The persistence of orientalism

So in one of his early unguarded moments, our otherwise charming driver-guide Tomislav who picked me n Shoba up at Podgorica rail station and drove us on an all-day leisurely drive down the picturesque Adriatic riviera of Montenegro, described an Indian family he had driven around some time earlier, as “smelly.”

Shoba and I immediately exchanged glances which Tomi may have noticed, for he quickly changed his tune to “but ofcourse not all Indians are like that”– meaning, ofcourse, we were more like him ( read: European, modern, unsmelly!)- than those “others” bringing even their cook along with them and wanting to eat only Indian food on their travels!

While I have no patience for folks whose idea of travel is to bring “home” with them ( why travel then???)– I realized how deep the roots of orientalist ideology lie in the psyche of the very people-the Slavs- who themselves have been seen as dark, swarthy, “smelly” Orientals by those who regard themselves as the “true” Europeans. This is because of Slavic domination by the Turks during 300 years of Ottoman rule which rendered the Balkans “Oriental” in the eyes of Europe. A young Leon Trotsky, traveling by train from Budapest to Belgrade on the eve of World War 1 was thus enthused to say looking out the window:

“The East! The East!-what a mixture of faces, costumes, ethnic types and cultural levels!”

In such a view, Muslims (according to Prof Mark Mazower in his wonderful little book, The Balkans)–“were widely regarded as more prone to acts of barbarism than their Christian subjects.”

Thus, Greeks were seen to be one-sided victims of Turkish atrocities in the Great War in popular imagination leading Gladstone to denounce “Bulgarian horrors” without any acknowledgement that Christians too committed atrocities or even at times provoked them.

A passage from Mazower’s book sums up the European attitude of yesteryear that helps explain the prejudices of today we encountered in both our young driver and the older Serbian guide in Belgrade who corrected me when I referred to cevabci-kebabs-as Turkish cuisine as ” No, no, the Turks were nomads, cuisine comes from settled civilizations- this food we have here is Byzantine cuisine!”. Here is what Mazower writes:

“Christian Europe’s blindness to Muslim victims overlooked the huge movements of populations triggered off by Ottoman decline.” It is this blindness that has led people in the West- which now includes the Serbs and Croatians- to identify with those, who, according to Ami Bose writing in 1854, talked “in the West, about transporting all the Turks, in other words Muslims, to Asia in order to turn Turkey in Europe into a uniquely Christian Empire.”

Boue ( qtd in Mazower) tells us how inhuman and genocidal such an impulse is:

“This would be a decree as inhumane as the expulsion of Jews from Spain, or of Protestants from France, and indeed, scarcely feasible since the Europeans always forget that in Turkey in Europe the Muslims are mostly Slavs or Albanians, whose right to the land is as ancient as that of their Christian compatriots.”

Sadly- historians utterances are rarely heeded. The Balkan wars of the 1990s whose aftermath was very much palpable in the off-the-cuff remarks made by people like the Serbian guide or even, in the more “innocent” prejudice of our Croatian driver who, when we met a Hijabi Arab woman speaking Croatian at a sightseeing stop, wondered aloud to us how come she was Croatian– well, it just goes to show the persistence of stereotypes that feed orientalism and encourage the Othering that leads to dehumanization, war and ultimately, genocide.

Art and travel are crucial antidotes to challenging such ideologies of irreducible differences between peoples. That is why the play we saw (In the Name of the Lord) was so important; and our spending two days in the company of young Tomislav, we hope, helped qualify his own thus-far limited (and biased) experience of the Other in his midst.

Perhaps our intervention as adventurous, Middle Aged brown women, one of us of Muslim background from Pakistan who could be friends with a Hindu woman from India- is part of the progressive counter-ideology I am calling ” traveling feminista”!

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