Orientalism Upended

Next week will be the tenth anniversary of the passing of Edward Said, the American-Palestinian intellectual most noted for his book “Orientalism” published 35 years ago. Few books regarding the troubled history of Western-Arab interaction have had as many worshipers and detractors.  There is little that can be added to the controversy at this point, except perhaps a look at it from a rarely considered point of view; that of those who look at the Arabs not as victims of Western imperialism, but as imperialists themselves.

I was familiar with Edward Said’s work long before I read “Orientalism”, due to an interest in Joseph Conrad, on which he wrote an elegant and penetrating study. Conrad is a beguiling figure to those who speak English as a second or third language, and who can no longer write with facility in their mother tongue. His work transcends what he continually felt to be his limitations with English, if only because it offered insights of a sympathetic outsider.

I read “Orientalism” at the recommendation of a friend who jokingly noted that Said wouldn’t approve of my reading of Flaubert’s “Salammbo”, an entertaining, high calorie, low nutrition work. It is difficult not to admire the erudition and passion of Said, yet I could never muster enough interest to either like or dislike the work, and certainly not with any passion. Several things seemed troubling about the work, and I attributed these to Said’s sad predicament as a dislocated Palestinian.

First there was the thesis that scholarship is the handmaiden of imperialism.  Certainly imperialists, or at least serious ones with claim to a moral purpose, will consult scholarship on the conquered regions. But scholarship can also use imperial power to further such studies, both in terms of access to location and resources, and in securing support as a relevant and not merely esoteric pursuit. Western support for academic studies is often most generous for regions deemed dangerous or critical to Western interests.

Second was the idea that studying such regions involves reducing them to the infantile status of the “other”.  Just as easily these scholars become captive to their passion and end up as partisans of  the worst impulses of the “natives”. Said never gave these “natives” enough credit for agency in exploiting and using Western interest in them. He displayed a peculiarly Western attitude in seeing them as lacking in evils of the West.

But these two points are minor compared to a third angle which strips the work of much of its value, regardless of accuracy. When it comes to Arabs, many native Christians, especially Egyptians,  view them not as a conquered people, but as conquerors. Said’s point of view is entirely upended. From the lens of increasingly culturally aware Copts, for example, Arab imperialism has tended to view them as weak, cowardly and not possessing of virtues common to great cultures and empires. Western views of the region as the sexualized and infantile “other” are wholly irrelevant. In fact, in the view of many proponents of “Egyptianism” connection should be made to Western culture directly by bypassing the Arab experience entirely.  They see  Egypt as the “source” of Western civilization, primarily through a Hellenic connection. Why Said did not consider this point of view is still unknown. This is, after all, a man who grew up in Egypt. Perhaps his sense of grievance towards the horrors visited on Palestinians blinkered his view. It could also be that he grew up as a wealthy and Westernized Levantine Protestant, which isolated him from much of Egypt. His lambasting of Renan, for example, will generally fall on deaf ears among Copts, who regard Maspero, a student of Renan, as a cultural hero. What he regards as Western appropriation of native cultural artifacts, is regarded by many Copts, who fashioned an ancient Egyptian identity in the last century, as worthy preservation.

In the end “Orientalism”, seen from an Egyptian point of view, remains oddly flat. It fails to either inspire or outrage. This is not merely an academic issue, but of practical interest in the current turmoil in Egypt. Egypt is stymied by political and economic stagnation, often lumped together as “crisis of modernity”. The stagnation manifests itself in hostility toward the West masking a desire to emulate and join it. “Orientalism” is the voices in this schizophrenic head. The search goes on for a model or pattern of development in Egypt while the one closest at hand, that of Copts, remains ignored. In a deeply polarized country the narrative of the Copts on both sides is that of a “problem”. On one side is the “problem” of discrimination and sectarian attacks. On the other side is the “problem” of the Copts’ constant desire to thwart political Islam. Even with truth on both sides it is important to raise the narrative from that of a minority problem to exploration of the Copts’ tale as quintessentially Egyptian one. The Coptic Orthodox faith is as conservative as many of the Islamist currents. But the errors and successes of the Copts differ significantly from those of the Islamists.  On the negative side, they have withdrawn from the public sphere, especially politics, and have shown marked wariness of the ballot box. On the positive side they have managed an uneasy truce between their ancient authenticity and modern sentiments, and faced down the challenge of the West without resort to either violence or exceptional hostility. In the 1850s the Orthodox Church faced an existential challenge from Protestant missionaries, who attracted its flock threatening to turn it into a marginal force in Egyptian Christianity. After an initial short period of bewilderment and outrage some in the community appropriated the very symbol of Protestantism, the Sunday School, to face its challenges in a clever tactic of cultural jujitsu. A century later the Church felt secure enough to join other world Churches in a dialog of equals, making connections with Protestant and even Catholic churches in the West.

“Orientalism” is apparently a canon of thought at many elite Egyptian universities. It is probably pointless to either study it obsessively or attack it passionately. The best view is that of a cultural artifice or a curiosity wholly irrelevant to the Egyptian problems of the day.


— Maged Atiya


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