Latent Orientalism Part II
Part II: The Modern Legacy
by Ronald L. Iverson
Habibi Magazine, Santa Barbara, CA, Volume 14, No. 4, Fall 1995, pp. 6-9, 35.
The first article in this series, “Latent Orientalism: The Etiology of an Ideology,” which was printed in the last issue of Habibi, traced the development and perpetuation of Orientalism, a Western tradition of knowledge concerned with the Middle East. In his seminal work, Orientalism, Edward Said discusses Orientalism as the “corporate institution for dealing with the Orient—dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” (Said, Orientalism, p. 2) Underlying the academic efforts of manifest Orientalism, were the constellation of underlying attitudes and assumptions about the Orient which have remained essentially constant and unchanging through the years, called latent Orientalism by Said: “its sensuality, its tendency to despotism, its aberrant mentality, its habits of inaccuracy, its backwardness.” These attitudes were, and are still today, essentially imperialist, racist, and ethnocentric.
Said cites a striking example of the legacy of Orientalism at play in modern thinking. In February, 1972, the American Journal of Psychiatry printed an essay entitled “The Arab World,” by Harold W. Glidden, a former member of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, United States Department of State. Four references are cited for his psychological portrait of over 100 million people: a recent book on Tripoli, one issue of the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, the periodical Oriente Moderno, and a book by Majid Khadduri, a well-known Orientalist. Among the examples of “the inner workings of Arab behavior” which he offers: Arabs stress conformity; “the Arab value system demands absolute solidarity within the group”; the Arab culture is based on shame; prestige is based solely on the ability to dominate others; Islam makes a virtue of revenge; objectivity is not a value in the Arab system; Arabs do not have a highly developed consciousness of the value of time; only “success counts,” and “the end justifies the means”; “the art of subterfuge is highly developed in Arab life, as well as in Islam itself”; the Arab world is “characterized by anxiety expressed in generalized suspicion and distrust which has been labelled free-floating hostility”; Arabs can function only in conflict situations; Arabs do not consider peace to be high on the scale of values.
This is the apogee of Orientalist confidence. No merely asserted generality is denied the dignity of truth; no theoretical list of Oriental attributes is without application to the behavior of Orientals in the real world. On the one hand there are Westerners, and on the other there are Arab-Orientals; the former are (in no particular order) rational, peaceful, liberal, logical, capable of holding real values, without natural suspicion; the latter are none of these things. Out of what collective and yet particularized view of the Orient do these statements emerge? What specialized skills, what imaginative pressures, what institutions and traditions, what cultural forces produce such similarity in the descriptions of the Orient to be found in Cromer, Balfour, and our contemporary statesmen? (Ibid., p. 49)
The popularity of novelists and other writers in the nineteenth century has been replaced by the universal availability of television and other media as the primary purveyors of Orientalist imagery beyond the walls of academia. In The TV Arab (Shaheen, 1984), a powerful but hard-to-find study of Arab images on modern television, Dr. Jack Shaheen (Professor Emeritus of Mass Communications at Southern Illinois University) points out that an episode of a popular TV show may be seen by 40 million people the first time it is shown; with reruns, that balloons to 150 million viewers or more. With the help of his family and friends, Shaheen documented over 100 different popular entertainment programs beginning in 1975.
Turn to any channel, to any show from Benson to Hart to Hart television is full of Arab baddies — billionaires, bombers and belly dancers. They are virtually the only TV images of Arabs viewers ever see…Television tends to perpetuate four basic myths about Arabs: they are all fabulously wealthy; they are barbaric and uncultured; they are sex maniacs with a penchant for white slavery; and they revel in acts of terrorism. Yet, just a little surface probing reveals that these notions are as false as the assertions that Blacks are lazy, Hispanics are dirty, Jews are greedy, and Italians are criminals. After all, like every national or ethnic group, Arabs are made up of good decent people, with the usual mix of one-percenters, the bad apples found in any barrel. (Ibid., p. 4)
Shaheen documented and corrected several other common myths about the Arab:
1. Arabs are buying up America: According to U.S. Department of Commerce reports, “The members of the OPEC together accounted for less than one percent of the total” of direct foreign investment in the U.S. during 1980. (Ibid., p. 13) He also indicated that perceptions of the wealth of the Arabs is greatly exaggerated: “In 1979, Libya and the wealthier oil-producing countries of the Arabian Gulf — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates — had an average per capita income of slightly more than $12,000. (U.S. per capita income in 1979 was $10,6000). According to a 1981 World Bank Development Report, the other Arab cultures had a per capita income of less than $850 per year.”
2. OPEC is synonymous with Arab: Only half of the OPEC members are Arab nations. Shaheen quotes Newsweek (March 12, 1984, p. 12) “The United States obtains only about 5 percent of its imported oil from the (Arabian) Gulf. Saudi Arabia (is in) sixth place, behind Mexico, Canada, Venezuela, Britain and Indonesia.”
3. Iranians are Arabs: Iranians are primarily Aryans, not Semites. They speak Farsi, not Arabic.
4. All Arabs are Moslems: The mass media does not portray the diversity present within Islam, or the complex historical and contemporary interrelationship between Islam, Christianity and Judaism in the Middle East.
5. Arabs are white slavers and uncivilized rulers of kingdoms: There is no market for slaves in contemporary Middle Eastern society. Ironically, slave trading existed in England until the early 19th century.
6. Palestinians are terrorists: There are 4.4 million Palestinians who have been deprived of their homeland. This stereotype belies the incredible diversity of the Palestinian people, many of whom live successfully and peacefully in other parts of the Middle East and other countries.
7. Intra-Arab Strife: Contrary to portrayals of the Arab family as being self-destructive, the family ties in the Arab world are extremely strong. TV shows “portray the Arab woman as dominated by men. Backward and confined by the harem, she usually submits to her master’s wishes, but her subservient charm seldom attracts the master. The progressive Arab woman, as TV would have it, is often too good for the Arab male. Her liberal behavior sometimes results in a death sentence pronounced by members of her own family. Father and brothers appear as uncivilized men with mute bodyguards. The sons fight each other to gain control of the father’s kingdom.” (Shaheen, Ibid., p. 17) What TV does not convey is that family life in the Arab world is much the same as anywhere else: people have a sense of family and cultural roots; they experience the joy of birth, the sadness of death; they fall in love, feel loyalty; they also experience conflict, jealousy, and betrayal. Shallow caricatures take the life out of a people.
8. Arabs are the World’s Enemies: Arabs are portrayed as reckless spenders on TV, and we are conditioned to be suspicious when Arab businessmen are involved. There are few business deals involving Arabs which are portrayed as being based on friendship. Yet, Saudi Arabia is one of the largest philanthropic donors in the world, and Prince Talal Ibn Abdul Aziz is a dedicated fund-raiser for UNICEF. There are 47 Rotary Clubs, and 68 Lion’s Clubs in the Middle East. The U.S. government policy officially invites Arab investment and trade. Over 40,000 Americans work in Saudi Arabia for over 500 U.S. firms.
As Shaheen points out, “Most perceptions of Arabs today come not from real knowledge but from faulty and simplistic assumptions. The writer and producer, in cooperation with broadcast standards officials, will convey a truer image when they begin to see Arabs — indeed all people — as the multifaceted beings they are.” (Ibid., p. 20) There is a process of dehumanization inherent in these caricatures of Arabs, which is permitted and inspired by the absence of knowledge and feeling for who the Arabs really are.
In a recent interview, Don Bustany (former president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Arab-American Antidiscrimination Committee, and current cochair of the Arab/Jewish speakers bureau) singled out the rich sheik, the camel, and the belly dancer as the most common associations that Westerners have of the Middle East. He referred to the character of the evil, wealthy Moroccan Prince on recent episodes of “The Bold and the Beautiful” who kidnapped the American beauty for his own romantic purposes. This negative stereotyping sparked strong protest from the Arab-American community. The bomber has joined company with the sheik, the camel and the belly dancer stereotypes. Strong reactions were created among Arab-Americans recently when an innocent Palestinian and his family were harassed when he was accused of the Oklahoma City bombing. He was a well-acculturated, long-standing and productive resident of Oklahoma City who had no connection to the bombings or any other terrorist activities.
In a brief, but often-reprinted article, Dr. Fadwa El Guindi, an Egyptian-American anthropologist/filmmaker at UCLA, reviewed CNN’s coverage of the gulf war:
When President Bush reported significant decisions about war in the Gulf at his weekend retreat, smiling at reporters and swinging his golf club in a carefree, confident manner, he was affecting a masculinized language of controlled domination over a defiant, resource-rich world of Arabs and Islam.
It is a world painted in the minds of the West by Orientalist imaginations of an effeminate, sexy East, one filled with harems, voluptuous belly dancers and blue-veiled men on horses and camels in the desert. It is a fantasy created by Orientalists, come true in Hollywood, of a world the West has a subliminal desire to penetrate, to dominate.
This romanticized imagery, though, is harshly challenged by the memory of Arabs defeating Crusaders, and recently of almost two decades of humiliation by an Islamic Revolution and an omnipresent Khomeini, from Americans held hostage, marines blown out of Beirut, and now Saddam Hussein, strong, defiant…
How convenient that the “Indians” in this drama are Arabs. The viewer is already conditioned from the familiar portrayal on television and in Hollywood films to think of Arabs as hook-nosed wealthy sheiks, subordinate veiled women, dark-skinned terrorists or Muslim fanatics. Not a pretty picture. The only moments during the conflict that Iraqis were shown as persons were those of undignified surrender – Iraqi soldiers capitulating, described as lice-ridden, dirty, starved, dehydrated and disoriented because of their uncaring cruel leadership. One telling scene was that of an Iraqi captive kissing the boots of a U.S. soldier in the desert. The effect of a certain framing and camera angle and a selectivity of material edited into the broadcast news created an image of humiliation – the ultimate submission to Western colonial powers. Bowing to the West and kissing its feet, the East (Arabs and Muslims) was finally subdued, subordinated, conquered. (El Guindi, “Images of Domination…”, p. 23)
It is ironic that the male-dominated point of view of latent Orientalism is so pervasive and insidious that it has even crept into the thinking of one of the groups that one would think would be least susceptible to it, Western feminists. In a recent conversation, Dr. El Guindi described this paradoxical situation:
Part of the cultural colonization which accompanied the physical colonization of the Middle East was the Orientalist portrayal of Arabs as weak and in need of being saved by the West. Westerners were in a hierarchical position to Arabs; they were superiors painting a picture of their inferiors. This is also true of Western feminists today, who seem committed to presenting Moslem women as being weak and subordinate objects to be saved by the more liberated Westerners. Perhaps this is part of the feminist’s own liberation process. Arab women are actually very strong within their own culture. (El Guindi, personal interview, 1995)
Orientalism and the Arab self-image
The Middle East itself is not immune to the Orientalist influence. Middle Eastern culture absorbed much from the English and French during the colonial period, and in this century of the global village, American sensibilities are everywhere. Dr. Al Guindi pointed out that one of the biggest problems posed by the Orientalist influence for many Middle Eastern people, especially those in America, is that they have internalized the Orientalized image they learned from the colonial culture and the media:
They build their own self image according to the definitions of others made of them. They try to live up to the Orientalized ideal which they learned. But it is not an accurate picture, it is almost like a caricature. This internalization of misperceptions is almost more dangerous than the actual misperceptions by Westerners. For instance, Arab men have learned that it increases their maleness to show off their wealth, whether they are wealthy or not. They express their machismo by giving away their money in a decadent fashion, by throwing it away on a belly dancer. That is the ideal that they have learned from the movies and biased scholarship, the image of wealth and extravagance of Arabs. This behavior is a product of the sudden new wealth in the Middle East, but there is no basis for it in their original cultures. (Ibid.)
Jack Shaheen also felt the impact of this negative imagery: “For years I watched hordes of TV Arabs parade across the screen. It was a disturbing experience, similar to walking into those mirrored rooms at amusement parks where all you see is distorted self images.” (Shaheen, 1984, p. 5)
On the day of the O.J. verdict, actor and talk-show host Charles Grodin was extremely upset with the speed with which the jury had come to its decision. On his program the next day, he demonstrated a remarkable ability to look critically at his own prejudices and thought patterns in the following statement: “If the jury had come in with a guilty verdict in four hours, I probably wouldn’t have had a problem with it…and that shows there is something wrong with me.” He realized that his hypothesized failure to criticize a quick guilty verdict, when he was so critical of and upset by a quick not guilty verdict, represented a yielding of objectivity to an emotionally charged preconception that O.J. was guilty. Although this preconception was not necessarily a racially based one, the dynamics of the thought/emotional process which Grodin alluded to are very similar to racial bias.
We can focus blame on the Orientalists of the nineteenth century, on the TV producers who mindlessly perpetuate caricatures, on those “red neck” others, etc., but we cannot escape from our connectedness to the rest of Western culture. We accept the negative stereotypes which we are fed because they find resonance with our own upbringing and cultural heritage. Prejudice begins at home. “I am a bigot” is to racial prejudice as “I am an alcoholic” is to alcoholism. The first step is to admit that “there is something wrong with me,” even if in a small way, as Charles Grodin did. If we deny that we have negative thought patterns, they will remain below the surface where they will be more powerful in their influence on our thinking.
Recognizing our “incorrect” attitudes does not change them. Our feelings and thought patterns are deeply ingrained habits that are difficult to completely uproot and discard. No one likes to admit that they are prejudiced: prejudice is “BAD.” Our tendency is to zealously defend the “goodness” of our nature, and we are therefore unwilling to admit fault. However, by maintaining an open and vigilant attitude toward ourselves, a posture of self-discrimination, with a friendly, forgiving, accepting and welcoming attitude toward our “dark side,” our preconceptions will be allowed to surface where they will have less power. We can then make a conscious decision to not blindly follow their dictates. We can just comfortingly pat ourselves and say, “Oh, there it is again,” and learn to replace the old behavior pattern with a new, more appropriate one.
Prejudice feeds on incorrect and missing information. How much do we really know, and how much are we assuming to be true? A concerted effort to become informed about the realities of the Arab people and their culture will help to uproot unsupported prejudices: develop relationships with Middle Eastern people, travel and live in the Middle East, learn more about Arab history, their civilization and accomplishments (see Shaheen’s TV Arab, and partial reprint in this issue of his chapter, “In Search of the Arabs”), etc.
Orientalism and belly dance
As Western students of Middle Eastern dance, have we helped to foster a more accurate understanding of Arab culture, or have we served to disseminate Orientalist misconceptions? Bustany pointed out that belly dancing is one of the few elements of Middle Eastern culture that Americans get to see. He wonders if an inaccurate and distorted impression of Arab women and culture is being created when the type of dancing which is done here is westernized and does not represent a true cross-section of the traditional dances of the Middle East. Has belly dance as it exists in the West today inherited a heavy dose of the sexual fantasies of latent Orientalism? Even Habibi unwittingly participates in a kind of perpetuation of Orientalism, however sympathetic, in its attempts to accurately and objectively chronicle the development of Oriental dance.
Orientalism provided many of the historical foundations for belly dance in the West: pseudo-Oriental dancers, catering to the Orientalist fantasies of the nineteenth century, had become popular in French music halls; after the Chicago World’s Fair, “Hoochy Koochy” became a craze in American vaudeville houses, theaters, and traveling carnival shows. (Carlton, Looking for Little Egypt) Early dance pioneers in America based much of their research on historical accounts of the dance as it existed in the Middle East in the eighteenth and nineteenth century by such often-quoted sources as Lane, Flaubert, Burton, etc., writings which were laced with Orientalist distortions. These Orientalist foundations have coexisted in the Western Belly Dance movement with the successful efforts of many dancers and academicians to present Oriental dance traditions in their authentic forms.
It is especially difficult to separate out the Orientalist influence in dance because of the effect Orientalism has had on the culture of the Middle East itself. In addition to the earlier absorption of Western culture during the colonial period, in this century Hollywood has had a powerful influence on the film, dance and music world of Cairo and other metropolitan areas of the Middle East. Included in that influence are many of the Orientalist sexual fantasies discussed above. (This is what was affectionately known in my college Sociology classes as “the pizza effect”: Italians had never seen a pizza as we know it in America until Italian-Americans brought it back to the homeland, and American tourists began to demand it.) In responding to Western influence, the tradition of Oriental dance in the Middle East has changed and developed along certain lines. The question of authenticity has become less clear, especially in the night clubs of the more Westernized, larger cities. In spite of Western influences, however, aspects of the traditional roots of the dance in the Middle East remain intact, even in the night clubs. The dance as it is performed in its cultural milieu certainly has a flavor and quality that cannot be found anywhere else. For instance, Egyptians can easily differentiate between local, regional and “foreign” dance styles and influences. Oriental dance is a fluid, changing form. Perhaps questions of taste, style, and artistic merit are as important as questions of authenticity as raks sharqi continues to develop both in the Middle East and the West.
Representing the Orient
How can we avoid Orientalist misrepresentation? How is it possible to describe anything without misrepresenting it to some extent? Said grapples with the problem of whether anything can be truly represented, for any representation by definition is not the thing itself. His conclusion is that the difference between representation and misrepresentation is a matter of degree. “We must be prepared to accept the fact that a representation is eo ipso implicated, intertwined, embedded, interwoven with a great many other things besides the ‘truth,’ which is itself a representation.” (Said, Ibid., p. 272). Even the most sophisticated fields of modern social science attempt to discover more universal truths by generalizing from particular experiences. However, the broader the generalization, the more room there is for unsupported assumptions and stereotypes, and the greater is the potential for misrepresentation.
Said points to the necessity of connecting generalizations to “raw reality.” For instance, if we notice that we have a particular kind of recurring experience when interacting with Middle Eastern people, it is easy to jump, as have Orientalists for centuries, to racial assumptions about the Arab mind. Who exactly are we talking about when we say, “That is how the Arabs are?” How many Arabs do we know? From how many countries do they come? Is the characteristic we are describing really more prevalent among Arabs than other groups of people? How much is our “objective” experience of Arabs colored by our own habits of perception and thinking (i.e., latent Orientalism)?
That is not to say that there are not differences between people; however, if we find recurring characteristics or behaviors in a group of people, it is more likely that we are dealing with cultural influences, rather than racial differences. However, culture is a complex human reality of experiences, interactions, meanings, and values that are always in process. Cultures do not have a given unified identity that can be received; representing a culture involves complex negotiations of understanding and judgment across a range of cultural variables and particular aspects of a way of life. When we make generalizations about a people, critical thinking, thorough research, and careful language will help to avoid the abyss of stereotyping and racial bias.
The Orientalist discourse remains a powerful and insidious influence on contemporary thinking about the Orient. However, Said ends on an optimistic note: “Positively, I do believe — and in my other work have tried to show — that enough is being done today in the human sciences to provide the contemporary scholar the insights, methods, and ideas that could dispense with racial, ideological, and imperialist stereotypes of the sort provided during its historical ascendancy by Orientalism.” (Ibid., p. 328) Said sees Orientalism’s failure as not having identified with human experience, as not having faced the human encounter between different cultures. He points to the ethical and political consequences of the study of human experience. In his After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives (1986), Said offers a clear example of a “study” in which the Oriental as object, and Said as subject, are strikingly and unmistakably present. Said shows (the photographs are wonderfully intimate) and tells stories of real human experience from the dual perspective of someone who is both an insider and an outsider. Yet his “objectivity” does not prevent him from being clear about the roots of his experience and his political and ethical agenda.
Said grew up and was educated in two British Colonies (Palestine and Egypt), and it is clear that he is angry at the injustices he and others have suffered because they have been “constituted as an Oriental.” (Said, Orientalism, p. 26) “In many ways, my study of Orientalism has been an attempt to inventory the traces upon me, the Oriental subject, of the culture whose domination has been so powerful a factor in the life of all Orientals.” (Ibid., p. 25)
However, in spite of the “oppositional” position he takes as intellectual critic in Orientalism, in the end Said makes it clear that his intent is to unify, not divide. If he makes us uncomfortable as he indirectly invites us to inventory the traces of Orientalism in our own thinking, leads us to reevaluate our own perceptions and assumptions, to clarify our own motives and goals, he is clearing the way for the kind of interpersonal and cross-cultural connections that can form a foundation for greater global harmony.
The problem then is to make the study fit and in some way be shaped by the experience, which would be illuminated and perhaps changed by the study. At all costs, the goal of Orientalizing the Orient again and again is to be avoided, with consequences that cannot help but refine knowledge and reduce the scholar’s conceit. Without “the Orient” there would be scholars, critics, intellectuals, human beings, for whom the racial, ethnic, and national distinctions were less important than the common enterprise of promoting human community. (Ibid.)
*In the last part of the 19th century, Western photographers in Egypt provided their receptive European audience with staged and posed scenes which tourists were convinced were enacted daily in the narrow streets their guides hurried them past. This exploitative stereotype of an unveiled woman, with her heavy-lidded reverie and smoldering cigarette, evokes sensual states associated with the use of hashish. From Excursions Along the Nile: the Photographic Discovery of Ancient Egypt, Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Analysis from essay by Kathleen Stewart Howe, pp. 41-43; photo p. 137. Travelers in an Antique Land: Early Travel Photography in Egypt exhibition itinerary: the Carleton University Art Gallery, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Feb. 4 – April 14, 1996; the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO, Oct. 20 – Dec. 3, 1996; the Field Museum of Chicago and the U. of Pennsylvania (contact for dates). Catalog available through The U. of New Mexico Press, 1720 Lomas Blvd. NE, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87131, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art Bookstore, 1130 State St., Santa Barbara, CA, 93101.
Bustany, Don (former President, American-Arab Antidiscrimination Committee, Los Angeles) personal interview, July 3, 1995.
Carlton, Donna, Looking for Little Egypt, I.D.D. Books, Bloomington, Indiana, 1995.
Clifford, James, Review of Orientalism, in History and Theory: Studies in the Philosophy of History, Vol. XIX, No. 2, 1980 pp. 204-223.
The Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory: Approaches, Scholars, Terms, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1993, pp. 155, 461-463.
Foucault, Michel, The Order of Things, New York: Random House, 1971.
El Guindi, Fadwa, personal interview, July 3, 1995.
El Guindi, Fadwa, “Images of Domination, Voices of Control: Covering the Gulf War,” International Documentary: Journal of Nonfiction Film and Video, Spring, 1991, p. 23.
Grewgious, Review of Orientalism, Critical Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 4, pp. 87-98.
The John Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism, JHV Press, Baltimore, 1994, pp. 582, 642-4.
Kapp, Robert A., Michael Dalby, David Kopf, and Richard H. Minear, “Review Symposium: Edward Said’s Orientalism,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 39, no. 3, May 1980, pp. 481-517.
Rassam, Amal, and Ross Chambers, “Comments on Orientalism: Two Reviews,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Cambridge University Press, Vol. 22, No. 4, October, 1980, pp. 505-512.
Said, Edward W., After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives, Photos by Jean Mohr, Pantheon Books, New York, 1986.
Said, Edward W., Orientalism, Vintage Books, N.Y., 1979.
Shaheen, Jack G., The TV Arab, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, Bowling Green, OH, 1984.
Ronald Lloyd Iverson, Ph.D., served as assistant editor and layout design for Habibi from 1992 to 2002, and continues to assist in the production of The Best of Habibi. He has Bachelors degrees in Sociology (Pomona College) and Religious Studies (UCSB), a Masters degree in Counseling Psychology (Cal Poly), and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology (Pacifica Graduate Institute). He worked for 25 years as a child custody mediator and evaluator with the Superior Court in Santa Barbara, and is currently a psychotherapist in private practice. Email: email@example.com.