Rethinking Edward Said's 'Orientalism': An Interview with Charbel Dagher

Elie Chalala.

Charbel Dagher, a professor at Balamand University, Lebanon, has been an active and prominent voice on the Arab cultural scene, mainly in the fields of  poetry, Arabic language, and Arab and Islamic arts. In Islamic arts, Dagher published several major works which have received high praise from diverse groups of critics in the Arab world. His long list of publications on Islamic art (all in Arabic) include “Islamic Art in Arabic Sources,” “Mazahib al-Husn: a Lexicographical-Historical Reading of Arab Arts,”  “The Arab Painting: Between Context and Horizon,” and “Art and the East” (two volumes in a book). In his latest, “Art and the East,” Dagher raises serious methodological and theoretical questions about Edward Said’s “Orientalism.” Through this interview, which was conducted in Arabic and by phone, I asked Dagher about the limitations and criticisms leveled at Said’s “Orientalism.”


Chalala: It appears that you are breaking away from Arab and Islamic discourse when you say that any serious study of the Orient should start from Orientalist discourse. Can you spell out the major limitations of Arab/Islamic discourse which have led you to dismiss it as the main source for studying the Orient?

Dagher: Edward Said will not find a methodology in old Arab/Islamic literature to assist in understanding the discourse of the West on the East. Thus my problem with Said is simply methodological, focusing on his approach. Said’s approach is based on a confrontation between the West and the East. Were one to be governed by the logic of such confrontation, the suitable discourse on criticizing Orientalism should come from the East. In practice, Said uses Western methodology to criticize Orientalism.

I take issue with Said’s reliance on Western discourse to criticize Orientalism. I consider the methods developed in the West valid for us as well as the Orientalists. These methods are useful and effective analytical tools, and the fact that Said himself employed them to criticize the Western discourse illustrates my point. Had he returned to major Arab scholars like Ibn Khaldun, or Al Farabi, or classical Arabic texts like Ilm al-Kalam, he would not have been able to offer such a serious and in-depth criticism of Orientalism.

Chalala: You identify a set of differences between you and Said, which are evident mainly in his book, “Orientalism.” A key issue that separates you is the time period of Orientalism. Orientalism for you started in the 15th century, while for Said it began with Napoleon Bonaparte’s Campaign in Egypt and ended with World War II. What is the significance of this difference, and what does a period of 200 years add to our knowledge of Orientalism?

Dagher: Certainly, I differ with Said on the time period, as you mentioned in your question. By the 15th century, the Europe of today had already emerged in the world – Portugal, Spain, France, Holland, and Britain. During the 15th century they added new discoveries, namely the New World. Hence, the world during the 15th century, including America, was a sphere of competition, conquest, and the acquisition of natural resources like gold.

During the same period, the Ottoman Empire was the dominant power in the East. Europe was unable to penetrate and dominate it because the East was highly developed and superior. In light of this, Europe’s entry into that world was influenced by curiosity, especially by its interests at the time: the desire to seek knowledge for cultural and developmental purposes.

The subsequent period Said studied was quite different from the earlier. By the time Napoleon invaded Egypt, Europe had become more powerful and was capable of dominating the East. This was possible because the Ottomans, primarily in some of the areas they dominated, had begun to grow weak and even paralyzed. This explains how Bonaparte easily invaded Egypt and defeated the Mamlouk armies. 

Said chose to begin with Napoleon’s Campaign because he wanted to emphasize the relationship between knowledge and domination. Had he started before Napoleon’s Campaign, his theory would not have been convincing.  He ended his study of Orientalism by WWII for different reasons, linking the United States to the Orientalist project started by Europe. I believe that the Orientalist project reached its peak of success in WWI, when Britain and France and others were able to dominate vast territories of the Ottoman Empire. As the Ottoman Empire neared its end, the Western and European model of the East began to be presented in Eastern countries themselves. In WWI, the Western model reached its peak of ambition, as Eastern countries started to adopt the Orientalist discourse about themselves.

Chalala: You are critical of Said for excluding the German Orientalist school in his study of Orientalism and argue that this factor has denied scholarship the positive contributions of this school. What are some of these positive contributions?

Dagher: Said’s theory is based on the notion of ascribing knowledge to interest based on domination. This approach applies very much to both the British and French schools, but of course does not apply to the German school or even parts of the Russian school. Said dealt with Orientalism eclectically, choosing parts of it to substantiate his assumptions. Had he covered other Orientalist schools, his theory about the European discourse on the East would have found partial rather than complete validations. The German school, for example, was particularly interested in investigating old Arabic texts.

This school had met considerable success; its accomplishments are respected and widely referred to in Arab culture. I teach at a university and was taught at a university, and I know of colleagues throughout the Arab world who accept the studies of the German school without any doubt of its academic value. They do not hesitate to use those studies in universities throughout the Arab world. Meanwhile, we find ourselves forced to review carefully most of the studies produced by the British and French schools about the East. We do this because these studies contain substantial distortions about the East, propagating judgments and assumptions which are misleading, incorrect or incomplete.

Chalala: Is this true for all historical periods of the German school?

Dagher: Yes, it applies to all the periods because the German school, or Germany, did not have imperialist designs on the East. In the research for my book “Art and the East,” I found some German expansionist interests – or designs on the East – during the 14th century. But these were few and isolated cases. In the absence of a colonialist policy, Germany’s culture was confined to studying and investigating texts.


In my book I attribute this discipline to the Protestant tradition in Germany, a tradition influenced by the efforts of Martin Luther, who inspired the efforts to translate the Bible from Latin to German. This led to the establishment of a German school based on respecting the manuscripts through the process of examination and translation. The East and the Eastern texts benefited from the policy of carefully examining manuscripts.

Chalala: You disagree with Said over the relative weight of text and history when you claim that Said gave importance to the text over history. Can you clarify this point and give us some examples?

Dagher: Said’s preference for the text over history is attributed to his influence by the early writings of Michel Foucault, namely his early book “Words and Things,” published in 1966. To avoid any confusion, we should note that Said was influenced more by the early than the late Foucault, because the late Foucault had adopted a different approach (Of course, since Said’s Orientalism” was published in 1977 it could not have shown an influence by late Foucault). Foucault’s earlier book “Words and Things” ignored history in favor of the texts; his readers found no reference to what was occurring outside of the texts Foucault was studying. Said in “Orientalism” was not as strict as Foucault in neglecting the historical factor. Still, Said gave considerable importance to the texts, while ignoring the historical context reflected in the books of the time.


The problem of Said’s approach to analyzing the texts is clearly evident in the following examples. French intellectuals or Orientalists who studied the East had worked for their government most of the time either as state employees, sent as part of excavation and research missions, or enlisted in the colonialist government in Algeria. British Orientalists, however, had been more independent from their government than their French counterparts. They tended to be members of scientific and other professional associations which were quite autonomous from the government. Thus, the distinction between the professional roles played by Orientalists is a key to understanding Orientalism. Unless we understand this, for example, we cannot understand much of the colonialist policies of Britain and France. 

To sum up, Said treated all texts equally. What do I mean by that? He treated, for example, a narrative text by Flaubert in Egypt the same way he treated a political speech by a British minister in the House of Commons – or an archeological text. As linguistics and the theory of discourse tell us, these texts are different: different in their compositional nature, goals, and subjects. A narrative can be based on either facts or fiction. Political speech, for example, is based on immediate and effective influence. Without going into much analysis, these three types of texts – literary, political, and archeological – are different. To be accurate in our research, we cannot treat them equally, as Said does. A study of Orientalism ought to place the study of the texts within the historical processes that moved the obsession, the quest for domination, which was demonstrated by Europe, particularly France and Britain, in their relationships with the East.

Chalala: How do you analyze the texts on art in your book, the “Art and the East?”

Dagher: In my book, I distinguish between three issues in every text about art. The first is what we call the informative, i.e. the information about the East: here we can accept the information, amend it, or invalidate it. If the Orientalist says Al Jahiz was born in a specific year, we have the options to accept this date, correct it, or dismiss it. We cannot claim that the Orientalist discourse is mistaken, incorrect, or misleading in its entirety. The informative element has contributed to our appreciation of many German texts.

The second issue is descriptive. The process of description is also subject to truthfulness or falsification. For example, if someone described the Umayyad Mosque in an incorrect way, we can correct the erroneous description The third issue, however, presents the major problem in the Orientalist discourse about art. This element is the evaluative, i.e. the process of judging the information.

The evaluative is an opinion, and cannot be right or wrong. Here we find essential differences between the Orientalists and the Easterners. What an Easterner views to be beautiful, the Orientalist may deem otherwise. Most differences between Arabs and Orientalists lie in the evaluative process; we see different interpretations, judgments, and opinions. Consider that today when we open any dictionary about the East, we find immense information about this writer or that, this mosque or that church, or a classic art book; all this information, in large part, are the fruits of the Orientalist works on the heritage of the East.

This information is accepted in dictionaries and books for it can be subject to either validation or falsification. We accept these facts without any question. Our difference with the Orientalists lies in the evaluative and judgmental processes – in the assumptions, ideas, perceptions, and misperceptions which govern our attitude toward things. In this very area, the views of the Orientalists diverge from those of the Easterner regarding his art, literature, or culture.

Chalala: Before his death, Said had his detractors, from the left and the right, with some progressives claiming his writings amounted to an apologia of Arab conservative forces. Do you see your criticism as a part of either of these two schools?

Dagher: I neither tackle this issue in my book nor conclude that Said is an apologetic of Arab conservative ideas or states. I believe that Said’s major efforts are critical, and he is a genuine critic with whom I disagree but nonetheless share the same critical tradition. In my research, I have benefited from his work, and I have full respect for him.

I do not place him within any reactionary or progressive tendencies in the Arab world. I was aware of the fact that certain groups in the Arab world, especially conservatives and fundamentalists, would use Said’s discourse to establish a demagogue justification for their positions toward the West. Fifteen years ago, I wrote a major article about Edward Said in the Al Hayat newspaper, in which I warned against such use of Said’s writings because it distorts his thought. However, Said fell into what I think is the trap of identity. I do not believe there is an identity issue, rather there is a relationship with things that develop and change. The Easterner is not Eastern in nature, he is different from the others.

In Said’s writings, it is implied rather than explicitly stated that there is some truth in the Eastern alone, and the relationship of the Westerner to the Easterner is always a distorted one. This is the confrontational relationship that I reject. My rejection of this dichotomous and hostile relationship between the East and the West is neither based on politics nor on ideology. Instead, I base it on knowledge and science.

I believe that the Orientalist discourse of the East has benefited us in many ways and that without openness to Western and European methodologies, we would not be able today to reread our past culture and read our present one. Accordingly, I deal with these methodologies in a way that motivates me to use them in my research and develop them, if I am able, and that’s what I tried in my book.

I relied on a group of scholars — Americans, British, and French — to present methodological issues which can be developed and made suitable to studying the Orientalist discourse on the arts of the East. In short, there is no identity outside man, work or movement; no truths in identity. Two Easterners would debate identity and differ – there is no one truth in the Easterner or the Westerner for that matter. There are simply opinions on identity which differentiate one from another.


This interview appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 10, no. 48 (Summer 2004)

Copyright © 2004 by Al Jadid

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