Aileen Das (University of Michigan)
With its emphasis on western portrayals of the ‘East’, Said’s formulation of orientalism has attracted criticism for affording non-western persons little agency in shaping their identities. In recent years, scholars from a range of disciplines, including sociology, translation theory, media and visual culture, and women and gender studies, have theorized concepts such as ‘self-orientalism’ and ‘counter-orientalism’ to capture how non-western individuals negotiate and deploy orientalist narratives to acquire recognition and position in western-dominated spaces (e.g., economic and intellectual). Building on this work, my paper looks at modern Greco-Arabic studies, a field focused on the medieval transmission and translation of classical Greek science into Arabic, as a case study of counter-orientalism. Specifically, I maintain that the field’s discursive reduction of medieval Islamicate actors into vehicles of a largely western past, popularized by public-facing books such as Adam Freely’s Aladin’s Lamp (2009) and Jim al-Khalili’s The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance (2011) in the present, harkens back to early twentieth-century academic responses to anti-Semitism. As I discuss, these informed a predominant scholarly understanding of medieval Islamicate receptions of Greco-Roman learning in terms of the preservation of a lost western heritage. Many of the prominent early contributors to Greco-Arabic studies were German or Eastern European Jews trained in classics and ‘Semitic studies’. In establishing their academic careers, they had to navigate historic prejudices as well as increasingly violent persecution by the Nazi Party. Focusing on the autobiographical writings of foundational Greco-Arabists such as Richard Walzer (1900-1975) and Franz Rosenthal (1914–2003), this paper will propose that these two Jewish scholars characterized medieval Islamicate receptions as preserving western heritage in order to insert the ‘Semitic’-- and therefore Jews -- into a tradition shared by Christianity and modern Germany. While this self-orientalizing discourse may have subordinated Jews and other so-called Semitic peoples to a hegemonic west, it gave these scholars, nonetheless, a frame with which to argue against both their exclusion from the dominant society and even the necessity of their expertise, qua speakers of Semitic languages, for the fullest understanding ‘western’ culture. The point of my paper is to draw attention to the complex entanglements of orientalism and anti-Semitism, as well as to highlight the pressures under which certain Jewish scholars had to manage their identities and alterities within a predominant orientalist paradigm.