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V The Occidental Mirror

The Maghreb and the Occident. Towards the construction of an Occidentalist discourse

Zahia Smail Salhi

The idea of this essay takes its start from Said’s Orientalism,' where I found the seeds of Occidentalism, both as a concept and as a natural reaction of the people of the Orient to the host of stereotypes and (mis)representations which were created and propagated by some Orientalists about an Orient they often did not know very well. It is the aim of this essay to ponder the concept of ‘Occidentalism’ and its multifarious meanings as defined by critics from both the Orient and the Occident, with a special focus on the Maghrebi experience of the East-West encounter which ultimately resulted in the creation of an Occidentalist discourse in the Maghreb.


Said defines Orientalism as “a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and ‘the Occident’.”2 The literature produced thus has the distinction between East and West as the dividing line between Orientalism and Occidentalism. While in Said’s view “Orientalism derives from a particular closeness experienced between Britain and France and the Orient”,3 Occidentalism too derives from this same closeness. He elucidates, “Out of that closeness, whose dynamic is enormously productive even if it always demonstrates the comparatively greater strength of the Occident ... comes the large body of texts I call Orientalist.”4 I would add that the same relationship also produced, and continues to do so, a huge amount of text by the ‘Orientals’ on their encounter with the Occident, which I would like to call Occidentalist literature. This same literature is also called colonial and post-colonial, but what I would specifically call Occidentalist literature is that corpus of works concerned with the portrayal of the Occident and the East-West encounter from the Oriental’s perspective. Such encounters may have taken place in the ‘Orient/ Maghreb’ during the colonial period or in the Occident during both the colonial and post-colonial periods.

It is this part of the relationship that Said’s Orientalism did not engage with. His focus was solely on the hegemonic Western popular and academic discourse of the Orient, providing an analysis of the relationship between European colonialism and the intertwined discursive formations constructing the European experience of the Orient. The corpus of literature and other outputs which the Orientals created in response to these discursive formations did not receive Said’s attention, and while he scrutinized the Western portrayals of the Orient as meaning the Middle East, which constitutes Egypt and the Arab and Muslim countries East of Egypt, the Maghreb is totally overlooked in Said’s Orientalism.

This view is shared by Robert Irwin in his book, For Lust of Knowing: the Orientalists and their Enemies, which he wrote as a criticism of Said’s Orientalism. Irwin argues that Said used the word ‘Orientalism’ in a very restrictive sense as referring to those who traveled in, studied or wrote about the Arab world, while in reality the term should be extended to include Persia, India, Indonesia and the Far East, as it was by A.J. Arberry in his book on British Orientalists in 1943.

Irwin’s view is indicative of the existence of many Orientalisms; however, since Said’s critique is an Arab’s response to Orientalism, to cover other regions outside the Arab world would be beyond his remit. I do, however, agree with Irwin’s view concerning Said’s exclusion of the Maghreb: “he [Said] excluded consideration of North Africa west of Egypt. I cannot guess why he excluded North Africa.”5

It is my observation that Said was not the first one to do so. In most studies conducted on the Middle East or the Arab world, be they in humanities or in social sciences, the Maghreb is often overlooked. In literary studies, for example, very few include one or two authors from the Maghreb, and even so they will be approached in a somehow cautionary manner, not totally engaging them in the general study of Arabic literature. This is, indeed, symptomatic of the sidelining of this region, which is not a new fact, but goes back to the golden age of the Islamic civilization, when the region was defined as the ‘Maghrib’ as a part separate from the ‘Mashriq’, the mainland Arab and Muslim world.

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