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Cataloging the catalogers

It may seem disingenuous, or at worst mocking, to say that I have to work at decolonizing my mind. As the beneficiary of generations of imperialism, I have to continually unravel my automated thoughts about other peoples and cultures to not only better understand them but to better understand myself. I believe that if you are not always deconstructing your beliefs, reevaluating them in the face of new information, you become stagnant and dull. It’s exhausting, but it’s important.

When I first read Edward Said’s Orientalism last year, I came with the understanding that I was an enlightened thinker ready to absorb new wisdom. Yet what happened was a cold slap in the face. At the same time I was beginning research on my thesis and had to question my motives. “Do I really have a right to study the writing of another culture? How can I do due diligence if I cannot completely dissolve my mind of Western thinking? Is that thinking, at times invisibly interwoven with thoughts, denying me the opportunity to think about other cultures in the first place? Where does my privilege end? And, most importantly, is it enough just to acknowledge that privilege?

Said’s introduction reads like an old letter from my smartest friend. He is engaging and thoughtful and unflinching in his analysis. In a brilliant way he is cataloging the catalogers – highlighting and questioning the systematic creation of the “Orient” as a point of reference to Europe, or the “Occident.” Writers, scholars, travelers create and reinforce this romantic and subordinate view of a geographical area filled with disparate cultures. To create in a way of “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” (73). Said pares down what he intends to address as the “Orient” and makes me reflect on my own assumptions of what the “Orient” means – in my case, mainly as an American, the Far East. And while I was a little disappointed that he would be dealing directly with Japan – because of my thesis – Said’s introduction insisted that I still had much to gain by reading about the systematic ‘Othering’ being done by Europe. He was, of course, correct, that while, no colony of Great Britain, Japan learned important lessons about imperialism from its close Western friend; a friend who had particularly interest in defining Japan by its own army of diplomats, scholars, writers and ‘Japanologists.’ The colonization is more in thought than body, but the importation of Western ideas of dominance still has a lasting effect.

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Said is also the first theorist, outside of Derrida, that gave me confidence in my own style of reading. His contrapuntal reading of texts feels similar to how I approach well-known texts. Of course, I do not have the  need to establish a new critical discipline in order to deconstruct misleading notions about non-Western cultures, but his approach allows me to find comfort in my unwillingness to accept historical theories about text. Always questioning why we think the way we do, is imperative. One must always reexamine the body of knowledge upon which one stands.

It’s that natural antagonism that made me refuse the red-white-and-blue ribbon my mother handed me after the World Trade Center attacks. It was a few days after the event and I was still sleep-deprived and reeling from my work at the newspaper that week. I couldn’t take it. It felt false. I couldn’t make myself become part of some wave of patriotic sentimentality. As Dr. Clemens states in her video, the events of that day were “too big”  and to distill my reaction to a patriotic display seemed insufficient in this new world.

Circling the wagons may provide a sense of safety, but it severely blocks your view.

[For the record, my mother understood my hesitation, and was not insulted. She is my mother, after all, and has had plenty of practice of dealing with my contrarian nature.]

Even so, I held similar beliefs about the veil. The veil was not a choice, it was a symbol of oppression. It was all too easy to slip this essentialist idea into my thinking because, as a Western white woman, a right to define feminism is part of our culture (though we continually define it narrowly). The veil as symbol also found an easy home in my brain due to my atheism and my questions about raising children to believe in their parents’ religion. I had already flirted with the idea of calling that indoctrination when it came to my Christian neighbors; here, after 9/11 was a perfect illustration for that point. At the time I knew no women who wore the veil, or the hijab, or the burka. Today is different, and I was wrong. The veil is also a symbol of a woman’s choice, and empowering act in defiance of the Western world’s need to make her a victim, at best, or an enemy, at worst. I realized that I was guilty of falling for the ‘other’ argument.

I do not define the veil I do not wear.

And who defines the three women in the these texts. Is it the Western journalist who finds the story? The publisher who packages and markets the book? Is it the audience, who may feel justified in their previous beliefs about Islam, or a self-satisfying sense of compassion just for reading them? The “phoenix stories” as Dr. Clemens calls them, have a powerful way of reinforcing the ‘Other’ narrative in a way that may not speak to hard-line conservatives, but soft-hearted liberals (those are essentialist statements made merely to make a point, problematic yes, as I would call myself a hard-line liberal, but I digress, again). Do these books, in a sense, use these women’s stories to inflate the Western narrative that Islam is dangerous for women? And, more importantly, does it remove the sense of Western responsibility for destabilizing the region, by relying on the fundamental misunderstanding of a religion that is actually quite diverse?

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We inherit our ideas, whether through language, culture, religion, education – all of these are flooded with the Western concept of the East. Even my naming this ideology as ‘Western’ is worthy of deconstruction because it implicitly implies an ‘Eastern’ ideology and that they are diametrically opposed, like cardinal points on a compass. We are so much closer than we think.

 

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