we are pluralistic, they are clones. The main lesson of this book is to beware as soon as anyone starts using the word WE. It can be the most dangerous word in the language. But the similarities between the pluralist US and the monolithic THEM so reminded me of the East / West cold war that it was terrifying.
The Orient has long been a place where Westerners have projected their lusts, their dreams and their nightmares. Much of what is said about the East in this book by ‘Orientalists’ confirms masturbatory desires on behalf of the Orientalists themselves more than it says about life in the Middle East.
In fact, Orientalism says infinitely more about the West than it does about whatever we choose define as the Orient. The problem is one of essentialism. East is East and West is West and neither the twain shall meet – but not only is this geographically stupid, for it to be true in any sense it relies on a definition of the two ‘diametrically opposed’ opposites that must be taken as being real and total explanations before you start.
It requires us to have a single notion of what a Muslim is – as if this religion covering so many millions of people and having lasted for centuries and centuries could really, somehow remain self-identical across all of that time and all of that space. Such an idea ought to be utterly ludicrous after a moment’s reflection (not that such ideas ever really get even a moment’s reflection) – but our desire for a simple and clear and easily defined enemy is such that we lump together Seventh Century Arabs with Twenty-First Century Indonesians as if they were all identical.
And it gets worse. Not only are they all the same, but they are also too stupid to even understand the first thing about themselves. It is only because of we remarkably generous Westerners being able to explain their history to them, their language, society and character, that they have any ideas about themselves at all. This is the role of the Orientalist, a role he (and from what I can gather from this book it does seem to virtually always be a he) has played rather consistently over the centuries.
What is particularly interesting here is that Said says Orientalists don’t really treat the Orient as if it was a place, in space or time, but rather as a text – written once and then indelible. The Orient really reached its glory days a long time ago – you have to remember that much of our mathematics and virtually all of our Classical Philosophy came from Islamic scholars. So, to explain this we need to see Islam and the Orient as a culture in decay, a culture that is degenerating. But still a text nonetheless. And a text that can only be read by a properly schooled Western scholar. And what is the appropriate schooling for such a scholar? Well, not necessarily Oriental texts, as you might think – but rather texts about the Orient by previous Oriental scholars. This is like an entire school of Shakespeare scholarship that never actually refers to any of the poems or plays, but rather discusses previous works of scholarship on Shakespeare. And like such scholarship the assumption is that the plays never change – just as it is assumed the Orient and those who live there never changes either. You can understand the Muslim mind by reading the Koran – in a way that you can’t understand the Western mind by reading the Bible.
Of course, our television makes this unity of the Orient something that is self-evident. Other than Israel, the rest of the region is self-identical. This was made particularly clear during the so called Arab Spring when an image of an Arab in headgear shaking his fist could have been someone revolting in Libya, or Tunisia, or Egypt, or Syria – and fortunately from our perspective in the West all of these countries were identical and had identical problems and were resolving those identical problems in exactly the same way. Through unreason and violence – that is, a particularly Oriental and non-Western way.
If this book is anything, it is a plea for us to recognise the humanity of the other – of the Arab other in this case. One of the things I’ve become increasingly concerned about is what I call aggregated facts. For example, when I hear that the USA spends more on healthcare than any other nation or how much an average Australian spends on education, I become worried. People who talk in averages are not to be trusted – there, a generalisation you can rely on in a review telling you not to rely on generalisations. What people who talk in averages are about to say next is generally a lie. ‘How can there be a problem when America already spends more on healthcare than any other nation on earth?’ ‘How can Australia need the Gonski Report, we already spend a fortune on education?’ But averages mask how much is going to some people and how little is going to others. Averages are lies told in numbers. Aggregating humans as if all you need to say about them is that they are Arabs or Americans or Australians and then thinking that is somehow all you needed to say, that a single label can explain entire human cultures, is the stuff of racist fantasy. That so many otherwise rational and intelligent people have fallen into this trap (yes, I’m looking at you Hitchens – but not only you) and have done so repeatedly is to all of our shame.
Unfortunately, the work of learning about other cultures cannot be done by pouring them into a single bucket and giving them a single name. People are insanely complex and the societies they make are even more so. To imagine for a second that by calling a society Arabic or Islamic suddenly makes it any easier to understand says far more about the person pointing their finger and calling names than it does about those on the receiving end.
Of course this doesn’t only go for Arabs – or even just those living in Asia – but this is a common theme for all people who we think of as being different from ourselves and so group into a single mass. This book is a mirror held up before us (whoever that US is) – we should have the courage to look squarely into that mirror and learn the lesson it is trying to teach us.
Highly recommended, essential reading.
This review first appeared on GoodReads on April 17, 2013. The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Interfaith Houston.