Edward Said's Orientalism

June 14, 2017

 

This article is about the book ‘Orientalism’ by Edward Said. As every culture , European culture and identity is influenced to an extent by other cultures, and it is hard to define what makes a culture, where one culture ends and another one starts, this debate about the validity of essentialist terms and the perception/representation of the ‘Other’ is highly relevant. Its importance is clear for the EU and its relations with other political entities since ‘Orientalism’ is a strong tradition with a vast literature (strongly related to colonialism) that has had a great impact on the mentality of countless people and on the paradigms that determine the relations between countries (in this case between the EU and Middle Eastern, North African and Asian countries and communities and the descendants of people coming from those parts of the world who are living in the EU right now principally since Orientalism refers to these relations as well as some more general attitudes).

 

It is highly relevant and vital today since we are currently living in a period in which nationalist movements (essentialist movements that focus on race/nationality) are rising and toleration is declining. People are angry and divided on many issues and many don’t feel the need to try to understand the ‘other’. We are in a period in which we need dialogue and understanding more than ever, and Edward Said’s works can give us some important insights. What we must do always as humans is to learn from our past mistakes and try not to repeat them. These insights (as it is furtherly elaborated in the last paragraph, these should not be interpreted as written in favour of a specific group of people while attacking/blaming another group, they criticize general attitudes) can help us a lot in building a world in which we can all live together peacefully, a world in which there are no great sentiments attached to antagonizing, limiting vague terms, symbols and concepts. As history has showed us clearly, these attitudes caused great atrocities and pain to humanity and we can all agree that it is our duty to do our best to prevent their reoccurrence. Principally, what we must do is to challenge these paradigms that are remnants of past relations, avoid dehumanization, promote dialogue between different parties and sincere discussion without arrogance or one party trying to establish moral superiority and acknowledge the existence of different human experiences and do our best to understand them.

 

“The only race I know is the human one.”

Albert Einstein

 

“There is only one civilization, the civilization of humanity.”

Günhan Karakullukçu

 

“It is easy to show that there isn’t a clash of civilizations. The only civilization is the civilization of humanity, constititued of different cultures and traditions and different times since not all march with the same pace and walk the same paths, but certainly what is common to human experience is much more comprehensive and profound than what divides it.”

Renato La Valle / Le Cronache Ottomane

 

Edward W. Said was born in 1935 in Palestine, then under British rule, to a Palestinian Arab Christian father and a Lebanese Greek Orthodox mother. He lived in Palestine and Egypt until he was 12 and then he was sent to the US by his family. After getting his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Princeton, he earned a Doctor of Philosophy degree in English Literature from Harvard University. In 1963, he joined Columbia University’s Comparative Literature faculty and taught there until his death in 2003. He also worked as a visiting scholar at Yale University and John Hopkins University.

 

With his book ‘Orientalism’, which was published in 1978 and which is regarded as the founding text for postcolonial theory, Said became an established cultural critic and this work influenced many fields in social sciences and humanities significantly (postcolonial theory, historiography, Middle East studies, Arab studies and many more) as well as changing the meaning of the word ‘Orientalist’ in daily language.

 

So, what does ‘Orientalism’ mean? Orientalism, in Western Europe, traditionally refers to the field of study which studies the languages, the history and the cultures, and every other aspect about the peoples and the lands of the ‘Orient’, starting from Morocco to all the way to Japan in its broadest meaning. Thus, people who are specialized in this field are/were called ‘Orientalists’. Edward Said considers Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt (1798) as the beginning of modern Orientalism. He points out that Napoleon did not go to Egypt with his soldiers only, he also took linguists, historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and scientists with him.

 

Orientalism and the study of the orient essentially began with the study o