Claire: Thank you for coming.
Jennifer, نور (Noor): Thank you for having us.
Claire : First, let’s ask Noor. What are some general Eurocentric assumptions toward the Middle East culture that you have spotted from your past experiences? What do you think are the consequences of such assumptions?
West Asian people are depicted as camel-riding, uncivilized tribes living in an exotic “Arabian Nights” fantasy land. It is disappointing to see the most ancient civilizations of the world, with rich human experience and knowledge, reduced to this false stereotype of camels and flying carpets.
Growing up in Yemen, I have never seen a camel roaming around. What I did see were the remnants of an ancient civilisation where an ancient queen led political affairs and gave stability to Yemen. Such civilization, Sheba, is described in all of the sacred books that are the primary monotheistic religions in the world.
I became so accustomed to eurocentric views that even the discovery of something similar to “Newton’s Laws” in West Asian manuscripts, written six centuries before Newton, was a shock to me.
Claire: It’s interesting that you use the term “West Asia” instead of “Middle East”. Why is that?
Noor: “Middle East” is a label used by a naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan in 1902 to separate West Asia with adjacent India culture. The term itself is problematic because it is, undeniably, a Western term reflecting a Western perspective
Claire: As we use the term “West Asian”, do you feel that we are generalizing your region?
Noor: It is a form of generalization, but it seems unavoidable given the amount of confusion regarding what’s so called “the Orient,” or the depiction of the region known as the middle east, central and east Asia as one big pot of wonders. West Asia is a little more specific to the Arab countries located in the Arabian peninsula.
Claire: Speaking of the folktale <<The Arabian Nights>>, one of its most famous stories has recently been made into a fantasy musical film called Aladdin. What are some of your thoughts after watching it?
Noor: This is a misconception as well. The character of Aladdin is not an original character of the folktale; it was rather added by Antoine Galland, a French man who supposedly learned about the character from some Arabs. This is an excellent example of a middle eastern story told through a Eurocentric lens.
Claire: It’s intriguing to see how eurocentric views influence people’s perspective on West Asia. What are some of your thoughts on the release of << Aladdin>>, since you come from East Asia?
Jennifer: I actually really enjoyed Aladdin. As a child, I listened to stories in the Arabian nights, and I think Aladdin really portrays the “exoticness” in the stories I listened to as a child, which is what the audience expects. But it seemed very weird to me that a lot of the scenes in the movie feature Indian elements.
Claire: To what extent did colonialism eliminate your cultures? From both of your perspectives?
I’d start with identifying myself with the Han Chinese culture, which was mostly brought to Taiwan by Han Chinese immigrants who came here when the Qing Dynasty took over. I guess we are also the colonizers because a lot of Han Chinese people drove the indigenous people from the prosperous plains and forced them to go into the mountains when they first arrived. But at the same time we were also colonized by Japan for fifty years when the Qing Dynasty lost the Sino-Japanese war.
I don’t think we lost much of our culture, probably because fifty years isn’t really enough to replace one culture with another. Anyhow, one consequence of having had so many parties take over Taiwan is that it’s become hard for me to come up with a uniquely “Taiwanese” culture. I’d say almost all of our traditions come from Han Chinese culture.
For West Asia, it’s more of a cultural alienation rather than a cultural elimination. The culture and heritage of the Arabian people is well preserved and documented. However, over the past 500 years, the domination of the Western culture persistently portrayed the West Asian region as a region that is very different and irrelevant to European history, values, and identity. Whereas, in fact, the history of this region has an unbreakable link with European history. A great example is the idea that the old European identity emerged from the grand Greek civilization. The prime of Greek scholarly tradition took place in places like Alexandria, Egypt.
In addition, some scholarly works of the Greeks were highly influenced by works done in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). About ten centuries of huge influence and leadership of the Arabian and Muslim civilizations in arts and science is being actively dismissed and ignored in scholarly and published work today in the Western world, in spite of its contribution to the Renaissance. What I am trying to address here is that the major influence I feel upon my generation is that we Arabs are only portrayed either as a “good” Arab (i.e. Westernerized), or a “bad” Arab (alien, extremist or backwards).
Claire: Another question for you (Noor): How did your two years in the US influence your perception of Yemeni and the West Asian culture in general? Same question for you( Jennifer), How does your UWC experience change your perspective of the Chinese culture?
There was no portrayal of a “Yemeni;” it was always Middle Eastern. Whenever I was asked to talk about my background, oftentimes I found myself talking about the Western version of Middle East politics, as there was no such image of what a Yemeni is in Western society. It felt as if I was expected to talk exactly about the politics of the “Middle East”. Because of this, I considered myself as an Arab rather than a Yemeni.
In one of the museums I went to, there was an explicit “no pictures” sign put up exclusively on some of the arabic artifacts. As such, I noticed extra discrimination and exclusive protection of some arabic scripts. Why is it that I cannot record and look into an artifact of my own culture? That is when I became more interested about my culture.
Jennifer: I don’t think my UWC experience has changed my perspective of the Chinese culture, at least not much. If anything, it’s made me prouder of the culture and prompted me to learn more about the stories behind all the traditions. However, it has pushed me to find something that isn’t really linked to my original culture.
Claire: For anyone who’s interested in learning about West Asia Culture, What are some resources in English that are currently available?
Noor: It is essential to read books or study arts by artists who are native to the region rather than Westerners fascinated by Aladdin and veiled mysterious beautiful women from the sultan’s harem.
The latest book that I have read is The Pessoptimist by Emile Habibi. I did not read enough to provide a comprehensive list; however, below are the ones that are on my reading list for whenever I am done with the IB!
- Orientalism by Edward Said.
- Leon the African by Amin Maalouf
- The Book of the Misers by Aljahiz
- The Improvement of Human Reason by Ibn Yaqzan
- The Case of the Animals Versus Man Before the King of the Jinn by Brethren of Purity
Claire: Thank you for your sharing, it was a great meeting with you. I’m looking forward to hearing more from you in the future, Noor and Jennifer.
Noor grew up in Yemen and has two years of studying experience in the US before Pearson.
Claire (Zilin) Meng grew up in Mainland China and she lived in Canada for two years before Pearson
Jennifer lived in Taiwan before Pearson.