Sunday, March 25, 2007

"Decolonizing the Mind"

Deadlines are fast approaching and as a result, my postings are going to become less frequent for the time being. Still, while reading for one essay, I came across an interesting article by Edward Said called "Decolonizing the Mind" (Al-Hayat, September 16, 1994) which I felt I had to share. Here are some excerpts which got me thinking:

"..there isn't a single specialized institute or university department in any of these [Arab] countries whose main object of study is Israel. Israel of course has several important institutions and departments that are full of experts on each Arab country."

"Over the years I have always been struck that Arab students coming to the West were either interested in getting a technical or professional degree in medicine, engineering, business and so on, or they were pursuing a degree in some aspect of Middle Eastern history, politics, sociology, literature. Very rarely did they come to Oxford or Harvard to study American or European history."

"This is a common pattern: to come all the way to the West in order to study your own country in the West, thus being further ghettoized."

These criticisms are applicable to myself as much as any other Arab student, and will certainly have an impact on whatever field of post-graduate study I finally decide upon. Why do we choose to be "ghettoized" in the words of Said? Is it some kind of self inflicted narcissism? Interesting points indeed.


Anonymous said...

Edward Said is a humanist; his passion towards Palestine is from a humanitarian approach rather than an Arab, the thing about him I hate to think about!

He is a comparative literature scholar who is interested in reading both Arab and American literature. If I ever want to read from now on American literature and study it, it would be those who portray us; Arabs!

I do not see it as a "ghettoized" pattern!

Do Americans bother to read so called "Third World" literature? Do they teach students around the glob texts written by Anglo Saxons or texts witten in English?
I have made a paper about my university criticizing the teachers teaching us, Arab students, a mere Anglo-Saxon texts when now there are English texts written by Arabs, Indians and many other countries!

Who is the "ghettoized"? the powerful!
If I chose to make my thesis on Arab Jews it is only because I am fed up with American ghettoism and self-centrism!!

I disagree with Edward Said on many levels.
Sorry for making this long.

Maysaloon said...

No problem at all :) Good point on American's not bothering to read "Third World" literature, though I think perhaps Said's essay struck a cord with me on the "know your enemy" level. His main criticism in that essay was how the PLO had signed away everything in a sham Peace deal which gave away everything and got nothing. The people who had been handling the negotiations didn't have a clue who they were up against with regards to both the United States or Israel. As always though, I love to hear your opinion!

Anonymous said...

oh ok, i'll have to read the article first, thanx for bringing it up!

Maysaloon said...

3a rasee :)

Anonymous said...

I think he raises an interesting point. Then again, even if there is no "Western Peoples Studies" center in the Arab world, that doesn't stop a lot of people from making sweeping claims about "Western culture" and even--at times--"Arab culture." Sometimes I see the Orientalist methodology and approach playing a large role in the way many Arabs speak about themselves and the rest of the world, and that scares me. Then again, I don't think that to study another area of the world necessarily revolves around studying their "culture." Maybe several decades ago, but I don't think that's the case anymore.

Kinano said...

I think Said raises a good point. We hate that the western world knows practically nothing, almost, about us; yet we are not even interested in taking at least one course during college that discusses the western world.

I do agree that it is a necessity for us to "know our enemy" and there are people who do realize that, but I think the flaw is in our media. The Arab media does not run enough programs on the western/Israeli state of matter, culture, internal politics and other.

It doesn't need an academic degree to know your enemy. There are many other ways that can penetrate to a larger population.

Just a thought!

Gregor said...


at first one point: the West is no enemy; perhaps Mister Bush but not the West, if you insist in this distinction between a "Western" and a "Oriental" culture. It was aim of Said to argue against this kind of essentialism. To be clear: Western Orientalism works only, if Arabs believe in their arabism. But in truth there is no such an essential base. Middle Eastern societies are infuencing European ones and backwards. So, there is not such a thing as "cultural purity".

May you have a look to the "Journal of Democracy" (just google it; its the first link). There is an article from Boroumand & Boroumand in which they try show how orientalism or occidentalism can work as a critice of the own society. In short: 1. To study the other is also an act of self-constitution. 2. Only the study of the "enemy", as you call it, enable a critic beyond polemic platitude. The western regimes rape humans rights, as also others. I think it is more fruitful to argue against this crimes.

A last point:
If we say, there is a lack in western knowledge about arab societies and cultures, who is going to tell them how they works? Western journalists, scientist or politicans?


Maysaloon said...

Hi Gregor,
I think you misunderstood me, I never said that the West was an "enemy", though it can seem that way based on certain countries' foreign policy. Also, I don't think anybody hear mentioned anything about maintaining some notion of "cultural purity".

You are also right about Said's notion of Orientalism and I'm well aware of his warning not to push for an equal "Occidentalism" of some sort. I think you've misunderstood the essence of this article, which is not actually centered around Orientalism at all.

My main objective was to highlight an issue we find with some Arab students who travel to Europe and America for an education in social sciences or politics, and end up studying "their own countries" rather than explore other fields or regions. That is really the point of the discussion.

However, Said's quote which I included on Israel having many institutions dedicated to studying Arabs was indeed a warning for many in the Arab world not to remain closed and to at least know what it is they are up against, for Israel is indeed an enemy of the people in the region.

Gregor said...

you're right. After mis-reading your post and comments, I became angry. And when anger is streaming the mind, there's no chance anymore to follow the discussion.

If there is something like a "self-ghettoization" (I'm not in the position to confirm or reject this conclusion), doing research into Western politics, cultures and so on, widens the field acting. And it can force a change in the West concerning Western politics and the western self-perception.

Maysaloon said...

It was Yoda who said "Fear leads to Anger. Anger leads to Hate. Hate leads to suffering".

Who are we to argue with a little green dude wielding a light sabre?