Josna Rege

Posts Tagged ‘Edward Said’

399. East of What?

In Books, Music, Politics, postcolonial, reading, Stories on May 30, 2017 at 1:52 pm

Illuminated Meridian Line (Royal Museums Greenwich)

People’s faces sometimes register impatience when I insist on putting the terms “East” and “West” in quotation marks. Okay, I see them thinking, we get it: you’re flagging them as fictions, or as intellectual shorthand, but there’s no need to be pedantic; everyone knows what they stand for.

Do they really? What is it then, that the West stands for? Liberty, tolerance, and rational inquiry? As Anthony Appiah points out, these ideals are certainly not exclusive to Western civilization, and in any case the “West,” however it is defined, has spectacularly failed as a beacon of such enlightened principles.

What about the East? The late Edward Said argued that the East, or “Orient,” through the impressive body of 18th-19th-century Orientalist scholarship,  has been created as Europe’s Other, serving to justify and facilitate the ends of Empire. In European colonial thought, the East stands for everything that the West is not. Where the West has enlightened leaders, the East has “Oriental despots”; where the Westerner is active (manly), rational and capable of exercising self-control, the Easterner is passive and effeminate, superstitious, and sensual; where Western systems of governance are a model for the world, Eastern governments, without Western oversight and tutelage, cannot help becoming mired in corruption and intrigue. In a 1998 documentary by the Media Education Foundation, On Orientalism, Said and MEF founder Sut Jhally discuss these stereotypes and the purposes they serve.

How are East and West defined? During the era of European colonialism, the West was Europe and the East stretched from the Persian Gulf all the way to East Asia including everything in-between. During the Cold War, the West referred to the capitalist world: the United States, Canada, and Western Europe, while the East referred to the communist Soviet Union and its satellite states east of the Berlin Wall. Since the collapse of the U.S.S.R., the West refers, as far as I can tell, to capitalist democracies that are allies of the United States (and populated primarily by white people). Despite being in the Far East and the Southern Hemisphere to boot, Australia is considered part of the West; so is Israel, though it is located squarely in the Middle East; while democracies in Africa, South America, Asia, or the Caribbean will never be admitted to the club.

Where is the East? East of What? Well, the dividing line between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres is Longitude 0º, or the Prime Meridian. Here it is on a map:

The National Geographic Society helpfully reminds us that the prime meridian is arbitrary, meaning it could be chosen to be anywhere. However, it is no accident that the Prime Meridian runs right through Greenwich, England, which is also the center of world time. It won Longitude 0º in 1884 at the International Meridian Conference in Washington, D.C., by a vote of 22 to 1, with one No vote—Santa Domingo (now the Dominican Republic) and two abstentions—France and Brazil. Why was it chosen? Because Britain, with its far-flung empire, was then the reigning global superpower, and so it was able to claim centrality.

Ask yourself what the function of the East-West divide is in the 21st Century. Why divide the world up based on an arbitrary line that makes neither geographical nor philosophical sense? Why lump together all the diverse societies and cultures that fall into one or the other categories under a simplistic and patently false set of stereotypes?

The answer is pure, naked Power. The East-West divide serves the interests of power. That’s my view—biased, no doubt, but informed. Verify my claim if you like: start paying careful attention to where, how, and by whom you see the two terms employed and decide for yourself. But until I am persuaded otherwise, I will continue to put “East” and “West” in quotation marks.

Let me close with “The Funky Western Civilization” (a 1978 song by Tonio K from his album, Life in the Foodchain), that I danced and sang along to gleefully in my twenties, loving the irony. You can listen to it here and read the lyrics here. The Funky Western Civilization is a dance, and this is how you do it:

Grab your partner by the hair
Throw her down and leave her there. . .

Oh get down
Get funky
Get Western
(Own up to it boys and girls)
And if you try real hard
Maybe you can even get
Civilized . . .

As Mahatma Gandhi famously quipped when asked what he thought of Western civilization, “I think it would be a good idea.”

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249. Baggage

In 2010s, Books, Britain, Food, India, Inter/Transnational, places, postcolonial, Stories, travel, Words & phrases on April 2, 2014 at 6:35 am

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Kuwait Airways, New York to London: My only suitcase had been successfully checked in and would be sent through to the final destination. But, set on the scales, my carry-on bag raised a little cry of alarm from the check-in clerk. According to her, the weight limit was 7 kg , or 15.4 lbs, and at nearly 25 pounds we were looking at some serious excess baggage. Thankfully her supervisor strolled over, eyebrows raised questioningly, and looking at the dismay on my face, dismissed her colleague’s officious concern with a casual wave of the hand. I was through—this time; but perhaps I won’t be so lucky when I have to undergo the ordeal again in London and Paris.

This Kuwait Airways flight is nearly empty, and I’ve been given the okay to stretch and occupy my entire three-seat row. The offending carry-on is wedged under my seat, bulging out in all directions; despite having jettisoned several pounds’ worth of books, papers, and clothing from both bags before leaving for the airport, I’m still overloaded. Was it Mark Twain who, writing a letter to a friend, apologized that he hadn’t had time to write a shorter one? That’s my excuse for my packing job as well.

Is that also the excuse for the unquestioned habits of thought that stain our every perception, the assumptions and prejudices that load our every reaction? That we don’t have time to honor each human being, each interaction, anew, giving them all the attention they deserve? Instead we short-circuit the full experience, substituting it with a pre-scripted response.

This is the other kind of baggage I’d like to shed on this trip. In a 1999 interview, the postcolonial scholar Edward Said said, “We have to break out of our self-constructed mind-forged manacles (quoting William Blake’s famous term) and look at the rest of the world—deal with it as equals.” This is what I mean by traveling light, my theme for this month’s A-to-Z challenge.

My eyes are puffy from lack of sleep and my skin dry and stretched to breaking point; but I’m trying to appreciate every little thing rather than to wish this exhausting journey over and done with. I love the fact that all the announcements are in Arabic, English, and Hindustani; that last night one of the dinner options was basmati rice and curried lamb, guaranteed Halal, and this morning one of the breakfast options was a vegetarian uthappam with chickpea curry and a spicy spinach ball; lots of hot tea, with real milk if you ask for it. Soon we’ll be landing at London’s Heathrow Airport and I’ll have to stay in the terminal to wait for a connecting Air France flight to Paris, then another on to Bremen at last. Another long day, with long lines to wait in, and bureaucratic hassles with boarding passes and carry-on luggage, no doubt. But I’ll be able to buy English sweets and newspapers, browse the airport bookshops to see what they’re reading in England, listen to French and German and a host of other languages being spoken, notice where people are from and what they are wearing. On this plane, bound for Kuwait via London, there is an interesting mix of South Asians from different parts of the diaspora, Middle Easterners, and an assortment of Americans and Britishers.

Heathrow Airport, London: Aah. A beeline for Boots the chemists for face cream, hand cream, and all-natural Bassett’s jelly babies (okay, there’s some baggage that just can’t be dispensed with.) Now there’s time for a nice pot of tea and wifi so that I can post my story for the day.


Note: Naaley is Malayalam for “tomorrow.” I heard a South Indian man say it on the plane and immediately thought of the lovers in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, who spoke this word to each other every time they parted, knowing full well that that time might be the last.

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