Fictional writing as Western resistance: How two writers challenged Western Orientalist depictions of the Arab “other”

The publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978 led to a deluge of writing on Western representations of the Orient. Of the recent scholarship that deals with nineteenth and early twentieth-century Orientalism, most either focus on the works of Western scholars of the Orient, or on cultural and literary productions from the time. Said’s scholarship cast new light on past writings by Arab academics, such as Anouar Abdel-MalikA.L. Tibawi, and Abdallah Laroui, who had already critiqued Western tropes of the Orient. The tropes Said and others were criticizing had several things in common: they depicted Arabs as less moral and intelligent, and often less human than the Westerner. Although Said’s argument in Orientalism was perceived as groundbreaking, he was not the first to write such criticism, nor was his research necessarily unique. While Arab intellectuals from the nineteenth and early twentieth century are rarely considered critics of Orientalist narratives, when studying texts from this period it becomes apparent that many were critical of the Western projects in the region.

Two Nahḍa[1] Writers’ Responses to European Orientalism: Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq and Muḥammad al-Muwayliḥī

Two Arab intellectuals that wrote works that were highly critical of Europe’s interference in the region were Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq and Muḥammad al-Muwayliḥī. Their responses to the West were complex, as they were not only critical of the military or political aspects of the colonial encounter, but also the problematic language used in Europe to discuss the people and cultures of the Middle East.

The focus on Arab intellectuals’ responses to Orientalist tropes from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is important, as such investigations are sorely lacking from the existing literature that examines the wide-ranging use of such tropes. This is particularly problematic as it has the effect of further silencing the subjects of Orientalism, while intentionally or unintentionally portraying them as unable to speak up about the treatment they were receiving. The relationships between Orientalist scholars and Arab intellectuals took many different forms, and although I am highlighting two intellectuals who were highly critical of the West, this is of course not the case with all of their peers.

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