Home Sociology Orientalism Revisited: Art, Land and Voyage
All Arabs present and accounted for
In personal appearance the inhabitants of what are usually denominated Bible lands, probably offer a greater variety than those of any other part of the globe.
Henry Van-Lennep, Bible Lands, 1875
The two texts examined here illustrate a genre of Orientalism that is as much a “secret sharer” of Edward Said’s politically charged Orientalist discourse as
Syrian gentlemen in full dress (Thomson, pp. 116)
Orientalism and bibliolatry 197
Dress of Syrian or Egyptian lady (Thomson, pp. 119)
anti-Semitism.34 The authors carried with them an obvious bias as Christian missionaries devoted to a literal interpretation of the Bible as history. Their description should not be accepted as “objective” in the modern scientific and secular sense, although at times their commentary is sympathetic and avoids denigration. Each of the texts presents both the contemporary people of the Holy Land and the emerging historical evidence about biblical cultures as a divine sign for accepting the authenticity and truth of the Bible. In this sense Said is correct in arguing that “what the Orientalist does is to confirm the Orient in his readers’ eyes."35 But the issue is not simply one of creating an imaginary, which is hardly unique to any culture or its intellectuals, but the purpose for imagining an “Orient" at all. Observable peasant customs trump the literary characters of Arabian Nights dimension.
For Said, the “Orient” of Gustave Flaubert and of Lord Cromer connects only in the imagination, fueled by the words left on the pages of their texts. A poet and a colonial administrator may share embedded cultural prejudices, but the nature of their encounter and the incentive for commenting on it are certainly not the same. Similarly, the numerous missionaries and pilgrim travelers who moved about Palestine during Ottoman rule had a different motive for writing their texts than did Nerval and Burton, whom Said places in the service of European imperialism. For writers in the Bible customs genre the Orient was not the political issue that it was for the administrative and military officials. Nor, I argue, was the primary aim to denigrate and look down upon the contemporary people living in the region. If we simply stop our analysis when we encounter obvious examples of cultural bias, there is little to be learned from the texts or about the reception of these texts when they were published. What is unique about the texts described here is that the continued presence of local inhabitants, notably the Arabs and Bedouin, is necessary for them to serve as a symbol of divine authority.
For William Thomson the landscape must be peopled with individuals whose daily acts illustrate the kind of biblical custom which “confounds us simple Americans.”36 Thus, he repeats over and over again a common refrain: “A custom prevails among the Bedawin Arabs, and especially those around the Huleh, which illustrates this whole subject.”37 Whether grinding wheat, making a pot, building a house or any of the normal processes of social life, there was an expectation that what contemporary “Arabs” did provided a key to illustrate biblical customs. It is the presence of Arabs that validates Thomson’s ability to interpret the Bible. Whatever regard he has for certain groups he encounters, admiring some and despising others, he would not be interested in removing the contemporary Arabs from the scene. As a seasoned missionary he was well aware of the difficulty of converting the local inhabitants, especially Muslims, to Protestant Christianity. Yet their active presence, which he recognizes is undergoing change, remains vital to his spiritual mission.
The “presence” of Arabs in these texts is, of course, an imposed one, not an indigenous narration, although local folklore can be found.38 This is true for any narrative, which can only represent a presence. The significant issue becomes the kind of presence articulated. The personal bias of cultural superiority for the authors is evident, but at the same time there is an admiration of even the most mundane contemporary customs. To the extent that the Bible frames their entire worldview, the Holy Land is less an “Orient” to be conquered or recreated in a Western image than a spiritual laboratory for expounding and defending the faith. Thus, by inclusion of the local inhabitants in most of the illustrations, readers (and thus viewers) are guided to recognize the importance of the assumed cultural continuity. Contrast this to the exploitation of the Americas, where the indigenous peoples were denied humanity and literally removed from the landscape through slavery, disease and outright slaughter.
Do any “real” Arabs appear in these texts or are they simply the sanitized images that fit the hermeneutic of the authors? It is important to remember that this is not a modern genre proposing, as in Malinowskian ethnography, to
Figure 11.4 Dancing Girls (Thomson, p. 555)
provide the “native point of view.” Both Van-Lennep and Thomson are quite conscious of the differences in social and ethnic groups encountered. Thomson, for example, has no qualms in calling out scoundrels and thieves among the Bedawin, but he also encounters individuals, including imams, whom he fully respects. To the extent that these authors assumed that the customs were kept intact by God as a sign of the authenticity of the Bible, the main concern was finding parallels with biblical customs that often made little sense in King James English. Given the emergence of archaeological data, which initially seemed to support biblical history, it is not surprising that the authors were confident in such a loaded presupposition.
So the answer is no; the Arabs encountered are presented as real but they do not speak for themselves. But when do real people ever speak for themselves? Is a biographical text in Arabic more “real” because it is written by an Arab author in Arabic? Once it is accepted that all textual description, and most visual documentation, is re-presenting, it is obvious that any published presence must be second hand. It is easy to find examples of bias in the Bible customs genre, but if some level of bias is inevitable the question becomes less its mere presence than the trajectory of its role in shaping opinions. The reader of Thomson or Van-Lennep would not be challenged to send the troops and take political control of the region and its resources, nor would they dismiss the local inhabitants as terrorists to be denied humanity. The key assumption is that God has preserved customs in the quotidian existence of current inhabitants as a sign, as part of the divine plan for their own lives. Such apologetic requires real Arabs to be present, not in the role of Canaanites occupying the Promised Land, but as evidence divinely provided to counter the growing rationalist attacks on scripture from within Western intellectual tradition.
The texts by Thomson and Van-Lennep provide a number of accurate details and positive comments on Islam. In his tour of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Thomson notes that “The Moslems have become suddenly very fanatical in regard to this holy Harem,” but he observes that this is “owing in part to the injudicious behavior of travellers.”39 He further remarks how the “old sheikh of the harem treated us with great respect, showing everything about the Mosque without reserve, and allowing us afterward to ramble as we pleased in the vaults below, and all over the area above, without any surveillance whatsoever.” Van-Lennep provides a description of Islamic shrines and mosques that is devoid of cultural denigration, although he clearly wishes that Muslims would convert to Christianity.40 He provides a full-page print of the ka‘ba in Mecca and a scene of Muslims at prayer (Figure 11.5). I focus on this image as a visual counterpoint to the condescending Orientalist art of Gerome which graces the cover of Said’s Orientalism.41 In this black-and-white graphic there is no voyeuristic gaze, no hint of sexual impropriety, no denigration of the act of worship. Four men in various positions in the prayer ritual are shown in an ornate mosque interior. This and the other visual representations of Islam draw attention to the reality of the present in the Holy Land.42
After three decades of debate over the nature of an East/West divide, it is time to forge a path out of the rhetorical quagmire in which most discussion of Orientalism in Western scholarship has been mired. Today, the preponderance of contemporary academic scholarship, despite the partisan political views of individual scholars, does not operate on the basis of an attainable and unassailable objectivity, nor do I believe that the best scholars of the past were as dogmatic as some excerpts from their writings might suggest. Critical scholarship, and I can think of no other kind worthy of being called scholarship, seeks to advance understanding based on available information and not to hermetically seal interpretation as dogma. May we all be liberated from the dogma-eat-dogma mentality where ad hominem arguments inevitably sink to the level of ad nauseam rhetorical whining. Rhetoric is indeed a political art, no matter who is doing the framing, but it is well to remember that it is primarily an art of persuasion. And in the final analysis, despite the inevitable disagreements, persuasion is the raison d’etre for all texts, no matter the extent of their bias.
Figure 11.5 “The mihrab, pulpit, and candlestick in the mosk” (Van-Lennep, p. 719)
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