Born an Arab Palestinian in Jerusalem but with American citizenship through his father, Eduard Said was a professor at Columbia University and a founding figure of the critical theory field of Post Colonialism. He is well-known for writing the book Orientalism, in 1978, through which he wanted to clear the public perception of the Orient, which in those times meant more or less the opposite of Occident.
He saw that the western world had a false cultural assumption of the Orient, in general, and the Middle East, in particular. He tried to open the eyes of the reader by pointing out that it is difficult to single-label a vast amount of territory, which includes Asia and the Middle East, where you have such a variety of cultures and civilizations.
Although the word Orient did not have a negative connotation, it described a romanticized culture, different from the western cultures, inferior, and in need to be changed and civilized by the powerful and evolved societies of the West. This is where Said’s book tried to change the western mentality, to show the Orient as an important part of the past, present and future of the world’s heritage.
Said pointed out that the Eastern World is not only adjacent to Europe; it is the place of the greatest, richest and oldest European colonies, and the source of Europe’s civilizations and languages.
Said criticized the work of other writers, like Bernard Lewis, who saw the Islam as an “irrational herd” ruled “by instincts, passions, and unreflecting hatred”. In return, Lewis mentioned that Said overlooked the fact that, during the Enlightenment and Victorian eras, the West contributed to the study of the Eastern cultures, and that the reflection of the East as a negative mirror of the West was not wholly true, as the distortions were not always negative. He also pointed out that, in the 20th century, derogatory portrayal of the Westerners could be found in the works of Eastern artists, like Chinese, Japanese and Indian. Even more, recently, the West started to be seen negatively by the East – the term Occidentalism does not always reflect civilization to the Orient.
Although the 19th century Orientalism was not depicting a realistic image of the Orient, the Eastern culture has always fascinated the West, inspired artists and attracted travelers to their mystical and beautiful landscapes, traditions and people.