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Occidentalism, Making England Western - Edward Said Memorial Lecture - Saree Makdisi

“Occidentalism: Making England Western,” Edward Said Memorial Lecture by Saree Makdisi
October 29, 2013, Oriental Hall, AUC Tahrir Square

On Tuesday, November 29, 2013, The American University in Cairo presented a lecture in memory of Edward Said.

The lecture was given in Oriental Hall at the Tahrir Square campus, and more than 100people attended the event.

Since Said passed away, The American University in Cairo has honored him annually by inviting distinguished professors whose lives he touched to give lectures in his memory.

Past presenters of the Edward Said Memorial Lecture include: David Damrosch, Barbara Harlow, Cornel West, Terry Eagleton, Judith Butler and John Carlos Rowe.

This year’s Edward Said Memorial Lecture was delivered by Said’s nephew, Professor Saree Makdisi.

Saree Makdisi is a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has published several books, including: Romantic Imperialism: Universal Empire and the Culture of Modernity (1998), William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s (2002) and Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation (2008). The topic of this lecture was Professor Makdisi’s forthcoming book, Making England Western: Occidentalism, Race and Imperial Culture, which will by published by the University of Chicago Press later this year.

Makdisi cites Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism as an inspiration for his own work, explaining that Said’s work was premised on the belief that the imperial capital was, in character and wealth, the opposite of the colonial spaces that the empire controlled. Makdisi contends that contrary to this belief, in the nineteenth century most of London bore more resemblance to the colonies than the center of an empire. In other words, England was not what would today be called a "western” country; England had yet to occidentalized. Makdisi posits that in nineteenth-century England an internal occidentalism and occidentalization were the necessary correlates of an orientalism and orientalization. That Orientalism would eventually be directed exclusively at the outside, but only when the inside could be sufficiently distinguished from the outside.

Makdisi uses the literature of several eighteenth and nineteenth-century English authors to paint of portrait of what London was like before the occidentalization took place.  He points out that throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries parts of England, and parts of the English population, were spoken about and thought of in the same terms as one would discuss the colonies — that is not only as inferior, but as foreigners. Makdisi says, there were places in England that might as well have been in Arabia, and there were people there that might as well have been Arabs, “to whom the myth of the freeborn Englishman did not apply.”

Makdisi points out that one of the most significant issues associated with the unevenness of development and the stark separation of classes in eighteenth-century London, was the “unevenness in the distribution of movement and speed.” This phenomenon is what Dickens alluded to in Oliver Twist, and many other novels, by using language like “knots of houses,” and “wallowing” people.  Dickens also makes reference to one viewing the poor districts of London “Belzoni-like,” a reference to the Italian Egyptologist Giovanni Belzoni, which supports his thesis that the England of this era is neither “western” nor modern. References to the poorer districts as a place untouched by modernity abound in the literature of this period. For instance, in Rookeries of London, Thomas Beams writes that in these areas “time had stopped, if it had not gone back.

In short, the literature of this period depicts a kind of cultural crisis. England was without a clear national or racial identity, but had clearly developed an internal “other.” Curiously, this other was often referred to as “Arab,” despite the fact that the people in question were what would today be considered “white” and English. However, in nineteenth-century England, the term “Arab” had taken on the meaning of “uncivilized” or “unsettled,” and the poor of England were thus orientalized as “Arabs.” This is first seen in English literature in the 1830s and it continued until the twentieth century. For instance, Thomas Guthry complained about the “Arabs of the city” being “as wild as those of the desert,” and Lord Shaftesbury referred to street children as “city Arabs” and “lawless tribes.” In the 1870s, Walter Thornberry wrote about “a little colony of Arabs completely sequestered from London society as if it were part of Arabia.” Makdisi points out while there surely were Arabs in London at the time, there certainly wasn’t a colony of them, therefore Thornberry is clearly referring to the poor. By the end of the nineteenth century, the use of terms like “street Arabs” was common. One of the most famous examples of this term being used in literature is found in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series. Holmes uses street children that he refers to as “Arabs” to gather intelligence for him; only the children’s names betray their true ethnicity, English. This construction of the internal other as, essentially, a foreign body — and an uncivilized body at that — posed a significant challenge to the transformation of England into a modern, “western” state. 

The nineteenth century westernization of London had two tracks: reform of those who could be reformed, and displacement of those who could not. The rookeries were torn down in order to widen streets and make room for railroad networks; 100,000 people were displaced by this process without making any provision for their accommodation elsewhere. The Victorians referred to this process as the “aeration” of London. The British thus tried to pull the poor of London into modernity and civilization in much the same way as the colonies. Literature of this period is divided on the merit of this project. Several authors, including Dickens, seemed to be of the opinion that bringing civilization and Christianity into these parts of London was a noble project. Others, like William Blake, resisted not only the idea of westernizing and transforming London, but also the idea that England should impose a sense of cultural superiority over others nations.

Makdisi concluded his lecture by recalling Said’s method of contrapuntal criticism, to connect inside and outside. Makdisi says such a process is imperative, but you cannot engage in this process unless you first separate the two voices, or into reasonably coherent categories. These categories were not coherent in England for most of the nineteenth century. In the mid-nineteenth century if you wanted to visit the “orient” you didn’t have to go to India or Cairo, you could just go to St. Giles, Soho, or other slums in London, and you would find yourself in the company of “Arabs.”


Written by: Shannon Callahan
Research Assistant, Prince Alwaleed Center for American Studies and Research