It would be no exaggeration to say that Edward Said has been one of the major influences on my intellectual life. I’ve waited sixteen years to read his 2000 memoir Out of Place, which deals with his early life in Cairo, Palestine and Lebanon, and his education in the US. Said began the book around the time of his leukemia diagnosis, which he explained as the impetus for the writing of this extraordinarily intimate account of his lifelong sense of dislocation. For me, Out of Place provided a key to understanding the emotional foundation of Orientalism, his entirely unemotional and razor-sharp critique of Western conceptions of the East.
I completed my early degrees in Arabic and Linguistics just before Said’s Orientalism turned on its head the very concept of Oriental Studies, and I’ve spent many years pondering the intellectual upheaval that the book triggered in me. Looking back at my research career and my academic writing, it is now obvious to me how heavily I was influenced by Said’s work – even if that was not particularly clear to me at the time. His ideas have also never been far from my mind in my later life move into writing fiction.
I’m especially fascinated by the Cairo chapters in Out of Place given that I lived in Cairo in 1973 and 1974 and have just finished my novel Cairo Mon Amour set in that era.
I’m also struck by Said’s ultra-dry irony. Here’s a delicious example from his description of the stuffy English school he attended in Cairo in the early fifties (along with Michel Shalhoub, later known as Omar Sharif):
“The incarnation of declining colonial authority was the headmaster, Mr. J. G. E. Price, whose forest of initials symbolized an affectation of pedigree and self-importance I’ve always associated with the British.”
Learn more about Stuart’s books here.
This week saw a wave of criticism of the Australian Government’s funding cuts for small to medium arts projects, although the real wash-up is a perhaps a little more nuanced than the disaster scenarios painted in some reports in the Sydney Morning Herald. But the defunding of entities like the literary magazine Meanjin and the Centre for Contemporary Photography was a shock. Eliza Sarlos argues in The Guardian that arts workers will bear the brunt of the cuts by having to do more unpaid work.
The implicit back-story in much of this discussion is that governments have a responsibility to support the arts for the benefit of society’s broader good. I think there might have been some truth in this decades ago, but the neoliberal project (I’m feeling really cynical this week) has weakened this back story to a fading myth. Understanding the falsity behind this ‘truth’ might provide some consolation to shocked administrators wondering how they will survive the loss of grants: Arts funding is a slow-motion slaughterhouse.
What arts supporters may have missed in the media is the final cut to the Office of Learning and Teaching. During my tenure as Pro-Vice Chancellor (Learning and Teaching) between 2006 and 2011, my team at Western Sydney University leveraged small grants from the OLT and its predecessors to put our university in the top echelon for teaching. We proudly saw Associate Professor Roy Tasker awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for Australian University Teacher of the Year at the Sydney Opera House in 2011.
The 2016 budget cuts the last $20 million dollars of funding from the OLT, demolishing the naïve dream that government ‘cares’ about improving university teaching. To put that $20 million in perspective, a private sector college has been ordered to repay $44 million to the government because of its enrolment practices, and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is pursuing $460 million of taxpayers’ money from a number of private colleges. Ironic?
The arts community aren’t the only ones in the slaughterhouse.
Stuart Campbell is nowadays a novelist and higher education consultant. You can read about his novels at www.stuartcampbellauthor.com .