Orientalism 101: how not to be an Orientalist Prick

An interview of Coline Houssais by Caterina Barbi

(Copyright Hugo Messa)

To start off, we just want to know more about your background in academia and more of what you’re doing at the moment

Menton…a match made in heaven 🙂

I enrolled at Sciences Po (Menton campus) completely by chance: Sciences Po representatives came for a career event at the French lycée in London where I was studying, and after their presentation one of my friends asked them on the side if she could learn Arabic at Sciences Po. They replied yes, adding “by the way, we opened this new campus in Menton that focuses on the MENA region”. Being just behind I overheard, and this is how an entire career was built on a bit of innocent eavesdropping! To be completely honest, I initially thought Menton was in the north of France, so when I realised it was actually on the French Riviera and that the weather was much better than London’s…I channeled all my energy and desperation into my application 🙂 I actually said during my interview that Arabic was Iran’s official language, just to show you how ignorant I was about the MENA (and probably stressed out)! I simply knew absolutely nothing, but was curious and willing to learn without making judgements.

After Menton (2005-2007) I went to IFPO in Damascus for my third year abroad, which was every Arabic learner’s dream. My level was probably not good enough to fully take advantage of it but I was speaking fluent Syrian and writing essays in fosha by the time I left. I got admitted in the Sciences Po / LSE double-master degree and took a gap year between my first and second year of master to work in refugee law, first for a ministry in Paris, then with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Malta. This was a good mix of office and field work and deepened knowledge and skills I had started developing while volunteering for UNRWA during my third year. When I resumed my studies however, I honestly struggled to find any connection between the world of academia and what I had experienced on the ground. This year at the LSE was a rough patch on both personal and academic levels (I completely failed to adapt to the Anglo-saxon way of learning), but celebrating dictators fall one after the other in SOAS’s student common room during the Arab spring in 2011 remains a very strong memory, especially in the light of what happened afterwards.

When you create your job

Upon graduating in 2011, I oscillated for a couple of years between the fields of development and culture, without having the confidence to fully engage in the latter: both my parents are artists, and witnessing first-hand how a career in the arts could be fraught with precariousness, I had enrolled at Sciences Po to secure myself a stable professional life. There was also that genuinely-felt but silly feeling among our class that, while we had been led to believe that we were the « elite of the nation » during our time at Sciences Po, we remained upon graduation relatively unexperienced 23 year-olds facing a very bleak job market. So I would work one year in development, one year in culture and eventually decided to try my luck and work in culture…old family habits die hard! Before graduating I had created Ustaza à Paris, which started as an online agenda for Arab culture in the greater Paris area. Over the years, it turned into a content agency (L’Agence Ustaza), and as of 2014 became my full-time job and an umbrella company under which I could materialize my never-ending interest for cultures of the Arab world, and hopefully change sometimes limited narratives and perspectives prevailing in Europe about the region.

Here’s how it started: for years I was often asked to advertise super orientalist events that all looked alike and were not interesting at all from a cultural and artistic point of view. So I thought: I’m going to create content myself and promote other great content, thus trying to improve the quality and diversity of what we see, read or hear about the Arab world. On a day-to-day basis, I work as a consultant for think-tanks, governments, non-profits, companies…I have also been working as a French-English-Arabic translator for ten years now, mainly for cinema (a seasonal job at the Lebanese pavilion at the Cannes Film Festival led to an internship with a distribution company specialised in Arab cinema where I started translating scripts and kept my clients when the company shut). In addition to writing articles for different media -mostly about Arab culture-, I also teach as you probably noticed 🙂 and eventually started producing and creating my own projects, which enables me to explore a more artistic side through design, curation, creation and performance.

Have you read Orientalism by Edward Saïd?

Yes I have and I even did a reading note on it during my first year, which turned out to be my « Swiss-knife »: for the rest of my studies every time we had a reading note assignment with Orientalism on the list, I would pick it as the work was already done. Talk about recycling! I should read it again though. But my view -and the view of my classmates then- was that it was an interesting read, but not the definite Bible compared to other works by Arab or Western authors. The thing is that honestly, it is an important book and it is great to see people discussing it in the academia and beyond. But one must not forget that it was very much criticised upon publication, including by Arab intellectuals. Nowadays the contents of the book need to be challenged because they are very biased in a way. It is also very black and white in its approach and I think that although it was decisive and needed at the time -and still is sadly-, we need to have a critical approach to it and discuss what to do now, practically, to challenge orientalism and promote other narratives. Another thing that worries me is that orientalism has become the standard perspective to analyze everything in the Arab world, including for people who specialize in it: there are still so many clichés about the region that it is a never-ending task to simply debunk them, which leaves virtually no time and space to discuss about centuries of society, economics and politics of 22 countries outside of this prism. Basically today when we talk about the Arab world we still see it in majority through foreign eyes. And this concerns in some aspects the Menton campus as well.

You mentioned the fact that orientalism comes up quite a lot in your job, how do you deal with it and how do you not act like an orientalist prick?

Exoticism, a global disease

I have never been apologetic or dismissive about my personal background: my ancestors have been in Brittany (north-west France) for centuries and I remain an outsider to the Arab world, although bits of Arab and Amazigh culture have become part of French culture. I know where I stand and interestingly, Brittany and a lot of regions in Europe with a strong identity have been looked down by the same people who developed orientalist views from the late 18th onwards. It’s not only about ethnicity or religion, but also about class. Urban elites would go to European rural areas or the Arab world and look down on the natives in the same way, essentializing and exoticizing how they looked, behaved and what they believed in. If you study the development of orientalism in the 19th century, you will see that it goes hand in hand with this folklore revival in Europe, at a time nation-building was taming identities and narratives that differed from official ones. These cultures perceived as “archaic” yet authentic were simultaneously the subject of fascination and repression, either by colonialism or modernity brought by the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution. For instance Châteaubriant -famous French thinker and writer- wrote about the Breton « race » in the same way he wrote about the Arab one. Of course power dynamics were not the same within Europe and in the Arab world but there was still a formal and informal degree of marginalization. In my case it is about being clear about where you belong, while developing a thorough and lasting interest in a region that is historically linked to France and Europe and suffers from prejudice I can relate to, not personally but collectively.

Countering orientalism

This being said, I do have to deal with a lot of orientalist views and the horrible thing is that it does not get better with time, in the sense that there is no generational divide: not only old people but also young people, who know absolutely nothing about the region, spread age-old stereotypes. Perhaps the most dangerous in a way are those who are super enthusiastic, those who say “I love the Arab world” (as a unified whole) and then add something super weird or offensive. I think those who do not give a damn about the region cause less harm than those who -sometimes with a lot of good will- promote it with these twisted views. Not to mention people who feel they are entitled to have their say about everything that happens in the Arab world because they have studied or visited a limited part of it. On an everyday basis I try to counterbalance this perspective by putting things in context, drawing parallels with situations that are happening elsewhere in the world. It is not about sugar-coating or claiming that everything is fantastic in these 22 countries. My objective is to banalise this region and say: okay, we’re going to look at that particular sector or phenomenon because it is interesting for a number of reasons but we could have very well looked at another country or region in the world.

Petits tips

I have been interested by and working on the different cultures from the Arab world for almost fifteen years now, and here would be my tentative tips: always dig and put things in context before taking positions (and sometimes simply you don’t have to take positions), try to focus your « expertise » on a particular territory or topic, and try to learn as much as you can, using any available support or context. I think the Menton campus greatly helps with these three points. Nowadays student demographics have changed and there are more students from outside the Arab world than from it. But I learnt so many things from my classmates who were coming from North Africa or the Middle East: it really made a difference to know more about people and their daily life, what you do on weekends, what kind of songs you like, etc. And then based on your own experience you can draw parallels with similar situations back home. One thing that is also worth pointing out is that individuals -and institutions- from the Arab world can be orientalist pricks too: just because you’re from an Arab country does not obviously mean you have to know everything about the region. I witnessed a lot of prejudice in Arab countries, in terms of class and regional identities for instance. Being a foreigner it was sometimes easier to jump from one community to the other and even travel to different countries: my understanding of the different societies of the Arab world is not as deep because I was not born or grew up in them, but my more shallow experience is broader, so definitely an asset.

How do you think Ustaza and all of your projects fight orientalism in France or Paris, more specifically?

As a side note, « Ustaza » was actually a nickname I was given by younger Mentoneses because I was probably already prone to over-sharing advices -hopefully they were not too disastrous! Back to the question: Ustaza’s first objective is to show the diversity and dynamism of cultures originating from the Arab world, which keep evolving over time and encompass so many disciplines and movements. That things are not black and white, but encompass a wide range of colours. The second objective is to highlight how intimately intertwined Arab culture and the greater Paris area are (students from « East in the West » probably got the message by now). There is a need to remind people that France’s common history with the Arab world did not start with Northern African labour migration in the 1960s, that there is a history that goes back a very, very long way, with highs ands lows. My projects have in common to explore narratives that have never been properly exposed, because when you try to tell a story, it is hard to efficiently convey all perspectives at the same time: discourses are biased in their very essence.

Let’s take my latest show for instance, « Les Rossignols de Bagdad » (Nightingales in Badhdad), a live music, storytelling and video performance about the golden age of Iraqi music: it revolves around the life and career of Salima Murad and Nazem Al Ghazali, two of Iraq’s greatest singers. They fell in love and worked together, embodying Baghdad’s music scene as it was from the 1920s to the 1950s. Talking for the first time to Western audiences about these larger-than-life characters unveiled a part of Iraq’s not so ancient history that was miles away from the image they had of it: Murad, discovered in a brothel run by her sister, was the darling of the monarchy’s elite, while Ghazali’s rags-to-riches story and untimely death mirrored the political upheavals the country went through with the 1958 revolution and the subsequent coups. The show also addressed the double uprooting of Iraqi Jews (Murad and other influential Iraqi musicians at the time were Jewish), expelled from their home country because of their religion, and marginalized in Israel because of their Arab culture and identity. In this project I used a lot of archives, not out of nostalgia or obsession for the past but because I want to base my work on true facts and show another side of history that can broaden our understanding of the present. My approach is fairly consistent regardless of the topic I work on: to source overlooked documents and stories and find people who have first-hand knowledge or thorough expertise about it. My job is then to build a bridge between all this knowledge and the targeted audience. Building bridges…an overused concept, but still an essential one

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