Sunday, 28 September 2014

Palestine - Accidental Orientalism

Edward Said was one of Palestine's most famous sons.  Born in Jerusalem in 1935, he was brought up in Mandate Palestine and in Egypt and he was educated in the US (Princeton and Harvard).  I'd heard about him before I started researching Palestine, of course, but I'd never read his key text Orientalism (1978), so I thought that this would be the perfect opportunity to do so.

Said's theory on orientalism

Moorish bath (1870) by Jean-Leon Gerome
To be honest, I already had enough material to write a blog post by the time I'd finished his Preface to the 2003 edition of Orientalism and I immediately connected to the theme and understood the main arguments behind Said's theory, i.e. that Orientalism is a fake area of cultural study, which says more about the Europeans who invented these ideas about their eastern neighbours, than those who actually live in the Middle East/Far East, outside Europe and 'the West'. 

According to Said, orientalism isn't merely a West/East division, it's an our culture/Other division that has served to justify wars, colonisation and inhumane behaviour.  Interestingly, he puts forward the case that every Empire claims that it is working in the best interests of the people who are being colonised and that each Empire claims that its circumstances are different than the circumstances of previous Empires.  How true that is!

The link with occidentalism and cannibalism

I've blogged about orientalism before, when I was researching Xinjiang/Uyghuristan in 2011 - strictly speaking, that blog post was more about occidentalism (i.e. the Middle Kingdom's view of exotic lands like Turkestan, which lies to the west of China), but the principle behind orientalism and occidentalism is pretty much the same, i.e. projecting your own culture's fears, desires, expectations onto another culture you don't really understand.  I also came across this 'cultural projection' when I was blogging about cannibalism in the South Pacific.  

The West and the non-West

Harem bath by Jean-Leon Gerome
I agree with Said's point of view, as I think our image of the Middle East/Far East/non-Western countries says more about who we are than the people who live in those places.  Our concept of the Middle East probably wouldn't mean much to someone living in Palestine and the problem with generalisations, of course, is that they assume that other people's cultures are monolithic, that everyone there is the same and there is no diversity in terms of how people see the world or interact with it.  This is the basis of prejudice which can quickly become racist and patronising.  

However, as Said argues, our tendency to propagate an East/West dichotomy is so strong that we do it without even thinking.  I've talked about 'the West' many times in previous blog posts which, whilst this recognises diversity in non-European cultures, still imposes a West/non-West understanding on the world.  It's only after reading Said's book that I'm starting to question what 'the West' really means and whether or not it's useful to continue using this kind of false dichotomy?  

A new world of humanism

Said promotes an approach which he calls humanist - which means that when we try to understand people from other parts of the world, we shouldn't immediately fall into the West/non-West distinctions, but look at each culture/situation/tradition with the understanding that we are all human. Israel/Palestine is a good example of how orientalism colours the debate - we think Palestine/East and Israel/West, which usually also means Palestine/Muslim and Israel/Jewish, rather than thinking purely about human beings who lose their homes, their loved ones or their lives.  

In the unravelling of his opening chapter, Said shows that European fear of the East is deep-rooted and steeped in centuries of misinformation and prejudice. He goes right back to the time of Euripedes' Bacchae and Aeschylus' The Persians.  Invasion from the east was a very real fear for most of Europe's history and still manifests itself in modern Europe in the guise of Islamophobia and racism.

Relentless invasion  

It's interesting to note that, even in modern times, we've retained this fear of the East. Whether it's Youtube videos of the (real) North Korean army marching, or a depiction of the (fictional) march of the Unsullied in The Game of Thrones, the armies of the East are seen as relentless, numerous, faceless, voiceless.  

I think the 2007 action film 300 about the Persian invasion of Europe and the Battle of Thermopylae captures the essence of European fears, echoing down the centuries to a modern-age that still struggles to come to terms with cultures that are 'Other'.  You just need to watch the trailer to get a sense of how we perceive the Other to be frightening, freaky and threatening.




Accidental orientalism

The words accidental and occidental are from the same root, meaning 'to fall' - accidental when you fall over and occidental meaning that the sun falls from the sky (in the West).  By contrast, the word oriental comes from the verb 'to rise' - you can also see it in the word aurora which means 'dawn'.  I thought I would play with the words in my title for this blog post, as I feel that I've been an accidental orientalist.  

Thinking in terms of West/non-West is second-nature to many of us and I want to get away from that and understand cultures from their own point of view. Of course, language is a real barrier, as I'm trying to understand most of the world through English, which has already inherited an ingrained cultural orientalism.  

I guess my main experience outside all of this is in relation to Russian culture. I speak Russian and can read source materials without any need for translation.  I've always thought that Russians are misunderstood by most of the world, because the way things sound in Russian and how they translate into English is quite different, but perhaps it's the case that misunderstandings happen between all cultures, as we depend on languages and concepts steeped in centuries of orientalism to make sense of the modern world?

Palestine and Egypt

Reading Said's book has made me more aware of the strong cultural connections between Palestine and Egypt.  I've also got a heightened awareness of orientalism and I've been looking out for it in my everyday life. As I just happen to be listening to Kate Bush's third album Never for Ever (1980) at the moment, I couldn't help but notice the blatant orientalism in her song Egypt (and the accompanying video).  I'm going to leave you with this, as evidence of how orientalism works in our culture, but also because I love Kate Bush!





Image credits:

Both paintings are by the French artist (and orientalist) Jean-Leon Gerome and are in the public domain.  With increased European colonisation in the East and new opportunities to travel, the 19th century saw an explosion of interest in the 'exotic' East and Gerome's paintings made the promises about the sensuality of the East that would attract European men to travel there and administer the colonial governments.

It's interesting that we now criticise the East for being too conservative - whereas, in the 19th century, Eastern women were seen as shamelessly sensual, now they are depicted as religiously repressed.  I think that says a lot about how we project our understanding of the world onto other people.  
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