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The Others

John Swift

The more one is able to leave one’s cultural home, the more easily is one able to judge it, and the whole world as well, with the spiritual detachment and generosity necessary for true vision. The more easily too does one assess oneself and alien cultures with the same combination of intimacy and distance.
Edward Said

Edward Said was born in November 1935 and died in 2003. Eighty years after his birth and the best part of forty years since the publication of his most influential book (Orientalism, 1978), it seems opportune to reconsider his work and to re-evaluate his importance as a thinker and activist.

Said was a Palestinian Arab-American, born in Jerusalem. He received his first schooling there, and then in Cairo and in Massachusetts, studied at Princeton and Harvard and taught at Columbia University from 1963 until his death. He was the author of twenty books, editor of the Arab Studies Quarterly, a member of the US Council on Foreign Relations and a prolific journalist. His views and arguments have always been controversial. Tony Judt, who should have known better, called him “probably the best known intellectual in the world”. He was on surer ground in describing him as one of the most influential scholars of the late twentieth century.

Said’s interests encompassed history and political commentary, comparative literature and literary theory, cultural criticism and music. His major political focus was on the Middle East and, in particular, on Palestine and Israel. This essay will argue that, while in certain respects his work on orientalism was flawed, its basic thesis was valid and resulted in healthy improvements in the scholarly approach to his subject. I also believe that his political views and commentaries were as important, if not more important, than his theories and that, more than a decade after his death, they are still relevant to the contemporary situation in the region of his birth. In addition, his final collections of essays, written between 1994 and his death, are more accessible and more revealing of Said’s breadth and subtlety of mind than is the book Orientalism. The tension in them between Said the historian and Said the Palestinian activist and propagandist adds to their interest rather than detracting from it.

Orientalism is a lengthy, complex and stimulating work, covering major epistemological, ethical and political themes; it is the main foundation document of postcolonial studies, now an important discipline in its own right in many third-level institutions. For it, Said drew especially on his knowledge of colonial politics, literary theory and postmodernism. His main mentors were Gramsci, Foucault, Althusser and Walter Benjamin; Gramsci’s theory of hegemony and Foucault’s stress on the knowledge/power nexus were particularly important influences. His scholarship is impressive in range and depth, especially in tracing the evolution of a consistently negative European view of “the East” from classical times, through the medieval, Renaissance and Enlightenment periods to the present day, and in delineating its assimilative and comprehensive reach. He took issue especially with the over-generalised language and over-collectivised characterisations which became standardised in writing on the Orient, and which did violence to the diverse and evolving cultures, races and regions involved. He also questioned the implicit binary relationship of us/them, superior/inferior, rational and civilised versus irrational and (at best) less civilised. His thrust, based on Gramsci’s concern to “know yourself”, was to appeal to fellow-scholars for greater self-critical examination and re-examination of methodologies, with a view to achieving a more balanced and objective scholarly discourse.

Said’s book features, in direct quotation, a great number of denigratory characterisations of the Orient, its races, culture, history, traditions, society and possibilities. One example, from the hundreds cited, will suffice to illustrate the slipshod and self-interested caricatures which he saw as being accepted far too widely as authoritative and insightful. At the beginning of his chapter on the scope of orientalism, he quotes Cromer, who approved the words of his mentor Alfred Lyall: “Accuracy is abhorrent to the Oriental mind … want of accuracy which easily degenerates into untruthfulness is its main characteristic . . .  the mind of the Oriental is eminently wanting in symmetry … his reasoning is of the most slipshod description … singularly deficient in the logical faculty … incapable of drawing the most obvious conclusions … wanting in lucidity … self-contradictory”. Orientals and Arabs are thereafter shown to be gullible, devoid of energy and initiative, given to “fulsome flattery”, intrigue, cunning and unkindness to animals. Such reductionist views were the received wisdom in late nineteenth century Europe; they co-existed oddly with a growing systematic knowledge of the East, reinforced by the colonial encounter, as well as by the developing sciences of ethnology, philology, history and comparative anatomy, and by literary works.


Halfway through his study, in the chapter “Latent and Manifest Orientalism”, Said draws some broader conclusions or workable assumptions about the general nature of scholarly endeavour as regards certain topics, viz.

… that fields of learning are constrained and acted upon by society, by cultural traditions, by worldly circumstances and by stabilising influences like schools, libraries and governments; and that the advances made by a “science” like Orientalism in its academic form are less objectively true than we are often inclined to think.
The work of predecessors, the institutional life of a scholarly field, the collective nature of any learned enterprise, these, to say nothing of economic and social circumstances tend to diminish the effects of the individual scholar’s production. A field like Orientalism has a cumulative and corporate identity, one that is particularly strong given its associations with traditional learning (the Bible, the classics, philology), public institutions (governments, trading companies, geographical societies, universities), and generically determined writing.
If my description of Orientalism appears more political than not, that is simply because I think Orientalism was itself the product of certain political forces and activities.

Said applies his conclusions especially to modern orientalism, which he dates from about 1870, when colonial empires in the East began to expand rapidly. Between 1815 and 1914 it is calculated that Europe’s colonial dominions grew from about 35 per cent to about 85 per cent of the surface of the globe. During this period, the racial classifications found in Blumenbach, Cuvier, Gobineau and Robert Knox were strengthened by second-order Darwinism, which was accepted as proving the scientific validity of the division of races into advanced and backward, civilised and its contraries, European/Aryan and Oriental/African. But our author is at pains to point out that the complex of ideas encompassed by orientalism were not just a post factum rationalisation and excuse for colonial conquest; their essence frequently preceded imperial expansion. He is also careful to distinguish his views from the more rigidly deterministic position of Foucault, who believed that the individual author or text counted for very little; Said, on the contrary, argues for close textual reading precisely to reveal the dialectic between the individual text and the overall scholarly assemblage of which it forms part.

Said was right, I believe, to hold that this web of racism, cultural stereotyping, political and economic imperialism and dehumanising ideology was strong and pervasive, and was still being used in the mid-1970s, inter alia as an anti-Arab and anti-Islamic instrument. He has fun in briefly dissecting, as a modern example of the genre, an article entitled “The Arab World” by Harold W Glidden which appeared in the February 1972 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry. Glidden was a retired member of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the US State Department. In its disdain for material evidence, its single-minded negativism and its self-confident assertiveness about the “inner workings of Arab behaviour”, Arab aberrancy, the Arab shame culture, its fascination with vengeance and low valuation of peace, etc, Glidden’s article as quoted is beyond caricature. In the twenty-first century, is there any doubt that much of the political debate on, say, developments in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria is led by “insights” which scarcely rise above this level, and that popular feelings on Western security concerns, jihadism and migration are stimulated with material of similar quality?

In spite of these strengths, Said’s study does have some weaknesses of style and substance; his readability is not helped by too much clumsy writing, too much repetition and too much abstract postmodernist jargon. Some sections of the book are particularly badly organised, almost incoherent. There is also a curious and damaging circularity to the word “Orientalism” and perhaps to the subject, in Said’s approach; he redefined the word radically; one of his opponents later complained that “Orientalist” was now an insult. Said first defines it in an expanded and comprehensively negative, anti-humanistic way, and then he criticises it for the very qualities he has loaded on to it. His use of, and overreliance on, the word “Orientalism” weakens his case.

As regards substance, it is no accident that those who took Said’s theses most seriously changed the title of his subject-matter to “postcolonialism”, because, of course, the treatment he complains of was self-evidently not meted out only to Arabs and Islamists. He himself includes, somewhat vaguely, among its victims, people of the Far East and Africa but those subjected to imperialism ranged much more widely than this. Not only do British attitudes to Ireland, (Giraldus Cambrensis, through Edmund Spenser and Cromwell, to many in the late nineteenth century) echo very closely those of Europeans to Arabs as enumerated by Said; but British attitudes to darker-skinned Europeans, and even to the French, were often of exactly the same nature. What could be more “Orientalist”, for example, than the attitude of Cromer to the French, quoted by Said?

Said is selective in giving scant coverage to the anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist political tradition which had roots in many European countries and in the US in the nineteenth century, and which became increasingly important from the late 1930s onward. He makes a token bow in the direction of the dissident actors on the Middle East scene, Burton, Doughty, Scawen Blunt etc, but only as an additional stick to beat the orientalists with. Orwell’s essay on Marrakech is mentioned and quoted briefly; but the ILP and Fenner Brockway do not merit a reference and Franz Fanon is not included in the index. It could be argued that minority movements were not part of his subject, but to the extent that they are almost totally omitted, Said’s picture is incomplete and unbalanced.

Finally, the author’s evident efforts to distance himself from pure determinism and to avoid slipping into the very fault he is criticising, that is a facile and over-generalised characterisation, are not always successful. For example, to describe orientalism as a “willed human work” in respect of Mill, Newman, George Eliot and Dickens, rather than just noting that they shared common contemporary views on race, imperialism and European superiority, is provocative. To say that the so-called textual attitude to orientalism “makes Balfour and Cromer inevitable” is to stretch a good argument too far. And what are we to make of a conclusion that “every European in what he could say about the Orient was consequently a racist, an imperialist and almost totally ethnocentric”? At worst, this could be interpreted as simple prejudice; in any event it adds no persuasiveness to the point being made.

In different sections of his work, Said labels what he calls Orientalism a “type of paranoia” and an “intellectually discreditable series of ideological fictions”. But he believes that alternatives to orientalism, based on libertarian, non-manipulative perspectives, are possible. In the final section of his book, he pays tribute to a small number of scholars and institutions – Anwar Abdel Malek, Clifford Geertz, Jacques Berque, Maxine Rodinson, Roger Owen, the Hull group. He considers that they have freed themselves from the old ideological straitjackets, that they are directly sensitive to the material they are dealing with and that they engage in a continued self-examination of their methodology and practice. This balances in a limited way the bleakness and lack of balance in his earlier analysis.

When Said died, many moving tributes were paid to him, by Alexander Cockburn, Seamus Deane, Christopher Hitchens, Tony Judt, Michael Wood and Tariq Ali among others. Of these, that by Judt seems to me to be the most perceptive regarding Said’s personality and the most illuminating about his pro-Palestinian activism. Judt has no doubt that, while witty and cultivated, Said was a deeply angry man, and that as a committed pro-Palestinian activist, he had much to be angry about. He takes the view that Said remained a traditional humanist; that he consistently championed engagement and dialogue and opposed violence; and that he favoured intellectual dissent even to the point of discord as a necessary condition for progress. Judt writes: “My own expressed doubts about the core thesis of Orientalism were no impediment to our friendship.” He notes that Said lived always at a tangent to the profile traditionally associated with his various causes. He was born into a Christian family, educated in elitist colonial schools, was for many years more at ease in English and French than in Arabic, was an American citizen and academic, and was not even a typical exile in that he lacked a homeland state to give allegiance to and to remember (or misremember).

According to Judt, Said pursued three themes consistently in his final years: the urgent need to tell the world, above all to tell Americans, the truth about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians; the parallel urgency of getting Palestinians and other Arabs to recognise and accept the reality of Israel and engage with Israelis, and especially with the Israeli opposition; and the duty to speak openly about the failings of Arab leadership. A particular point with him was to tell the truth to and about his own people. Thus, in May 1991: “Whether Israeli intellectuals have failed or not in their mission is not for us to decide; what concerns us is the shabby state of discourse and analysis in the Arab world.” The reason for this stress was to avoid the “fawning elasticity with regard to one’s own side that has disfigured the history of intellectuals since time immemorial”. Judt acknowledges that, in his early and consistent critique of the Oslo agreements, Said got it right and those more hopeful than he were wrong. Most specifically, Said argued that if the Oslo process was to have any chance of success, the important issues for Palestinians ‑ full sovereignty, the pre-1967 frontiers, a right of return, some share in Jerusalem, Jewish settlements – had to be on the table from the outset, and not postponed until the “final status” negotiations.

Judt states that for the last decade of his life Said had given up on the two-state solution and was an unbending advocate of a single, secular state for Israelis and Palestinians. He argued that “Much more important than having a state is the kind of state it is.” He may have been ahead of his time and his people in believing that “historic Palestine” was now a lost cause and that there was only going to be one real state in the common area in future, viz Israel. There was an undoubted logic in believing that the state of Israel would never agree to a workable two-state formula, that it was unlikely it could be pressured to do so and that, even if it were, a Palestine of the West Bank and Gaza in their existing form, (chopped up into separate and often non-contiguous cantons, criss-crossed by Israeli-controlled roads and studded with Jewish settlements), could only be incoherent, ungovernable and unstable.

Said may have concluded that if “historic Palestine” was now a lost cause, so also might be “historic Israel”. In May 1998, he finished an essay entitled “Fifty Years of Dispossession” as follows: “The only reasonable course therefore is to recommend that Palestinians renew the struggle against the fundamental principle that relegates ‘non-Jews’ to subservience on the land of historic Palestine. This, it seems to me, is what is entailed by any principled campaign on behalf of justice for Palestinians and not (an) enfeebled separatism … Only by facing the inherent contradiction between what in effect is a theocratic and ethnic exclusivism on the one hand and genuine democracy on the other can there be any hope for reconciliation and peace in Israel/Palestine.”

The overall position in Israel/Palestine as described by Judt is compelling: “Two peoples, each sustained by its exclusive victim narrative, competing indefinitely across the dead bodies of their children for the same tiny piece of land. One of them is an armed state, the other a stateless people, but otherwise they are depressingly similar. What, after all is the Palestinian national story if not a reproachful mirror to Zionism, a tale of expulsion, diaspora, resurrection and return? There is no way to divide the disputed homeland to mutual satisfaction and benefit. Little good can come of two such statelets, mutually resentful, each with an influential domestic constituency committed to the destruction and absorption of its neighbour.”

Most of the many essays on Palestine written by Said between 1995 and his death in 2003 were for Al-Ahram (Cairo) and were aimed at an Arab readership; they are collected especially in The End of the Peace Process (first edition 2000) and From Oslo to Iraq (2004). In these, he returns repeatedly to what he considers the essential core of the Palestinian case; first, the basic injustice of Zionism in Palestine and the true story of 1948; second, the continued facts of occupation and displacement, with the inevitable consequential violence and brutalities.

The implicit framework he invokes is that of the Jewish state as imperialist, with the Palestinians as its “natives”. For example, in his article on Isaiah Berlin (December 1997), he includes Weizmann telling Roosevelt: “We could not rest our case on the consent of the Arabs; as long as their consent was asked, they (would) naturally refuse it.” And he refers to Balfour’s memorandum of August 1919: “In Palestine, we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country … Zionism is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”

For what happened in 1948, Said depends on the work of the “revisionist” historians, both Israeli and Arab, including Benny Morris, Ilan Pappe, Avi Schlaim, Zeev Sternhell, Nur Masalha, Walid Khalidi etc. For example, in article on the Deir Yassin killings of April 1948, he quotes Morris as holding that the massacre was not just random brutality perpetrated by Begin’s Irgun but that it was abetted by the Haganah as part of a thought-out plan – the Dalet Plan – to empty Palestine as much as possible of its Arab population. Elsewhere (essay of August 1995) Morris is quoted as believing that leading Zionists, including David Ben Gurion and Joseph Weitz, had made it clear to their subordinates that the Arabs should be made to leave.

The views of these historians are, of course, controversial and Said uses them almost exclusively to bolster the Palestinian perspective. But he makes a strong case that as “victims of victims”, the Palestinian voice had been essentially unheard and unheeded, academically and in the media, for fifty years. He notes in passing that the difficulties of winning a hearing for Palestinians are not helped by the tendency among Arab apologists to deny or minimise the reality of the Holocaust.

In many of these essays, attention is drawn to the linkage between the policies and events of 1948 and Israeli Government policies, especially in the West Bank and Gaza, in the 1980s and 1990s. He returns again and again to the continuing facts of occupation and displacement. His account is of collective punishments, mass land appropriations, administrative detentions, house demolitions, forced movements of population, destruction of crops, trees and machinery, confiscations of records, closures of schools and universities, random censorship of the media and books, “enhanced interrogation” or torture, assassinations targeted or otherwise, with the inevitable “collateral damage” in the form of civilian deaths, and daily, almost routine acts of brutality and harassment.

He asks what these policies have yielded in terms of increased security for the ordinary Jewish Israeli, and concludes that they should be abolished in the interests of Jews and Palestinians alike. This is Palestinian truth as Said saw it – as an émigré nationalist, from a distance, but based on visits, on the testimony of those he trusted and on his wide reading of both day-to-day journalism and academic studies. By definition, a majority of Israeli Jews do not agree with him; but a minority, perhaps a growing minority, have become more and more uncomfortable with the way their state is evolving, faced with the refusal of the Palestinians to be “Red-Indianised”, (as Said put it). One of his emphases was to demand an accounting from ordinary Israelis, in terms of an acknowledgment by them that wrongs were done to Palestinians, individually and collectively, that the state of Israel bears some responsibility for those wrongs and that the question of restitution is outstanding.

Said’s views are perhaps best considered in the context of the changing history of the reputation of Israel within the world community. The image I grew up with, of Israel as a gallant little country surrounded by enemies, is dead. Following the Six-Day War, after the invasion of Lebanon and with growing momentum since the first and second intifadas, impressions of the state have steadily darkened everywhere except in the United States. Israelis take comfort from the qualification, but it is necessarily a minimum comfort; Israel has few friends and no dependable allies except the US. Its claim to the moral high ground, such as it was, has been weakened, perhaps fatally; its international respectability is in question; what it has gained in security is questionable; its known strengths – a devastatingly effective army, a democratic system which functions reasonably for its Jewish citizens, perhaps the best government PR machine in the world – are a scant recompense, and in themselves provide no guarantee of a qualitatively different future.

Edward Said contributed more than most to having the Palestinian voice heard, to having the best Palestinian case accepted. He was consistent in holding that the only hope for the future was a decent and fair coexistence between the two peoples, based upon equality and self-determination. He opposed fundamentalism in Islam and in Judaism, and argued for the building of secular democracies, based on improved education and more vibrant civil societies in Palestine and more widely in the Arab world. He opposed jihadism and condemned without reservation what he described as “primitive ideas of revolution and resistance, including a willingness to kill and be killed, which seem all too easily attached to technological sophistication and what appear to be gratifying acts of horrifying symbolic savagery”(September 2001).

Above all, Said fought against the polluted source to be found in all cultures, the notion that my way of life, my traditions, my way of thinking, my religion or civilisation cannot be shared with nor understood by anyone not born here, or who is not of the same culture, religion, civilisation as I am. It is this which unites what is best in his study of orientalism with what is most humane and appealing in his articles on Palestine and Israel, the need for each power, every culture, all civilisations (and not just imperialists) to overcome their instinctive distaste for the stranger, their visceral suspicion of what is different.

In a review published in December 1983 of Zdzisław Nadjer’s biography of Conrad, Said gives the following pen-picture of the Polish-born writer: “Conrad despised colonialism, had a conservative’s love of tradition, an idealist’s hatred of tyranny, a sceptic’s lack of faith in political commitment, an English gentleman’s reticence about the cruder forms of democratic contest and an émigré’s uncertainty regarding his adopted country.” He concludes that Conrad always retained his faith in the ethics, if not in the results, of efforts towards freedom. This tells us as much about Said’s inner world as it does about Conrad’s.

John Swift retired from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs in 2006. His last posts were as Ambassador to Cyprus, Ambassador to the Netherlands and Permanent Representative to the UN (Geneva). – See more at: http://www.drb.ie/essays/making-the-link-breaking-the-link#sthash.mdxnT7Vm.dpuf



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