Prepared by Majd Musa and Mohammad al-Asad
Grabar went on to review what has replaced the Enlightenment's idea of universal knowledge, and to look into the impulses, hopes, and expectations that can be imagined for the future. He started by describing his early involvement in the study of Islamic art, which he has pursued over the last fifty-five years. He described how he and a few colleagues of his started learning Arabic back in 1948 at Harvard with a Scottish professor named William Thompson. There was no Arabic grammar book written in English, but only an English translation of a book originally written in German by an Arabic writer. First, they were taught the Arabic alphabets, and how letters differ in shape according to their location within the word. They next were taught verbs, particularly the three-letter verbs represented by the verb fa'ala (to do), for the purpose of studying verb conjugations. Since the verb fa'ala includes the letter 'ayn in the middle, which Grabar and his colleagues could not pronounce correctly, they replaced the verb with kataba (to write) and started learning the different conjugations of that verb. They then were taught the genitive, nominative, and accusative cases, and they learned about infinitives. From there, they were required to read the last six suras (chapters) of the Qur'an as an assignment. Their professor explained to them some of the grammatical problems they were facing, and then read to them the tafsir (interpretation) of those suras. Grabar mentioned that by the time he had three years of Arabic, he knew the tafsir of the Qur'an relatively well. However, he could not say a word in colloquial Arabic, not even a simple word such as marhaba (hello). However, by learning the tafsir, he began to gain a decent knowledge of the classical culture of Muslims.
Speaking of the reasons why he started learning Arabic, Grabar mentioned that a key reason was that as a child he always was fascinated with travel books. He used to pick up travel books and wanted to visit the places described in those books. He always had an attraction to "exotic" things. He even tried to learn Chinese on his own, but failed. In addition, he was born to an academic family, for which the notion of continuously learning new things was deeply instilled. It was a family that paid much attention to learning; a family for which learning was an essential ingredient of life. Although it sometimes was hard growing up in such an environment, Grabar is grateful for it and considers himself fortunate to have belonged to a world that viewed learning a necessity that one could not live without. Grabar added that in his family everybody had to know at least four languages, and the practice of speaking a different language each day at home was normal.
Grabar moved on to describe how his own life as a scholar serves to demonstrate the importance of fortune. At a very young age, he was lucky to receive the trusted support of a number of major scholars who believed in his abilities. Another example is when at a later stage of his career he was trusted enough and allowed by the Syrian Department of Antiquities after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War to continue excavation work in Syria, at a time when the United States had no diplomatic representation in that country. Grabar considers himself fortunate to have traveled through much of Afghanistan just before the country started collapsing in 1973. In addition, he was lucky to have spent some time working in Iran before the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution. Grabar considers all of this true luck, for if he had started his career at a later point in time, he would not have been able to do all of that. Finally, Grabar believes he is lucky to have retired in Princeton, where there are first-rate academic libraries, even though he believes it is a perfectly boring place in which to live.
Building on his long involvement in the study of Islamic art, Grabar moved on to identify what he refers to as seven strands, impulses, attitudes, or methodological directions in the practice and theory or assumptions regarding the study of Islamic art. These are Orientalism, archaeology, collecting, history of art, history of architecture, the social sciences, and contemporary creativity.
The first strand in the study of Islamic art is "Orientalism," which Grabar believes was essential in his becoming what he is. The term has received bad press, especially after the publication of Edward Said's Orientalism (New York: Pantheon, 1978). According to Grabar, there is much truth in Said's depiction of the negative image of Islam and Muslims provided by many of those who have written about the Muslim world, and in the connection of those writings to issues of political and cultural control. However, Grabar believes there is another side to Orientalism. Orientalists also were a group of men and women committed to learning the languages and cultures of people other than themselves. They did it because they were committed to knowing others.
According to Grabar, Orientalists did what they did for two main reasons. The first is to understand other cultures, because it is good to know and understand others according to their own terms. To Grabar, this makes one feel good, and he mentioned that he has no shortage of stories of how good it felt to have somebody understand him in the middle of the Syrian desert. The second reason is that it is good to explain these other cultures to one's own world, and this is part of the "Enlightenment project." If one knows something, it is a major responsibility for that person to pass on this knowledge to others. Therefore, it is important in the Orientalist tradition to produce manuals, translations, text editions, atlases, encyclopedias, publication of monuments, etc. To most people, CIA refers to the United States Central Intelligence Agency. However, to many Orientalists, CIA is the Corpus Insciptionoarum Arabicarum, a multi-volume work on historical Arabic inscriptions compiled beginning in 1894 by the Swiss scholar Max van Berchem and others. These volumes, which exist only in a very small number of libraries today, are one extraordinary achievement of Orientalism.
Grabar added that the Orientalist world transcended nations. It was not nationally oriented, and it saw cultures rather than nations. The Orientalist definitions of cultures are very revealing and lead to very interesting discussions. This is because these definitions may be linguistic, as with Arabic or Turkish speakers; they could be ethnic, as with Kurds or Berbers; they could be religious or sectarian, as with Sunnis or Shias; they could be historical, as with the 'Abbasids, Ayyubids, or Mamluks; and they could be geographic, as with Egypt, Central Asia, or Morocco. These are different taxonomic categories that have been adopted by Orientalists, but they did not usually include national divisions since such divisions are modern inventions that do not necessarily reflect historical realities.
Grabar added that there are, however, two difficulties with Orientalism. The first is its deep concentration on the past. There is a tendency for Orientalists to present anything that is modern as dreadful, that history stops around 1700 A.D. and that anything that has happened since then is of secondary importance. Another corollary is a certain "clubism" and exclusivism. Orientalists had institutions that more or less functioned as clubs, all of which have lost much of their significance (and some even have disappeared), as with the American Oriental Society, the Société Asiatique in Paris, and the School of Oriental and Asiatic Studies. In these "clubs," Orientalists preferred to meet with colleagues who learned Chinese than with people from China.