In the 1981 edition of Khamsin the Syrian philosopher Sadik Al-Azm (1934-2016) published his infamous review of Edward Said's (1935-2003) Orientalism entitled "Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse." But he initially submitted the manuscript to the Arab Studies Quarterly, edited at the time by Said and Fouad Moughrabi. Below, Said and Al-Azm's correspondence following that submission. Al-Azm and Said's relationship would disintegrate following this exchange. In 1988, Al-Azm would publish an attack on Said and other Palestinian intellectuals entitled "Palestinian Zionism."  Al-Azm, whom we've just lost, continued to provoke great feeling—and now mourning—for the rest of his life among Arab intellectuals.

Painting by Abdel Hadi Al Gazzar

November 10

My dear Sadek:

Many thanks for sending us your long analysis of Orientalism: it’s very carefully worked out, I think, and—in your special terms—it makes a cogent and often impressive document. However, Foad and I think it is much too long for us to print as is. Two options present themselves therefore: one, you cut it by about 15 pages (a lot of them can be eliminated because of repetition and verbal padding); two, we cut it, or rather, the copy-editor cuts and we send it to you for approval. Let us know immediately, so we can proceed with plans to publish it. In any event, pending your reply we will suggest the cuts, so that if you opt for number 2 (above), we will have a text ready for you without delay.

As you know I’ve received many reviews, and have decided for the most part not to reply to any of them. In the case of your essay I’m going to do something I haven’t done: I shall reply to you. Let me be honest with you to as a friend, who as you know admires you and loves you. In your recent writing I’ve detected an unfortunate narrowness and dogmatism which has weakened your work: this is the case with your reading of my book. I find some of your points are very well-taken, and well-presented. The defense of Marx and the points about my “advice” to American investors I think are crude and shallow, and I will be demonstrating the emptiness of some of your rhetoric. I don’t think you’ve ever tangled with a polemicist of my sort: your attacks against the straw-men you catch with silly statements have gone unchallenged. I propose to teach you a lesson in how to argue and how to make points, not out of anything more than the desire to make didactic sense. The worst thing about your writing is how really badly you read: in the end, you see, when we read and write, we are dealing with words, and your way with words is both too literal and not literal enough, and you can’t have it both ways. When you quote, you misquote and when you construe, you mis-construe, yet both activities are done with “accuracy” and “correctness” as their pretext. As an instance, take your allegation that my notion of Orientalism is unilinear: you simply don’t read what I everywhere say, that Orientalism is a word which has many meanings, and one must be sensitive to those meanings. If there is one thing it isn’t as a concept (except, that is, to the insensitive and lazy reader) it is unilinear, but I shall also be showing you that. I think in the end the real difference between you and me, is that you are a dogmatist and a literalist who really has never gone past the Marxism of the Second International; I am a skeptic and in many ways an anarchist who doesn’t believe as you do, in laws, or systems, or any of the other claptrap that inhibits your thought and constricts your writing. For you Marx is what Khomeini is to his followers: you are in fact a Khomeini of the Left which is one thing my heroes, Gramsci and Lukacs, could never have been.

I must say, finally, that I found your insinuations about putative relations with US imperialism beneath you, and not worthy of you. I can only put them down to having lived for so long in the sewers of the Beirut press, which is where you spend too much of your time. For a scholar and thinker like yourself, to suggest such things is of course to lay yourself open to many worse imputations, for example, to being (literally) a willing, silent servant of the Syrian regime, which currently employs you and demands your silence, a prince which—as I have told you at least once you have regrettably accepted to pay. But I would never say that about you in print; that is the difference between us. I will say it to you privately as I am saying it here, and that is the end of it. I shall refer to this matter in the reply only it is part of the self-castrating syndrome I find in your work, the syndrome of someone who has a lot to say and who has many contributions to make, but who undercuts and destroys himself in his writing. This is what I think you have done; you have sacrificed your potential effect to sensation and scandal, both of which have made you in the end much less effective than you could have been. The question I shall try to answer then, is why does Sadek willingly hurt himself and his cause, why does he cripple his potency in the very same breath that he proclaims it? This is a very a useful intellectual question to ask.

I hope you take my points in the spirit in which I mean them. But it will be good for the Journal to have use debating each other politely in its pages: so think about any cuts you may wish to make. In any case I won’t have time to get to you piece and a response until after January 1. I’m buried in many duties and papers right now: nevertheless I eagerly look forward to replying to you in detail.
Mariam sends love to Fawz and to you — as do I.



Damascus, Dec. 2, 1980

Dear Edward,

Thank you very much for your letter of Nov. 10, 1980. I knew that my article will upset, but I did not anticipate such a violent outburst on your part, especially the attack on my person. I really think that the vehemence of your reaction is way out of proportion to the “crimes” I seem to have committed in criticizing some aspects of your book.

As you know I have been through many bitter debates and controversies before and I have succeeded in maintaining a reasonably detached attitude all through. Therefore, I bypass your abusive accusations, and take in stride the point by point comparison you draw between the qualities and virtues of yourself and those of my humble person, all leading, predictably enough, to the inevitable conclusion of your superiority. I think such stuff should be left to others to speak about and debate (if at all), for we do not do ourselves much of a service indulging in such comparisons and self-serving evaluations. Apropos, I would like to mention that the “straw-men” I have engaged are neither irritable professors nor composed intellectuals, but persons, establishments, and governments armed to the teeth and positively dangerous. Steeped in the traditions of “Oriental Despotism”, they are known to be highly inclined to settle differences of opinion with critics and polemicists by resort to bullets, explosives, arson, repression and assassination.

I regret that you insist on misunderstanding the last few pages of part I of my article. It seems to me that there is an obvious difference between saying the X has relations (of one sort or another) with US imperialism and saying that X holds opinions and expresses views that play (or could play) into the hands of US imperialism, and that this ought to be brought to X’s attention and openly debated with him. The task becomes even more significant and urgent if X is widely known for his anti-imperialism. The pages in question point out to you that American imperialism will find pleasing: (a) your judging the Arab-Us satellite relationship as not lamentable; and (b) your insistence that American policy in the ME is the way it is because Orientalist fictions still dominate the minds of the policy-makers and of the experts who instruct policy. Prima facie, it seems to me that such positions can not be squared with a genuine anti-imperialist stance. I would like to see you argue the opposite in lieu of getting so angry with me. Similarly, if you wish to defend the Orient against Western Orientalism and imperialism then you can no constantly adhere to (a) and (b), or tell the American bosses to purge their imperialist heads of Orientalist fancies  and abstractions. For, in my view, these policymakers and their experts are hardboiled bosses who have few illusions about anything and who know precisely what they are doing and for what objectives. I may be wrong. But, then, I would like to see you argue that the opposite position is consistently tenable along with a real anti-imperialist commitment, instead of calling me names.

I take it we are the sort of people who hold strong views on life’s important matters and burning issues, we defend our persuasions forcefully and criticize others passionately, but this no pretext for anyone of us to exhibit self-righteous attitudes, assume holier-than-thou postures and issue claims to superior abilities in teaching exemplary lessons to others. Whether Marx’s views on India resulted from the usurpation of his mind by Orientalist jargon and dictionary definitions or from his overall theory of historical change; whether there is unilinear conception of Orientalism in your book or not, are all meaningful questions which can be rationally debated and clarified without either calling on the help of self-castration syndromes and theories, or resorting to other forms of character assassination.

Concerning the publication of my essay in ASA I have two points to make: (a) considering that my article deals directly with your work and considering that you reacted so vehemently to its contents (to the point of breaking your solemn vows not to reply to critics), I would have thought you would refrain completely from making any kind of editorial decisions, suggestions etc. concerning this piece. (b) I insist on the publication of my essay intact and as is, whatever its faults may be. This is final and not subject to further discussion. In case ASQ find my request unreasonable (or impossible to meet for one reason or another), I will appreciate having the ribbon copy returned to my Beirut address as quickly as possible.

We wish you all a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

Sincerely yours,


December 10, 1980

Dear Sadik:

Now who’s over-reacting? I said nothing in my letter about your person except your subservience to the regime, and I withdrew it immediately; my letter indicating or implying my superiority over you; what utter trash. Those are forms I don’t use, but what I did say—and there once again you misread—was that as a polemicist or answers to your attacks I am superior, in polemics at least, to your customary antagonists. You confirm that by saying opponents have generally been Oriental despots who use the sword. That was exactly my point, which of course you missed.

As for your other point, about advice or playing into the hands of imperialism. If you read the two passages in question, you’ll see, 1) that what I say about US policy being built on Orientalist fictions is a statement of fact, that implies neither that I am giving advice on what the Orient is, not that I would like them to change. Quite the contrary, I say what must be said as a description of what obtains, and—if you read on—I also say that there is, and can, be no different policy given the institutions, the system, and so forth. 2) The second passage—about the satellite relationship—I said that in itself a satellite relationship—note, excluding economic relationships (since all the theorists of imperialism you cite, Frank, Jalee, Amin, etc all deal with the economic form of the satellite or dependency)— is not per se bad. What I mean is that it is unthinkable that in a complex cultural world that all cultures would be equal, and all equally independent and original: can we say that the satellite relationship between Rome and Greece was bad, because of the fact of satellite ship, or that between Germany and Austro-Hungary, in cultural terms? No. Some relationships of this sort are because of the form of the relationship—for example, as in the one between the Arab world and the West, because the relationship goes in one direction, is essentially reproduction, is hopelessly uneven. That was my point. I should think that your argument about Marx I won’t bother to deal with here, since they involve more complicated things, and are interesting for other reasons.

Anyway, I supposed that my letter would rankle a bit, and I’m sorry about that. Thanks for calling me an irritable professor: what should I call you, a dispassionate and olympian critic of everyone else’s mistakes? Ok—you’re a dispassionate and olympian critic of everyone else’s mistakes.

You do me a real dishonor by suggesting that because I am personally involved I shouldn’t suggest changes and revisions in your piece. The fact is that I am far more scrupulous and fair than that: I wish, for once that you would see that. Before I wrote you I had checked with my co-editors, Fuad and Ibrahim Abu-Lughod: in fact when Fuad got your piece he did so well before I did, he told me that it was far too long; I refused to read it until he and Ibrahim made their criticisms. Ibrahim thought your article should be cut to five, yes five, pages. So what I was saying was not a personal comment, but a collective editorial one. I thought your response was pretty dumb and high-toned, since cuts are frequent in even the best of journals, and why should you think somehow that your every word is sacred and beyond criticism? A funny position to take for someone who takes positions such as yours. However, we are having a meeting this weekend. I will take the position that your piece should be published in full, with every last word as it is. If I am overruled you will get it back. If not, not—and I’ll publish a response right alongside it. Is that to your liking?

I suppose that the rancor between us will dissipate with time. I still think that you did not do what you did in your piece with the best faith (the best intellectual faith that is) as you seem to think, or that you read as carefully and as intelligently as you might have. I regret anything I said to you that may have seemed merely reactive (as opposed to accurate, as many of the things I said were) and abusive, but I don’t regret telling you how I felt about the species of criticism which you now write, and which you now seen to direct more or less at anyone who swims up before your vision. There would seem to me to be some virtue in making distinctions, in understanding that when I write a book of the sort I did that I am writing in a particular situation and for more than one audience, and so forth, none of which you seemed to have considered enough in your essay. I am prepared to concede that Orientalism is not really a very good book, but I do insist that it contains, with few exceptions, excellent readings and interpretations. My main complaint then with you is that you don’t read well, or that you write better than you read. I hope you see what I mean. No hard feelings, although perhaps some bruised ones. In the end that may not be so bad. I shall be in Beirut the weekend of Jan 9-11 at my mother’s. Could we meet briefly then, if you have the time?

With all our regards to the four of you—

Edward W. Said Papers; Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library.


  1. Thanks for your post. Are the original letters available online, or at least a full citation? Would be much appreciated!