Middle East Quarterly
A Leftist Fur-Fight
Edward Said and Milton Viorst, two left-wing American writers, skillfully deflate each other's pretensions to knowing about the Middle East in two acerbic exchanges, first in The Nation of Mar. 22, 1999 and then in Al-Ahram Weekly of May 6-12, 1999. Said initiated the first round and Viorst the second.
Husayn's Strengths and Weaknesses
Milton Viorst's views in "An Unusual King" [March 1] alas, reflect the conventional laundered and reductive view that Husayn was a "good" king, peacemaker and progressive. Gone pretty much were the police state aspects of this country and other embarrassments. Three points Viorst makes betray deep Orientalist ignorance that normally wouldn't be tolerated in even average journalism abut other parts of the world. One is that the Arab world is and has been second-rate for centuries. This isn't just nonsensical generalization, it is also racist high-handedness from a journalist whose credentials to make such judgments about the Arabs are not immediately apparent or available.
Another howler is that King Husayn, unlike "most leaders in Arab history," tried to strengthen "the bond between the people and the state." Where does Viorst get this appalling bilge from? "Most leaders in Arab history" is an awful lot of leaders, and it scants models furnished in classical times by Haroun ar-Rashid, in modern years by Abdel Nasser, and the Gulf sheikhs, who are available to their people on a daily basis.
Last, Viorst's lack of specific knowledge about Jordan is embarrassingly concrete when he cites "clean water" as one of the late king's achievements. Last July the country was shaken when stinking, polluted water appeared in the country's pipes and taps, the result of Israel's supply of unfit Galilean water to Jordan as part of Husayn's ill-considered and deeply unpopular "peace" with Israel (30 percent unemployment, billions in foreign debt, a stagnant economy being unalleviated either by the peace or Husayn's rule!). Several officials, including cabinet ministers, are still on trial. A pity that The Nation couldn't have found someone who knew what he was talking about to pontificate about Husayn's real strengths and weaknesses.
Edward W. Said
New York City
Edward Said is an excellent musician. I respect his expertise in modern European literature. There is much about him that I admire. But if he thinks that Haroun ar-Rashid was close to his people, he ought to go back and read some Abbasid history. If he means to extol the virtues of Nasser's police state, then he might reexamine his values. As for the Gulf sheikhs he finds so democratic, who expelled several hundred thousand Palestinians at the time of the Gulf War? Kuwait. And who then took care of them, at substantial expense? King Husayn.
Said may not consider a thousand years of living under foreign oppression to be "second-rate," but most Arabs do, and they are scarcely racist in this judgment. I have no doubt, though Said may differ, that King Husayn did his best to direct his people toward a brighter future, which (alas!) distinguished him from most of the ruling elites in Arab history. On the Middle East, Said's indignation exceeds his wisdom. As one of his grad students in comparative lit might say, "C'mon, Cher Edouard, get real!"
Laying the blame
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 favorable comments I made about the late King Husayn. 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 recognized 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 skeptical 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 Husayn, 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 generalizations 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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