Surveying the Middle East as Sacred Geography
Daniel Martin Varisco
My two fears are distortion and inaccuracy, or rather the kind of
inaccuracy produced by too dogmatic a generality and too
positive a localized focus.
—Edward Said, Orientalism
BEFORE THE EAST HAD A MIDDLE, or even nearsighted and far-fetched stretches, it was in principle a convenient relational marker for a world in which some directions were more significant than others. There was nothing absolute about it; as in all perspectives, the view to the east depended on where one was looking from as much as at the object of one’s gaze. Of course, as literary critic Edward Said reminded us in his seminal polemic Orientalism, it also depended on what one was looking for. For Said, an Anglican Palestinian who wore his crossing-the-border east-to-westness proudly on his rhetorical sleeves, the “Orient” was “almost a European invention.”1 In a loose Foucauldian sense, a discursive tradition that “can accommodate Aeschylus, say, and Victor Hugo, Dante and Karl Marx” is easily imaginable as an easterly ill-wind of the will to dominate given that many men and women looking east considered themselves superior.2 Rhetoric aside, a shared and power-prone notion that can cross so many centuries, languages, and political contexts must be wholly a European invention, even a phantasm, for how else can it be justified as a unified Western gaze at an inferior Eastern other?
Said’s Orientalism thesis, which has achieved sacred status in a secular, literary sense, has received extensive countercriticism even by admirers of the overall thrust of his argument.3 This criticism centers on two fundamental stumbling blocks that fall out of Said’s polemical excess. First, his notion of Orientalism lacks a worldly orientation to the ways in which historically real others in a knowable geographical space have represented themselves. As numerous postcolonial writers have cautioned, there were voices crying out in that discursive wilderness, even if Said chose not to