Takeaways: Looking

In his landmark work “Orientalism” (1978), Edward Said unpacks statements and works of many Europeans who say outrageous, hilarious or downright racist things about peoples of the Middle East among whom they see no need to distinguish.

Of these, one quote stood out to me enough that I still think about it sometimes. This statement didn’t strike me for its racism or fallibility, which are found in most of the quotes of European travelers reveling in the exotic East. This one was notable to me for how silly it was.

Said scoffs at a European who wrote that Orientals do not appreciate beautiful vistas as Europeans do. This stood out to me, even among the many ludicrous generalizations Said draws attention to.

I imagine the situation that gave rise to this quote: A wealthy European man traveling around the Middle East was shown the Nile Coast by a Cairene or the Bosporus by an Istanbulite. Instead of focusing on what he was seeing, truly appreciating the vista, he took note of the local’s reaction. The local was looking at the same view he sees every single day. He found it strange that the local was not impressed by the view in front of him while not considering that the magical Orient that wows a European into writing novels is everyday life for the local. Parisians aren’t beside themselves looking at the Eiffel Tower every single day. New Yorkers are not continuously gushing about the view from the Empire State Building. The same is true of Middle Easterners.

How dehumanized Orientals must have been in the mind of this European that he failed to consider the simple explanation that the locals were not impressed by view that was very usual to them. Instead this European onlooker found the answer in generalizing that great views don’t impress Orientals. This example alone, in my mind, captures the problem of Orientalism: that it observes different people as if they are completely different beings. Everything that Orientals do is attributed to their Orientalness, and no other explanations are worth considering.

In her novel “Half of a Yellow Sun” (2006) about the Nigerian Civil War to prevent the independence of Biafra, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has a comment that touches on the same problem of looking. After having been abroad, the main character is back in Nigeria, talking to an old friend. The friend remarks, “Sometimes you are just like the white people, the way they gawk at everyday things.” The word “gawk” is exactly what the Orientalist expects locals to do, as he does. To be in awe of everything new in sight. Apparently, even such a minor thing is transferable via Western education and living in the West for an extended period of time. The “other” learns to gawk at, or appreciate, vistas. The problem of looking at more than just the fact is that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” How one looks is also shaped by how one is expected to see.


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