Sunday, August 24, 2014

Adam Shatz, Edward Said, and kufiyas

Adam Shatz, contributing editor at the London Review of Books, recently published an excellent essay ("Writers or Missionaries?") in The Nation that, among other things, took on the critique of Orientalism that Edward Said launched in the late '70s, and that continues in full force in academic studies of the Middle East. I first met Edward Said in 1977 and met up with him several times since then, in Austin, Ithaca, Egypt...I've read and absorbed and taught much of his work and and used it extensively in my own. And yet...I find what Shatz has to say about where it has evolved, into a kind of orthodoxy, to be quite salutary and bracing, and needed. (And I'll be teaching parts of Said's Covering Islam in class this week.)

And yes, it mentions the kufiya, in the context of Palestine solidarity.

"Writing about the region, never an easy undertaking, is likely to become still more difficult. I am not sure whether the most influential current of oppositional thinking about the Middle East is equipped to deal with the changes the region is undergoing. I am referring to the critique of Orientalism that Edward Said initiated. This style of thinking was formative for me, but I fear that it has congealed into an orthodoxy; and, as George Orwell wrote, “orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.” That we are now able to have a more open conversation about Palestine, that students are mobilizing against the occupation, is welcome; but Palestine is not the Middle East, and it seems peculiar, if not myopic, to talk about Palestine as if it were insulated from the rest of the region. And while it is understandable that young American students are particularly concerned about their government’s policies in the region, these policies do not wholly determine its shape and direction. America’s power in the Middle East has weakened, though not in favor of forces that most of us would consider progressive. Today, we are witnessing a tacit alliance of Israel, the military regime in Egypt and the Gulf states—particularly Saudi Arabia—against Iran, with which the United States, in conflict with its own regional allies, is seeking rapprochement. The latest Israeli offensive in Gaza is a measure of how marginal Palestine has become to the agenda of Arab states...

Today, it seems to me, Palestinians are for the radical Western left what Algerians were for Third World–ists in Vidal-Naquet’s day: natural-born resisters, fighting not only Israel but its imperial patrons, as much on our behalf as theirs. That is the role assigned to them in the revolutionary imagination. Like the kaffiyeh worn by anti-globalization protesters, this Palestine is little more than a metaphor. Palestine is still “the question” because it holds up a mirror to us. “Too many people want to save Palestine,” one activist said to me. But it could just as well be said that too many people want to be saved by Palestine...

Enormously liberating when it was developed, the critique of Orientalism has often resulted in a set of taboos and restrictions that inhibit critical thinking. They pre-emptively tell us to stop noticing things that are right under our noses, particularly the profound cleavages in Middle Eastern societies—struggles over class and sect, the place of religion in politics, the relationship between men and women; struggles that are only partly related to their confrontation with the West and with Israel. Indeed, it is sometimes only in those moments of confrontation that these very divided societies achieve a fleeting sense of unity. The theoretical intricacy of academic anti-Orientalism, its hermetic and sophisticated language, sometimes conceals an attempt to wish away the region’s dizzying complexity in favor of the old, comforting logic of anticolonial struggle. Anti-Orientalism will continue to provide a set of critical tools and a moral compass, so long as it is understood as a point of departure, not a destination. Like all old maps, it has begun to yellow. It no longer quite describes the region, the up-ender of all expectations, the destroyer of all missionary dreams.

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