Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Le charmeur des serpentes, 1880

In 2007 I published Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid with the University of Washington Press. The build-up to its publishing is a story that spans almost six years. Originally I had planned to include a chapter on Said’s Orientalism in a book I was writing called Islam Obscured: The Rhetoric of Anthropological Representation, which was published in the SAR series of Palgrave in 2005. But as I began to work on the chapter, it quickly took on a life of its own. I had first read Orientalism when returning from ethnographic fieldwork in Yemen in 1979. It sat on my bookshelf and I dutifully included the author’s “introduction” (the most readable part of the book for undergraduate students) in my course on Middle East anthropology. But as I delved back into Said’s book and started collecting the original reviews (which turned out to be more than 50) and the plethora of writings about Orientalism, I discovered that this dense book was fraught with errors of fact and methodological missteps.

While working on both books-to-be, I delivered a paper at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in 2001 entitled “Dissing Orientalist Discourse: What Said Said and What Ethnographers Did,” followed by talks on my evolving text at the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, the University of London and New York University. The AAA talk prompted a young employee of Routledge to ask if I was thinking of writing a book on the subject. Naively, I said yes and after another year had a draft ready to drop off in their New York office. Time went by and by and there was no word from Routledge. Eventually, after several months, I received a letter from the Sociology editor noting that Routledge at the time no longer had an Anthropology editor and my manuscript was not of interest to him. I thus learned that there were sociologists who seemed not to know much about Edward Said. But they did send the reviewer’s comments and these were well taken. In fact my first draft was in need of major revision.

So revise I did and then I accidentally stumbled across a website of a book agent inviting queries. I had visions of my book sitting there alongside the master’s original in every Barnes and Noble. So I sent in my query and received a favorable response. I sent in my prospectus and there was another favorable response. So now I sent in a chapter and received a friendly reminder that mass market books tended not to have footnotes (I guess Said’s slipped through in 1979). Then a friend reminded me that my first book had been published way back in 1994 with the University of Washington Press, so I contacted them. Yet another revised edition went off. This time there were two reviewers. The historian praised it but the literary critic wanted to hang me upside down by a very fragile part of my anatomy, claiming that my book was to the right of William Rogers and clearly a screed written to make myself the man who brought down Said.

Responding calmly, after ripping up several more caustic responses, I sent yet another revised version and this went to more reviewers with the same reaction: historians liked it and literary critics were hyper critical. One wondered why I would even think to write a critical work as satire. Admittedly, the final version has more than a fair share of puns, but my penchant for Swift was not accidental. So another revision and another set of reviewers. And the same stalemate. Now that three years had gone by, I was ready to withdraw the manuscript, but it went out to yet one more reviewer. I was sent this reviewer’s letter, which said that if the press did not publish my book he would do everything in his power to make sure it was published. All seemed to be well that was ending well.

Well, not quite. My book came on the heels of a more swashbuckling account of Orientalism by Robert Irwin and a really dreadful attack by a certain “I-am-no-longer-a-Muslim” Ibn Warraq. Robert gave me a thumbs up in the TLS, which made my day and a German reviewer noted that of all three books mine was the most comprehensive and the one to read. I braced myself for an avalanche of critical reviewers, having drawn attention to a wide range of criticism about Said’s work by other scholars, including many who, like myself, greatly admire him for much of his corpus, especially on Palestine. But only a few reviews have appeared thus far (five years later) and virtually none that I have seen from scholars in postcolonial or literary studies. There was one online review by a Daniel Pipes acolyte who rather oddly suggests my book really misses the point by defending Said.

But now a review has appeared in the November IJMES by a Professor of English. Not surprisingly, the reviewer concludes that “While lively and well written, the book’s flawed theoretical framework renders it unpersuasive.” The reviewer muses that it would have been better if I had simply forgotten about my “chosen adversary,” one whose “premises in Orientalism repel and anger Varisco.” For the reviewer, my book is “frustrating” due to my “misprision” (a term I had to look up) which often leaves me “flummoxed.” The bottom line is that “Said has not, in other words, written the book that Varisco would have written. Noted.” Noted, indeed. This is one of the reasons I wrote a critical assessment rather than yet another uncritical homage.

Let’s start with the attack line that I have written a work of “late medieval florilegium,” a critique I warmly embrace. I could have written a book without quotations or excerpts, but I have hardly compiled a mere “gathering of flowers” by including the extensive critique of aspects of Said’s claims and interpretations. As far as I know, my quotations are complete, without dropping words that change the meaning of a text, as Said does with Flaubert, or totally mistranslating a well-known poem, as Said does with Goethe. The reviewer writes as though the inquisitor in the text is an author named Varisco. Foucauldian logic aside, much of the criticism is channeled in my narrative and not out of my supposedly frustrated mind.

As an author who chooses satire and sarcasm rather than nasty bickering, I am somewhat bemused by being labeled “angry.” The debate over Said’s work, fueled in part by the caustic exchanges between Said and Bernard Lewis, had taken on the academic version of a bar room brawl. Said routinely dismissed anyone who challenged him as trying to “wog” him, including Clifford Geertz, who had earlier received praise in Orientalism. Those who actually read my book cover to cover, a daunting task I must admit for even the author to undertake, will note that my target is the narrative of Orientalism and Said’s methodological faults, not the man himself. Said wrote a polemic, a necessary polemic, but not a study that can serve as cogent intellectual history. The reviewer reminds me that Said had a “desire to break away from humanist myths of authenticity,” as though such a noteworthy goal is beyond challenge. Is any attempt at authenticity a myth by poststructuralist default? Is a book that claims just about everything ever written in the West about the Orient is discursively tainted from Aeschylus through to Henry Kissinger not creating a myth of its own? If Orientalism is not an attempt to rewrite the intellectual history of Oriental Studies, why focus on scholars like Renan, Muir, Gibb and Lewis? The reviewer suggests that Said is out to “defy and correct” intellectual history that is written about ideas apart from practice. I am not sure how any kind of intellectual writing can justify ignoring information which does not conform to his condemnatory three-fold definition of Orientalism at the same time as Said’s analysis is based almost entirely on texts. There is no “practice” apart from texts in Orientalism. Foucault wrote about the insane asylum as an architectural and voyeuristic object, not just what authors said about it or he thought about it As far as the archaeology of knowledge goes, Said uses a bulldozer rather than a trowel in his essentialist rendering of Orientalism as a discourse.

While the reviewer chides me for having a “flawed theoretical framework,” there is no mention of my rather lengthy discussion of Said’s theoretical and methodological underpinnings. I discuss at length Said’s use of Foucault and Gramsci, an odd coupling of theoretical confusion in which Said insists he does believe in an author’s intentionality (at least when it is negative) and seems to forget that Gramsci’s Marxist notion of hegemony does not relate to a mute Orient passively taking in a colonial-directed discourse of domination. No mention is made of Said’s controversial “contrapuntal” reading of Jane Austin or his failure to engage Montesquieu’s Le lettres persan or Twain’s sharply drawn Innocents Abroad. Am I wrong to argue that Said has virtually nothing to say about women in Orientalism, as though only male authors count? While much of my narrative is backed up with ideas presented by a wide range of scholars, I take pride in my original analysis of Said’s persuasive rhetorical style. And I stand by my belief that most admirers of Orientalism have actually never read the whole book through carefully or bothered to examine the sources quoted (and at times misused) by Said.

The point is not that Said has not written the book I would have written, since I would not have written such a book if not for Said’s own work. The problem is that Said’s polemic, as significant as it clearly has been, does not correct faulty intellectual history but rather creates what the Syrian historian Sadiq al-Azm has aptly labeled an “Orientalism in reverse.” Said is right that the fanciful Orient of the Gérôme painting on the original paperback cover is biased and racist, as was much of the work he critiques. But the notion of an ideological discourse he labels “Orientalism” is not latently buried in the intellectual psyche of anyone who writes about the Orient with latent intent. I would agree that Said’s Orientalism, stubbornly unrevised despite serious criticism of errors (and not just typos), does “defy” serious intellectual history. Yes, I do not accept what Said is doing and take pains to explain in detail why. Nor am I alone in doing this, as my rather bloated bibliography and extensive endnotes testify. My call at the end of my book is to move beyond the damn binary of East vs. West. Shall we move.