Forty years on, Edward Said's 'Orientalism' still groundbreaking

Edward Said's seminal book, Orientalism (1978), proposed one of the most influential and enduring analyses of the relationship between the West and the Middle East. In many ways, his ideas seem uncontroversial, perhaps even obvious today. But four decades ago, what Said proposed was radical. It still is.

The 'East' was largely an imaginative projection from the West, argued Said

'The Turkish bath' (1862) by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres in the Louvre, Paris. The image typifies the genre of Orientalist paintings that professor Amanda Rogers says created a 'largely fictional' representation of women in the East. (Mehdi Fedouach/AFP via Getty Images)
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* Originally published on October 22, 2019.

The Turkish Bath, one of the most famous examples of French Orientalist paintings, hangs in the Louvre. Some two dozen nude women recline in a steam-filled room. There're music, dancing and food. One woman braids another's hair. Attendants cater to the women's needs. The atmosphere is languid and sensual, even erotic.

The artist, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, painted the scene as a representation of life in the so-called East, and portrayed the women as though they were typical of the time and place. But the scene was of course nowhere close to the reality of public bathouses in Muslim and Arab societies, where bathing — like anywhere else — was a practical task and had no implied associations with group sex.

But Ingres and other painters and writers fed into — and fed off of — a narrative about what women in the "East" were like. The imagery was a projection onto the "Other," and imposition that came out of France's colonial incursions into the Arab and Muslim worlds. These imagined traits about distant societies would go on to be accepted as definitive knowledge.

Amanda Rogers teaches Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at Colgate University in New York state, with a special focus on visual culture and media representation. She says these depictions by painters like Ingres of life in the East, or the Orient as it was called, are rooted in the asymmetry of power between France and its colonial subjects.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres' painting, The Grand Odalisque — the word 'odalisque' stems from the Turkish term for 'harem concubine.' (Wikipedia)

"It is created essentially through conquest and imperial expansion. And this binary is very much one that is constructed through ontology and epistemology. What I mean by that is that the idea of the so-called Orient is a construct itself that served the interests of the so-called West," Rogers told IDEAS.

Rogers points to Edward Said's work as foundational in trying to understand the place and importance of Orientalist paintings like Ingres'.

Edward Said, the Palestinian-American scholar and intellectual, was perhaps the most influential thinker to theorize about this relationship between the West and the Arab/Muslim world. His popular book, Orientalism offered a deep critical analysis of the role literature played historically in constructing an understanding of the East.

In the four decades since it was published, Said's book has been key to understanding the long and complicated relationship between colonizer and colonized, between the East and the West.

Falling in love with Western literature

Edward Saïd was born in British Mandate Palestine in 1935 and grew up shuttling between Jerusalem and Cairo in the waning days of Empire. His education followed the British curriculum and left him with a firsthand understanding of colonial dynamics. It was his colonial education where Edward Said fell in love with Western literature.

Edward Said and sister, Rosemarie Said, Egypt, 1940. (Wikipedia)

Said died of leukemia in 2003. Writer, Adam Shatz, was both Said's editor and toward the end of Said's life, friend.

"The argument Said was making was that the East was an imaginative and political construct. It wasn't an actual thing. It was an object of scholarly and political attention that had to be produced in a kind of joint effort of men of power — and they were mostly men — and the scholars and writers who were writing about the lands that the Western powers had colonized," Shatz told IDEAS.

He goes on to point out that Said's intention with his analysis was not to offer up an uncritical defence of the Arab or Muslim world. Rather, it was to point out that popular representations of the East — whether a depiction of a group of women as loosely sexual or of dark-skinned men as intent on violence — had a particular history behind them and that in order to understand them and move forward, we needed to deconstruct them.

This analysis seems unremarkable today because we've normalized the idea that representation matters. The idea that people ought to speak for themselves, and that we should question who gets to speak for or about others, has become a mainstay in broader culture, both academic and popular media.

But when Said first published Orientalism in 1978, it created a strong backlash with some accusing Said of saying only Arabs should write about Arabs or only women can write about women.

'I always sided with the underdog, with the people who suffered injustice, with the people who are oppressed. I think that defines one's role as an intellectual,' the Palestinian-American writer and scholar Edward Said told IDEAS in 2000. (AFP/Getty Images)

In an interview with IDEAS from May 2000, Said responded to this criticism.

"What I was trying to do in Orientalism was to describe the creation of a kind of system and also to be quite skeptical about how successful that system was. I found myself asking questions. If one divides the world into parts like that, how does one survive that humanly? What kind of effect will it have on the soul and the mind if the world is us and them? 

"I don't believe that only women can write about women. I'm not trying to make the claim which was attributed to me, and totally misread the book that only Muslims could write about Muslim experience, and so on and so forth. But I did believe that there were better and worse ways of doing that."

Guests in this episode:

  • Adam Shatz is a writer and journalist. He's on staff at the London Review of Books and writes for the New York Review of Books, the New York Times Magazine, and the New Yorker.
  • Amanda Rogers is the National Endowment for the Humanities Visiting Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at Colgate University.

** This episode was produced by Naheed Mustafa.


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