Where the Twain Should Have Met

The cosmopolitan Edward Said was ideally placed to explain East to West and West to East. What went wrong?

I first met Edward Said in the summer of 1976, in the capital city of Cyprus. We had come to Nicosia to take part in a conference on the rights of small nations. The obscene civil war in Lebanon was just beginning to consume the whole society and to destroy the cosmopolitanism of Beirut; it was still just possible in those days to imagine that a right "side" could be discerned through the smoke of confessional conflagration. Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation was in its infancy (as was the messianic "settler" movement among Jews), and the occupation itself was less than a decade old. Egypt was still the Egypt of Anwar Sadat—a man who had placed most of his credit on the wager of "Westernization," however commercially conceived, and who was only two years away from the Camp David accords. It was becoming dimly apprehended in the West that the old narrative of "Israel" versus "the Arabs" was much too crude. The image of a frugal kibbutz state surrounded by a heaving ocean of ravening mullahs and demagogues was slowly yielding to a story of two peoples contesting a right to the same twice-promised land.

For all these "conjunctures," as we now tend to term them, Said was almost perfectly configured. He had come from an Anglican Palestinian family that divided its time and its property between Jerusalem and Cairo. He had spent years in the internationalist atmosphere of Beirut, and was as much at home in French and English as in Arabic. A favorite of Lionel Trilling's, he had won high distinction at Columbia University and was also up to concert standard as a pianist. Those Americans who subliminally associated the word "Palestinian" with swarthiness, bizarre headgear, and strange irredentist rhetoric were in for a shock that was long overdue. And this is to say little enough about his wit, his curiosity, his care for the opinions of others.

Within two years he had published Orientalism: a book that has exerted a galvanizing influence throughout the quarter century separating its first from its most recent edition. In these pages Said characterized Western scholarship about the East as a conscious handmaiden of power and subordination. Explorers, missionaries, archaeologists, linguists—all had been part of a colonial enterprise. To the extent that American academics now speak about the "appropriation" of other cultures, and seldom fail to put ordinary words such as "the Other" between portentous quotation marks, and contest the very notion of objective inquiry, they are paying what they imagine is a debt to Edward Said's work. It isn't unfair to the book, I hope, to say that it also received a tremendous charge from the near simultaneous revolution in Iran and the later assassination of Anwar Sadat. The alleged "Westernization" or "modernization" of two ancient civilizations, Persia and Egypt, had proved to be founded upon, well ... sand. The word of the traditional policy intellectuals and Middle East "experts" turned out to be worth less than naught. Although this book said little on the subject of either Iran or Sadat, it burst on the knowledge-seeking general reader even as it threw down a challenge to the think tanks and professional institutes.

To be appraised properly, Orientalism ought to be read alongside three other books by Said: Covering Islam (1981), Culture and Imperialism (1993), and Out of Place (1999). The last of these is a memoir, which was the target of a number of scurrilous attacks essentially aimed at denying Said the right to call himself a Palestinian at all. The first is an assault on the generally lazy press coverage of the Iranian revolution and of all matters concerned with Islam. Culture and Imperialism is a collection of essays showing that Said has a deep understanding, amounting at times to sympathy, for the work of writers such as Austen and Kipling and George Eliot, who—outward appearances notwithstanding—never did take "the Orient" for granted.

In scrutinizing instances of translation and interpretation, the inescapable question remains the same: Who is interpreting what and to whom? It is easy enough to say that Westerners had long been provided with an exotic, sumptuous, but largely misleading account of the Orient, whether supplied by Benjamin Disraeli's Suez Canal share purchases, the celluloid phantasms of Rudolph Valentino, or the torrid episodes in T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom. But it is also true that Arab, Indian, Malay, and Iranian societies can operate on a false if not indeed deluded view of "the West." This much became vividly evident very recently, with the circulation of bizarre libels about (say) a Jewish plot to destroy the World Trade Center. I, for one, do not speak or read Arabic, and have made only five, relatively short, visits to Iraq. But I am willing to bet that I know more about Mesopotamia than Saddam Hussein ever knew about England, France, or the United States. I also think that such knowledge as I have comes from more disinterested sources ... And I would add that Saddam Hussein was better able to force himself on my attention than I ever was to force myself on his. As Adonis, the great Syrian-Lebanese poet, has warned us, there exists a danger in too strong a counterposition between "East" and "West." The "West" has its intellectual and social troughs, just as the "East" has its pinnacles. Not only is this true now (Silicon Valley could hardly run without the work of highly skilled Indians, for example), but it was true when Arab scholars in Baghdad and Córdoba recovered the lost work of Aristotle for medieval "Christendom."

Presented by

Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor of The Atlantic, and also a columnist for Vanity Fair. His latest book, A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq, has just been published. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In