scholars place the beginning of postcolonial studies in history, literature,
philosophy, anthropology, and the arts at the publication of Said's Orientalism,
published in 1978.
Said focuses his attention in this work on the interplay between the "Occident"
and the "Orient." The Occident is his term for the West (England,
France, and the United States), and the Orient is the term for the romantic
and misunderstood Middle East and Far East.
According to Said, the West has created a dichotomy, between the reality
of the East and the romantic notion of the "Orient. The Middle East
and Asia are viewed with prejudice and racism. They are backward and unaware
of their own history and culture. To fill this void, the West has created
a culture, history, and future promise for them. On this framework rests
not only the study of the Orient, but also the political imperialism of
Europe in the East.
Unlike the Americans, the French and British--less so the Germans, Russians,
Spanish, Portugese, Italians, and Swiss--have had a long tradition of
what I shall be calling Orientalism, a way of coming to terms with the
Orient that is based on the Orient's special place in European Western
Experience. The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the
place of Europe's greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source
of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of
its deepest and most recurring images of the Other. In addition, the Orient
has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea,
personality, experience. Yet none of this Orient is merely imaginative.
The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture.
Orientalism expresses and represents that part culturally and even ideologically
as a a mode of discourse with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship,
imagery, doctrines, even colonial bureaucracies and colonial styles. .
It will be clear to the reader...that by Orientalism I mean several things,
all of them, in my opinion, interdependent. The most readily accepted
designation for Orientalism is an academic one, and indeed the label still
serves in a number of academic institutions. Anyone who teaches, writes
about, or researches the Orient--and this applies whether the persion
is an anthropologist, sociologist, historian, or philologist--either in
its specific or its general aspects, is an Orientalist, and what he or
she says or does is Orientalism. . . .
Related to this academic tradition, whose fortunes, transmigrations, specializations,
and transmissions are in part the subject of this study, is a more general
meaning for Orientalism. Orientalism is a style of thought based upon
ontological and epistemological distinction made between "the Orient"
and (most of the time) "the Occident." Thus a very large mass
of writers, among who are poet, novelists, philosophers, political theorists,
economists, and imperial administrators, have accepted the basic distinction
between East and West as the starting point for elaborate accounts concerning
the Orient, its people, customs, "mind," destiny, and so on.
. . . the phenomenon of Orientalism as I study it here deals principally,
not with a correspondence between Orientalism and Orient, but with the
internal consistency of Orientalism and its ideas about the Orient . .
despite or beyond any correspondence, or lack thereof, with a "real"
(Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979, 1-3,5.
Edward Said is a preeminent scholar and an important figure in postcolonial
studies. A professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia University,
he is also well known as an activist in Middle Eastern politics.
Said was born in Jerusalem, Palestine in 1935. His mother was of Lebanese
descent and his father was a successful Palestinian book merchant. The
family had homes in Palestine, Cairo, Egypt, and a vacation home in Lebanon.
In 1948, while Said
was a grade school student (at a private English school in Cairo) the
state of Israel was created and 80 percent of the Palestinian population
was left without a home. Said did not return to Palestine until 1990.
Said was a privileged child and had little interest in the conflict between
Israel and Palestine. His educational life was one of private school wealth,
but perhaps most importantly, it was in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious
In 1951, Said was expelled from Victoria College in Cairo for poor behavior.
Since his father had acquired American citizenship some years earlier,
Edward was also an American citizen. He was sent to the United States
and he finished high school at a private boarding school in New England.
Upon graduation he went to Princeton University and studied English literature
and history. He pursued his graduate studies at Harvard. His Ph.D. dissertation
was on Joseph Conrad.
The Suez Crisis made quite an impact on him as an Arab-Palestinian, but
now established in academic life in the U.S., he did not get involved
in politics of the situation. However, the Israeli victory over the Arab
forces in 1967, and the Israeli occupation of the last remaining Palestinian
territories, forced Said to take a political stance for the liberation
of Palestine. In 1968 he wrote his first article about the Palestinian
cause: "The Arab Portrayed."
In 1970 Said went to visit his family in Beirut, and while there got caught
up in the struggle for the liberation of Palestine. He became part of
a community of academics and writers who were involved in various colonial
and postcolonial struggles. During this time Said translated the speeches
of Yassir Arafat into English for the Western press. He became an articulate
voice for the liberation of Palestine in Europe and the U.S. He remained
independent and never affiliated with a political party. However in 1977,
Said was elected to the Palestinian National Congress in exile.
Also during the 1970's Said, as an academic in the field of comparative
literature began writing on contemporary Arab literature; such authors
as Naguib Mahfouz, Elias Khouri, and the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.
In 1975-1976 Said was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study at Stanford
University. It was while he was at Stanford that he wrote Orientalism.
Over the next three years, he published Covering Islam (1981) and The
Question of Palestine (1979), which, in conjunction with Orientalism,
has been called his trilogy.
In the 1980's and 1990's Said effectively used his fame to further the
cause of Palestine and to advocate for human rights. In the 1980's Said
actively lobbied the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to re-think
the strategy of armed struggle toward liberation and urged Palestinians
and all Arabs to understand the importance of mutual respect and co-existence
with Israelis. He advocated a two-state solution. As a temperate voice,
he made many friends within Israel.
During this period, Said became a target of personal attack by conservative
Jewish and Christian Zionists. These attacks on Said suggest an "Orientalism"
on the part of the right-wing Zionists. As an articulate Arab intellectual,
Said was viewed as a threat. In 1985 the Jewish Defense League called
him a "Nazi." A short time later his office at Columbia was
In 1991 Said resigned his position on the Palestinian National Congress,
and broke with Arafat. He was critical of the peace agreement between
Israel and the PLO made at Oslo, and felt that the PLO "lacked credibility
and moral authority."
The 1990's was a politically and personally difficult period for Said.
In 1991 he was diagnosed with leukemia. The pain, suffering, and lengthy
hospitalization prompted him to write a memoir. Out of Place relates the
experiences of his youth and his feelings of exile. Said's illness went
into remission, but it still took a toll on his health and lifestyle.
It was during this period that he returned to Palestine for the first
time since his childhood.
In 1993 Said published his most comprehensive works on postcolonial study,
Culture and Imperialism, and in 1994, Representations of the Intellectual.
These two books, in his field of comparative literature, brought him again
into prominence in the academic community. Said became the president of
the Modern Language Association in 1998.
Despite his illness, Edward Said has continued to be an activist for the
peace, human rights and social justice. As his health permits, he travels
an international lecture route. He also writes a regular column for the
Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram, which appears in English and Arabic and also
The history of
Said makes the claim that the whole of Western European and American scholarship,
literature, and cultural representation and stereotype creates and reinforces
prejudice against non-Western cultures, putting them in the classification
of Oriental (or "Others"). The heart of the matter in understanding
Orientalism is this power relationship and how the Occident has used and
continues to use and understand the Orient on its own terms.
In the nineteenth century, "Oriental Studies" was an area of
academic study. But the West had to create the East in order for this
study to take place. Said asserts that according to the Occidentals, the
Orientals had no history or culture independent of their colonial masters.
Orientalism is more an indicator of the power the West holds over the
Orient, than about the Orient itself. Creating an image of the Orient
and a body of knowledge about the Orient and subjecting it to systematic
study became the prototype for taking control of the Orient. By taking
control of the scholarship, the West also took political and economic
The current situation and the future:
In light of the current situation in the Middle East and the terrorist
destruction in the U.S on September 11, Said's theory is particularly
illuminating. U.S. attention is on the Islamic people of the Middle East,
and the understanding of the mainstream seems to be that is that these
Arabs are "other" people, people not like us, people who have
strange values and beliefs. And, it goes without saying that the society
of strange people is inferior. It is obvious from the popular news media
that Orientalism is still very much alive. Islam is misunderstood and
distorted when the prejudicial connotations of the past are not challenged.
All of the scholarship of the West, studying the religion, language and
culture of the Middle East, has not promoted a better understanding of
Islam. For many Westerners, Islamic society is still understood in terms
of the West's Oriental history (the heathen violent fighters of the Crusades),
and not in the context of followers of a religion that shares much with
both Judaism and Christianity. There is a profound ignorance about reality
that enables this inaccurate and prejudicial view. Awareness of this "Orientalism"
is an important first step.
Said's premise in Orientalism is that the West has a long history of purposefully
misunderstanding the Middle East. The Western imagination of the Middle
East bears little resemblance to the reality, and this inaccuracy is used
to justify our political and economic course. If we are to truly assist
in achieving a resolution to the current crisis, we must examine not only
the "Orientals" but also ourselves.