In an attempt to make this blog a tiny bit more useful I’ve decided to publish all my essays produced during my course at University. Below you can find the one from my first semester of the first year.
Please note: This document is subject to copyright. No parts of it should be reproduced without the written consent of copyright owner.
Images in the Western visual media consistently
misrepresent non-western cultures
Ever since I was a little boy, there have been certain things in popular visual media that did not seem right in my eyes. One of those things is the way the region of the world I come from is represented in “western” movies and imagery. Images of “exotic” people and places branded as Oriental are often just exaggerated versions of reality beyond the point of recognition. While people like me may be able to tell fact from fiction, it may not be the case with western Europeans and Americans, leading to a wrong image being created.
Bulgaria is a country with an interesting position on the map of the world – we are not considered oriental, nor we are the typical Europeans. Aspiring to the west, with strong historical links with the east and tumultuous past, my country stands on a kind of a “crossroad”, taking a piece of each nation that passed by. Strongest imprint of a foreign culture, is that of the cradle of Orientalism, – the Ottoman Empire (Turkey), in whose reign we have stayed for over 400 years. This, of course, leaves us with all sorts of mixed feeling towards our southeastern neighbor – there are people feeling that the empire’s ambitions are still there, trying to take over once more. I found extensive information about these matters, from a foreigner’s viewpoint, in a ook on International relations. The chapter covered political and historical facts of the relationship between the Bulgarian government and the Turkish population in the country, especially in the period Bulgaria was a communist country.
“In general, relations between Bulgarians and Turks within Bulgaria had been reasonably good. The Turks had been allowed to use their language, to wear their shalvar (…) and to celebrate bairam” although, “in the 1970s and 1980s the cultural rights of Muslims had been curtailed, with closures of mosques and restrictions on education.” These reactions were mostly provoked by fear of “…a possible replay of the Turkish invasion…”
(Halliday, F. 2002.)
Usually, these fears have been identified with the stride for religious dominance in certain areas. I suppose there is, to a certain extent, a common base with the reasons for the Swiss minaret ban case that recently shook the world. Islamic religion leaders have always been very active, and maybe little aggressive in their quests to popularize their beliefs. In Bulgaria, it never seems to be a problem to fund the building of a mosque, quite unlike funding for a Christian church, regardless that it is a Christian country. Polemics like these that the ban provoked, have been around in Bulgaria for decades.
However, there have never been so direct visual attacks on Muslim symbols as the above image shows. The poster makes direct references to terrorism, depicting a Swiss flag dominated by missile shaped minarets, and diabolizing the figure in a burka, possibly the best-known symbol of the orient in popular culture. Red, black and white, the colour scheme for the campaign, is often associated with Nazi symbols, such as the swastika. In an article by the New York Times, Farhad Afshar, who runs the Coordination of Islamic Organizations in Switzerland comments: “Most painful for us is not the minaret ban, but the symbol sent by this vote, Muslims do not feel accepted as a religious community.”
Researching for this essay, I found an interesting fact regarding the symbol used in the materials supporting the minaret ban – the figure in a burka. Apparently, debates weather this clothing should be prohibited or not are led in many different parts of the world. An article in the news website Presseurop cites that this is an issue in a number of European union countries, and each one has different means of dealing with it. What is unusual, though, is that the country that has taken the most severe action towards the headscarf is Turkey. The Turkish parliament had enforced a strict ban on the burka in 1997, which was lifted in 2008 with a constitutional amendment, because it made higher education impossible for many girls. The reasons for the initial ban are best described with a quote of a Turkish university rector posted in an article by the BBC: “We say it will damage secularity… Once you do that – we believe you damage democracy” Ural Akbulut, Rector of Middle East Technical University. It is interesting to observe how one thing could be considered dangerous in different countries by entirely different reasons. In this case, I believe that the reason for western societies’ fear of this religious symbol is plain disinformation and misunderstanding of the purpose of these clothes.
Although not everything non-western is Oriental, it’s usually the Orient that is mostly covered in media, and therefore misrepresented. So, where did Orientalism as a subject come from? According to the book “Contending Visions of the Middle East: The History and Politics of Orientalism” by Z. Lockman, beginning lies somewhere in the nineteenth century:
“The specialized field of scholarly learning which studied the languages, religions, histories and cultures of that Orient would come to be called “Orientalism.” Islam was obviously central to this emerging new field of knowledge…”
(Lockman Z. 2004. P 44)
Many chairs of Arabic were created in universities at that time, first in Britain, and later in all over Europe. Officials and merchants looking to expand their trade in Asia and the Mediterranean region mainly supported these facilities. The East at that time seemed like the new, exciting frontier everyone was eager to explore and conquer, from adventurers and traders to politicians. Everything exotic and unknown about this new world was collected under the Oriental “brand”, which was gradually fostered to the thing we know today.
Representation of the Orient, as such, has been a topic for a lot of discussions ever since the dawn of these studies. Images that the western world creates to represent the east rarely have anything to do with the true state of the place represented. They depict either a sort of hyper-reality, amplifying the “exotic” aspects, or a stereotypical illustration of how the place should look like in their view. In an article titled “Journey to the East: Ways of Looking at the Orient and the Question of Representation” Sibel Bozdoğan says:
“The Orient viewed as an object “out there” is reduced in representation to a picture-a picture of the Orient and not the Orient. Once again, it is “Enframed” as an autonomous depiction, dissociated from the worldliness of the situation and complete in itself.”
(Bozdoğan S. 1988, p.38-45)
So, as it seems, the image of the Orient, and the Orient itself go down two separate ways. Just as a work of art is said to take on a life of it’s own once it’s finished, so there is little or nothing that the nations from the orient can do to change their appearance in the western world. For example the so-called Orientalist art, which consists mainly of paintings, has a few favourite subjects, which have not changed ever since the dawn of the orientalist studies. These subjects are the odalisques, merchants and slaves, all put in very stereotypical contexts, with little difference between each image. Women lying on cushions in the Harem, merchants behind piles of goods, there is a number of typical situations depicted in those images. One classical example is this picture by John Frederick Lewis titled Harem Life in Constantinople.
There are more similarities between orientalist pictures than there are differences. In most images, if not all, women are represented as little more than objects, and posses no powers at all. This brings us again to the subject of the male gaze, and how most works of art are, after all, created for the men to look and enjoy. As is evident, this is valid even for the unusual field that is Orientalist art. Men in these pictures are drawn strong and wise, often reclining and relaxed, but scarcely handsome, which in turn, puts up the question of the existence of the female gaze. Use of colour is also very important, and there is a certain palette associated with those kinds of drawings that is scarcely ever gone beyond.
Even though paintings of the Orient are perfectly good examples of misrepresentation of these cultures, they do not depict them as a threat to the rest of the world, something that contemporary mass media is doing more and more nowadays. Today, to a large extent thanks to media, “Oriental” and “Islamic” are words that now have predominantly negative connotations. A striking recent example of misrepresentation of Islamic customs in the media was observed during the celebrations for Kurban Bayram, one of two biggest celebrations in the Muslim religion. A Bulgarian news agency covering the story from Istanbul posted a big article titled “The Bosphorus turned red of blood”, speaking about the barbaric, unethical way in which animals are sacrificed. Overall, attitude in the article was negative, including some downright rude comments by the readers at the bottom. On the other side, there was not a single line on the reason these people kill the animals on this day, namely, to give meat to the poor so that they can celebrate as well. Yes, I agree the way it is done is wrong, but still, people deserve to hear the whole story.
Certain ethnical groups and parts of society are always going to be misrepresented by the media, due to an endless list of reasons: misunderstanding, sensation seeking, political influence etc. This, however, should not be an excuse, but more of a reason for one to seek the truth behind this misrepresentation.
1. BBC News (2008 Feb 9). Turkey eases ban on headscarves, BBC News. Retrieved on 13.01.2010 from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/7236128.stm
2. Bozdoğan, Sibel (1988). Journey to the East: Ways of Looking at the Orient and the Question of Representation [Electronic version]. Journal of Architectural Education, Vol. 41, No. 4 (Summer, 1988), pp. 38-45
3. Bulgarian Telegraphy Agency (2009 Nov 27) Bosphorus Turned Red of Blood, Vesti.bg; Retrieved on 22.12.2009 from: http://www.vesti.bg/index.phtml?tid=40&oid=2601331
4. Cumming-Brice, N. & Erlanger, S. (2009 Nov 29) Swiss Ban Building of Minarets on Mosques, The New York Times; Retrieved on 22.12.2009 from: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/30/world/europe/30swiss.html
5. Halliday, F. (2002). Two Hours that Shook the World: September 11,2001: Causes & Consequences. London: Saqi Books
6. Lockman, Z. & Rogan, Eugene L. (Contributor). (2004) Contending Visions of the Middle East : The History and Politics of Orientalism. [Electronic version]. West Nyack, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 2004. p 44.
7. Presseurop (2009 Jun 25). Battle of the burka, Presseurop. Retrieved on 12.01.2010 from: http://www.presseurop.eu/en/content/article/37971-battle-burka
8. Figure 1 – http://www.georgeweyman.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/minaret.jpg retrieved on 4.01.2010
9. Figure 2 – http://www.orientalist-art.org.uk/lewis5.html retrieved on 10.01.2010