(Neo)Orientalism with an Attitude: In the Footsteps (and Beyond) of Richard Burton

Getting one’s picture taken with the Dalai Lama or the Pope will guarantee neither Buddhist enlightenment nor beatification: my apologies for shattering the hopes of some New Agers. Similarly, entering the Ka’aba in Burtonesque disguise — specially minus his arguably relevant though shifty linguistic skills and textual knowledge — will not and cannot necessarily guarantee much “learning” about Islam.

by Huma Dar

The March 10, 2010, page A27 of the New York edition of New York Times carries an Op-Ed piece by Maureen Dowd titled, “Pilgrim Non Grata in Mecca.” Dowd writes about her desire to “learn about the religion that smashed into the American consciousness on 9/11” via “sneaking” into Mecca in “a black masquerade cloak.”  Her self-proclaimed inspiration is Richard Burton’s “illicit pilgrim[age] to the sacred black granite cube…in Arab garb” thereby “infiltrat[ing] the holiest place in Islam, the Kaaba [sic].”

Dowd, however, decides to “learn about Islam” in a way “less sneaky,” “disrespectful,” or “dangerous” and yet more entitled and privileged than Richard Burton could ever have dreamed of.   She herself describes Burton as “the 19th-century British adventurer, translator of “The Arabian Nights” and the “Kama Sutra” and self-described ‘amateur barbarian.'”  The words “illicit,” “Kama Sutra,” and “infiltration” and Dowd’s voyeuristic desires resonate with the Orientalism of yore.  Moreover Dowd’s valuable US passport and USA’s special relationship with Saudi Arabia (read: enabling of the oppressive monarchy) entitle her to meet Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister — of the “sometimes sly demeanor” — on her “odyssey” to that country.  “Infiltration” in disguise is no longer required, and yet this ease of access also disguises and makes more difficult the complexity of any real learning.

Dowd “presses” al-Faisal for the privilege to watch in Mecca, the “deeply private rituals” and “gawk at the parade of religious costumes fashioned from loose white sheets” although she knows in advance that “Saudis understandably have zero interest in outraging the rest of the Muslim world.”  While talking to this high-ranking minister, Dowd bristles at al-Faisal’s reassuring suggestion that if she desired to see any mosque in a place other than in Mecca or Medina, and was prevented from doing so, all she had to do was to contact the “emir of the region” who would comply and enable the fulfillment of her desires.  (Anyone else reminded of Aladdin’s djinn/genie?)  Without conceding the irony of the situation that she, after all, is speaking to Prince al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, Dowd quips, “Sure. Just call the emir. I bet he’s listed.”   Imagine what Richard Burton would have done with the special privileges of this particular magic lamp provided by the New World Order!

Finally Dowd does indeed witness the Hajj — in an IMAX theatre watching Journey to Mecca: In the Footsteps of Ibn Battuta. Dowd, much to her surprise, makes the belated discovery that “the Kaaba [sic] was built by “Abraham, the father of the Jews” [why Jews only?]— a reminder that the faiths have a lot to learn from each other.”  It is also a reminder that journalists like Ms. Maureen Dowd have a lot of homework to do before they set out on their surely expensive travels — and I am not even including the much recommended language lessons.  Any commonly available text on Islam, for example by Karen Armstrong, Jamal Elias, Michael Sells, or Ziauddin Sardar, might have served the purpose.  Dowd could thus have avoided relying solely on the “amateur barbarian” Richard Burton or Newsweek’s own Fareed Zakaria.  The former’s scholarly credentials are hardly beyond doubt — see his problematic remarks on “Jewish human sacrifice” in The Jew, the Gipsy and el Islam (1898).  The latter’s forte is not his knowledge of Islam — or at least no more than Zakaria’s mentor, Samuel Huntington’s forte is Christianity.  Dowd might thus have disabused herself of the notion of “the sacred black granite cube.”  The “sacred black” stone is not a “cube” and neither is the “sacred cube” — the Ka’aba — all granite!

Getting one’s picture taken with the Dalai Lama or the Pope will guarantee neither Buddhist enlightenment nor beatification: my apologies for shattering the hopes of some New Agers.  Similarly, entering the Ka’aba in Burtonesque disguise — specially minus his arguably relevant though shifty linguistic skills and textual knowledge (See Parama Roy’s excellent essay for more on Burton) — will not and cannot necessarily guarantee much “learning” about Islam.  On the other hand, a trip to any local library with a willingness to read and learn, and engagement with an open mind in meaningful conversations with the (gasp!) American Muslims, might be better starting points for undertaking this particular journey.

Did the Editor of The New York Times not know the price difference between the ticket to the IMAX theatre plus membership to a local library and the cost of Dowd’s lavish travels to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia?  The Neo-Orientalist fantasy to tread in the footsteps of Sir Richard Burton is accelerated with privilege and precisely because of this privilege skips and misses its target even more widely.

It is in the spirit of a gift that I offer Ms. Dowd this image:

Labeled elements are as follows: 1 – The Black Stone; 2 – Door of the Kaaba; 3. Gutter to remove rainwater; 4 – Base of the Kaaba; 5 – Al-Hatim; 6 – Al-Multazam (the wall between the door of the Kaaba and black stone); 7 – The Station of Ibrahim; 8 – Angle of the Black Stone; 9 – Angle of Yemen; 10 – Angle of Syria; 11 – Angle of Iraq; 12 – Kiswa (veil covering the Kaaba); 13 – Band of marble marking the beginning and end of rounds; 14 – The Station of Gabriel.

Is One Iraqi’s Self-Hatred Newsworthy?

Crusaders in Iraq?

M. Shahid Alam

An Arab-American of Lebanese descent, fluent in Arabic, Anthony Shadid was one of a handful of unembedded Western journalists reporting from Iraq during the US invasion in 2003. At the time, he was The Washington Post’s correspondent for Islamic Affairs in the Middle East.

His dispatches from Iraq were about Iraqis, about the destruction visited upon them by a war whose architects claimed that they were bringing democracy to that country. He reported the destruction and mayhem caused by this war by letting the Iraqis speak for themselves: and they spoke of their pain, their anguish, their perplexity and their anger.

For his honest reporting, for a job well done, Anthony Shadid received some of the highest accolades of his profession. In 2004 he received the Michael Kelly Award and the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. Other honors followed, all well-deserved. He had won his spurs for reporting, not cheerleading, neither praising nor denouncing the United States. He was reporting for The Washington Post, a neoconservative newspaper.

On Jan 29, I noticed for the first time a report in The New York Times that carried Anthony Shadid’s byline. Was this a promotion? It was written from Halaichiya, a remote village in the southern tip of Iraq, untouched by the war. The village has never seen Americans before, neither troops nor diplomats.

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Inviting David Brooks to My Class

The Zionists are prisoners of a bad dream: they must first free themselves, break free from the prison in which they can only play the part of tormentors, if they and especially their Palestinian victims are to live normal lives.

M. Shahid Alam

On January 12, the New York Times carried an article by David Brooks on Jews and Israel. It so caught my eye, I decided to bring its conservative author to my class on the economic history of the Middle East. I sent my students the link to this article, asked them to read it carefully, and come to the next class prepared to discuss and dissect its contents.

My students recalled various parts of the NYT article but no one could explain its substance. They recalled David Brooks’ focus on the singular intellectual achievements of American Jews, the enviable record of Israeli Jews as innovators and entrepreneurs, the mobility of Israel’s innovators, etc. One student even spoke of what was not in the article or in the history of Jews – centuries of Jewish struggle to create a Jewish state in Palestine.

But they offered no comments about Brooks’ motivation. Why had he decided to brag about Jewish achievements, a temptation normally eschewed by urbane Jews. In my previous class, while discussing Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism, I had discussed how knowledge is suborned by power, how it is perverted by tribalism, and how Western writers had crafted their writings about the Middle East to serve the interests of colonial powers. Not surprisingly, this critique had not yet sunk in.

I coaxed my students, asking them directly to explore if David Brooks had an axe (or more than one) to grind. Was there an elephant in the room they had missed? What was the subtext of the op-ed?

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Native Orientalists at the Daily Times

M. Shahid Alam

The more a ruling class is able to assimilate the foremost minds of the ruled class, the more stable and dangerous becomes its rule.
–Karl Marx

A few days back, I received a ‘Dear friends’ email from Mr. Najam Sethi, ex editor-in-chief of Daily Times, Pakistan, announcing that he, together with several of his colleagues, had resigned from their positions in the newspaper.

In his email, Mr. Sethi thanked his ‘friends’ for their “support and encouragement…in making Daily Times a ‘new voice for a new Pakistan.’” Wistfully, he added, “I hope it will be able to live up to your expectations and mine in time to come.”

I am not sure why Mr. Sethi had chosen me for this dubious honor. Certainly, I did not deserve it. I could not count myself among his ‘friends’ who had given “support and encouragement” to the mission that DT had chosen for itself in Pakistan’s media and politics.

Contrary to its slogan, it was never DT’s mission to be a ‘new voice for a new Pakistan.’ The DT had dredged its voice from the colonial past; it had only altered its pitch and delivery to serve the new US-Zionist overlords. Many of the writers for DT aspire to the office of the native informers of the colonial era. They are heirs to the brown Sahibs, home-grown Orientalists, who see their own world (if it is theirs in any meaningful sense) through the lens created for them by their spiritual mentors, the Western Orientalists.

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The danger of a single story

This is a superb presentation by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie. Also see Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How to write about Africa“, and Uzodinma Iweala’s “Stop Trying to ‘Save’ Africa“. (thanks Rabee’ah)

Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice — and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.

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How Eurocentric Is Your Day?

M. Shahid Alam

Muslim AstronomersAt the outset of the classes I teach, I always address the question of bias in the social sciences. In one course – on the history of the global economy – this is the central theme. It critiques Eurocentric biases in several leading Western accounts of the rise of the global economy.

This fall, I began my first lecture on Eurocentrism by asking my students, How Eurocentric is your day? I explained what I wanted to hear from them. Can they get through a typical day without running into ideas, institutions, values, technologies and products that originated outside the West – in China, India, the Islamicate or Africa?

The question befuddled my students. I proceeded to pepper them with questions about the things they do during a typical day, from the time they wake up.

Unbeknownst, my students discover that they wake up in ‘pajamas,’ trousers of Indian origin with an Urdu-Persian name. Out of bed, they shower with soap and shampoo, whose origins go back to the Middle East and India. Their tooth brush with bristles was invented in China in the fifteenth century. At some point after waking up, my students use toilet paper and tissue, also Chinese inventions of great antiquity.

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The Absurdity of the Dalai Lama

Dalai Lama: "I love President George W. Bush"
Dalai Lama: "I love President George W. Bush"

He has been quoted as saying “Sleep is the best meditation.” May I suggest his holiness wake up to the fact that the two wars started by his friend George W. Bush are the clearest violations of his own espoused principles of peace and non-violence. Really, does no one else find it absurd that the Dalai Lama has on multiple occasions since 2001 stood unopposed to the brutal, barbaric and illegal wars first in Afghanistan and later Iraq? This sought-after personality loved by celebrities, the CIA, political leaders and civilians alike restated today in Calgary that “It’s hard to tell which category the current military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq will eventually fall into.”

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Demonising Iran

This was published in the Sunday Herald.

Two manifestations of Iranian Modernity
Two manifestations of Iranian Modernity

The mainstream media narrative of events unfolding in Iran has been set out for us as clear as fairytale: an evil dictatorship has rigged elections and now violently suppresses its country’s democrats, hysterically blaming foreign saboteurs the while. But the Twitter generation is on the right side of history (in Obama’s words), and could bring Iran back within the regional circle of moderation. If only Iran becomes moderate, a whole set of regional conflicts will be solved.

I don’t mean to minimise the importance of the Iranian protests or the brutality of their suppression, but I take issue with the West’s selective blindness when it gazes at the Middle East. The ‘Iran narrative’ contains a dangerous set of simplicities which bode ill for Obama’s promised engagement, and which will be recognised beyond the West as rotten with hypocrisy. 

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Bibi meets Obambi

When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gave Obama a copy of Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America it became an instant success on Amazon. At least Galeano’s book well deserves to be promoted and to be read by Obama.

Benjamin Netanyahu, or “Bibi” (aka, his kindergarten name), just visited president Obama in the White House where he handed him a copy of a book by Mark Twain. Tom Segev observes:

“Mark Twain despised the Arabs and Islam in general. He thought they were ‘filthy, brutish, ignorant, unprogressive [and] superstitious.’ That is a good reason for Israel’s prime minister to give Twain’s book as a gift to the president of the United States.”

Now, isn’t that a nice edifying reason for Bibi to push Twain’s book on Obambi?

Observation: Twain’s The Innocents Abroad (an account of his ‘pilgrimage’ to the holy land where he sees few arabs) has long been a staple of Zionist propaganda who have used it to claim that Palestine was a ‘land without a people’. It is featured in the propaganda handbook The Myths and Facts from which it was picked up by Joan Peters for her famous hoax From Time Immemorial, and from there it was borrowed by Alan Dershowitz.