On Orientalism featuring Edward Said

Orientalism, a concept coined by the renowned American intellectual Edward Said has attracted praise and controversy in equal measure. While remaining Said’s definitive scholarly work, its thesis is a condensation of themes found in his other works such as The Question of Palestine and Covering Islam. To be concise, Orientalism can be defined as the synthetic study and analysis of Oriental philology, linguistics, ethnography, etc. It also encompasses the interpretation of Eastern culture through the discovery, recovery, classification and translation of the canon of Oriental texts. (Windschuttle, 1999, p.32) While this is the idealized definition of Orientalism, Said redefined the term to mean a distorted and prejudiced account fo Eastern culture and tradition as projected by imperialistic Western scholars.

Said’s scholarship and his personal life are always intertwined because of his background. He was born into a Palestinian Christian family that moved to the USA. This filled his formative years with contrasting tapestries of culture and religion, as well as offering him different perspectives on the Palestine-Israel conflict. In the documentary film ‘On Orientalism’ Said lays out his analysis of existing western scholarship on the Orient and how it contrasted with his own first hand experiences in the region. According to him, the stereotyped vision of Arabs as presented in western media and academia is a distortion and over-simplification of reality. Said asserts that dating from the Napoleonic conquest of Egypt in the 18th century, this sort of stereotyping is evident. (Kabbani, 1994, p.53)

In the first two sections of the documentary that behind such stereotyping is the mistaken belief that geographies and peoples surveyed by imperialists are somehow barbaric and unsophisticated when compared to western norms. What is also evident is the process of homogenization, whereby the vast mosaic of Oriental culture, language, social norms and religious beliefs are bracketed and abstracted into a unified whole. According to Said, Orientalism is the range of strategies adopted by Western scholars and artists of last two centuries to impose their authority on the East. In their representations, the Orient is a theatrical stage annexed to Europe. It is a place of superlative erotic delights, oppressive rulers, a subservient yet privileged aristocracy and enduring spiritual truths. Such stereotyping of alluring harems and sagely men of the East is quite removed from what actually is. In this distorted view, history is altogether made unnecessary by the manufactured, illusory realm. Moreover, the people of the Orient are seen merely as problems to be resolved, subjects to be conquered and races to be dominated. (Varisco, 2007, p.50) But the reality is far from such constructions, as accounts of people who live in different regions of the Orient attest to. And as Said suggests in the documentary film, this set of illusions about the Middle East is not accidental or due to scholarly oversight.

(The following two sections are chosen for critical analysis)

In the third section of the documentary, Said identifies a subtle yet marked difference between the stereotyping of the Orient by former European imperial powers and that done by the United States of America. In the latter’s case, the contact with the Orient has not been direct, but rather derived through the European imperial experience. Having attained a position of a global superpower since the end of World War II, the United States has had a strategic and material stake in the Middle East. With the Arab world rich in energy resources, the US cannot afford to remain aloof to political events in this region. It is hence impelled to create favorable situations for corporate exploitation and political domination.

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