The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged orientalism
The Egyptian revolution Orientalist essay contest

I think someone really needs to take up this challenge by Chris at

Introducing the Egyptian Revolution Orientalist Essay Contest!  In 500 words or less, channel your favorite Orientalist scholar and explain why the Egyptian revolution is utterly unremarkable and destined to fail. Extra points for condescending and paternalistic language!

But then again it appears Lee Smith is in town, so he's bound to win the lovely picture Chris has put up as a prize. After all in recent weeks he's given us:

Protests in Egypt | The Weekly Standard

The Mubarak regime is not as brittle as that of Tunisia’s erstwhile president-for-life, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and right now seems to be in little danger of falling.

. . .

For all the excitement surrounding the demonstrations, it’s worth remembering that the nominally docile Egyptian masses take to the streets with some regularity, especially when it involves food prices and living wages. More to the point, it is an unfortunate fact of modern Egyptian history that its people are often susceptible to ideological politics. For instance, Nasser led the country to disaster and yet compared to Sadat the peacemaker or Mubarak the stolid pharaoh who has kept the country stable, if static, it is Nasser who owns the affections of the Egyptian masses. That is to say, we don’t know exactly what the protestors want. There are those who hate the regime because it jails and tortures bloggers and those who hate it because it won’t make war on Israel.  No doubt some of the young are just fed up they have never known another Egyptian ruler in their lifetimes. Some of the youth are democrats and others are decidedly not.

And this classy piece equating protestors with suicide bombers, as :

As street protests brought the reign of Tunisia’s president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to an end, imitators around the region lit fire to themselves, perhaps in the hope of similar results, or maybe just out of a chronic desperation that seems to have no limits. Either way, it is not merely the Arab regimes that should be worried by these popular uprisings, but anyone who fears the dangers of political activism carried out under the sign of self-murder.

“My concern is that the same people who recruit for suicide bombers are now going to start recruiting for these self-immolation operations,” says Robert Holley, a former U.S. diplomat who worked extensively in the region. “The whole aim of these guys is to destabilize these regimes.”

The person quoted here, Robert Holley, is a former State Department diplomat who, after retirement, became a paid lobbyist for the Moroccan government. The rest of Smith's piece is basically advertorial for the Moroccans. 

Anyway, Smith now has to reconcile his Strong Horse Theory (that Arabs always cheer for the strongest person around — hardly convincing in the first place, but positively odd in an age of Arab uprisings) with what must be a bothersome reality. I'm sure he will do so with brio, and Chris will have a winner.

Links for 09.03.09 to 09.04.09
US citizen deported from Egypt - Yahoo! News | AP's Paul Schemm covers Travis Randall's unexplained deportation. This almost certainly has to do with his pro-Gaza activism, IMHO.
Affaire TelQuel (Suite) + Affaire Al Jarida Al Oula (New) - Comme une bouteille jetée à la mer! | Get the censored issue of Moroccan mag TelQuel via Larbi.
Update: American deported from Egypt, computer, mobile taken « Bikya Masr | Another airport security list victim, this time American.
Robert Irwin’s “Dangerous Knowledge” « The Moor Next Door | A very detailed review by Kal.
Brian Whitaker's blog: Dutch pull the plug on website | is shutting down as Dutch government pulls funding, possibly linked to its negative reporting on Israel. In the meantime the staff put up a final message, but the site is now down. Too bad.
US embassy staff accused over 'Lord of the Flies' parties | In Afghanistan: "The dossier, compiled by the independent investigative group Project on Government Insight, includes an email allegedly from a guard currently serving in Kabul describing scenes in which guards and supervisors are "peeing on people, eating potato chips out of [buttock] cracks, vodka shots out of [buttock] cracks (there is video of that one), broken doors after drnken [sic] brawls, threats and intimidation from those leaders participating in this activity"."

Paul Bowles, from "The Sheltering Sky" to "A Life Full of Holes"
I was out to dinner with some friends last year and two of them had just seen Bertolucci's film adaptation of Paul Bowles' "The Sheltering Sky." They were having a debate over whether it was Orientalist or not. I haven't seen the film, but I'd read the first half of the novel and their discussion made me pick it up again and finish it.

I had been curious to read it in the first place after a visit to Tangiers (a city I fell in love with), where Bowles lived for decades and where he still looms large. I have to say that, even making all possible allowances, yes, it is deeply Orientalist: it exoticizes and objectifies the Algerian landscape and the Arab characters as the quintessential Other. The Western characters are self-conscious,  lost and alienated--the Arabs are unthinking, instinctual, and presented merely as impenetrable foils for the Western protagonists to act out their neuroses and self-destructive urges. The Westerners immerse themselves in an Orient that is sensual and deadly. 

So much for "The Sheltering Sky." Then recently I picked up another Bowles book, "A Life Full of Holes," which is the transcription and translation of the life story of Driss Ben Hamad Charhadi, a friend of Bowles'. I found it a very fresh, very strong work--a fascinating historical document of life under colonialism for a poor Moroccan boy struggling to survive in Tangiers, and a really gripping narrative, told in a voice that avoids explication, analysis or commentary and is all the more narratively suspenseful and emotionally moving because of that. It is also almost the opposite of "The Sheltering Sky," in that here the point of view is entirely "indigenous," there is no exoticizing and projecting, and it's the Western characters (the narrator meet and works with several) who are presented, not as stereotypes, but certainly as hard to understand. 

Bowles went on to repeat this kind of collaboration, writing several books based on the stories of Mohammed Mrabet, which I am now very eager to read. This type of collaboration, or ventriloquism, has also been used by other authors--notably Dave Eggars did in his recent acclaimed "What Is The What," the story of the life of the Sudanese Valentino Achak Deng. It raises obvious questions about the power dynamics between Western authors and their non-Western co-authors/subjects, but the results can nonetheless be excellent.