Orientalism

Bismillahir Rahmānir Raheem.

‘Orientalism’: a (rather famous) book written by one Edward Said (pronounced ‘Saeed’) and a book that my friend has been asked by her soon-to-be uni (Insha Allah) to write an essay on. A conversation with her has inspired this here article. It is currently just after 5AM, and I do not know why, but I am feeling inspired to write.

Through whose eyes do we come to look at the world? Through whose perspective do we come to look at our own selves? What do portrayals of ‘others’ tell us?

A momentary, fleeting piece of artwork. Or, a word. A concept, shrouded in mystery. What the mind intends, what the eye then sees, and what the imagination ‘fills in the gaps’ for. ‘Mystical’, and ‘mysterious’. Detestable, and ‘overly sensual’. [‘Hedonists’ or ‘gluttons’ in Arabic: Shahwāneeyoon. I learnt this from listening to Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, and I so love this word]. Indulgent, and depraved, and yet, in the same breath: desirable, alluring, and ‘exotic’.

Funny, no, how the ‘smart one’, at once admired for his intelligence, is also, in the same breath, derided for being ‘unable to have fun’. Or how the one who is complimented for being pretty, before, perhaps, she can even speak, is also accused of being vain. The one with the outgoing and fun personality: well, he must be wholly ‘unserious’, ‘incapable’ of course.

Like it matters when it comes to serve one’s own ego. Or, if one feels challenged. And they must also be kept down somehow, except when it serves to serve them. A person might be ‘smart’ when it comes to needing help with something, and yet suddenly ‘has no life’ when it comes to… Person A wanting to feel superior to Person B, or comforting themselves, somehow. A man might be ‘generous’ when it comes to seeking his financial assistance and such, and yet… ‘laughable’ in whom he is, when it comes to Person A wanting to continue to enact superiority over Person B. ‘Orientalism’ is exaggeration, distortion, imagination: for seeming ‘better’, and (generally driven by) for worse.

“Sure, s/he has those things better than me. But, still, at least…”

Sure, these mystified depictions of the East might contain concentrated impressions of how… ‘fun’, ‘exotic’, colourful in its culture and traditions, ‘adventurous’, community-orientated, in-touch-with-nature and all those places are. Yet ‘at least’ we have: these ‘morals’ and such, which ‘render us superior’.

Do we let ourselves look at ourselves through eyes that seek to use us when it serves them, and then debase us when it… serves them? Through whose eyes do we look at the world, and at ourselves? Are they fair, and accurate, and complete and nuanced views? What might the intentions of the looker be? And why just a picture? What things does a picture, or a word or two, or a post on social media necessarily not show?

A fascination and an envy, mixed with a disdain. A fascination mixed with an egoic self-serving end goal in mind, perhaps. A dehumanisation, a snipping of all the necessary smaller pieces; a reduction to only images. Through the perspectives of whom, exactly? And what grants their ways of looking weight and legitimacy?

I came across ‘Orientalism’ during an English lesson in Year Twelve. I had an exceptional English teacher, Masha Allah. We read an excerpt or a few of the book, and I was fascinated. These things we’d known, somewhere in our minds, put into words. For example: to people living in parts of the East, those things are just… parts of life. Just the fabric of things. And then, when looked at through external eyes: some sort of additional meaning might be superimposed. A fascination, an envy, a desire to ‘academically interrogate’; seek to ‘make sense’ of things that already might make complete sense to those living within the reality of it. Like how Americans might seem to appreciate ‘British culture’, simplifying it to: high tea, crumpets, strong accents which many of us… don’t have. I mean, this isn’t exactly, I don’t think, in the same spirit as ‘Orientalism’: Orientalism might refer to a seemingly ‘extremely positive’ representation of something, inaccurate though, and just a thin covering of huge actual negative sentiment towards it.

In any case, of social media, pictures of places, pictures (literal and figurative) of people, compliments (which ought to be, perhaps, taken with a pinch of salt sometimes) and criticisms (with a pinch of sugar, maybe), portrayals of, say… Muslim women [we ‘pitiable, passive victims’ of ‘Islam’, and we, in the same breath, ‘punishable and disgusting aggressors’. Both ‘victim’ and ‘villain‘]:

Is it a fair view? Where has it come from? What are its limitations? Strengths? How many examples have been considered, here? Whose voice might be ‘speaking on their behalf’, and what is their background/character? Intention? How complete is this representation; how accurate? [Nature, Origin, Purpose. Essential things to consider and dissect]. I’m not quite sure if this made any sense at all but I hope it did.


With Salaam, Sadia, 2021.

3 thoughts on “Orientalism

  1. What a thought provoking article Masha’Allah! You’ve made such amazing points and I’ll be sure to keep them in mind as I get through the book! It really is so interesting! And you’ve just reminded me why 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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