Orientalism; personal recollections
The first problem we encounter with a word as broad in meaning as "orientalism" is the question of how to define it. There is of course orientalist painting, music, and literature; but these are expressions of orientalism thought, not orientalism per se. There is academic orientalism, such as the various Departments of Oriental Studies scattered throughout western universities. At the same time, orientalism can be said to have influenced government policy world wide (as indeed it still does), whilst orientalism pervades popular culture in the West. Most importantly, it can be said that
- orientalism is a "European" invention
- orientalism relies on a division of reality along ethnic, geographic, cultural, moral, technological lines et al into two categories: the orient, and the occident.
- orientalism is a template that Europeans have used and continue to use to examine and make sense of what they have historically called the orient, the east, using comparatives such as far, near, middle, and central.
- although orientalism has been used as an interpretive framework that has been applied at different times to more than half the world's population, it carries within it inherent values and biases that in large part predetermine the outcome of its application in any given situation
- orientalism has been responsible for the creation and perpetuation of perceived "differences" between the occident and the orient.
these following points are a bit more debatable:
- orientalism tells us more about the Europeans who invented and use it than it does about the orient it was developed to analyse and understand.
- orientalism is the creator of the distinction between orient and occident, yet could not exist without this seemingly fundamental demarcation of reality.
- orientalism is perpetuated by Europeans to "deal with" the orient. There are grounds on which to suggest that a similar process occurs presently, known as "occidentalism", perpetuated by orientals to "deal with" the occident.
Sarajevo (Bosnia i Hercegovina), 23rd January 2002
The occident and orient of orientalism exist as irredeemable opposites in the orientalist frame of mind. In orientalist thought, east and west exist as physical and mental locations. However, east and west can only exist in relation to one another, and more importantly, in relation to a "central" point which defines them as "opposite extremes". Is there a point where it is possible to simply cross between "east" and "west", with no transition inbetween? If there is a "transition zone" where is it located (physically, conceptually) and how is it viewed?
I travelled through countries like Hungary, Croatia, Bosnia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey because I was interested in the history of the Ottoman expansion into that broad area of "Europe".
However, it was in Sarajevo that I experienced, in its strongest form, the feeling of no longer knowing whether I was located in the "east", or the "west", for the first time. 150 years of Ottoman occupation of Hungary had resulted (after the Hapsburg "liberation" of 1686) in two mosques, three hamams, and generations of resentment and self-pity. In Bosnia, on the other hand, the Ottoman influence felt altogether deeper. In Sarajevo we walked down the streets of the inner city (the old Turkish town) and saw "Europeans" with blonde hair and blue eyes worshipping in 500-year old Ottoman mosques. The Bezesten, Ottoman luxury-goods markets, were still in use. The primary Catholic, Jewish, Serbian orthodox, and Muslim places of worship were all within one or two streets of each other. The historic Muslim cemetery was still in use and overlooked the Hapsburg-built town hall, which had been practically destroyed during heavy shooting (which was across the river from the sixteenth-century "Emperor" mosque). We visited the local Han, the urban equivalent of a Caravanserai, which was still in use as lodging for merchants. Music would alternate between Serbian folk-pop music (pop-narodna) and Turkish-influenced music sung in Arabic from one shop to another.
Throughout the majority of eastern and central Europe, the collective memory of Ottoman occupation or invasion is remembered negatively. Thus, in Bulgaria, 500 years (of Ottoman rule) is referred to as "the yoke". However, in Albania, Macedonia and Bosnia, the experience is remembered differently, and has become one of the primary cultural inheritances of the people who live there. Perhaps "eastern Europeans" recognise that, if there is to be an "orient" and an "occident", they are consigned to live on the occidental periphery. In such a scenario, self definition ceases to be an abstract question of templates and frameworks as they apply to distant peoples, instead becoming an issue of identity and survival as European, and (hopefully) not Oriental concepts.
Hoi An (Viet Nam), 31st January 2001
Throughout the time I spent in Viet Nam, it was not at all uncommon to receive invitations from relative strangers to come to lunch at their houses. I had met a young man who invited me for lunch to meet his family in Hoi An, a small, pleasant town. The town itself has an historic French quarter from the nineteenth century, Chinese and Japanese merchant quarters of greater antiquity, and the historic sections are regarded as UNESCO world heritage sites. I had to follow a relatively busy street into the suburbs to find the house of my friend and his family. Eventually, I found his house and we sat down to a delicious meal. We sat at a table outside the house, on the veranda, and looked out onto the suburban scene. After we had ate our fill and the table was being cleared, I noticed for the first time the design on the table. It was an enlarged photograph that covered the entire circular surface. The photograph was taken of an interior (a living room) from an affluent western home. The carpet and couches were white and plush, behind which large windows framed a pleasant grassy garden. A sleek red sports car was parked outside. No people were depicted in the photograph, which reminded me of something out of an Ikea catalogue.
Similar imagery can be seen in certain varieties of Chinese and Vietnamese ancestor worship joss paper, which can be bought in such exotic locales as Richmond, Springvale, Box Hill and Footscray.
Galata (Türkiye), 17th February 2002
For as long as the city presently known as Istanbul (formally known as Byzantium and Constantinople) has enjoyed any real power or prosperity, there have been merchants and foreigners present in the city.
And for as long as there have been merchants and foreigners present in Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul, there have also been emperors and sultans who have tried their utmost to separate what was consistently viewed as an undesirable element from their own subjects.
Therefore, for as long as there has been power, prosperity, merchants/foreigners and emperors, there has been a place where the merchants/foreigners have been kept separate from the rest of the population.
The merchant's quarter went by many different names and was inhabited by many different groups of people (most notably the Genoese, of Galata tower fame). It was placed at a suitable distance from the goings-on of the various Byzantines and Ottomans who didn't want anything to do with merchant caste trash. The Bosphorous provided an excellent natural border, so what is today Eminönü grew up on one side, whilst on the other, Galata developed as the merchant/foreigner area.
However, the rise of reform-minded sultans in the nineteenth century coincided with the seeming imperative to modernise and try to adopt a more "European" approach generally. Galata became a great laboratory experiment for these Eurocentric sultans, who invested a significant amount of capital into transforming Galata into Stamboul's European showcase. The first subway, tramline, European-style apartment housing and foreign embassies were all built first in Galata, as were the first spy networks (to keep track of progress).
Most importantly, as a result of these initiatives, Galata came to be viewed as radical, forward-looking, reform-minded, modern and European, while Eminönü was the absolute antithesis: steeped in oriental squalour and debauchery, out-dated, inefficient, despotic, irrational, and something of an embarrassment.
Today the situation has developed a step further: with the exception of Taksim square in the centre of Galatasaray, most of Galata is of little real interest to tourists. Eminönü and Sultanahmet in particular are far more popular, containing treasures such as the Aya Sofia, Sultanahmet Camii, the Süleymaniye Camii, Rustem Pasa Camii, Yeni Camii, the Hippodrome, Topkapi palace, the notable museums, and most of the affordable accommodation. The European-style apartments of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries still stand in Galata, but they stand in a state of decay and neglect.
To get away from the endless touts and tourists of backpacker's Istanbul my only recourse was to cross the Bosphorous and enter, as a foreigner, the area previously reserved for foreigners.
- Edward W. Said, Orientalism, Penguin (London), 1995
- Roger Benjamin, Orientalism - Delacroix to Klee, AGNSW, 1997
- R A Crighton, The Floating World - Japanese Popular Prints 1700 - 1900, HMSO (London), 1973
- Vietnamese and Chinese ancestor worship joss paper, Viet Nam, China.