I was going through Twitter today and I came across one of these Orientalist paintings depicting a young woman smoking arguile. This instantly took me a few years back when I was still a student and had to take a post-colonial studies class. It was the first time I was exposed to the theories of Orientalism and was the first time I realised how misinformed and misled some Westerners were about the Orient.
Orientalism is the study of cultures, arts, and literature of people who do not belong to the European or American civilizations. To be more accurate it is the study of the non-white cultures. Orientalist studies may include people as close to Europe, geographically speaking, as the inhabitants of North Africa or as remote as those of East Asia. This categorisation shows how much this approach is faulty because, in my opinion, a Moroccan will find more things in common with a Spanish than he would with a Chinese. Yet, this division of the world into West and East, Occident and Orient betrays that Eurocentric vision the white man had to the world.
The term Orientalism was first used by the Palestinian-American writer Edward Said in his book Orientalism in which he studied the Western attitude to cultures of the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. The ultimate conclusion that we can come out with is that the West has always had a patronizing approach towards these cultures. The Westerner would see that their languages are unintelligible, their customs and laws are backward, and their civilization, if they had any, is incapable of development.
This vision of the Orient as a backward, uncivilized and completely ignorant region helped in the development of a feeling of superiority among Europeans. The Orient was a vast rich area inhabited by unfit peoples. The lands they occupied were able to feed Europe for decades if not centuries. The mines they did not know about could make average Europeans wealthier than monarchs. The people themselves could be used for the comfort of the European masters, after all what else were they good for. And soon enough ideologies about the superiority of the white race and the European right to dominate and use the lands in the east started to flourish. Here I remember verses from a poem by Rudyard Kipling in which he says:
Take up the White Man’s burden, The savage wars of peace—
Fill full the mouth of Famine And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly Bring all your hopes to nought.
Take up the White Man’s burden, No tawdry rule of kings,
But toil of serf and sweeper, The tale of common things.
The ports ye shall not enter, The roads ye shall not tread,
Go make them with your living, And mark them with your dead.
Take up the White Man’s burden And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better, The hate of those ye guard—
The cry of hosts ye humour (Ah, slowly!) toward the light:—
“Why brought he us from bondage, Our loved Egyptian night?”
Before these miserable people of the Orient realised what was going on, they were colonised by troops of Europeans seeking wealth and power. And either by force or treaty lands in Africa and Asia turned into the hands of European occupiers in a blink of an eye. Completely unarmed natives had to submit themselves to the will of the white master who very soon started to “civilise” them.
First things first, economic domination. Colonisers seized the most fertile lands, explored the jungles for mines and forced indigenous people into some sort of slavery or the other. Not all colonisations were militarised and not all native peoples were massacred to be fair. But then again most these native peoples did not realise that they were exploited and many of them trusted in the good will of this clean, nice smelling white gentleman who came and promised them that very soon they will be turned into masters themselves.
But then Master did not like the sound of their language. It was not as musical as his European tongue. He also did not like their ways of living, their food, their music and their religions. So, Master said we will build schools so that their children would be as educated as his. And Master lived up to his promise and soon a school was built. But a foreign language was taught in there, Master’s language, to teach the children about HIS god, HIS history, the geography of HIS land and the superiority of HIS laws. And bit by bit the children grew estranged from their families, forgot their origins and submitted further to their Master.
Orientalism is about that process that makes weaker civilisations lose their dominance over their own land. Not because they are inherently inferior but because they have been faced by an economically and politically stronger ones. Orientalism is about the process you lose your mother tongue, your identity, and cannot recognise yourself in the mirror. Orientalism is also about the struggle and the resistance in front of hegemony.
After the independence of many colonies during the second half of the twentieth century, a movement of literary reaction started to grow in the Orient. This movement seeks to readjust the Western attitude to the East by repossessing their native heritage. Inhabitants of ex-colonies went back to reusing their native language as a form of resistance rejecting the linguistic assimilation they were forced into. They also started to revisit their folktales and myths as pieces of ancient wisdom and not as bedtime stories for children. And they repainted the native grandfather as an honest naive man who happened to be fooled by a scheming gold-digger and not as a savage cannibal.
Decades have passed since the Orient obtained its independence and thousands of books have been written about the truth behind colonisation. Many “oriental” scholars can now be found in the most prestigious European universities and yet we are still faced with some archaic visions about those who live “there”.