Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Orientalism Reloaded

By Joseph El-Khoury

I Preferred Damascus to Beirut… as I found Beirut was too Westernized
European volunteer visiting the Region

We owe it to Edward Said to have brought forward the notion that there is an essential flaw in the way Western scholars over the centuries studied, observed and then reported the Orient back to their compatriots. Laden with prejudices and clichés, their ethnocentric attitude could only result in a deeply ingrained simplistic vision of a primitive people with an exotic culture living in rugged landscape. This conclusion applied as much in Central China as it did on the banks of the Nile and the Souks of Damascus.

This vision still persists today, despite the advent of the “global village” and the easy dissemination of information. Academics, volunteers from the NGO industry and professionals who come in contact deliberately or out of necessity with the Middle East seem reluctant to accept that many of the same basic psychosocial principles found in a modern Western Society would also readily apply elsewhere. This reluctance seems independent of the intentions towards the Arab world as very well meaning individual and organizations fall in the trap of glorifying behaviours and ideas that would be wholly unacceptable in their own societies.

After years of commercial exchanges, emigration, immigration and integration, the trend remains on emphasizing differences in the name of the “preservation of traditional culture in the face of imperialism”. The outcome is more misunderstanding and a divergence between those Arabs who dream of justice and prosperity and their supposed natural allies who are bent on living their Revolution by proxy from their comfy suburb in London and Berlin, while occasionally dipping their toes in the muddy alleys of Gaza and the backstreets of Baghdad.

This is a difficult conversation that I found myself having with different generations of European friends who have supported the Palestinian struggle, demonstrated against the Iraq war and fundraised for Sudanese children. Some of them dedicated years to learn the language of the natives and reveled in adopting their local customs but blinded by cultural relativism could still not accept the fact that ultimately the average native had basic universal aspirations similar to those found in the pubs of Glasgow and the tower blocks of Mantes-La-Jolie (Parisian suburb): caring relationships, decent housing, health, education, security and fewer restrictions on travel.

Unfortunately we have not yet ridden ourselves of the “exoticism” of the East and until that time comes sharing food with Bedouins on camel backs will still have more appeal then a genuine conversation with a young Middle Class Arab.

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