Monthly Archives: September 2014

[DRAFT]: Stereotypes Rise in the East, Set in the West // Comparative Analysis of Said’s “Orientalism” and Haddawy’s “The Arabian Nights”

There is no doubt that The Arabian Nights is one of the most well known works of literature in the world. From the hearty ballad that opens Disney’s Aladdin (1992) to the ongoing analysis of Islamic culture in the 21st century, the “Western world” is fascinated by the past, present, and future of the Eastern – or “Oriental” – lands. Fueling the Eastern enchantment, in 1978, Edward W. Said discussed Western perceptions of the Eastern world in his book, Orientalism. The views expressed in his writing were, and remain to this day, the stereotypes that the “civilized” West places upon the “backwards” East. *********** The themes, culture, and human components evident in The Arabian Nights both reinforce and contradict the broad concept of Orientalism.

Throughout history, each culture has had different societal expectations for each gender. The current (but attempting to change) American expectations are based on the early 20th century ideology of republican motherhood – men were expected to get an education and then work to support for their family; women were expected to end their education before secondary schooling, learn how to maintain a household, and to teach the same ideals to their children. While the idea is dated, it set the structure of the “normal” American household. In current Middle Eastern gender perceptions, women are seen are quiet, submissive, and loyal to their husbands. This can most likely be traced back to the traditional Islamic hijab, worn to hide a woman’s beauty from everyone other than her family. However, in The Arabian Nights, women are portrayed as appealing yet untrustworthy. As retold in “The Tale of the Husband and the Parrot,” a man suspects his wife is infinitely loyal to him because she insists that he never leave her. But on the day that he must take a journey without her she does not hesitate to carry on with her sexual needs with another man.[1] Her husband’s unwavering loyalty proves the alluring power of women in Middle Eastern culture, and her ability to later deceive him into mistrusting and killing his parrot illustrates her cunning and wit.[2] Furthermore, the frame tale of The Arabian Nights is rooted in the mistrust of promiscuous and cunning women.  In the Prologue, the dishonest nature of women is explored – Shahzaman’s wife is secretly cheating on him, Shahrayar’s wife and slaves are openly engaging in loose sexual relations, and a powerful demon’s attempts to keep a woman to himself are futile.[3] As powerful as the demon might be, his woman is like any other woman depicted in The Nights – captivating yet devious. When coercing the king brothers to make love to her, she states that the demon has “tried to keep [her] pure and chaste, not realizing…when a woman desires something, no one can stop her.”[4] Both her words and actions illustrate the untamable nature of women in Middle Eastern culture, which starkly contrasts with the Western stereotypes of demure and docile women of the East.

However, there is an element of truth in the Western labels on Eastern women. While they may not appear to be as reserved as the labels make them out to be, the stereotype that they are accepting and indifferent towards their husbands’ actions can be taken with a grain of salt. In “The Tale of the Merchant and His Wife,” a man mercilessly beats his wife when she begins questioning his actions – to the point where she pleads for him to stop and claims she doesn’t want to know anything anymore.[5] Thus, her husband’s actions demonstrate the dominant role that males were expected to take in traditional marriages – aligning with our Western stereotypes.

Given the Western world’s encounters with the Middle East over the past twenty years, we have a strict “understanding” of how they deal with internal conflict. In Orientalism, through Harold W. Glidden, we are told, “…Arabs stress conformity; that Arabs inhabit a shame culture…”[6] Shortly after, Glidden is quoted again: “the Arab need for vengeance overrides everything, otherwise the Arab would feel ‘ego-destroying’ shame.”[7] However, The Arabian Nights paints a very different picture in regards to internal disagreements in the Middle East. The saying, “Spare me, your Majesty, and God will spare you; destroy me, and God will destroy you” is repeated many times throughout “The Tale of King Yunan and the Sage Duban.”[8] Throughout the tale, it is insinuated that good things come to those who do good deeds, while bad things happen to those who commit evil. This concept varies from Glidden’s findings in that “the Arab” is not always constantly seeking vengeance; he is trying to avoid it by preventing wrongdoings from happening. However, one could argue that this story also supports Glidden’s argument. After his final plea to the king to change his mind about the execution, the sage effectively tricks the king into dying before the execution by lacing the pages of the book with a poison.[9] His cleverness and trickery demonstrate that humans take vengeance into their own hands – God doesn’t get involved no matter what the sage claims. Thus, the Middle Eastern internal conflicts depicted in The Nights both support and contradict Glidden’s assertion of the Middle Eastern desire for revenge.

The conviction that the East was “exotic,” “mysterious,” and “profound” was widely held before, during, and after the publication of Said’s Orientalism.[10] In many ways, this notion contains an element of truth. From Cleopatra, Troy, the Sphinx, Babylon, the Genii, Nineveh, and the Magi, the stories that originated in the East contained “half-imagined [and] half-known” concepts and creatures.[11] For the West, the initial allure to explore (and later conquer) the East came from the captivating and magical stories that originated in the land “East” of them. To an extent, the expectation of an enchanted land is true; The Arabian Nights contains many supernatural elements seamlessly blended into the natural world. The omnipresent nature of demons in The Nights is somewhat alarming. For instance, “The Story of the Merchant and the Demon” begins with a demon’s appearance, as he demands to kill a merchant for the murder of his son.[12] The presence of a demon a countryside orchard is neither questioned nor denied; it is simply accepted. In “The Tale of the Enchanted King,” the king’s wife curses him “with [her] magic and cunning [to] be half man, half stone.”[13] Similarly, neither the existence nor the possession of magic is doubted. While demons and magic are not commonplace in the everyday Middle East, they certainly play a significant role in the culture’s legends and folklore. In this way, the classification of the East as a vast, supernatural, and mystical land is reinforced by The Nights.

The people themselves – or “Orientals” – of the Middle East are also subject to Orientalism’s scrutiny. Said references Cromer, who asserts the Arabs are “deficient” with their “disordered minds”; they are “inveterate liars… ‘lethargic and suspicious’.”[14] His claims are supported by their failure to understand European inventions (such as the sidewalk), but he fails to consider that Europeans themselves were taughthow to use their inventions when they were first designed. The Arabian Nights, on the other hand, depicts Easterners as cunning, tricky, and witty – all of which are valued in their culture. In “The Story of the Fisherman and the Demon,” the fisherman is able to outwit the demon genie back into the jar: “Don’t you believe that I was inside [the jar]?”[15] His ability to conjure a scheme in the face of an imminent death is regarded as a useful and respectable quality in Middle Eastern culture. In no way were the fisherman’s actions “lethargic” and “suspicious” as Cromer suggested in Orientalism. Thus, the characterization of the people of the Eastern world is rejected by The Nights.

In many aspects, The Arabian Nights contradicts Said’s Orientalism; from other viewpoints, The Nights reinforce the stereotypes presented in Orientalism. At times, the women challenge our Western expectations, but they also exhibit characteristics aligned with our stereotypes. The way that Middle Easterners manage internal conflicts refutes our expectancies; but the exotic nature of the East as depicted in The Nights provides support for Orientalism’s expectation. The derogatory view of the people in the East, however, is sharply rejected by The Nights in that the characters possess charm, wit, and intellection in the face of danger. These ancient tales complicate our expectations in many ways – what is the East really like? Scholars over the decades have analyzed and reanalyzed the “Oriental” culture and peoples, but how much of their findings can be true? Can we assume any of it is? ***** (It is important because we shouldn’t judge cultures different from ours; coexist and move on)


[1] Haddawy, Husain. The Arabian Nights. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990. 50.

[2] Haddawy, Husain. The Arabian Nights. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990. 51.

[3] Haddawy, Husain. The Arabian Nights. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990. 6, 7, 13.

[4] Haddawy, Husain. The Arabian Nights. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990. 13.

[5] Haddawy, Husain. The Arabian Nights. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990. 20.

[6] Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. 48.

[7] Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. 49.

[8] Haddawy, Husain. The Arabian Nights. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990. 54.

[9] Haddawy, Husain. The Arabian Nights. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990. 57.

[10] Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. 51.

[11] Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. 63.

[12] Haddawy, Husain. The Arabian Nights. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990. 22.

[13] Haddawy, Husain. The Arabian Nights. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990. 73.

[14] Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. 38-39.

[15] Haddawy, Husain. The Arabian Nights. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990. 43.

Practicing Summarizing: “Orientalism”

Classification as a study is warranted and understandable; some things are simply different from others. For example, a green fern in one culture is a representation of grace while in another culture it represents a formidable evil. These distinctions are completely arbitrary and unexplainable; they are not universal or logical in any understandable way. When we consider the fact that everything in our world is made by man, we understand the bizarreness of our world to some extent. Most objects, places, and times only represent certain ideas and characteristics once man has designated them to symbolize those ideas. While this practice may seem obvious with everyday objects, it is also especially true in regards to those that men consider “different” – the need to categorize other human beings is unavoidable.

While these categorizations are purely a mindset, it is not unusual for people living within a few acres of one another to draw boundaries between “their” land and the land around them – naming it “the land of the barbarians.” These lines and borders are completely made-up; they involve no reason, much like the green fern’s importance in different cultures. The subconscious human practice of using binaries and labeling one’s land as “ours” and the vast unfamiliar as “theirs” causes many unanticipated conflicts in the near future. As presented in history time and time again, this habit causes a negative sense of identity. It is as easy for an American to say, “I’m not Canadian,” as it is to say, “I’m American,” so what is the problem? It is the cause of negative association with (in this example) Canadians because the average person thinks, “I’m not like them. They are different. We are not the same.” By placing these social, cultural, and ethnic expectations on people part of the “other” group, we stereotype them; when face-to-face, we see their actions, words, and mannerisms through a skewed lens – we don’t see what they are, we see what we expect them to be.

The mind plays a key role in this comfort versus the unfamiliar. French philosopher Gaston Bachelard once wrote about this phenomenon using the analogy of a house. He said that the inside of one’s house elicits a sense of safety, privacy, and ease because of the experiences that one subconsciously associates with their house. However, the objective space of the house – the hallways, tiling, corners, and railings – do not hold the same significance of warmth. This emotional response can be compared to how we perceive time. Periods that we describe as “long ago” or “at the end of time” are completely relative – the human species has only been on the planet for a tiny fraction on its existence. Yet the lurking notion that there were once (and will be) times very unusual and distant from what we call home is formidable and unsettling.

(a summary of Edward W. Said’s “Orientalism” pp. 53-55)

“Knowing the Oriental” // “Orientalism” Chapter 1

In the first chapter of Edward W. Said’s Orientalism, he discusses the Western perception of the Eastern world – why it exists and why it is a valid notion. Initially, he suggests that orientalism has two main components: knowledge and power. He then furthers his argument by providing evidence that the Westerner conquerors throughout history were helping the “irrational, depraved, [and] childlike” Orientals. Throughout his reasoning, he supports his points with various essayists’ and politicians’ works, emphasizing that others share his views.

When discussing the importance of power, Said manipulates the analogy of a slowly expanding machine; when the machine reaches the East, its human labor, material wealth, and knowledge are “processed” by the machine and converted to the all-too-important power. In his developing emphasis of knowledge, he references Arthur James Balfour’s speech in 1910, defining knowledge as “surveying a civilization from its origins to its prime to its decline – and of course, it means being able to do that.” He then applies this is the history of our world, suggesting that “we” – the Westerners, the Europeans – are fundamentally better than “them” – the Easterners, the Orientals – because we study their civilization and accept that our system of self-government is better than their method. Because of this, Said defends the Western conquerors of the past, endorses their actions, and informs the reader that they were enlightening the dull Orientals.

Throughout the first chapter, entitled “Knowing the Oriental,” Said constantly suggests that the conquerors know what is best for the subject race – better than they could ever know themselves. In referencing Balfour and Cromer’s work, he illustrates that the British helped Egypt’s suffering economy, allowing them to relish in prosperity and productivity. Anticipating the counter-argument that Orientals should be able to govern themselves, Said notes Cromer’s personal recollection of his Oriental experiences: in short, the Orientals are unintelligible and have disordered minds, unlike the clever Europeans who understand the usage of pavement and roads. Related to his view about knowledge, Said argues that because the Westerners know so much about the Orientals (judge them, study them, discipline them, illustrate them), they are qualified to rule them. Furthermore, he claims that in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, if the Oriental world was not considered inferior to the Western world, it was unanimously agreed that it was indeed need of Western rehabilitation.

Said proposes that the Westerners throughout history had a greater understanding of Eastern culture and socioeconomic needs than the Orientals ever did. He supports his thoughts with many intricately woven points, allowing the reader to follow his logic. In his argument that the Orientals have always been incapable of handling and governing themselves, Said further supports himself by addressing that knowledge and power are essential for orientalism, and Westerners utilized them brilliantly.

Practicing Paraphrasing: “The Arabian Nights”

“Shahzaman complied with his brother’s request and proceeded to make preparations for the journey. In the meantime, he had the vizier camp on the outskirts of the city, and took care of his needs.” –The Arabian Nights, translated by Husain Haddawy

Shahzaman obeyed his brother’s command and started to settle his affairs for the vacation. During this time, he told the vizier to set up a camp on the peripheries of the town, and made sure he was fed and clothed.

Shahzaman listened to Shahrayar’s summons and began to prepare himself for the excursion. Simultaneously, he advised the vizier to remain on the fringes of the estate, and managed his essentials.

Shahzaman accepted his brother’s invitation and began to get ready for the trip. Meanwhile, he instructed the vizier to stay on the borders of the kingdom, and managed his necessities.

“Do You Hear the People Sing?” // “Silencing Protest: On the Ethics and Politics of Social Theory”

On Tuesday, September 2, 2014, Barbara Cruikshank spoke at Muhlenberg College; she focused her talk on protest, its ethics, and how it relates to social theory. While it was rather riveting, the language she used was demanding and taxing; after the talk, I heard that many other students felt the same – it would have hit closer to home if she had she used more informal speech.

Regardless, the talk itself was captivating – especially (for someone my age) given the recent young adult infatuation with insurgency and rebellion, both on paper and on screen; some examples include The Hunger Games, The Giver, Matched, Legend, and Divergent. Barbara Cruikshank’s statements about the ongoing and continuous nature of protest was shocking; probably because the “world news” chooses to focus on few protests every year, making each one seem more radical and inexplicable than the next while crowning this time period as the “age of revolution.” While smirking at these overplayed remarks, she provided clear evidence to support her case about the incessant and ongoing nature of rebellion – there’s no way we could record them all. Hell, even the Wikipedia article she referred to contains a disclaimer: “This is an incomplete list that may never be able to satisfy particular standards for completeness.

Her discussions about the various metaphors used by the news made an uncomfortable amount of sense – the weather comparisons make protests seem discrete and intruding, and the disease images allude that revolt is a contagion.

Furthermore, Barbara Cruikshank spent a sizeable amount of time discussing how both politicians and protesters agree (albeit incorrectly) that protests are “not political.” Politicians want to deny that what is happening has anything to do with them, and protesters think their case is moral, emotional, and personal – it cannot possibly be political. What really surprised me was that this trivializes demonstrations in a profound way – by saying they are “not political” (when politics means “how power expresses itself in daily life”), protesters accept that they cannot make a difference. By saying protests are “not political,” protesters shun the negative connotation of “politics,” but pay an even greater price. By saying protests are “not political,” protesters accept defeat.