Edward Said on Bernard Lewis

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.”

Orientalism[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.

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17 Responses to Edward Said on Bernard Lewis

  1. Whyvert says:

    Another interpretation: Said’s real but esoteric teaching is ultra-Orientalism. He pretends to attack Orientalism, but secretly affirms the truth of ultra-Orientalism. And he is correct to do so!

    He says: “revolutionary stirrings among “the Arabs” are about as consequential as a camel’s getting up, as worthy of attention as the babblings of yokels.”

    Very insightful. It has proven remarkably true.


    • Geoffrey Cooper says:

      Indeed, remember the great feelings of hope hope all around the world when the ‘Arab spring’ first kicked off? Look at it now, it took mere weeks for it to descend into shabby tribal, clan and sectarian gangster-ism. Every time Arabs (and other Muslims) insist upon being taken seriously and treated with respect, they almost immediately return to their most abject stereotype. Orientalism my ass – and to think half of western academia was taken in by this nonsense for decades!


      • Khalid says:

        This is not limited to Arabs. LA went into anarchy when the Police withdrew from the streets. Lewis is a con artist who gains from denigrating the Arabs and other ethnicities to glorify Zionism and colonisation.


        • Joel Thorne says:

          Try reading your Koran: In it, Allah is a “Zionist” 5:20-21, 17:104. As for colonization, Arabs and Muslims specialize in that, colonizing the Middle East from their Arabia homeland.


  2. dearieme says:

    The Spring is sprung
    The grass has ris’
    I wonder where the Arabs is.


  3. Tom Barson says:

    Controversies live on to the degree the disputants write well. Fun, on that score, to revisit this one.

    A factoid. Immanuel Wallerstein (I think in Volume 4 of “The Modern World System”) has described Classicists, without irony, in terms reminiscent of those Lewis uses in his riposte to Said. I couldn’t follow him on that one – but now I think I’m going to read it again. I’ll bring it back here if it will add any fuel to this fire!


  4. IDO says:

    Really? Said’s argument is insane only because he accuses a professor of referring to how revolutions are dubbed by the Arab language with establishing a petty, independent sovereignty and -not coincidentally- mentioning a camel? I am sorry, but that’s orientalism at its best.


  5. Alex says:

    ‘…but most reasonable people should find Said’s textual “analysis” of Lewis’s paragraph…’
    I wouldn’t read too much into ‘most reasonable people’.


  6. Geoffrey Cooper says:

    Said attacks Lewis for (apparently) implying that ‘the Arab is scarcely more than a neurotic sexual being’ and then launches into the most extraordinary rant about masturbation, foreplay and coitus interruptus (did YOU think this was what Lewis was trying to imply?) which rather excruciatingly seems to suggest that perhaps Lewis WAS onto something rather along the lines of what Said imagined. I’ve doubt I’ve ever encountered a more succinctly embarrassing example of academic ’emperors new clothes’ syndrome.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. A physician friend who treated Edward Said had the theory that Edward was such an intelligent and sensible person that his books only makes sense if they are seen as wartime propaganda (all being fair in love and war), deployed in some one-man war he was waging in his imagination against Western power…they are not meant to be some sort of fair and balanced account of actual orientalism or the orient or history.
    I sometimes feel my friend was on to something. Though obviously this does not explain what all the other postmodern geniuses were trying to accomplish.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joel Thorne says:

      Said, an Arab, wasn’t sufficiently intelligent to have been fluent in Arabic, unlike Bernard Lewis who was fluent in Arabic, in addition to his fluency in Hebrew, Persian, Turkish, Ottoman Turkish, which most modern Turks aren’t fluent in, classical Latin, German, French…and I’m leaving out a few other languages. Thus, Lewis, the Orientalist, read and understood the Arabic historical sources. Ironic.


  8. ~ says:

    But in what clinical framework do you make that diagnosis?

    The lovely irony of your ‘reading’ is that it recreates one of the very characteristics identified and criticized by EWS in the Orientalist tradition, and of shoddy, clique-ridden academicism more generally. The insanity of the passage is self-evident to the sane and the ‘sensible’ (your deployment of this word reeks of age and sexual frustration), and thus needs no elucidation, since anyone who does not see it can be only insane and / or insensible. No difficulty either in spotting the tonal discord of the ‘hilarity’ claimed in the opening paragraph and the poorly concealed vitriol of what follows the extract.

    Those genuinely interested in the pursuit of knowledge can, and will, read the rest of the chapter and locate Said’s comments on Lewis within a broader psychoanalytic reading of the erotics or the psychic constitution of Orientalism. The rest can rant about the woes of ‘theory’ which they have not read.


    • Dear Edward Said Revividus,
      You needn’t worry. You were not institutionalised in this life, and in the hereafter there is no sanatorium for ghosts.


      • ~ says:

        Dear Pseud,

        Do your sensible people, perchance, have any Venndiagrammatical overlap with Thatcher’s decent people? The ones Brexiting, Trumping, &c as you converse with phantom / phantasmatic interlocutors who will readily admit to their own nonexistence?

        Saidification: flattered! Twitter timeline guest appearance: delighted! Recurrent giveaways of your own hermeneutic mediocrity: no need, really!

        Yours beyondthegravely,



        • My sensible people are all neoliberal globalist cosmopolitans. But it is unsurprising that you should engage in such licentious free association.


    • Anonymous says:

      Are you talking to me about something trivial I wrote two years ago and making insulting personal attacks on what you presume to be my age and sex life. At least I’ve got one and I’m guessing I’m younger than you pseud. If you have not got anything either interesting or pleasant to write then please desist.


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