Erica in Cairo

Erica is a junior majoring in art history in Meadows School of the Arts and international studies in Dedman College, with a minor in Italian. She also is a Hatton W. Sumners Scholar. In fall 2010, Erica will be taking classes in Egyptology and Middle Eastern studies at the American University in Cairo with SMU-in-Cairo. She hopes to learn as much Arabic as possible while traveling throughout the region.

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What Said says …

I apologize for not writing lately – I actually began writing three separate entries this week, but they all somehow deteriorated into circuitous meanderings regarding East-West relations. I have been unable to reconcile the world that I see here – a world full of kind people and in no way living their lives negatively obsessed with the West – and the literature I am forced to read for my “The Orient in the Western Imagination” course.

The book that we are focusing on is Edward Said’s “Orientalism,” which has been lauded since its original publication in 1978. I have only read 50 pages or so, so maybe it will turn around, but from what I’ve been able to understand Said takes umbrage with how the West perceives and depicts the “Orient.” Furthermore, his “intellectual” writing is about as concise as that of a 13-year-old girl babbling on the telephone. The man defines “orientalism” roughly 1,000 times over 30 pages. The Observer describes the book: “Said observes the West observing the Arabs, and he does not like what he finds.”

The world that I have come to love here is friendly and interesting beyond belief. It is romantic and exciting, but I guess that’s just the orientalist in me speaking, always depicting the east as full of lions and intrigue. “The Orient was an almost European invention … a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences,” wrote Said.

Now I can understand taking umbrage with, for instance, the foreign policy of a particular country and writing a thoroughly researched argument to prove the case. However, this book bemoans the West back to the time of the Ancient Greeks, when Aeschylus dramatized the fall of the Persian Empire. That’s a rather long time to hold a grudge.

One of Said’s main points is that the West does not, and can never, really understand the East; we’ve just lived to “dominate, restructure, and have authority over” the East since our very inception. Even if the west has done the aforementioned, the Islamic empire certainly dominated, restructured, and had authority over a good part of the world during their time. It’s what happens.

It all kind of reminds me of the movie “Mean Girls.” Said makes the East out to be an unpopular girl who is forever obsessing about Regina George, while making the West out to be evil Regina George – forever scheming to stay on top through trickery, lies and deceit. Unfortunately, real life is nothing like “Mean Girls.” Regina was a bad person, but, despite our many mistakes, the West is not inherently evil. Similarly, the average person living in the East isn’t perpetually obsessing over what the West thinks. I’m always saying to the book, “East! Go find what you’re good at. Go find what you love and pursue it! Stop being so insecure!” But again, that’s not at all how I’ve found life to be.

I have not encountered a single Egyptian with such a whiny attitude. They’re interested in America just like Europeans are interested in America; they have their own understanding of the area. Some love America because of Celine Dion. (Not sure why – isn’t she Canadian? But they always ask about her.) Others love Obama, and still others have studied in America and are intimately acquainted with the country.

They don’t live their lives angry about Aeschylus’ depiction of the Persians more than 2,000 years ago, and they’re not irate at Napoleon for bringing in his savants and contributing to the deciphering of hieroglyphics. They don’t dislike England, even though England colonized Egypt – in fact, many of them studied there. They’re kind people doing what they can with their lives, but when reading Said you would think that Aeschylus himself sent every “easterner” the nastiest letter imaginable and it still bothers them.

These are my rather inconclusive thoughts regarding East-West relations. It’s possible that much has changed in the last 30 years; in fact, much certainly has changed in the last 30 years, and this may be why Said’s arguments and criticisms seem somewhat irrelevant to me. He was raised in post-colonial Middle East, while most of the current generation has only read about such times. (Titanic influences them considerably more.) There will always be conflict and misunderstanding between different areas of the world; we can only do our best to live our own lives in a way that demonstrates what we believe – full of happiness, kindness, and intellectual curiosity.

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