“Other,” a quite ordinary word, means something completely different to those who identify with the regions represented by Other Collective, including West Asia, Central Asia, South Asia, North Africa, and their diaspora communities.
To these peoples, “Other” is reminiscent of forces that box in our identities. One literal example is how certain demographic surveys have clumped our innumerable and diverse identities into one neat category called “some other race.” It defines a region not by its many unique communities, but by simply being not Western. Different. Opposite. Other.
A pivotal moment in the evolution of “Other” identity came with Edward Said’s book Orientalism, in which he coined the term “Other,” sparking a legacy that would alter academic thinking forever.
Written in 1978, Orientalism describes how the East is viewed as “the Orient,” an “other” world, by Europeans. This divide created by the West between “civilized” cultures and the many stereotyped “uncivilized” Eastern cultures served many colonialist purposes throughout history, and has continuously been used to justify colonial and neo-colonial goals. Said writes, “European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self.” Said argues that Orientalism functions as a “system of knowledge” about the East, a way for the Orient to be acceptably filtered into Western consciousness.
Moving from his birthplace in Mandatory Palestine, under British colonial rule, to Massachusetts to attend boarding school, Edward Said was subsequently educated in top American universities Princeton and Harvard, later becoming a Professor of Literature at Columbia University in 1963. Said’s education in the Western tradition caused him to feel some alienation from his own culture back home. He wrote in his memoir “Between Worlds” (1998), “I found myself becoming an entirely Western person; both at college and in graduate school. I studied literature, music and philosophy, but none of it had anything to do with my own tradition.”
Considered “exotic” amongst his colleagues who often misunderstood his identity, Said’s alienation from his own identity grew until the Arab world became centerstage politically in the United States during the Six Day War in 1967. As a result of the Six Day War in 1967, Said did not hesitate to voice his opinions on political events occuring in the Middle East and American media’s cultural representation of the region. Said emerged as a strong critic of the way Middle Eastern people were represented in the American media, which he argued was ignorant of the region’s diverse and complicated history. The result of which became Said’s 1968 published work “The Arab Portrayed,” which discusses the stereotypes and misunderstandings of Middle Eastern populations – specifically Jews, Christians, and Muslims – in the media landscape.
Assuming the role of both Westerner and Arab, Said’s bicultural identity presented itself in his literature. Said writes, “by the mid-Seventies I was in the rich but unenviable position of speaking for two, diametrically opposed constituencies, one Western, the other Arab.”
In 1979, Said published another influential piece of literature, “Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims,” in which he acknowledges the Zionist argument for Israel, by tracing its complex history and connections to colonialism, in addition to arguing for the Palestinian right of self-determination. Said’s ability to observe and recognize conflict from multiple points of view stems from his bicultural upbringing and gives him greater latitude as a writer.
An important argument Said makes in Orientalism is the indivisibility between the aforementioned hegemonic structure and all kinds of academic study such as philology, history, and political and economic theory. These tangible and influential areas of study served as platforms to further Orientalism’s reach as a tenet of colonialism. Said writes that Orientalism is “a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts.” Orientalism isn’t simply a school of thought passively reflected by society and academia, nor is it these texts alone; rather, Orientalism is the interaction and connection between the two.
Said calls out to his readers in the “so-called Third World” and hopes Orientalism will help bring to light the power of Orientalist discourse from the West. He states, “My hope is to illustrate the formidable structure of cultural domination and, specifically for formerly colonized peoples, the dangers and temptations of employing this structure upon themselves or upon others.”
No article such as this one could do justice to Orientalism itself; this piece has only aimed to highlight Orientalism’s most influential and far-reaching tenets. Edward Said’s thinking revolutionized how the world thinks about “Other,” and forced academia to question the ways in which they structure their discourses based on colonial power structures and challenged them to take a postcolonial approach to all the disciplines that Said argued worked to advance colonialist intent.
Edward Said later said in his memoir that through Orientalism he “tried to uncover the longstanding, very varied geographical obsession with a distant, often inaccessible world that helped Europe to define itself by being its opposite.” Orientalism became the backbone of “dis-orientalist” discourse in academia and larger culture to fight back against the oppressive history written against Eastern cultures. Other Collective’s mission statement stems largely from Said’s push to de-orientalize the prolific Western view of each region our organization represents in order to reclaim identities for both the indigenous and the diasporic communities.
The community behind Other Collective seeks to provide a platform for those people to define and express themselves on their own terms. This exact form of self-determination is an instrumental part of what Said pushed for, and we honor the work of people like Edward Said who paved the way for our voices to be heard.
Katz, Cindi and Smith, Neil. “An Interview with Edward Said.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, no. 21 (2003): 635-651. Accessed March 12, 2019. DOI:10.1068/d2106i.
“Edward Said Archive.” Edward Said. Accessed March 12, 2019. http://www.edwardsaid.org/.
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.
Said, Edward W. “Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims.” Social Text, no. 1 (1979): 7-58. doi:10.2307/466405.
Said, Edward W. “Between Worlds.” London Review of Books 20, no. 9 (1998): 3-7. Accessed March 12, 2019. https://www.lrb.co.uk/v20/n09/edward-said/between-worlds.
By: Ingrid Rosenthal