Wednesday, June 20, 2007

looking in the mirror: orientalism in music

One aspect of the electronic, postmodern world is that there has been a reinforcement of the stereotypes by which the Orient is viewed. Television, films, and all the media's resources have forced information into more and more standardized molds. So far as the Orient is concerned, standardization and cultural stereotyping have intensified the hold of the nineteenth-century academic and imaginative demonology of "the mysterious Orient."
-Edward Said, Orientalism (1978)

By this time it should not come as a surprise that the site, both geographic and intellectual, which we call the Middle East, is seen not only as exotic, but as something erotic. It is a place where sexuality is unleashed in the absence of the civilizing impulse. No matter how many records Nancy Ajram sells in Egypt, the face of this Middle East will be the Niqaabi or the Afghan woman in the burqa (it is indicative of the problem that indeed most Westerners do not make a distinction between Arabian, Afghan, Persian, Pakistani, etc.). This eroticized vision is a necessary part of Western policy towards the region; it is a place where one's potency must be demonstrated. The violence and the eroticism cannot be separated. It is no accident that the two constant images that mesmerize the mainstream media are the militant and the sexually available, restrained woman.

This geographic erogenous zone is a place Occidentals plunder when they wish because here the rules of civilization no longer apply. It is a place that obeys only the laws of power and is thus closer to Nature, but for that reason less human. We appropriate it to ourselves at moments when our own passions seem uncontainable by the facade of civilization. This embrace of the Orient can come in a confused rush, much like passion itself, indiscriminately devouring whatever is available, expressing and managing the violence of desire by displacing onto a setting that is not one's own. Displacing it from oneself by denying that this is really who one is. This is who They are, but not I.

Sarah Brightman, "Harem", Harem (2003)

Brightman's video received (relatively mild) criticism for its mixture of Arabian and Indian images and symbols, but this really misses the point. Instead what one should see is the necessary confusion that comes of trying to make sense of the unfreedom we genuinely feel but are forced to deny and therefore must project onto someone, some-They who are, Naturally, unfree. This is repeated in the song "Free". Here the sound is not Orientalist, but the setting and theme is quintessentially so. Once again amid a group of young women in Asian clothing, this time rendered immobile, Brightman tells us of her desire to be free as she flounders in her desire to be desired. The contradiction is not, of course, in the desire for recognition, but in the dehumanizing form which that recognition apparently must take.

Sarah Brightman, "Free", Harem (2003)

Sting's collaboration with Cheb Mami bears some of the same elements. There are obvious allusions to fetishism: the concealing of the drivers face and her uniform, which repeats, in an Occidental fashion, the fantasy of the veiled Arabian woman. These themes are especially prominent, not surprisingly, in the remix version, which invokes the sexuality of the dance club. There women, now uncovered, dance in real cages, on display for the male viewer.

Yet one should not simply toss this visual experiment into the same bin of confusion with the Brightman fantasy, for at least two reasons. First, the desire of Sting to reach out to Cheb Mami is indicative of a larger and very long-standing theme in Sting's work: his internationalism, transculturalism. He constantly experiments in a variety of musical genres and sounds. Thus the incorporation of North African rai is in fact an acknowledgement of its humanity, its importance as a form of popular music. This is in stark contrast to Brightman, whose musical selections have often forgotten the reasons for their own existence and thus have to try to situate themselves within the world of popular music, reducing themselves to kitsch. Second, while the vision of "Desert Rose" is classical Orientalism, it does twist it by internalizing it. The desert is not some far away place, it turns out. The passions, violent and erotic, are not ultimately other, but are our own. The song leads back to the Occidental world and holds up a mirror to our own hypocrisy, even as Sting ends the song awash in a sea of young dancing women. The harem is not far away. It is here.

Sting and Cheb Mami, "Desert Rose", Sacred Love (2003)

Sting and Cheb Mami, "Desert Rose -- Remix", Sacred Love (2003)



a. said...

Loved the thoughts on Sting's video. I had never heard nor seen the remix - but the message is even more explicit there, complete w. one glimpse of the Statue of Liberty & the tantalizing chauffeur (what's the feminine tense for that word?) or someone who closely resembles her 'disrobing' before the man in the red shirt. Nevertheless, Sting's hip-shaking 'dance' on the stage remains one of the most disturbing sights I've seen this year. Ew!

Again, thanks for a fun piece! I would so love to hang out in a coffee shop w. you!


a. said...

ok, so I read the article backwards and commented before I was finished. (I often read complicated/multi-part pieces backwards...sorry!)

LOVED the thoughts on orientalism and the lens through which the middle east is viewed... This odd equation with anarchic power and savagery never ceases to frustrate me.

I also tire of the whole militant/sexy veiled woman thing. This snake has recently sunk its fangs into me and it is a fact I resent, regret and yet, survive.

great piece.

Lawrence of Arabia said...

i actually tend to do the reading-from-the-end-back thing myself.

lol@sting bellydancing(?)

i am glad you enjoyed the piece, and you are right - the interp of the middle east as a place of savage-sexuality is so prevalent that it is difficult to avoid it affecting us all in some way or another and degrading the humanity of all involved.

next time you are in the area, let us know...and coffee it is. :)


a. said...

All right, I will! :) (Though I have never been to NC so far...)

have a great weekend.


The Arcadian said...

I'm reading orientalism at the moment (literally at the moment, I put it down to browse the blogosphere), I'm on the last section 'orientalism now'. Just some general thoughts regarding the issues you have brought up:

The orient has been the dark unknown 'other' for a while now, and the 'other' has always had erotic undertones. On top of being 'other', the orient was more conducive to being eroiticised because Muslims/orientals were seen as more emotional and less frigid compared to christian Europe back then. And now, despite the fact that the west is more libertine than the east, the image of the veiled woman is still eroticised because the western male wishes to disempower her modesty, as well as fetishise her.

These icons are still powerful because they are centuries old and are part of europe's long heritage. They've prevailed as long as the orient has been silent. Now that the empire is striking back, it will be interesting to see what new iconography will paint the postmodern future.

Great post.

Lawrence of Arabia said...

welcome to the desert and thanks for a very relevant comment.

i am glad you are enjoying said's book. it is certainly a text worthy of the attention it garnered.

sadly, i have not seen much evidence that the images and interps of the middle east are changing a great deal.