Vintage Orientalism and the crap they serve these days

by zunguzungu

That’s a picture of Mike Tyson and the Kaaba, and whatever you think of him as a person, you probably have to give him some credit for doing the Umrah because, you know, it meant something to him to do it. He’s a Muslim, and the reason to take a pilgrimage to Mecca is that it’s one of the things Muslims are supposed to do. He wants to do it, in other words, because he’s a Muslim.

Why does Maureen Dowd want to do it? Her “Pilgrim Non Grata in Mecca” is no less hilarious and stupid than her usual columns, but it’s worth asking that question, I think, worth asking why, on her trip to Saudi Arabia, she was briefly “tempted to turn my abaya into a black masquerade cloak and sneak into Mecca…crash the ultimate heaven’s gate.” In the end, of course, she decides not to, because “it seemed disrespectful, not to mention dangerous,” but I’m not really tempted to believe that “respect” has anything to do with this; when it comes to Dowd, sheer, unadulterated journalistic laziness always has to be one‘s baseline assumption. In the classic mode of the NY Times opinion column writer, she instead chats with whatever powerful person happens to be around and then writes down whatever thought drifts — like a frightened and slow-moving pigeon — through her mind at the time:

A Saudi woman in Jidda told me that the best way to absorb Islam was to listen to the call for prayer while standing on the corniche by the Red Sea at sunset. That was indeed moving, but I didn’t feel any better equipped to understand the complexities of Islam that even Saudis continually debate — and where radical Islam fits in. Or to get elucidation on how, as Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria put it, “the veil is not the same as the suicide belt.

That she has not achieved enlightenment I can only respond: quel fucking surprise. This conversation with some Saudi royalty is just priceless, though:

Couldn’t Mecca, I asked the royals, be opened to non-Muslims during the off-season? The phrase off-season, as it turns out, is not conducive to an interfaith dialogue.

Turns out — it will shock you, as it shocked her, to learn — that “Saudis understandably have zero interest in outraging the rest of the Muslim world by letting members of other faiths observe their deeply private rituals and gawk at the parade of religious costumes fashioned from loose white sheets.” She later suggests that this will be “a way for Saudi Arabia to shed light on Islam and reclaim it from the radicals.” Her interlocutor, Prince Saud al-Faisal, is sort of like “who is this woman.” But, luckily, all is not lost:

In the end, I did see the hajj. When I got home, I went to the Imax theater at the Smithsonian and bought a ticket to “Journey to Mecca.” I was surprised when the movie said that the Kaaba was built by “Abraham, the father of the Jews” — a reminder that the faiths have a lot to learn from each other.

Oh, Maureen Dowd. What a sad excuse for an Orientalist you are. It isn’t so much that she’s just wrong and lazy and stupid about everything — the hajj, for example, only happens at a particular time of the year, so she was never going to see it — but the whole “OMG! the Arabs and the Jews are sort of not totally different? WTF?” moment is just so pathetically absent, especially that she doesn‘t even say what it was the faiths were supposed to have learned from each other. Was it that they have things in common? She went all the way to Saudi Arabia without having cracked the wikipedia entry on Islam? Unsurprising, of course, but well, somehow I’m still surprised. It is revealing, though. After all, here she is, Maureen Dowd, one of the most supremely ignorant people on the face of the earth, but particularly un-endowed with knowledge about Islam. She’d cop to the second pretty easily, I imagine; she doesn’t hold herself out as an expert on the faith, just your typical American whose typicality is defined by their ignorance of Islam. And yet, when she picks up one of the most basic facts about the believers, that both Jews and Muslims share big chunks of “The Bible” with each other (though they have their own funny names for it) — her first and only thought is that this is a piece of knowledge they can learn from a Smithsonian IMAX movie. In other words, she doesn’t marvel at her own newfound knowledge, or wonder what she can do to profit from being marginally less uninformed that before; instead, she instantly takes on the role of scolding Orientalist, sternly instructing the faiths to play nicely with each other. What’s striking, in other words, is that she combines ignorance with an assumption of superior knowledge, to such an extent that the latter almost — or fully? — becomes the condition of the former.

Anyway, her momentary name-checking of Richard Burton — the “illicit pilgrim [who] wore Arab garb and infiltrated the holiest place in Islam” — is such a useful contrast to her junket from a Saudi prince; Saud al-Faisal apparently gave her explicit permission to go and see a Mosque, but the moment she could she lost interest. And yet the fact that she didn’t because she could, instead, just go home and watch the IMAX offers a sort of moment-of-clarity illumination into just what has changed between Orietnalists past and Orientalists present; if she’s the American Empire’s Paper of Record’s Official Infiltrator of the Orient, then, dang, we both suck as an empire and make an art out of our suckitude.

Anyway, it made me dig up Burton’s Narrative of a pilgrimage to Meccah and Medinah, where he laid claim to being, as he put it, “the only living European who has found his way to the Head Quarters of the Moslem Faith.” And, as John Oliver put it, that’s the good stuff. But in doing so, I came across this marvelous passage from the introduction of the third edition, where Burton deals with the criticism that pretending to be a Muslim so you can ramble through the religion’s holy places for kicks is not really such a totes awesome lolz thing to do:

The author of the “Narrative of a Year’s Journey through Central and Eastern Arabia” (vol. i., pp. 258-59) thus expresses his opinions :—

“Passing oneself off for a wandering Darweesh, as some European explorers have attempted to do in the East, is for more reasons than one a very bad plan. It is unnecessary to dilate on that moral aspect of the proceeding which will always first strike unsophisticated minds. To feign a religion which the adventurer himself does not believe, to perform with scrupulous exactitude-, as of the highest and holiest import, practices which he inwardly ridicules, and which he intends on his return to hold up to the ridicule of others, to turn for weeks and months together the most sacred and awful bearings of man towards his Creator into a deliberate and truthless mummery, not to mention other and yet darker touches,—all this seems hardly compatible with the character of a European gentleman, let alone that of a Christian.”

But Burton is not going to go out like that:

This comes admirably a propos from a traveller who, born a Protestant, of Jewish descent, placed himself “in connection with,” in plain words took the vows of, “the order of the Jesuits,” an order “well-known in the annals of philanthropic daring;” a popular preacher who declaimed openly at Beyrout and elsewhere against his own nation, till the proceedings of a certain Father Michael Cohen were made the subject of an official report by Mr. Consul-General Moore (Beyrout, November 11, 1857); an Englishman by birth who accepted French protection, a secret mission, and the ” liberality of the present Emperor of the French ;” a military officer travelling in the garb of what he calls a native (Syrian) “quack” with a comrade who “by a slight but necessary fiction passed for his brother-in-law ;”1 a gentleman who by return to Protestantism violated his vows, and a traveller who was proved by the experiment of Colonel (now Sir Lewis) Pelly to have brought upon himself all the perils and adventures that have caused his charming work to be considered so little, worthy of trust. Truly such attack argues a sublime daring. It is Satan preaching against Sin.

Suck it Palgrave, you Protestant-Catholic Jew! But then he goes on to treat more seriously with why it’s okay for a Christian to “rock the Kaaba” (as Maureen Dowd must kick herself for not thinking of saying):

In noticing these extracts my object is not to defend myself: I recognize no man’s right to interfere between a human being and his conscience. But what is there, I would ask, in the Moslem Pilgrimage so offensive to Christians— what makes it a subject of ” inward ridicule ” ? Do they not also venerate Abraham, the Father of the Faithful? Did not Locke, and even greater names, hold Mohammedans to be heterodox Christians, in fact Arians who, till the end of the fourth century, represented the mass of North-European Christianity? Did Mr. Lane never conform by praying at a Mosque in Cairo ? did he ever fear to confess it ? has he been called an apostate for so doing? Did not Father Michael Cohen prove himself an excellent Moslem in Wahhdbi-land.

The fact is, there are honest men who hold that El-Islam, in its capital tenets, approaches much nearer to the faith of Jesus than do the Pauline and Athanasian modifications which, in this our day, have divided the Indo-European mind into Catholic and Roman, Greek and Russian, Lutheran and Anglican. The disciples of Dr. Daniel Schenkel’s school (“A Sketch of the Character of Jesus,” Longmans, 1869) will indeed find little difficulty in making this admission. Practically, a visit after Arab Meccah to Anglo-Indian Aden, with its “priests after the order of Melchisedeck,” suggested to me that the Moslem may be more tolerant, more enlightened, more charitable, than many societies of self-styled Christians.

And why rage so furiously against the “disguise of a wandering Darwaysh”? In what point is the Darwaysh more a mummer or show more of betise than the quack ? Is the Darwaysh anything but an Oriental Freemason, and are Freemasons less Christians because they pray with Moslems and profess their belief in simple unitarianism ?

I have said.

Which leaves me with this resolution: henceforth, all my blog posts will end with the phrase “I have said.”