THE term orientalism has become a bit controversial in recent times. Some, such as Encyclopaedia Britannica, for instance, define orientalism as “Western scholarly discipline of the 18th and 19th centuries” that encompasses the study of languages, literatures, histories, arts, cultures and philosophies of the East. But after the publication of Edward Said’s book Orientalism (1978), the term began to connote the patronising, rather humiliating, attitude of the West towards the East.
Britannica says that in the works of Said, the term orientalism refers “disparagingly” to “the alleged simplistic, stereotyped and demeaning conceptions of Arab and Asian cultures”. But, according to Said, orientalism is more than an academic discipline since orientalism “is a considerable dimension of modern political-intellectual culture, and as such has less to do with the Orient than it does with ‘our’ world”, (Orientalism, New York, 1979, p.12). In Said’s view, orientalism is a cultural and political fact and it cannot exist in “some archival vacuum”, but it is influenced by “political, institutional and ideological constraints” (ibid. p.13).
These constraints decide how Western scholars, or the orientalists, as they are often referred to, are to depict the East. And, Said says, they portray the Eastern societies as essentially static and underdeveloped, implying the superiority of the West. Asian religions, especially Islam, is also viewed from a Western, predominantly Christian and Jewish, perspective. The role and motives of imperialism and colonialism behind the so-called ‘scholarly discipline’ of orientalism is often ignored. As if it was not enough, some racist Western writers, such as Rudyard Kipling, considered it a duty of the ‘white race’ to spread the ‘civilisation’ to the non-white nations. Kipling’s poem ‘The White Man’s Burden’ advised the US to conquer Philippine as a ‘civilising mission’! And, just to remind you, Kipling was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907.
Edward Said is of the view that “there is of course a Middle East establishment, a pool of interests, ‘old boy’ or ‘expert’ networks linking corporate business, the foundations, the oil companies, the missions, the military, the foreign service, the intelligence community together with the academic world. There are grants and other rewards, there are organisations, there are hierarchies, there are institutes, centres, faculties, departments, all devoted to legitimising and maintaining the authority of a handful of basic, basically unchanging ideas about Islam, the Orient and the Arabs”. ( ibid, p. 301-302)
It is often said that Edward W. Said, the Palestinian American critic and philosopher, also furthered the theory of post-colonialism. Post-colonialism — now often referred to as Postcolonial Studies — is a discourse that, among other things, examines the cultural, political and economic effects of colonialism and imperialism on the nations subjugated. The proponents of post-colonialism contest the ways the West is used to see things form its own perspective and challenge the West’s view that the peoples colonised were inferior, uncivilised and less intelligent. So a new perspective is created, looking at the other side of the coin, evaluating linguistic, cultural and political realities from the point of view of those colonised and exploited.
To mark his 20th death anniversary, in Bunyad’s latest issue (volume 14, 2023), a section has been devoted to the works and ideas of Edward Said. Editor Nasir Abbas Nayyar in his editorial note has discussed Edward Said’s ‘travelling theory’, elaborating how theories might change when they travel across places and times. The concept of travelling theory is quite significant in literary criticism.
Aside from the editorial, the section on Edward Said proffers three important pieces. The first one is written by Akhter Ali Syed. A clinical psychologist following the tradition of Franz Fanon, Syed is interested in understanding mental and behavioural impact of colonialism on the colonised, says Nayyar. Ambreen Haseeb Amber’s article discusses Said’s concept of criticism, which is “modern and secular”, something ignored by the right-wing critics in our country who appreciate Said’s critical views against the West, adds Nayyar. The third piece is in fact Urdu translation of Said’s article on the Irish poet W. B. Yeats and decolonisation. Translated by Sajjad Husain Baloch, the article explores Yeats’ role as a nationalist and an anti-colonial thinker.
Urdu research journals usually invoke a feeling of dissatisfaction these days. This writer, too, has expressed his concerns over the falling standards of Urdu research, especially as manifested in Urdu’s so-called research journals approved by the Higher Education Commission (HEC).
But at least there are a few research journals that can be named as HEC’s saving grace; Bunyad is one of them. Published by Gurmani Centre for Languages and Literature, LUMS, and edited by Nasir Abbas Nayyar, Bunyad has stringent standards as is evident from the contents. Other articles included in the issue, too, vouch for the hard work and a high standard.
Edward W. Said died on Sept 25, 2003.
Published in Dawn, September 25th, 2023