Until his death, Edward Said was a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University. He was also a Middle East activist, a scholar, and an eminent person in postcolonial studies. Born in 1935, his mother was Lebanese and his Father Palestine.
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He started his education in Egypt and later moved to the United States where his father had acquired citizenship. He gained reputation as an intellectual. As a fellow at Stanford University, he published his most acclaimed piece of writing, Orientalism, a book that has provided fodder for debate in many disciplines.
This essay will expound on Said’s Orientalism and the relation between the orient and occident.
According to Said, Orientalism is a collection of suppositions and dogmas defining Western (American and Europe) perception and attitudes towards the Middle East (117). The west has been consistent in its prejudice against the Islamic people.
The Middle East culture was glamorized in the western culture to the extent that European and American imperialists found it justifiable to pursue their colonial interests there. What makes Said angry is the realization that some Arabs elite have been brainwashed to accept this misconceptions about Arab culture (97)
Western scholars who study Asian affairs have formed a body of knowledge that is based on generalization rather than objective facts. An irrational behavior by one person in the East is used as a basis for defining the entire society.
In their hasty generalization, the scholars document these archetypes and sell them as literary texts. These texts form the foundation of historical records. The West therefore defines itself in its definition of the East. If the East is lazy and crude, then the West is hard working and civilized. It is the West’s duty to civilize the East.
The notion of “us” and “them” is entrenched and the two are viewed as being antithetical. In the contemporary world, the West views the East in terms of oil and Islam. The later is sometimes equated to terrorism.
A further illustration of how the East is defined is the coinage of the world Mohammedianism, obviously borrowed from its Christian equivalent, Christianity (Varisco, 305).
Occident refers to the countries of Europe and North America. Varisco argues that occident and orient have been constructed as opposite terms (306). While the West stands for everything good, virtues and respect, the East is the direct opposite.
Occident reporters and scholars misrepresent the East and, therefore, propagate the notion that it is the moral duty of the West to control or regulate the people of Middle East (Malcolm, 545).
Chapter 1 of Orientalism traces the development of Orientalism as dating back to the early interactions between the West and the East. The Orientalist (Western scholar) was fast to form an impression that Arabs were uncivilized.
The scholars sent by their respective countries of the West to stay with the Arabs in the Middle East generalized the cultures of the natives as inferior. They also stereotyped Arabs as lazy, crude, and incapable of governing self. The natives’ culture was viewed in terms of the western culture.
The West, therefore, took it upon them, using the tools of power at their disposal to exercise rule and power over the East. This was the onset of colonization and imperialism (“Critical Examination of Edward Said’s “Orientalism”, par. 6)
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The second chapter focuses on the over romanticized literature on the East written by scholars from the West. The literature was written for European readers. Orientalist writers and poets presented a Middle East that was naively serene and hence conducive for relaxation.
Devoid of evils, the East was considered less witty and diplomatic and ready for a fatherly figure. In any case, the West had discovered the East, not the other way round. In the same chapter, Said lashes out at Ernest Renan, a 19th century Orientalist for perpetuating the prejudice against the Arab world (356).
The book delves into the Orientalist of the 20th century in the third chapter. With the end of colonialism, USA was now the new frontier in Orientalism. Modern Scholars from the West are researching on languages of the East in order to help their governments come up with better policies to rule the East.
Said observes that such scholars are staying in the East, not because they appreciate their culture, but to know them better and rule over them easily (368). In spite of globalization and increased awareness, the West bias towards the East has not ended.
Arab Muslims are considered by many people in the West as terrorists. Japan is viewed, not by its tremendous improvement in many areas such as technology, but in terms of its martial arts, karate.
Said recommends that any study on the Middle East should also encompass the Middle East natives’ perspective and not just generalizations (360).
In summary, Orientalism is in ideology that defines the people of Middle East in terms of highly subjective and generalized suppositions. Orientalists are scholars who research on Middle East culture and other aspects.
The culture and people of Middle East have been victims of the West prejudice and bias. This is not unique to Asia. Africa too has been a victim.
“Critical Examination of Edward Said’s “Orientalism”” 23 May 2011. Web. https://mashrabiyya.wordpress.com/2011/05/23/critical-examination-of-edward-saids-orientalism/
Malcolm, Kerr. “Edward Said, Orientalism.” 1980. Web.
Said, Edward. Orientalism, London: Penguin, 1997. Print.
Varisco, Martin. “Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid.” Journal of Islamic Studies. 20. 2 (2007): 304-306. Print.