Edward W. Said, a contributing editor of this magazine, is Parr Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. His 1978 book, Orientalism, has had an enormous impact on Western understanding of the Middle East. His most recent book, with Jean Mohr, is After the Last Sky. James Paul spoke with him in New York in July 1987.
How did Orientalism originate?
The immediate background was the period from 1967 through 1973: two Arab-Israeli wars with different outcomes; the relative explosion of interest in the contemporary Middle East in the Western media and in the academic world. The quality of the writing, intellectually and politically as well as from a literary standpoint, struck me as incredibly impoverished and backward. My own sense of my history as an Arab and as a Palestinian didn’t seem to bear any relationship to what I was reading. I felt that my own history, which had been enmeshed with the West in various ways, had never really responded to the challenge of the West.
My generation had grown up in the shadow of direct colonialism and then imperialism. There was a whole texture of relationships having to do with knowledge and power, and identity and political events, that required an inventory. The thrust to actually write the book with the force that it had owed to the emergence of the Palestinian movement. This I took also to be an attempt to act as an interlocutor rather than as a silent and inert Other.
This raises the issue of the role of the intellectual.
The problem of expertise and professionalism is directly relevant to the Orientalist sort of policy problem. As Foucault says, studies of this sort are really studies of the present. The beginning point was obviously the moment then — the middle to late 1970s. From that present tense I began to work backwards. Originally it was to have been about 150 pages — rather more like Bryan Turner’s book [Marx and the End of Orientalism] than mine.
Did your conception of it alter substantially?
Totally. Afterwards I began to see things that I had either done or not done, sides of the book that I hadn’t completely understood. I was trying to talk about a series of two or three things, and it was very, very hard to keep them related.
There’s also the problem of audience. I was never really conscious when I was writing of the audiences that I thought I was addressing. Later on, you begin to be aware of how an Arab audience would read it in almost comically different ways than, say, an American or European audience. A lot of people thought that I was writing a defense of Islam or that I was writing a defense of the Arabs or an attack on the West. This was the furthest thing from my mind at that point. In fact, I was attacking the notion of the Orient and, for that matter, the notion of the Occident.
The most interesting thing is how the book was taken up and other things developed out of it that I couldn’t have possibly predicted or done myself. For example, there’s the whole problematic of the so-called Other. Some feminists have connected Orientalism to the discovery of the woman in nineteenth-century culture. The second is the whole problematic of what representation involves — in the visual arts, film, photography and caricature, for instance. There’s also the problem of what is called discourse analysis — how do you deal with systematized languages that purport to deal with subjects. So in that respect it is very closely connected to the things that Foucault was doing in the middle 1970s with the book on discipline and punishment, where discourse analysis is connected to political and sociological control.
The least encouraging impact of Orientalism, though, was in Middle East studies. There the reaction was uniformly defensive.
First, it was published by a mainstream, commercial publisher who gave it some attention. Second, I was not writing as a member of the academic establishment, which allowed me a certain set of presumptions to speak in a particular way. Third, there was a concatenation of various events: the oil crisis, the 1973 war, the Iranian revolution a little later on. There was widespread consciousness of the immense power of the means of production of representations — images, media, all of these sorts of things. Anouar Abdel-Malek’s article in Diogenes, which meant a lot to me, may have been read by a few hundred people. But Orientalism was read by many thousands.
What I was doing — this is something that I learned from Foucault — was producing things that become a box of utensils for other people to use. In anthropology in particular, it raised the question of what it means when an entire science is based upon unequal power between two cultures. In sociology, in political science, it also raised the question of how you talk about areas of the world that are seen not neutrally but as part of some political configuration. I wasn’t trying to resolve the question of what the Orient is, or what the real Islamic world is, but rather to raise questions.
Furthermore, Middle East studies seems to be governed the most by what you might call pragmatic and policy-oriented issues. No one pays attention to the larger question of what it is that one is doing. It’s extraordinary. The whole theoretical dimension is completely absent in Middle East studies. A historian would never think of turning to a Middle Eastern history journal to try and understand what general lessons might be drawn about the writing of history. Why is there a conscious or unconscious consensus against theoretical work in Middle East studies? That could be political. It could be the formation of people. There could be more immediate stakes here: jobs, patronage, money. Bryan Turner’s book, it seems to me, makes the most profound intervention on the theoretical level. And nobody, with maybe two exceptions, has even tried to take up what Turner’s talking about — whether as a Marxist, a sociologist, a historian or a political scientist.
It arrived at a time when the field was at a point of great vulnerability.
But what about the people going into the field? They seem so put upon by virtue of the immense amount of positive knowledge that you have to get — languages to master, texts, traditions and all the rest of it — that they have no time for anything else. Why hasn’t there been an attempt to connect what has been going on in literary theory? Literary theory is partly to blame; they’re not interested in what’s going on in political fields like the Middle East. In political science, take Althusser’s impact on political theory. You don’t see any of that reflected whatsoever in Middle Eastern studies. Or take the question of late capitalism, which seems an essential part of the production of knowledge.
But today the Middle East Studies Association seems to be much more receptive to the kind of argument that you were making.
Yes, I think we can see the beginnings of a new kind of scholarship which Orientalism was incapable of developing. The other thing is the rather more frank admission on the part of a lot of people in Middle Eastern studies that the field is highly political in nature and therefore the likely site of open contests. People take sides much more openly. People are known, in terms of their scholarly work in Middle Eastern studies, to be openly Zionist or anti-Zionist, or openly imperialist or anti-imperialist. The appearance of new apologists, such as Daniel Pipes and Barry Rubin, has made the debate more open and therefore more lively.
The debate at MESA definitely marked a changed tone in the professional Middle East studies establishment. How does this connect up with the broader production of understandings and public policy concerning the Middle East?
There has not been much change at the public level. Lewis, at the beginning of his statement in the debate,  asserted that very little of our discussion would have any effect on reality, on the way business was conducted, on the way the Middle East was represented and seen, and the way policy went. That was the only thing he said that he was absolutely right about. He knew that power, as it were, was on his side and that the establishment was listening to him no matter what he said, whereas Hitchens and myself were upstarts who command the interest of the audience but very little else.
Nevertheless, Lewis’ point of view was discredited to the extent that people expected him to say something more pertinent, more concrete. Instead, he fumbled around and tried a senior common room chit-chat, which completely failed. He stood there without very much to say except that his point of view prevailed whereas ours didn’t. But we knew that to begin with.
There is a sobering thought to keep in mind here. Lewis revealed the failings of the Orientalist as a generalist, the man who could pronounce about medieval history, about the Arab world, about Arab culture, Islam, in very general terms. In fact, MESA has been taken over by a younger generation of scholars who use modern methodologies, who are influenced by Marxism, by the computer, by all up-to-date research tools, but whose field of interest is much more narrowly defined. They can talk about things in perhaps a less venturesome way, therefore less provocatively. That is not necessarily a better thing. Specialists in Indian, in Latin American, in African studies have produced work that is of interest to other fields. I don’t think the same is true of Middle Eastern work. This could be because the field is so weighted with political contests, because the patronage involved is so great, because the stakes seem to be immediate and direct, and because the issues in the Middle East are so much before the public eye.
Intellectuals in Latin America have had a dynamic impact on Latin American studies. In Asian studies, there is the influence of Chinese Marxism, positive and negative. To what extent are intellectual developments in the Middle East contributing to this poverty in Middle East studies?
In the last part of the book I talk about Arabs as important producers of Orientalism. History journals in the Arab world depend heavily on the paradigms of Orientalism. There is no sense in which they are contributing to changing it. At most you may get a few pioneering works about Arab nationalism that acquire a kind of authority. But Geertz’s book [Meaning and Order in Moroccan Society], for example, has literally not a single Moroccan source cited for the study of Moroccan marketplace ritual! That couldn’t happen in Latin American anthropology.
For one thing, Arab and Islamic thought in the last half-century put great emphasis on translations. Early nationalists like Afghani and ‘Abduh stressed the need to catch up with the West, so Arab intellectuals felt it their duty to go out and just translate huge masses of things into Arabic and make them available.
Secondly, regarding the Arab left, you’re talking about a kind of philosophy and ideology, a critical science, which seems to have stopped at Marxism as a kind of dogmatic orthodoxy rather than Marxism as a critical tool. There’s very little Gramsci or Althusser translated into Arabic. The whole tradition of Western Marxism that produced important major works between the two world wars, that literature isn’t there.
The third factor is religious and cultural, which many intellectuals in the Arab world are only now beginning to investigate in ways not dominated by the paradigms of Western Orientalism. What is it that produces, in such a surprising way, the Iranian revolution pretty much under the noses of most contemporary Iranian intellectuals? If you look carefully at writings of Arab nationalists, there’s very little to account for the rise of the Palestinian national movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Why? Because there’s a misapprehension of the sources of authority of the native culture.
Another factor must be the internal conditions in those societies for intellectual production.
Everything is politicized in the most reductive and mindless way. Nothing is free from being saturated with immediate political reference, which means that it’s virtually impossible to portray things on a more nuanced palette. It’s easiest simply to say things in the most obvious political manner. There has been such a rush to get on with technological and developmental strategies that you have an almost total neglect of the humanistic, theoretical and critical disciplines. I’ve been teaching at Columbia for 22 years. The only students I have are what you would call first world students. I’m not saying that people should be studying literature necessarily, or English literature in particular. But this simply reconfirms the patterns of political, economic and ideological domination that I was speaking about at the end of my book.
This gets back to the notion of critical versus non-critical science.
The problem is the following: In my field I’m not talking on a blank stage. There’s a large literature dealing with the problems of criticism and critical theory. In Middle Eastern studies, there’s no literature at all. What are the theoretical presuppositions of the study of the Middle East today? You would go to [Leonard] Binder’s book [The Study of the Middle East] which is essentially positivist. There’s very little in it which suggests anything more than an archival stocktaking, a history of what people said. The June 1975 MERIP issue on the Middle East Studies network is critical but not theoretical. It’s an adumbration of an attitude that one would like to see develop.
One place that I find myself going increasingly with admiration really, is Bryan Turner’s work. There he puts it all down. He talks about the state, about the family, about history, about sociology, economics, and he tries in many ways to draw forth a model. Maybe because the book is so programmatically Marxist it has turned off a lot of people.
In Middle East studies, it almost seems that if crucial political questions are raised, the entire structure would blow apart. To what extent does this owe to the character of the Arab-Israeli conflict?
It’s curious how people tend to think of things in terms of Arabs versus Israelis, or Arabs versus imperialists. There isn’t an Arab side. The summer of 1982 was a perfect example of it. The same is probably true of the other side, whether you call it Israeli or Zionist or Jewish. What we’re really talking about is a collective investment in the interest of maintaining blocs. You really have to work at destroying those blocs.
The two sides are not co-equal.
No, but they seem to exercise the same kind of control over their respective territories with the same kind of authority.
Is there a place where MERIP can touch raw nerves in the immediate future?
What is MERIP’s place in this whole congeries of forces? The people whom MERIP is going against can afford not to say what they are. The State Department doesn’t need self-consciousness. It has the power: It simply says, this is the way the world is. The media don’t have to reflect on their position. But we have to. There has to be a discourse of self-conscious intervention. This is where we are and this is what we’re trying to do.
Where does this necessary self-critical reflection take place?
The one place in which there’s been some interesting and innovative work done in Arab intellectual life is in literary criticism and literary production generally. That never finds its way into studies of the Middle East. You’re dealing with the raw material of politics. Literary critics and novelists require a rather more sensitive filtering process. You can deal with a novelist as a kind of witness to something and say, well, Naguib Mahfouz, he’s writing about political life in Egypt in the 1940s, or Ghassan Kanafani, he’s writing about the Palestinian dilemma. Orientalist literary studies are almost all of that sort, examining literature as an index to political, economic and historical things.
The problem of literary language is a real issue. Because in the end, all of us are working with language. We’re dealing with sources and what people said, citations, and the awareness of how political and other forms of language change.
From that you could move to cultural production in general in the Arab world. What does that tell us about the development of the state? There’s a very important and quite remarkable magazine in Egypt called Fusul, which has been publishing a kind of avant-garde criticism of Arabic literature, both contemporary and classical. How do those kinds of people operate, as opposed to the kinds of witnesses and chroniclers that we generally tend to cite?
Literature is able to look at society from the vantage point of individuals and their daily lives. Should MERIP pursue some project with a literary side?
Not uncritically. If you assume that literature is essentially about human experience, and that it’s specific, you’re really espousing a kind of realistic epistemology for literature. But most of the really powerful literature of, say, Latin America is not about that experience at all. We’re talking about the fantastic. So we first of all have to separate literature from everyday life in that kind of one-to-one correspondence and think instead of literature as the inscription of certain kinds of forces: libidinal, psychological, historical forces.
I began my professional career as a scholar of Conrad. And one of the interesting things that I discovered, quite by chance, is that a significant number of contemporary African works, both in Arabic and in English and French, were not about daily experience, but were really attempts to rewrite the colonial paradigm, to reinscribe it. Take Heart of Darkness. The most interesting novelists, like Chinua Achebe and Ngugi and al-Tayyib Salih, were attempting not to tell about what we really did, but to rewrite Conrad so that the paradigm is not daily experience, but the writer from the colonial era. There’s a very sophisticated understanding that literature is about literature. These writers were trying to reinscribe their own myths. This other realm is more interesting — the realm of the fantastic, of the psychological, the unconscious and the historical.
You write of the phenomenon of Orientalism as exceptional in terms of the relations between the powerful and powerless in intellectual production. Is it really any different from how the oppressed are always diminished by the intellectual production of those in power?
Central to Orientalism in the Middle Eastern instance is Islam. You can’t study the Orient without dealing with Islam. For many Orientalists of past and even present generations, Islam is a deeply antipathetic and repulsive phenomenon. The younger generation is freer in its inhibitions and antipathies. There is a greater attempt to understand a different culture in human and historical terms.
Every imperialist phenomenon resembles every other one, yet every one is quite different. How much is generic to imperialism? It could be a form of paranoia on my part, but it does seem to me that the Orientalism I was speaking of contains a unique set of attitudes, a kind of virulence and persistence that I haven’t seen elsewhere. African studies have changed in fairly massive ways in the twentieth century; Indian studies have changed; Latin American studies have changed. Orientalism has a remarkable holding power, supported by the media and popular discourse, in which Arabs and Muslims and terrorism and evil are all wrapped up together. There is a very powerful compactness that I don’t find anywhere else.
Orientalism draws largely on the realm of literary and historical studies. Is there a gap between this kind of hegemonic cultural production of the intelligentsia and understandings at a mass level?
Fouad Moughrabi’s studies of public opinion polls and some of Chomsky’s work suggest that if people are given a chance to discuss Palestinian rights, American intervention in Lebanon, Israeli occupation policies, they will generally oppose current US policy. The big difference between this issue and other foreign policy issues is that here you not only have a very powerful pro-Israel lobby, but you also have a much greater degree of ignorance. At the level of literary representations, television and film images, it is virtually impossible to find anything like the degree of mindless or malicious stereotyping that you find in the case of Arabs, Muslims and the Middle East generally. Publishers have avoided opportunities to translate and publish contemporary and even classical Arabic literature. Journals of opinion and of record avoid anything about the Middle East that would suggest opposition to Israel, sympathy and support for the Palestinians, anything that might humanize Muslims. Even commentators who are sympathetic to, shall we say, the “left” position, the MERIP position on the Middle East — Noam Chomsky, Alexander Cockburn and others — routinely avoid Middle Eastern sources. They would rather quote American, Israeli or European sources. There is something intrinsically untrustworthy about a Middle Eastern or Arab source. They quote a Nicaraguan on Nicaragua, a South African black on South Africa, but they never quote Arab or Muslim material. I have mentioned this to both of them as a kind of value judgement that they have made, and both admit to being troubled by it. Those are all part of the same picture — this lack of knowledge and this continued politicization so that even the act of translating a novel in a Middle Eastern language is considered a political act with unpleasant consequences.
In spite of the troubled position of the Orientalists in Middle East studies, Orientalism seems to have undergone a revival among the broader literate public, part of the colonialist nostalgia represented by the Banana Republic stores.
In England, France and the US, there had been a fairly massive investment in colonialist nostalgia — the Raj revival stuff like Jewel in the Crown and Passage to India, the film Out of Africa. It is a simple, colorful world with heroes and prototypes of Oliver North — the Livingstons, the Stanleys, the Conrads and Cecil Rhodeses.
A much more sinister aspect is a general revulsion with the Third World. In the early 1970s, Conor Cruise O’Brien wrote one of the first, and in my opinion one of the most important studies of Camus as a colonialist writer. Ten years later, O’Brien had become an apologist for the Israelis, and to some degree for South African apartheid, as well as a vehement opponent of Irish nationalism. There was a turn. You see it too in people like Chaliand, who had once been an enthusiast of various revolutions of the Third World. People were disappointed. Revolutionary enthusiasm had been betrayed. We got Bokassas and Idi Amins instead. Pascal Bruckner’s Tears of the White Man argues that liberal sentiment for oppressed and underprivileged non-whites — itself a Naipaulian theme — is a fantastic mistaken illusion. These people are monstrous and deserve opprobrium, not the sympathy of the white man. This is the Reagan option and of course there is no shortage of people willing to go along with that.
This is true among the intellectuals and producers of ideas in New York. But do these sentiments carry over into the broader population?
We are talking about trends that are organized and led hegemonically, in the sense that Gramsci uses the term, by “directive classes,” people with high visibility, people who command a mass audience. Norman Podhoretz has a column in the New York Post and is syndicated all over the country. Herbert Schiller is right: Information has become so commodified that the opportunities for oppositional types like us to get our ideas out to a larger audience have become more slender. We should keep trying. There are ingenious ways of getting around these problems and the censorship they represent. But we shouldn’t have any illusions about a large public out there, critically examining the cliches on the CBS Evening News every night. The mass media seems to be getting coarser, more reliant upon a few very simple ahistorical cliches. Moreover, various intellectual attempts to remedy this new barbarism, like E. D. Hirsch’s book on cultural literacy, or Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, are intensely xenophobic and white Western Eurocentric. This all comprises a most disturbing circuit.
You have said that the Middle East studies establishment at first took a defensive and somewhat hostile stance towards your critique of Orientalism. Yet it’s clear from our subsequent discussion that its greatest impact has been precisely within the guild, so to speak.
I don’t think we should be gloating over our successes just yet. Most academic departments of Middle Eastern studies throughout the country, whereas they may pay lip service to the critique of Orientalism, nevertheless are firmly bound by the guild. Take somebody like Rodinson, an old friend and a man I respect enormously. His view of my critique has been very, to put it mildly, mixed. He supports a lot of what I say on political grounds, but he wants to defend Orientalist knowledge, the privileged perspective of the scholarly observer who is removed from the local contests, from the daily actualities. Why does he do this? In the name of knowledge.
One thing we must do is to introduce into the study of the Middle East not just the methodologies or the jargons of interpretation, but the attitude of interpretation. What we are talking about is interpretive knowledge and not just certain knowledge. We are dealing with human, and therefore historical, modes of production. It also seems to me, and obviously Lewis was alluding to it, that there is still a great deal of politesse, that you don’t attack me and I won’t attack you. This is a gentlemanly kind of thing in which the prevailing norms of investigation, of criticism, of examination are extremely timid and scandalously lax.
Why? It doesn’t seem to me that there is very much to be afraid of if you were to take on the canonical work of traditional Orientalism and submit it to the kind of rigorous examination that, for example, Talal Asad has been doing to the work of Clifford Geertz. That is a very apt model. Categories like religion, ritual and tradition can be scrutinized. They are used by anthropologists and other scholars with a kind of abandon that suggests that they are known quantities when in fact they are not. That kind of systematic critique — methodological, ideological, philosophical — is eminently important.
Finally, it is absolutely necessary to be aware that if you are dealing with knowledge, and certainly knowledge about the Middle East, you are dealing with it in the world. There is a reticence to enter the fray and venture statements about US policy, about imperialism at large, about cultural questions, on the grounds that “I’m really a historian, a specialist, a scholar. I shouldn’t get involved in this kind of thing.” People seem to require a kind of anchoring in a corner of the field, leaving the larger questions to others. One ought to remember that one is part of a community of scholars where the intellectual vocation is very important. It is not just a matter of dealing with a world of policy, but dealing with a world of ideas generally. Middle Eastern scholars are very far removed from the debates in literary theory, in anthropology, in history, in other things, to which they have a lot to contribute. That kind of worldliness is in fantastically short supply.
 The Middle East Studies Association of North America sponsored a debate on “The Scholars, the Media and the Middle East” on November 22, 1986, at its twentieth anniversary meeting. Edward Said debated Bernard Lewis, professor emeritus of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University. Their seconds were Christopher Hitchens, Washington correspondent for The Nation, and Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, respectively. The debate was transcribed in the winter 1987 issue of the Journal of Palestine Studies.