Saturday, May 05, 2007


It turns out that I could have got by with one less book than I brought on vacation. Even so, the variety was nice. I'll come back to the two Orthodox books a bit later, but perhaps the biggest surprise was Orientalism, by Edward Said. I said that I'd been wanting to read this book for quite some time. A bit more explicitly, I had identified it as a book that I wanted to get from the library, but my attempts so far had been foiled. I knew it was available from the public library, but my preference was generally to check books out from school if I could. As a grad student, I could get them for a semester at a time, which is much better than the three weeks or something that you get otherwise. But every time that I went to the library at school it was checked out. I had other stuff to read, so I just kept it on the list and kept watching. Now that I'm done with school, I identified the books I could get elsewhere and requested a few, including this one.

I'm glad it took me as long as it did to get around to reading it. I expected the book to deal with a lot of the political issues I've been thinking about over the past few years, which was how I discovered it and why I was interested in it to begin with. What I didn't quite expect was how it would tie this area of interest back into my academic pursuits over the past several years. Said lays out Orientalism from its beginnings primarily as an academic field, through its absorption into colonial politics, and into the general backdrop that it forms for just about all Western perceptions of the Middle East today. Actually, the sequence is not that neat--it was already political from the start, but the type of people doing the primary work were more self-consciously academics working in the humanities. He focuses on English and French academics, since at that early stage (late 18th c. - early 19th c.) they were doing most of the work (and had most of the resources). Later in its development, Orientalism is taken over primarily by Americans, not coincidentally as America becomes the more significant player in Middle Eastern politics.

What I found most disturbing about the book was the way Semitic philology developed as an academic justification for colonialism. Again, calling it a "justification" doesn't quite do justice to Said's point, since the two were intertwined in so many ways. But the academic field was crucial in giving politics the appearance of science. At the same time, it was a very conscientious enterprise of defining Orientalism as science, because the philological approach was meant to supplant the religious one.

One thing that struck me as I was reading Said's arguments was that they naturally excluded the domain of Eastern Christendom. His focus was on "European" ideas, or more specifically those of France and Britain. The West in view is therefore strictly Western--Western colonialism, Western heirs to the Crusades, Western Europe. Even so, he occasionally mentions Russia as somehow implicated in the same arguments (if perhaps to a lesser degree), though he never says exactly how. Perhaps more frequently Russia shows up as the opponent of the Western powers, who are concerned about its colonial advances into the region. But I wonder exactly how the Christian East would fit into the overall picture. Russia has dealt with Islam as an internal reality for pretty much its entire history. Most other Orthodox nations have at one point or another been subjected to Muslim rule. And of course much of the Orthodox world is part of the Near Orient. Said does point out that France in particular tended to take an interest in the Oriental Christian minorities, and that in general Western powers found it useful to champion Oriental minority groups (Christians, but also Kurds, Druze, etc.). But let's face it--the relationship between these groups and the West has its own long, complex history.

I don't think reading this book in itself ever would have been enough to make me turn my back on Semitics as a profession. On the contrary, it could have had the opposite effect, depending on other circumstances. I might have found a role to play as one who operates within the field from a more sensitive perspective. But whatever choice I might have made, it would have been an ideological one; and looking back on the decision years later, I could easily have regretted it. Did God specifically keep me from reading it until things had already taken their course? I really can't say. But I'm glad the decision I actually made was for other motivations, less subject to the whims of my own volatile opinions.

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