Robert Irwin’s “Dangerous Knowledge”

the_scholar10.63x8.5in_oilpanelRobert Irwin’s Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and its Discontents (Overlook, 2006) is a spirited refutation of the late Edward Said’s magnum opus Orientalism. The book chronicles the history of Oriental studies in the West, arguing that practitioners of this trade were not mere agents of imperialism or a demonizing conspiracy, but rather scholars who labored over their studies in good faith. He holds no punches when it comes to tearing down the “Orientalists” Said presents as representative of western scholarship of the Near and Middle East, particularly de Gobineau and Renan. He argues that Said is unlikely to have even read the work of “genuine” Orientalists, instead picking out patently racist and un-scholarly writers from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, along with various other figures irrelevant to Orientalist work. Here he has a point, as Said’s book indeed over emphasizes popular and obscure literature over actual scholarship. Irwin is at his strongest in elaborating on German, Russian and other non-Anglo-French scholarship that was prolific and influential in the field, though almost wholly ignored by Said.

Irwin’s work additionally serves as a biographical survey, a sort of historical dictionary of Orientalists from the European Middle Ages through to the present. In cataloging the personal histories, eccentricities and politics (or non-politics) of various European and Americans scholars, Irwin seeks to rebut Said’s claim that Orientalist scholarship (“old-fashioned,” as he calls it) is the result of the imperialist enterprise, complicit in and reliant on European power and domination of non-western societies. The characters Irwin pulls out are diverse and fascinating and some more a part of the colonial project than others. But that Orientalism’s roots do lay solely in colonizing activity, but rather in an assortment of religious causes (missionary and the desire to better understand the philology of the Bible, in the case of many Germans), intense personal interest, and so on is manifestly clear from Irwin’s narrative, especially in that his history of the subject extends quite far back (to the late Middle Ages). He is quick to call the work of de Gobineau, Renan, Lemmens racist, anti-Islamic and pseudo-scholarship — as he should be — and to emphasize that Said’s lasting influence has been to conflate these figures with well meaning and hard working scholars whose interest in their subject was no born out of a desire simply to make devils out of Muslims and Arabs or justify their oppression through myths of western supremacy. He succeeds in arguing that the image Said paints of the Orientalist tradition is flawed and inaccurate. Overall, the book does what it intends to do and does so with a clear statement of purpose and mission. Three cheers for clarity.

When it comes to modern Orientalism, Irwin’s tale is more troublesome. For instance, he has little negative to say of looming figures like Bernard Lewis or Elie Kedourie. He references Said’s criticism, and that of his sympathizers, but has none of the spirited deconstruction he reserves for those from earlier in the twentieth century. Indeed, his treatment of Kedourie in particular is dreadfully superficial and brief. Kedourie is perhaps one of the most overlooked historians of the modern Middle East; unfortunately so, for he was among the first to apply training in political science to the study of the region in a stalwart way. Not only this, but he is unique among modern scholars for his perspective, shaped by his [Arabophone] Jewish upbringing during the collapse of the Iraqi monarchy. The precarious perspective of the embattled minority informs his worldview and approach to political studies. Deeply skeptical of nationalism, including its Zionist iteration, Kedourie has been lambasted for his skepticism of Arab nationalism and sympathies with Israel, which certainly became apparent in his later writings in Commentary and other popular periodicals. But Kedourie’s worldview is far more nuanced than Lewis’s, and Irwin does it little justice beyond platitudes and fails to scrutinize it. Not only does Irwin fail to offer little more than one can find in Martin Kramer’s generally useful biography of the man, but he fails to open up his actual worldview, which is easily far more engaging and interesting than Lewis’s, on whom Irwin, like Said, spends much time (to be fair, Lewis is certainly the more broadly influential of the two, although Kedourie’s Nationalism remains as influential as Gellner’s or Hobsbawm’s work on the same subject). While he summarizes Lewis’s criticism of Said, along with other prominent scholars — Albert Hourani, Maxime Rodinson and others among them — he simply mentions that Kedourie had “at one point or another” criticized Said’s work, while giving nothing of the character of Kedourie’s critique. Again, we do not read anything of Kedourie’s dated outlook on certain parts of the world; as late as his 1970 “Introduction” to Nationalism in Asia and Africa we can read Kedourie describing African politics as “rightly called primitive” (pg. 29) and educating readers on the troubles of “oriental despotism” as early as 1962 and as late as the 1980s. It is arguable that this was acceptable till at least the late 1960’s, but afterwards Kedourie refused to revise the framework within which he understood authoritarianism in the Middle East, a mixture of “Oriental despotism” and European bureaucracy conspiring to hamper efforts at liberal government. But as is said in Piterberg’s review of his 1992 Politics in the Middle East (Middle East Report, No. 191, Nov.-Dec., 1994), Kedourie’s “is a particular brand of Orientalism,” in which it is not the import of western ideals and systems that renders positive “progress” in the Arabo-Muslim world. Kedourie contends that this influence has simply made illiberal government more efficient and more durable. He shows a continual nostalgia for the classical “Oriental” forms of toleration, which he identifies with the classical Islamic and especially the Ottoman periods, writing with contempt as he traces the often destructive legacy of European exclusivism from the imposition of a single religion throughout the Roman Empire, the persecution of Iberian Jews and Muslims, onward to the mantra of cuius regio eius religio, up through the development of nationalist doctrines and their export to Asia and Africa where he believes European ideologies did untold damage to traditional societies, imposing upon them a uniquely European kind of intolerance (pg. 33 of Nationalism in Asia and Africa). He is pessimistic about the universalism of democratic government, not for individuals but for societies, often taking swipes at “Europocentric” presentations of the prospects for the triumph of liberal democratic governments in the Arab Middle East, and suspicious of western attempts to lecture to easterners on the nature of their identity, not out of a belief in eastern inferiority but out of a sense that such efforts were doomed to produce more harm than good.

Certainly, Kedourie wrote with searing contempt on multiple subjects and historical actors; many reviews took this as contempt for Arabs and Islam, but this does not bear out over much of his writing as it is clear that he holds Islamic and Arab social and political traditions to be superior alternatives to western imports in their own settings recognizing that “Europe is not the world” and that the then colonized peoples had the makings of viable government within their own settings (pg. 29-30, Nationalism in Asia and Africa). It is a fascinating perspective that raises important and interesting questions that is not given proper space in Irwin’s narrative. A critical study of Kedourie’s life and work has yet to be completed, for most of it is either dismissive (as can be seen in Rashid Khalidi’s writing) or highly laudatory and uncritical (as in the memorial edited volumes put out after his death, and those by Ephraim Karsh); this is especially true of his views of Israel and Zionism, which evolved over time, and it was possible for him to write nostalgically of the Alliance Israelite Universelle schools, of which he was product, while noting their early opposition to Zionism as a matter of principle (“The Alliance Israelite Universelle, 1860-1960,” in Arabic Political Memoirs and Other Studies (1974)), and to claim “Palestinian Arabs — together with the oriental Jewries,” as “the hapless victims” of the struggle between the Arab states and Israel (“The Middle East and the Powers,” pg. 6 The Chatham House Version). His later articles showed a greater attachment to Israel, though. In any event, other important “Orientalists,” including Albert Hourani, Falzur Rahman, Philip Hitti (who is for some curious reason always given a short, if any, mention in appraisals of western Middle East scholarship, though as has been written here before, he wrote splendid classics) and various others are not treated with due space, especially as recent, twentieth century scholarship is concerned.

Another, similar, problem flows from this short treatment: his characterization of A. L. Tibawi’s ruthless criticism of western writing on Arab and Muslim subjects merely glosses over the actual content of Tibawi’s often razor-sharp demolitions of what he saw as improper interpretation or bad faith. Tibawi’s trifles with Kedourie’s readings of the Husayn-McMahon Correspondence — a rather significant disagreement as contemporary journal articles, reviews and correspondences attest (see M. E. Yapp’s review of Tibawi’s Anglo-Arab Relations and the Question of Palestine, 1914-1921, in The Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 41, No. 3, 1978) — is left unmentioned, though the reader is treated to a reduction of Tibawi’ss brutal review of The Chatham House Version and other Middle Eastern Studies to anti-Semitism or petty grumblings. While it is obvious from Tibawi’s work on the Husayn-McMahon correspondence that he scornfully ignores Kedourie’s significant work on the issue, mentioning it only indirectly, the nature of the dispute carried actual substance (see Tibawi’a Anglo-Arab Relations and the Question of Palestine, 1914-1921 and Kedourie’s In the Anglo-Arab Labyrinth: the McMahon-Husayn Correspondence and its Interpretations, 1914-1939). Irwin paints a picture of a bitter Anglo-Palestinian, hostile to Kedourie’s Jewish roots (and this cannot be ruled out if one is to describe his sentiments, as one can find evidence of this in his reviews of Kedourie’s work, but it is incorrect to boil down the entire character of his work to this) and his a bileful dislike for European treatments of Arab nationalism and Islamic history. The author writes that Tibawi “at several points suggested that non-Muslim scholars should steer clear of discussing what were matters of faith,” but offers no citation for this claim. He falsely claims that Tibawi “does not actually name the book in question” when he compares The Chatham House Version and Other Middle Eastern Studies to the Nazi screed Der Weg zum Reich in his 1971 review of Kedourie’s famous collection of essays (pg. 321). Indeed, Tibawi does not “seem to be referring to,” The Chatham House Version, as Irwin renders — he is most certainly doing so, as dubious and hyperbolic that comparison may be (see Tibawi’s review, from which this episode is taken, in Middle East Journal, Vol. 25, No. 1, Winter, 1971).

One does not get a sufficient summary of his views or the strength of Tibawi’s scholarship, even in the context of his searing take downs of western authors, one instead reads through a list of surely amusing quotations, taken out of context from his critiques of western writers and Irwin offers no sense as to precisely what direction these angry quotations were originally fielded. In all, his treatment of Tibawi, whose work is not only underrated but in some places masterful and still relevant, treats the scholar’s work as “masterpieces of unintentional comedy,” that “sometimes hit the mark, though more by luck than design,” and his tone is condescending without grace. But if one is to assume that Dangerous Knowledge was written in good faith, this is because the book’s concluding chapters were either rushed or cut for space, as the brevity and simplicity of the book’s last pages suggest. The reduction of certain scholars from the second half of the twentieth century to caricatures leaves the end of the book wanting and appearing unfortunately similar to the negative elements of Orientalism. But in the case of others, such as the fine Moroccan writer Abdallah Laroui, Anouar Abdel-Malek he is correct to extol their efforts and in the case of Zaiuddin Sardar’s useless book, also called Orientalism (1999), he is right to mock and brutally dissect shoddy history and chronology.

Though throughout Dangerous Knowledge Irwin appears uncertain as to whether Said wrote Orientalism in “good faith,” oscillating back and forth between admiration for the man’s personage and principles and contempt for his mass following that was predicated on an expertise he did not posses. By the end of the book, Irwin “cannot believe” that Orientalism was “written in good faith”. One is left to wonder whether the author’s periodic fawning over the eminent Said is out of political correctness or simply wishing not to write entirely ill of a fellow he claims as a friend. In any case, Dangerous Knowledge is worth reading, by students in particular. It succeeds in restoring a sense of scholarly tradition to Near and Middle Eastern studies but will not please those who approach the field from ideological vantage points. It refreshing to hear a clear and well organized rebuttal to Said’s work, though Irwin commits some of the same errors one sees in less convincing rebuttals from the acolytes of Lewis, Kedourie, et al. which is to shower uncritical praise the Orientalists Said attacks, using them as representations of flawless scholarship and their trade at large. Indeed, Irwin has amassed a strong collection of scholars that better represents Middle Eastern studies than Bernard Lewis; the obsession with defending his legacy, as consistently scholarly as his earliest works may be, he nevertheless has reduced the quality and amped up the role of ideology in his most recent writings for mass consumption and to push the views of a powerful set. A defense of good and useful scholarship, which Orientalism is not, and which Dangerous Knowledge purports to be, should readily admit where the field has failed and where it stands proud and present it as it is. Time will tell what comes of the increasingly tiresome and decreasingly relevant debate over Orientalism, and Irwin’s book, though not timely, is an important contribution to the conversation.

See pages 384-385 of The Chatham House Version, where Kedourie scolds Toynbee for equating the European and Middle Eastern “middle class,” which Kedourie argues are of different socio-economic character; and pg. 369-370 where Kedourie essentially accuses Toynbee of a kind of racism for holding the the mixing of races and development of lingua francas, as a consequence of imperialism, as “symptoms of the process of social disintegration,” among imperial peoples, charging that if not for this process English and Arabic would not be world languages for “innumerable people received these languages [writing of English and Arabic] as a result of conquest or commerce or migrations and have learnt to speak them with ease and elegance, and to . . .  express the most elusive ideas, and the most complex and evanescent feelings,” clearly taking this view as a kind of xenophobia (what he calls linguistic “nativism”), clearly referring to himself and others for whom English was not the first language, rejecting Toynbee’s view of language as “deeply harmful and pernicious”. Kedourie usually painted things political with all the bad and only glimmerings of the good.


27 thoughts on “Robert Irwin’s “Dangerous Knowledge”

  1. I saw Irwin a few weeks ago and we talked about this. He has no problem with Said’s works on Palestine, etc., but does have a major problem with Orientalism as is made clear in this book. Perhaps that’s why he wants to make clear that he respects Said other scholarship, but not Orientalism and its followers.

    Your review is excellent and very detailed, but I wonder if you give too much emphasis to the debate over Kedourie. Irwin’s chief aim was to discuss the “old-fashioned” orientalists that have long fascinated him. He probably knows the modern ones less. But I agree with your take on Kedourie: a very problematic writer, of course, but at times greatly enjoyable as an exponent of a conservative political philosophy. Note also that Kedourie relegation (largely) to classes on nationalism is perhaps also a product that his academic career was not classic, and his work at times highly idiosyncratic (and old-fashioned, almost Victorian).

    I highly recommend Irwin’s other work, btw, including his novels (esp. The Arabian Nightmare and Exquisite Corpse), his great book on the Nights (and the new translation he edited) and a slim volume on the Alhambra I am reading at the moment having just returned from Granada. He really is one of the most interesting Orientalists (I think he would wear that title proudly) of our times.

  2. You write : ” Irwin is at his strongest in elaborating on German, Russian and other non-Anglo-French scholarship that was prolific and influential in the field, though almost wholly ignored by Said”

    Indeed, all the critics of Said keep using, again and again, this argument that Said overlooked the German orientalists and that therefore we could dismiss Said’s arguments.

    But they conveniently forget that Said’s objective was not to make a review of all work produced by Orientalists of various nationalities but only to show that Orientalists could easily become tools in the hands of governments bent on building and sustaining an empire.

    France and Britain were the main colonial powers in the 19th and 20th century and they relied heavily on orientalists.

    German orientalists were better disposed toward the Arabs, Muslims and Asians, and Germany never had a real colonial empire.

    Therefore, the “German orientalists” argument actually serves Edward Said’s theory rather than undermine it.

    PS. In interviews given after the publication of his book, Robert Irwin made a fool of himself when he recycled the old argument (invented by extreme right wingers like Pipes) that Said did not know Arabic. This canard has been put to rest by some of the most renowned arabic writers who confirmed that Said’s classical arabic was very good and that he spoke fluently both the Levantine dialect and the Egyptian dialect.

    • Francois:

      I did notice an article by Irwin in which he suggested that Edward Said may not have been able read Arabic well, and I have wondered about that myself, since he so rarely cites Arabic sources or reviews or discusses Arabic books that have not already been translated, so I would welcome references to the writers you mentioned who stated that Said read Arabic with some ease. Thanks.

      • G. Stergios,

        Novelist Elias Khoury, poets Adonis and Mahmoud Darwich have confirmed at several occasions that Said’s arabic was quite good. He felt more comfortable writing in English obviously, but he read Arabic on a daily basis and lectured in Arabic at various conferences.

        Actually, Said originally read Naguib Mahfouz’s books in Arabic, and he is the one who convinced Jackie Kennedy Onassis to translate Mahfouz into English (she was an editor at a NY publishing house (Doubleday I think)

    • Germany most certainly did have a colonial empire in Africa and the south Pacific and even an enclave on the coast of China, if I am not mistaken. Togo, Samoa, etc.
      Moreover, Kaiser Wilhelm tried to take a position as Defender of Islam. Note his statement about Morocco circa 1900 and his alliance with the Ottoman Empire in WW One.

      Unlike what your views seem to be, I consider Germany’s alliance with the Ottoman Empire to be a stain on Germany’s record in that the Second Reich closed its eyes to or even collaborated in the genocide of the Armenians. The German army’s experience in observing or taking part in the Armenian genocide may have prepared it for executing the Holocaust.

  3. If Irwin’s view on Said’s “other scholarship”, in particular on “Palestine,” is as “Arabist” says it is, then it would seem that Irwin is not being logically consistent. After all, if Said worked in a deceptive, dishonest and/or unscholarly way in Orientalism, then why would his works in the field of Middle Eastern studies, such as his book Covering Islam, be any different?? Or his book, The Question of Palestine, for that matter?

    Francois’ claim that Germany did not have “a real colonial empire” is a bit much. What about Kamerun, South West Africa and Tanganyika and various south Pacific islands, etc?? The Russians took over vast Muslim inhabited areas of Central Asia and the Caucasus –and never gave them up until the fall of the Soviet Union, only about one generation ago. Indeed, tens of millions of Europeans were settled –colonized– in Uzbekistan, Kazkahstan, etc. The Russians did not have to cross a sea to get to those places. Does that make Russian –including Communist– colonization more acceptable for that reason??

    Then was the imperialism and colonization practiced by Arab and other Muslims more acceptable –or not really imperialism at all?? Joseph Schumpeter, the sociologist, thought that it was imperialism in his book of the same name.

    When are imperialism and colonialism not imperialism and colonialism?

    Then Francois calls Daniel Pipes an “extreme right winger.” Isn’t it possible to debate or polemicize with someone without invective like “right-winger” or “left-winger”, let alone “extreme”?? Is it “right wing”, for instance, to point out that there is a great deal of capital controlled by people in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Dubai, etc.??

  4. Eliyahu: I don’t see any contradiction in saying that Said was dishonest in Orientalism but OK elsewhere… authors don’t need to be consistent across the line, they may get some things right, and have an ax to grind elsewhere. And you’ve certainly got a point regarding German imperialism – the Germans were in a constant rivalry with other European powers in the Orientalist field, and very much shared the same ethos of codifying “primitive cultures” and ancient civilizations. Look for instance at the rivalries between German Egyptologists and others in the 1920s. As for Daniel Pipes, he is an extreme advocate of Likudnik ideas more than anything else, as well as anti-Muslim (I don’t see how you could describe his campaign against a Muslim school in New York in any other way.)

    Francois: do you have a link to the interview you mention?

  5. If Daniel Pipes, who made several racist comments on record, (“dark-tanned smelly people threatening western civilization…”, who said that he was “elated” by Avigdor Lieberman, if this guy is not extreme right, who is extreme right ?

    Arabist, here is the rebuttal :

    And one cannot reasonably compare the French and British overextended empires (and the army of orientalists that accompanied the Empires ever since Bonaparte’s 1978 Egyptian expedition) with the few German colonies and the German orientalists most of whom remained confined to the academic sphere.

    As for the Russians, well they behaved in Muslim regions they occupied the same way they behaved in Christian regions they occupied. Kundera described the process. It has to do with Russian autocracy and expansionnism. There is no acceptable imperialism and no acceptable colonization, but it cannot be compared with Western European imperialism. Peter the Great and his successors until Putin never spoke of “mission civilisatrice”. It was a pure and simple Machtpolitik that was completely devoid of the “bringing freedom to the oppressed” rethoric and of the usual “benevolent empires” mumbo-jumbo. Very brutal but less hypocritical.

    If there is a dishonest academic it is certainly Irwin and not Said. I would have understood had he accused Said of being too shematic, too radical in his thesis, not nuanced enough (even though I think Said needed to be radical and shematic because there was a need to violently attack and deconstruct centuries of fake preconceived ideas about the East.)

    But Irwin conveniently waited for Said’s death to attack him with insulting words, he purposely deformed what Said wrote, while pretending to support all of Said’s other political stances. I don’t know him personnally, but I heard several of his colleagues describe him as a first-class hypocrit desperate for media attention.

  6. Francois,
    Daniel Pipes did write that he was “elated” by Avigdor Lieberman’s maiden speech as foreign minister. See link:

    However, I find it dubious that Pipes uttered the quote that you attribute to him about swarthy people. And his compliment to Lieberman reinforces my doubt about the quote. After all, if you look closely at color photos or films of Avigdor Lieberman, you will find that he is a rather swarthy fellow. Indeed, he can be described as “dark-tanned.” So the remark that you ascribe to Pipes seems incongruous and quite dubious. Further, I will get personal, since one must in such a controversy talk about oneself. My mother’s father, born in what is today Belarus, was brown-skinned. As I remember him, he was about as dark as President Obama. My mother was described as “olive-skinned” and –in Yiddish– as “shvarts-kheyn’ivdik” [darkly attractive]. So I do hope that no one describes swarthy people in the words ascribed to Pipes. And I very much doubt that he said them. Can you, Francois, provide a reliable source?

    As to British and French imperialism supposedly contrasted with German and Russian, I find this rather a quibble. The Germans of that time certainly considered themselves quite superior to just about everyone else. The Russians had been at war for centuries with Muslim powers, including the Crimean Tartars. The latter had the habit –which may have annoyed the Russians– of raiding the lands of Ukraine,southeastern Poland, etc. for slaves. Did that justify later conquering the lands of those people? Maybe not but how aberrant the Russian behavior was in that case, is another matter.

    Now since you, Francois, abhor expressions of cultural superiority which you believe may be justifications for imperialism –quite rightly– then what do you make of the book The Arab Role in Africa, by Jacques Baulin [Penguin 1962]?? Baulin quotes a plethora of statements by Arab political authors, including Egyptians writing in the controlled Nasserite Egyptian press, that frankly express a cultural –and even racial– superiority to Black Africans and claim that Arab control of Black African lands would raise their cultural and/or civilizational level. It appears that Edward Said missed the capability of Arabs/Muslims to feel racial or cultural superiority. Was that short-sighted or ethnocentric of him?

    Now, I think it important to disagree with one of Said’s main claims or assertions. That is, that Western observers who went to Muslim lands and came back with unfavorable reports of the local mores and social orders, were serving imperialism and perforce were incorrect.

    But governments ordinarily want to know the facts, the reality, what is really happening. True knowledge is necessary for proper policy-making. Of course, governments often act on the grounds of prejudice and passions, in any case, no matter what knowledge they possess. But a truthful observer is not to be blamed for that.

    Then there is the question of whether all the British & French observers in the 19th century were serving or meant to serve their own country’s imperialism. How about Chateaubriand whom Said takes to task, as I recall? The French author was somewhat caustic about Arab-Muslim society. He hated Napoleon in fact. He did not come to the Levant to serve Napoleon, who was in power in his country at the time of his visit and still in power when his Itineraire was published. Was he merely prejudiced? Were none of his observations true, such as, for instance, his view of the forlorn, persecuted condition of the Jews in Jerusalem?

    Snouck Hurgronje did serve his imperial govt, the Netherlands. He lived in Jidda for years providing consular services to pilgrims from the Dutch East Indies [Indonesia]. When he wrote reports to his govt, was he lying to them about conditions? Didn’t Karl Marx in that same period depend on official British govt publications to help him formulate his theories? Were those publications altogether false?

  7. Eliyahu,

    I do not condone the attitudes that some arabs have toward africans and Said never condoned these attitudes. His articles published in arabic in Al AHram or Al Hayat were always very critical of these trends in some circles. At one of his latest conferences at the American University in Beirut, he excoriated Gulf Arabs and some Lebanese for their treatment of African and Asian maids or construction workers.

    He also criticized Marx’s orientalism, which led Arab Marxists like Aijaz AHmad to attack him

    He never said that writers like Flaubert or Chateaubriand were helping the imperial governments. He admired these authors and never said that they were wrong about everything. He merely pointed out that they had a tendency to essentialize the East and make sweeping generalizations. Some of them, like Nerval, were honest enough to admit that their Orient was an “imaginary Orient”, others did not and their readers were not informed that the Orient they were reading about was imaginary and not real.

    I quoted Pipes from memory. The exact quote was :

    “Western European societies are unprepared for the massive immigration of brown-skinned peoples cooking strange foods and maintaining different standards of hygiene…All immigrants bring exotic customs and attitudes, but Muslim customs are more troublesome than most.”
    (National Review, 11/19/90)

    Other racist Pipes quotes can be found here

    PS. Baulin was an advisor to some African potentates.

  8. Francois:

    Thanks for your quick reply. I had come across this reply from Said’s wife to Irwin, which in itself says alot:

    “He read the language with ease and was an avid reader of Arabic poetry. He lectured in Arabic, conducted interviews with the media in Arabic, and read the Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat daily. He could write in Arabic, although he had not been trained to do so, and had greater fluency writing in English.”

    If you have a similar link to Adonis, Darwish, Khoury discussing Said’s knowledge of Arabic, or the story about how he convincing Jackie Kennedy to publish Mahfouz, I would greatly appreciate it. At least, if you told me whether the source was in Arabic or English, it would make my search much easier. Thanks again.

    • I am not 100 % sure but I think the issue is tackled in this book.

      It was discussed at the Turkey conference but I am not sure all duscussions were transcribed in the book.

      As for Adonis, I heard him confirm Said’s fine Arabic in an interview he gave on French radio a few years ago

      Said mentions his relations with Jackie Kennedy and other US publishers in one of his articles. Don’t have time to look it up but it’s either in Reflections on Exile or in Power, Politics & Cukture (the interviews book edited by Gauri Wisvanathan). He mentions how an American publisher told him that he stopped translations because “arabic is a controversial language” !

  9. Francois,

    I understand from your response that Edward Said was aware of Arab feelings of superiority towards Africans and expressed his disagreement with this attitude in articles in Arabic. But it seems that he did not criticize this Arab attitude in English language publications. Is that a correct understanding on my part?

    • In From Oslo to Irak, you will find scathing criticism on various trends in Arab societies. These criticism led Tony Judt to argue that Said was too harsh on the Arabs and on the Palestinians. But he was too honest to remain silent about these issues.

      On African & Asian workers, I remember specifically a conference at McGill, (late 1990s) and a conference at AUB (2002), they are probably transcribed somewhere.

  10. Francois:

    Thanks. I will pursue this on my own now but send back to you whatever exact references I manage to find, in case this issue comes up again.

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