One day you’ll wake up and ask, ‘What the fuck am I doing?’

Edward Said’s legacy: Our often racist or romanticised stereotypes of the Middle East create a worldview that justifies Western colonialism and imperialism.

Twenty years ago last September, Edward Wadie Said   ̶   a Palestinian and American scholar, intellectual, and literary critic who was the pioneer and leading figure of post-colonial studies  ̶  passed away.  Said published innumersable influential books, including Culture and Imperialism and The Question of Palestine, but his seminal book was Orientalism

I write about him today because, apart from being a prominent flag-bearer of Palestinian rights and a vocal commentator on Israeli policies, he wrote piercing insights which remain as relevant today as when they were written.

Edward Said

In Orientalism Said illustrates the intellectual tradition of defining and constructing the Orient, the eternal difference between “East and West”, and the West’s hegemony over the Middle East and other parts of Africa and Asia. Even today, many public and literary circles widely exhibit sentiments of exotic fascination with and, at the same time, superiority over Islam and the Muslim world.

Whether we are conscious of it or not, most of us are likely to have a vivid mental image of what the Middle East looks and sounds like.  You might visualise a bare landscape, the air heavy with heat and yellowed by billows of sand. In the background you would probably hear the melodic sound of a mizmār, or a haunting voice singing in a double harmonic scale.  You might as well be on the set of the film Lawrence of Arabia.

A particular viral TikTok video captures just how striking these tropes are in our collective awareness, as further emphasised by the popular media.  Watch the video and notice how the TikTokers satirise features commonly found in Hollywood films about the Middle East, such as Beirut (2018) or American Sniper (2014).

These tropes evidence what Said called ‘Orientalism’. His seminal 1978 book of the same name explores the ways Western experts, or “Orientalists”, have come to understand and represent the Middle East to millions of Westerners, including us.

Said analysed a vast, organised body of knowledge on the Middle East, starting with Napoléon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt, to reveal the supposedly neutral veneer of scientific interest and discovery of Western writers.  Said shows how these writings and ideologies actively perpetuate views of Middle Eastern people as inferior, subservient, and “in need of saving”.  In fact, these often racist or romanticised stereotypes create a worldview that justifies Western colonialism and imperialism.

Napoleon invades Egypt.

It is no wonder then, that the anti-colonial movements that spread throughout the Muslim world in the second part of the 20th century were labelled by Orientalists as subversive phenomena.  Later, newspapers and popular media controlled by a few individual businessmen propagated the idea of Arabs being potential terrorists, if not Ali Babas whose wealth could only be explained by dishonest extortion at the expense of civilised nations.

The high demand for oil and other resources in the West intensified dehumanising attitudes towards the “Oriental”. After the 1973 oil crisis broke out, western consumers exploiting the majority of the world’s resources began to exhibit what Egyptian political scientist Anwar Abdel-Malek identified as a “hegemonism of privileged minorities”.  Why should a minority of “primitive” Arab nations become rich to the detriment of superior Westerners?

As Said explains, Westerners believed they were entitled to a higher standard of living than their counterparts in the “Orient”.  Similarly, social and political systems that promoted liberal democracy and individual freedoms were seen as normative and integral to the West but dispensable in the Muslim world   ̶   so much so that Western nations backed dictators like Nasser in Egypt and Saddan Hussein in Iraq.  Today, they still support undemocratic regimes in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and elsewhere, to keep the oil running.

Sex

So far, I haven’t mentioned sex.  I will now.  One other Orientalist trait, as Lorenzo Forlani   ̶   a freelance Italian journalist specialising in Middle Eastern affairs   ̶  has written, is the invocation of sexual imagery to denote western domination of the Orient. Forlani shows how, in European literary works, the Orient is often represented as having typically feminine traits – seduction, vulnerability, fecundity  ̶  “as if its conquest metaphorically implies sexual submission to the western male”. The relationship between imperialism and gender has been examined and developed further by postcolonial and gender studies scholars.
 
Literary theorist Gayatri Spivak has even noted the irony of European feminist movements depicting the hijab as a symbol of Muslim women’s subordination to men, preventing them from achieving independence and self-realisation.  This 19th-century colonial representation has assumed tremendous importance with several countries, including Austria, France, Canada, and Russia, banning it, even though many Muslim women freely choose to wear it.

Ideological basis for Western hegemony

According to Said, the Orient is a “semi-mythical construct” imposed on a set of countries in East and South Asia.  Orientalists often roll the entire Orient into one, even though proper scientific studies would uncover a wide range of moral attitudes, religions, languages, cultures, and political structures, sometimes converging but also diverging.  What is more, as Said observes, the so-called scientific studies are full of harmful and sometimes contradictory stereotypes of so-called Oriental peoples, who are described as barbaric, lazy, suspicious, gullible, mysterious or untruthful.

But Orientalism isn’t just a set of myths. Said has shown how it is an interconnected system of institutions, policies, narratives, and ideas which provided the ideological basis for French and British colonial rule.  These Orientalist perceptions didn’t simply disappear after the colonial period. In fact, they continue to be used to this day as justification for contemporary foreign and domestic policies.

We all remember how George W. Bush and Tony Blair unilaterally and illegally invaded Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein under the pretext that he had weapons of mass destruction.  It little matters that such weapons were never found, nor that around one million people are estimated to have died in the aftermath of that invasion and the civil war.  Nobody would claim that the West was successful in “saving the Iraqis from themselves”.   Next door to us, we had a repetition of all this with the equally unlawful attacks on Libya and the removal of Muammar Gheddafi, a dictator once fêted in the West.

The American and British invasion of Iraq. Photo: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters.

A Palestinian “inferior”

But, of course, one cannot mention Edward Said without putting him in the context of Palestine.  After all, his family was exiled from Mandate Palestine during the 1948 Nakba  ̶  the catastrophic displacement and dispossession of Palestinians by Jewish immigrants from Europe.  It is no small matter that the Naqba was enabled by the Balfour Declaration and that the British Foreign Secretary tried to justify British Imperialism by underscoring the Orientals as inherently illogical, gullible, childlike, and inferior in contrast to the Occident.

Balfour’s speech projected not just military or economic dominance but rather the West’s perceived knowledge ascendancy, even though this was mainly acquired through strength. He asserted that intervention in the East was necessary to tame the Orientals.  The Western colonisers were similarly arrogant in dealing with Abdel Nasser when he nationalised the Suez Canal, invading Egypt with Israel’s connivance.  How dare Nasser have control of a canal which was the lifeline of the West?

To justify their intervention, the French and the British labelled him as a stooge for the Russians.  Does this ring a bell here, or is it acceptable that Maltese students of history are regaled with widespread fawning of the West’s superiority?  Like Nasser, Dom Mintoff was said to be a stooge for the Russians when he demanded proper self-determination. With the connivance of the Church led by Archbishop Gonzi he was labelled a Communist, all the more because he hit it off with Nasser and once famously said that he would treat with the devil, if necessary, to get the best deal.       

Dom Mintoff (l) and Nasser were both labelled by the West as stooges for the Russians.

Back to Said, he linked the experience of being at once an insider (he was educated in elite US universities) and an outsider (who would want to be a friend of an “inferior” Palestinian?) to the disparity he felt between his own identity as a Palestinian Arab and how Arabs are represented by the West. 

Said’s achievements

Said came to lament some of the influence his famous book had had. One of the negative consequences of the book’s success, he once said, is that “things got to the point where ‘if you want to insult someone, you call him ‘Orientalist.’”  Said was accused of implying that all Western scholarship about Arabs and Muslims was racist, or even that Western culture was irredeemably suffused with imperialist ideology. Some right-wing commentators associated Said with condemnation and derision of every aspect of the West.

This was another fictional construct because it was a contortion of the reality of the man’s work and beliefs.  Said was a lover of classical music and 19th-century European novels, an aesthete and cosmopolitan who grew up reading Shakespeare. As a secular Palestinian raised mostly in Egypt by Christian parents with ties to the US, he never fit into a box himself, as he recalls in his memoir, Out of Place.

Said’s achievements included bringing moral clarity to the Israel-Palestine conflict. He strongly argued that once the injustice to Palestinians was recognised and ended, peaceful coexistence with Israelis would finally be possible.  The current Israeli attempt to disinherit Palestinians again recalls to mind what Said had told the Israeli public: “We were the people dislodged from the land. We were the indigenous inhabitants who were thrown out to make way for a Jewish state. We are, in fact, victims of the victims.  One day you’ll wake up and ask ‘What the fuck am I doing?’”

An Israeli soldier stands guard, holding an assault rifle at Palestinian women and children. Photo Jaafar Ashtiyeh / AFP
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