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Orientalist Literature: into the unknown and beyond

DARF PUBLISHERS has a catalogue largely consisting of books from the 18th – 20th century focusing on the Middle East and Africa, most of which were written by Europeans imperialists. Some of the publications were aiming to present a far away land whilst others are personal accounts that were never intended for our bookshelves. 36 years ago, one of the 20th century’s most defiant thinkers, Edward Said, published Orientalism (1978) as an intensive study on how this ‘outsider looking in’ perspective has shaped Western views of this vast part of the world labelled the Orient, which is simply anything East of Europe, including North Africa due to the cultural crossovers with the Middle East. Much of this territory was an untouched mystery to the West (the Occident), and much of what was known relied on art, literature, essays and design to depict what they saw. 

Said’s work has been at the core of critical discussions on the subject, analysing the often negative portrayal of the Orient, which conveys the area as undeveloped, inhumane, and generally inferior when compared to the West. The texts and paintings that sit at the base of Orientalism were products of European imperialism that are now understood to have shaped much of the prejudice the West holds on the East. For example, life in Arabia was usually represented as one existing around Islam, seduction, mystery and cultural habits that differed from those adopted in the ‘civil’ Occident.

johlburkJohann Ludwig Buckhardt (1784 – 1817) was a Swiss traveller who dedicated his life to his profession as an orientalist. He became fluent in Arabic in a number of dialects whilst adopting mannerisms to really fit in. He participated in his studies in such a way because he believed Arab nations would be far more accepting to a Muslim. With a broad knowledge on the Quran, it is still unknown as to whether he officially converted before his premature death aged 33. Travels in Syria and the Holy land (1822) tells the tale of his six year journey through today’s Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. Illustrated with maps and pictures, his tale intricately describes the lifestyle of the inhabitants who he so longed to be apart of. Travels in Nubia (1819) details cultural and geographical observations in the area that is today known as southern Egypt and northern Sudan. A biography is also included as the preface to the book as the publication shortly succeeded Buckhardt’s death. Arabic Proverbs (1830) was published years after his death. The book is a collection of 782 Cairo proverbs that were originally compiled by Egyptian Sherif Addin Ibn Assad. Burckhardt believed the proverbs might ‘interest and gratify the Orientalist’. Almost 200 years on, Arabic Proverbs continues to offer an alternative take on the culture of Cairo.

1st-footsteps-in-east-africa-12Perhaps better known is Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890), who famously translated one of the world’s greatest literary achievements, The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (1885), also known as Arabian Nights. Although his was not the first translation of the collection, his edition was widely acclaimed by Arabists and literary enthusiasts in the late 19th century, and continues to be through to the present day. Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah (1855-6) is a three-volume collection about Burton’s undercover journey to the Islamic holy site whilst disguised as a Pashtun. Such an accomplishment was only followed by further exploration allowing him to learn approximately 30 languages along the way.  This included a trip to the Somaliland city of Harrar, which is situated in today’s eastern Ethiopia. The enigmatic orientalist’s niece Georgiana M. Stisted wrote a biographical account of her uncle in response to earlier claims of controversy. The True Life of Sir Captain Richard Francis Burton (1896) simply tracks the ingenuity of a man who dedicated his life to not only Orientalism, but also attempting to bridge cultures that appeared to exist on such opposing spectrums.

When considering the work of Edward Said and other successors in the field of postcolonial studies, it becomes evident how such texts are accountable for shaping often-problematic views of the Middle East, Africa and beyond. However, almost 200 years on from Burckhardt’s death and Burton’s birth, we have almost limitless choice of information on the world, allowing us to globe-trot inside the comfort of our own homes. Historical documents like the works of these two acclaimed travellers still retain their orientalist value, and document significant expeditions undertaken by remarkable academics, which I consider to be achievements worth celebrating.

Sherif Dhaimish