Orientalism

Posted: February 3, 2014 in Experience & Identity
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ImageI’d never heard of the term ‘orientalism’ until studying on this course. I’d heard of the Orient and I knew that the suffix ‘ism’ was an ideology or philosophy so I could have probably guessed. But what I don’t think I was aware of was the discourse and social negativity surrounding the word and how it still impacts on our views and understanding today.

In his book Formations of Modernity (1992) Stuart Hall, using Edward Said’s book Orientalism (1977) basically says that how we represent the ‘orient’ stops us from really understanding the Far East. We almost have this romantic view (think of the luxurious train the Orient Express) of the Orient. The Far East is seen as mysterious, strange, brutal and we put our European slant on it. It’s the ‘West and the Rest’ kind of thinking. Unless a country (and therefore its culture) is similar to ours then it must be different and difference is to be feared and as a result not understood or trusted. Although I don’t share these beliefs, there are many who do!

Said (1977) refers mainly to the Middle East as the orient and unfortunately over the years the term ‘Middle East’ has come to mean repression, war and terrorism and let’s not forget belly dancing and fanatical religious beliefs (according to some of the media).I think as a result of that, few people bother to look under the surface to understand the true facts about this vast area of the world. If we do (and I mean the British) attempt to find out more, maybe on holiday, then we tend to visit the more ‘acceptable’ face of the Middle East – usually Turkey or Cyprus where there’s always an English pub around the corner! Picture from Tripadvisor – Paphos.

Our views of the Middle East are deeply rooted in what Said describes ‘western imagination’ and the caricatured discourse does not give opportunity to understand the region and its complexities.

During the reign of the British Empire, orientalism was a handy mechanism for justifying and vindicating Britain’s rule over such countries. The clouded views and beliefs allowed our dominance to be more acceptable. This view to some extent remains because as we continue to view the Middle East as barbaric and uncivilised, it allows for military action either directly (the war in Iraq and Afghanistan) or indirectly through supporting alternative political groups who would overthrow the ‘tyrannical’ regime (e.g. Syria). Thinking further, I began to think about how we (the West) are viewed in the Middle East and Asia – and of course there is a term!

Occidentalism is the term used to describe the view of the ‘East’ towards the West. Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit in their book – Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies,(2004) give quite a damning account of the cultural discourse of the West. Although this term originated in the West, it was believed that this stereotype has been used in a reaction to the rise of Western modernism. The West is seen as a “machine civilization,” with imperialism at its heart. It describes:

“ the sinfulness and rootlessness of urban life; the corruption of the human spirit in a materialistic, market-driven society; the loss of organic community;” Buruma and Margalit (2004)

Buruma and Margalit give no answers as to what the West can do to change this discourse and similarly, until both cultures begin to accept, understand and appreciate their differences and diversity, then these cultural stereotypes will continue to drive political and social agendas.

 

Having written this blog, we went down to Mezze Palace, a Lebanese restaurant in Bristol. Great food, great traditional music, great atmosphere and a belly dancer – positive orientalism at its finest!

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