The 100 best nonfiction books
Orientalism by Edward Said
This polemical masterpiece challenging western attitudes to the east is as topical today as it was on publication
Monday 21 March 2016 05.44 GMT
ext to the suicide bombings, the air strikes, and the beheadings, a closely argued 300-page monograph devoted to a radical post-colonial thesis might seem to suggest a modest literary intervention. Yet in the ongoing, brutal clash of Islam and the west, Edward Said’s analysis remains the book to which no combatant can be indifferent.
Orientalism is a profoundly influential and controversial study of the way in which, for at least 2,000 years, ever since the wars between the ancient Greeks and the Persians, the west has fought with, and largely dominated, the east through a persuasive colonial version of its culture and politics. Said’s masterpiece has been topical ever since its publication shortly before the 1979 Iranian revolution. Today, in an even more unstable world, it must be ranked high on any list of key texts related to the contemporary sociopolitical crises of the 21st century.
Said, a highly sophisticated and brilliant public intellectual, drew on his experience as an Arab-Palestinian living in the west to examine the way in which, from cu lture to religion, the west imperialised the ancient and complex societies of north Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. He would argue that the Gulf wars, and the catastrophe of Iraq, are a direct consequence of a fateful and crude ideology rooted deeply in the western mind.
Any summary of Said’s immensely subtle analysis of western attitudes and conduct towards the east risks becoming a travesty. However, in simplified terms, Orientalism examines the history of how the west, especially the empires of Britain and France, created a thought process to deal with the “otherness” of eastern society, customs and beliefs. As Said himself puts it, “I study orientalism as a dynamic exchange between individual authors and the large political concerns shaped by the three great empires (British, French, American), in whose intellectual and imaginative territory the writing was produced.”
The authors in question include Homer and the Greek playwrights such as Aeschylus who first characterised the Persians of “the east” in their dramas as exotic and inscrutable, stereotypes that Said shows subsequently to permeate the works of writers such as Flaubert, the young Disraeli, and Kipling, whose accounts of “the east” fed the west’s fascination with the orient. Said further sharpened the political edge of this narrative by showing how such ideas could be seen as a direct reflection of European racism and imperialism.
After the publication of Orientalism set off a firestorm of criticism from every angle of the east-west divide, Said declared, in a retrospective essay, that “the orient-versus-occident opposition was both misleading and highly undesirable; the less it was given credit for actually describing anything more than a fascinating history of interpretations and contesting interests, the better”.
These were vain hopes. In the nearly 40 years since Orientalism first appeared, the Middle East, the Arabs and Islam have continued to fuel enormous change, struggle, controversy and, most recently, warfare. Said, a pugnacious advocate for an independent state of Palestine became drawn into some visceral arguments in a way that helped politicise a book whose scholarly first intent had been to use, in Said’s words, a “humanistic critique to introduce a longer sequence of thought and analysis to replace the short bursts of thought-stopping fury that so imprison us”.
Said always longed for elegance and sophistication in argument. “I have called what I try to do ‘humanism’,” he wrote, a word that might surprise those who found him consistently combative and unforgiving in argument. But he was unrepentant. “By humanism I mean first of all attempting to dissolve Blake’s mind-forged manacles so as to be able to use one’s mind historically and rationally for the purposes of reflective understanding and genuine disclosure. Moreover, humanism is sustained by a sense of community with other interpreters and other societies and periods: strictly speaking, there is no such thing as an isolated humanist.” Perhaps it was Said’s tragedy that he should practise his craft as a great literary critic in an age which has had no patience with the subtleties of language, and no serious appetite for the nuances of a complicated idea. During Said’s professional life, almost every aspect of his study became reduced to slogans and violent posturing.
Indeed, just before Said died in 2003, he noted with dismay the continuing impact of “orientalist” ideology on the west: “Bookstores in the US,” he wrote, “are filled with shabby screeds bearing screaming headlines about Islam and terror, Islam exposed, the Arab threat and the Muslim menace, all of them written by political polemicists pretending to knowledge imparted by experts who have supposedly penetrated to the heart of these strange oriental people...”
As the US and the western powers continue to grapple with the crisis of Islam in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Libya, while desperately appeasing the oil-rich princes of Arabia, Orientalism will remain the text to which the Foreign Office and the State Department will have to return to replenish their search for mutual understanding in the conflict between east and west.
Said was always a vociferous enemy of theories about the “clash of civilisations”. With great elegance and clarity, he argued for intellectual progress. “One of the great advances,” he wrote as the Orientalism controversy raged around him, “is the realisation that cultures are hybrid and heterogeneous, and that cultures and civilisations are so interrelated and interdependent as to beggar any simply delineated description of their individuality.” How, he went on, “can one speak of ‘western civilisation’ except as an ideological fiction that gave the western nations their present mixed identities? This is especially true of the United States, which today can only be described as an enormous palimpsest of different races and cultures sharing a problematic history of conquests, exterminations, and of course major cultural and political achievements.”
In words that might provide an epigraph to this series, Italo Calvino once said that a classic is a book that has “never finished what it wants to say”. Orientalism is such a book.
A Signature Sentence
“No former ‘oriental’ will be comforted by the thought that having been an oriental himself he is likely – too likely – to study new ‘orientals’ – or ‘occidentals’ of his own making. 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 anytime.”
Three to Compare
Albert Hourani: A History of the Arab Peoples (1991)
Ammiel Alcalay: After Arabs and Jews: Remaking Levantine Culture (1993)
Edward Said: Out of Place – A Memoir (1999)
• Orientalism by Edward Said (Penguin, £10.99).
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