Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 36, 1992
Postcolonial Fictions:
Proceedings of the SPACLALS Triennial Conference 1992
Edited by Michèle Drouart

Theories as Fictions in the Arabo-Islamic Cultural Context: postcolonialism and "post-Orientalism"

Michèle Drouart


As one of the last speakers I want to begin by returning us to the title of our conference, "Postcolonial Fictions," and to two distinct, and possibly contradictory, readings of that title. It can be taken as referring to fictional writing that addresses postcolonial issues and that may be produced from within communities that are called "postcolonial" or to the thesis that the very notion of "postcolonial" anything is a fiction. In this second sense the title may well be an ironic comment on the more restricted interpretation of "postcolonial" as "after," "beyond," or "a counter response to" something that is already done, finished, completed. The fictional component of the term "postcolonial," viewed in this way, is the prefix, because colonialist ideologies and practices are being perpetuated today, largely through the contemporary Euro-U.S. hegemony and in the guise of something less obvious than "empire" or colonization, but with which many societies calling themselves "postcolonial" are complicit.

What is the place of issues concerning the Arab world in a conference on postcolonialism? The fictionality of "post" has provided the present-day neocolonialism with the perfect smokescreen: a much vaunted guilt over the past, and constant reference to apologetic, if expedient, retreats from lands already exploited and in a few cases returned, empty of resources, to their original inhabitants in the name of independence. The unstated claim in all cases is that it is now too late to make amends (what's done is done). We may, in all safety and security, be sorry, now that so many of the places that could have been colonized already have been.

Some parts of the world that were not fully exploited during the colonial period in European history, are now being considered again, and a plethora of excuses for moving in and taking over is constantly being offered to the United Nations.

None of the countries of the Middle East are members of the Commonwealth, although several were, at some point, administered directly or indirectly by Britain, and today their second language, spoken widely, is English. Their non-membership in the Commonwealth has as much to do with the British legacy as does the membership of some other nations. It also has to do with the cultural self-constitution of communities in this part of the world.

Since the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, the relationship between the European nations and the Arab and other regions of the Middle East (including Iran) has been neocolonial almost from the outset, beginning with what were called - pseudonymically and euphemistically - "mandates," "protectorates" and "zones of influence." (I'm thinking especially of Transjordan, Mesopotamia - as they were then called by the Europeans - and Egypt). That neocolonialist relationship continues today in the form of colonialism by proxy (a perfect example being a portion of Mesopotamia that is now Kuwait).

In these parts of the Middle East, colonialist policies were applied roughly a century to a century and a half later than in parts of Africa and India, for example. This had two very different effects. First, neocolonialism and colonialism by proxy could proceed unhindered precisely when the cruder and more brutal forms of colonialism (direct colonization and administration, and massacres by police and army) were being questioned in those other parts of the world; second, the Arab and other communities of the Middle East endured a shorter period of European colonization so that many of them were able to maintain a greater degree of cultural autonomy.


Several participants giving papers at this conference have reminded us that in the case of the first nations of the Americas, aboriginal Australians, Maori and other people of the South Pacific, it is not too late, that a change in attitude and policies is still possible, can still make a difference. The Arab world and the Middle East have in recent years become the central target of a new and rising Euro-U.S. colonialism with its precursory and attendant racism and Orientalism. For them the full onslaught of colonialism could still be only just beginning. The more deceptive neocolonialism under which economic and political inroads were made into these regions have given way in recent years to a revival of nineteenth-century colonialist attitudes and assumptions, and even, where some of the oil-rich countries are concerned, to military attacks and invasions (Libya, Iraq).1 The people of the Middle East, and especially the Arab peoples, have resisted. They are resisting. And, as in the past, it is on the cultural front that resistance has been strongest. If "cultural form of resistance" sounds ethereal and ineffectual, it would help to keep in mind that political, commercial and military action, no matter how widespread, involve specific sectors in the population and relatively short time spans; but the cultural site, where it connects with ethnicity, includes the entire community and encompasses all activity in all time periods. It is the site at which power is given. (No doubt this was well understood by the French who made cultural indoctrination and assimilation paramount in their colonialist policies.)


What is the nature of this "cultural resistance"? The Orientalist, who seeks epistemological appropriation of the "East," has long been frustrated by the persistence - some would call it obstinacy - of Arab peoples in constituting themselves culturally as subjects, and in regarding the Western cultural discourse as among many discourses that are marginal to themselves.

Ethnic communities and regions throughout the world have struggled to disregard the labels of minority and marginality imposed upon them by the hegemonic Western cultural discourse, to build up a subject position and identity, and "to develop an account of the world which treats our perspectives not as subjugated knowledges, but as primary."2 The Arab and other Middle Eastern peoples have for centuries been engaging in this kind of self construction. And like the Europeans, they have done so not in ignorance of, but irrespective of, other cultural perceptions and constructions of the world. Thus "resistance" has not only been in response to the Orientalist construction of West and Other, but also the corollory of a long-practised and ongoing self construction shared by many Arab communities. To this the West has reacted, historically, by labelling the Middle East (and I use "West" and "Middle East" here to reflect traditional Western monolithic constructions of Self and Other) as secretive, sealed or closed off to outside influences and infiltrations, and, to use the terms of one Orientalist, Bernard Lewis, "incorrigible" in its refusal to "come to terms with the West."3 If there is hermeticism here, it is a hermeticism imposed from without, by an Orientalist discourse that refuses to recognize this cultural self constitution. By this I do not mean cultural purism, which - even were it desirable - is actually impossible for most societies to achieve or maintain in the late twentieth century. Rather, cultural self constitution is the space that an ethnic/cultural group negotiates for itself as a subject position, with and without influences from other cultures and their constructions of reality. And it is not static.


Orientalism, which could well be called the cultural "long arm" of colonialism in the East, is as thriving today as in 1978 when Edward Said first published his book of that title. And although it is in some senses (such as historically) irreversible, its identification and the present intellectual awareness of how it operates has done nothing to diminish its current, active power. It pervades all sites and levels of culture, not only those of academic traditions and political power structures. In a recent SPAN article, Bob Hodge pointed out the "hegemonic power" Orientalism achieves "within the mass media and popular culture" and "within the language itself."4

My own most recent experience of an overt form of Orientalism is an Arabic language text for beginners first published in 1986 and in its fifth impression by 1990. Written by a British author and available on the international market, it is clearly meant for all native speakers of English wanting to learn Arabic.5 This text does not claim to be geared towards a specific target audience or type of student, yet it appears to have been written with only four groups of people in mind, and all of them men: the corporate businessman, the politician, the military man and the male professional or technical expert. While the grammatical explanations are clear, and the exercises helpful, the vocabulary lists contain few words of everyday use. But there is a large contingent of items like "minister," "delegate," "manager," "secretary," "office," "file," "worker," "war," "soldier," "tank," "accountant," "engineer," "contractor" and "driller." Any uncertainty as to the kind of driller meant is dispelled by the last vocabulary item on page 59 which reads "oil (crude)"!

The student who learns Arabic solely from this text becomes quickly adept at sentences like:

1) RafaDal oummaal al- alauwah wa 'aDrabou.

The workmen refused the raise and went on strike.

2) Kallamal-mudir sikritairatouh wahia waDa at daftar al-mouhandiss fil maktab.

The manager spoke to his secretary and she put the engineer's file in the office.

3) Ijtama al-wouzaraa' wa intakhabou mandoubuhoum, thoma 'a lanou mashrou al-Hafaar.

The ministers met and elected their delegate, then announced the project.

By the end of the text the same student will still be unable to say:

Shoukraan ala shaiy allathiithah

Thank you for the delicious (cup of) tea.

Those who know Middle Eastern customs would understand that every visitor needs to be able to use this last sentence often, even - and especially - if on a commercial visit. (Unless you're one of those working in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf countries who stay within the petroleum and other corporate company compounds and rarely venture out to meet the country's inhabitants, apart from its unrepresentative ruling families.)


So much for one British language text's way of presenting Arabic to beginners. But language is the stuff of literature, and Orientalism also underlies the Western attitude to Arab writing.

Some fiction writers in the Middle East and North Africa have written in a European language, often in the interests of making their culture known to the West, but sometimes to subvert the structures and expose the preconceptions of the European world view and possibly open up a new way of thinking. Postcolonial cross-cultural relations, and especially the language - or languages - they employ, are the subject of long reflection in Moroccan writer Abdelkebir Khatibi's Amour bilingue (Love in Two Languages). Roland Barthes says of Khatibi: "[He] and I are interested in the same things: images, signs, traces, letters, marks. And . . . because he shifts these categories as I conceive them, because he carries me to his realm, away from myself, to my very limits, Khatibi teaches me something new, shakes me up in my own knowledge."6 Even in the long-colonized and quasi-Westernized communities like the French-influenced Maghreb, however, writers are tending increasingly towards Arabic. These communities still have the larger Arabic world to draw upon and identify with. As Michael Hall points out (see previous article), Khatibi himself writes in both French and Arabic. Which half of him, I wonder, is "postcolonial"? The French or the Arabic? The right or the left half? The top or the bottom?

Even Khatibi has noted that Arabic is increasingly the language of resistance to neocolonialism. I would call it the language of resistance to the colonialism inherent in the restrictive definition of postcolonial literature as texts that adhere to the language of the colonialist. Arabic is, more than subverted French or English, the language of this region's postcolonialism in the broadest and most authentic sense of "postcolonialism."

What, then, about translation? While a translated text undeniably loses something of the original, it is still very different from a text written in the non-indigenous language, if only because it is produced for a different readership. Few Europeans have knowledge of the Arabic language, and few have access to its literature. But does Arabic literature outside the Arabic-speaking world have to be the monopy of the Orientalist (in the strict sense of a "Department of Middle Eastern Studies")? Reading Hispanic writing is not the prerogative of a few scholars or "experts" on Hispanic literature and culture. We have all read more than a few Latin American texts translated from the original Spanish or Portuguese. Yet when Edward Said was asked in 1980 to suggest to a publisher "known for his liberal and unprovincial views" some "Third World" texts for translation, the Egyptian writer, Naguib Mahfouz, was struck from the list that Said submitted, for the reason that "Arabic is a controversial language."7 When Mahfouz won the Nobel prize eight years later, some early and very poor translations of a few of his novels, previously available only in England, were republished in the U.S. No new and better translations were undertaken. (Mahfouz has written over a hundered novels, mostly centred around Egyptian and especially Cairene society, and has been producing novels since the late Thirties.)

The novella by Leila Abuzeid that you have just heard Haya Husseini read a paper on, is very difficult to obtain in translation. The author of the paper, Michael Hall, had to send us a photocopy. I have still not been able to obtain Abelrahmaan Munif's much esteemed text, Cities of Salt, which, I've been told, is very much a postcolonial as well as a postmodern text, and in which petroleum figures prominently.8 These are only some of the texts that I have recently managed - with some difficulty - to acquire, but my point is that the unavailability, or even the mere difficulty, of obtaining such texts illustrates the publishing world's entrenched colonialist/Orientalist stance.


Arab societies today are experiencing more than ever a tension between their historical and ongoing cultural self constitution as subject and a more recent counter tendency to be caught up in the colonial/neocolonial object position. This tension has combined with other factors to contribute to Islamic revivalism, which is as much a struggle to maintain cultural identity as a matter of religion.

Awareness of Orientalism's undermining power can help to bring about, for those directly affected by it, a more active and assertive commitment to cultural self constitution. But it can also actually hinder self constitution if the Orientalist construction of the "East" as the monolithic Object-Other continues to be the centre of focus (even critical focus) in culture-related activities and institutions. A pan-Arab literary conference of this type held at the University of Yarmouk in Jordan as recently as July of this year (1992) was entitled "Orientalism." I did not attend this conference, but I would like to believe that it was very different from a panel discussion of the same title in which I participated at that university in 1988, where all the papers (including my own), and all the discussion, centred around the Orientalism of earlier European texts, from the medieval "Song of Roland" to nineteenth century French and British Romantic-exotic tales. To resist Orientalism merely by pointing it out and decrying it is to lack full awareness of the power and possibilities of cultural self constitution, past or present. Such resistance, precisely because it cannot go beyond itself, beyond its nature as resistance to cultural hegemony, inscribes itself in the object position initially imposed only from without, and becomes complicit with the Orientalist and colonialist construction of the Object-Other.

In promoting this view, however, we ought to be wary of attempting to impose it upon the Arab consciousness, and sensitive to the problems of interfering with that consciousness because of the hegemonic nature of interference. But our own attitude to the Arab world, at a time of rising anti-Semitism in many Western countries, and an anti-Semitism that seems at present to be concentrating on Muslim Arabs and spreading to other (non-Semitic) ethno-cultural Muslim groups, tests the actuality of our professed movement away from past practices, ideologies and myths, towards the application in our own lives of those values we claim to hold concerning the identity, autonomy and self constitution of peoples and cultures.

All theories are, in a sense, forms of fiction, either reflections of our mental constructions of what is or abstract models of what we would bring into being. This is not to denigrate theory. As forms of fiction theories have a positive or a negative value depending on how they are perceived and how applied. If there is to be a theory of post-Orientalism, as of postcolonialism, a theory that as a fiction is more than an illusion, its inventiveness and creativeness will have to be oriented towards change, not as cant, but as lived actuality, and towards placing pressure on our own governments and media to do the same. Postcolonialism and Òpost-OrientalismÓ are not possible in actuality because the ÒpostÓ will always be a fiction, but they are possible as agendas, as directions to govern changes in our perspectives, attitudes and ways of thought. At least where Western attitudes to Arab and Arab-influenced cultures are concerned, full recognition of cultural self constitution as subject is essential to any genuinely postcolonial or "post-Orientalist" perspective.

Murdoch University

A Few Arabic Texts in Translation that may be of Interest to Postcolonialism

The following texts are taken from a longer list that was published in AD-DAD: A Journal of Arabic Language and Literature (ed. Michael Hall, Melbourne) 1 Winter 1991

ABOUZEID, Leila (Moroccan) Year of the Elephant (trans. Barbara Parmenter) 1989 University of Texas Press, P.O. Box 7819, Austin, TX 78713-7819

HABIBI, Emile (Palestinian) The Secret Life of Saeed the Ill-fated Pessoptimist, 1974 (trans. Trevor Le Gassick and Salma Jayyusi, 1989) Readers International, 8 Strathray Gardens, London NW3 4NY

al-HAKIM, Tawfiq (Egyptian) Maze of Justice , 1974 (trans. Abba Eban, 1989) Saqi Books, 26 Westbourne Grove, London W2 5RH and University of Texas Press, P. O. Box 7819, Austin, TX 78713-7819

KANAFANI, Ghassan (Palestinian) Men in the Sun, 1956 (trans. Hilary Kilpatrick, 1978, repr. 1983) Three Continents Press, Inc. 1901 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Suite 407, Washington DC 2006

al-KHATIBI, Abdelkebir (Moroccan) Love in Two Languages, 1983 (trans. from French by Richard Howard, 1990) University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN 55414-3092

MAHFOUZ, Naguib (Egyptian) Cairo Trilogy (1956-7) Doubleday

MUNIF, Abdelrahman Cities of Salt 1984 (trans. Peter Theroux,1987) Vintage International Ed. 1989

as-SAADAWI, Nawal (Egyptian) Two Women in One 1975 (trans. O. Nusairi and J. Gough, 1985) Saqi Books, 26 Westbourne Grove, London W2 5RH

SALIH, Tayeb (Sudanese) Season of Migration to the North (trans. D. Johnson-Davies 1969) Three Continents Press, Inc., and Quartet, 1980. 1901 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Suite 407, Washington DC 20006

SHAMMAS, Anton Arabesques (trans. from Hebrew by Vivien Eden) Penguin


1. Since my reading of this paper, US forces have entered Somalia independently of the UN presence there. While the reasons given may be genuinely peace-keeping and humanitarian, I wonder if it is purely coincidental that from Mogadishu, all major cities of the Middle East and North Africa come within attack plane range.

2. Nancy Hartsock, "Rethinking Modernism," The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990) 35.

3. Quoted inEdward Said, Orientalism, 1978 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991) 321.

4. Bob Hodge, "Language and War: Orientalism in the 'Mother of All Battles'," SPAN 33 (May 1992): 27-38.

5. J. R. Smart, Teach Yourself Arabic (Sevenoaks, Kent: Hodder and Stoughton, 1986, 5th impression 1990).

6. Quoted on cover of Abdelkebir Khatibi, Love in Two Languages, 1938, trans. 1983, Richard Howard (rpt. 1990, Minneapolis, MN.: University of Minnesota Press). Barthes source not given.

7. Edward Said, "Embargoed Literature," The Nation 17 Sept, 1990, reprinted in Ad-Dad 1 Winter 1991: 8.

8. This book has been obtained since the reading of this paper, and concerns U.S. petrocolonialism in a fictive country whose connections with Saudi Arabia are evidenced in the book's being banned there.

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