Peering Through the Veil of Orientalism

Etching, chine collé, (2007) ©Gillian Holding

Etching, chine collé, (2007) ©Gillian Holding

I’ve mentioned before that a few years ago, I took train from Leeds to China. It was a life-changing experience for many reasons, not least being the number of challenges to assumptions and perceptions I had held. I kept journals throughout the trip, and on my return made a lot of art on this experience. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see how it has underpinned much of my work ever since.

So I was delighted to get the opportunity recently to revisit some of the work for a new book later this year. I have spent the last few weeks immersed in memories and notes and imagery, but then in one of those “synchronistic” experiences beloved of The Artist’s Way, a month ago I picked up and began to read Edward Said‘s magnificent Orientalism which has done a lot to formally explain why I found my trip such a mass of absurd and contradictory encounters. Despite never having studied the ‘Orient’ in any formal sense, I had clearly been influenced by Western culture’s framing of the Orient, and held a specifically Western set of assumptions and ideas. The absurdities and contradictions were only there because of this paradigm view.

Because of globalisation, it is very easy to gloss over difference, and even easier to believe that Western values and ideas are now the norm in most places. It is very hard to try and adopt the mindset of another culture, and generally very little real listening takes place between people.

I was intrigued therefore this week that of the three academic panelists on In Our Time discussing sharia law, only one, Mona Siddiqui, was a Muslim. Well, I think that was the case: I can’t be sure about the other two contributors, albeit with their impeccable academic credentials. In any event, all three had been primarily educated and are teaching in the west. Despite the erudite and balanced air of discussion, it set me wondering what sort of discussion on sharia law we were listening to? I wondered what difference it would have made if an academic immersed and educated in and practicing in middle east had been on the panel?

Maybe none at all.  The three contributors clearly had extensive and wise knowledge of their subject, and I don’t wish to suggest they were looking at it solely through a western paradigm, but there is no way of knowing without testing the assumption.


5 responses to Peering Through the Veil of Orientalism

  1. I didn’t really find Said’s ‘Orientalism’ magnificent, unfortunately, and the two other books of his I read confirmed my doubts. I think he’s overrated, and his whole thesis is built on cultural relativism, a deeply dodgy philosophical position much talked of but which almost no-one actually holds _themselves_.

    Your wise closing paragraph starts “Maybe none at all,” then further qualified by the thought that “I don’t wish to suggest they were looking at it solely through a western paradigm, but there is no way of knowing without testing the assumption.”

    My reaction is that idea there is no way to know if we are seeing Islamic law through the Orientalising eyes of Western scholars without testing the assumption {….the assumption that they are Orientalising? and how would we know even then?} is pure cultural relativism.

    I envy you that train journey though – sounds a wonderful experience!

    • gillianholding – Author

      Thank you for taking the time to comment; much appreciated. You raise a couple of very interesting points which call for a fuller response than this though! Will come back to it as soon as I have a proper moment!

  2. gillianholding – Author

    Just to say my follow-up observations of the issue of cultural relativism ended up in a later post The Perils of Relativism

  3. Funnily enough, Gillian, the software on your weblog chose a little abstract pattern for my face, so has made me look a bit like an Islamic tile.

    I’m not being very virtuous with my Arabic lessons, unfortunately…

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