quotes When the Orient lost its ‘mojo’ and left the West confused

14 March 2022
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Updated 15 March 2022

When the Orient lost its ‘mojo’ and left the West confused

Like the character Austin Powers from “The International Man of Mystery,” Edward W. Said projected the “mojo” of the Orient. Powers had charm, tradition, little self-discipline and above all an abundance of potency. He had “mojo,” and so does the Middle East. Said was at the right time and in the right place.
Twenty-five years ago, my encounter with the guru of “Orientalism” took place. I remember quite vividly the Bostonian cold wind shear that hurled me through the revolving doors of Copley center. Of all the “isms” in the world, Said was known and one might argue created by the “ism” of his origin and its baggage: The Orient.
Born in Palestine, educated in the US, writing as a Western Elite, Said was an intellectual and an activist. He contended anti-colonial writers and played music with an Israeli pianist (Said was at the forefront during the second Palestinian intifada, photographed throwing stones at an Israeli armed force). And most certainty at times he was shaken but not stern. Said by far remains controversial for the Western taste, but he is equally admired for his skills as a writer and thinker.
Said shared his views of the vibrant, diverse and politically turbulent time of the Arab’s  19th and 20th centuries. He painted a colorful portrait of the global banquet of culture and religion like no other. And he projected this Oriental “mojo” brilliantly in his acclaimed book titled “Orientalism” (1978).
As I settled into my seat I could hear the tunes of the bar musician playing the piano. A brief mutual greeting followed. Afterwards I attempted to emphasize my knowledge of Said’s personal interest away from social sciences and literature. A young kid from Saudi Arabia, aka the Orient, wanted to make an impression. I told Said that I, too, play the piano.

Edward Said breaks up the theoretical, presumptuous and continuous effort of Western orientalists that encourages Easterners to be judged by Western standards.

Tariq F. Zedan

He gazed at me from behind his half-gray colored beard and smiled, then continued eating his peanuts. I am pretty confident his undeclared thoughts were, “Another victim of Orient as an imitation West!”
In his book, Said takes the reader on a three-chapter mind ride that is both food for thought and deconstructive of preconceived notions. If you skip to the last chapter titled “Orientalism Now” (my favorite part) you will find the sub-category “To see the Orient as an imitation West.” In this part, Said breaks up the theoretical, presumptuous and continuous effort of Western orientalists that encourages Easterners to be judged by Western standards. Put simply, Said deplores this notion and describes the modern Orient as “falling for the bait.”
In his book, Said also makes it clear that he is focusing on Arab societies of the Middle East and North Africa. Today that is problematic. People living in this vast area do not subscribe to a similar mindset. Thus, the definition of Orient becomes relative. Said was widely regarded as an expert on the tumultuous relationship between East and West. However, I still find the definition of Orient (with and without “ism”) troublesome.
People of the riparian Levantine have different mindsets towards issues of security and governance than those living along the Nile river. We have two distinctive mindsets created by a natural resource: Water. In the Levantine landscape, the mind construct created by water is constantly challenging the need of a central government, as opposed to the Nile, which embraces ideas of central authorities.
For example, the people living in the Lebanese mountains get their share of rainwater by the grace of gravity, not the leader. A village on the mountaintop cannot stop water flowing to the village downhill. This force creates an independent mindset toward notions of state and citizenship, which explains in ways the abundant number of leaders in the tiny country of Lebanon. No need for one leader, but multiple leaders. For the right of survival is granted not provided.
The narrative is flipped when it comes to the River Nile. The water of the Nile flows from the south of Egypt down to the Delta area north. The design of this oriental terrain dictates a need of a manager to protect the flow from stopping. This manager whether a “Pharos,” a “general,” or even a “Caliphate” must attend to the motion of the river Nile.
Simply put: In Lebanon power is collected through political or sectarian alliances; Egyptian power is projected by the Army.  In my view, the term “Orient” should be revised as frequently as political change occurs, especially after the events of the so-called Arab Spring. Contradictions of the Arab public response differed starkly.

Tariq F. Zedan is a writer and analyst of public policy and international affairs.