A Raw reflection on: Said E.W, Orientalism (London: First published by Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1978, and Reprinted in Penguin Books in 2003), pp. 396

“It was so sad to be a wiser man than one’s nation…One cannot feel bitterness towards one’s homeland. Better to be mistaken along with the nation than to be too right with those who tell it hard truths”p.148

The above quote is cited in the book. Renan, one of the 19th Century Orientalists whose analysis of his work took considerable number of pages in the book, said the sentence in 1885.  It was one of the justifications for the cultural hegemony of the Occidental.

 Well, may be two words are already striking you from the above two short paragraphs. I assume they are Orientalist and Occidental. I am not sure if I have the capacity to explain them properly, and so I argue you to spare adequate focus time to read the book. In it’s simplest, Occidental refers to the European (or the West). I will define Orientalism using a quote from the book, then after I will put down what engulfed my mind while reading and after finishing this marvelous classic book.

 In the very first page Said says:

“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 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 mode of discourse with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, doctrines, even colonial bureaucracies and colonial styles. In contrast, the American understanding of the Orient will seem considerably less dense, although recent Japanese, Korean, and Indochinese adventures ought now to be creating a more sober, more realistic “Oriental” awareness. Moreover the vastly expanded American political and economic role in the near East  (the Middle East (makes great claims on our understanding of that Orient” pp.1-2

Through the pages that follow the above paragraph are deep and critical explanations, evaluations, and reviews of the origins, development, and institutionalization of Orientalism. Said takes us through two or more centuries of the development and institutionalization of ‘representation’ of the Orient.

 The book is thus very well packed with reviews of different accounts of European explorers, colonial officials, policy makers, scholars, and media. Said deeply, in fact very deeply, analyzed various documents from European explorers diaries to the university academic syllabuses. Thus, the book is uniquely historical yet modern. The book has only three but long chapters with sub-chapters. Chapter one covers the scope of Orientalism, in which Said thorough analyses different angles and aspects of Orientalism from religious, to cultural, economic, scientific, and political points of view. In chapter two, Said takes us through written works by French and British scholars who had significant influence towards institutionalization of Orientalism.  Chapter three examines Orientalism now with a focus on academic side. The three chapters link the “idea” stage of Orientalism to “material” stage of Orientalism. By material, we can think of colonialism as well as institutionalization of departments/colleges that were put in place to further expound the Orientalism. A familiar example of this was the establishment of London School of Oriental and African Studies…considered as the necessary “Furniture of Empire”- p. 214

Some of the pages in those chapters were very difficult to get through. Often Said includes French quotes without translation or indenting them. Some of the sentences are a bit abstract and it seemed like I needed to get into Said’s mind to understand his line of thinking- but how could I do so with such an intellectual man as Said?

Now, let me quickly point out what I reflected while reading the book:

Representation of Africa – Chambi Chachage advised me to look at “Black Orientalism”, which I admittedly did not look so I don’t know the content. But may be in relation to that (assumptions) I think the concept of Orientalism as described throughout the book can be used as analytical framework to examine the representation of Africa over the years. In fact Said spoke of Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, which describes very well the controlling of the “subordinate” class in general. So over the years, since the time of European explorers such as Stanley, we see how Africa and Africans were represented which gave way to colonialism and neo-colonialism…and even now neoliberalism or post-modern colonialism.  Without even going into the scholarly work (which I cant generalize as I know a number of honest genuine academics who study Africa not for any bad motive or with wrong attitudes but for love and genuine interests), the international media has often portrayed and represent Africa in a negative way…and this is often for a certain reason. As Said said “representations have purposes, they are effective much of the time, they accomplish one of many tasks. Representations are formations, or….they are deformations” p.273

As Africans we need to reform so as to remedy those deformations. There have been efforts to rebrand Africa.  More is needed, not only in writings but also in hard work so as we can show the world that what has been systematically represented about Africa is not natural!

Islam and the West– I can’t even believe I’m writing this, but the phrase “Islam and the West” is not new to many of us. But to understand the representation of Islam in the West and now almost internationally (because what is the West anymore? Can we say the West is geographical?? That’s another debate or blog entry) can only be understood from historical perspective.  Tens of pages in this book have addressed this issue of representation of Islam from 18th century by both the French and British scholars. Islam was wrongly presented and this is way too complicated and to some extent, sensitive.  But what we hear now about Islam has historical roots. I think people who want to thoroughly understand the unfair and stereotyped media representation of the Arab world, Islam, and political rhetoric especially after September 11 (2001) should read Said’s book.

Although I was genuinely scared of the book’s implication to the discipline of Anthropology or area studies, I think Said’s work is an honest piece that challenges us to think critically of the education system. It reminded me of  2 years ago when I was teaching ‘International Political Economy and Global Development” module at the University of Nottingham. In seminars, we took considerable hours to discuss Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. One of the difficult issues that we once or twice discussed was the role of the education we receive as an agent of the hegemony class. We have to be critical to the very education we receive because…can it be a hegemonic agent? I’m even scared to think about it…

On a different note…the book has reminded me…and mostly helped me to further understand two books that I read a while back:

 King Leopold’s Ghost

 The Western Supremacy: The Triumph of an Idea 

Article written by

2 Responses

  1. Ada
    Ada at | | Reply

    Dear Aikande, Thank you for sharing this well needed review. I do not know much of the author but he certainly made a mark in the map of representative knowledge. Your view got me replaying the late Komla Dumor’s ted talk tagged ‘Telling the African Story’. One thing such deformation has achieved is division. The ‘Us’ against ‘them’ mentality. From your author’s presentations, I would think that this war is much older than I and you. Time and passionate commitment is all we need to retell this stories.

  2. domain
    domain at | | Reply

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I really appreciate your efforts and I
    will be waiting for your further post thanks once again.

Please comment with your real name using good manners.

Leave a Reply