The Legacy of Edward Said
BY: Clara Ana Ruplinger/Contributing Writer
Edward Said, notable academic and scholar of post-colonial criticism, was born on November 1, 1935 in Jerusalem, which was then part of the British Mandate of Palestine. Born to a Lebanese mother and Christian Palestinian father, he became an American after his father gave military service to the U.S. during the First World War, and had thus been granted U.S. citizenship.
Said’s work and critical analyses of Western literature and their depictions of the Middle East, and what he terms “the Orient,” have been some of the most influential in the modern era. He spent the large part of his career confronting stereotypes and the biases that permeated throughout the work of some of the most renowned scholars of his day. Said criticized hundreds of years of Western literature and art depicting the Arab world as an “other” place defined as uncivilized, backwards, or exotic.
Said’s fluency in Arabic, English, and French, and his unique cultural background allowed him to understand the world around him in ways Westerners could not; he was himself a student subject to the imperialism of the British. Said realized that he was an Arab academic in a world where white men and white thought dominated the study of “the Orient”.
Considering the current political climate of the U.S., it is more important than ever to revisit Said’s work and his legacy.
Said defines Orientalism as “a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient’s special place in European Western experience” and he traces this tradition all the way back to Homer (Orientalism). He explains how the West, which he calls the Occident, has constructed its own image of the Orient, one which it agrees with, and which ultimately confirms and promotes the Occident’s own ambitions and mindsets regarding the region and its people.
The submissive Arab woman, unable to speak for herself, was first mentioned by Said talking about Kuchuk Hanem, the Oriental, Egyptian courtesan in the writings of Flaubert, a French novelist. Through Hanem, who never spoke for herself, he created the depiction of the “typical oriental” woman.
Today, these invented depictions of Arab women persist. This is seen in the politicized atmosphere around the hijab, and how in the West this simple piece of cloth has come to be seen as a symbol of women’s subjugation, confirming the Occident’s dream of a suppressed oriental. By banning the hijab, Westerners imagine they are saving these women from their subjugation, when in reality, they are only imposing more oppression unto them.
Beyond this, the Arab woman is also the subject of racialized sexual violence. Stereotypes like the Arab belly dancer continue to dominate Western Halloween costumes and films taking place in the Arab world. The identity of Arab women is too often manipulated by the Western man to become the object of his desires, whether they be sexual, or a justification for oppressive measures which satisfy the man’s savior complex.
In contrast to the submissive Arab woman, Arab men are hyper sexualized by being characterized as aggressive and domineering. Said wrote in 1980, “It is only a slight overstatement to say that Moslems and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists.” (Islam through Western Eyes). Abusers, misogynistic, polygamists are only a few of the cultural stereotypes attributed to Arab men by Westerners.
By continuing to promote these Western images, Arabs living in North America and Europe are living in fear and danger.
Americans have begun to live in a society where wearing a thobe, the traditional Arab dress for men, makes an Arab man look suspicious enough to get arrested. In European countries, certain parties of the population draw whole platforms around the need to protect citizenry from what they characterize as violent, immigrant men, usually of Arab background.
What enforces Said’s ideas are pictures like those on the cover of this magazine, depicting “the Rape of Europe” where a white woman draped in a European Union flag screams as brown-skinned hands grab at the dress.
Arab men in entertainment are depicted as terrorists, or crudely drawn cultural stereotypes, like in the Good Kill, American Sniper, Homeland, Iron Man, and 24. Each of these movies or television shows depict Arab men as villains, terrorists, or thinly veiled stereotypes. They are deprived of their complexities and humanity.
Said’s main argument is that these images, words, and stories about the “Orient” are a truth constructed by the West. More importantly, the West has constructed an Orient where those who live there have no voice. These movies and stories depicting the submissive Oriental women in need of saving, and the violent controlling Oriental man, are written, directed, and created by Western writers, whose main knowledge of the Arab world derives from centuries-old depictions of Western understanding.
“The relationship between Occident and Orient is a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony.” (Orientalism). In the end, what these depictions and literature do is legitimize imperialism and arrogance within the mind of the Occident.