Irwin vs. Said

Confession: I am a huge fan of Robert Irwin, the very erudite Middle East editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Not because I know him or have worked for him (I wish!), although in this small word of Middle East journalism and commentariat I obviously know plenty of people who do. (They say he's nice.)

I like Irwin mostly because of two books of his that I count, in their respective categories, as some of the best I've ever read. The Arabian Nightmare is dark, trippy fantasy written in the style of Edgar Allan Poe (if he had been an arabist and on acid), while his The Arabian Nights: A Companion is an indispensable guide to any serious lover of the Nights. Both are written in a rather difficult prose, and the second can be especially tough in parts, but they are very rewarding if you put the time and effort into them.

His latest work, Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents, appears to be more in line with the second. It is a basically academic text on the Orientalist tradition in Western letters, focusing mostly on the British, French and German in the fields. As anyone who has done Middle Eastern Studies or dabled in the field at all, these early Orientalists, who were often wonderfully eccentric characters who produced very serious scholarship, are now mostly known for their reputation as agents of empire than their work. Irwin apparently attempts to restore their reputation and refute the idea that these men are inherently suspicious because of their (possible) association with colonialism in the last three or four centuries.

From what I've been able to put together from the three reviews that I've seen so far -- one new but predictably second-rate in the NYT, an excellent one from May by the ubiquitous Christopher de Bellaigue in the Times Literary Supplement and an equally excellent and more critical one in the London Review of Books back in June -- the book tells the story of the Orientalists, their lives, their manias, their unusual lifestyle choices. But the big controversy about the book is that it takes on Edward Said's Orientalism in one of its final chapters, attacking its many mistakes and, more generally, Said's (alleged) unfounded political agenda in giving the orientalists a bad name. The reviews argue Irwin makes a convincing case that Said was at least partly wrong, but doesn't really address the links between imperialism and colonialism or quite deliver the fatal blow to the theoretical behemoth that Orientalism has become.

I won't say anymore until I get hold of a copy of the book (and re-read the relevant passages of Orientalism -- by the way, while I admired Said's advocacy work, I was never a big fan of his most of his (sometimes stultifying) writing style or the amount of political bile he could work up against people who didn't really deserve it. But I know I would look forward to any book by Irwin, and can't wait to read this one.

Buy it from the link below (or any of the links above) and arabist.net gets a cut!

"Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents" (Robert Irwin)
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.