(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

As a Palestinian educated at Princeton and Harvard universities, Edward Said was bound to confront representations by Western scholars of his culture of birth. He read numerous patronizing characterizations of “the Arab mind” and of Islam as a monolithic phenomenon. He read a leading European scholar’s reference to Arabs as people who could not think straight. Von Grunebaum saw in Islamic civilization “anti-humanism” and in Arab nationalism a lack of “a formative ethic.” Said read a report by an American State Department expert, in a 1972 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, asserting that “objectivity is not a value in the Arab system” and that “the art of subterfuge is highly developed in Arab life, as well as in Islam itself.” What troubled Said was not that stereotypes were part of contemporary American popular culture but that there seemed to be a tradition and institutionalization of them in scholarship. The special history of the Palestinian people vis-a-vis the Zionist movement, the establishment of the state of Israel, and the aftermaths of the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973 made Said’s concerns both intellectual and political issues. That Said’s profession became university teaching at Columbia University and literary criticism impelled him to respond to the issues through an investigation of scholarly writing on the subject and combine the fruits of his own research with polemic purpose.


(The entire section is 564 words.)