Laying the blame
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Sir-Edward Said, a Columbia University literature professor who moonlights as a Middle East expert, insulted me recently in Al-Ahram Weekly (no. 417). A Palestinian-American, Said objected to favourable comments I made about the late King Hussein. To rebut me, of course, is his right. But he argued further that -- notwithstanding my having spent much of my adult life reporting on the region and being recognised as a fair observer -- I have no authority to comment on Middle East affairs. As a Westerner, says Said, I am inevitably "Orientalist" and "racist".
Said denounces me as part of a Western media conspiracy that degrades the Arab image. It is his contention that Western writers cannot deal honestly with Arab culture. I make no apology for my Western perspective. On the contrary, I would argue that for the past century, Westerners have done much of the best analytical writing on the Arab world. Said, no doubt, would call it racist -- few Arab intellectuals would challenge it. Westerners are no wiser than Arabs, but the West's critical traditions -- applied to its own no less than to foreign cultures -- are far ahead of the Arab world's.
Arab society has not been kind to Arabs who write critically of their culture. Why, if Said is so offended by "Orientalism", doesn't he leave New York for a post in Algiers or Cairo? The answer is all too apparent. Two centuries after Napoleon, much of the work published in the Arab world is profoundly conformist.
Paradoxically, Said's attack on me contains the lament that I have often articulated. "What we [the Arabs] urgently require is... a spirit of criticism and sceptical awareness," he writes. Though Said blames "state and corporate interests" for this, and I blame the influence of Islamic orthodoxy, we agree on the damage done by barriers imposed by Arab culture on the intellect. If Said directed more of his indignation at correcting the problem rather than at me, he would surely serve the Arabs better.
Milton Viorst protests too much, considering that he is as inaccurate and ill-informed a reader as he is a writer. Most of what he ascribes to me is a confection made up to mask his animus against the Arabs and his adoration of King Hussein, one of whose major achievements was to have granted Viorst an interview. I have never claimed that "Western writers cannot deal honestly with Arab culture." Honesty isn't just a matter of whether you're Arab or not. It has to do with real knowledge, ability to read a language, real information and real insight, none of which Viorst himself -- I make it clear that I speak only about him -- possesses. To say that Westerners have done the best analytical work on the Arabs and that Western critical traditions are far ahead of the Arab world's are invidious, impossible-to-prove generalisations unless backed up by concrete evidence, which Viorst is in no position to deploy.
The rest of his response to me more or less rehearses the degraded argument I had reported in my article, that Arabs are second-rate, their ideas shaped in the West. Besides, everything I have written attacks the pernicious notion that there is AN EAST and A WEST; this is an idea clearly too complicated for Viorst's modest capacities. Cultures are never one thing, any more than all "experts" are really expert. I shall pass over his puerile references to my "moonlighting" about the Middle East in my writings. I just want to draw attention to the fastidious way he announces that I am "Palestinian-American." If this is of serious relevance to the argument, perhaps Viorst should be more honest about his ethnic origin?
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