hitchens on said
Christopher Hitchens reviews the 25th anniversary edition of Edward Said’s seminal book, Orientalism in the September issue of The Atlantic. The review starts off with a summary of Said’s background and many accomplishments, concluding, “Those Americans who subliminally associated the word “Palestinian” with swarthiness, bizarre headgear, and strange irredentist rhetoric were in for a shock that was long overdue.”
Having acknowledged Said in this way, Hitchens then moves on to the central question of his review: “Who is interpreting what and to whom? It is easy enough to say that Westerners had long been provided with an exotic, sumptuous, but largely misleading account of the Orient (…) But it is also true that Arab, Indian, Malay, and Iranian societies can operate on a false if not indeed deluded view of ‘the West.'” While this last point could have been explored further, the only example Hitchens provides is the bizarre and widely discredited claim of a Jewish connection in the September 11 attacks. Using this one claim, Hitchens then goes on to castigate Said for what he sees as a failure of the Palestinian-American professor to bridge the gap between East and West by interpreting the Occident for audiences in the Orient (not just the other way around, as he did in his book.)
But if Hitchens really wants to build this argument, he’ll need more than the example he cites. Said’s book is a meticulous study of how what we call the Orient was thought about, talked about, and written about. Throughout the book, Said makes clear that the Orient was interpreted the way it was because of the power relationship that had come into being even before the fall of the Ottoman empire. Even if someone were to study such representations of the West, the power relationship would be inverse, possibly trivializing the consequences of these representations.
I suppose it’s a little difficult to take Hitchens seriously when he inserts himself in a review of someone else’s book: “I, for one, do not speak or read Arabic, and have made only five, relatively short, visits to Iraq. But I am willing to bet that I know more about Mesopotamia than Saddam Hussein ever knew about England, France, or the United States.” Or when he defends convicted thief and candidate to the Iraqi presidency Ahmed Chalabi. Or when he paints the entire Middle East with the same brush for failing to hold free and fair elections without allowing exceptions for Morocco or Qatar. Or when he makes bizarre apologies that “American Orientalism doesn’t seem that restless from where I sit. It only asks that Afghans leave it alone.”
You can read Hitchens’ review in full here. The Guardian has a long excerpt from Edward Said’s new introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of Orientalism.