Terra Incognita: The orientalist shield

Originally “orientalism” referred to the numerous applications of art, humanities that imitated, illustrated the “Orient.”

Edward Said is honored (photo credit: Reuters)
Edward Said is honored
(photo credit: Reuters)
The term “orientalism,” or more specifically the accusation that someone is an “orientalist,” should be deracinated from discourse. Invented to describe a relatively obvious phenomenon, it has become so nonsensical in its application that it should be viewed more as a shield for abusive regimes, reactionary politics and militant religious fanaticism than as something descriptive.
Originally “orientalism” referred to the numerous applications of art and the humanities that sought to imitate, illustrate and learn about the “Orient” or anything that was east and south of Vienna. These orientalists were as diverse as the sketch artist David Roberts, who visited the Holy Land, and Sir Richard Francis Burton, the explorer who translated The Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra. Their paintings depicted everything from Samarkand to the life of the women in the harem. Some of it was more conjecture than reality: How many bath houses and slave auctions did Jean-Leon Gerome truly visit, and why are the nude women depicted always perfectly plump with ample breasts? The concept of orientalism, at least the word, changed in 1978 when literary theorist and Palestinian-American Columbia University professor Edward Said wrote a book on the subject. He claimed that orientalism was part of a Western construct for viewing the East, a conspiracy that sought to impose imperial and military might via the academic study of the East. Said noted that “as a cultural apparatus, orientalism is all aggression, activity, judgment, will-to-truth, and knowledge.”
Many scholars have taken issue with this blanket view that all scholarship or portrayal of the east must necessarily be racist and imperialist. Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby notes in an introduction to a UC-Berkeley course on orientalist French painting that “Said admitted that he was uninterested in comparing the way the Orient actually was with the way the West historically perceived it, but rather in analyzing the West’s discourse on the East. This robbed his work of some analytical force. For if a comparison between a discourse and the reality of that discourse’s object cannot be made, it is difficult to effectively criticize the perception and the discourse surrounding it.”
Bernard Lewis and other scholars have complained that Said never bothered to explain, for instance, of what possible imperialist use deciphering ancient hieroglyphics could have been for Western racist views of the “other.”
THE USE of “orientalist” as a pejorative term, as an easy accusation that can discredit someone’s work, was on display in a recent Al Jazeera op-ed by Hamid Dabashi.
Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia, claimed that New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof “relies on orientalist clichés when writing about Iran.” The basis for the diatribe against Kristof was the Times columnist’s probably illadvised decision to go to Iran and write several mundane articles about it. In his first article, he detailed how young Iranians were not religious and found solace in drugs and sex. Then Kristof wrote an article about how sanctions were taking a toll but that Iran was also, in his view, a surprisingly wealthy country.
In attacking Kristof, Dabashi used the word “orientalist” 13 times, about once in every paragraph of his article.
“What’s an oriental sojourn without a bit of sexual seasoning?” he asks about Kristof’s interest in the hook-up scene in Tehran. “Does Kristof think he lives in the 19th century, with nary a soul in his hometown who can catch him with both his hands in this bizarre orientalist fantasy jar?” Dabashi even bashes Kristof for ending his article with “Inshallah.” One can sympathize a little; Westerners should never use the word “inshallah” in their fake “I know Arabic” style that permeates the talk of people who have spent a weekend in Cairo or Ramallah.
But why is saying “inshallah,” “shalom” or “adios” after a trip abroad, a sign of orientalism, rather than a sign of interest in another language? Herein lies the reason the word “orientalist” has lost its derogatory meaning, if it ever should have had one.
The logic of those who condemn people like Kristof for “orientalism” is to accuse Westerners of a crime for merely writing anything about a country that is not theirs. An American writing a blog about how he bought an iPad in Tehran or Timbuktu becomes an “orientalist cliché.” What would not constitute an “orientalist cliché”? If the Westerner wrote about the burkas he saw, it would also be orientalist.
Omaima Abou Bakr, a professor at Cairo university, claimed in an interview that any particular interest in how Muslim women are treated in today’s Egypt was a sign of orientalism. She claimed that “Muslim and Arab women are not an exception and their struggle, our struggle, is part of the struggle of women everywhere.”
Is it? The wife of the recently sworn-in president of Egypt has said she rejects the term “first lady,” would prefer to be called the “first servant [of the people]” if she has to have a title, and wants to be known as Umm Ahmed (the mother of Ahmed), rather than by her actual name. Why “umm Ahmed”? Because in conservative Muslim tradition, a woman doesn’t have a full individual name or identity; she is “the daughter of so and so” until she becomes the “wife of so and so” and then “the mother of so and so.”
That’s all very nice, but it means that Muslim and Arab woman do face a unique issue that the Mexican or Taiwanese women do not. That Chinese women used to have their feet bound, or that European women were once burned at the stake as “witches,” were unique cultural phenomena. The orientalist-monger would say that any discussion of these differences “exoticizes” the issue and is part of “knowledge production” that invites imperialism.
We must not allow the abusive term “orientalism” to cloud reality. Assaults on innocent wayfarers like Kristof not only falsely imply that all peoples in the world are exactly the same, and none of their activity is “exotic” to others, but it also admonishes outsiders for even writing or researching something that is not part of the homeland.
This is an attempt to make the world ignorant, so that only the Iranian scholar can tell others about Iran, and only the Chinese communist party official can explain China to outsiders. We are supposed to rely on the Islamists of Mali to explain why they are destroying the “false idols” present in the Sufi tombs of Timbuktu.
“Orientalism” is the shield erected around all the countries of the world to say that only the official court historians may explain the actions of the court, and the outsider must not question it. It is a shield of ignorance and despotism, a shield for the abuse of women, for slavery, racism, genocide and all manner of things. It is a shield against critique, the same critique that was responsible for the advancement of the West and the advancement of the concept of individual and human rights.
THE ORIENTALIST-MONGERS invented this term to make sure that reality and perception could never be joined because perception had to be labeled as guilty for merely perceiving. Kristof was guilty for writing that he saw an iPhone. Roberts, who sketched the ruins of the Middle East, was an imperialist whether or not the sketches he made were accurate. Burton, for the crime of translating a foreign work into his own language, was a racist scoundrel. Said sought to transform the Western academy so that it would take an interest only in the history of its own society, because he knew that if “the East” were held up against the West as an equal, it would fall short in nearly every category, from women’s rights to the study of philosophy. Accusations of “orientalism” would shield everyone from the prying eyes of the West. Hieroglyphics could remain comfortably incomprehensible, and any discussion of the mass murder of the Armenians or the suppression of the Baha’i could be comfortably hidden away in the closet.
That is why, if you dare to wonder why women were gang raped by the “freedom”-loving crowds of Tahrir square, you are an orientalist, and if you are surprised about iPhones in Tehran, you are a racist.