Historically the Western mind has been mesmerised by the Middle East often painting pictures of it as a land of mysteries browned by the desert sun. In the United Arab Emirates, our parents recall during the British occupation that Englishmen stood the children in line and took photos of them. These very Englishmen would later put the photos in their books as they penned the history of our country. This was also the case for the rest of the Middle Eastern region, an Arab history conveyed to the rest of the world through foreign eyes.
Edward Said, the late Palestinian literary theorist and powerful political voice coined this phenomenon ‘Orientalism’, describing the Western study of Eastern cultures. In recent years, the Arab world’s fluency of the English language has allowed the West to hear our own description of our past and our concerns for our future. We no longer needed the Englishman to tell our stories and no longer did the philosophy of the Arab mind need to be translated by the West.
Nowadays, Arab writers and commentators writing in the English-language are a plenty. The language barrier has ceased to exist. The true crisis lies in failing to identify the thin line between writing in a foreign language and writing with a foreign tongue. It is sad to see that many intelligent Arab writers are adhering to the Western perspective and echoing its same rhetoric in return for international recognition.
In the past we have seen such antics working especially in the literary world. Salman Rushdie, the Indian novelist, had written four novels prior to his Satanic Verses but it was this book, that portrays a skewed perspective of Islam which catapulted him into the farthest heights of fame, winning him awards and even having him knighted by the Queen of England for his “services to literature”. Selling out on one’s ideology and beliefs in return for the West’s approval is shameful.
Many Arab writers have been blinded by the glaring lights of Western fame and have found that Arab opinions dressed in a Western man’s suit can get them far, but at what cost? We possess the language that now bridges the gap in perspectives but instead of using it to tell our story we are telling theirs. While we are grateful for their work, it is painful to see writers like Noam Chomsky and Norman G. Finkelstein, both Jewish Americans, fight for Palestinian rights and the Arab perspective more passionately than many Arabs do.
For years, anytime an Arab writer or publication expressed their opinions the Western commentators played the ‘Arab victimisation’ card and dismissed them as just that. On the other hand, if writers such as Chomsky or Finkelstein discuss the same issues they are labeled ‘truth-tellers’. Still, it is one thing for the Arab voice to be suppressed by the West but it is a whole other issue for it to be choked by our own hands. When Arab commentators repeat Western rhetoric then our voice becomes redundant thereby rendered useless.
This month, Al Jazeera English will receive Columbia University’s top journalism award for “singular journalism in public interest”. One of the substantial reasons that Al Jazeera news channel gained momentum and weight for its news coverage is because, regardless of its own agendas, it never followed a Western one. Its notoriety came not from adhering to a certain Western standard, but for standing up against it and revealing to the world the other side of the political coin.
Writers, especially of politics, should never take information at face value and steer facts towards a logic that goes against their beliefs. In journalism and intellectual commentary one should not take certain issues to the merest truisms.
In politics, the pen is at its heaviest because it is weighed down by the collective responsibility it holds towards its people and their future in the eyes of the world.
It is best to retire one’s pen than succumb it to a life of self-betrayal.
This article was published in The Gulf Today newspaper on May 15th, 2011.