Review: Imperial Fictions: Europe’s Myths of Orient

28 Jun

Imperial Fictions: Europe's Myths of Orient
Imperial Fictions: Europe’s Myths of Orient by Rana Kabbani

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Studies of the Western representations of the ‘Orient’ reached their peak in the eighties and the nineties of the past century and they continue to be highly influential today. In Europe’s Myths of Orient Rana Kabbani takes on herself the gigantic task of deciphering misrepresentations of the East in the unique legacy of Western travel literature. Kabbani pioneers postcolonial studies by arguing that Western depiction of the Orient as the ‘sensual’ immoral ‘other’ dates back centuries before the evolution of imperial Europe.
Kabbani is a typical metropolitan post-colonial scholar in terms of her upbringing. Her scholarly field of choice, post-colonialism, aims to show the ‘limitations’ of Eurocentric human liberalism by examining the misrepresentations of non-European cultures in Western literature and the Imperial agenda behind them. Born in Damascus at a time when her native Syria was still struggling against colonial France, Algeria fighting its Million-Martyr War against colonisation, Morocco still split between Imperial Spain and post-war France and Egypt torn between a new popular dictator and a grim British past, her family spent their time away from the hubbub of the Middle East between Djakarta and New York. She read her PhD at Cambridge and worked as a lecturer in Beirut and an art critic in Paris. Such a unique and cross-worlds profile has without doubt helped Kabbani to develop a wholistic critical eye that transgresses the tabooed geo-cultural barriers between Orient and Occident.
In her gentle but firm style, Kabbani slowly and concisely argues that the unhappy relationship between Muslim East and Christian West developed in medieval times when, through trade and interaction with Muslim Spain, the West was stricken with fear of and ignorant awe towards a civilisation that seemed in many ways its superior. These feelings threatened the West’s self-respect and in order to protect its Christian integrity the West has consciously and unconsciously developed a false portrayal of the East as loose, ‘lewd’ and ‘sensual’ with an ‘idolatrous’ faith and a ‘polygamous’ ‘impostor’ prophet. Kabbani carefully peels away layer after layer of European travelogue literature, examining the influence of each text on its contemporary culture with a brief but keen scholarly eye. The European traveller himself is also examined as a character that re-incarnates itself in different shapes but often maintaining the same supercilious Orientalist essence, in a way similar to the nature of all Oriental women in Orientalist paintings who ‘appear to be cloned from one model, as if depictions of one woman in an endless variety of poses.’ This elusive spirit of the mainly male European travellers is analysed by Kabbani as the Orientalist painter, writer, translator and creator of the controversial centuries-old Western tale of the ‘Orient.’
Kabbani acknowledges the authority of contemporary predecessors to her work in the postcolonial field, such as Said’s controversial but ground-breaking Orientalism and Kiernan’s The Lords of Humankind and very briefly also leans her metaphorical back on them for support. Nevertheless her own Europe’s Myths of Orient maintains its uniqueness for being one of the pioneering critiques of European Orientalist travelogues in English and their influences on European culture. Although Kabbani’s work flows in a semi-chronological formula from medieval times onwards, Marco Polo gets mentioned only in the penultimate chapter as though he had been missed out and only got remembered towards the end.
Kabbani’s arguments are almost always either derived from texts or supported by texts. There are only two occasions within Europe’s Myths of Orient when the author’s statements seem too general and perhaps unjustified. In the introduction the author applies the premise, ‘To write a literature of travel cannot but imply a colonial relationship.’ The second occasion is when in chapter two she accepts Burton’s ‘crooked’ sexual perversions as typical in one way or another of every Victorian male. In the same chapter, Kabbani provides a superb analysis of the major translators of The Arabian Nights’ personalities and work; Galland, Lane and Burton, however Payne is entirely overlooked and passes completely unmentioned.
Rana Kabbani traces her argument all the way to modern times, including works such as An Area of Darkness (1964) and Among the Believers (1981), taking into account the misfortunes of colonised peoples in Africa, India, China and the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. Her arguments though well-structured and generally well-supported seem mostly to take for granted that the ‘East’ and ‘West’ are ideological constructs rather than real geographical locations. Overall, however, Europe’s Myths of Orient is a unique postcolonial, and in many ways feminist, critique of European travelogue and its influences on European and trans-European cultures.

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