Edward Said

Said’s analysis of power and knowledge as they appear in Western representations of the Middle East has become a classic text of post-colonial theory and has entered the canon of post-structuralism more generally – though Said, it should be noted, considered his work to be firmly grounded within the humanist tradition to arise out of the Enlightenment. Rooted in historical and literary analysis, it argues, in short, that Western perceptions about the Middle East are based not on actual knowledge of the region but on a long-standing archtypical conception in which something called ‘the East’ is fundamentally dissimilar to and at odds with something called ‘the West’.

Orientalism, argues Said, is not simply prejudice; it is not simply a misrepresentation or oversimplification; it is not simply a generalization about everything that appears strange or curious to the ideal-type Westerner – it is much more than all these, a deep-seated ‘othering’ that sits at the very root of what ‘Western’ itself has come to mean. That is, we make ourselves, our national and cultural identities, as much out of the myths we write about others as the myths we write about ourselves. And still further, those myths are fully intertwined with one another, such that ‘West’ only exists as an alternative/ opposition to ‘East’. Orientalism traces the history of this relationship, of the ways political and economic struggles forged and continue to reinforce the dichotomy, of its elaboration over centuries of empire-building, colonialism and imperialism.

A Palestinian cultural and political critic, Said helped to establish what we refer to as ‘post-colonial studies’, and his work has been hugely influential in everything from literary theory to sociology to history. But he was much more than an academic. A public intellectual who spoke widely on music, politics, and media, he played a significant role, too, in the struggle for Palestinian statehood, sitting as an independent member of the Palestinian National Council. And controversial, too – Edward Said managed to piss off folks on all sides. Tracked by the FBI since the early years of his political and intellectual career, vilified as an anti-semite and terrorist sympathizer, and also the subject of book bannings by the Palestinian Authority – he certainly was his own man.