Edward Said’s interview ‘On Orientalism’, is an enlightening addition to his research and writings on the topic. According to Said, Orientalism is a term that refers to the ways that the Western cultures view Eastern, or ‘Oriental’ cultures. Middle Eastern cultures are seen as ‘Other’, and are viewed as exotic, static, placid, and un-developing, unlike the West. In the interview, Said says that Orientalism is a lens that distorts the realities of the cultures of the Middle East. He decided to write the book Orientalism, after the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, and the continual representations of Muslims and Arabs in art and the media that were very different from the experience that Said had as an Arab.
In his book, Said argues that the ‘Orient’, and to be Oriental, was conceived by Europe and the West. People from this region were not asked their opinion, and westerners represent the ‘Orient’ and its people for them. Said remarks on this situation during the nineteenth century. “The Orient was Orientalized not only because it was discovered to be ‘Oriental’ in all those ways considered commonplace by an average nineteenth-century European, but also because it could be- that is, submitted to being- made Oriental.” (Said 72) In essence, the West very visibly asserted its power over the Orient by making them Oriental, or different, without taking into account the true culture of the region. This appears to be the same case as to what he describes in his interview. There are countless works of art and other artistic/media representations of the Middle East that are just untrue. Yet somehow, the West’s perception on the Orient has not changed, for the same pictures and photographs from the nineteenth century are still being used in the twentieth and twenty-first century.
Another topic Said talks about in his interview is the concept of American Orientalism. Unlike Europe, especially Britain and France, the United States has not had a full occupation in the Middle East (at the time of this interview). Therefore, the American perception of Orientalism is much less direct, based on abstractions power dynamics, and is also very politicized. Many of the images that people see on the Middle East from what the news is reporting, which is based on many of the US government’s actions and policies, specifically pertaining to Israel. Because Israel is an American ally and therefore viewed as Western, Said explains, many of the images seen in the US of the region are Arabs, specifically Hamas, resisting against the Israeli occupation. Immediately, these people are seen as terrorists, without giving an explanation of the Israeli occupation, why people are resisting it, and what it has done to Palestinians and other Arabs. Said argues that viewing the Middle East in such a narrow way, without learning the whole story, takes away from the complexity of the culture and the people, and is a very dangerous way of viewing people. In order for the US to have a true understanding of the Middle East, or the Orient, the binary oppositions, perceived power of the West over the Orient, and ‘Othering’ constructed by Orientalism need to be erased. Said’s final message in his interview addresses learning how to coexist peacefully with people who are different from one another with regard to race, religion, and culture. It is one of the biggest challenges facing not only the US, but the world as well. Unless we as a people learn how to coexist and accept other peoples’ differences, violence across nations, cultures, and religions will only continue.
By Falina Lothamer
Said, Edward W., “Orientalism,” in Moustafa Bayoumi and Andrew Rubin, eds. The Edward Said Reader (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), 63-75.
“Said on Orientalism.” https://ctools.umich.edu/portal/site/b4c66a82-ed5d-4899-95b0-fee5fd8715c0/page/6275a9a5-8768-419f-9d84-b1d51715440b. Web. 24 November 2010. (Ctools).