Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Books Supplement
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Letters to the editor

Orientalism revisited

I much enjoyed the review of Robert Irwin's For Lust of Knowing: the Orientalists and their Enemies in Al-Ahram Weekly (Cairo Review of Books, February 2006), but several things seem to me to be outstanding.

Ernest Renan, as I understand it, was a professor for many years, so simply to dismiss him as a journalist and pundit seems to me to miss the point. I wonder if he had many students, and his possible effects on them?

Irwin mentions Martin Bernal's book Black Athena several times, but fails, I thought, generally to raise the question as to the relation of orientalism to the growth of racism, certainly in Europe from 1850-1945. Also, if 1945-1975 was such a golden age of orientalism in the UK, as Irwin says, did the orientalists have any effect on the easy simplifications regarding the Orient in the UK, for example?

So, although Said is very simplistic about all this, he may be less than 100% wrong about the effects of political conjunctures on the content of what academic orientalists have believed and written.

Ian Mordant
United Kingdom

Reading your review of Robert Irwin's recent book (For Lust of Knowing: the Orientalists and their Enemies, Cairo Review of Books, February 2006), I couldn't help feeling that the writer was misrepresenting both the importance of this book and that of Orientalism by the late professor Edward Said.

While I have only had the time to dip into Irwin's book, it is hard to feel that this is a book that is going to inspire a whole generation, in the way that Said's work on orientalism did after it was published in 1978. Indeed, the extract from Irwin's book that you published, about the arrival of Arabic in Oxford in the 17th century, is representative of the tone and content of the whole: very often Irwin gives the impression of having written his essay for like-minded readers -- metropolitan, even Oxonian -- imagining that they will be broadly sympathetic to his point of view. This drains the book of urgency, rendering it anecdotal in style.

While one might agree with your reviewer that the book's references are useful, one could have wished that Irwin had been more willing to explain the nature and significance of the work accomplished by the orientalists in his text. Reading Irwin's pages on Ignaz Goldziher, described as the "greatest of the orientalists," for example, one doesn't get a very clear sense of what was remarkable about his work, though the account given certainly makes one curious to know more. Irwin's judgments of various French orientalists, such as Jacques Berque, seem silly: I hope no one will come away either from Irwin's book or this review under the impression that these remarks adequately describe these writers.

When one compares Irwin's procedures with those of Edward Said in his Orientalism one gets a clearer sense of the value of Said's writing. In fact one of the greatest services rendered by Irwin's book may be to send readers back to Said's work. Said links his analysis of orientalism to the relationship of unequal power between east and west: for him, excavating the history of the western study of eastern cultures and societies is part of a larger political programme, the nature of which is touched upon in a review of the recent Arabic translation of Said's BBC Reith lectures, Representations of the Intellectual, in the same issue of your book review ( al-Muthaqaf wa al-solta, reviewed by Hazem Kandil), exploring the links between forms of knowledge and power. By contrast, as your reviewer rightly says, no one will go to Irwin's book in search of "some general thesis on the historical relations between east and west."

However, a "general thesis" is precisely what Irwin's book lacks. For some readers this will not be a lack, preferring, like Irwin, piecemeal excavation and the defense of academic traditions to larger, often more disconcerting ideas. Yet it was ideas of this type that originally inspired Said's readers and continues to inspire them, allowing him to write in the Afterword he wrote to the 1995 edition that "in all sorts of ways Orientalism now seems to me a collective book that I think supersedes me as its author."

James Norris

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