Orientalism

Edward Said’s work, Orientalism (1978), came to my mind during this week’s readings and lectures. This book is basically on the history of this field of study and Said further comments on the concept of knowledge. Said uses historical texts to examine the evolution of the concept of Orientalism where the only theme that seems to remain unaltered is the, “separateness of the Orient, its eccentricity, its backwardness…a locale requiring Western attention, reconstruction, even redemption (p 206).”

As anthropologists we know and understand the dangers of ethnocentrism and can look back at earlier written works, many analyzed by Said, and appreciate that the views in them have changed drastically and scholarly works written today are no longer tainted by our personal lens and bias (as much as possible). However, the same ethnocentric view was the rationale behind the colonial acquisition of artifacts and antiquities discussed in class and in our textbook which has physical consequences. As Ethan pointed out in class, the “legal” ownership of these large Egyptian antiquities has become a major issue between Egypt and European countries. It is difficult to look back at that time period and appreciate that views have changed and proper archaeological excavations have replaced digs for treasures while we still have those ‘treasures’ sitting in our museums.

I understand and appreciate that by having these Egyptian antiquities in museums young minds can be inspired and future archaeologists born, but is it ethically right to keep them? Couldn’t those same minds be inspired by a special exhibition that travels to those same museums for short installments of time? In some way when Egyptian officials ask for their national artifacts back and the Western world refuses, aren’t we still reinforcing to some level the mentality of colonialism under which these artifacts were usurped?

I know that this issue is much more complex and politically charged than I am discussing it here, but I also feel like there are several compromises and solutions that could be reached to alleviate this tension as well as reconnect the ‘Orient’ to the rest of the world.

Said, E. W. (1978). Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.