[Webshaykh’s note: I recently came across a book review I had written several years ago, but which was never published by the journal which solicited it. As the issue is still relevant, even after publishing my critical assessment of Said’s Orientalism two years ago, I present the review as written in 2001.]

Revising Culture, Reinventing Peace: The Influence of Edward W. Said. Edited by Naseer Aruri and Muhammad A. Shuraydi. New York: Olive Branch Press, 2001. Xvi, 190 pages. ISBN 1-56656-357-7

Review by Daniel Martin Varisco

“Indeed, anywhere that intellectuals with a progressive or internationalist outlook gather on this planet, there is an awareness and appreciation of the indispensable contributions that Said has made to the life of free and independent inquiry, and beyond this, to a whole style and method of thought that takes ideas and cultures seriously as crucially linked to structures of oppression and processes of emancipation.”

If this accolade from Richard Falk’s glowing introduction to a volume of papers under the influence of Edward Said sounds good to you, this is a book you will probably enjoy. If you are looking for something new, that has not already been said or that has even a modicum of critical distance, you may want to skip this recent addition to what has become a virtual cottage industry of Saidiana. Naseer Aruri and Muhammad Shuraydi have culled eleven contributions from a conference held at the University of Windsor, Ontario, in September, 1997. The conference was organized by several Arab-American organizations to honor the noted Arab/Palestinian critic, Edward Said. As is common to the proceedings genre, the final result is a mixed bag. At least one paper (Brennan) is expanded upon in Critical Inquiry (Spring 2000); several have very little to do with Said apart from the praise; some of the papers would probably not have appeared in a peer-reviewed journal.

The book is organized into three main parts. The first deals with “nationalities,” specifically the Deaf (Davis), America before and after the Revolution (David), and the Jewish People (Ellis). The second part focuses on Said’s seminal, sensationally so, Orientalism, with two commentaries by political scientists (Abu-Laban and AbuKhalil) and one by a cultural/literary critic (Brennan). The third and final section of the volume is entitled “To Palestine” and comprises articles again by two political scientists (Aruri and Sigler) and an economist (Kubursi). The epilogue by Shuraydi is about Said’s Palestinian experience, specifically a defense of the ad hominem critique of Said’s autobiography by Justus Weiner in Commentary, a periodical that has always had little editorial charity for Said and his views.

Rather than review each article individually, I find it more useful to look for common threads in terms of the themes covered and the rhetoric applied. The most obvious point, embedded in the reason for the conference in the first place, is that all the authors regard Said as an important influence either in shaping their own intellectual trajectory or because of specific “oppositional” stands Said has taken. Lennard Davis, for example, explains how his exposure to Said – first as a student in Said’s apolitical days and then as a colleague – helped him deal with the world he had himself grown up in, a Deaf family in what Davis argues was a kind of Deaf “nation,” “ethnos,” or even “race.” Rather than a specific writing from Said’s corpus, it was the “model for thinking about oppression and nationalism” (p. 2) that inspired Davis to eventually look at his own roots. About a fifth of his article is devoted to the elaborate cover-up that hid FDR’s disability from the viewing public, although no attempt is made to show how this specific example fits in with Said’s arguments. For others it is Said’s standing up for Palestinians (Sigler) or Arab civilization (Abu-Laban) that is admired. Two of the contributions are apologetic, defending Said against ignorant or blatantly biased critics from the left and right (AbuKhalil, Shuraydi).

The influence of Said, for many of the authors, is not just noted, but is celebrated. The overall tone of the contributions reflects a religious retreat rather than a scholarly conference. This is especially evident in the hyperbolic commentary by As’ad AbuKhalil, who is so bold as to assert that the “record of writings presented by Said provides conclusive evidence that has not been challenged…” (p. 102). It is clear even from AbuKhalil’s article that Said has been challenged, at times quite vociferously, by a range of critics East and West, but AbuKhalil simply dismisses all of this as misreading. For example, referring to a book by Mahdi ‘Amil challenging Said’s characterization of Marx as an Orientalist, AbuKhalil writes: “The arguments of ‘Amil will strike the reader as simple and unsophisticated because they are.” (109). AbuKhalil proceeds to provide a range of views from Muslim polemicists and Arab scholars – views that are indeed very little known in the overall Western debate about Said – but with no analysis beyond noting who he agrees with and who he does not. The conclusion is that among all the critics of Orientalism, no one can match Said’s “magisterial” study (100).

One of the stated reasons for convening the conference was to honor Said’s stand against the Oslo accords. This issue is addressed in the article by Aruri, although Said himself plays a relatively minor role in the article. The article by Kubursi on how the West views the Arab economy makes no mention of Said, not even in the references. Sigler, on the other hand, focuses on Said’s views of the peace process, as does Ellis in his discussion of Said’s views of Zionism. Ellis concludes with a tribute to Said, “a modern Canaanite” lighting – by his intelligence and compassion – the darkness surrounding the debate over Jewishness. The authors here all seem to share and admire Said’s public stance on the course Palestine should take.

Several of the authors follow the lead of Said in attempting to prove their points by choosing “straw” Orientalists to represent a variety of disciplines (History, Middle East Studies, Religious Studies, Philosophy, Anthropology) that none of the contributors are trained in. Several continue to hold up Bernard Lewis as the icon of Orientalism; indeed Lewis is cited on 11 different pages, second only to references to Said in the volume. This consists of rehashing Said’s own dated critique of Lewis or referring to the kind of opinion pieces Lewis contributes to less than objective periodicals like Commentary and in his popular books. To consider Lewis an ongoing representative of the best academic scholarship on the Middle East and Islam shows a marked ignorance of the tenor of publications in history, religious studies, Middle East Studies and anthropology over the past two decades. Similarly, the list of hostile writers to Orientalism dredged up by AbuKhalil includes long out-of-date individuals who were not read seriously by scholars even before Orientalism (e.g., Lammens, Patai) and journalists (Thomas Friedman, Judith Miller). Criticisms of Said’s over-polemicizing from anthropology (Akbar Ahmad, James Clifford, Clifford Geertz), postcolonial studies (including Aijaz Ahmad, Homi Bhaba, Gayatri Spivak) and art criticism (John Mackenzie) are not mentioned.

A few of the papers emulate Said’s rhetorical style of substituting literary quotes for a contextualized intellectual history. This is prevalent in the short article by Deirdre David on British readings of early American slavery. Starting with a quote from Edmund Burke (1775) that implies America is masculine and contrapuntally opposing that to a line from Tennyson (1886) that views America as a female eagle, David argues that America becomes female in the British imagination (p. 36). Are these two quotes, torn amateurly out of historical context, definitive endnotes for the gendering of an imperial discourse? Similarly David contrasts Dickens’ disgust at American slavery with Thackery’s and Trollopes’s apparent racist views of Negroes in a meandering anecdotal piece that ends by extolling Said’s “insistence that we not isolate cultures as monolithic” (37). David, like Said, follows what Brennan approves as “reading generally, widely, and by appetite” (p. 92) rather than reading up on a subject. Brennan, whose paper is the most sophisticated in the volume, argues that Orientalism may not be the foundational text for postcolonial studies that it is usually touted to be. For Brennan, Said should be judged not as a historian of ideas but as an impassioned intellectual activist who pioneered writing about literature politically “without being boring or offensively crude” (p. 98).

As noted above, volumes about Edward Said have proliferated in the past two years. Of greater sophistication and critical acumen is Edward Said and the Work of the Critic: Speaking Truth to Power (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), edited by Paul A. Bove. For those looking for accounts of Said’s accomplishments, there are: Edward Said: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000) by Valerie Kennedy; Edward Said: The Paradox of Identity (London: Routledge, 1999) by Bill Ashcroft and Pal Ahluwalia; and, Edward Said and the Religious Effects of Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) by William D. Hart. A number of Said’s seminal writings have been reissued in The Edward Said Reader (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), edited by Moustafa Bayoumi and Andrew Rubin. The above books provide a more balanced and broader view of the work of Edward Said than the slim, laudatory tribute reviewed here.