Originally posted September 2009

There are at least two unexamined axioms in Edward Said’s Orientalism: first, the primacy of the political in Orientalist discourse, and secondly the importance in that discourse of the intellectual and the literary (using “literary” in a high cultural sense). The first will not be discussed here, though it seems doubtful. The second deserves thinking about, and it is that which is discussed here.

Said worked confidently with the conventional canon of great literary works, as they featured on the reading lists of literature departments of American universities. In 1978 Harold Bloom had yet to publish on the subject, yet of course the canon already existed. Said’s predilection for the classics of Western literature was paralleled by his enthusiasm for Bach, Mozart and other great composers of western classical music. Apart from hostile essays on the singer Umm Kulthum and the belly dancer Tahia Carioca (both Egyptians), his neglect of popular culture was fairly comprehensive.

His reading of Eric Auerbach and Antonio Gramsci fostered an elitist approach to cultural issues. Auerbach’s Mimesis (1946) had studied the way reality was represented in the great classics of Western literature. Gramsci had posited the dominance of elite culture. His concept of cultural hegemony meant that an elite could dominate the masses through “common sense” and everyday rituals and practices. He had stressed the role of intellectuals in shaping the consensus through education, the media, and the arts. Intellectuals were “experts in legitimation.” In Orientalism, Said presented the intellectuals and artists of the West as possessing a cultural hegemony which determined what could and could not be said about the Orient.

Said suffered from a déformation professionelle — from an academic’s tendency to overestimate the importance of universities and elite literary coteries. Similarly, he overvalued difficulty, ambiguity, and subtexts. Things were not always and necessarily so ambiguous. “Whatever happens we have got/The Maxim gun and they have not,” as Hilaire Belloc put it. Or, to take a blunt American appraisal of lesser breeds:

I come from a land, from a faraway land where the caravan camels roam. Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face.
It’s barbaric, but hey it’s home. (Disney, Aladdin)

The book Orientalism took no account of pulp fiction, doggerel, cinema, theater, music hall, popular sing-songs, pantomime, postcards, science fiction, and cartoons. Said has been followed in his focus on the elite and high culture by his followers and allies, who write about Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Delacroix, E.M Forster and so on. But it is unsafe to assume that wider attitudes to the Orient were shaped by the intellectual elite in some kind of trickle-down effect.

Popular culture is a tricky thing to define and discuss. Popular culture is not merely an assemblage of plebeian pleasures, such as whippet breeding, line dancing, bingo, bodice rippers, and Carry On films. If one considers the reading of those who built and governed the British Empire, it is clear that a reading of Homer, Thucydides, Caesar, Cicero, and Gibbon had a leading role in shaping the minds and taste of some of the public-school educated, patrician elite. Men such as Curzon, Cromer and T.E. Lawrence knew their classics, but, on the whole, they did not read Silvestre de Sacy, Goldziher or Gibb. And neither did the lesser ranks — the rubber plantation managers, railway engineers, arms merchants, and Indian district officers. Not all that many of the latter read Homer, Cicero, Flaubert, or George Eliot either. So what did the majority of the empire builders read? Plausibly, Jim Corbett’s Bring Em Back Alive, John Buchan’s Greenmantle, Somerset Maugham’s short stories, Rider Haggard’s She, P.C. Wren’s Beau Geste, Jack London’s White Fang, Henty’s juvenilia and, of course, non-fiction about hunting, pig-sticking, and card playing. It was boring out in the desert and the tropics, and much of what the colonialists read was designed for entertainment, rather than education or aesthetic improvement. Martin Green has characterized adventure tales as the energising myths of European capitalism: “They were, collectively, the story England told itself as it went to sleep at night; and, in the form of its dreams, they charged England’s will with the energy to go out into the world and explore, conquer, and rule.”[1]

Empire was indeed part of the background to popular fiction. G.M. Young has written of

the ever-growing literature of travel and adventure, always pushing further into the unknown and always leaving something for the next pioneer. Still armies might march into the mountains and be lost for weeks, as Roberts marched on Kandahar: into the desert and be lost forever, as Hicks was lost at El Obeid. Still false prophets might arise in the wastes beyond Wady Halfa, still Lhasa was unvisited, and a man might make himself as famous by riding to Khiva in fact, as by discovering King Solomon’s Mines in fiction. The ways of adventure stood wide open …[2]

Only two aspects of the Middle East as it features in popular culture will be touched on here. The first of these is the fiction of a pan-Islamic conspiracy. While the fantasy of the Jewish conspiracy in Western Europe can be traced back to at least the 13th century, the fantasy of the pan-Islamic conspiracy goes back perhaps no further than the First World War.

Buchan’s Greenmantle (1916) was set in and around Erzerum in Turkey, and based on the actual Russian capture of that city from the Turks in that year. There was a very small kernel of truth in Buchan’s account of a Pan-Islamic conspiracy, as the Germans and Turks did indeed seek to instigate a pan-Islamic uprising against the British in India and Egypt, though with strikingly little success. In this good bad book, rumours of the organization of a jihad against the Allies, sends Richard Hannay, Blenkiron and Sandy Arbuthnot out to adventures in Constantinople and Erzerum. Sandy, old Etonian, aristocrat and clubman, is quite a character. A master of disguise and a fabulous linguist, “crazed by the spell of Arabia,” Sandy is obviously better at being an oriental than the orientals are themselves. Which is just as well, since he and his chums are up against something formidable:

Islam is a fighting creed, and the mullah still stands in the pulpit with the Koran in one hand and drawn sword in the other. Supposing there is some Ark of the Covenant which will madden the remotest Moslem peasant with dreams of Paradise? What then my friend?

That same year, another novel was published which made use of the jihad theme. This was King of the Khyber Rifles by Talbot Mundy. This, his best-known novel, was set in 1857, the year of Indian Mutiny. Captain Athelstan King’s life is in peril in the Muslim tribal area of northern India where, with the help of the oriental adventuress Yasmini, he succeeds in thwarting the jihadist plotting of the mad Turkish mullah Muhammad Amin and so saves British India. Mundy returned to the theme of the great Oriental conspiracy in Jimgrim (1930-1). As the eponymous Jimgrim, a US secret agent, observes,

There isn’t a major government that hasn’t files and files about the Oriental rumour of a King of the World who is likely to come at any minute. It’s a cult. It embraces all religions. We have all of us known for years that even the Mahomedans were listening to it. And we have all known there was something more than communism at the bottom of the unrest that has run like a rot through Asia.

The Mahdist theme resurfaced in Sax Rohmer’s The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932). In The Eunuch of Stamboul (1935), Dennis Wheatley (1897-1977) presented a slightly less ambitious conspiracy in which a pro-Islamic organisation, KAKA, planned a coup against the Turkish Republic. The pan-Islamic conspiracy fantasy is still with us today and it has been part of the background to former President George W. Bush’s speeches on “the war against terror.” According to the blurb of the paperback of Daniel Easterman’s novel, The Sword, (2007):

A dangerous new movement within the ranks of fundamentalist Islam wish [sic] to put a new caliph on the throne to rule the Muslim world. To do this they require the sword, and they will stop at nothing to get it. With the deadliest of weapons in his hands, if the new Caliph were to declare jihad, the consequences would be catastrophic.

Again, according to blurb: “A tense and gripping thriller on a truly international scale that poses a chilling question: how can you stop a holy war before it starts.” Easterman’s The Sword poses as something more than a novel; it pretends to be a dreadful warning and its insiderish background detail and knowing bits of research appear to back up that warning.

Turning now to something completely different, the Middle East as the butt of comedy deserves serious attention. Said was completely incapable of engaging with comedy. One would never guess from his accounts of Kinglake, Morier, and Twain that there is wit and irony, as well as jokes in their books. “Funny” did not feature in the Saidian vocabulary. He negligently described James Morier’s Orientalism as “merely ornamental.” This has to be nonsense, as Morier’s picaresque novel Hajji Baba of Ispahan presented a sustainedly racist, hostile, and patronizing portrait of both the Persians and Islam, albeit a funny one. And there must be something wrong in an account of Kinglake’s Eothen that fails to note its moments of stylish comedy. The relentlessly tragic tone in which Said pitched his Orientalism prevented him from noticing the degree to which Arabs and Muslims are belittled, travestied and patronized in the West by jokes — jokes about burkas, haggling, harems, Arab-style flowery rhetoric, the Muslim afterlife, oil-rich vulgarity, and camels.

It is likely that songs such as “The Old Bazaar in Cairo,” as belted out by Charley Chester, and films such as The Road to Morocco, Carry On, Follow That Camel, and Disney’s Aladdin have played a larger part in shaping a disparaging view of the Middle East than the writings of Silvestre de Sacy and Flaubert. So why look for implausible sexual subtexts in the essays of Vatikiotis and Bernard Lewis, when such material is readily at hand? And why did Said waste his time trying (and failing) to present Kuchuk Hanem as the prototype of Flaubert’s Salammbô and then going on to argue that this said something significant about imperialism?

Said’s over-interpretation of selected works from the canon of high literature has gone nowhere in particular. Orientalism has misdirected our attention. Who doubts that there is such a thing as Orientalism in the pejorative sense — a presentation of the Orient, or more specifically Arab Muslims, as corrupt, lazy, decadent, and so forth? One would have to be insane to deny such thing. There was and is plenty of racism with respect to Arabs and Muslims in Western culture, but the best places to go looking for it are in government departments, army barracks, police stations, Hollywood film studios, and the editorial rooms of trash newspapers. Orientalism in a pejorative sense comes bubbling up from below — pulp novels, musical hall songs, cartoons, the violent rhetoric of street gangs, fights on the football pitch, and films about fanatical yet corrupt terrorists. It is a very foolish piece of academic snobbery to go hunting for faint hints of Orientalism in the pages of George Eliot or Joseph Conrad, while neglecting the novels of Sax Rohmer and Dennis Wheatley. By misdirecting hostile attention to intellectuals, artists and, above all, academics, Said was indicting those who were mostly the good guys, and he turned what should be a serious socio-cultural issue into a campus dog fight.


[1]. Martin Green, Dreams of Adventure, Deeds of Empire (London, 1976), p.3.


[2]. G.M Young, Victorian England: Portrait of an Age (Oxford, 1936), p.179.