Orient Obsess: A Lackluster Look at Americans Abroad

Article excerpt

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. …