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Orientalism | Context


The Middle East

When speaking of the Orient, Said refers to the continent of Asia and, for the purposes of his text, the countries of the Middle East (including Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Palestine). Prior to World War II (1939–45), this Arabic-speaking region was known as the Near East, but this term transitioned during World War II to become the Middle East, defining the area extending from the Mediterranean Sea to Southwestern Asia.

By the time of Said's birth in 1935, the Middle East had been reorganized and divided by world powers. Prior to World War I (1914–18), the Ottomans, originally a Turkish tribe from Anatolia, had ruled the entire region of the Middle East since the 15th century. However, after an initial period of territorial growth and expansion, the Ottoman Empire was characterized by territorial concessions to European countries (mainly England and France) and a slow decline in power. During World War I, the Ottoman Empire was, practically speaking, dissolved (although officially the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire would not occur until 1922) and reorganized according to new national and political boundaries. The results of these boundary reorganizations by Britain and France are generally recognized as having shaped the conflicts to come in the region, since boundaries that existed after World War I were entirely unrecognizable when contrasted with those of the Ottoman Empire.

When Britain and France signed the Sykes-Picot agreement (1916), they did not foresee the negative impacts such reorganizations would have on the cultural groups living in these regions. The agreement divided the Middle East into British and French "spheres of influence," or regions of imperialism where a country exerts its power over another region through territorial and economic control. Britain controlled the region currently including Iraq, Jordan, and Israel, while France claimed parts of Turkey (shared with Italy and Russia), Syria, and Iraq. This reorganization (without any attempt to include input from Arabic countries), combined with the rise of nationalism (attachment of specific groups of individuals to a particular territory often for economic, religious, or ethnic reasons) within the affected countries, exacerbated tensions in the region.

The reorganizational efforts of World War I (1914–18) were marked by periods of relative stability as the Middle East adjusted to the territorial changes. However, by the 1940s and 1950s, nationalism would play an increasingly large role in shaping the actions of Middle Eastern nations. During this period, three major nationalist movements arose: Israeli nationalism or Zionism, which was organized around the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine; Palestinian nationalism; and Egyptian nationalism. These nationalistic sentiments resulted in the rise of conflict in the Middle East prior to World War II. One of the most well-known instances of this conflict is the Arab Revolt (1936 and 1939) in Palestine. This was a revolt against British rule because of rising tensions between the Arab and immigrant Jewish populations—the direct result of having two competing nationalistic groups within the same territory.

These nationalistic tensions persisted and were increased even further after World War II; the Cold War (1947–91, rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union over the spread of communism and nuclear proliferation); and the Vietnam War (1954–75, conflict between North and South Vietnam over the spread of communism; the United States supported South Vietnam). Thus, the initial reorganization of the Middle East by Britain and France after World War I exasperated tensions between different ethnic groups that resulted in the rise of nationalism—framing the continuing conflicts that occurred during Said's lifetime. Equally, it is the history of British and French imperialism that resulted in Said's focus on these countries in Orientalism.

The nationalistic conflict increasingly focused on the issue of whether there should or should not be a Jewish state. By the end of World War II, opposition to the establishment of a Jewish state, as had been proposed by Israeli nationalists or Zionists, was spearheaded by the Arab League, a coalition of Arab states including Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Transjordan (modern-day Jordan), Saudi Arabia, and Yemen (the composition of the league has changed since its initial formation). The league had formed in 1945 at the end of World War II as an organizational body with the aim to mitigate the conflict that had characterized the region up to this point. By this time, some countries, such as Egypt and Iraq, had already gained independence. However, others, such as Syria and Yemen, would not be independent until 1946 and 1967, respectively.

In contrast to the wishes of the Arab League, the United States, under President Roosevelt, supported the formation of a Jewish state in Israel, and on November 29, 1947, the state of Palestine was divided by the United Nations into separate Arab and Jewish states. The partition ignited a war between Arabs and Jews in 1948, which ended in a truce that failed to recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state in Israel.

In 1967 conflict between Israel and Arab nations once again came to a head, leading to the Six-Day War. Israel's victory led to their occupation of Arab-claimed regions, including the Sinai and Old Jerusalem. Israel refused to return these occupied areas unless the Arab nations recognized the Jewish state—something the Arab nations refused to do. In 1978—coincidentally, the year Orientalism was published—the Camp David Accords ultimately led to a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. The United States was fundamental in the structuring of this diplomatic outcome, but by this point, Islamic fundamentalism was on the rise.

In 1980 the countries of Iraq and Iran went to war over territorial disputes. The countries of the Middle East—apart from Egypt—continued to refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Jewish state of Israel. Iraqi aggression toward surrounding states in the Middle East continued, and reached its climax a decade later in the Persian Gulf War (1990–91), a conflict involving the United States. Said later credited this—along with the terrorist attack on New York City on September 11, 2001—for the public criticism he received, labeling him "anti-Western." Overall, the rapidly changing political landscape over the period of Said's life—as well as continued U.S. involvement in Middle Eastern affairs—account for the viewpoint he takes in Orientalism and the changes in response to his work over time.

Cultural History and Literary Analysis

Orientalism is based on an analytical approach known as "cultural history" that is used within the field of cultural anthropology, the study of modern human culture and interactions. Said uses the cultural history approach, generally used to evaluate a group of people, to show how Western-Eastern relationships were constructed by the idea of Orientalism. In order to do so, Said looks at the historical basis for the concept and discusses the modern implications. Said analyzes the historical context of Orientalism to understand the contemporary anthropological definition of the terms Orient and Orientalism.

By the time Orientalism was published in 1978, the terms had been, for the most part, replaced with more culturally specific terms, such as Arabic, Islamic, and Jewish. Said's argument is thus that the terms Orient and Orientalism are culturally inappropriate because they refer to the period when these territories were under imperialist control. This thesis frames the entire text. While the words Orient and Orientalism had fallen out of use, the power dynamic they implied between the East and the West (with the West having power over the East) continued to persist. Part of Said's goal is to explain how this initial power dynamic continued to persist and subjugate the East. Orientalism marked a major turning point in conceptualizing the West's relationship with the East in the postcolonial period that Said describes (when the East was officially independent from colonial rule by another country). Thus, the work falls into what is known today as postcolonial anthropology, or anthropology dedicated to interrogating the traditional colonial viewpoint and empowering disenfranchised voices. Said does so by showing how the traditional colonial viewpoint continued to affect the Middle East, using historical examples grounded in literature.

Part of the uniqueness of Said's work is his use of explication to break apart portions of a literary text, examine the usage of specific words or phrases, and discern the implied meaning. This technique requires an understanding of the underlying historic and literary context and the ability to accurately describe the literary devices being used—such as figurative language or point of view. Said uses this approach to support his argument that the framework for Orientalism was based on textual sources and that these textual sources show a continued history of colonialist speech stretching from the initial colonization of the Orient to the postcolonial world of the Middle East. His methodology aids in the understanding of the power dynamic between the West and East over time, and the strength of his argument is grounded in Said's background in literary criticism, or the study of how to interpret literature.

Anthropological Impact

Despite the limited attention Said gives to anthropological theory in Orientalism, mentioning only a few authors from the field directly within the text, the book had an immense impact on later anthropological works dealing with not only the area traditionally known as the Orient but with colonialized cultures worldwide. That said, Orientalism was not the first text to criticize the colonialist tone of anthropological texts. British anthropologist Kathleen Gough and Saudi anthropologist Talal Asad did so starting in the 1960s. They were followed by other authors—American anthropologists Dell Hymes, Gerald Berreman, Laura Nader, and Vine Deloria Jr. all wrote on the same theme. Their premise was that anthropologists, aiming to study humanity with the goal of benefiting individual cultures, were utilizing techniques that furthered the colonization of suppressed cultures. Specifically, they argued that anthropologists treated different cultural or ethnic groups as subjects of study rather than as groups of individuals with their own voices and issues. Thus, they wanted to see anthropology transition from a field that described different cultures and ethnic groups to a field that focused on advocacy within the framework of the needs of a particular group.

Orientalism follows within this tradition, although it is critical of the traditional representations of the Orient that were largely focused on the Orient's lower cultural position relative to the Western hemisphere. While Orientalism was one of the first widely cited postcolonial texts, the work was also condemned as being "anti-Western," heedlessly critical of anthropological thought and critical without providing an alternative solution.

The anti-Western critique was leveled initially at Said in reaction to his focus on providing the perspective of the Middle East subjugated by the West. Said focused solely on the negative aspects of the West. The anti-West critique increased later in Said's life as the United States became more involved politically and militarily in the Middle East, and nationalism rose within the United States. Said, an active political proponent of Palestinian rights, was increasingly viewed as a threat.

The accusation that Said was unnecessarily critical of anthropological thought stemmed from the fact that Said interacted minimally with anthropological theory within the text itself. Addressing the last critique that he failed to provide an alternative solution, it was not his goal within the text to do so. Said set out in Orientalism to fully define a problem that had been expressed incompletely prior to the publication of the work. The solution was inherent in the pages of the text—in order to stop framing the Middle East within a colonialist, power-based framework, it was necessary to change how the Middle East was conceptualized. Said believed this could be done by showing the historical basis for Orientalism. Said addresses many of these criticisms within the Preface and Afterward of Orientalism as well as in other texts he produced.

Despite these criticisms, Orientalism not only brought forth a new form of historical anthropology, but it also provided a framework for later postcolonial works. Previous anthropological works focused largely on modern cultures and modern interviews with individuals to the exclusion of historical interactions. Equally, for those works that did explore the historical basis of a culture or ethnic group, they failed to do so in such a rigorous and text-based manner. Said was able to show future authors how framing an issue or topic within its historical context could be important as another line of evidence for their arguments. Equally, in contrast to earlier anthropological authors, Said explicitly described how colonialism left legacies that affected the following generations. This is an idea that had not been discussed before but was used from this point on by later authors, such as Indian scholars Gayatri Spivak and Homi K. Bhabha, two postcolonial theorists from the 20th century, to describe similar processes occurring around the world.

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