Book Review: Orientalism

OrientalismOrientalism by Edward W. Said
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Edward Said Orientalism
A well written book on the subject of Orientalism that the author cuts and slices through in an almost academic fashion. This book is oriented more towards analyzing the work and Europe-centric biases of past Orientalists who helped shape the opinion on nearly everything about the Near East (Middle East and North Africa) and Asia (South Asia in particular). However, the authors primary focus has been on the initial construct of Orientalism being a French and British attempt at analyzing the Near East and its dominant religion – Islam.
The book is not an entertaining read but offers great perspectives to people interested in the history of Orientalism, especially from an analysis of political intent, mindset and European-approach standpoint. However, the book meanders sharply towards just the Middle Eastern affairs towards the end, offering less solutions but putting more questions into the mind of unbiased readers willing to learn from mistakes of the past.
Missing any good commentary on India, the prized British colony, and considering it outside the Orientalism being scrutinized by the author seemed like a big miss. After all, Orientalism and the study of India within its remit was certainly the shift the Europe took after it considered the Near East as a mere passage to its riches by land and sea.
These snippets (in italics) are something I consider as powerful and summarize the intent and message of the book.

“textual attitude towards the Orient” – a common human failure is to prefer the schematic authority of a text to the disorientations of direct encounters with the human…

The fact that many Orientalists didn’t even reach the Orient to live there and see life as it unfolded among the natives is underlines by the above statement. European power and institutions never considered it as a shortcoming. In fact, the book highlights how Napolean built an entire military plan to take over Egypt through the recommendations in a book written by a traveler who chronicled how to win over the natives.

Orientalism is a kind of Western projection on to and will to govern over the Orient

Good Old Karl Marx, the darling of many Communist institutions and insurgents in India, had something not so flattering to say about the country-

England has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerative – the annihilation of the Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundations of Western society in Asia

Praising England while attacking her for being the “unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution…”, Marx certainly seemed to have two minds about what he was prophesizing in Communism when it came to people and regions that he didn’t relate to!?

Every European in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist and almost totally ethnocentric

These words of Joseph Conrad was in mockery of European conquests.

The book also lightly touches upon the “Christian-centric” approach to the rest of the World which was also instrumental in the simultaneous demonizing of Islam and its followers.

But, the final summary of the book can be encapsulated in these words that the author mentions – “Orientalism failed to identify with human experience. It failed to also see it as human experience”.

Needless to say, the author has been praised for his work but also attacked for a “biased” view on the Orient while attacking European hard work that went into creating the idea of Orientalism.

While I generally align with the ideas in this book, I feel that Orientalism was a bold attempt at understanding foreign lands and peoples through the biased lens of self-made perspectives that are after all what makes us humans. The only unacceptable fact is that this was sold as the “truth” to the rest of the World and it still continues to subconsciously build opinions and biases that are uprooting this World as we speak. Our minds need to come a long way from the rigid insular uni-dimensional perspectives of Newton to the relativistic multi-dimensional world that Einstein imagined.

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