Books March 2007

East is East

A new history of Orientalism reveals the vagary and variety of the field—and the danger of declaring any area of inquiry off-limits.

Of what book and author was the following sentence written, and by whom?

Rarely has an Oriental servant of a white-identified, imperial design managed to pack so many services to imperial hubris abroad and racist elitism at home—all in one act.
From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "The Fiction of Life" (May 7, 2003)
Azar Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, on the dangers of using religion as an ideology, and the freedoms that literature can bring.

Interviews: "Setting the Record Straight" (September 22, 1999)
Edward Said confronts his future, his past, and his critics' accusations.

This was the quasi-articulate attack recently leveled, by a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, on Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi’s account of private seminars on Nabokov for young women in Iran. The professor described Nafisi’s work as resembling “the most pestiferous colonial projects of the British in India,” and its author as the moral equivalent of a sadistic torturer at Abu Ghraib. “To me there is no difference between Lynndie England and Azar Nafisi,” Hamid Dabashi, who is himself of Iranian origin and believes that Nafisi’s book is a conscious part of the softening-up for an American bombing campaign in Iran, has said.

I cannot imagine my late friend Edward Said, who was a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia, either saying or believing anything so vulgar. And I know from experience that he was often dismayed by the views of people claiming to be his acolytes. But if there is a faction in the academy that now regards the acquisition of knowledge about “the East” as an essentially imperialist project, amounting to an “appropriation” and “subordination” of another culture, then it must be conceded that Said’s 1978 book, Orientalism, was highly influential in forming this cast of mind.

Robert Irwin’s new history of the field of Oriental studies is explicitly designed as a refutation of Said’s thesis, and has an entire chapter devoted to a direct assault upon it. The author insists that he has no animus against Said personally or politically, that he tends to share his view of the injustice done to the people of Palestine, and that he regarded him as a man of taste and discernment. Irwin makes this disclaimer, perhaps, very slightly too fulsomely—at one point also recycling the discredited allegation that Said was not “really” a Palestinian from Jerusalem at all. But he is more lucid and reliable when he sets out to demonstrate the complexity and diversity of Orientalism, to defend his profession from the charge of being a conscious or unconscious accomplice of empire, and to decry the damage done by those whose reading even of Orientalism was probably superficial.

I still think that Said’s book was useful if only in forcing people in “the West” to examine the assumptions that underlay their cosmology. If asked what I mean by that, I should cite Robert Hughes, who recalls how his parents’ generation in Australia would refer to New Guinea or Indonesia, say, as “the Far East” when they were, in point of fact, their near North. The very term Middle East, I have recently learned from Michael Oren’s absorbing history of American engagement in the region, was coined by Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose life’s work was the creation of an American Navy on the model of the British imperial fleet. I remember my own surprise when I realized, in New Delhi in the 1970s, that by the crisis in “Western Asia,” the newspaper article I was reading meant to refer to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. It can be said for Edward Said that he helped make us reconsider our perspectives a little.

“This book,” writes Irwin in his agreeably breezy introduction to it, “contains many sketches of individual Orientalists—dabblers, obsessives, evangelists, freethinkers, madmen, charlatans, pedants, romantics. (Even so, perhaps still not enough of them.)” Indeed, its chief strength lies precisely in showing the vagary and variety of the subject, and thus obliquely convicting any single unified critique of it as essentially reductionist—a neat tu quoque against the Said school.

Among Irwin’s initial points is one that should scarcely have needed to be made. The British proconsular class were for the most part not Orientalists at all. They were classicists. When they adapted old texts and languages to their task of dominion, they were looking to the grand precedents of Greece and Rome. And though it is true that the protracted Greek confrontation with the Persians created the first “East-West” division in the European mind, it is also true that the Greek word barbaros, with all its freight of later associations, was not a pejorative. It simply demarcated Greek-speaking from non-Greek-speaking peoples. So it was simplistic of Said to say that the roots of the problem lay with The Iliad: The Hellenes often looked down on uncouth northerners like the Scythians, while greatly admiring (and borrowing from) the Egyptians. As Irwin goes on to say:

Lord Curzon, Sir Ronald Storrs, T. E. Lawrence and most of the rest of them were steeped in the Greek and Roman classics. Readings of Thucydides, Herodotus and Tacitus guided those who governed the British. Lord Cromer, the proconsul in Egypt, was obsessed with the Roman empire and its decline and fall. Sir Ronald Storrs used to read the Odyssey before breakfast. T. E. Lawrence read the Greek poets during his time as an archaeologist at Carcemish and later translated the Odyssey. Colonial administrators were much more likely to be familiar with the campaigns of Caesar than those of Muhammad and the Quraysh.
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Christopher Hitchens is an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. 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.

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