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Beirut Hosts a Conference on Edward Said
By Nezar Andary
Along with inflation, a growing gap between the rich and poor, and never-ending bickering between self-serving politicians, Beirut, this summer, hosted a conference entitled: “A Salute to Edward Said.” With the growing censorship found in Beirut, this auspicious event was held during the first week of July and sponsored by the well-known publishing house, Dar al-Adab, which provided a positive impetus for diverse Arab intellectuals to communicate. The conference created much debate in Beirut, as well as in the Arab press. As Said has burgeoned into an internationally well-known cultural critic, his reception in the Arab world has had only slight coverage in the United States.
Since the translation of “Orientalism” in 1981 (also by K. Abu-Deeb), Said’s work has generated a diverse range of scholarship and interpretation in the Arab world. Works ran the gamut, from total misunderstanding of Said’s work by advocating him as a champion of the East against the West, to Leftist critiques of Said’s methodologies, to certain intellectuals associating Said with Western hegemony. Said has recently written how he never meant “Orientalism” as a diatribe against the West; yet to my knowledge, Said has infrequently responded to some of the more serious criticisms from the Arab world. The Leftist critiques have not been sufficiently covered in the growing discourse on Said’s work. Two works, for instance, are Sadiq Jalal al-Azm’s critique of “Orientalism” in his article “Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse,” published in English in the journal Khamsin (1981), and Mahdi Amil’s book in Arabic, “Marxism in Edward Said’s Orientalism” (1985).
Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, who is currently the Chair of the Philosophy Department at Damascus University, has been a prolific intellectual over the last 25 years. His book “The Critique of Religious Thought” (1969) provoked much controversy in the Arab Word during the 1970s. His article on Orientalism can also be found in his Arabic book, "Dhihniyat at-Tahrim" [The Mentality of Taboo], which also includes a chapter defending Salman Rushdie. Al-Azm wrongly interprets Orientalism as a philosophical treatise and does not mention such influences on Said as Michel Foucault, Raymond Williams or Antonio Gramsci. His harshest criticism, however, concerns Said’s treatment of Marx. Al-Azm calls Said’s short section on Marx a “travesty.” The work further criticizes Adonis, the well-known Arab poet, and other Arab writers for essentializing the Islamic world in the same way as Bernard Lewis and other Orientalists. Al-Azm also critiques Said for corroborating with the powerful elite in America. Far from the truth! Interestingly, in many of the interviews Said gave during the conference to the Arab press, his closeness to power in the United States is always brought into the discourse. Azm’s article, however, cannot be discounted and could be read along with other social science critiques, such as James Clifford’s chapter “On Orientalism” in “The Predicament of Culture”.
It is most unfortunate, however, that Mahdi Amil’s book on Said’s understanding of Marx has yet to be translated. I am not aware of anyone mentioning this study in recent academic works on Said in English. Mahdi Amil was a committed Marxist and differed from many other Arab intellectuals because he did more work as a public intellectual; for example, he was known to go to villages and speak to different communities. He wrote extensively about sectarianism in Lebanon, Ibn Khaldoun, and Arab political economy. Along with a long list of intrepid Arab thinkers, he was assassinated at the height of the Lebanese Civil War.
Unlike Azm’s article, Amil wrote a book focusing solely on the problems of Said’s interpretation of Marx. The one hundred page book mainly discusses four pages of “Orientalism”; however, Amil does critique Said for defining the “West” without many class distinctions. Many scholars assert that Said’s “Orientalism” essentializes the West, which Said has responded to in his new Afterword and his article “Orientalism Reconsidered.” Amil, however, takes this critique a step further by stressing the importance of understanding knowledge through class conflict. This notion, if taken further, can provide an urgent addition to Said’s text. How was the East seen by the impoverished of Europe or by the illiterate? How was the East seen in public spaces as opposed to the elite spheres of literature and philology?
Amil’s two main dilemmas with Said’s methodology in “Orientalism” are first, that the study decontextualizes Marx’s work by underestimating Marxist insistence on the necessity of revolution in the Third World. Amil does a precise textual analysis of how he believes Said misinterprets two pages of Marx. Second, Amil blames the “meeting” of Foucaldian structuralism and Nietzsche’s nihilism for creating Said’s “absolute inability” to believe in anything beyond representation. On this second point, Amil asserts that Said’s methodology denies revolutionary thought. While Said’s “Orientalism” does produce a pessimism about the relationship between knowledge and power, it also encourages new ways to get beyond entrenched discourses like “Orientalism”. While Amil and others have not recognized this, I find that Said’s “optimism of the will” becomes more forcefully expressed in his recent works.
While many in the Arab world have written about Said, Mahdi Amil’s work deserves consideration, not only because of the impressive scholarship of his work, but also because, unlike other critiques of Said, he does not diminish his effort by personalizing the debate. By reading Amil and many other Arab intellectuals unheard of in the United States, we can also gauge how knowledge travels and how certain sensitivities change across geography. Also, I want to emphasize how Said’s presence in Arab cultural circles is not, by any means, a new phenomenon.
In the last two years, the Arab press has carried myriad articles on Said. The translation of “Representation of the Intellectual” was heavily debated in more than one newspaper. Many Arabic journals like al-Fikr al-Arabi, al-Karmil, and al-Adab have translated his articles. Said’s courageous position against the cronies in the Palestinian Authority and the futile Oslo Accords are always brought into question during many interviews with figures like Mahmoud Darwish or Hisham Sharabi. The recent conference in Beirut not only underlined Said’s significance as an Arab thinker, but also gave many new scholars a chance to share their work. I will try to highlight some of the intellectuals and their work at the conference.
Burhan Ghalioun, an Arab thinker, who has written extensively on Arab thought and religion, gave a paper entitled “Towards a Critical Culture.” In an interview with the Beirut daily As Safir, he claimed that the conference was positive because it was not just an effort to laud Edward Said. Like many others, he believes that Arab thought is “undergoing a profound internal crisis” which resembles a civil war between its much divided intellectuals and cultural activists. Ghalioun sees a solution by creating a culture that is more able to be active and secular within different communities.
George Tarabishi, a noted Arab writer, presented a paper about “The Notions of Otherness in Arab Turath.” Tarabishi recently wrote a harsh critique of the Moroccan thinker Mohammad Abd al-Jabbiri (See Al Jadid issue no. 17 for an interview with him), and is also known for writing a Freudian critique of Nawal Saadawi. His paper stressed that the notion of otherness has been imported by Arab-Islamic culture. Tarabishi sees an irony in the contrasting notions of otherness in Arab society during the last century. While, at the turn of the century, there existed a general willingness to understand the ‘other’, now there is, not only a demand to become independent of the other, but also a general war on all notions of otherness. Tarabishi used three Arab historical writers, al-Jahiz, Sa’ad al-Andulsi, and Ibn Khaldun, to illustrate how Arabic culture was open to many other cultures in ways not present today. This essay agrees with Said’s notion that culture and civilization is inherently hybrid.
An engaging paper by the Lebanese intellectual, Fawaz Traboulsi, entitled “Arab Travelers to the West,” focused on two Arab 19th century writers, Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq of Lebanon and Rifa’ah Rafi’ al-Tahtawi of Egypt. Traboulsi wanted to portray the complicated net of relationships between East and West. This paper reiterated Said’s assertion in “Culture and Imperialism” that the East and West are not two fundamentally opposed entities. The paper revealed how these two travelers had different perceptions about the West, as they were both in Paris during the years of the Industrial Revolution. Traboulsi reads these writers ‘contrapuntally’ with travel writers like Gustave Flaubert. His paper interestingly showed how Flaubert and Shidyaq both identify foreign cultures by sexuality.
Ferial Ghazoul, a professor at the American University of Cairo, gave a talk that compared the works of the well-respected Syrian playwright who recently passed away, Sa’adallah Wannous, and Edward Said. She asserted that both intellectuals believe in the importance of the written word as a way of confronting hegemony. Wannous and Said both believe in making words turn into action. She stated that Wannous’ work shows written expression can produce direct results in confronting power, while Said's work illustrates how the written word diversifies and grows within its audience in a more indirect manner.
Jad Thabit, a prominent Lebanese engineer and intellectual, gave a unique paper on the relationship between architecture and culture in the Arab world. He stressed how architecture cannot be separated from cultural activity. He compared the work of Iraqi architect, Rifa’ al-Jadrji and one of the leaders of avant-garde poetry, Yusif al-Khal. Both of these figures found failure in the modernizing projects in their respective fields. Thabit perceived this failure stemmed from the relationship between architecture and power, and an inability of Arab society to diversify its architecture.
The conference included other participants: Mohammad Malass, a Syrian director, discussed his film about the Palestinian camps; Palestinian literary critic, Faisal Darraj, gave a talk about Palestinian literature; Ibrahim Abu-Lughoud, a Palestinian-American academic, presented a paper entitled The “Meaning of Return;” Moroccan critic Mohammad Barada contributed a paper on new Arab literary criticism. Michel Khalifi, a Palestinian director, discussed exile and, according to press reports, is currently making a film on Said. Said himself participated by sharing parts of his yet to be completed memoirs.
In addition to the extensive coverage the Lebanese press gave to the conference, Said himself gave two interviews, one to the Lebanese leading daily An Nahar, and the other to the Saudi London-based al-Sharq al-Awsat. In each interview, Said is asked about his identity. Both interviewers perceived the notion of hybrid identity as problematic and asked naive questions like, “Are you American or are you Arab?” As in so many interviews in the United States, Said’s identity is always under scrutiny. His usual responses were that he has stopped focusing on identity or that he is bored with the search for one identity. In the interview in al-Sharq al-Awsat by Sawsan al-Abtah, Said states: “I refuse to be cornered inside any ghetto, religion, place, or nation. I want to challenge borders and deny the opinions of others who want to imprison me inside of one model.” Said’s notion of identity has been unsettling for even some of his strongest supporters among Arab intellectuals.
In Kamal Abu Deeb’s article in the Lebanese monthly Al Adab about “Culture and Imperialism”, he states that one of his disagreements with Said concerns the notion of hybrid identity. He writes: “Year after year, Said’s inclination to minimize the significance of identity increases.... In a world emblazoned by identity conflicts, I remain unable in stripping off the close ties that bind me to a deeply rooted notion of identity. On one occasion, I told him... In a world where my fate is threatened by Israel and the West’s desire to stamp out my identity, I cannot forsake my identity and fight in the name of a hybrid identity...” Abu Deeb then goes on to define Said as an Arab-Palestinian who has fought to defend his specific identity many times. While Abu Deeb writes most of the article defending Said’s views that culture is fundamentally mixed, he obviously is not comfortable with Said’s vision of identity.
When an-Nahar interviewer, Ali Barada, asked Said about the most important event in his life, Said poignantly responded: “I am discovering right now, after deciding to write my autobiography in a personal style and not political or formal, that many things have influenced me. For example, coexistence and tolerance—I live in an environment that was accustomed to diverse languages and identities. What deeply saddens me is that I cannot travel or cross borders like I used to.
This anxiety over Said’s identity exists for many here in the United States as well. How many articles attack Said because of his flexible identity? The rhetoric has gone from “terrorist disguised as English professor” to Judith Miller’s recent invective “man in his Morningside Heights apartment.” Abu Deeb’s concerns, however, deserve answers: How can we fight against the many hegemonic systems under names like hybridity, multiculturalism, and pluralism? Said’s response would most likely assert that this realization of a hybrid culture can lead to affiliations beyond identity politics within communities in order to fight powers oppressing them.
In both interviews, Said reflects on his up coming memoirs. When asked by Sawsan al-Abtah if his memoirs will resemble Taha Husayn’s notable autobiography, “The Days”, Said replied: “I have written a big part of it but some chapters are still not completed. I think this text will resemble a fragmented memoir in which I focus on the strange environments I grew up in. I was born in Jerusalem and my family lived most of their years in Cairo. My father is Palestinian, but in 1911 he migrated to America and he stayed there for nine years, served in the U.S. Army during World War I in France, and became an American citizen. He came back to Palestine in 1920, then went to Egypt to start a company with his cousin. We lived as a minority Christian family moving between Cairo and Palestine and as a minority within a minority because we were Anglicans living in Egypt and were not Egyptians, yet we were Palestinians not living in Palestine. I was American without ever knowing America. My family situation was complicated, as we lived in isolation and we continuously were building new lives just like Robinson Crusoe built his exiled life on a deserted island.
“After fifty years of this history, I believe that I lived a sad adolescence. I remember being imprisoned by my family in order to protect me and avoid the complications of such a confusing situation. In reality, we were exiles and isolated by our own will inside a society not our own.
“In the second part of the memoirs that I am currently writing, I illustrate how I endeavored to free myself from many of the disconcerting interventions in my life. The fundamental irony of my escaping this crisis was that I continue to be a stranger to the society in which I live. The book is mixed with a personal style that does not betray the obligations of a novel or the frankness of a confession, yet it primarily uses free and flexible associations when I go back and forth between the past and future.”
When an-Nahar interviewer, Ali Barada, asked Said about the most important event in his life, Said poignantly responded: “I am discovering right now, after deciding to write my autobiography in a personal style and not political or formal, that many things have influenced me. For example, coexistence and tolerance— I live in an environment that was accustomed to diverse languages and identities. What deeply saddens me is that I cannot travel or cross borders like I used too. We used to be able to drive from Beirut to Cairo by land, through Palestine by way of Naqquora border, and go on our way to Duhur al-Shwayer (Lebanese Mountain Town) and then to Beirut. We lost this. It seems to me that we must recover a place that we can all belong to without confining ourselves to these ghettos filled with borders, papers, and passports that imprison us in a relatively small area. If we remember our position as the ‘Middle East’, then this opens us up, not only to the West, but also to the East and North—places like Africa, Latin America, India, China, Japan, and Korea.”
As expected, the interviews and conference focused heavily on the distressing situation in Palestine these days. Said continues to attack the Palestine National Authority and the Oslo Accords, but Said’s optimism comes through while mentioning the translation of “Orientalism” into Hebrew by scholars at Ben Gurion University. Steps like these, he believes, are important and show that people can decide their fates. “Coexistence,” he says, “will never come out of force.” To see a conference saluting Edward Said bring together so many strands of Arab voices and to see Said’s opinions and work develop in the Arab world is, for many intellectuals, a breath of relief, as culture continues to be under siege from many directions and the feeling of powerlessness continues to spread among all of us. The only wish left for many of us is that all people living in the Middle East will make more of an effort to try and create places beyond the superficial, national, religious, and communal ghettos we still see and take part in today.
This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 3, no.20 (Summer 1997)