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Edward Said Discusses ‘Orientalism,’ Arab Intellectuals, Reviving Marxism, and Myth in Palestinian History
By Nouri Jarah
Edward Said is a free thinker, an uncompromising moralist, a talented and encyclopedic intellectual, and a great
theoretical power. Adept at negotiating the maze of conflicting world cultures, his coherent logic effectivly clarifies
liberating, human dimensions of thought and shakes the foundations of the dominant discourse.
Because of his unique vision, Said was able to understand and dissect the structures upon which Western imperialist culture rests. His book “ Orientalism” (1978) “changed the face of the scientific approach to studying the Arabs and the world, and the third world in general,” says the noted American critic Denisia Smith. This monumental work directed contemporary consciousness in the West to compare and contrast the “Other.”
Among Said’s many other works are “Joseph Conrad and the Autobiographical Novel,” “The World, the Text and
the Critic,” “Covering Islam,” and “Culture and Imperialism.” Said is known for helping to establishing an Arab-Israeli peace, as well as peace between his Palestinian people and the Israelis, mainly because he sees no alternative to this in the Arab Mashreq. He opposes the Oslo Accord and its consequences; he considers it a detour from the road to real peace. He also believes that the current peace process, whether championed by Likud or Labor, is an “Israeli” operation carried out to destroy the hopes and future of the Palestinian people. Said, however, is a rational-historical intellectual with a creative vision, and with this vision he insists that the status quo is not final, rejecting it entirely and dismissing the logic rationalizing its inevitability. He suggests instead an
alte rnative “new peace movement,” involving the participation of the Palestinian people–all Palestinians, including those in Palestine and those abroad. Said also disagrees with the Islamic interpretation of his writings, especially hose about “Orientalism,” as ant interpretation contrary to the text. The Arab interpretation of “Orientalism” has often been distorted, for it has made the term “orientalist” an insult.
If you want to insult someone, you call him “Orientalist.”
This is one of the negative consequences of the caricatural reading of
Said’s positions on freedom and human rights are honorable; he fiercely defends individual and collective rights regardless of race and beliefs. He is not afraid to challenge any authority in his defense of human rights, a cause to which he has devoted most of his thought and writings. He has paid a high price for this position, with his books banned in more than one Arab country. The essence of Said’s intellectual project involves deconstructing power and repressive phenomena by the use of highly advanced intellectual tools. This process of deconstruction follows a general view that does not break away from its epistemological position, a position which uncovers the most developed, rich, and human in the intellectual and spiritual experiments of people, contingent with their existence. An important dimension of his characteristically dynamic and vital intellectualism manifests itself in the following interview.
Jarah: The front cover of one of your books shows a photo of a Hamas slogan on a Palestinian wall saying that Hamas is the resistance or something similar. Did you choose the picture?
Said: No, the publisher chose the physical form the book took.
Jarah: Did you have a different vision for it?
Said: No, the issue does not concern me much, and I have nothing against it, because it is only the form. What holds importance for me is the content of the book.
Jarah: Is there any particular significance for choosing this picture?
Said: Yes, there was a reason for this choice, as the book’s topics include anger and protests; writing on walls is one of the means to express anger as well as one of the forms of protest.
Jarah: Does it concern you that among your best Arab readers are intellectuals who belong to the neo-Islamic groups, and some of these increasingly cite your ideas and writings in their studies’ footnotes?
Said: Certainly, and I have frequently expressed my concern on this subject. I find my opinions misinterpreted,
especially where they include substantial criticism of Islamist movements. First, I am secular; second, I do not trust
religious movements; and third, I disagree with these movements’ methods, means, analyses, values and visions. It is very possible to read a given author according to a certain interpretation, and this happens often, resulting in
misunderstanding. In my introduction of the new edition of “Orientalism,” I insisted on this issue, pointing out the vast difference between me and the Islamic reading that some accuse me of. In “Orientalism” I do not talk about Islam, but rather the portrayal of Islam in the West, offering a critique of the foundations and the goals upon which the coverage is based.
Jarah: Does your study of intellectual activities in the Arab world, mainly through the elements of conflict and debate within Arab culture, reveal to you signs pointing toward a post-colonial discourse?
Said: Do you mean the existence of a post-colonial school?
Jarah: Or signs?
Said: I doubt that.
Jarah: Do you think reading trends in Arabic show that “Orientalism,” which had a great impact in India, Latin
America, Japan and Africa, is being read in Arabic with as much importance as in other languages?
Said: Let me return to examples I have used before: the influence the book had in India, Japan or South Africa seems to me at a deeper level of analysis than in the Arab World. The “Sub-Alternative Studies” in the field of history in India, for example, in my opinion, is the most important school in the third world that produces post-colonial discourse in writing and analyzing history, etc. This school, which was greatly influenced by “Orientalism,” is significant to the extent that no history department in U.S. universities is without one of its representatives. In fact, no equivalent to this school exists in the field of Arab and Islamic studies. The “Sub-Alternative Studies” school has influenced the trends of analyzing and writing American history itself, as well as influencing other world universities. “Orientalism,” I think, was read more profoundly in other places than in the Arab World.
Jarah: What is the reason?
Said: The reason is that “Orientalism” was basically used by Arab readers as a means for conflict and not for
developing an analytical thought based on ideas. This factor made the term “Orientalism” an insult. If you want to insult someone, you call him “Orientalist.” This is one of the negative consequences of the caricatural reading of my book, because I do not say or imply anything like this.
Jarah: But you often presented deplorable examples of this term in your book.
Said: Maybe, but it was in a much larger context than to reduce “Orientalism” and its circumstances to the level of
insults. I admit that as the author I am biased, but the most important thing about the book is the method of analysis, the theoretical framework according to which results are organized–and not the negative consequences themselves, which should not be simplified to the point of saying this orientalist was our enemy, that one was against us and that one likes or hates us, etc. It appears that as an Arab society we remain prisoners of these modes, for we have not been able to develop something that allows us to be emancipated from the dark past.
Jarah: To be fair with those who are just readers, those who did not respond to your theories with the written word, I think many of them have received the ideas of the book within the contexts you propose, through the broad vision that you want as the framework for analysis and revision. The difference here is that the reading did not become writing.
Said: This is condemned to be mere reading, for it neither became a written response nor added to the debate. But let me add something: “Orientalism” was published in 1978, and during the past twenty years I wrote about ten books, including “Culture and Imperialism,” published in 1992. These books cover topics like literary criticism, philosophy and other themes.
Jarah: Does this mean you want to free yourself from the confining stereotypes, or from the dominant popularity and prominence of “Orientalism” over your other writings among Arab readers?
Said: Do you mean, to renounce my book?
Jarah: I mean, do you want to free yourself from the dominance of the book?
Said: I think an author should continuously attempt something new, centering on all that he has, to prevent a reduction of his works. Knowledge of all an author’s different writings leads to understanding the developments in their thinking and research from one area to another. It is important to me that people read my books, but my major interest centers on writing rather than revising what I have written. I mean, I want to continue my journey a little bit further.
Jarah: In this context, and viewed from the revision perspective, how would you describe the “addition” to
Said: It is a very small and limited addition that could have been more developed, but as I said before, I don’t have a lot of time for revision.
Jarah: Do you think current trends of events in the Arab world are not reflected fast enough in intellectuals’ ideas, analysis and research, and thus these intellectuals appear shocked by facts, often producing reactions rather than effective thinking?
“ ‘Orientalism,’ I think, was read more profoundly in other places than in the Arab World.”
Said: This is correct to some extent in the Arab world, although not quite new. My personal problem is that I live isolated from the region, and my daily, weekly, monthly and yearly job is naturally connected to the Western society where I live. Excluding two American universities in the region (Cairo and Beirut), I regret not having a relationship with any other Arab universities that would enable me to know the daily situation of the researcher, professor, or Arab intellectual, except what I gather on hurried visits. Thus, I feel I lack accurate details of the situation, but through the available information I have, I can conclude that your observation that events unfold with a great speed is correct. There is no intellectual position that reflects these events to the degree to which they influence consciousness and the course of events.
Jarah: During the past few years, Hamas, Hezbollah and the Islamic Jihad have focused on a purely romantic image of the fighter and the strong rejectionist, while on the other hand, the image of the Leftist rejectionist (the Marxist and the nationalist) has faded. Furthermore, the Leftist rejectionist became for a large segment of people the symbol of one colluding with the corrupt regimes that wage bloody wars against part of society. The avant-gardist intellectual appears paralyzed before this new equation. What is your commentary on that?
Said: I agree with your characterization of the situation. There appears to be great confusion. It is certainly easy to say that, although I am geographically distant from the facts and events, not to mention that I do not have any political ambition, but it seems to me there is a similarity between the practice and the function of the intellectual on the one hand, and politics on the other. What I find at this time is an urgent need for total separation between the two. Humbly, the most dangerous and worst scenario for intellectuals is to be involved in both the intellectual and political realms, that is to combine functions in their political life and political ambitions (seeking positions and offices) and their functions as intellectuals. This image of the politically invested intellectual has been reinforced nowadays to the point that it pollutes the cultural discourse and this has led, as you say, to accusing the intellectual of connivance, a warranted accusation indeed. Arab intellectuals have quickly given up to the change in their position from opposition to participant in government without any real attempt to preserve their independent status and protect their position as free intellectuals.
Jarah: Could you still see the possibility of reviving Marxism as an opposition discourse, for as I understood from
remarks you made earlier on the subject, you seemed to be questioning whether or not this is possible, and the question appeared quite serious and open. But did I feel even the traces of hope about reviving Marxism in the current world crisis?
Said: I do not like to discuss the question of Marxism because I do not want get involved in the problematics of
terms–the questions of what is Marxism and whether or not I am a Marxist. I am not concerned with schools of thought if the issue is membership. What I see is completely different. As a free and independent intellectual, I only give little importance to the slogan whether it is Marxist or non-Marxist. Undoubtedly, the Marxist analysis, or let us say the materialist analysis, includes lessons and elements very useful to understanding the situation we live in now, especially concerning economic relations. Here I refer to the Marxist analysis through the contributions of Gramsci and Lukács. It is possible to benefit from these contributions in analyzing what Marx did not think of; it is something we can use in the current situation. We need neither the reproduction of traditional Marxism nor reviving the slogans, but instead we must eclectically choose specific elements and reformulate them in a new approach through our new discourses.
Jarah: What do you think about the “permanent” exile of Jacques Derrida, and is it the same for the Palestinian?
Jarah: What then is the difference between the two situations?
Said: The difference is that the Jewish people claim that their relationship to Palestine goes back 3000 years, and
"This image of the politically invested intellectual has been reinforced nowadays to the point that it pollutes the cultural discourse and this has
led, as you say, to accusing the intellectual of connivance, a warranted accusation indeed."
that they were exiled from it and displaced 2500 years ago. But the expulsion of the Palestinians from Palestine began just yesterday. Still, we should not forget that the Zionist official history was founded on the diaspora and the idea of permanent exile–this history uses many myths. I think we as Palestinians should avoid myths, and it appears to me that we as intellectuals must focus on the historical and concrete facts and refuse to utilize mythological dimensions. I cannot accept the notion that the Palestinian refugee will remain a refugee forever. I am among those who think that there will not be a realistic solution unless it deals with the current situation of Palestinians as refugees. Thus the question is: is it possible to relive our past and restore history to pre-1948? I doubt that. We suffered a loss; it can be said that our people lost the battle temporarily. The question is to what extent? I do not think that any one at the present has a final answer to this question. What we have to do now is to limit this loss.
Jarah: The Jews used the term diaspora to describe a collective nostalgia toward a mythical place. Some Palestinians have adapted this term and used it to describe their expatriation from Palestinian geography. Do you think that Palestinians use of this term may imply other meanings, especially when the Palestinian exile is from a geographically existent, very real place–real to the extent that they were expelled from homes to which they still keep the door keys? Is there an alternative term to diaspora which you propose the Palestinian use?
Said: In Arabic I use the word shatat (dispersion) despite my continuing caution and criticism of many terms based on myths of imagination. I naturally reject the term “diaspora.” But nothing can prevent the term being used. The Jews used it to fulfill their own imagination, but we are talking about a different situation for the Palestinian. The Palestinian situation and the society Palestinians desire is peculiar to that nation.
This interview was adapted and edited from a longer version to appear in “A Land Between A River and a Sea:
Interviews on Palestinians and Their Return” (In Arabic), published by Al Mu’asassa al-Arabiyya lildirasaat wa al-Nashr, Amman and Beirut. Nouri Jarah has given Al Jadid the exclusive right to translate, edit, and publish this interview.
Translated from the Arabic by Brigitte Caland and Elie Chalala
This interview appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 5, no. 28 (Summer 1999).