I had heard of Edward Said long before I discovered the world of theory and read Orientalism in the early 1990s, more than a decade after the book was published to great acclaim. I remember being vaguely intrigued by the public presence of a man with an English-Arab name. In a sort of fateful irony, Said’s parents seemed to have baptized their son to live across cultures, to be out of place, as Said wrote toward the end of his life. But it was the name’s hint of Arabness that first caught my attention. It allowed me, somehow, to count him as one of our own, to be proud of his accomplishments among the nassara, as generations of people in my native Morocco referred to Europeans and Westerners in general. When I did read the book, penning miniature notes on index cards, I was elated by the argument and Said’s voluminous knowledge of Western culture that supported it. The experience of reading the book was quite enthralling.
Yet when I sat down to write my first academic article titled “Can the Postcolonial Critic Speak?” I found myself a bit uneasy with Said’s excessive knowledge of the West. If the Orient was silent in the pages of Westerners, Islam seemed to have been so condemned in Said’s magisterial work. Few Muslims were allowed to speak for themselves. It almost seemed that the debate was not about extending equal time for Orientals and Muslims, but about how best to talk about or represent Muslims. The whole controversy sounded more like a domestic disagreement among Western intellectuals (among whom I include postcolonial critics like myself, those trained or constituted by Western education systems) than about the quest for practical solutions to the perennial clash of civilizations. Orientalism, and debating it, as we do here, was, and still is, a Western enterprise, a preoccupation of Western or Western-trained bon pensants. I doubt whether our concerns register, at least not with the same intensity, in Muslim lands.
Thinking about the book almost two decades after I read it, I can’t help wondering about my initial reaction. Most people who share my worldview have taken Said’s thesis to the four corners of the globe, holding fiercely to its empowering message, driven by the hope of tempering the West’s cultural arrogance and perhaps leading Westerners to reconsider their biases. It is, understandably, a worthwhile mission, one fought on behalf of the wretched of the earth — the billions of people in the world whose lives are reduced to expendable labor for the lifestyle of the prosperous, collateral damage in the age of imperialism, the subalterns of marginal lands.
But Said’s paradigm was primarily cultural; it skirted cavalierly over the role of economics in shaping the prejudices Said dutifully condemned. Culture matters, of course, but economic behavior is culture in the first degree. Imperial nations such as Britain needed economic expansion to become the powers they aspired to be; self-sufficiency and fair trade alone could never have produced a Pax Britannica. France and, later, the United States had more resources and could take care of their needs; however, they, too, needed to be ruthlessly acquisitive in their rise to power and dominance. In the process of doing so, they blended the language of religious purity, cultural superiority, and the might of gunpowder to achieve their aims. Had Westerners not harmed Oriental lands, their prejudices would have amounted to mere fantasies; but the West denied itself the right to indulge in such fables by forcing itself on Orientals and treating them badly, even savagely at times. This is what gave Said’s argument its timeless power and has frustrated people who think that he read too much into innocent texts.
At first, then, I thought that Said had failed to pay enough attention to the economic forces that structure cultural encounters, and did not allow Muslims to speak for themselves. This is not to say, however, that he should have been expected to do culture and the economy at once, take us on a whirlwind tour of modern European literary traditions, and somehow give equal time to Muslim jurists and imams. A work, however groundbreaking, can only cover so much. But as great as it may be, the work also invites additions, modifications, and amendments, if not by the author himself, then by others. Said only could do so much. What gave him strength was also limiting.
For one thing, he was the very embodiment of the global capitalist structure that worked against Arabs, Muslims, and other Orientals. Like most postcolonial critics, he railed against a system that made him, and reminded us of the extent to which we are all trapped in our monologues. He was, of course, not a total Westerner, since there were enough reminders in his life of what had been taken away from him, or what he had lost along the way. This much we could share, but we saw the world through different prisms. Just like his memory of loss and privilege made him, mine was fashioned in a city where Europeans were mere nassara, unclean pork eaters, their uncircumcised men effeminate, their sexy women inconstant worshippers of Arab men’s sexual prowess. I am not exaggerating — this is really what I believed growing up only nine miles or so from Spain. Except for their well-endowed educational institutions, industry, and money, there was little to desire in the West. We genuinely believed that Moroccans had better religion and were certainly far more cultured than the robotic barbarians to the north. We were comfortable in our bodies, able to extract the most exquisite of pleasures from a casual encounter in a café, a handshake, or our endlessly surprising cuisine. Americans were, to the mother of one of my best friends, a lady from Tetouan, the city that embodies old Andalusian traditions, h’jij, basically, a collection of hoodlums without roots.
This explains why I found Said’s characterizations of the West as masculine and of Arabs as effeminate bewildering. He cared too much about what Westerners said, or didn’t say. In Tangier, though, this was not a concern at all. We liked ourselves the way we were and only coveted European wages and what they allowed. Otherwise, we cared less about what others thought of us and actually pitied the Western expatriates who lived among us without having a sense of what really moved us. The protestations of postcolonial critics in the West struck me, therefore, as desperate pleas for recognition, but I didn’t identify with the emotion, much as I recognized the intellectual argument. When people ask me whether we ride camels in Morocco, I simply answer “yes.” I actually enjoy certain Orientalist accounts of Morocco when I read them; they confirm to me the fabulousness of the country and lifestyle I have known. Some came in handy when I led travel groups around the country. Who wouldn’t want to be entertained by tales of sultans, viziers, and all manner of palace intrigues? Modern architecture and the machinery of the modern electoral process simply don’t have the same effect. They may satisfy the obsession with order and symmetry, or the strong penchant for legalistic correctness, but they are too arid and colorless to inspire fables.
My early response to Orientalism was probably the expression of a Tanjawi, a Tangier native who grew up perfectly comfortable in his average social life. Years, if not decades, later, I realized that my privileged upbringing in the Moroccan social milieu was a form of luxury compared to what Arab or Muslim minorities living in the West are forced to endure. We were secure in our limited material means; but to be Arab or Muslim in the West, however prosperous, is to be sharply aware of one’s less-than-equal social standing. It is, if my impression is correct, to be confronted with daily reminders of one’s undesirability or bad cultural origins. Western Muslims seem to experience their Islamic identity more intensely because of their status. Orientalism only could have been written by an Arab or Muslim in the West; it is the work of a minority, an Arab out of place, a Palestinian yearning for a homeland.
I would like to think that my Tangerian background has shielded me from Islamic extremism and the uncritical adoration of the West. In fact, in an ironic way, I now wonder whether I have become the real homeless man, the truly out of place immigrant, one who is more interested in deciphering statements on the global human condition than in standing up for an ethnic principle. I have arrived at a certain consciousness of timelessness, one that seems better suited for a more universal, perhaps even primitive, understanding of what it means to be alive today. Ethnicities and nations may be durable, but we are human avant tout. We squabble over ethnic pride, for sure, but intellectuals should make every attempt to remain above the fray, not join narrowly defined sides.
Edward Said was brilliant in the way he associated Western representations of the Orient with the suffering inflicted on Orientals, but I prefer to keep an open mind, even when accounts seem to be highly exaggerated. I knew as a kid, and know even more so now, that without its metaphorical Orient, the West would, indeed, be a desolate place. I only wish they could use it more wisely.