Manal Ataya on our responsibility to change the narrative

Remembering Edward Said's lessons on the anniversary of his death.

By Manal Ataya

When I was asked to write a piece on the effect that the revolutionary and powerful work of the intellectual Edward Said, a figure I believe made one of the greatest contributions to scholarship by revealing the fundamental flaws in an overwhelmingly singular western narrative—which with its prevalence and academic credibility—critically shaped the imbalance of power dynamics in colonial and post-colonial discourse, has had on me, two personal instances immediately stood out in mind, each set nearly eight years apart.

The first story I will share is of an upsetting encounter during my college years in the US. A fellow student that lived in my residence hall and her classmate were discussing conflicts in the Middle East, as they were taking the same government class.  I was reading my own book and not paying much attention until her friend, knowing my nationality , asked me what I thought about conflicts in the Arab region, and in particular, about suicide bombing attacks.

I remember feeling uneasy but  I reluctantly answered that such issues were much more complex than they seemed, and although no one could argue that innocent people being killed is not a heinous act, I did pose the question back to her about whether she had considered how  and why certain groups of people in the world end up taking such extreme measures. I also asked her to consider how perhaps in the act of indoctrination and exploitation of young people, people otherwise brought up with good morals could now find themselves in situations in which they accept or justify grave acts of violence.

She answered unequivocally that she would not consider such factors, and stated— as a matter of fact— that she believed “Arabs” did not value life human like other people do, and that American mothers “truly” loved their children, unlike “Arab” mothers, and that they would never allow for such things to happen to their children or loved ones.

Her conviction and our friend’s nod of agreement was disconcerting, to say the least. I recall thinking about this incident over the years, usually during similarly structured conversations in which I would have negative perceptions or viewpoints thrown at me as fact, when in reality they were deeply rooted in biases, overall ignorance and the very problematic ‘us’ and the ‘other’ dichotomy.

In subsequent years, I would read and learn more about what ‘otherness’ truly encompasses, and how Edward Said explained the permeation of colonial discourse, its phony veneer as factual and the ramifications of the imbalance of power on generations of people’s sense of individual and collective identity.  It was that encounter, and many that followed throughout my life, that came to the surface connecting like dots to Said’s theories when I read Said’s seminal book, Orientalism. I felt that I understood much of his analysis as I had experienced both the blatant and subtle nuances of ‘otherness’ as an identifiable Arab Muslim woman. But now I was armed with more knowledge, confidence and the language by which to never again have my voice muffled, and to be able to assertively speak my truth when my presence and perspective was seen as unimportant, or worse, a threat.

Edward Said “made one of the greatest contributions to scholarship by revealing the fundamental flaws in an overwhelmingly singular western narrative—which with its prevalence and academic credibility—critically shaped the imbalance of power dynamics in colonial and post-colonial discourse”, says Manal Ataya. Illustration: Shaima Al Alawi.

Fast forward to eight years later,  I was nervous yet elated to be offered a job in Sharjah as a deputy director for (what was at the time) a new department for their museums, and to be part of the ambitious plans they had to continue to build a flourishing cultural and arts ecosystem. In preparation for my major responsibilities ahead, His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, the Ruler of Sharjah, would meet with me and a small team to discuss his vision, and what drove his passion for history and culture. On one occasion, he spoke to us for an hour, highlighting the importance of education, peace through the power of knowledge and culture as key pillars in the positive development of any human being.  I was inspired, to say the least, and knew at that moment that this was the right place for me.

A few weeks later, I met with His Highness alone as I helped work on some research for collections when he put me on the spot by asking if I had read any of his books.  I was flushed pink as I had not, but it seems that he recognized my embarrassment because he followed it swiftly with a kind remark that he always encourages everyone to read, and that he simply wished to suggest that my first book be a much older publication of his from 1986 titled, The Myth of Arab Piracy in the Gulf, which he gifted to me later that day.

His book opened my eyes to a history of the Gulf and the UAE that I had never known, and that completely reshaped the basic understanding I had of the region and the country in which I was born.  Very much like Said’s Orientalism, the premise of the book by His Highness was groundbreaking. He successfully challenged and put forward a solid, fact-based argument, presenting for the first time an alternative, if not arguably, the more accurate version of how and why certain historical events transpired in the region, particularly by demonstrating the skewed lens of ‘otherness’ that was the overwhelming tone and perspective through which the history of the Gulf and the Qawasim was written, which was fostered by British imperialism in the region.  It would be at a future occasion in the museum with His Highness that the topic of his book would come up, to which I recall him saying, “If you don’t learn and write about your own history from your own eyes, others definitely will, and that would be you failing your responsibility, not them.”

I tell these stories from my life to convey two of the key points made by Said. First, that orientalism is alive today, and that  tenets of colonialism remain and do exist in the mentality of many (such as those in my college story) who honestly believe that universal values and feelings, such as maternal love or the desire to live, would radically differ based on your racial background or religious upbringing. The second key point is that, historically, many countries of the West, spread carefully crafted false narratives of other peoples and nations for the sole purpose of control, dominance and personal gain.

At this point in my life I have a sharp awareness of ‘othering’ during conversations with strangers and friends, but more importantly in my professional capacity. I believe I have a responsibility to dispel stereotypes and alter the narrative. This is what I attempt to do by providing more balanced museum interpretation, and by encouraging Arab students and scholars to engage in scholarship based on new research that provides crucial, intrinsic insights into topics that touch their own heritage, or history. Another way in which I do this is by strongly supporting the platform our museums offer for diverse artists to share their own experiences and strengthen their valuable representation, which gifts us all with a fuller and richer picture of our world. His Highness’s statement is a constant reminder for every people or nation to record their own history and enhance knowledge through their own contributions; but most importantly, to be proactive in the pursuit of impartial information and correcting wrongs with what you have, whether it be a pen or your voice.

Manal Ataya is the Director General of the Sharjah Museums Authority with 15 years of senior managerial experience in museum development and cultural diplomacy.  

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