He pinpoints three major fiascos where Middle Eastern and Oriental Studies were not able to make sense of developments on the ground: the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the 9/11 attacks carried out by al-Qaida in 2001 and the Arab Spring in 2011.
Was it Orientalism, the dogma of modernisation theory, or the implausibility of covering 1.8 billion people over 14 hundred years that was responsible for these failures? Bulliet’s own conviction that the Iranian Revolution was as important as the French or Russian Revolutions made him persona non grata in U.S. policy circles for two decades.
The question of "becoming"
Methodists and Muslims is an account of how this eminent historian acquired the knowledge he published in other books. Therefore, there is probably less analysis of this or that conflict in the memoir, than the question of "becoming". For Bulliet, "becoming" is a chain reaction of either serendipity or bad luck. It is also the essence of historical study, as he maintains throughout the book. Still, the reader does get some sense of what is worthy of note in Islamic culture and society.
Methodists and Muslims can be applauded for what the author sets out in the beginning: "examining the 'pre-conversion' status, if I may call it that, of an Orientalist is not always easy, since the Orientalist may not fully understand his or her decision to delve into the cultural unknown, or be willing to speak candidly about it. I hope that the discussion of the wellsprings of my own path in life before I took my first Arabic class will be understood as an effort to supply the candor that is so often lost to memory."
It is a fine intertextuality that Richard Bulliet "discovered that many professors have at least one unpublished novel sitting around" when, in his first biography of Edward Said, Timothy Brennan (London 2021) finds such a novel fragment in Said’s drawers.
Bulliet’s book cannot conceal a certain melancholy about not having talked to Edward Said about anything substantial during 17 years of parallel Columbia University teaching. Seventeen years after Said's death in 2003, readers might regard this as awkward or beside the point. But having read this book, I suppose that gawkiness is not a term that is likely to antagonise the author. It is what people around the world are made of and build their careers on.
What Richard Bulliet shows here is a universal theme across regions and religions: the important thing is to embrace the right moment. One central question remains unanswered though: did Edward Said in fact think of him as an Orientalist?
© Qantara.de 2021
Sonja Hegasy is professor of Postcolonial Studies at the Barenboim-Said Akademie in Berlin and vice director of the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient.