This year marks the 40th anniversary of Edward Said’s Orientalism, one of the most influential works of our time, and one of the most ubiquitous: scan the bookshelves of any liberal-arts major, and you likely will find the 1978 book with pride of place alongside such contemporaneous post-colonial classics as Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth.
Even those who’ve never opened Orientalism will be familiar with some of its broad themes, especially the idea that Western scholars have systematically denigrated the cultures of Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa with insulting stereotypes, depicting the Orient as an exotic “Other” full of backwards, mystical man-children. One sometimes even hears the word used as a verb or gerund — “othering” — as a means to attack arguments perceived to be Eurocentric.
The idea of the Other has become a laugh line among conservatives over time. (“Stop Othering me!”) But even right-wing critics should acknowledge that Said’s book offered genuinely valid critiques of the condescending way in which Western writers often depicted non-Western civilizations. These critiques took on a new urgency after 9/11, when it became common for Western pundits (some of whom had never set foot in an Islamic country) to casually write off the entirety of Muslim civilization as a misogynistic death cult that remains mired in the seventh century.
But Said’s critique of Western attitudes — like all strong forms of cultural and literary criticism — can be taken too far. He died in 2003, and so never got a chance to witness the rise of social media and today’s furious Twitter wars over word usage and cultural appropriation. The arguments in Orientalism now are being used to support allegations of Islamophobic ‘othering’ that even Said himself might find dubious, and perhaps even hysterical.
No better example could be hoped for than the teapot tempest surrounding Adam Valen Levinson, an affiliate of the Middle East Institute, and a Fellow at Yale’s Center for Cultural Sociology. After reading a selection of his work — including his new book, The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah: Fear and Love in the Modern Middle East — I would judge that he has all the reliably humane and vaguely leftist positions that one would expect from an intellectual whose work has appeared in Al Jazeera, Haaretz, and The Paris Review. Indeed, the main focus of his literature is the search for “cross-cultural understanding.” But he is also an American — and a Jewish one at that – and for many post-colonial culture critics, that is really the only thing that matters.
Valen Levinson’s troubles came to a boil when an excerpt from The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah appeared on Literary Hub, a prestigious (if niche) site that caters in large part to writers keeping up with the work of other writers. The excerpt gives a good flavour of Valen Levinson’s style: playful, ironic, self-deprecating. The action, such as it is, takes place on an Emirati flight out of Chicago. The gag is that Valen Levinson is fascinated with the Arab world, and has even learned Arabic well enough to speak the language conversationally — yet he’s still completely clueless about basic aspects of Arab culture:
“Juice?” said the pretty attendant in a pretty hat, balancing three glasses on a tray, two of them shades of orange.
“What’s the orange one?” I asked.
“It’s orange,” she said.
Later in the excerpt, Valen Levinson discusses his motivation for dedicating his life to understanding a culture and language that has no real connection to his roots or upbringing. Suffice it to say that he hardly comes off as a right-wing cultural warrior seeking to embed himself among the enemy:
9/11 had forced Arab and Muslim and Middle Eastern on to the airwaves—it was wartime with rhetoric to match, and the battle lines of our new enemies were painted with huge, clumsy brushstrokes. The attack had made us all forcefully self-conscious. We perceived them, assumed their perceptions of us, and then canceled all the flights to Beirut. But by learning the primary language of this region, some of us thought, we might be able to figure out what them were really thinking.
As I tell Valen Levinson’s story, I feel a bit like a broken record — not so long ago, I wrote an article for Quillette about a somewhat symmetrical saga involving a white Canadian writer who was pilloried for including a First Nations character in her novel. In that case, too, the author bent over backwards to demonstrate good intentions and generosity of spirit. But the outcome in both cases was the same: critics looked straight past the text and into the author’s white DNA.
Randa Jarrar, a Palestinian-American writer and translator, not only assailed LitHub’s editors for publishing Valen Levinson’s excerpt; she predicted it might even lead to the site’s collapse:
You guys actually published a man discovering and then whitesplaining Arabic and tossing in racist orientalist shit left and right. Bye. Arab American writers are talking shit about you and we will never stop. RIP Lithub. Hope it was worth whatever connection you made with some publicist at Norton [publisher of The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah].
Aaminah Shakur — a self-described “First Nations/Indigenous/Black …queer/Two-Spirit/non-binary, crip/disabled…self-taught artist,” wrote: “LitHub could publish actual Arab writers, but instead you publish insulting trash like this.” Other critics adopted more militant language—and more explicitly segregationist metaphors. “The settlers must be stopped and pushed back to where they came from,” one wrote. “We cannot let people who were not born speaking a language every write about this language. Stick to your own kind and write only about what you embody.”
So many critics piled on in the comments section of the LitHub excerpt that an English-language UAE newspaper, The National, ran an article about it. Scroll through, and you can see Valen Levinson accused of every thought-crime imaginable. In some cases, the criticisms are so strange that I was not quite sure if they were meant as satire. Several people, for instance, made much of the author’s observation that “the triangle of Abu Dhabi stuck out into the water like a slice of baklava.”
“Greek Baklava is triangle-shaped,” declared Fatima Khansahib. “Everyone knows baklava in the Middle East is either rolled or diamond shaped…Only a true orientalist would want to come to the Middle East with so much enthusiasm and would have the arrogance not to understand the complexities of what is an incredibly important cultural pastry.”
White privilege is writing a sentence as bad as “the triangle of Abu Dhabi stuck out into the water like a slice of baklava” and getting a book deal. https://t.co/pihTGjj1Wn pic.twitter.com/K4uP7ob5VD
— Tom Gara (@tomgara) December 10, 2017
As for Valen Levinson’s many years spent learning Arabic, this appeared to count for little. Perhaps less than nothing, in fact. “What right does this racist imperialist Jew have to write about the Arabic language and his experience of its culture?” one asked. “Arabic culture can never be understood by a non-native speaker and it is disgusting that people like this author would even attempt to do so…I think the likely reason is that Lithub like many organizations in the publishing business is run by greedy colonialist Jews.”
That last comment was posted on the LitHub site in December. When I saw it in mid-January, it surprised me that such explicit anti-Semitism would not have been purged by the site’s administrators (although the commenter did step back from the Jewish angle in a subsequent exchange). But to the extent the site’s editors were concerned, it was with Valen Levinson, not his critics — as they made clear with a craven apology appended at the top of the excerpt by Editor in Chief Jonny Diamond and Managing Editor Emily Firetog, so that it is now the first thing any reader sees upon opening the article:
The following excerpt from Adam Valen Levinson’s memoir should never have made it through our editorial process. Though the memoir in question recounts the writer’s dawning understanding of the orientalist gaze, and how corrosive it can be, in excerpting the beginning of the text without context, we let down our readers…The exoticizing language in any piece like this, the casual Othering, is not only a failure of literary empathy and observation, but it reinforces a toxic framework within which racism flourishes and power retrenches…We live in a precarious era of untruth and weaponized language, in which life and death is often a matter of the syntactical ‘us’ and ‘them’—so it is fundamental to our job as editors to be vigilant about the power of words to harm and dehumanize, and in this case, we failed.
Writing in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Palestinian-American poet and translator Fady Joudah grudgingly praised this act of contrition from LitHub, declaring it to be the sort of “peace offering the powerful often extend to the assaulted.”
— Fady Joudah (@FadyJoudah) December 12, 2017
But he also encouraged readers to make their own penance for America’s racist sins, urging them to respond to Valen Levinson’s excerpt by reciting a sort of rosary: “For each negative, stereotypical mention of anything Arab, say it, write it, seven times to erase the adverse effect: The Arab is beautiful. This is the kind of erasure you should practice. Stick with it long enough. You will see how it changes you. I’m Arab and beautiful!”
* * *
As overwrought as the criticism of Valen Levinson has been, I have tried to keep in mind just how sensitive many Muslims and Arabs are about the way they are treated in the American media. The United States is currently led by a president who has used his Twitter account and campaign speeches to spread demagogic lies and inflammatory conspiracy theories, and these have understandably stoked interfaith tensions and existing anxieties in the Islamic and Arab communities. Almost two decades after 9/11, there continue to be prisoners held at Gitmo, an arrangement that has led some to conclude that American protections against torture and indefinite detention without trial don’t apply to Muslims.
But Joudah’s denunciation of Valen Levinson — like the scathing comments about him that appear on LitHub — seems to willfully ignore the author’s intention to fight hatred, not incubate it. And though I am no expert on Edward Said’s theories, there seems to be a major difference between a humble, self-mocking hipster intellectual such as Valen Levinson, and the Arabist and Orientalist scholars Said attacked, or the colonialists who drew lines on maps and invented R-rated pulp stories about the sex lives of polygamous sultans.
“An argument used against Adam is that it is intellectually impossible and morally reprehensible to write about other peoples that are not your own,” says Wisam Alshaibi, a fellow at UCLA’s Center for Near Eastern Studies who is studying the de-Ba’athification of Iraq. “I understand where this reaction comes from—there is a long, troubled history of colonial travel writing and anthropology, that continues into the present, that made racialized subjects out of Arabs, and many others. Adam, however, did no such thing. He was writing from the point of view of a young Jewish American learning Arabic and all its subtleties — thus connecting on a human level with the very people he likely grew up learning were his enemies.”
As is typically the case in all sorts of online dust-ups of this nature, the Muslim and Arab voices that denounced Valen Levinson on LitHub were not necessarily representative of broader community attitudes. It’s notable, for instance, that when Valen Levinson was interviewed (in Arabic) on a U.S.-based satellite TV channel, Alhurra, the conversation was a completely friendly exchange about the dangers of travelling in the Middle East, what it’s like to work in Abu Dhabi, and navigating Arabic’s many dialects.
When I ask Alshaibi (whose family came to the United States from Iraq and Palestine) what Said might have thought about the Valen Levinson controversy, he tells me that “the young Said probably wouldn’t care — if you remember in Orientalism he argued that there is nothing wrong with trying to understand the Middle East” (though he also added that “the older Said was kind of a reactionary and prone to polemics” — so who knows).
As for Alshaibi’s own take on orientalism, he feels it is Valen Levinson’s critics who are the more retrograde party in the LitHub dispute.
“Take one example from the comments that I think is typical of the others,” he tells me in our email exchange. “‘What right does this racist imperialist Jew have to write about the Arabic language and his experience of its culture?’…That comment was astonishing to me — because my guess is that its author would call themselves anti-imperial and anti-racist. However, note the deep contradiction, which is that, according to this statement, both Jews and Arabs are totally determined by their culture. This is what we call racial essentialism, an imperial and colonial way of looking at identity through and through. The irony here is that the commenter is calling Adam a ‘racist imperialist’ while actually recycling an old orientalist trope — that ‘Arab culture’ is somehow fixed and homogenous, and impenetrable to all but Arabs themselves.”
This irony is entirely at the expense of Valen Levinson’s critics. For it is Valen Levinson — the ‘racist imperialist Jew’ — who seems to be earnestly seeking cross-cultural knowledge and understanding, while it is his detractors — and even his editors — who seem intent on slapping away his outstretched hand.
Jonathan Kay is a Toronto-based author, columnist and reporter whose articles have appeared recently in The Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, National Post and the Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @jonkay