Orientalism ~ by Edward Said

I’d wanted to read this for so long – since college days it feels like. but it was published a few years after I graduated so I couldn’t have even heard about it there.  It must have been mentioned or reviewed in the magazines and newspapers I read. Whatever.  Because then, a few months ago, there it was at Audible and apparently had been there for some time.  And then it was on sale, so I just had to get it even if it might take some time (unless it’s very interesting) to read.   The book caused some change, but the field may have been on the cusp of a changing world.  The 1994 release does include some mention in the closing remarks that it’s dated now – and that was almost 30 years ago.  

By Edward Said
1978 / (1994 update of last pages)
Read Peter Ganim 19h 2m (368 p.) 
Rating: 9 because it’s a classic / history-historiography

It wasn’t a quick read and it wasn’t even very interesting and I think it’s even out of date now but I read it and I’ll likely read it again because I’ve got the gist, it’s an important book for many reasons and I’m sure I missed quite a lot.  Yes, it’s definitely dated, academia has changed a lot, but it does show what related ideas used to be and how they got that way – thanks to Western academics of Orientalism. 

Before the publishing of the book in 1978, the Orient was treated with a kind of special “mystical contempt” by Western academics. The history was interesting but beyond that the “orient” was seen as being backwards. The people there were Muhammadans, worshipping Muhammad and condemned to hell.  And on top of that they had access to a LOT of oil.  So they were all lumped together unless some academic was specializing in the history of a specific group.  It was colonialism at it’s height.  The changes of the 21st century are not covered at all and there have been many.  

Before this book was released the “Middle East” was treated as the source of oil and “Mohammedanism.”  But Said was a brilliant Palestinian exceptionally well-educated at Princeton and Harvard.  His father was American, his mother a Lebanese educator and later an author. His ideas of his homeland and its environs was different from those of his academic peers, he was angry when he realized the pervasiveness of those ideas and wrote Orientalism.   

In the last decades of the 20th and first of the 21st centuries things have changed.  China’s economic growth, the political troubles in the Middle East, the 9/11 attack in New York City and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan  all contributed to a big change in the way Western academics look at Asia as a whole.  The academics of the West now have to take a far more serious, immediate and respectful notice.  But “they” are still the “other,”  “outsiders,” and historically Islam is an imposter, a fake religion.  Europe and Christianity are the real thing, you know – that was the attitude until recently – and maybe even now.  

When the book was written, these events had not even happened yet and Said could have known nothing about them. Still, the history is great and it explains a lot about colonialism and other matters. From Dante to the War in Vietnam Said lays out the past and then he brings it up to the Western paranoia of his own times (1976 or so) .  For Europe, “the orient” was a place where Western ideas dominated alongside Islam to which the West responded with Islamophobia.  Academics were curious about the “snake charmers,” etc. Shell Oil wanted product, and they looked down on the heretical Islam although to them it was backwards and fraudulent. 

Yes, the book has so much specific info that I really kind of want to read it again.  


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4 Responses to Orientalism ~ by Edward Said

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    I was always going to read this because I agreed with what I’d heard about his ideas about colonialism.
    But now I am not so sure. Colonialism was a bad thing and should never have happened but decolonisation in the Middle East and Africa has been a debacle and after more than half a century, the colonisers are still being blamed for it instead of the leadership taking responsibility for poor governance, appalling inequality, endemic corruption, constant violence and brutal wars plus an endless stream of refugees because people want to escape from poverty.
    Comparing it with decolonisation in southeast Asia is interesting. Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore show that it doesn’t need to be a disaster.


    • Exactly, Lisa! This book is dated – it was first published way prior to our 9/11 and even before the Gulf Wars of the 1990s (when we had to take the “orient” seriously. Said is Palestinian and well educated in the US.
      The book is mostly about how the academics studied and wrote and taught their version of the history of the orient and colonialism which affected the study of it, and the dealings with the orient, etc. It was a cycle feeding itself. Sad to say those who lived in the areas bought into it in one way or another and the whole system was self-perpetuating. Said himself broke that cycle with this book and although his ideas were highly controversial at first, they had an almost immediate impact on the way the “orient” was perceived, studied, written about, discussed and treated.

      So a lot of it is not really so relevant to what is going on now, but it does explain how it was before. I think it’s really changed since the Shah of Iran left his country in 1980, that was a couple years after the book was released. The “orient” was ripe for change. We barely even call it the orient now but it still comes up – “Oriental Trading Company” and all that. Such a vague weird term.


  2. Lisa Hill says:

    It’s amazing really how the world, which seemed stable for so long, has changed in our lfietime.


  3. Pingback: The Uses of Enchantment ~ by Bruno Bettelheim | Becky's Books –

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