They're real, and getting realer all the time: the Palestinians being hauled out of the ruble in Beirut, the oil sheiks in Beverly Hills, the Iranians raving at television cameras. Now we see them; then we didn't, then being the century or two before World War II, before Israel, the Suez crisis, and the discovery of vast and hitherto untapped resources of money in the West to pay for the vast pools of oil in the Middle East.

Them: Muslims, the Saracen, the wily Pathan, a whole screed of monikers and myths.

"Oriental," Professor Edward Said says, flexing the very small smile of a lifelong irony, he being a Palestinian who grew up under British sway in Palestine and Egypt.

"Oriental. That's the word the scholars used to use," says Said (pronounced sah-eed,) He drinks soda water and smokes a pipe, looking every inch the Parr professor of English literature at Columbia University. He is 45, an upper-class Palestinian by birth. He wears blue blazer, gray slacks and perfectly round horn-rimmed glasses reminiscent in their propriety of the boyhood he spent in British schools.

It is pungently quaint to be harking back to that era when Western "Orientalists" called the Middle East "the Orient," and told us tales of fanatic dervishes, harems and hashish-inspired assassins.

Now, the word is "Islam," Said says. And when he goes on talk shows to discuss "Covering Islam," his new book about Western media attitudes, "What everybody wants to know is: What is Islam? I tell them that's the whole point, you can't define it."

He is a Christian (raised Episcopalian) and a naturalized American citizen who is a member of the Palestinian National Council, a body which loosely oversees the Palestine Liberation Organization, among other things. Egypt's Anwar Sadat once recommended him as the PLO representative at Geneva negotiations, "without asking me, I might add," Said says with the gentle precision of the accent that comes from, first, a New England prep school, then Princeton and Harvard. His first language is Arabic, but he teaches English literature and is a specialist on Joseph Conrad. "He also was fascinated with the idea of 'the other,'" Said says over lunch, an Arab critic of English literature savoring the fact that Conrad, the object of his major scholarly labors, was a Pole.

Like Conrad, he's a Nowhere Man. The man of the 20th century. Pointing out things aren't as simple as we'd like, especially those people we used to prefer to associate with desert robes and holy wars.

Islam. The cliches go on and on, helped along in no small measure by Ayatollah Khomeini, the Saudis with their execution practices and Yasser Arafat with his puzzling failure to grow a real beard.

"In the 19th century," says Said," puffing on his pipe, "an Orientalist would spend a few months in that part of the world [the Islamic countries] and come back and say the people were dirty. Dirty Arabs -- that would become the stereotype."

Lately, of course, the sterotypes haven't been doing us a lot of good, except as epithetical salve for the wounds inflicted by the nightly news.

"People hate Arabs. They hate Muslims. It originates with a long tradition of scholarship. There are reams of scholarly writing on how illogical and irrational the Islamic world is. One of the most obstinate cliches is that the Arabic language is given to violence and bombast. There's an amazing internal consistency to this stuff. I read one French text from the 19th century, and it was almost identical to an American text in the 20th century. Knowledge of the academic variety does not progress. I think we should open knowledge to the non-expert."

The problem here is that the non-expert tends to believe the same things as the expert, given one too many views of Iranian demonstrators on the evening news.

Then again, Frances Fitzgerald, author of "Fire in the Lake," writes in a cover blurb for Said's book that "Said shows that the American press has invented a fiction for itself called 'Islam,' something like the American picture of 'Communism' in the 1950s."

Just as we learned that there's considerable difference between, say, Yugoslavian communists and Chinese communists, maybe we're about to learn the same thing about Islam.

Fine.

Not that anybody confuses, say, Turkey and Indonesia.

The problem is that Said asks us to abandon our beliefs in national psyches.

"I don't believe in things like the Persian psyche," he says. "It's a dangerous abstraction to bandy about. And it isn't just American talking about the Muslim psyche. I find it just as disturbing for Muslims to talk about the Muslim psyche."

But isn't this the same mistake that white American liberals made in the 1950s when the insisted that there was no difference between blacks and whites but skin color -- a notion which black power was quick to demolish?

"I don't agree with it, the idea of any kind of national psyche," he says, though he recalls the stereotype of Americans from his childhood in Palestine and Egypt: "Insensitive, with an offensive informality. And one thing you always heard was that American children were not well-mannered, they behaved badly around adults."

Insensitive: Isn't that what our hippest professors have been telling us about America's foreign policy since the 1950s -- that we don't understand the other guy's point of view?

Said took particular offense at a memo signed by Bruce Laingen, America's charge d'affaires in Tehran. In it, Laingen predicted that negotiations with the Iranians would prove nearly impossible because of their egotism, their "bazaar mentality," which leads them to seek immediate rather than long-term advantage, and their failure to understand causality.

Said writes: "Where is [Laingen's] capacity for understanding the Iranian point of view?"

But then, being an American, why should he understand the Iranian point of view, beyond understanding that they don't understand ours?

"If we're going to invest as much as we did in Iran, we would do well to udnerstand tht we shouldn't make the shah's regime the cornerstone. In Pakistan we're about to give al-Haq billions in arms. This is a country where the entire judiciary resigned a couple of months ago, saying there was no justice under that regime."

Still, there's a tone that runs through his book suggesting that somehow things could be different, that it is only bumbling and stupidity that keeps Americans from understnding other countries.Could it be that Said has gotten caught up in the Great American Cultural Inferiority Complex that seems to obsess American intellectuals?

He quotes a Frenchman -- one of the symptoms of this disease -- recalling a conversaton with President Carter. "I said to him, yes, Mr.President, I understand that you say they are innocent. But I believe you have to understnd that for the Iranians they aren't innocent. . .You must understand that this is a symbol, that it is on the plane of symbols that we have to think about this matter."

Putting aside the fact that the other plane Americans could have done their thinking on was a B52, the book rings with the great Freudian postwar whine: You don't understand, Daddy. Implicit is the idea that other societies shouldn't have to be weaker than the West just because of their lack in literacy, industrialization, electrification and so on.

The dream is of some societies modernized, others not, but all real equals, in spite of the might which seems to go along with technology.

Said says: "It's not inevitable that they couldn't avoid progress and modernizaton."

Fine. We'll keep the F16s.

And is there implicit, too, the idea that it could have and should have all been different?

"No," he says wearily. "I don't think so. Given the history of the last three or four hundred years, I don't think it could have been done differently. But it might be possible to change that."

Change our beliefs in national stereotypes? Alter a legacy of suspicion that goes back to the crusades?

"It's not a realistic view," he says. "But it's a just view and a more rational view."

Living with the idea that your deepest beliefs are simultaneously rational and just on one hand, and unrealistic on the other: It illustrates the condition of being a Palestinian. Or an American. Or both