Just quoting my favourite unintentionally hilarious passage from Said’s Orientalism.
On pages 314-5 of his famous book Orientalism, Edward Said, a scholar of English literature, quoted a passage from the Middle East historian Bernard Lewis. He then ‘analysed’ it immediately afterward :
[Said quoting Lewis from the essay “Islamic Concepts of Revolution” collected in Revolution in the Middle East and Other Case Studies ] :
“In the Arabic-speaking countries a different word was used for [revolution] thawra. The root th-w-r in Classical Arabic meant to rise up (e.g. of a camel), to be stirred or excited, and hence, especially in Maghribi usage, to rebel. It is often used in the context of establishing a petty, independent sovereignty; thus, for example, the so-called party kings who ruled in eleventh century Spain after the break-up of the Caliphate of Cordova are called thuwwar (sing. tha’ir). The noun thawra at first means excitement, as in the phrase, cited in the Sihah, a standard medieval Arabic dictionary, intazir hatta taskun hadhihi ‘lthawra, wait till this excitement dies down—very apt recommendation. The verb is used by al-Iji, in the form of thawaran or itharat fitna, stirring up sedition, as one of the dangers which should discourage a man from practising the duty of resistance to bad government. Thawra is the term used by Arabic writers in the nineteenth century for the French Revolution, and by their successors for the approved revolutions, domestic and foreign, of our own time.”
[Said comments on the above] The entire passage is full of condescension and bad faith. Why introduce the idea of a camel rising as an etymological root for modern Arab revolution except as a clever way of discrediting the modern? Lewis’s reason is patently to bring down revolution from its contemporary valuation to nothing more noble (or beautiful) than a camel about to raise itself from the ground. Revolution is excitement, sedition, setting up a petty sovereignty—nothing more; the best counsel (which presumably only a Western scholar and gentleman can give) is “wait till the excitement dies down.” One wouldn’t know from this slighting account of thawra that innumerable people have an active commitment to it, in ways too complex for even Lewis’s sarcastic scholarship to comprehend. But it is this kind of essentialized description that is natural for students and policymakers concerned with the Middle East: that revolutionary stirrings among “the Arabs” are about as consequential as a camel’s getting up, as worthy of attention as the babblings of yokels. All the canonical Orientalist literature will for the same ideological reason be unable to explain or prepare one for the confirming revolutionary upheaval in the Arab world in the twentieth century.
Lewis’s association of thawra with a camel rising and generally with excitement (and not with a struggle on behalf of values) hints much more broadly than is usual for him that the Arab is scarcely more than a neurotic sexual being. Each of the words or phrases he uses to describe revolution is tinged with sexuality: stirred, excited, rising up. But for the most part it is a “bad” sexuality he ascribes to the Arab. In the end, since Arabs are really not equipped for serious action, their sexual excitement is no more noble than a camel’s rising up. Instead of revolution there is sedition, setting up a petty sovereignty, and more excitement, which is as much as saying that instead of copulation the Arab can only achieve foreplay, masturbation, coitus interruptus. These, I think, are Lewis’s implications, no matter how innocent his air of learning, or parlorlike his language. For since he is so sensitive to the nuances of words, he must be aware that his words have nuances as well.
Now, there are things one can can criticise Bernard Lewis for, but most reasonable people ought to find Said’s textual ‘analysis’ of Lewis’s paragraph… insane. Those who don’t find it insane mark themselves out for what they are — not sensible.
The inability to distinguish the perceived (or just hallucinated) ‘subtext’ from the prima facie meaning of the text is endemic in certain sections of the humanities, especially those quarters under the sway of ‘critical theory’ and ‘post-colonial studies’. And Said’s Orientalism has a lot to answer for in transmitting this particular malady of the ‘cultural turn’ amongst historians. .
By the way, Orientalism provoked a famous acrimonious debate between Said and Lewis in the pages of The New York Review of Books. Cf. Lewis’s commentary and Said’s and Lewis’s exchange.