Arts & Culture

Experiencing Edward Said’s Orientalism in action

They were "shocked to know that Arabs do not live in a desert or a tent, nor do they use camels for transportation".

.للقراءة بالعربية انقروا هنا

By Layan Aboshkier

Edward Said. Illustration: Shaima Al Alawi.

Around a year ago, I had an interesting conversation with an American exchange student whom I met in a linguistics class at university. When speaking to him about how he finds the UAE and how it compares to the US, he said that his friends back home were shocked to know that Arabs do not live in a desert or a tent, nor do they use camels for transportation. My friend told me that this is the picture that many Americans have about the “Middle East” due to what they see in the media, especially in films and motion graphics. Right when he started speaking about how we, as Arabs, are visualized in the minds of “the West,” I remembered Professor Edward Said and his theory of “Orientalism”.  I was astonished to see how relevant it still is to this day.

Said wrote his Orientalism in 1978 as a critical approach to the picture drawn by the West of the East, or “the Orient”, in which the former is always seen as superior to the inferior East. Said explains that due to the power that the West holds over the East, they are able to stereotype peoples of “the Orient” and picture them as uncivilized, inferior and backward. Eventually, this ongoing stereotyping through media, films and literature became, to many, the only known reality of the East and its people.

When you think about it, you can actually spot this picture in almost every “Western” production depicting the Middle East, especially the Arab world. Most of the time, this part of the world is represented as an empty desert with a few tents here and there, lots of camels and angry, terroristic men running around shouting at their abused women. This is almost the only portrayal of the Arab world that the rest of the world has been exposed to for decades, which makes it no surprise that “Westerners”, such as my friend’s friends, to think of us this way. I am sure that it is not just me, but that at least thousands of us — the “Orientals”— have gone through similar experiences and have had to explain to a “Westerner” that we live in a normal society just like any other society out there.

Said says, “One aspect of the electronic, postmodern world is that there has been a reinforcement of the stereotypes by which the Orient is viewed. Television, the films, and all the media’s resources have forced information into more and more standardized molds”. Despite this quote being over  40 years old, these “standardized molds” are still very prominent in modern-day cinema and in the many productions that we grew up watching, such as Disney’s famous Aladdin. Both the original Aladdin, and its live-action remake, are a precise representation of Orientalism.  Agrabah and its people are a “standardized mold” of “the Orient”. Generations after generations, children of the world are growing up watching Aladdin and internalizing “the land of Arabia” as the only reality of the “East”. They are not only internalizing it through the motion graphics and storyline, but even through music. As some of may recall, the original lyrics of the original Aladdin (which were later amended) are replete with  references to the “Orient” as the land of barbarianism. This is evident, for example, in the opening song “Arabian Nights”, the beginning of which is:

“I come from a land from a faraway place

where the caravan camels roam

where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face.

It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home!”

Said says, “One aspect of the electronic, postmodern world is that there has been a reinforcement of the stereotypes by which the Orient is viewed. Television, the films, and all the media’s resources have forced information into more and more standardized molds”. Illustration: Shaima Al Alawi.

This is not just about the way “Orientals” and their lands are represented, but it is also about how they are seen by their counterparts, the Westerners.  When mentioning “the East,” we can be talking about the Middle East, the Arab world, South Asia, North Africa, or any piece of land that is literally adjacent to the Western world. Therefore, we are talking about hundreds of cultures, languages and civilizations that do not encompass interchangeable people at all. However, “the West” has allowed themselves to represent “the Orient” with a mix-and-match of Indian, Arabic and Turkish songs, costumes and customs to create Agrabah in Aladdin, and other cities in other movies, thinking that this is okay because those cultures are all “Oriental” at the end of the day.

To be sure, Aladdin is not the only example of the Western misrepresentation of the East in film. Another is The Dictator (2012), for example, which portrays Arabs as terrorists, misogynists and, frankly, just plain stupid. They all reinforce Said’s theory of Orientalism, and represent our part of the world in a distorted manner that opens doors for a similar discussion to the one I had with my American friend.

I do not just blame “the West” for this misrepresentation, but I also blame us, “Orientals” as they call us, for not challenging this portrayal enough. It is extremely important for us to start telling factual stories about our part of the world, prove those stereotypes wrong, and repaint our picture with  our own colors. We can do this by producing more art, literature and content that truly depicts the details of what they call “the Orient” and its diversity, rather than its homogeneity.  And most importantly, we must be aware of the labels and misrepresentations that are being attached to our cultures and nations. We must not accept them as the reality of our part of the world, because they are not, and they will never be. 

 And most importantly, we must stop calling ourselves “Orientals”!


Layan Aboshkier is a Syrian journalist who contributes to Arabic and international media platforms. She is passionate about theatre, arts and culture, and literature. Layan is a firm believer in the power of the written word. She is currently interning at Sekka.

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