It is the (Middle) East, and Juliet is the oppressed
*Romeo and Juliet? Act II, scene ii
Nothing gets me riled up these days like seeing another novel about the Middle East or South Asia – this surge is seen as the “literary response” to 9/11. The influx of these stories from our region means that everybody’s reading about some princess who managed to get away from her nanny or a spice seller in the Friday market. I wonder if I can refer to these books as orientalist works (you know, without getting verbally abused by those who hold a personal grudge against Edward Said and inevitably get hives when they read the word ‘orientalist’)? Because I don’t know how else to describe books like Reading Lolita in Tehran and A Thousand Splendid Suns.
Whether they conform to Said’s slightly outdated definition or not, these books share a similar style and are spreading like wildfire. Although these works don’t belong to Western writers who view the East as the inferior “other”, they are perceived the same way. These novels are written by Arabs, Persians and Afghans fetishizing their own culture for a western audience (and an occidental Eastern audience). They tell tales of oppressed women and tyrannical men, of girls and boys in madrasas living in police states, eating fear for meals and breathing danger. Authors have become experts in producing these formulaic best-sellers: they start with a Fatima or a Aisha, sketch a heavy burka, create several stock characters: a burly uneducated brother, an affluent suitor, a religious figure or two; they often also throw in a rape scene, some financial difficulties, a controlling father, a failed romantic relationship and several run-ins with the law. And there you have it, an international best-seller! Now a 28 year-old financial analyst (who dreams of being a singer, but says she’ll wait until she makes it to NYC before her 30th birthday) in Wurtland, Kentucky knows what’s it’s like to be Muslim! She just can’t see how they do it though, she whines to her best friend over mimosas at brunch, these poor Arab women in Afghanistan! It’s like soooo hot over there, and they make them wear a burka – they have to cook and clean and learn how to speak Muslim at their school-thing.
I’m grossly exaggerating. But so are these novels!
Instead of shedding light on this part of the world and promoting a better understanding of the culture, all these novels do is perpetuate stereotypes. Women are oppressed in the Middle East and South Asia, as they are around the world. There are just different degrees of oppression, different definitions, different scenarios. By turning this oppression into a commodity, these authors are helping nobody but themselves. Like a manufacturer, they’re producing to meet demand – and if integrity is at stake, so be it! These novels are devoured by a Western audience hungry for anything about this mysterious region.
These books have appeared in the aftermath of 9/11 to widen the gaping abyss between the East and West rather than to show the similarities in cultures and highlight the shared human experiences. Lacking in depth and development, not one of these books has won an esteemed book prize; they only crowd book club lists as emotional tear-jerkers. In a few years only, these authors managed to recreate the idea of the inferior East and have successfully separated the readers from the characters in the books with the age-old “us” and “them”.