( 1935– 2003) Weapons of Criticism and Dedicated Consciousness
contemporary understanding of Asia would be found deeply wanting had it not been for the influential work of critic Edward Said, author of the seminal text Orientalism in 1978. Born in Palestine, raised between Cairo and Jerusalem, and educated in the US, the shrewd intellectual put his unique multicultural position to the project of improving understanding between Western and Eastern schools of thought.
Not one to shy away from controversy, Said was fiercely critical of the romanticised Western representations and perceptions of people from the Orient, particularly from the Middle East. He held this exoticism as culpable of perpetuating false and stereotypical ideas about the people of Asia, which he saw as fuelling the colonial expansion of Western powers; in advancing of the Western identity as “superior”, he accused the Western world of justifying the exploitation of Asian people through cultural representations that robbed people of their agency. In doing so, the West constructed a representation of Asian people as being incapable of thinking, acting, or speaking for themselves. This left the door wide open for Western scholars to write the history of Asia, and exploit the region imperially. Ever the nuanced academic, Said was also critical of Arab elites for internalising these false constructions, and perpetuating them further.
Many scholars were infuriated by Said’s claims, saying that he threatened their intellectual credibility as historians and philosophers. Despite dissent from some academic circles, Said’s book went on to become the foundation for what we now call postcolonial studies, and it is still read widely today.
Politically, Said was equally bold, speaking out against the US media’s representations of the Israeli-palestinian conflict. He received further criticism in 2000 when, on a tour of the Middle East, he threw a stone towards the guardhouse on the border of Israel, which was seen as a blatant act of aggression. He refuted the allegations, a response that the New York Times headlined as: “A Stone’s Throw Is a Freudian Slip.” He was also critical of US foreign policy, and the American media’s attempt at speculating about terrorism, proliferating Islamophobia.
What is less known about Said is that he battled a 12-year fight against leukaemia, the illness which took his life in 2003 at the age of 67, leaving behind a wife and two children. The tributes poured in from intellectuals all over the world, among them renowned postcolonial academic Gayatri Spivak and controversial critic Noam Chomsky.
The former Columbia professor was also an accomplished pianist, and together with Daniel Barenboim, cofounded the West-eastern Divan Orchestra, which is comprised of Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab musicians; the Barenboim- Said Academy was established in 2012.
Despite the many controversies and differences in opinion countered against Said during his lifetime – and these will certainly continue long after his passing – there can be little doubt that he was instrumental in challenging the fabric of Oriental philosophy and cultural studies, and the modern perspective on the representation of Asia and its people. ag