Orientalism has been touted as the premiere work in its design; a sort of revisionist take on the western field of orientalism as it existed from the earliest foundations of European civilization to the present. Both scholars and activists have taken lessons from this book to the forefront of the ideological battlefield, and for good reason.
Said does something that very few political and historical authors can do; scratch beneath the surface of the problem and dig to its root. The chronology takes us from the earliest western stereotypes born upon the ‘Orient’, mainly a byproduct of a Europe that was at the time backwards, religiously fervent, and fearful of anything that existed outside of its self-induced paranoia. We take a journey through the burgeoning French and British Empires which aimed to impose their will and customs upon the ‘mysterious’ Orient, a land ripe for adventure and exploration.
That exploratory stigma, a relic of the European empires of old, still exists predominantly in our modern-western psyches. I, for one, am a victim of this same sort of phenomena; Even to this day, thoughts of the Middle East lead straight to the glorified scores and images of Lawrence of Arabia racing upon an endless desert, or a camel rising from a hill of sand. The list goes on and on, and all of us born within the model of the ‘Western-train-of-thought’ have probably been prone to these experiences every once and a while.
This book is spectacular not only for the broad and monumentally important arguments that it makes, but also in how it does it. Said builds us a chronologically sound analysis of the development of the Western ‘orient’ towards the ‘Orient’, but it goes much father that that. Through Dante Alighieri and others we see the foundation of the Western mind as it relates to the world, and out of this dichotomy of religious degradation and scientific advancement we see the arrival of a Europe that translates its historical fear of the Middle East into a rationale for the legacies of western imperialism and colonialism. ‘Why’ this transformation happened is a discussion ripe for ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel’ (another one of my favorites), but the ‘how’ of colonialism and orientalism is analyzed magnificently throughout these few hundred pages.
A person of history and knowledge, a humanist if you will (as I consider myself), will find him or herself cringing routinely throughout this book. Even if the facts and anecdotes are familiar, you’ll be struck with the realization of the failure of orientalism and what it meant for the world. Where a select few of the premiere orientalists used the field as an outlet for sincere understanding of the Islamic world and its inhabitants, far too many used it for the short term aims of conquest, military control, and empire. Ironically enough, it’s this very one-dimensional view of the Middle East and her people that led to many of the political headaches of the three various ‘empires’ that have had deep interests in the Orient.
You can find the current events in the Middle East interesting or not, but either way this is a fundamentally vital read for anyone remotely interested in the history of the Middle East as its been viewed from the West. Edward Said’s hope in his final conclusions was that this work would provide some sort of substantial use for future historians and scholars intrigued by the historiography, which is a vast understatement of its even present value.
My rating; 5/5 stars. Please read!