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Modern Orientalism

by | Brighton, UK

Monday, 28 January 2013

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Eccentric aristocratic Orientalist travellers of the 18th and 19th century sought a contact with the Middle East that could express all that they denied themselves at home. Slowly lifting the veil, the artists soaked the meeting between East and West in pathos and mystic eroticism.

By comparison, the 21st century has seen political institutions in the west aggressively tear away the veil, to de-veil rather than un-veil. Yet the Middle East withholds. However many drones map the terrain, Osama Bin Laden eluded capture, Afghanistan resisted peace and Iran’s nuclear aspirations continue. We’re used to seeing the region ‘from above’: hidden bunkers, caves, WMDs, the evolving border between Israel and Palestine. Total revelation. Faced with this nakedly pornographic interrogation of the region, Shafik Gabr’s East-West initiative has drawn on the adventures of Orientalist travellers as inspiration for renewed dialogue. 

Shafik Gabr Foundation advertisement in the Financial Times

To dress the walls of an area for future dialogue between East and West (capitalized, East and West) with Orientalist art seems itself, paradoxically, to be an instance of an intellectually more established form of orientalism (in the critical Edward Said sense) – and to reinforce the polarising Language of Civilizations. We need to be smarter than this. Orientalist rhetoric (in the Said sense) is still pervasive and relevant. Economic development and technological advance has somewhat leveled the power differential between Europe, the USA and the Middle East. But popular depictions of the Middle East too often foreground an imported Western Liberalism and use this as a standard from which to interrogate social relations in the region – with all the familiar received iconography around oppressed women in hijabs or burkas lowering their eyes, suicide bombers dreaming of the virgins that await them in paradise and so forth. Despite honorable intentions books by exiles, such as The Kite Runner and Reading Lolita in Tehran, are written specifically for a Western audience and the narrators neatly extricate themselves from the Middle East. In a sense, Western Liberalism itself becomes the narrator.

Listening to coverage of recent revolutions in the region, you’d be forgiven for thinking Facebook toppled Mubarak (the BBC screened a 2 part documentary in September 2011 entitled How Facebook Changed the World) do. Widening access to technology and the Internet across the region is crucial, yet it does not represent an essential disruption. Life and struggle in the Middle East continues refracted through the technological medium, and it’s a refraction the West too undertook. The modern Orientalist believes that Middle Eastern identity straddles a contradiction between their traditional cultural values and economic advance, yet Prophet Mohammad’s first wife Khadija was a prosperous businesswoman. It’s clear we have a lot more to learn.

This photo by Mehraneh Atashi, taken in a traditional exclusively male (strong man) gym in Tehran, shows one way of easing the discourse out of the semiotic monopoly of a Western Liberal viewpoint. The points of reference in this picture are familiar: technological perception, gyms and mirrors. Yet the experiential substance of it – the content – eludes and intrigues us. Crucially, the photographer’s reflection in the mirror (bringing the frame into the picture) asserts her status in the narrative, rather than taking her out of it, while drawing attention to representation as a production of meaning rather than neutral recording or eye-witnessing.  As more of the dots across the cultural divide are connected, a common cross-cultural discursive framework will emerge. It’s in the fast paced realms of pop culture and technology that these commonalities are most likely to appear.

Rather than clearing our (the West’s) own podium, or ‘letting’ the East speak, the next step is much simpler. The public space will not precede dialogue; rather, dialogue itself will create the public space. It’s simply a case of listening and collaborating – thus not getting left behind.

© Kourosh Newman-Zand 2013

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