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Saturday, August 10, 2002

Right Said Ed

This is an account of a lunch with Bernard Lewis, author of (among other things), What Went Wrong. I bought this book the other day but haven't cracked it.

It's just the interviewer and Lewis (except for the brief visit by Thomas Friedman), and they talk on the things you might want to talk to Lewis about. They talk about Edward Said. And then they talk about this...

In agreeing to an interview, Lewis...had warned me he would be reluctant to discuss the experience of being a Jewish scholar of Islam, and of being a Jew in a field traditionally dominated by ardent Arabists, because he was saving those reflections for a memoir.

This is interesting to me because of a dumb proto-argument I had with a colleague in Australia which made me think a lot less of him. I had watched part of the movie Kismet the night before. This is an MGM musical from the 50s, set in some mythical Arab kingdom. It has gorgeous colorful costumes and sets, comedy, and dancing girls. It also has a very sugary romantic take on slavery, corruption, misogyny, sex, and brutality. I won't condemn it for that, I just found it very interesting, and I'm sorry I didn't get to see the whole movie. I'm sure it also insults Islam up one side and down the other (unintentionally).

Anyhow, the next day at work I mentioned the movie to this one fellow---I forget why now---and said that I wondered if Edward Said had ever seen it. Surely it would make his head explode. (Said developed the theory of Orientalism, which, if I understand it properly, basically says that Westerners studying the Middle East have created some dream/nightmare Middle East, which they then react to, rather than the real Middle East. This seems to me to be a fairly likely thing to happen for the members of any culture studying the members of any other culture, so perhaps I have this wrong. I gather that Said considers the Western view of the Middle East---which includes not just fools like me but Western experts as well---to be somehow uniquely and dangerously wrong. In any case, I thought Kismet was a wonderful example of pop Orientalism.)

This led my colleague to tell me he could tell me anything I needed to know about Orientalism, because he had studied Said, etc etc etc. And for some reason I brought up the incident with Said throwing rocks and then lying about it. My colleague said that Said probably had to lie about it, because Middle Eastern studies were dominated by Jews, and if his colleagues found out he was so sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, not only would his career be ruined, but his personal safety would be at stake there on the campus of Columbia University, which is full of Jews.

I was aghast. For one thing, I thought it damned odd that any controversial scholar would want to keep his controversy quiet. I would have thought that orthodoxy, in these days, required challenging the orthodoxy. In any case, it's just a bit late for Said to keep his pro-Palestinian views quiet. And then there's a little point, as revealed in the Jeff Jacoby article cited above, that Said himself turned the photograph over to AFP. My colleague had no explanation for that one. But he did have an explanation for Said's lying about being a Palestinian refugee: Said was speaking for an entire people, he said, many of whom really were refugees. What did it matter if it was not actually Said who was one of them?

Remember, kiddies, a few lies do not matter if they are in the service of the Truth. And if the Truth is made up entirely of lies, then that's OK, because it's still the Truth, you see. This is the Truth an intellectual is bound to speak to power.

I was cold to my colleague---with whom I'd had disagreements, but only on professional matters---for days, though I'm not sure he noticed. I was having trouble digesting the nasty implication of the vast (violent) Jewish conspiracy menacing poor Said. And now, if Lewis's interviewer is correct, it isn't even true that most scholars of the region are Jewish (or if they are, they are pro-Arab Jews).

I look forward to Lewis's memoir.