Edward Said, one of the most celebrated critics and intellectuals of his time, wrote a book which is important enough to have changed people’s perceptions of how they view the world; it is also considered to be one of the greatest non-fictional works of the twentieth century. The book, Orientalism, was written in 1978, there were two books that followed which Said said he considers them to be a trilogy. Apart from his 1978 work, there is also, in this trilogy, the Question of Palestine (1979) and Covering Islam (1981), some years after these three books emerged, he wrote one of his most eminent and popular books, Culture and Imperialism, written in 1993. These works really are a testament to a dedication to an idea, a driving force that is required; Said is often regarded as a dissident because he challenges accepted norms, rules and prejudices.
Edward Wadie Said was born on the first of November 1935 in Jerusalem in Palestine, he was schooled in Egypt, he then came to the US and became the professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He succumbed to leukemia in 2003, aged 67.
He speaks about the Orient of course which is of the countries in the East, a big proportion of the books deal with the Middle East. In a 1997 interview he said you cannot read an Arabic author or watch an Arabic film without thinking about preconceived ideas we see in the media. On the nineteenth of April, 1995, he informs us, he was giving a lecture in Canada, whilst doing so he received 25 missed phone calls. They were all from the media. Said did not yet know it but this was the date Timothy McVeigh, had committed the biggest terrorist attack in America’s history. Said was contacted of course because terrorists only come from the Middle East, at least that is a common view discussed by respected professionals in polite society. They attempted to contact Said not because he had any specialist knowledge on the subject but because, he insists, he is an Arab. Perhaps he could have informed them how devious the Arab mind works. But of course Timothy McVeigh was not an Arab; far from it.
Said informs us that Napoleon landed in Egypt in 1798. The surprising thing about this is that he went with scientists, botanists, historians, as well as others, whose job it was to discover Egypt, not for the north Africans but for Napoleon and France themselves, because, as Said says “to produce knowledge you have to have power”. In Covering Islam, Said speaks about the Iranian revolution which took place less than two years of writing the book, he stated the Iranians were presented as “evil, mysterious, threatening”. “There is no investigative reporting”, he claimed and he called it “the most irresponsible journalism”. In terms of film and literature regarding Muslims, Said remarks “it is very hard to find works sympathetic to Islam.”
In Orientalism, Said’s most important work, he discusses a lot of literary writers and their treatment of the orient in their work. One of these he tackles is Dante’s great masterpiece, The Divine Comedy. Said, in some of his essays on Exile discusses the role of the critic and how they must approach literature with a secular mind, without doing so, reading this work of Dante, for some, may prove an impossibility. Said states the following:
"Maometto"-Mohammed-turns up in canto 28 of the Inferno, He is located in the eighth of the nine circles of Hell, in the ninth of the ten Bolgias of Malebolge, a circle of gloomy ditches surrounding Satan's stronghold in Hell. Thus before Dante reaches Mohammed, be passes through circles containing people whose sins are of a lesser order: the lustful, the avaricious, the gluttonous, the heretics, the wrathful, the suicidal, the blasphemous. After Mohammed there are only the falsifiers and the treacherous (who include Judas, Brutus, and Cassius) before one arrives at the very bottom of Hell, which is where Satan himself is to be found. Mohammed thus belongs to a rigid hierarchy of evils, in the category of what Dante calls seminator di scandalo e di scisma. Mohammed's punishment, which is also his eternal fate, is a peculiarly disgusting one: he is endlessly being cleft in two from his chin to his anus like, Dante says, a cask whose staves are ripped apart. Dante's verse at this point spares the reader none of the eschatological detail that so vivid a punishment entails: Mohammed's entrails and his excrement are described with unflinching accuracy. Mohammed explains his punishment to Dante, pointing as well to Ali, who precedes him in the line of sinners whom the attendant devil is splitting in two; he also asks Dante to warn one Fra Dolcino, a renegade priest whose sect advocated community of women and goods and who was accused of having a mistress, of what will be in store for him. It will not have been lost on the reader that Dante saw a parallel between Dolcino's and Mohammed's revolting sensuality, and also between their pretensions to theological eminence.
It is hard to define, for some anyway, what the role of the literary theorist and critic is but Said has no such doubt about this. He speaks about writers of all varieties and many of their disgusting treatment of the Orient. He makes, slight, short references which is what makes Said so exciting and exhilarating to read. He labels Orwell an early neo conservative, he openly discusses Dickens’ themes of imperialism in some of his works, in Camus, he remarks in some important fictional works of the French-born Algerian Nobel Prize winning author where murdered Arabs remain unnamed. Aside to Dickens, as well as other celebrated English novelists, he tells us this in Culture and Imperialism about another nineteenth century English novelist:
According to Austen we are to conclude that no matter how isolated and insulated the English place (e.g., Mansfield Park), it requires overseas sustenance. Sir Thomas's property in the Caribbean would have had to be a sugar plantation maintained by slave labor (not abolished until the 1830s): these are not dead historical facts but, as Austen certainly knew, evident historical realities. Before the Anglo-French competition the major distinguishing characteristic of Western empires (Roman, Spanish, and Portuguese) was that the earlier empires were bent on loot, as Conrad puts it, on the transport of treasure from the colonies to Europe, with very little attention to development, organization, or system within the colonies themselves; Britain and, to a lesser degree, France both wanted to make their empires long-term, profitable, ongoing concerns, and they competed in this enterprise, nowhere more so than in the colonies of the Caribbean, where the transport of slaves, the functioning of large sugar plantations, and the development of sugar markets, which raised the issues of protectionism, monopolies, and price-all these were more or less constantly, competitively at issue.
In fact in this work, perhaps his most famous after Orientalism, speaks mostly about English novelists, there are however, some works on French novelists: Gide and Camus for example. But he does discuss this. What is remarkable and perhaps in some ways not believable is almost every other critic without exception, in the west particularly, do not remark on these unpleasantries, but that is not all. The English novel is seldom honestly scrutinised. What we may infer from Said is that these novelists celebrate their own grotesque, abominable, scandalous practices, for example British rule in India, the colonial rule over Ireland, the justification of “the savage of injustice of the Europeans”, if we read Adam Smith. There is another writer he speaks at length about and his first book was about him. This writer is Joseph Conrad, who has a lot to share with Said. They were both “exiles”, and often writes about it, but here he unravels some unpleasant truths
He could neither understand that India, Africa, and South America also had lives and cultures with integrities not totally controlled by the gringo imperialists and reformers of this world, nor allow himself to believe that anti-imperialist independence movements were not all corrupt and in the pay of the puppet masters in London or Washington. These crucial limitations in vision are as much a part of Nostromo as its characters and plot. Conrad's novel embodies the same paternalistic arrogance of imperialism that it mocks in characters like Gould and Holroyd. Conrad seems to be saying, "We Westerners will decide who is a good native or a bad, because all natives. have sufficient existence by virtue of our recognition. We created them, we taught them to speak and think, and when they rebel they simply confirm our views of them as silly children, duped by some of Their Western masters."
Said is a writer, and yes he is a writer, whose words are easily quotable and he leaves them imprinted on the brain. These are the lines of a Balzac or a Dostoevsky, a dissident by nature and truth-teller no matter where the truth lies its ugly head, whether it is in politics, scholarship, literature itself, philosophy or elsewhere. His honesty is quite applaudable as the words fall of the page, there are few we can say as much about. “History, said Said, “is a creative lie”.