Anthony C. Alessandrini is associate professor of English at Kingsborough Community College and the Master of Arts program in Middle Eastern Studies at The Graduate Center of The City University of New York.

It is perhaps not an exaggeration to say that Edward Said’s Orientalism changed the world. It is certainly no exaggeration to say, somewhat more modestly, that it changed how we see the world. Even the book’s harshest critics have been forced to acknowledge its influence; indeed, part of the animus against Orientalism has come from the fact that it has not only transformed numerous academic disciplines, but also has, unlike few academic books of its time, broken out of the walls of the academy and into the minds of millions. One need not even have heard of Edward Said to know what is meant when someone refers to an idea, a political policy, or a television series as “Orientalist.” 

One thing that often surprises readers first encountering the book is the fact that it is, in large part, a work of literary criticism. Large sections of the book deal with writers and scholars whose work is hardly familiar to many modern readers: Flaubert, Hugo, Chateaubriand, Edward Lane, Louis Massignon, Ernest Renan, Silvestre de Sacy, Hamilton Gibb. One of the main criticisms the book has received from critics on the left is its reliance on a “culturalist,” as compared to a materialist, analysis. Said certainly understood that colonialism and imperialism are fundamentally political and economic phenomena. However, the particular innovation of Orientalism was to passionately argue for, and then scrupulously analyze, the specific way in which, as Said put it in the book’s introduction, “European culture was able to manage—and even produce—the Orient.”[1] Put differently: Orientalism is a patient unfolding of the narrative by which a round globe was divided into a “West” and an “East.” The work of doing this dividing was cultural work par excellence.

It should be said that Orientalism did not simply appear from thin air. Its precursors can be found both within Said’s own body of work (a point made by Tim Brennan, among others[2]), and also within the collective work of Arab scholars working in the United States—for example, those involved with the Association of Arab American University Graduates (AAUG)—a network of scholarship recently traced by Keith Feldman in his book A Shadow over Palestine (University of Minnesota Press, 2015).[3] Some of these precursors, along with many of the works that have followed in the wake of Orientalism, are listed below. However, the theoretical contribution made by Orientalism, and by Said’s work more generally, lies in his effort to combine social analysis that draws upon Raymond Williams, Michel Foucault, and Antonio Gramsci, on the one hand, with a close reading of what he would not be afraid to describe as particular works of genius, on the other hand. The work of the critic, as he set it out in Orientalism, is to “reveal the dialectic between the individual text or writer and the complex collective formation to which his [sic] work is a contribution.”[4] In this sense, we might take up Orientalism today as both a text that comes out of a particular moment of collective political and intellectual struggles, and also as a work of individual genius.  

What follows can only be considered a partial list of “essential texts” related to Said’s own truly essential text, Orientalism. For one thing, my list focuses almost exclusively on texts written in English. For another, any such list is bound to be limited, based on the list-maker’s particular interests, investments, and blind spots. I offer it while inviting additions, subtractions, and disagreements. I have divided it into four sections: first, a few words on the various editions of Orientalism, as well as a few translations that might be of particular interest; second, a few precursors to Said’s book; third, a series of reviews, responses, and critiques that followed the book’s publication; and, finally, a set of texts that, in my view, gives some sense of the influence and afterlives of Orientalism.


Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1978; reprinted with a new afterword, 1994; reprinted with a new preface, 2003).

Orientalism was first published in 1978; as Said notes in the book’s acknowledgements, most of it was written in 1975-76, when he was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. At the time it was published, he suggested years later, “it was far from clear whether such a study of the ways in which the power, scholarship, and imagination of a two-hundred-year-old tradition in Europe and America viewed the Middle East, the Arabs, and Islam, might interest a general audience.”[5] The book was dedicated to Janet and Ibrahim Abu-Lughod; in his preface to the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of the book, Said would note the recent passing of Ibrahim Abu-Lughod and Eqbal Ahmad, whom he described as his “two main intellectual, political, and personal mentors.”[6] In 1994, Orientalism was reprinted with a new afterword, in which Said addressed, at some length, the reactions, debates, and responses that had arisen in the fifteen years since the book’s publication. As a result of all this, he wrote, “Orientalism, almost in a Borgesian way, has become several different books”; in light of subsequent work that had been carried forward in ways that he had not foreseen when the book was published, it also seemed to him “a collective book that I think supersedes me as its author.”[7] In 2003, not long before Said’s death, the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Orientalism was published, with a new preface by the author. In it, Said notes bemusedly that misreadings of the book and misunderstandings of the concept of Orientalism, which has previously filled him with annoyance, now left him “feeling more ironic than irritated.” At the same time, this late text finds him “continuing to have faith in the ongoing and literally unending process of emancipation and enlightenment that, in my opinion, frames and gives direction to the intellectual vocation.”[8]

Among the many translations of Orientalism (the book has been translated into at least thirty-five different languages), two in particular might be noteworthy for Jadaliyya and MESPI readers. The book has been translated into Arabic twice: in 1981, by the Syrian critic and poet Kamal Abu Dib, and in 2006, by Mohammad Enany, a professor of English literature at Cairo University.[9] As Lina Attalah has noted, the subtitles that each translator attached to his translation gives a sense of the different emphasis that each one aimed to bring out of the text: Abu Dib’s version was subtitled “Knowledge, Power, and Construction,” while Enany’s was subtitled “Western Concepts on the East.”[10] Abu Dib’s translation was particularly striking (and has been the subject of much controversy), thanks to his decision to almost completely avoid any Western expressions which commonly appear in Arabic. Said himself described Abu Dib’s “remarkable translation” this way: 

The main achievement of Abu Dib’s painstaking translation was an almost total avoidance of Arabized Western expressions; technical words like discourse, simulacrum, paradigm, or code were rendered from within the classical rhetoric of the Arab tradition. His idea was to place my work inside one fully formed tradition, as if it were addressing another from the perspective of cultural adequacy and equality.[11]

Enany, on the other hand, consciously strove for a style of translation that would render the text more accessible for an Arabic-speaking audience: “My mission in translating Orientalism consists of two matters; the first is to clearly relay the ideas of Edward Said, no matter how difficult it is to rebuild some of the English language structures to be accommodated by the Arabic language. The second is preservation of the special traits in Edward Said’s style in the context of contemporary fusha.”[12] Enany also includes a twenty-page introduction intended to clarify Said’s style and argument for readers of Arabic. Enany’s translation has been, at least from a sales perspective, a success: the first printing sold out quickly, and its sales in Egypt rivaled those of Nagib Mahfouz’s Awlad Haritna [Children of the Alley].[13]

Also of note is the Hebrew translation of Orientalism by Atalia Zilberg, which was published in 2000.[14] As Ella Shohat has written, even though the book had long been “assailed” by Israeli Orientalists writing in Hebrew, it took more than twenty years for a Hebrew edition to appear (by contrast, Said’s A Question of Palestine—which forms part of a trilogy with Orientalism and Covering Islam—was translated into Hebrew in 1981, just two years after it was published in English). However, Shohat goes on to note that since the Hebrew translation appeared, the book had begun to be taught in a number of Israeli universities, and she concludes: “By now, the impact of Said’s work has been felt in various fields in critical writing about Zionist discourses and Israeli practices.”[15]


Edward W. Said, “The Arab Portrayed,” in The Arab-Israeli Confrontation of June 1967, ed. Ibrahim Abu-Lughod (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1970).

In a tribute to Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, published in 2001, Said described “The Arab Portrayed”—an essay first published in a special issue of Arab World dedicated to the 1967 War, and subsequently re-published in a collection of essays on the topic edited by Abu-Lughod—as “the origin of my book Orientalism.”[16] This essay inaugurated Said’s work on portrayals of the image of the Arab in literature, the media, and culture. While Said was to radically re-imagine his analysis in the subsequent decade of working on Orientalism, “The Arab Portrayed” already sets out the key terms of this analysis, describing the portrayal of “the Arab” as unmistakably negative, “a shadow”; “isolated from his past,” Said concludes, “the Arab is chained to a destiny that fixes and dooms him” (5). More recently, Keith Feldman, in A Shadow over Palestine, revisits “The Arab Portrayed” to resituate Orientalism, and Said’s work more generally, in the larger context of the emerging field of Arab American studies in the 1960s and 1970s.[17]

Talal Asad, editor, Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter (Amherst: Humanity Books, 1973). 

Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter embodies the critique of Orientalism that emerged in the social sciences in the 1960s and 1970s.[18] It features chapters by Peter Forster, Wendy James, Stephen Feuchtwang, Helen Lackner, James Faris, Richard Brown, John Clammer, Roger Owen, Roy Willis, Abdel Ghaffar M. Ahmed, and Philip Marfleet, as well as Asad’s introduction and his chapter “Two European Images of non-European Rule,” which have both been highly influential. Just as Orientalism amounts to a far-reaching critique of the way that “the humanities” have both been shaped by, and have helped to underwrite, European colonial conquest, Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter amounts to a fundamental questioning of the role of the social sciences, and anthropology in particular, in this colonial context. As Asad writes in the introduction, “anthropology is…rooted in an unequal power encounter between the West and the Third World….It is this encounter that gives the West access to cultural and historical information about the societies it has progressively dominated, and thus not only generates a certain kind of universal understanding, but also reinforces the inequalities in capacity between the European and the non-European worlds” (14).

“Interview: Edward W. Said,” diacritics 6, no. 3 (1976). 

The editors of the journal diacritics interviewed Said soon after the publication of his book Beginnings: Intention and Method in 1975. At the time, Said’s analysis of Orientalism—although he had begun to articulate it in some shorter essays—was not as well-known as other aspects of his work. However, as Tim Brennan has noted, in this interview, Said articulates “the key conceptual tool of Orientalism,” and indeed, Said sets out many of the other concerns that will animate the work that he will do over the next few decades. “The interview is like a compendium of which the rest of his career is a patient and deliberate elaboration,” Brennan concludes.[19] As Said tells the interviewers, “A major part of my study has been the way in which Orientalist texts are attempts at textual reconstruction of the Orient, as if the ‘real’ or actual Orient ought not by itself to be admitted into Western consciousness” (41). This is precisely the argument that is at the center of Orientalism: the extent to which Orientalism literally produced a thing known as “the Orient” upon which the West could then exercise its power.


Talal Asad,
Review of Orientalism, in The English Historical Review 95 (July 1980). 

Asad’s quite brief (two-page) review of Orientalism remains essential reading for a number of reasons. First, Asad was a central figure among those in the social sciences who had been elaborating their own critique of Orientalist scholarship. Second, unlike many of the book’s initial readers, Asad astutely grasps the contribution being made by Said. He notes that Orientalism is neither a simple enumeration of the shortcomings of Orientalist texts nor a knee-jerk dismissal of Western scholarship on the region. Instead, Asad argues, “Its outstanding contribution lies in its attempt to analyze the authoritative structure of orientalist discourse,” which is what allows this discourse to be endlessly reproduced and to remain unchallenged (648). This fundamental challenge to the authority of certain discourses is at the heart of Asad’s subsequent work as well, and in some ways, this brief essay can be seen as the start of a productive set of agreements and disagreements (the latter largely around the concept of “the secular”) between Said’s and Asad’s work.[20]

James Clifford, “On Orientalism,” in The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), first published in History and Theory 19 (1980).

Clifford’s extended essay on Orientalism—especially following its republication in his book The Predicament of Culture—has been an extremely influential one. Clifford’s rich reading of the book is difficult to summarize, but at its center is what Clifford sees as a fundamental conflict between the manner in which Said draws upon poststructuralist thought, especially the work of Michel Foucault, to talk about Orientalism as a totalizing discourse, versus what Clifford sees as Said’s “residual humanism.” “Said’s humanist perspectives do not harmonize with his use of methods derived from Foucault, who is of course a radical critic of humanism” Clifford writes (264). Despite arguing that “Said’s work frequently relapses into the essentializing modes it attacks,” Clifford ultimately finds much of value in Orientalism for his own project, which has to do with fundamentally “questioning a number of important anthropological categories,” including “the concept of culture” itself (271).[21]

Sadik Jalal al-‘Azm, “Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse,” Khamsin 8 (July 1981); Al-Istishraq wal-Istishraq Maakusan (Beirut: Dar al-Hadatha, 1981).

Sadik Jalal al-`Azm’s influential essay “Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse” was first published in Arabic in 1980; it appeared in English translation in 1981, and al-`Azm published a revised and expanded book-length version in Arabic in 1981. Al-`Azm provides a close, sympathetic, but ultimately quite critical reading of Orientalism, and is even more critical of those who he sees as mis-applying Said’s argument as part of what he describes as “Orientalism in reverse.” In the first half of his essay, al-`Azm cites and expands upon what he sees as among the most significant accomplishments of Orientalism: laying bare the “vicious” belief, among Orientalists, “that a fundamental ontological difference exists between the essential natures of the Orient and Occident, to the decisive advantage of the latter.” However, he goes on to criticize Said for, first, overextending his argument about what al-`Azm sees as a fundamentally modern European phenomenon into the time of antiquity, which holds the danger of essentializing “the West” in the same ahistorical way that Orientalism has essentialized “the Orient”; and second, overvaluing the power of cultural analysis and, partly as a result, misreading Marx’s work in order to lump him in with the Orientalist thinkers of his time.[22] In the second half of the essay, al-`Azm notes that in attacking the ontological essentialism at the heart of Orientalism, Said is careful to offer a warning “to the subjects and victims of Orientalism against the dangers and temptations of applying the readily available structures, styles, and ontological biases of Orientalism upon themselves and upon others.” Despite this warning, al-`Azm argues, this process, which he refers to as “Orientalism in reverse,” had in the aftermath of Said’s book become widespread. He goes on to trace this Orientalism in reverse among both proponents of secular Arab nationalism and of what he calls “the recent movement of Islamic revival.” As Gilbert Achcar has noted more recently, al-`Azm’s argument provides a powerful antidote to this appropriation of Said’s concepts, and Achcar argues that one can now find the effects of this “Orientalism in reverse” spreading among scholars in the core Orientalist countries as well.[23]

Bernard Lewis, “The Question of Orientalism,” New York Review of Books (24 June 1982). [See also Edward W. Said and Bernard Lewis, “Orientalism: An Exchange,” New York Review of Books (12 August 1982).]

For any reader of Said’s work, the figure of Bernard Lewis is impossible to avoid.[24] He was the arch-antagonist who Said confronted again and again, the Moriarty to his Holmes; his shadow loomed large over both Orientalist scholarship and US foreign policy. His work is central to Said’s final chapter of Orientalism, which takes aim at Lewis’ 1972 article “Islamic Concepts of Revolution,” and in particular his reading of the Arabic word thawra, arguing that in Lewis’ analysis, “the Arab is scarcely more than a neurotic sexual being.”[25] In his review article “The Question of Orientalism,” published three years after the appearance of Said’s book, Lewis responds by describing Orientalism as part of what he sees as the centuries-long “attack on the Orientalists” emanating from “the Muslim world” (in fact, less than half of the review is dedicated to Said’s book). In many ways, Lewis’ response to the book is valuable as an encapsulation of contemporary Orientalist thought. Said suggested as much, both in his subsequent response to Lewis in the New York Review of Books and in the “Afterword” to the 1994 edition of Orientalism, where he describes Lewis as the self-appointed “spokesman for the guild of Orientalists on which my critique was originally based.”[26]  

Lisa Lowe, Critical Terrains: French and British Orientalisms (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991). 

Critical Terrains has often been considered—depending on the reader’s viewpoint—as a feminist extension, critique, or correction of Said’s Orientalism. Since Lowe, in this and subsequent work, has established herself as a major feminist cultural critic, this book deserves to be viewed in a more nuanced light than as a feminist footnote to Orientalism. At its outset, she lays out both her debt to Orientalism and her departure from Said’s approach: “Although this project has benefitted from the critique established in Orientalism…my study ultimately challenges that work to the extent that I query the assumption that orientalism monolithically constructs the Orient as the Other of the Occident.” Instead, she introduces what she describes as the “distinct range of concerns with difference” that can be found in various Orientalist texts. She re-reads several authors in the British and French literary traditions who were also at the center of Said’s analysis—including Montesquieu, Forster, and Flaubert—but also introduces new figures, such as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, as well as new concerns, such as the fascination with “Chinese utopias” in the work of poststructuralist theorists such as Julia Kristeva and Roland Barthes. Ultimately, Critical Terrains, and the subsequent work of Lowe and other theorists, can perhaps best be seen as both challenging and carrying forward the critical paradigms introduced by Said in Orientalism.

Aijaz Ahmad, “Orientalism and After: Ambivalence and Metropolitan Location in the Work of Edward Said,” in In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (New York: Verso, 1992). 

Ahmad’s extended engagement with Orientalism (and, just as crucially, with those texts in the field of postcolonial studies that were subsequently influenced by Said’s book) is the most extended and significant Marxist critique of the book. Indeed, in a sense, Ahmad’s essay can be seen as a defense of Marxism against Said’s theoretical approach—partly aimed at Said’s engagement with poststructuralist theorists such as Foucault, and partly at his engagement with humanist figures such as Erich Auerbach. In such a context, Ahmad writes, despite their many points of political agreement and despite his solidarity for Said’s position as a Palestinian intellectual, “I disagree with [Said] so fundamentally on issues both of theory and of history that our respective understandings of the world…are simply irreconcilable” (159). Ahmad’s harsh critique led to an extended debate among other scholars working in postcolonial studies, with the most extended response coming from Benita Parry, whose sympathy for Ahmad’s project as “a Marxist intervention in the cultural critique of imperialism” doesn’t prevent her from finding in his approach an echo of “that device of polemical assassination contributed long ago by traditional Communist parties in an attempt to disable other left tendencies.”[27]


Samir Amin, L’eurocentrisme: Critique d’une ideologie (Paris: Anthropos, 1988); Eurocentrism, translated by Russell Moore (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1989). 

Samir Amin, the Egyptian-French political economist who was among the most influential Marxist theorists of the past few decades, passed away earlier this week. His book Eurocentrism occupies a complex position vis-à-vis Said’s Orientalism. Amin’s task, like Said’s, rests in analyzing how Europe established itself as the center of the world through the marginalization of all that is non-European. However, his approach is grounded not in cultural analysis but in political economy; the book sets out to re-tell the economic history of the world, and the rise of Eurocentrism is significant, for Amin, since it is linked to the rise of capitalism. From this perspective, Amin totally embraces Said’s characterization of Orientalism as “the ideological construction of a mythical ‘Orient,’ whose characteristics are treated as immutable traits defined in simple opposition to the characteristics of the ‘Occidental’ world.” However, Amin sees Eurocentrism as based not just on cultural understandings but also on the fact that Europe’s representation of the Orient is fundamentally “limited by the nature of capitalist development” (100-01). While he agrees with Said’s analysis, Amin argues that “Said is content with denouncing Eurocentric prejudice without positively proposing another system of explanation” (102). By contrast, from his Marxist perspective, Amin suggests that the resulting struggle should be to replace the false universalism created by European capitalism with a “truly universal culture” under socialism. So, unlike Aijaz Ahmad’s Marxist critique, Amin sees Said’s work and his own following parallel, rather than contradictory, lines.

Barbara Harlow and Mia Carter, editors, Imperialism and Orientalism: A Documentary Sourcebook (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999). 

This rich collection of primary sources—together with Harlow and Carter’s subsequent two-volume Archives of Empire, published in 2003—is a crucial companion work for readers of Said’s Orientalism. In their introduction, the editors note that their collection follows directly on from the publication of Orientalism and is intended to address the debates around orientalism and imperialism that Said’s text inspired. Their goal accordingly was to compile “texts that underwrote the orientalist endeavor…both as a pedagogical resource and a compass for possible future research” (1). The book is divided into five sections, organized chronologically and focusing primarily on the history of British imperialism: “From Company to Crown” deals with a century of British colonial enterprises in India; “The Opening of the Suez Canal” documents the construction and celebration of the canal, together with the new routes of empire it opened; “The Great Game” focuses on colonial engagements in Central Asia; “The Scramble for Africa” includes historical and political sources, as well as letters and other documents from colonial missionaries and administrators; and “Victoria” covers both the paeans to empire produced in the late nineteenth century, and also the subsequent debates around the definition of England and Englishness in the age of empire. Harlow and Carter also stress that these documents should not be seen as only providing historical value: “empire, while it may appear to have been ‘dismantled’ in the post-World War Two era of decolonization, continues to provide the antecedents and lessons for the present age of ‘globalization’ and neo-liberalism” (3).

Lila Abu-Lughod, Orientalism and Middle East Feminist Studies,” Feminist Studies 27, no. 1 (2001).

Abu-Lughod’s article is both a wide-ranging review essay, addressing no fewer than eight books across a range of regions and disciplines (by Meyda Yegenoglu, Zehra Arat, Homa Hoodfar, Judith Tucker, Haideh Moghissi, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Deniz Kandiyoti, and Ruth V. Ward), and is also an important meditation, twenty years after the publication of Orientalism, on the book’s impact on Middle East women’s and gender studies. Abu-Lughod notes that the book has had a complex relationship towards this field, and despite not being a work of feminist scholarship or theory itself, Orientalism had “engendered feminist scholarship and debate in Middle East studies as well as far beyond the field” (101). Through her reading of this selection of contemporary texts, Abu-Lughod traces four ways that Orientalism has had an impact on feminist studies: first, by opening up the possibility for subsequent theorists to further explore the gender and sexuality of Orientalist discourse itself; second, by providing support for ongoing historical and anthropological work that challenged traditional stereotypes of “Muslim” or “Middle Eastern” women and gender relations in general; third, by stimulating a renewed discussion of East/West politics within feminist work; and finally, by encouraging feminist critique, writ large, to address Said’s insistence that one cannot separate political engagement from scholarship, “highlighting the peculiar ways that feminist critique is situated in a global context” (102).

Zachary Lockman, Contending Visions of the Middle East: The History and Politics of Orientalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

In his introduction, Lockman describes the purpose of this book: “to introduce readers to the history of the sometimes-overlapping enterprises known as Orientalism, Oriental studies, Islamic studies, and Middle East studies, as practiced in the West” (1). It is thus a study of Orientalism writ large, not Said’s Orientalism per se. However, Lockman’s chapter “Said’s Orientalism: A Book and Its Aftermath” presents an excellent, and not uncritical, overview both of Said’s book and of its influence on the field of Middle East studies. Lockman’s materialist approach provides him with a useful angle for both situating Orientalism amidst a number of earlier critiques of Orientalism (often from a Marxist/political-economy position) and of critiquing aspects of Said’s argument, especially as these have been used and extended by subsequent thinkers influenced by Orientalism. Ultimately, Lockman argues, “although this may not have been his intention, many read him as not only depicting Marx himself as an Orientalist but also as rejecting Marxian modes of historical explanation and social analysis, including political economy, in favor of the analysis of discourse” (211).

Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).

Unlike her earlier book, Critical TerrainsThe Intimacies of Four Continents cannot really be understood as a direct engagement with Said’s Orientalism. If it belongs with these other texts reflecting the afterlives of Orientalism, it is largely because its scope and brilliance is in many ways parallel to Said’s book. Lowe’s announced task is in many ways as ambitious as that set out by Said at the beginning of Orientalism; she writes, on the book’s opening page, “My study investigates the often-obscured connections between the emergence of European liberalism, settler colonialism in the Americas, the transatlantic African slave trade, and the East Indies and China trades in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries” (1). Her analysis of literary texts, political and philosophical writings (such as those of John Stuart Mill), and contemporary culture has much of Said’s virtuosity; in particular, her reading of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair as representing “the intimacies between colonial commodities in early Victorian households and the imperial relations to Africa, Asia, and the Americas to which they were inextricably tied” (73) is reminiscent of Said’s justly-celebrated reading of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park in his book Culture and Imperialism.[28] And her argument for the importance of a particular form of “reading literature” rhymes in many ways with Said’s own arguments regarding the political effects of literary criticism: “This ‘reading literature’ is not a substitute for action, but a space for a different kind of thinking alongside it, an attention to both the ‘what-could-have-been’ and the ‘what-will-be’ that would otherwise be subsumed in the march of received official history” (99).

Wael B. Hallaq, Restating Orientalism: A Critique of Modern Knowledge (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018).

 Hallaq’s just-published book is the most recent contribution to the literature on Orientalism. It is also perhaps the most far-ranging, since the project he sets out is nothing less than an analysis of “the structure and system that have produced and enveloped Orientalism”—that is, “the modern subject and its constitution as the agent writing modern structures” (5). His analysis builds on the work previously done in his 2013 book The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament. In doing this work, Hallaq both acknowledges the massive influence of Said’s Orientalism and also proposes to push beyond it. In an earlier piece that included excerpts from Restating Orientalism, Hallaq notes that his critique of Said’s Orientalism is based largely on the suggestion that “Said neither appreciated nor could he correctly identify the historical roots of Orientalism because he did not understand its trenchant and deep roots in the sub-structures of the modern project.”[29] Since he sees Said’s work as fundamentally grounded in a literary-critical academic approach, Hallaq also proposes to extend the analysis of Orientalism into the fields of law, business, economics, philosophy, anthropology, and scientific inquiry. Whether or not one agrees with Hallaq’s critique of Said—appreciative as though it may be—the project he sets out in Restating Orientalism includes an ambitious call that, in many ways, echoes Said’s goals as a scholar and critic: “structures of power are dynamic things that always leave—by virtue of their very dynamism—openings, cracks, fissures, and fractures….The modern project is replete with such fissures….To think through openings and fissures, to give exclusions and silences an active presence, to resuscitate what the central domains have rendered marginal and irrelevant—these are ultimately the only true meanings of critique[JB1] .”

V. Conclusion: The Futures of Orientalism   

Edward Said’s untimely death in 2003 left an intellectual void that can never truly be filled. I have tried elsewhere to write about the sense of melancholy occasioned by his loss, and at the same time, the way in which his work demands that we keep going. Said’s relationship to both social injustice and intellectual mediocrity was one of impatience. Some of this seems to have been rooted in his character; as he described movingly in his 1999 memoir Out of Place, from his childhood on he was haunted by the feeling that he had already wasted too much time. This sense was later exacerbated by the knowledge of his impending death, which seems to have haunted his late writings in a different way. In this late work—Out of Place, the political essays collected in The End of the Peace Process (2000) and From Oslo to Iraq and the Road Map (2003), his writings on music in Parallels and Paradoxes (2002), and especially in the two posthumous volumes Humanism and Democratic Criticism (2004) and On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain (2006)—we find an amplified sense of a writer with no time to waste, one who refuses to suffer fools gladly, and one who, as he insisted in his 2003 preface to Orientalism, kept his “faith in the ongoing and literally unending process of emancipation and enlightenment that…frames and gives direction to the intellectual vocation.”

Said’s first major theoretical work was Beginnings: Intentions and Methods, published in 1975, four years before Orientalism. As its title suggests, the book is an extended meditation on the very nature of what it means to undertake an intellectual or creative project. Said, following the philosopher Giambattista Vico, one of his greatest intellectual influences, distinguishes “beginning,” which is human and secular, from “origin,” to which is attributed mythical, divine qualities. For Said, championing the former—and with it, a true humanist vision—is the primary vocation of the critic. In his final work, On Late Style, Said turns to the other side of the equation, asking how the artist, scholar, and critic find ways to mark the “lateness” of a mortal life when one finds the end in sight. He ranges far and wide, from Beethoven to Adorno to Genet, marking the complexities and contradictions of their magnificent “late” work. On Late Style itself belongs to this suite of late masterpieces.

However, it is his other posthumous work, Humanism and Democratic Criticism, that provides the most valuable bridge between Orientalism and Said’s late work. The book collects several lectures that Said presented at Columbia University in 2000. Throughout these lectures, he returns again and again to the point from Vico that he cites at the opening of Orientalism, and that indeed underwrites the entire project of that book: “men make their own history [and] what they can know is what they have made.” The project of Orientalism, he continues, involves extending this insight to geography: “as both geographical and cultural entities—to say nothing of historical entities—such locales, regions, geographical sectors as ‘Orient’ and ‘Occident’ are man-made. Therefore as much as the West itself, the Orient is an idea that has a history.”[30] In Humanism and Democratic Criticism, Said extends this insight from Vico into a credo for all criticism, whose job it is precisely to “reexamine [human] history from the point of view of the maker.” As a result, “the relationship between the reader-critic and the text is transformed, from a one-way interrogation of the historical text by an altogether alien mind at a much later time, into a sympathetic dialogue of two spirits across ages and cultures.”[31]

One finds in this late book a re-statement of—one could almost say a doubling-down on—the seeming contradiction that James Clifford had noted in Orientalism. On the one hand, Said’s critique of the Eurocentric, colonizing, and deadly nature of traditional Western humanism remains as scathing as ever. On the other hand, he remains deeply committed to crucial aspects of traditional humanism, going so far as to link himself with arch-conservative figures such as Matthew Arnold and T. S. Eliot to assert that “we must in some perhaps almost instinctual way continue to hold on to a wonderfully stable order of great works of art whose sustaining power means a great deal to each of us in his or her own way.”[32] So, as Akeel Bilgrami suggests in his Foreword to Humanism and Late Criticism, Said reveals more clearly in this late book that criticism is in fact “two seemingly inconsistent things: it is philology, the ‘history’ of words, the ‘reception’ of tradition, and, at the same time it is a ‘resistance’ to that tradition.”[33] It is to this double mission that Said makes his final commitment: “situating critique at the very heart of humanism, critique as a form of democratic freedom and as a continuous practice of questioning and accumulating knowledge that is open to, rather than in denial of, the constituent historical realities.”[34]

This is all quite unfashionable stuff. It runs in many ways against the grain of a number of current intellectual tendencies, from the embrace of a more orthodox form of materialist analysis against Said’s so-called “culturalism,” to the current trend in literary and cultural criticism towards what has come to be called “postcritique.”[35] From the first tendency, Vivek Chibber’s influential and vitriolic Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital nods briefly towards Said’s “modern classic” Orientalism before moving towards its skewering of the field of postcolonial studies without another mention of Said’s work.[36] From the second tendency, Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique—one of the founding texts of the “postcritique” field—includes one sentence praising Said’s reading of Mansfield Park before moving on to enumerate the dangers of the “suspicious interpretation” genre to which Said’s work is said to belong.[37] Even Joseph North’s innovative and erudite Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History, which argues for a form of politicized literary criticism that seems recognizably Saidian, barely acknowledges Said’s work, except to lump it in with other works that he terms “scholarly” and thus part of the current dominant paradigm of literary criticism.[38] 

Said, of course, was famously impatient with all forms of orthodoxy, Marxist or otherwise. However, I suspect he would have been equally impatient with what we might call the rush from judgment found in the “postcritique” school of criticism.[39] The power of Orientalism, and of Said’s work more generally, lies in its ability to unsettle the reader, from all directions. For this reason, perhaps the greatest threat to the legacy of Orientalism lies in the book’s very success. It is all too easy to use (or misuse) the term “Orientalism” without having to grapple with Said’s close readings of Flaubert or Edward Lane or his complex methodological engagement with humanism. There is the danger, therefore, that like that other great and difficult writer of liberating texts, Frantz Fanon, Said might become someone to be name-checked without being read closely, or at all. 

Against this tendency, let me end by exhorting you who may be reading this—whether you are new to Orientalism; whether you have maybe been made to read the introduction or excerpts from the text; whether you are generally familiar with its argument; or whether you have read and re-read the book many times—to return to it, together with this incomplete set of companion readings. In wresting with Orientalism, take as your credo Said’s final sentences, which contain both the hope for a more liberating form of human knowledge and a warning of the dangers found in the history of humanistic study, a warning that seems as apt today as it was four decades ago: “If the knowledge of Orientalism has any meaning, it is in being a reminder of the seductive degradation of knowledge, of any knowledge, anywhere, at any time. Now perhaps more than before.”[40] Indeed.


[1] Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1979), 3.

[2] Tim Brennan, “Places of Mind, Occupied Lands: Edward Said and Philology,” in Edward Said: A Critical Reader, ed. Michael Sprinker (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1992), 74-95.

[3] Keith P. Feldman, A Shadow over Palestine: The Imperial Life of Race in America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 147-84.

[4] Said, Orientalism, 24.

[5] Said, “Afterword,” Orientalism, 1994 edition, 329.

[6] Said, “Preface,” Orientalism, 2003 edition, p. xv. A version of Said’s 2003 preface can also be found here.

[7] Said, “Afterword,” Orientalism, 1994 edition, 330.

[8] Said, “Preface,” Orientalism, 2003 edition, xv.

[9] Said, Orientalism, trans. Kamal Abu Deeb (Beirut: Institute for Arab Research, 1981); Said, Orientalism, trans. Muhammad Enani (Cairo: Al-Ru’ya Publishing, 2006).

[10] Lina Attalah, “Translating Orientalism,” Egypt Independent (26 September 2010).13

[11] Said, “Afterword,” Orientalism, 1994 edition, 338.

[12] Quoted in Alttalah, “Translating Orientalism.” For more sustained analyses of these two quite different translations, see: Fawwaz Traboulsi, “Edward Said’s Orientalism Revisited: Translations and Translators,” The Translator `5, no. 1 (2009); Fadil Elmenfi, “Retranslation of Orientalism: Reading Said in Arabic,” International Journal of Cognitive and Language Sciences 7, no. 12 (2013); and A. K. K. Allawzi, “The Visible Translator: Identifying Norms in the Translations of Edward Said’s Orientalism,” doctoral thesis, Durham University, 2015.

[13] Elmenfi, “Retranslation of Orientalism.”

[14] Said, Orientalism, trans. Atalia Zilberg (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2000).

[15] Ella Shohat, “The ‘Postcolonial’ in Translation: Reading Said in Hebrew,” in Edward Said: A Legacy of Emancipation and Representation, ed. Adel Iskandar and Hakem Rustom (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).

[16] Edward W. Said, “My Guru,” London Review of Books (13 December 2001).

[17] Feldman, Shadow, 175-82.

[18] Roger Owen has written about the relationship between Said’s Orientalism and this larger critique of Orientalism unfolding in the social sciences. See “Edward Said and the Two Critiques of Orientalism,” Middle East Institute, September 2009.

[19] Brennan, “Places of Mind,” 75.

[20] See, for example, Talal Asad, “Historical Notes on the Idea of Secular Criticism,” The Immanent Frame (25 January 2008). For a nuanced account of these issues around “secularism,” in both Said and among his critics, see Mathieu E. Courville, Edward Said’s Rhetoric of the Secular (New York: Continuum, 2010).

[21] Said responded variously to Clifford’s reading at different points in his own career. In the “Afterword” to the 1994 edition of Orientalism, Said very likely has Clifford in mind when he speaks of “American and British academics of a decidedly rigorous and unyielding stripe” who disapproved of the “residual humanism” and “theoretical inconsistencies” of Orientalism. “Orientalism is a partisan book, not a theoretical machine,” Said responded (Afterword, 339). Several years later, in a lecture delivered in 2000, Said refers in a much more friendly manner to Clifford’s “searching and sympathetic” review of the book. See Edward W. Said, Humanism and Democratic Criticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 8-9.

[22] Without mentioning al-`Azm by name, Said disputed both of these points in his “Afterword” to the 1994 edition of Orientalism, complaining in particular that “the passages on Marx’s own Orientalism in my book were the most singled out by dogmatic critics in the Arab world and India” (338)—which very likely contained a swipe at Aijaz Ahmad’s reading of Orientalism as well.

[23] Gilbert Achcar, “Orientalism in Reverse,” Radical Philosophy 151 (Sepember/October 2008). Achcar’s article was first presented as the Edward Said Memorial Lecture at the University of Warwick in 2007.

[24] When Lewis finally passed away this year at the age of 101, even an article that purported to be a tribute (written by a former student who went on to work in the Department of Defense under George W. Bush) ended with a vicious attack on Said and those who have been influenced by him: “the age of academic giants has now definitively come to an end. The professional study of Middle East history now belongs to the heirs of Edward Said—to, that is, intellectual pygmies. Have I closed on a word, and an image, unpardonably ‘Orientalist’ and ‘colonialist’? I certainly hope so.”

[25] Said, Orientalism, 314-15.

[26] Said, “Afterword,” 341-42.

[27] Benita Parry, “A Critique Mishandled,” Social Text 35 (1993), 121.

[28] Edward W. Said, “Jane Austen and Empire,” Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage, 1993), 80-96.

[29] Wael B. Hallaq, “Orientalism after Edward Said,” TRT World (18 January 2018).

[30] Said, Orientalism, 4-5

[31] Said, Humanism and Democratic Criticism, 91-92.

[32] Said, Humanism and Democratic Criticism, 33.

[33] Said, Humanism and Democratic Criticism, xii-xiii, emphases in original.

[34] Said, Humanism and Democratic Criticism, 47.

[35] See, for example, the essays collected in Critique and Postcritique, edited by Elizabeth S. Anker and Rita Felski (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017).

[36] Vivek Chibber, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (New York: Verso, 2013), 8.

[37] Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 115.

[38] Joseph North, Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017), 117.    

[39] For a deeply critical—and, in many ways, quite Saidian—analysis of the “postcritique” school of thought, see Bruce Robbins, “Fashion Conscious Phenomenon,” American Book Review 38, no. 5 (July/August 2017).

[40] Said, Orientalism, 328.