Orientalism and the West
Writer: Rena Rawanchaikul
Editor: Pat Sevikul
Graphic Designer: Benedicta Shafira
Europe has always had a great many things to say about the Middle East and Northern Africa. From contemptuous writing on the ‘exotic’ (and therefore sexualised and objectified) dances to not-so-subtle art describing the ‘secluded and wild East’ in a downgrading manner, the world of European historians, writers and artists has long depicted ‘the Orient’ in a way that is most certainly misleading, harmful, and racist.
‘Orientalism’ was a term coined by the cultural theorist Edward Said in his 1978 book to denote the pervading European ideology which had created a notion of an untamed and otherworldly ‘Orient’ or ‘the East’, which uses exaggerated depiction of Arabic culture to highlight differences between that and the West as a means of restricting the Arabic world’s representation and power while enhancing its own, altogether serving to reduce the wide world of the Middle East and Northern Africa to mere stereotypes, with ‘snake charmers’, ‘belly dancers’ and ‘patterned frescos’, which in turn served to justify colonisation. The clear divide between what is ‘the East’ to Europe and Europe itself also enables the presentation of the European world as dominant and ruling, although the existence of the ‘the East’ in itself is up for question, as to label the Arabic world as ‘Eastern’ does in fact still regard the area from a Western perspective. Work that adopts the style of ‘Orientalism’ often goes further to try to convince the ordinary reader or observer that the depictions are authentic and accurate, thus allowing for these racist stereotypes to further pervade general society’s consciousness, often resulting in more Islamophobia.
But the world of ‘Orientalism’ could be said to be far from the truth. In our present day society, we can often find Arabic representation rare, with Arabic cultures, traditions, and customs remaining a distant and unknown world to many. Particularly aided by rooted currents of Islamophobia present around the world today and the subsequent negative portrayals of Arabic people as ‘terrorists’ or all Muslim women as ‘oppressed’ in popular media. Indeed, the anti-Asian racism in the Arabic world has too often been forgotten for the more ‘mainstream’ oppression of African Americans, for example. However, oppression is not mutually exclusive. The Arabic world as it truly is has rarely been seen in proper regard.
Arabic culture and traditions, as of the Middle East and Northern Africa, are much like many other cultures and traditions: rich, historical, and intricate. While indeed Arabic culture contains different means of expression that is present in other parts of the world, as with different types of dance, such as belly dancing, religious rituals, music, and prayers, as of the Salat al-zuhr (midday prayer, with public calls to pray in Muslim countries) it is crucial to understand that this diversity in cultural expression has been extremely eroticised and downgraded, and that actual practises are often civil, humane, and deeply deserving of respect, as of any other culture. The cultural practises derive from long histories, merely existing in their own form, yet have a general sheen of untamed incivility applied to them. It is important to recognise the multiculturalism present in our world, and seek to understand the nature of their culture in its history, while also searching to identify and correct our own implicit biases regarding Arabic culture.
Having lived in Oman for a number of years and in Iran briefly myself, I grew up surrounded by the wonderful beauty of Arabic cultures and customs, with the memorable sounds of the Salat al-zuhr remaining a familiar childhood memory, as I could hear the public call to prayer everyday in my house from the white-domed mosque nearby. I visited mosques and opera houses, and explored hotel rooms with Qiblas (the arrow indicating Islam’s holiest site, the Kaaba in Saudi Arabia). I frequented shopping malls where I walked past women dressed in burkas and men in thawbs, and where the distinct smell of the Oud perfume flooded the hallways. I grew up with a longstanding appreciation and respect for Arabic culture, and upon reflecting on both academic research and my own experiences, it is clear to see that the false and racist depictions of ‘Orientalism’ serve no purpose in enlightening general society to the reality: that Middle Eastern and North African cultures are beautiful and deserving of respect.