New Age Orientalism

New Age Orientalism

This is a new Middle East. It is one that is now home to the irreverent study abroad American who has chosen Cairo, Amman or Beirut as the new location for the semester of partying, replacing Paris and London. All this occurs under the guise of wanting “to learn the culture, the language and the people” of the region, for the not to masked goal of garnering a job in the growing United State’s Foreign Service. They come in droves and for many Egyptians they have become a joke, a farce that part mistrust and hatred and part jealousy of their opportunity to travel freely across the globe at a whim.

Illustrating this is a group of three American men who were puffing away at a shisha, or water-pipe. Let’s call them the frat boys, for their clean-cut, polo shirts and loudness are typical of the beer wielding youth that have so graciously become a part of American college life at universities across the country. The conversation they have is by no means abnormal; it has become a recurring theme among Westerners, especially Americans, who see their semester or year abroad in the region as a means to an end.

“I’m here so I can learn Arabic and get a good job in the State Department,” one of the boys says. The other two nod in agreement.

“Yeah, that’s why I’m here to. It is such a good idea to come here because we will have the upper hand when it comes to getting that job. I mean really, we are learning Arabic in the Middle East!”

The conversation turns toward their Arabic studies and the reasons for learning the language. One of them exclaims: “It is such a useful language nowadays with all the terrorism going on. At least now I can be an expert on the Arab world and Islam.”

Islam. “Yeah, totally, we can go and talk about Islam to people back home and they will have to accept our opinions because we have actually been to an Islamic country. Can’t wait to put this stuff on my CV.”

Their conversation continues, circling around the importance of Arabic and Islam in obtaining that job at State. They discussed their abilities in the language, showing off to each other with the waiter. Girls were the topic chosen. “Where are the hot girls?” one asked the server, who responded in his best English, obviously not understanding the broken Arabic. “Yes, American girls.” This sparked laughter around the table.

When the man left to fetch them their drinks, one of the boys turned nasty on the now absent Egyptian. “They are so easy to talk with about stupid things.” His two friends quickly agreed, sharing a few anecdotes about their short time in Cairo, much of which was filled with unnecessary expletives that are not in need of repeating.

Americans’ image of the Middle East and its people is the lens of “what can they do for me.” A concept that in many ways is not only insulting to their hosts, but also continues to drown Western understanding of a region that has become what pundits, intellectuals and high-ranking government officials have dubbed the hotbed of “terrorism” and “backwardness.”

How have we gotten to this point? Edward Said, in his preface to the 25th anniversary edition of Orientalism reveals the stark truth of the interaction of the West with the so-called Orient:

Today, bookstores in the United States are filled with shabby screeds bearing screaming headlines about Islam and terror, Islam exposed, the Arab threat, and the Muslim menace, all of them written by political polemicists pretending to knowledge imparted to them and others by experts who have supposedly penetrated to the heart of these strange Oriental peoples over there who have been such a terrible thorn in “our” flesh.

Undoubtedly, these young Americans have read a number of volumes with such fear driven titles, gulping down the information as gospel, unable or unwilling to discern the truth from myth. Unfortunately, the mass media and the Internet have been of little assistance in fighting this growing trend that followed the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

Said continues in the same vein:

Accompanying such warmongering expertise have been the omnipresent CNNs and Fox News Channels of this world, plus myriad numbers of evangelical and right-wing radio hosts, plus innumerable tabloids and even middlebrow journals, all of them recycling the same verifiable fictions and vast generalizations so as to stir up “America” against the foreign devil.

These young Americans should not necessarily be blamed for spouting such egregious statements at a local café. It was a private conversation and is retold here as an example of the growing, or maybe still existing, Orientalism that pervades Western identity and thought.

Many people argue that racism is a part of the human condition, but the notion that all people are born inherently prejudice is erring, and therefore we should argue against an idea that we are, by our birthright, inherently orientalist. Unfortunately, the world we live in doesn’t allow for a definitive argument against these beliefs. The West today views the East, the “Orient,” as Said posits, with “derisive contempt.” This is coupled with the notion, as our American friends’ conversation illustrates, of exceptionalism and celebration of American and Western culture vis-à-vis the “other.”

Whether it is religion (read here: Islam), language, culture or politics, America is better. American versions of economics, democracy and concepts as wide-ranging as human rights must be adhered to or face the gauntlet. As Noam Chomsky so brilliantly points out “what we say goes.” Arabs who are not “open-minded” enough to see that what the West offers are portrayed as “ignorant” and “backward.” The new student of Arabic and Islam sees it as their duty, eerily reminiscent of the British argument that accompanied colonialism, to “civilize” and “bring freedom” to these Arabs.

As stated above, the media are to blame for much of the continued work in support of these sentiments. An examination of Western media coverage of the Middle East is long overdue and is of utmost importance in societies that are feeling the “push” from so-called Arab and Muslim extremists.

Many will disagree with this concept, as did a close friend who lived in Cairo for the past few years. He vehemently disavowed assertions in articles put forth to him for having an orientalist flavor. Instead, he said this was an attempt by the writer to paint a picture of the story unfolding in the region.

The article argued over most was a story published by the Los Angeles Times that reported on bricklayers in Cairo. It gives insight into how common and accepted these perceptions of the “other” can be. The first three paragraphs of the article highlight this with great precision:

Boys with grit in their eyes and rags on their hands load bricks in the blurry heat of the kilns, waiting for donkey carts, whips snapping the air, to carry the baked stacks away and deliver raw ones from long rows in the sun.

Nasser Mohammed never went to school, saw no need. He’s 16, spends 10 hours a day smearing wet clay on bricks to keep them from splintering while they cook. He is coated in clay. It hardens in the heat, making him seem like a statue that might crack, but he doesn’t, he just dips his hands into more clay, wet again and dripping, smearing another stack. The stacks keep coming.

On his day off, he washes his clothes. They are ripped and singed. He says he’d like to buy some land, build a house, maybe along the Nile, but that doesn’t seem likely for a boy who earns $3.60 a day and whose weekly luxury is buying a cow stomach to eat with his family. It’s muck and dirt, not dreams, that make life in the kilns.

What is most disturbing in the article is the manner in which the writer views himself as better, seeing the young boy with an unequal lens. If this article had been written about an African-American or Mexican-American in the U.S. it would have received numerous criticisms from all sides. It would be considered downright racism. But, not when reporting about the “other.” They are to be looked upon with pity.

When Said published Orientalism in 1979, the world he wrote about would have morphed into something different, something that resembled equality. Unfortunately, his words almost 30 years ago hold true in contemporary times. Washington’s continued war on terror has done as much to show that we are a long way away from mending the wounds of colonialism. Only through the hard, internal struggle to see the world, and its myriad cultures as they are, not as America wants them to be, will the end of dehumanizing the Orient end.

Our American frat boys most certainly believe that they will get that intelligence job and posting overseas, and they may very well be right. Unfortunately for the United States, it will be these same young people, who in a decade or two will be making policy advice to our government’s elected and appointed leaders. These trends could lead to more rash, hardened and hawkish decisions that we have seen in recent times. This must be avoided at all costs if we are to not revisit the same mistakes that have so dominated the 21st century.

No one single force, person or group should be held solely responsible for maintaining this mode of thinking. But, we should not remain silent when the world we live in can be better. Even though many may be right that articles like the Los Angeles Times’ story about kiln boys in Egypt are what the American public wants to read, we should not remain silent and ignorant of the societies beyond our borders.