Come Ye Sons of Immigrants

16/8/2017 | Postmuslim | Cosmopolitan | postmuslim

There is no reason you can’t be a South discourse initiator and a classical music snob at the same time. The problem is when, taking issue with one fantastical view of the Orient, you end up inadvertently paving the way to another.

“There were — and are — cultures and nations whose location is in the East,” the Great Name writes in the holy tome (which he completed in New York the year I was born in Cairo), “and their lives, histories, and customs have a brute reality obviously greater than anything that could be said about them in the West. About that fact this study of Orientalism has very little to contribute”.

The Arab Spring, by contrast, has had a lot to say about brute reality. While democratic transformation turned out to be a Trojan horse for political Islam, the liberal-left discourse partly inspired by Orientalism proved just as deluded and dangerous as what Edward Said set out to discredit.

As it turned out that discourse hadn’t been describing the place where I lived so much as somewhere like it. A place where mass protests and free elections could instantly override systematic incompetence, intergenerational entitlement and well supported fanaticism. And where a sixty-year-old military regime, without any political force to contend with it, would spontaneously dissolve in a puff. Leaving behind a paradise of equality and freedom…

This too, I have come to feel, is Orientalism. It’s an Orient that emerges from the “unchallenged centrality” of the West, “governed not simply by empirical reality but by a battery of desires, regressions, investments, and projections”. The only difference is — it belongs not to imperialists but immigrants.

Well, it belongs to an immigrantish left that tends to presuppose an authority on the East it simply cannot have. Not even when it physically moves there, the better to live out its masturbatory fantasies of world-changing upheaval. And while it retains all the stupidities of political correctness and moderatism, it lacks all magic, all mystery.

The truth is no one enthuses about intermingling more than I. No one drools more copiously at the thought of Alexandria, Córdoba, Istanbul. “Was not the earth of Allah spacious enough for you to emigrate therein?” the Quran says. And I will always be for people moving across continents. Becoming other people while they do so.

But there is something about the current format of multiculturalism that seems to prevent becoming. It’s as if people travel not in order to open up to other people, to change, but to clam up and become reductive, essentialised versions of themselves.

Thus the Immigrant’s perspective. In an East seen too comfortably from the West.

And it’s thanks to this avatar of the real, anti-Orientalist Oriental that the more sympathetic the West is, the more absurdly reductive and ultimately disastrous its views.

Al-Ahram Weekly