Orient Obsess: A Lackluster Look at Americans Abroad

By Young, Michael | Reason, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Orient Obsess: A Lackluster Look at Americans Abroad


Young, Michael, Reason


American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East Since 1945, by Douglas Little, chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 424 pages, $34.95.

IN HIS BOOK The Dream Palace of the Arabs (1998), the Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami took a page out of Edmund Wilson's Patriotic Gore (1962) in closing a chapter by describing a son as a coda to his departed father. Wilson did it with Tom Sherman, who epitomized the psychological pathologies of Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. (Tom became a Catholic priest, to his father's enduring regret.) Ajami did it with professional basketball player Steve Kerr, whose tenacity on the court replicated that of his father, Malcolm, a Middle East specialist who was president of the American University of Beirut (AUB) when he was murdered in January 1984.

Few Lebanese saw anything seminal in Kert's death, let alone pondered its meaning in the context of well over a century of U.S.-Arab relations. Lebanon's on-again, off-again war was then in its ninth year, and the loss of this scion of patrician American missionaries was regarded as just another tragedy in a series of similar outrages, though unusual for having infiltrated the sheltered world of the AUB.

For Ajami, however, the murder represented much more. He described Kerr's death as that of "an intimate stranger," born in Beirut" in the very hospital where he was pronounced dead" an American who had sought to understand and address the Middle East on its own terms, and who could do so in its own language. Like Wilson, Ajami saw something transcendent in the contrast between father and son, a generational rupture that spoke to the complexities, moral and political, of the worlds navigated by the fathers. In Kerr's case, a world that devoured him.

Douglas Little, in American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East Since 1945, provides a practical, competent overview of American relations with the Arab world, but one that will leave you in search of either drama or meaning. Little, a history professor at Clark University in Massachusetts, is good at chronological exposition, has blackened many a note card, and boasts a hefty bibliography. Yet the outcome is a book that will make you marvel at how someone could tackle such an enthralling subject and make it sound so flat.

The title doesn't help. Whenever the word Orientalism is used, people on all sides of the Middle East studies divide reach for their pistols. They will safely pack them away upon scanning Little's tome, however. He never really uses the term in an interesting way, in part because his definition is anemic: American Orientalism, he argues, is "a tendency to underestimate the peoples of the region and to overestimate America's ability to make a bad situation better" One suspects that even the late Edward Said, who famously developed the concept of Orientalism in a 1978 book of the same name, would wince: "What of the nexus of knowledge and power creating 'the Oriental' and in a sense obliterating him," Said might well sneer, citing himself.

Yet there are aspects of the book well worth examining. Little opens with a chapter on America's cultural alienation from the Arab world, where he makes the valid point that perceptions of Arabs in the United States lag far behind those of other ethnic groups in terms of sensitivity. American popular culture is shot through with appalling stereotypes of Arabs and Arab-Americans, though Little's path to this revelation is much too dependent on his reading of National Geographic, which he foolishly treats as the primary vessel for establishing American attitudes toward foreign cultures.

Little falters also in overlooking those sympathetic Americans--missionaries, academics, and diplomats--who sought to explain the Arab world to their countrymen. They were the ones who set up educational institutions that trained generations of Middle Easterners, who made understanding the region a cornerstone of their lives, and who, like Malcolm Kerr, paid a high price for embracing cultural ecumenism. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Orient Obsess: A Lackluster Look at Americans Abroad
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.