Cafe Discussion #4

Group Members: McKenzie, Hannah, and Sarah

Written By: Sarah

Hannah, McKenzie, and I discussed Orientalism by Edward Said. We all found his article interesting and thought-provoking; since McKenzie and I did not get an opportunity to analyze Orientalism in class, we decided to focus on it instead of Prakash. Though we did find his article repetitive, Said had a lot to say and made some very important points about the relationship between the West and “the Orient”, which we discussed during our group meeting.

Hannah started off our conversation by mentioning a quote on page 24, “Perhaps the most important task of all would be…to ask how one can study other cultures and peoples from a libertarian, or a non-repressive and non-manipulative, perspective. But then one would have to rethink the whole complex problem of knowledge and power. These are all tasks left embarrassingly incomplete in this study.” This quote by Said reminded us of Foucault and his article about the relationship between knowledge and power. We then discussed whether or not one could write about Orientalism if they are not Oriental.* How do talk about yourself as being oriental if you are not Oriental? McKenzie wondered if an Oriental could even write about Orientalism since an outside perspective might be necessary. How can you deconstruct the category and say that it does not exist, since it was created by the West, when you were raised in a society that belonged in the category?

I found Said’s personal background and connection to the topic of Orientalism very interesting. Many authors do not include positionality, and I was glad that Said included his since it added value to the article. He mentioned, on page 25, that he was “Oriental”; he grew up in two former British colonies, Egypt and Palestine, yet had Western education in those countries. Even though the countries were technically free from Britain, their culture, education, and language showed signs of continued dominance from the West.

We all found the relationship between the West and the Orient intriguing. Hannah said that on one hand, the Orient was an object of fascination for the West; their culture was exotic and something to consume and idealize, which we saw in the book of paintings that was passed around in class on Monday. Yet, even though the Orient was fascinating, the West made it clear that the Orientals were inferior and needed the guidance and control from the West. As Americans, we typically do not associate the Middle East as part of the Orient. For the three of us, we agreed that we tend to think of Asia as being in the Orient and not the countries in the Middle East. Said mentions in his article that Europe and the United States views the Orient differently. This is because the Europeans were the ones who colonized the Orient and gave them their name. But, on the same hand, the Middle East is also a term made up by Europeans that Americans have come to use too. In some ways, the term “Middle East” is just like the “Orient” as they were both created by the West for colonial purposes and from a colonial perspective. The globe has no east or west, but for Europeans the “Middle East” was east.

Our final point of discussion was that scholars, or intellectuals, are often the only ones who talk about Orientalism, which Said mentions on pages 27. It is challenging to study since you cannot just learn about “Oriental” culture and understand it, you also have to understand that it was created by the West as well, with reactions from the Orientals too. To comprehend how that can be constructed, you need to know about theories, history, and ideologies, which is hard to grasp if you are not an academic. We wondered if the fact that Orientalist studies is reserved for academics makes Western domination more powerful. Does teaching Westerners about theories and ways they have repressed those not in power prepare them to marginalize people further? You can pretend to be culturally aware without being criticized, but then use better tactics to repress others in a non-blatant way. Just because you can understand things doesn’t mean you can or will use it to create change. I brought up the American political system: politicians, in particular the Democrats, sometimes pretend to be progressive and culturally aware when in reality they are corrupt and do not care about minorities or those who are being repressed.

Overall, we all agreed that Said’s article was very relevant to our class and to today’s world. We tend to have negative stereotypes of the Middle East and the Orient, which stemmed from Western colonialism as a way to instill power and reinforce the idea that the natives were inferior to the Westerns. Said mentions several authors, such as Foucault and Derrida, so it was interesting to see how Said connected with theorists we have read in class.


*Note: We used the term “Oriental” to describe someone who lives or grew up in the region that was considered the “Orient”. We do not mean to be offensive, it was more to continue the use of the language in the article and distinguish between the West and those in the Orient during our discussion.

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