<%-- Page Title--%> Perspective <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 117 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

August 08, 2003

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Harems and Oriental
An analysis of western perspectives of the orient their origins, and contemporary trends

Sajid Huq


In the western world, the word harem conjures up images in movies of languid females with accommodating demeanors, and ethnographically pertinent backdrop, and of course, the ever-ready sheesha, or pipe. Such images have acquired connotations of unbridled hedonism, vicarious pleasures of the flesh, Arab masculine lasciviousness, and feminine obsequiousness. However, the reality was often starkly different.
Harems, among other multitudinous cultural aspects of the Near East or the Orient, were used pervasively and often preposterously in colonial Europe and the modern West, as instruments to foster identities, serve as backdrops for Western masculine fantasies, and to imbue social change.

Problems with Western Perspectives
The anglicized harem is derived from the Arabic haram, meaning forbidden or prohibited; a derivation often referred to the women's quarters in a house, (a forbidden place). Other early derivations exhibition strong connotations of sacredness. The most holy place in Islam, the qibla to which Muslims turn in direction for formal prayer, is called “albayt alharaam” (the Holy House). This point is discussed by Fadwa El Guindi (Guindi, 1995) where she writes:
The concept of sanctuary that connects sacred places, like mosques and pilgrimage centres, also applies to women, women's quarters, and family -- a connection that brings out the significance of the idea of sanctity in these contexts.

Much of Western feminist and even non-feminist writing and media attention focusing on the subject of harems Portrays the Near Eastern female as the 'Oppressed Other'. She is essentialized to represent 'the East' and stereotypically assumed to be oppressed, inferior, traditional, backward, and mysterious. The crux of this construct can be located in Orientalist discourse, highlighted in particular by Edward Said in "Orientalism", which describes the preponderance of scholarly writing and academia that pits inferior Eastern and Islamic culture against vaunted European and Western culture. This prejudice has manifested itself prominently in Western feminist writing that has consistently demonstrated a tendency to use Western cultural norms to unflinchingly judge harem life. The result has been the marginalisation and subjugation of their foci: Oriental women.

A Western woman or a feminist trying to observe and describe an Oriental woman is bound to suffer from some distinct cultural prejudices. In the industrialised world, the foundations that define women's movements and feminist ideologies are dominated by white, middle-class women. These women invariably overlook their positions of privilege as citizens of formerly colonialist and in some cases, neo-colonialist countries, and unquestioningly regard social concerns within their own environments as paramount. The result is an egregious lack of cultural understanding. Other non-feminist scholars look at countries in a way that over-eroticizes and exoticizes the women.

Western scholarship, art and media have been consistently guilty of employing terms such as 'slaves' or 'ordalisques', which bear different meanings in different cultures. Western conceptions of the term 'slave', for example, immediately preclude possibilities of such women ever claiming status or power. In many Arab harems, however, the term carries a different connotation. As Fatima Mernissi states, “In Muslim history the number of caliphs whose mothers were slaves is more than impressive” (Mernissi, 1993, p.57). Heleh Afshar argues that subjective terminology cannot be properly understood unless it is expressed in proper cultural and historical contexts.

Afshar also discusses positive images of the harem (Afshar, 2000). He describes harem days as being full of leisured discourses, both personal and cerebral, in an exclusively female domain. “She (a harem woman) imbibed the savoir fair and the skills that royal ladies had to have, she learnt how to give a good party, how to present a good table, how to sew and embroider, what to wear and when to wear it and the details of good conversation. Looking back (at her harem days) she recalled gaiety, laughter, singing, and a joyful life where the leisurely pursuit of amusement, health, and beauty were the main concerns” (Afshar, 2000).

Roots of Western Perspectives

In Orientalism, published in 1978, Edward Said argues, as much as the West itself, the Orient is an idea that has a history and a tradition of thought, imagery, and vocabulary that have given it reality and presence in and for the West. It presents a “Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (Edward, 2000).

However, a sexualised understanding of Orientalism is of fundamental importance, as the Orient itself is represented as feminine: a veiled world of mystery, intrigue, and exoticism that is waiting to be penetrated by the Orientalist observer.

In the third section of her book, Leila Ahmed explains how European domination of the Near East and imperialistic incursion forms the crux of the development of Western feminist opinions of Muslim women. She describes the formation of British imperialistic perspectives around the late 19th century and the imposition of the British educational system, which induced strong anglophilia in upper class Egyptians and widened the gap between the classes. At this time, imperialistic condemnations of the backwardness of Islamic traditions (such as the women's veil) surfaced. Ahmed writes,

“Even the Victorian male establishment devised theories to contest the claims of feminism, and derided and rejected the ideas of feminism and the notion of men oppressing women with respect to itself, it captured the language of feminism and redirected it, in the service of colonialism, toward Other men and the cultures of Other men. It was here and in the combining of the languages of colonialism and feminism that the fusion between the issues of women and culture was created” (Ahmed, 1992, p. 151). One example of an uncritical and hypocritical imperialistic analysis was British consul general, Lord Cromer's denunciation of the Islamic veil, while he simultaneously opposed women's suffrage issues in Great Britain.

While Said relied on references to literary manifestations of Orientalism, art historians applied his frameworks to the visual arts, considering nineteenth century French paintings. The resultant scholarship has generated an increasingly nuanced appreciation of the imperialistic agendas, gender inequities, and racial prejudices that underlie such depictions of the erotic and exotic East.

The French also had protracted colonial machinations in the Orient, and more specifically, in North Africa. French Orientalist art by artists such as Gerome, Henri Regnault, Ingres, and Matisse helped elevate the cultural ideals of the French colonialist while reducing the Orient to a wild fantasy land of harems and concubines. These painters treated the varieties of popular entertainment such as storytelling, snake charming and dancing with voyeuristic pleasure masked as ethnographic, dispassionate empiricism (Bernstein, pg. 15, 1997). Alternatively, they used foreign settings and tales as a stage for the playing out, from a suitable distance, forbidden passions. Eugene Delacroix rendered the death of Assyrian ruler Sardanapalus, in the painting The Death of Sardanapalus, as a swirling spectacle of naked subservient concubines, helplessly murdered at the behest of their defeated and suicidal leader (Ocaiw, 2001). Both approaches -- the detached ethnographic record and the indulgence of fantasy -- exemplify Orientalist paintings' affinity with the picturesque, which obscures its subjects' place in history. The particular history here involves the struggles of North Africa to resist French colonialism and of native cultures to survive the incursion of Western technology and governmental policies.

Colonial France enjoyed a unique cultural status; French artists and bureaucrats disseminated what much of the West considered to be the most elevated standards of art and culture. A large migration of French Orientalist imagery to Post Civil-War America eventually played an important role in enabling the consolidation of the power America sought in the emerging world order of the early twentieth century. At the same time, American women began to enjoy increasing social latitude and the Orient was re-imagined around sex. As it was for other Westerners before them, America's Orient became a useful construct to revisit the past and envision the future. Similarly, harems on the television screen and in writing became a vehicle for American sexual and masculine fantasies.

Orientalism Today: Arabs in Hollywood and Media
Hollywood has a legacy of fabricating an eroticized and exoticized Orient, titillating audiences with adventure and lust in the untamed desert landscape. The Arab stereotype in films in the 20s was mostly an unsavory concoction of exoticism, abduction, banditry, revenge, and slavery. The plots invariably made Arabs the adversaries, pitting them against Western good guys. The most famous of the early 'Arab' films was The Sheik (1921), which catapulted Rudolph Valentino to stardom. The blockbuster hit is a prime example of miscegenation. Valentino as the lusty sheik sets out to seduce a young, fair woman. The film was so successful that it inaugurated more hot blooded, swashbuckling melodramas and prompted reviewers' claims that “The Sheik's primary machinery of excitation … was that delicious masochistic appeal of the fair girl in the strong hands of the ruthless desert tyrant” (Bernstein, 1997, pg. 102). Seduction and abduction are common motifs in these films. Typically, women are chased around, often in tents, or hoisted on shoulders, flung on horseback and taken off to be sexually harassed. The Sheik managed to lump Arabs -- Egyptians, Iraqis, Lebanese, Algerians, Saudi Arabians, and others -- together. Thus, a collective Arab emerged, undifferentiated by location or cultural plurality (Kamal-Eldin, 2001).

Hollywood studios reproduced this successful formula and mutated it into biblical epics such as Solomon and Sheba. After World War II, Hollywood continued to produce comedies and musicals with Oriental settings. In 1965, Elvis Presley starred in Harum Scarum which featured harem-like nightclubs. The rock star sang: “I'm gonna go where the desert sun is; where the fun is; go where the harem girls dance; go where there's love and romance-out on the burning sands, in some caravan” (Shohat, 1994).

A new trend started in the early sixties. Exodus, and Cast A Giant Shadow, started a new cinema genre generated by the Arab-Israeli conflict. The good Israelis were seen pitted against the bad Arabs, depicted primarily as kidnappers, terrorists, and murderers. According to the American Film Institute, if the most frequent themes in the 87 Middle East films from the 1920s and the 118 Middle East films of the 60s are tallied it becomes apparent that Hollywood's Middle East had become a more sinister place (Kamal-Eldin, 2001).

Among more contemporary movies, Hollywood's portrayal of Arabs does not appear to be improving. Black Sunday, Rollover, Protocol, Ashanti, Father of the Bride II, Aladdin, and Paradise are examples of recent productions, which continue to denigrate Arabs. Disney altered the lyrics to the opening song in Aladdin in response to protests by the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (Bernstein, 1997). The original lyrics had read:

Oh, 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.
Where it's flat and immense
And the heat is intense
It's barbaric, but hey, its home

The persistence of the negative Arab image in American and Western media also continues. Such persistence is dangerous. History has shown that strong correlations exist between this fantastical profiling and prevarication and the far reaching acts of racism, bigotry and occasional hate crimes, both in local and more international arenas. Yet stereotypes of harems and belly dancers thrive, and are compounded by newer ones resulting from political crises in the Middle East

Although the media and Hollywood's flippant Orientalist escapades sustain, the American and Western understanding of the Orient shows signs of rebellious but promising upheavals. Said's Orientalism and Orientalist scholarship has continued to increase in popularity and reach. The book is now read in 33 different languages around the world, and has propelled divergent academic scions. Arab migration to America has enjoyed a sustained rise over the recent decades and Islam is now the fastest growing religion with Muslims even outnumbering the Jews. Oriental and Islamic culture has also pervaded American and European households. In new age bookstores and yoga centres from Berlin to Los Angeles, more and more 'Westerners' embrace the poems of Persian Sufi Jalaluddin Rumi and rejoice in Oriental mysticism and love. Today, Rumi's poems are the best selling in the United States, thus helping to pave the way for Westerners in learning about an Orient they can comprehend, appreciate and even adulate.