Many scholars place the beginning of postcolonial studies in history, literature, philosophy, anthropology, and the arts at the publication of Said's Orientalism, published in 1978.
Said focuses his attention in this work on the interplay between the "Occident" and the "Orient." The Occident is his term for the West (England, France, and the United States), and the Orient is the term for the romantic and misunderstood Middle East and Far East.
According to Said, the West has created a dichotomy, between the reality of the East and the romantic notion of the "Orient. The Middle East and Asia are viewed with prejudice and racism. They are backward and unaware of their own history and culture. To fill this void, the West has created a culture, history, and future promise for them. On this framework rests not only the study of the Orient, but also the political imperialism of Europe in the East.
Unlike the Americans, the French and British--less so the Germans, Russians, Spanish, Portugese, Italians, and Swiss--have had a long tradition of what I shall be calling 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 its 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 a mode of discourse with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, doctrines, even colonial bureaucracies and colonial styles. . . .
It will be clear to the reader...that by Orientalism I mean several things, all of them, in my opinion, interdependent. The most readily accepted designation for Orientalism is an academic one, and indeed the label still serves in a number of academic institutions. Anyone who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient--and this applies whether the persion is an anthropologist, sociologist, historian, or philologist--either in its specific or its general aspects, is an Orientalist, and what he or she says or does is Orientalism. . . .
Related to this academic tradition, whose fortunes, transmigrations, specializations, and transmissions are in part the subject of this study, is a more general meaning for Orientalism. Orientalism is a style of thought based upon ontological and epistemological distinction made between "the Orient" and (most of the time) "the Occident." Thus a very large mass of writers, among who are poet, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, and imperial administrators, have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, "mind," destiny, and so on. . . . the phenomenon of Orientalism as I study it here deals principally, not with a correspondence between Orientalism and Orient, but with the internal consistency of Orientalism and its ideas about the Orient . . despite or beyond any correspondence, or lack thereof, with a "real" Orientalism.
(Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979, 1-3,5.
Edward Said is a preeminent scholar and an important figure in postcolonial studies. A professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia University, he is also well known as an activist in Middle Eastern politics.
Said was born in Jerusalem, Palestine in 1935. His mother was of Lebanese descent and his father was a successful Palestinian book merchant. The family had homes in Palestine, Cairo, Egypt, and a vacation home in Lebanon.
In 1948, while Said was a grade school student (at a private English school in Cairo) the state of Israel was created and 80 percent of the Palestinian population was left without a home. Said did not return to Palestine until 1990.
Said was a privileged child and had little interest in the conflict between Israel and Palestine. His educational life was one of private school wealth, but perhaps most importantly, it was in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious community.
In 1951, Said was expelled from Victoria College in Cairo for poor behavior. Since his father had acquired American citizenship some years earlier, Edward was also an American citizen. He was sent to the United States and he finished high school at a private boarding school in New England. Upon graduation he went to Princeton University and studied English literature and history. He pursued his graduate studies at Harvard. His Ph.D. dissertation was on Joseph Conrad.
The Suez Crisis made quite an impact on him as an Arab-Palestinian, but now established in academic life in the U.S., he did not get involved in politics of the situation. However, the Israeli victory over the Arab forces in 1967, and the Israeli occupation of the last remaining Palestinian territories, forced Said to take a political stance for the liberation of Palestine. In 1968 he wrote his first article about the Palestinian cause: "The Arab Portrayed."
In 1970 Said went to visit his family in Beirut, and while there got caught up in the struggle for the liberation of Palestine. He became part of a community of academics and writers who were involved in various colonial and postcolonial struggles. During this time Said translated the speeches of Yassir Arafat into English for the Western press. He became an articulate voice for the liberation of Palestine in Europe and the U.S. He remained independent and never affiliated with a political party. However in 1977, Said was elected to the Palestinian National Congress in exile.
Also during the 1970's Said, as an academic in the field of comparative literature began writing on contemporary Arab literature; such authors as Naguib Mahfouz, Elias Khouri, and the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.
In 1975-1976 Said was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study at Stanford University. It was while he was at Stanford that he wrote Orientalism. Over the next three years, he published Covering Islam (1981) and The Question of Palestine (1979), which, in conjunction with Orientalism, has been called his trilogy.
In the 1980's and 1990's Said effectively used his fame to further the cause of Palestine and to advocate for human rights. In the 1980's Said actively lobbied the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to re-think the strategy of armed struggle toward liberation and urged Palestinians and all Arabs to understand the importance of mutual respect and co-existence with Israelis. He advocated a two-state solution. As a temperate voice, he made many friends within Israel.
During this period, Said became a target of personal attack by conservative Jewish and Christian Zionists. These attacks on Said suggest an "Orientalism" on the part of the right-wing Zionists. As an articulate Arab intellectual, Said was viewed as a threat. In 1985 the Jewish Defense League called him a "Nazi." A short time later his office at Columbia was burned.
In 1991 Said resigned his position on the Palestinian National Congress, and broke with Arafat. He was critical of the peace agreement between Israel and the PLO made at Oslo, and felt that the PLO "lacked credibility and moral authority."
The 1990's was a politically and personally difficult period for Said. In 1991 he was diagnosed with leukemia. The pain, suffering, and lengthy hospitalization prompted him to write a memoir. Out of Place relates the experiences of his youth and his feelings of exile. Said's illness went into remission, but it still took a toll on his health and lifestyle. It was during this period that he returned to Palestine for the first time since his childhood.
In 1993 Said published his most comprehensive works on postcolonial study, Culture and Imperialism, and in 1994, Representations of the Intellectual. These two books, in his field of comparative literature, brought him again into prominence in the academic community. Said became the president of the Modern Language Association in 1998.
Despite his illness, Edward Said has continued to be an activist for the peace, human rights and social justice. As his health permits, he travels an international lecture route. He also writes a regular column for the Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram, which appears in English and Arabic and also online.
Orientalism and Wretched of the Earth
Edward Said is an academic who has become a political activist in furthering the cause of an independent Palestine. Franz Fanon was also an academic activist. Said's moderation is sharply contrasted by Fanon's ideas of revolutionary violence.
Orientalism and The Black Jacobins
C.L.R James stresses the economics of the post colonial struggle, while Said focuses on the academic theme of misunderstanding on the part of the West. Is this Orientalist view of misunderstanding the Middle East also further fueled by the economics and oil? Is Western money being spent to legitimize and continue the struggle between the East and West?
What's the Truth?
Said's critics have attacked his memoir with misrepresenting his past. Accusations of lying and plagiarism are becoming more common in our society. Are these accusations a search for the truth, or just political attacks?
Said makes the claim that the whole of Western European and American scholarship, literature, and cultural representation and stereotype creates and reinforces prejudice against non-Western cultures, putting them in the classification of Oriental (or "Others"). The heart of the matter in understanding Orientalism is this power relationship and how the Occident has used and continues to use and understand the Orient on its own terms.
In the nineteenth century, "Oriental Studies" was an area of academic study. But the West had to create the East in order for this study to take place. Said asserts that according to the Occidentals, the Orientals had no history or culture independent of their colonial masters. Orientalism is more an indicator of the power the West holds over the Orient, than about the Orient itself. Creating an image of the Orient and a body of knowledge about the Orient and subjecting it to systematic study became the prototype for taking control of the Orient. By taking control of the scholarship, the West also took political and economic control.
The current situation and the future:
In light of the current situation in the Middle East and the terrorist destruction in the U.S on September 11, Said's theory is particularly illuminating. U.S. attention is on the Islamic people of the Middle East, and the understanding of the mainstream seems to be that is that these Arabs are "other" people, people not like us, people who have strange values and beliefs. And, it goes without saying that the society of strange people is inferior. It is obvious from the popular news media that Orientalism is still very much alive. Islam is misunderstood and distorted when the prejudicial connotations of the past are not challenged. All of the scholarship of the West, studying the religion, language and culture of the Middle East, has not promoted a better understanding of Islam. For many Westerners, Islamic society is still understood in terms of the West's Oriental history (the heathen violent fighters of the Crusades), and not in the context of followers of a religion that shares much with both Judaism and Christianity. There is a profound ignorance about reality that enables this inaccurate and prejudicial view. Awareness of this "Orientalism" is an important first step.
Said's premise in Orientalism is that the West has a long history of purposefully misunderstanding the Middle East. The Western imagination of the Middle East bears little resemblance to the reality, and this inaccuracy is used to justify our political and economic course. If we are to truly assist in achieving a resolution to the current crisis, we must examine not only the "Orientals" but also ourselves.