Why it’s good that the Middle East loves European Orientalist painting

Indignation has often been a substitute for research

Edward Said’s book Orientalism took several academic worlds by storm on publication in 1978. It accused European writers and painters of the Middle East of being part of a “project” over many centuries to help or justify western empires in the region: “a relationship of power, of domination, of various degrees of a complex hegemony.” The will to know reflected the will to dominate.

It is an appealing thesis. Its validity has been reinforced, as Said subsequently wrote, by the use of “experts” to justify Israeli invasions of Lebanon or the American occupation of Iraq. Nevertheless, Said’s thesis is only half true. In part it reflects a reaction against his own background. The son of Palestinians living in Cairo, he was named after Edward VIII and sent to an English school, Victoria College. He had a complex relationship with the British empire, and the US, where he won fame as “the most eloquent spokesman of the Palestinian cause in the west”.

Said was a literary critic and polemicist, not a historian, and he makes mistakes. Above all, Said minimises the central role in Europe and the Middle East of the Ottoman Empire. The supreme Muslim power always had European allies; France, the country with the longest Orientalist tradition, for almost four centuries—except during Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt—supported the Ottoman Empire as essential to its power and trade. In the 19th century, Britain became the Ottoman Empire’s principal ally. The Wilkie drawing of a Tartar messenger narrating the fall of Acre in an Istanbul café commemorates the British bombardment of that city in 1840, on behalf of the Ottoman Empire in its war against its rebellious vassal Mohammed Ali Pasha. Until its fall, the Ottoman Empire was frequently defended by European powers.

All creativity is supported by a political or economic structure. Orientalists were not necessarily more hegemonic than other disciplines, or indeed than many people in the Middle East—no one could be more contemptuous of Arabs than their Turkish rulers. The best Orientalists mirror a specific time and place. Whatever their biases, they took the trouble to go to Aleppo or Jerusalem or Cairo and record in books and pictures what they learnt. They did not always have a hidden agenda of western triumphalism—no more than western schools were merely instruments of imperialism. As he himself brilliantly demonstrated, they could help stimulate pupils to fight that imperialism: Jean-Baptiste Vanmour and Fausto Zonaro with their paintings of Constantinople; Jean-Etienne Liotard with his exquisite pastels of dress and fabrics; Edward Lane in An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians; Mouradgea d’Ohsson’s Tableau Général de l’Empire Othoman and Lord Leighton’s paintings of Damascus architecture.

Said’s emotionalism has captivated many writers. Seeing “the West” as a malevolent monolith, they blame it alone for disasters instead of trying to analyse situations in their own terms, or realising that many local leaders—for example, Ottoman Sultans or Lebanese faction leaders—were as much exploiters as exploited. Indignation has often been a substitute for research.

Proof of Orientalists’ value is the migration of their books and pictures to the areas they are alleged to have infantilised. Great libraries, collections and museums, such as those of the Koc family in Istanbul, or Shafik Gabr in Cairo, or those now opening in Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Kuwait, are full of Orientalist works. As visitors to Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul can see, Ottoman Sultans started buying Orientalist paintings in the 1860s, or earlier. Abdülhamid (1876-1909) had his own Orientalist court painter, Zonaro, whom he often employed to celebrate Ottoman victories over Christian armies. Vanmour illustrations are reproduced today in Turkish or Lebanese school books or on café walls. A photograph of a Zonaro picture of a Sufi ceremony hangs on the wall of an Istanbul dervish lodge, while a J.F. Lewis painting has recently been used as the cover of an Islamist’s defence of the role of Ottoman women. The prints of Antoine-Ignace Melling, published in 1819, helped the young Orhan Pamuk appreciate his city’s past, as he wrote in Istanbul: Memories and the City.

As “The Lure of the East”, which has been popular in London (Tate Britain) and Istanbul—with its wonderful juxtapositions of paintings of Byron, Abdülmecid and Mohammed Ali, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Beirut —opens in Sharjah this month (Sharjah Art Museum, 19 February-30 April), I hope that many more exhibitions will encourage further exchanges of knowledge between Europe and the Middle East, as, at their best, the Orientalists themselves once did.

The writer’s books include Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire 1453-1924. He is currently working on a history of the Levant

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