This summer, while studying Arabic in Beirut, the name “Edward Said” kept popping up continuously and so, as soon as I got back to the states I had to pick up his renowned book: “Orientalism”. His writing, it so turned out, responded to many of my longstanding questions and concerns. Through the telling of the past, Said has given me a much more thorough understanding of the complex relationship between East and West and where we thus stand today.
I must acknowledge that I dislike writing on the many diverse peoples, cultures and states of the Middle East using the over-bearing words “Orient” and “East” and “Middle East”, and likewise “West,” since they are all relative. But, the reality is that the many lands of olives, dabke, hieroglyphics and Arabic are encapsulated in these “umbrella terms.” Pardon me.
In reading “Orientalism,” my understanding of present Western attitudes of superiority towards the East have increased tremendously. It is astounding to retrospectively observe the West’s historic position in molding this area of the world. As Said puts it: “It is Europe that articulates the Orient; this articulation is the prerogative, not of a puppet master, but of a genuine creator…”
From 1815 to 1914 Europe controlled 85% of the earth but as we will see, “To say simply that Orientalism was a rationalization of colonial rule is to ignore the extent to which colonial rule was justified in advance by Orientalism.”
Orientalism, as a field of study, is quite expansive and to make it palpable for a European audience, scholar d’Herbolet wrote Le Biblioteque Orientale (1697), which organized information on the Orient alphabetically and helped spread the belief in the acute differences of the Oriental in comparison to the European. Orientalism is therefore: “Knowledge of the Orient that places things Oriental in class, court, prison, or manual for scrutiny, study, judgment, discipline, or governing.”
With help from colonial encounters in the East, the 18th century saw the relationship between East and West grow in complexity. Scholars of the Orient, who most often used other Western scholars to validate their hypotheses, were able to capitalize on the military expansion of European territories and thus systematically increased awareness of the Orient in Europe on THEIR own Orientalist terms.
For example, the definition of the Prophet Mohammad, in d’Herbolet’s Biblioteque, reads: “C’est le femeux imposteur Mohamet, Auteur et Fondateur de u hérésie, qui a pris le nom de religion.” Since d’Herbolet was considered an expert on the Orient, Mohammad thus becomes a figure of “heresy” in the minds of European readers. The Italian poet Dante Alighieri even brings up Mohammad in his Inferno. In fact, “Maometto” turns up in the 8th of the 9 circles of Hell. That Dante talks about Islam in this way shows that the Orientalist vision is “by no means confined to the professional scholar, but rather the common possession of all who have thought about the Orient in the West.” We are seen how by increasing vilification of the Orient Europeans are able to create their own perceived reality. “d’Herbolet’s character of Mohamet is an image” writes Said and just adds to the theatrical characteristic of the portraral of the Orient to the West. Thus, all that is produced by the Orientalists creates, in all it’s falsities, “the very reality they appear to describe.”
“Since one cannot ontologically obliterate the Orient (as d’Herbolet and Dante perhaps realized), one does have the means to capture it, treat it, describe it, improve it, radically alter it,” wrote Said. And today, sadly, it still seems that the West is fighting, both literally and metaphorically, to sculpt the expansive East. In the eyes of many Americans, and certainly by Westerner policies in general, the people, countries and cultures of the lands south and east of Europe are still viewed as something that needs to be tinkered with and changed to fit the Westerner’s (the Orientalist’s?) agenda. So, I ask, have we really moved that far from our ancestral past practices of “Orientalizing the Orient”?