April 20, 2012
Where the Twain Should Have Met
The cosmopolitan Edward Said was ideally placed to explain East to West and West to East. What went wrong?
I first met Edward Said in the summer of 1976, in the capital city of Cyprus. We had come to Nicosia to take part in a conference on the rights of small nations. The obscene civil war in Lebanon was just beginning to consume the whole society and to destroy the cosmopolitanism of Beirut; it was still just possible in those days to imagine that a right “side” could be discerned through the smoke of confessional conflagration.
Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation was in its infancy (as was the messianic “settler” movement among Jews), and the occupation itself was less than a decade old. Egypt was still the Egypt of Anwar Sadat—a man who had placed most of his credit on the wager of “Westernization,” however commercially conceived, and who was only two years away from the Camp David accords. It was becoming dimly apprehended in the West that the old narrative of “Israel” versus “the Arabs” was much too crude. The image of a frugal kibbutz state surrounded by a heaving ocean of ravening mullahs and demagogues was slowly yielding to a story of two peoples contesting a right to the same twice-promised land.
For all these “conjunctures,” as we now tend to term them, Said was almost perfectly configured. He had come from an Anglican Palestinian family that divided its time and its property between Jerusalem and Cairo. He had spent years in the internationalist atmosphere of Beirut, and was as much at home in French and English as in Arabic.
A favorite of Lionel Trilling’s, he had won high distinction at Columbia University and was also up to concert standard as a pianist. Those Americans who subliminally associated the word “Palestinian” with swarthiness, bizarre headgear, and strange irredentist rhetoric were in for a shock that was long overdue. And this is to say little enough about his wit, his curiosity, his care for the opinions of others.
Within two years he had published Orientalism: a book that has exerted a galvanizing influence throughout the quarter century separating its first from its most recent edition. In these pages Said characterized Western scholarship about the East as a conscious handmaiden of power and subordination. Explorers, missionaries, archaeologists, linguists—all had been part of a colonial enterprise.
To the extent that American academics now speak about the “appropriation” of other cultures, and seldom fail to put ordinary words such as “the Other” between portentous quotation marks, and contest the very notion of objective inquiry, they are paying what they imagine is a debt to Edward Said’s work. It isn’t unfair to the book, I hope, to say that it also received a tremendous charge from the near simultaneous revolution in Iran and the later assassination of Anwar Sadat.
The alleged “Westernization” or “modernization” of two ancient civilizations, Persia and Egypt, had proved to be founded upon, well … sand. The word of the traditional policy intellectuals and Middle East “experts” turned out to be worth less than naught. Although this book said little on the subject of either Iran or Sadat, it burst on the knowledge-seeking general reader even as it threw down a challenge to the think tanks and professional institutes.
To be appraised properly, Orientalism ought to be read alongside three other books by Said: Covering Islam (1981), Culture and Imperialism (1993), and Out of Place (1999). The last of these is a memoir, which was the target of a number of scurrilous attacks essentially aimed at denying Said (right) the right to call himself a Palestinian at all. The first is an assault on the generally lazy press coverage of the Iranian revolution and of all matters concerned with Islam.
Culture and Imperialism is a collection of essays showing that Said has a deep understanding, amounting at times to sympathy, for the work of writers such as Austen and Kipling and George Eliot, who—outward appearances notwithstanding—never did take “the Orient” for granted.
In scrutinizing instances of translation and interpretation, the inescapable question remains the same: Who is interpreting what and to whom? It is easy enough to say that Westerners had long been provided with an exotic, sumptuous, but largely misleading account of the Orient, whether supplied by Benjamin Disraeli’s Suez Canal share purchases, the celluloid phantasms of Rudolph Valentino, or the torrid episodes in T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. But it is also true that Arab, Indian, Malay, and Iranian societies can operate on a false if not indeed deluded view of “the West.” This much became vividly evident very recently, with the circulation of bizarre libels about (say) a Jewish plot to destroy the World Trade Center.
I, for one, do not speak or read Arabic, and have made only five, relatively short, visits to Iraq. But I am willing to bet that I know more about Mesopotamia than Saddam Hussein ever knew about England, France, or the United States. I also think that such knowledge as I have comes from more disinterested sources … And I would add that Saddam Hussein was better able to force himself on my attention than I ever was to force myself on his. As Adonis, the great Syrian-Lebanese poet, has warned us, there exists a danger in too strong a counterposition between “East” and “West.” The “West” has its intellectual and social troughs, just as the “East” has its pinnacles. Not only is this true now (Silicon Valley could hardly run without the work of highly skilled Indians, for example), but it was true when Arab scholars in Baghdad and Córdoba recovered the lost work of Aristotle for medieval “Christendom.”
Cultural-political interaction, then, must be construed as dialectical. Edward Said was in a prime position to be a “negotiator” here. In retrospect, however, it can be argued that he chose a one-sided approach and employed rather a broad brush: “Without examining Orientalism as a discourse one cannot possibly understand the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage—and even produce—the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period.” (“Produce,” as in “cultural production,” has become one of the key words of the post-Foucault academy.) In this analysis every instance of European curiosity about the East, from Flaubert to Marx, was part of a grand design to exploit and remake what Westerners saw as a passive, rich, but ultimately contemptible “Oriental” sphere.
That there is undeniable truth to this it would be idle to dispute. Lord Macaulay, for example, was a near perfect illustration of the sentence (which occurs in Disraeli’s novel Tancred) “The East is a career.” He viewed the region both as a barbarous source of potential riches and as a huge tract in pressing need of civilization. But in that latter respect he rather echoed the feeling of his fellow Victorian Karl Marx, who thought that the British had brought modernity to India in the form of printing presses, railways, the telegraph, and steamship contact with other cultures.
Marx didn’t believe that they had done this out of the kindness of their hearts. “England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindustan was actuated only by the vilest interests,” he wrote, “… but that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfill its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia?” To the extent that empire licensed this, Marx reasoned, one was entitled to exclaim, with Goethe,
Should this torture then torment us
Since it brings us greater pleasure?
Were not through the rule of Timur
Souls devoured without measure?
Said spent a lot of time “puzzling” (his word) over Marx’s ironies here: how could a man of professed human feeling justify conquest and exploitation? The evident answer—that conquest furnished an alternative to the terrifying serfdom and stagnation of antiquity, and that creation can take a destructive form—need have nothing to do with what Said calls “the old inequality between East and West.” (The Roman invasion of Britain was also “progress,” if the word has any meaning.)
Moreover, Marxism in India has often been a strong force for secular government and “nation building,” whereas Marxism in China has led by a bloody and contradictory route to a highly dynamic capitalist revolution. To discount all this, as Said did, as a “Romantic Orientalist vision” (and to simply omit the printing press, the railways, and the rest of it) is to miss the point in a near heroic way.
The lines from Goethe are taken from his Westöstlicher Diwan, one of the most meticulous and respectful considerations of the Orient we have. And Said’s critics from the conservative side, notably his archenemy Bernard Lewis, have reproached him for leaving German Orientalism out of his account.
This is a telling omission, they charge, because Oriental scholarship in Germany, although of an unexampled breadth and splendor, was not put to the service of empire and conquest and annexation. That being so, they argue, what remains of Said’s general theory? His reply deals only with the academic aspect of the question: Goethe and Schlegel, he responds, relied on books and collections already made available by British and French imperial expeditions. It might be more exact to point out, as against both Lewis and Said, that Germany did have an imperial project.
Kaiser Wilhelm II visited Damascus and paid for the restoration of the tomb of Saladin. A Drang nach Osten (“drive to the East”) was proposed, involving the stupendous scheme of a Berlin-to-Baghdad railway. German imperial explorers and agents were to be found all over the region in the late nineteenth century and up to 1914 and beyond. But of course they were doing all this work in the service of another, allied empire—a Turkish and Islamic one. And that same empire was to issue a call for jihad, against Britain and on the side of Germany, in 1914. (The best literary evocation of this extraordinary moment is still Greenmantle, written by that veteran empire-builder John Buchan.) However, the inclusion of this important episode would tell against both Said, who doesn’t really allow for Muslim or Turkish imperialism, and Lewis, who has always been rather an apologist for the Turks.
Osama bin Laden, as we must always remember, began his jihad as an explicit attempt to restore the vanished caliphate that once ran the world of Islam from the shores of the Bosporus. As we often forget, Prussian militarism was his co-sufferer in this pang of loss.
Among Edward Said’s considerable advantages are that he knows very well who John Buchan was and that he, Said, was educated at St. George’s, an Anglican establishment in Jerusalem, and also at a colonial mock-English private school, Victoria College, in Cairo. (One of the head boys was Omar Sharif.) There were some undoubtedly penitential aspects to this, recounted with dry humor in his memoir, but they have helped him to be an “outsider” and an exile in several different countries and cultures, including the Palestine of his birth. When he addresses the general Arab audience, he makes admirable use of this duality or multiplicity.
In his columns in the Egyptian paper Al-Ahram he is scornful and caustic about the failures and disgraces of Arab and Muslim society, and was being so before the celebrated recent United Nations Development Programme report on self-imposed barriers to Arab development, which was written by, among others, his friend Clovis Maksoud.
Every year more books are translated and published in Athens than in all the Arab capitals combined. Where is there a decent Arab university? Where is there a “transparent” Arab election? Why does Arab propaganda resort to such ugliness and hysteria?
Much of secular Arab nationalism was led and developed by Europeanized Christians, often Greek Orthodox, whereas much of atavistic Islamic jihadism relies on anti-Jewish fabrications produced in the lower reaches of the tsarist Russian Orthodox police state. Said has a fairly exact idea of the traffic between the two worlds, and of what is and is not of value. He is a source of stern admonition to the uncritical, insulated Arab elites and intelligentsia. But for some reason—conceivably connected to his status as an exile—he cannot allow that direct Western engagement in the region is legitimate.
This might be a narrowly defensible position if direct Islamist interference in Western life and society had not become such a factor. When Orientalism was first published, the Shah was still a gendarme for American capital in Iran, and his rule was so exorbitantly cruel and corrupt that millions of secularists were willing to make what they hoped was a temporary alliance with Khomeini in order to get rid of it.
Today Iranian mullahs are enriching uranium and harboring fugitive bin Ladenists (the slaughterers of their Shia co-religionists in Afghanistan and Pakistan) while students in Tehran risk their lives to demonstrate with pro-American slogans.
How does Said, in his introduction to the new edition of Orientalism, deal with this altered and still protean reality? He begins by admitting the self-evident, which is that “neither the term Orient nor the concept of the West has any ontological stability; each is made up of human effort, partly affirmation, partly identification of the Other.” Fair enough.
He adds, “That these supreme fictions lend themselves easily to manipulation and the organization of collective passion has never been more evident than in our time, when the mobilizations of fear, hatred, disgust and resurgent self-pride and arrogance—much of it having to do with Islam and the Arabs on one side, ‘we’ Westerners on the other—are very large-scale enterprises.”
This is composed with a certain obliqueness, which may be accidental, but I can’t discover that it really means to say that there are delusions on “both” these ontologically nonexistent sides. A few sentences further on we read of “the events of September 11 and their aftermath in the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq.” Again, if criticism of both sides is intended (and I presume that it is), it comes served in highly discrepant portions.
There’s no quarrel with the view that “events” occurred on September 11, 2001; but that the military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq were wars “against” either country is subject to debate. A professor of English appreciates the distinction, does he not? Or does he, like some puerile recent “activists” (and some less youthful essayists, including Gore Vidal), think that the United States could not wait for a chance to invade Afghanistan in order to build a pipeline across it? American Orientalism doesn’t seem that restless from where I sit; it asks only that Afghans leave it alone.
Misgivings on this point turn into serious doubts when one gets to the next paragraph: “In the US, the hardening of attitudes, the tightening of the grip of demeaning generalization and triumphalist cliché, the dominance of crude power allied with simplistic contempt for dissenters and ‘others,’ has found a fitting correlative in the looting, pillaging and destruction of Iraq’s libraries and museums.”
Here, for some reason, “other” is represented lower case. But there can’t be much doubt as to meaning. The American forces in Baghdad set themselves to annihilate Iraq’s cultural patrimony. Can Said mean to say this? Well, he says it again a few lines further on, when he asserts that current Western policy amounts to “power acting through an expedient form of knowledge to assert that this is the Orient’s nature, and we must deal with it accordingly.”
In the process the uncountable sediments of history, which include innumerable histories and a dizzying variety of peoples, languages, experiences, and cultures, all these are swept aside or ignored, relegated to the sand heap along with the treasures ground into meaningless fragments that were taken out of Baghdad’s libraries and museums. My argument is that history is made by men and women, just as it can also be unmade and re-written, always with various silences and elisions, always with shapes imposed and disfigurements tolerated, so that “our” East, “our” Orient, becomes “ours” to possess and direct.
This passage is rescued from sheer vulgarity only by its incoherence. The sole testable proposition (or non-tautology) is the fantastic allegation that American forces powdered the artifacts of the Iraq museum in order to show who was boss. And the essential emptiness of putting the “our” in quotation marks, with its related insistence on possession and appropriation, is nakedly revealed thereby.
We can be empirically sure of four things: that by design the museums and libraries of Baghdad survived the earlier precision bombardment without a scratch or a splinter; that much of the looting and desecration occurred before coalition forces had complete control of the city; that no looting was committed by U.S. soldiers; and that the substantial reconstitution of the museum’s collection has been undertaken by the occupation authorities, and their allies among Iraqi dissidents, with considerable care and scruple.
This leaves only two arguable questions: How much more swiftly might the coalition troops have moved to protect the galleries and shelves? And how are we to divide the responsibility for desecration and theft between Iraqi officials and Iraqi mobs? The depravity of both is, to be sure, partly to be blamed on the Saddam regime; would it be too “Orientalist” to go any further?
I said earlier that I wondered whether Said was affected, in this direly excessive rhetoric, by his role as an exile. I am moved to ask again by his repeated and venomous attacks on Ahmed Chalabi and Kanan Makiya, Iraqi oppositionists denounced by him, in effect, for living in the West and being expatriates.
Never mind that this is a tactical trope of which Said should obviously beware. The existence of such men suggests to me, in contrast, that there is every hope of cultural and political cross-pollination between the Levant, the Orient, the Near East, the Middle East, Western Asia (whatever name you may choose to give it), and the citizens of the Occident, the North, the metropole. In recent arguments in Washington about democracy and self-determination and pluralism, it seemed to me that the visiting Iraqi and Kurdish activists had a lot more to teach than to learn.
At that same far-off and long-ago conference in Cyprus, so near to the old Crusader fortresses of Famagusta, Kantara, and St. Hilarion, I also had the good fortune to encounter Sir Steven Runciman, whose history of the Crusades is an imperishable work, because it demonstrates that medieval Christian fundamentalism not only constituted a menace to Islamic civilization but also directly resulted in the sack of Byzantium, the retardation of Europe, and the massacre of the Jews. It is desirable that the opponents of today’s fanaticisms be as cool and objective in their recognition of a common enemy, and it is calamitous that one who had that opportunity should have chosen to miss it.
Christopher Hitchens was a contributing editor of The Atlantic, and also a columnist for Vanity Fair.
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved. The Atlantic Monthly; September 2003; Where the Twain Should Have Met; Volume 292, No. 2; 153-159.