Orientalism Now: Popular Images and Social Science Representations

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“Here are a few examples of how the Arab is often represented today. Note how readily “the Arab” seems to accommodate the transformations and reductions–all of a simply tendentious kind–into which he is continually being forced.” (p. 285)

“[…] after the 1973 war the Arab appeared everywhere as something more menacing. Cartoons depicting an Arab sheik standing behind a gasoline pump turned up consistently. These Arabs, however, were clearly “Semitic”: their sharply hooked noses, the evil mustachioed leer on their faces, were obvious reminders (to a largely non-Semitic population) that “Semites” were at the bottom of all “our” troubles, which in this case was principally a gasoline shortage. The transference of a popular anti-Semitic animus from a Jewish to an Arab target was made smoothly, since the figure was essentially the same.

Thus if the Arab occupies space enough for attention, it is as a negative value. He is seen as the disrupter of Israel’s and the West’s existence, or in another view of the same thing, as a surmountable obstacle to Israel’s creation in 1948. Insofar as this Arab has any history, it is part of the history given him (or taken from him: the difference is slight) by the Orientalist tradition, and later, the Zionist tradition. Palestine was seen–by Lamartine and the early Zionists–as an empty desert waiting to burst into bloom; such inhabitants as it had were supposed to be inconsequential nomads possessing no real claim on the land and therefore no cultural or national reality. Thus the Arab is conceived of now as a shadow that dogs the Jew. In that shadow–because Arabs and Jews are Oriental Semites–can be placed whatever traditional, latent mistrust a Westerner feels towards the Oriental. For the Jew of pre-Nazi Europe has bifurcated: what we have now is a Jewish hero, constructed out of a reconstructed cult of the adventurer-pioneer-Orientalist (Burton, Lane, Renan), and his creeping, mysteriously fearsome shadow, the Arab Oriental. Isolated from everything except the past created for him by Orientalist polemic, the Arab is chained to a destiny that fixes him and dooms him to a series of reactions periodically chastised by what Barbara Tuchman gives the theological name “Israel’s terrible swift sword.”

Aside from his anti-Zionism, the Arab is an oil supplier. This is another negative characteristic, since most accounts of Arab oil equate the oil boycott of 1973-1974 (which principally benefitted [sic] Western oil companies and a small ruling Arab elite) with the absence of any Arab moral qualifications for owning such vast oil reserves. Without the usual euphemisms, the question most often being asked is why such people as the Arabs are entitled to keep the developed (free, democratic, moral) world threatened. From such questions comes the frequent suggestion that the Arab oil fields be invaded by the marines.

In the films and television the Arab is associated either with lechery or bloodthirsty dishonesty. He appears as an oversexed degenerate, capable, it is true, of cleverly devious intrigues, but essentially sadistic, treacherous, low. Slave trader, camel driver, moneychanger, colorful scoundrel: these are some traditional Arab roles in the cinema. The Arab leader (of marauders, pirates, “native” insurgents) can often be seen snarling at the captured Western hero and the blond girl (both of them steeped in wholesomeness) , “My men are going to kill you, but–they like to amuse themselves before.” He leers suggestively as he speaks: this is a current debasement of Valentino’s Sheik. In newsreels or news photos, the Arab is always shown in large numbers. No individuality, no personal characteristics or experiences. Most of the pictures represent mass rage and misery, or irrational (hence hopelessly eccentric) gestures. Lurking behind all of these images is the menace of jihad. Consequence: a fear that the Muslims (or Arabs) will take over the world.” (p. 285-287)

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Salim Abu Aziz in the film True Lies (1994), played by Art Malik

“I mention [Morroe] Berger as an instance of the academic attitude towards the Islamic Orient, as an instance of how a learned perspective can support the caricatures propagated in the popular culture. Yet Berger stands also for the most current transformation overtaking Orientalism: its conversion from a fundamentally philological discipline and a vaguely general apprehension of the Orient into a social science specialty. No longer does an Orientalist try first to master the esoteric languages of the Orient; he begins instead as a trained social scientist and “applies” his science to the Orient, or anywhere else. This is the specifically American contribution to the history of Orientalism, and it can be dated roughly from the period immediately following World War II, when the United States found itself in the position recently vacated by Britain and France.” (p. 290)

One of the striking aspects of the new American social-science attention to the Orient is its singular avoidance of literature. You can read through reams of expert writing on the modem Near East and never encounter a single reference to literature. What seem to matter far more to the regional expert are “facts,” of which a literary text is perhaps a disturber. The net effect of this remarkable omission in modern American awareness of the Arab or Islamic Orient is to keep the region and its people conceptually emasculated, reduced to “attitudes,” “trends,” statistics: in short, dehumanized. Since an Arab poet or novelist–and there are many–writes of his experiences, of his values, of his humanity (however strange that may be), he effectively disrupts the various patterns (images, cliches, abstractions) by which the Orient is represented. A literary text speaks more or less directly of a living reality. Its force is not that it is Arab, or French, or English; its force is in the power and vitality of words that, to mix in Flaubert’s metaphor from La Tentation de Saint Antoine, tip the idols out of the Orientalists’ arms and make them drop those great paralytic children–which are their ideas of the Orient–that attempt to pass for the Orient.

The absence of literature and the relatively weak position of philology in contemporary American studies of the Near East are illustrations of a new eccentricity in Orientalism, where indeed my use of the word itself is anomalous. For there is very little in what academic experts on the Near East do now that resembles traditional Orientalism of the sort that ended with Gibb and Massignon; the main things that are reproduced are, as I said, a certain cultural hostility and a sense based not so much on philology as on “expertise.” Genealogically speaking, modem American Orientalism derives from such things as the army language schools established during and after the war, sudden government and corporate interest in the non-Western world during the postwar period, Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, and a residual missionary attitude towards Orientals who are considered ripe for reform and reeducation. The nonphilological study of esoteric Oriental languages is useful for obvious rudimentary strategic reasons; but it is also useful for giving a cachet of authority, almost a mystique, to the “expert” who appears able to deal with hopelessly obscure material with firsthand skill.” (p. 291)

“The idea encouraged is that in studying Orientals, Muslims, or Arabs “we” can get to know another people, their way of life and thought, and so on. To this end it is always better to let them speak for themselves, to represent themselves (even though underlying this fiction stands Marx’s phrase–with which Lasswell is in agreement–for Louis Napoleon: “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented“). But only up to a point, and in a special way. In 1973, during the anxious days of the October Arab-Israeli War, the New York Times Magazine commissioned two articles, one representing the Israeli and one the Arab side of the conflict. The Israeli side was presented by an Israeli lawyer; the Arab side, by an American former ambassador to an Arab country who had no formal training in Oriental studies. Lest we jump immediately to the simple conclusion that the Arabs were believed incapable of representing themselves, we would do well to remember that both Arabs and Jews in this instance were Semites (in the broad cultural designation I have been discussing) and that both were being made to be represented for a Western audience. It is worthwhile here to remember this passage from Proust, in which the sudden appearance of a Jew into an aristocratic salon is described as follows:

The Rumanians, the Egyptians, the Turks may hate the Jews. But in a French drawing-room the differences between those people are not so apparent, and an Israelite making his entry as though he were emerging from the heart of the desert, his body crouching like a hyaena’s, [sic] his neck thrust obliquely forward, spreading himself in proud “salaams,” completely satisfies a certain taste for the oriental [un goût pour l’orientalisme].[1]” (p. 293)

Said, Edward W. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books. [From Popular images and social science representations, pp. 285-293, within chapter 3, Orientalism Now, section IV, The Latest Phase, pp. 284-328. Said pictured.]

[1] “Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way, trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff (1925; reprint ed., New York: Vintage Books, 1970), p. 135.”


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