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Orientalism in a modern pop culture



Orientalism is not a new idea. Today the term is considered as a global problem. Orientalism is a field of study that was created and it’s subject matter is something learned. (Said p 49-50) This is important to keep in mind because it is a learned field of study that can continue to change and develop. Particularly in Said's book, Orientalism, is regarded as profoundly significant. Orientalism tries to answer the question of why and when we think of the Middle East for example, we have a preconceived notion of what kind of people live there, what they believe, how they act etc. Even though we may never have been there, or have never even met anyone from there. Nowadays we clearly see that the orientalism is everywhere. The purpose of my paper is to illustrate and analyze examples of Said’s concept of Orientalism in a modern context that is pertinent to the facets of film and music in a popular culture. Recently, the movies and music that people watch for enjoyment and pleasure rather than instruction unfortunately leaves a deeper imprint. In a such pop culture there is a style of new orientalism.


Orientalism, however, is not simply a the oretical concept that influences only those involved in academia. It is a mindset with far-reaching implications. At certain moments in history, Orientalism constitutes the underpinnings of Western culture, popular opinion, and even foreign policy. During the years of imperial expansion, Said argues, “European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self.” [1.p 98] The binary logic does not set the East and theWest on equal footing, but instead pits the two against one another in order to highlight the colonial (and, therefore, cultural) superiority of the Occident over the Orient.

Edward Said’s Orientalism, is one of the important sociological studies of the 20th century. His book makes an extremely convincing argument about how Western societies have viewed the Orient over the centuries. Said’s basic underlying thesis is this: the West’s view of the orient is and has been clouded by a set of misconceptions, preconception and stereotypes that occur in western art, literature, discourse, culture and academic study. In essence, “Orientalism, a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient’s special place in European Western experience”. Said goes on to say that this clouded view has had a discrimination effect on the relationship between the two cultures, and continues to negatively impact the relationship to this day. Said’s focus is on the Arab middle East, however his broader implication is that this was a common theme within the Occident-Orient relationship. The purpose of my paper is to illustrate and analyze examples of Said’s concept of Orientalism in a modern context that is pertinent to the facets of mass media,film, game and music in a popular culture.

Said demonstrates how the concept of Orientalism represents a European hegemony of ideas about the Orient or what is nowadays called the Middle East. The naming of the region as ‘Middle East’, which geographically would correctly be described as West Asia and North Africa, is itself a product of Eurocentris [2.p79].

The hegemony of ideas about the Middle East establishes and reiterates the social construction of European superiority over Oriental backwardness. Said argues that the Oriental is being represented in the West by a dominating, dichotomous framework that pits the rational, virtuous, mature and ‘normal’. Western world against the irrational, depraved, childlike and ‘different’ Orient [1.p40].

A telling example of how the Orientalist aesthetic became intimately linked with Victorian consumerism was the installation of the Ottoman Pavilion at the 1893 Columbian World Exposition in Chicago. This particular installation in the Midway Plaisance was one of the most popular attractions at the Exposition, [3] and featured romanticized elements from supposed “everyday” Middle Eastern life: “belly dancers, Bedouins, camels, and donkeys…This was the Orient brought home for the delectation of privileged American audiences.” [ 4] During the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, a number of specific luxury items became intrinsically associated with the Orient – most particularly the cigarette. Producers saw the Orientalist aesthetic as the ideal forum for advertising their products, and launched the tobacco industry into “the most sustained campaign to capitalize on oriental motifs.” [ 5]

At the turn of the 19th century, the wave of Orientalism amongst Romantics was inspired by the Napoleonic wars (the Egyptian campaign, primarily), the rise and fall of the Empire and the exhaustion of Classicism alongside the last beams of Enlightenment. The situation was aggravated by the deep dissatisfaction with the European intellectual and political atmosphere after the Congress of Vienna. Additionally, the Romanticist mindset was marked by one peculiar feature, which for the most part (but not exclusively) affected French Romantics. They belonged to the generation that was brought up by the women while their fathers fought in all corners of Europe and the eastern Mediterranean. They grew up feminized, overly sensitive and dreaming about tough, virile heroes. One way of finding such heroes was by discovering their own past in the idealized Middle Ages, with their knights, chivalrous devotion to ladies, and folklore (as opposed to civic Graeco-Roman or religious Biblical) subjects. The other way of inventing a hero was to attempt to find him in the present, but in foreign lands.

Such a hero was found, rather puzzlingly, in a mythologized image of the “proud Arab” – prancing on his hot stud (and presumably a stud himself) with his naked yatagan in picturesque flowing robes, or indolently smoking hashish surrounded by his odalisques (see paintings by Delacroix, Chassériau , Delaroche, Ary Scheffer et al.). The image of a brutal man, the master of submissive women, was especially alluring in the context of the nascent feminism and emergence of women such as Georges Sand, who dared to conduct herself in a way that was traditionally reserved for men.

Eugene Delacroix. Arab Horseman Attacked by Lion. 1849-50. Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago.


When, in the middle of the century, it became rather evident that this romantic image had not provided European art and culture with a real, deep novelty and freshness but had instead slipped into a trite and middlebrow (at best) salon, this sort of Orientalism left behind, in Parisian advanced artistic circles, perhaps nothing more than hashish. This had been brought to Europe after the Egyptian Campaign and had become, around the middle of the century, the means of acquiring a new spiritual experience in the Club of the Hashishins (Club des Hachichins), founded in 1844 by a doctor Jacques-Joseph Moreau. Its members (Delacroix and Baudelaire inter alia) would gather at the digs of Ferdinand Boissard de Boisdenier at Hotel Lauzun, dressed in Arabian (or, rather, pseudo-Maghrebin) costumes, and proceed to eat a dawamesk, a pistachio-colored hashish paste (from little Japanese plates, if we are to believe Theophile Gautier), augmenting the experience by smoking the substance. In the puffs and spirals of smoke they saw outlandish, twisted and convoluted women.

Jean Lecomte du Nouy. The Dream of a Eunuch. 1874. Cleveland museum of Art.


When we first discussed the idea of writing a project like this, we all agreed to have a certain idea of the word “Orient” and it’s people, [6] although interestingly none of us have ever been to any Middle Eastern country. Still, a row of pictures appeared in our heads when talking about this part of the world. We wondered why this is so, and how politically motivated our associations actually are. Edward Said, claims that it is “ Virtually impossible for an American to see on television, read books, see films about the Middle East that are not coloured politically by this conflict in which (people from the Middle East) almost always play the role of terrorists and violent people who are irrational.” He argues that the representation of the Middle East is highly stereotypical and criticises that: Understanding such a vast and complex region like the Middle East in such a narrow way, takes away from the humanity and diversity of millions of people, living decent lives.” The points that Said makes here inspired us together with a long list of others, to closer investigate the dominant notions on “the Orient” by writing this project. It is of course rather impossible to go back to the first notion and stereotypical depiction of the Middle East, but we chose to focus on film material, that is now more than 50 years old, as we decided to somewhat zoom out of the current - because of fatal terrorist attacks still explosive picture - in order for us to get an understanding for and grasp the whole matter in a more profound way. The motivation behind working with film material is based on the impact cinematic productions had and have on people’s opinions about a subject. Films provide live material, which makes identification easy for the spectator. We found it interesting that the two films were produced almost simultaneously, though they display two different time periods being more than 2000 years apart, depicting respectively recent history and historical myth. What struck us as interesting, was the similarity in the portrayals of “the Orient”. [7]

Said posited in the 1983 essay The Text, The World, and The Critic how the text has a being in the world. He saw a problem in having a pure structuralist view upon such an assertion since it was too simple a conclusion to draw viz. that all is textually constructed. Hence no world outside the text would be allowed, nor would any non-textual experience. To Said, there was more to the text in its production of meaning. Thus he argued that within the text itself, there was incorporated not only the worldliness, but also the circumstantiality of the text, the historical settings one could say: “ the text’s status as an event having sensuous particularity as well as historical contingency, are incorporated in the text itself, an infrangible part of its capacity for conveying and producing meaning.” [ 1.p39]

The creation of “the Orient” as ‘the Other’ is crucial for “the West” so that it can itself define and strengthen its own identity “ By invoking such a juxtaposition” [8] . What thus can be drawn is that the study of “the Orient” has always been conducted from a Western point of view, and as Said states: The Oriental was always like some aspect of the West; to some German Romantics, for example, Indian religion was essentially an Oriental version of Germano-Christian pantheism. Yet the Orientalist makes it his work to be always converting the Orient from something into something else: he does this for himself, for the sake of his culture.” [1.p 67]



1. Lawrence of Arabia: Background and Summary Lawrence of Arabia is a highly acclaimed film from 1962 based on the life story of T.E. Lawrence. It was directed by David Lean and was a major success, winning seven Academy Awards. It depicts the story of Lawrence, played by Peter O' Toole, who is sent to Arabia during the First World War. It is set in time around 1916, where Lawrence, a British Army lieutenant stationed in Cairo, is sent to Arabia to assess "the prospects of Prince Faisal in his revolt against the Turks." Arriving in Arabia, he quickly establishes himself as someone with refreshing ideas and leading capabilities. He leads fifty of Faisal's men through the Nefud Desert with the aim to attack Aqaba where the English could further supply the Arabs. Joining the Arab army he, he initiates an attack against the Turks. Lawrence and the Arabs are launching a guerrilla war, harassing the Turks where they can. When they scout an enemy-held city, he and several other Arabs are taken to the Turkish Bay, where Lawrence is dramatically flogged, which traumatizes him so extremely, that he wants to abandon Arabia and return to Britain. However, he is persuaded to end his mission and conquer Damascus. Due to rivalry amongst the tribes, the city is taken under English bureaucracy. Lawrence is ordered back to England where he is promoted colonel, but no longer useful to Faisal and the British diplomats.

2. Cleopatra: Background and Summary In 1963, the film Cleopatra was released. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation produced the most expensive films ever made in Hollywood. The film is still remembered for this, as it nearly bankrupted the production company. However, with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in two of the leading roles, it turned out to be a worldly success .The film portrays the mythical depiction of the historic figure of Cleopatra. It follows her pursuit to uphold her reign as queen of Egypt, reclaimed by engaging in an affair with Julius Caesar. Later, Caesar is murdered as a consequence of this relationship, and Cleopatra returns to Egypt. She is followed by Caesar’s protégé, Mark Antony. He and Cleopatra fall in love, and they marry as well as becoming military allies. This again has immense consequences for both parts. Caesar’s arrival in Alexandria: 00:09:53 - 00:16:30.Caesar and his men have arrived at Alexandria by ship. The Egyptian patriarch does not greet them by the pier, so they must go to the king themselves. This scene has both visual and dialogue elements that each create distinct differences between the cultures depicted. The first shot in this scene shows a single ship with red sails arriving in

Alexandria. As the camera slides through the establishing shot [9.p 18] , one sees a large-scale city of buildings and temples. Once the ship arrives to the shore, Caesar, dressed in a dark red robe, enters the ship’s deck, followed by his closest men. All are dressed in uniforms in the colours of red, brown and metal, similar to Caesar’s dress. This gives one the impression that in spite of his role as a regent, Caesar is more or less equal to his men. Through the cinematic tools of camera movement and framing, it is clear though, that Caesar is the leader: he is arranged to stand in the middle of a linear perspective frame, surrounded by his soldiers (07:31 - 07:53), which gives the audience an understanding of who the central figure in this scene is. This depiction of a regent stands in contrast to that of King Ptolemy.

Our goal with conducting the analysis of the two films Cleopatra and Lawrence of Arabia, with the help of three theorists, viz. Stuart Hall, Michel Foucault and Edward Said, was to study how uneven power relations are perpetuated in the representations of “the Orient” and “the West” in Hollywood films of the 1960’s. First, a formal analysis of specific scenes allowed us to look at the signifying process, in which the main figures of the films, respectively the Romans and the Egyptians and Lawrence and the Arabs, were associated to specific characteristics. These characteristics allowed us to identify the systems of representation being used to depict these characters, and therefore to represent “the Orient” and “the West”. By identifying these systems, the discourses surrounding these two concepts were revealed. [10.]

The discourses were found to be very different, where “the Orient” and “The West” were depicted in oppositional terms. This, we argue, is driven by an underlying ideology, which has, as its aim, to further one group’s interest, in this case “The West’s” beliefs about “The Orient”. Edward Said devoted a section of his 1993 book Culture and Imperialism to an exploration of Giuseppe Verdi’s (1813–1901) Aida (1871) in its cultural/orientalist context; this led to heightened discussions within musicology about imperialism and orientalism, and more directly to articles such as Paul Robinson’s ‘Is Aida an Orientalist Opera?’ (1993) In Culture and Imperialism Said discusses his interpretation of Aida as representing an ‘Orientalized Egypt’ with ‘Oriental’ music created by Verdi; he concludes that ‘As a highly specialized form of aesthetic memory, Aida embodies, as it was intended to do, the authority of Europe’s version of Egypt at a moment in its nineteenth-century history.’ These operatic works represent Europeans’ perceptions of the ‘Orient’, as opposed to any reality of those cultures. Said’s writing here is certainly a large leap from his musings on Western art music that he had published only two years earlier under the title Musical Elaborations (1991); despite his assertion in that text that musical study ‘can be more, and not less, interesting if we situate music as taking place, so to speak, in a social and cultural setting, he seems to treat music in the abstract, almost dentextualizing it. [14]


The song "Arab Money" was a single released from rapper Busta Rhymes' 2008 album Back on My B.S. This song was met with moderate success in the United States, however faced controversy in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and within Islamic communities because it was seen as stereotypical and offensive to both the peoples and religion. The UAE went so far as to ban the song from being played within its boarders and many DJs across the globe have abandoned playing it in clubs due to its potentially damaging content. Busta Rhymes maintains that the song is not intended to be disrespectful but rather meant to be a nod recognizing what he sees as the positive aspects of the Middle East.

The first part of the remix features Ron Browz, P Diddy, Swizz Beatz, T-Pain, Akon and Lil Wayne. Ron Browz, T-Pain, Akon and Lil Wayne all use the Autotune effect in it. Also, in this part, Busta Rhymes does the main part of the hook differently and Ron Browz pronounced Arab money differently with an accent on the "A"s, and actual Arabic is used in the chorus and by the artists in their verses:

1. Chorus: "Bismillāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīm. Al ḥamdu lillāhi rabbi l-'ālamīn"Translation: "In the name of God, most Gracious most Merciful. All Praise is due to God, Lord of the worlds. The chorus used in video is the same chorus as the original.

2. Busta Rhymes: "As-Salamu Alaykum Warahmatullah Wa Barakatu" Translation: "May Peace and blessings of God be upon you" (A Greeting) What was used in the video: "While I stack another billion and give it to the block fool".

3. P Diddy: "Al hamdu lillah". Translation: "All Praises to God" What they rhymed the phrase with: "With my billions pilin'"

4. Swizz Beatz: "Habibi". Translation: "My Love (Masculine Form)" What they rhymed the phrase with: "While she feedin' me linguine"

5. Akon: "Bismillāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīm" Translation: "In the name of God, most gracious most merciful." What they rhymed the phrase with: "Straight cash when I come in, let me exchange the currency cause it's all foreign" [11]

This version was planned for inclusion on Ron Browz's as-yet-unreleased debut album, Etherboy, but the album was shelved.



Modernist artists, in their European contexts, examined and critiqued the social fragmentation produced by the massive thrust of industrial and imperial modernity; they brought to their works (to varying degrees) an awareness of the sense of simultaneity and interconnectedness that was occurring between increasingly broad networks of human beings both within individual Western European (and North American) nation-states, and well beyond them. High Modernism’s acknowledgement of a more expansive humanity was, in many ways, a response to European discontents and not totally dissimilar from Enlightenment thinkers’ deployments of sparse and fragmentary information on Chinese and Indian cultures; information which was used to undermine and weaken various positions held by religious orthodoxies in Europe. Unlike the Enlightenment, however, the Modernist period did not cater as powerfully to the desire to interpret and integrate non-European cultures into a Eurocentric cosmology. Perhaps this was in part due to the fact that after high imperialism, such dominance and centrality were no longer in question. Rather, early twentieth-century Modernist appropriations of African art, Buddhist iconography and Sanskritic antiquity were, more often than not, geographical juxtapositions aimed at providing new sites for commenting upon modern European life after large scale industrialization. This was coming, not surprisingly, at a historical moment when recent technological

developments were about to radically transform cultural production. [12]



Orientalism in the machine (whether in the real battle space or on a computer at home) appears now as the remainder of an equation seeking to square an ideal way of war with real conflict. It is the product of a particular genealogy as well the projection of deep-seated desires, not the ‘empirical’ results of surveying the other.

By the late nineteenth century, as American consumer culture first began to develop, Americans had relatively limited experience with the Middle East. Thanks to the memory of the Tripolitan wars, the popularization of travelogues, and popular contemporary Christian attitudes about Arabs, the “Orient” became synonymous with romance, mystery, and barbarism. Orientalism thus took on a distinctive aesthetic in Victorian American popular culture. In this age of burgeoning consumerism, American vendors and businessmen took advantage of the aesthetics of Orientalism in order to encourage consumer spending and indulgence.

I will argue that it is through the effective use of Orientalist discourse and mass media that USA administration was able to rally public support and justify its military intervention in Iraq vis-à-vis the construction of the aberrant ‘other’ or ‘enemy’. The Gramscian concepts of “common sense” and the “organic intellectual” offer an elaborate perspective on how the latter point was effectively institutionalized in the American society and discourse. For Gramsci, this is accomplished through the use of ‘common sense’ which is “the uncritical and largely unconscious way of perceiving and understanding the world.


As a discourse, Orientalism is an elaboration a distribution of geopolitical awareness‟ to adjacent fields to hard power (intellectual, cultural, moral) [1.p 12] what leads to the assertion thatpolitical imperialism governs an entire field of study, imagination and scholarly institutions‟[1.p 12]. The narrative of “truth” resided in the ability of writers and scholars to tell stories and tales of the Orient that they claim where the ones to describe it, framed by a set of racial and ethnic binary oppositions that always worked against the Orientals and in favor of the Europeans [13].

The groundswell of information from various visual streams is also accompanied by a stark increase of human terrain data. As Said writes, the ‘element preparing the way for modern Orientalist structures was the whole impulse to classify nature and man into types.’ [14] Tagging and ethnic categorization are the expression of an age-old desire to classify and taxonomize that which is not clearly understood, in this case the social world of the other. A complex technological assemblage is used to keep track of the ‘Muslim out of place’—one of the central themes of the global war on terror [15] .Such systems come out of a history of tools deployed by the state to identify individuals. These are typically field-tested and perfected on the external and internal other, where sovereign power experiences the most urgent, securitized, need to make human subjects legible. The technologies to identify individuals have gradually been moving away from visible physical markers—such as tattoos, conspicuous clothing, and badges—to more non-public identifiers, such as fingerprints, social security numbers, and IDs. The tag, only visible on the screen of the authorized operator, is the logical conclusion of the disappearance of material markers of identity. That computer games help disseminating a new form of Orientalism was furthermore recently suggested by Vit Sisler in the article "Digital Arabs: Representation in Video Games", a wide-ranging study of more than 100 computer and consol games. Under a chapter heading named "Orientalism in the digital age", Sisler describes how most western game designers produce games that either "construct a 'fantastical' Middle East, using quasi-historical elements in order to give the player an oriental impression" or, in military action games, routinely represent the Arab as a terrorist and Islamic extremist who laugh mockingly after they have succeeding in killing an American soldier [ 16.p 207-208 ].





This papper has shown how the socially-constructed legend of Western superiority has been instrumental till today in shaping the power politics of Western states in general and the United States in particular. Analyzing Orientalism as a display of Eurocentrism helps to identify and criticize the dominant discourse of identity between the United States and the Orient that shape the ongoing War on Terrorism.

Pop culture can be seen as having a being in the world. As Said argues, when talking of the worldliness of the text, in our case the two chosen films/ music , they are a part of the world by that they try to mirror the world. In this quality of mirroring reality we adhere true values to it and believe them to be truth. Another element is that they help maintain discursive formations, which secure the uneven balance in the power relation between “the Orient” and “the West”. Such power is intimately connected to the construction of knowledge of “the Orient”, which enables the Western hegemony over the “Other ”. Indeed, because of these power relationships that are put at play, in building these discourses, the knowledge produced is not necessarily the truth. The films and music chosen are both from the West, based on preconceived notion of the Orient, which makes the representations unreliable. One could instantly think, that, when exploring these works, one has to do with two images, namely the one “the West” has about “the Orient” and the one “the West” has about itself. Looking closer, one discovers that it is indeed rather four notions one has to do with. The viewer is not only confronted with the two aforementioned ideas but also with the notion of what “the West” considers “the Orient” to "think" of “the West”, and what “the West” considers “the Orient” to "think" of itself.




1. Edward Said, Orientalism (NY: Vitage book 1979)

2. A.L.Macfie, Orientalism (Hong Kong 2020)

3. See Gautier, Theophile. Le Club des Haschischins. First published in Revue des Deux Mondes, 1846, t. 13. See also Euvres de Théophile Gautier. Paris: Alphonse.Lemerre, 1897, p. 471..

4. I am tempted to mention that after many years since I first came up with this idea (it was in the guest lecture “Ukiyo-e: Japanese Prints and Western Myths” in New York Studio School, New York, April 4, 2001, the videotape is available in the School’s archives)

5. Thompson, M.J. (2002). Beyond Good and Evil. Logos, 1 (1), pp.28-34.

6. Roy, A. (2001). The algebra of infinite justice [online]. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/sep/29/september11.afghanistan [Accessed 20 Oct, 2013].

7. “Orientalism/Occidentalism: Languages of Culture vs. Languages of Description” that I organized in 2010. See the resulting volume: Evgeny Steiner, ed. Orientalism/Occidentalism: Languages of Culture vs. Languages of Description. Moscow: Institute for Cultural Research, 2012.

8. Evgeny Steiner In the Eye of the Beholder: Ugliness, Beauty and Exoticism in the Orientalist Quest for Otherness

9. Bill Ashcroft and Pal Ahluwalia, 2011,p. 62

10. Internet Movie Database, Cleopatra. Available at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056937/?ref_=nv_sr_1

11. "Music Video: Busta Rhymes – Arab Money (Remix) - "I do this for my culture..

12. oghiphop.com.Procter J. Stuart Hall. London; New York: Routledge, 2004

13. Critical Musicology Journa ., A Virtual Journal on the Internet/ Orientalism and Musical StyleDerek B. Scott

14. Digital Arabs: Representation in Video Games. European Journal of Cultural Studies. Vol. 11, No. 2, 2008, ISSN: 1367-5494, pp. 207-208.

15. 7 John Kuo Wei Tchen, New York Before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture 1776-1882, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), xx.

16. Douglas Little, American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East Since 1945, (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 12.



Date: 2016-03-03; view: 1142

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