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Sunday, 17 June 2012





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Revisiting Orientalism

"Sie konnen sich nicht vertreten, sie mussen vertreten warden" -Marx

(They themselves cannot represent, so they should be represented)

In this series, I would like to examine, briefly, the profound impact that Edward Said's Orientalism has in shaping the perception of the Orient and its increasing relevance in modern context.

Edward Said's Orientalism is, perhaps, the most influential text that extensively deals with the idea of the Orient and profoundly influenced the intelligentsia throughout the world. For Westerners, the Orient has always been associated with exoticism in the same manner West is for the Orientals. Marx's idea about the orients is central to the understanding of the complex matrix of Orientalism and the stereotype ideas about colonial cultural hegemony.

Idea of Orientalism

Edward Said commenced his monumental thesis with a speech of colonial administrator Arthur James Balfour at the House of Commons on "the problems with which we have to deal in Egypt." As Edward Said pointed out, Balfour's speech, among other things, expressed the core ideas which justified the colonial presence in Egypt.

"You may look through the whole history of the Orientals in what is called, broadly speaking, the East, and you never find traces of self-government. All their great centuries-and they have been very great -have been passed under despotism, under absolute government. All their great contribution to civilisation -and they have been great-have been made under that form of government. Conquerer has succeeded conqueror; one domination has followed another; but never in all the revolutions of fate and fortune have you seen one of these nations of its own motion establish what we, from a Western point of view, call self-government.

This is the fact. It is not a question of superiority or inferiority. I supposed a true Eastern sage would say that the working government which we have taken upon ourselves in Egypt and elsewhere is not a work worthy of a philosopher -that it is the dirty work, the inferior work, of carrying on the necessary labour. It is good thing for these great nations-I admit their greatness-that this absolute government exercised by us? "

Said points out, "For Egypt was not just another colony: it was the vindication of Western imperialism; it was until its annexation by England, an almost academic example of Oriental backwardness; it was to be the triumph of English knowledge and power. Between 1882, the year in which England occupied Egypt and put an end to the nationalist rebellion of Colonel Arabi, 1907, England's representative of Egypt, Egypt's master, was Evelyn Baring, (also known as "Over-baring"), Lord Cromer.

On July 30, 1907, it was Balfour in the Commons who had supported the project to give Cromer a retirement prize of fifty-thousand pounds as a reward for what he had done in Egypt, Cromer made Egypt, said Balfour; Lord Cromer's services during the past quarter of a century have raised Egypt from a lowest pitch of social and economic degradation until it now stands among Oriental nations, I believe, absolutely alone in its prosperity, financial and moral. "

Western tutelage

What is important in the Egyptian case is that it was 'the unbroken, all-embracing Western tutelage of an Oriental country, from the scholars, missionaries,businessmen,soldiers and teachers who prepared and then implemented the occupation to the high functionaries like Cromer and Balfour who saw themselves as providing for, directing, and sometimes even forcing Egypt's rise from Oriental neglect to its present lonely eminence. " With knowledge about and of the Orientals, their race, character, culture, history, traditions, society, and possibilities, Said observes Cromer in his two-volume magisterial work Modern Egypt puts down a sort of personal cannon of Oriental Wisdom; "Sir Alfred Lyall once said to me; 'Accuracy is abhorrent to Oriental mind. Every Anglo-Indian should always remember that maxim. Want of accuracy, which easily degenerates into untruthfulness, is in fact the main characteristics of the Oriental mind."

Then Cromer makes a comparison between European and Oriental (Easterner) as ," The European is a close reasoned; his statement of facts are devoid of ambiguity; he is a natural logician, albeit he may not have studied logic; he is by nature sceptical and requires proof before he can accept the truth of any proposition; his trained intelligence works like a piece of mechanism. The mind of the Oriental, on the other hand, like his picturesque streets, is eminently wanting in symmetry. His reasoning is of the most slipshod description.

Although the ancient Arabs acquired in a somewhat higher degree the science of dialectics, their descendents are singularly deficient in logical faculty. They are often incapable of drawing the most obvious conclusions from any simple premises of which they may admit the truth. Endeavor to elicit a plain statement of facts from any ordinary Egyptian. His explanation will generally be lengthy, and wanting in lucidity. He will probably contradict himself half-a-dozen times before he has finished his story. He will often breakdown under the mildest process of cross-examination. "


Said observes, " Orientals or Arabs are thereafter shown to be gullible 'devoid of energy and initiative' much given to 'fulsome flattery', intrigue, cunning, and unkindness to animals; Orientals cannot walk on either a road or a pavement (their disordered minds fail to understand what the clever Europeans grasps immediately, that roads and pavements are made for walking); Orientals are inveterate liars, they are 'lethargic and suspicious' and in everything oppose the clarity, directness, and nobility of the Anglo-Saxon race."

What is interesting to observe even after decades following the construction of stereo perceptions about the Orient and of Orientals is that a very little has been changed as far as prototype perceptions of the West concerning the East or the Orient and of Orientals. Said observes, "In short, from its earliest modern history to the present, Orientalism as a form of thought for dealing with the foreign has typically shown the altogether regrettable tendency of any knowledge based on such hard-and-fast distinctions as 'East' and 'West'; to channel thoughts into a West or an East compartment. Because this tendency is right at the centre of Orientalist theory, practice, and values found in the West, the sense of Western power over the Orient is taken for granted as having the status of scientific truth."



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