Blesok no. 67-68, July-October, 2009
Degrees of Otherness: Fetishisation of the ‘West’
We live in an era of multi-corporational neocolonialism and the cultural hegemony of Eurocentrism, and we might as well say Amerocentrism. We constantly, and rightfully, complain that we are silenced. We even derive pleasure from competing in being more marginalised than the others. Thus, it is quite obvious why Henry Louis Gates Jr. remarks in Derridian style that there is ‘nothing outside of (the discourse of) colonialism’, to which Slemon adds ‘all discourse must be nothing other than colonial discourse itself’. (Slemon 1995, 51)
Still, are we not discriminating more than the privileged? Do we expect to be disadvantaged at all costs, and, perhaps, in a certain sense, hope we will be, so as to be able to sleep at night with a clear conscience? Is it not bewildering to be equal, identical, same, blended, and unnoticeable? What do we do when nobody ever considers us strangers? What if we stop considering ourselves strangers within?
This nightmare scenario points to the fact that the ‘West’ exists as much due to the need of the ‘East’ to distinguish itself from it, as due to its neoimperialistic and violent self-definition. The position of an outsider is as comfortable as the elite position, in a certain sense even more powerful (in its subversiveness).
While we keep asking whether the privileged nations can read marginalised literature and culture without prejudice (when they read it at all), we might as well ask conversely, whether the underprivileged subjects can read dominant literature and culture without prejudice (as often as they read it).
Otherness is born in an encounter (with another person or with ourselves). It begins by noticing the difference, the other which inspires binarity. This other, says Kristeva, ‘bears the mark of a crossed threshold’, is experienced ‘in addition’ to ourselves and cripples the wellbeing of the individual. (2005, 238) Every addition tells us we are not enough; we are not complete and immaculate.
‘The Museum’ is a short story about the encounter of two others. It is an excellent commentary on how postcolonial nations see the ‘West’ and on how they believe it sees them. This short story, which brought the Caine Prize for African Writing to Leila Aboulela in 2000, tells the story of a postgraduate Sudanese student of Mathematics who refuses to fall in love with a Scottish intellectual of a lower class partially because she is promised to a rich heir in Sudan, but because of numerous other reasons as well. These other reasons are what she stirs in her encounter with the other.
We are accustomed to recognising the other even before we name it. Once we have named it, we intepellate it as other. Shadia, the main female character, when first named by Bryan, the main male character, is named as Shadiya. This, seemingly simple mistake of pronunciation, indicates how, in a foreign country, the name and identity assigned to us by our parents (and Shadia means educated) is easily subverted. He certainly does not do it on purpose: his culture does it for him. The blame rests with Shadia, who, despite noticing he is wrong, persistently refuses to tell him how her name should be pronounced and what her identity is, or, at least, what the identity she answers to at home is. Abroad, it is almost irrelevant what name you answer to; you will always be recognised as strange. Yet, it seems she makes use of her strangeness to protect her broken identity, put under question with the very abandonment of her home.
Bryan himself has, if not an alternative pronunciation, then at least an alternative spelling (Bryan, instead of the more frequent Brian). With him this is the indicator of his difference. To emphasise the irony and our powerlessness in a foreign language, the name of the author is Leila (Lay-lah, or perhaps a mispronunciation of Lee-lah) Aboulela. If we were to go even further, we would ask ourselves whether this should be pronounced with a soft, medium or hard ‘l’. However, it is not only language that makes us different.
The others are not the same, but of various intensity, manifold, and situational. We discard certain others immediately, without offering them a chance (we abject them). Some, on the contrary, we are ready to turn a blind eye to. Who are the acceptable others probably depends upon the degree to which they are different and how much they compromise our self.
1. Visible otherness
It is not difficult to recognise the foreign. This is the first conclusion our senses will establish. With the very first sentence we learn Shadia was afraid of Bryan owing to his earring and his long hair. Otherness, normally, begins with the gaze. To a traditionally brought up Muslim, it is inconceivable that a man should identify himself with these attributes. To Bryan they are a sign of revolt at his uncomfortable rootedness in his own culture and a need for escape, but to her they are a violation of and an attack to her integrity and her culture. It is quite natural, then, for her to dismiss them as a part of the ‘strangeness of the West’ (Aboulela 2001, 99), of the other culture, which she also perceives as something foreign. One of the first definitions for that culture is the cold and the rain which abuse her hair twisting it into locks. She cannot keep it loose and wild as she used to at home, rather, she has to discipline it with gels and pins and keep it in a bun.
To her fortune, or misfortune, Bryan’s otherness is flexible. In an uncontrolled moment of sincerity she makes him take off his earring and have his hair cut. She even feels tempted to advise him to treat his spots with lemon juice, but refrains from it. On the other hand, in Sudan, a marriage with a different other awaits her. Fareed, her fiancé, is too fat for her taste. He is informed about this, yet never considers jeopardising his comfort and the delicious food his mother cooks for the love of hers.
One would expect now Shadia to be demanded to make adjustments to her appearance, however nobody urges her to do so. In fact, the two of them do not. The imperialistic consumer culture almost insists on it, even though subtly, by means of seemingly innocent representations. The first memory of Africa shared with us is her fair-haired doll and the way she used to spend ‘hours combing that doll’s hair. She had longed for such straight hair. When she went to Paradise she would have hair like that.’ (99)
Shadia is painfully aware of the visual aspect of otherness. ‘In a photograph we would not look nice together,’ (116) she muses about herself and Bryan. Nonetheless, she forgets that this same photograph would be equally ideologically determined by her prejudice, as the photographs in the museum they both will visit are focalised thorough the colonising ideology of the first explorers of Africa.
2. Cultural and religious otherness
‘[M]y space … [is] something that one really only learns from other people,’ says Spivak. (1990, 68) This discursive space is not only the space that separates you, but also the one you share with others from your culture. Shadia certainly carries the cultural codes and prejudices of her parents. They are activated even more outside her home.
What distinguishes their community from the British, are hospitality and the strictly codified rules of well behaviour, among the rest. A humorous example is her telephone conversation with Fareed in the course of which they are required to follow strict rules: to listen for a certain amount of time, then to speak equally long. This civility at times borders with hypocrisy, as when her mother rubs soap into her eyes on the funeral of Fareed’s father so that she appears to be moaning him, whereas she should be joyous now Fareed, and, through him, she is the heir to the fortune her father-in-law has left behind.
Compared to her cultural standards, Bryan is ‘devoid of manners’ (101): they are in the same class yet he sometimes greets her, sometimes not; he does not sit straight in his chair; he throws paper into the rubbish bin from his chair; the mumbles; and the list is almost endless and not without a dose of ridicule from Aboulela.
Apart from the impoliteness, and the ‘famous British reserve’ to which the manuals for international students warn her (101), the foreign country always represents a source for ‘sensational’ (103) things to write about to her sister: that somebody wrote HIV on the washroom mirror in lipstick, that there was hail or that they drive on the left. Even the rhetoric of the short story is inspired by cultural difference. ‘Gilt was cold like the fog of this city,’ (103) – the narrator will tell us when Shadia fears she will not pass her exams because she does not understand what they are learning.
The cultural differences Aboulela gives voice to ought to be taken with precaution since they are filtered through the prism of a heroine who, we are told, never keeps company with home students, and, during the weekends, never talks to anybody. Before she becomes acquainted with Bryan, she communicates solely with students form the ‘Third World’. What image, then, can she offer about the British, which would not be, at the least, superficial and shallow, determined by the prejudice of her culture?
The most determining part of that culture, and even a priori to that culture, according to Aboulela, is religion.
Here, in a foreign land, the religion of the forsaken ancestors is posed in an essential purity and they imagine they are cherishing it better than their parents who remained ‘there, at home’ … Fundamentalists are more fundamental when they lose all material ties, inventing a ‘we’ which is a pure symbolism; in the absence of a grounds it roots itself in ritual until it accomplishes its essence, which is the sacrifice. (Кристева 2005, 262)
Shadia becomes more religious on foreign grounds. She admits to Bryan that she used to sleep in the mornings when she heard the call to prayer; now, when she cannot hear it, she prays every day. One morning she forgets to pray and feels like striding the streets naked. Her new religious Puritanism surprises Fareed as well. When she warns him over the phone not to purchase gold toilet seats as Allah will punish them, he reminds her that the seats will only be gold-coloured and does not consider changing his mind. ‘Since when have you become so religious!’ he exclaims (114). What he cannot discern is that Shadia has become more religious since she met Bryan. The reason for this is, most probably, the feeling of guilt because she is being unfaithful to Fareed and her family (although only platonically), as well as her need to force herself to see Bryan as the other.
According to Spivak, religion allows us to create an ‘immediately approachable ‘other’, without tangling in the problems of racism or exploitation’ (2003, 115). Shadia also employs religion in this sense. Like a drowning person at a straw, she clutches at what she believes will be the most unfamiliar to him. One can only imagine her fear when he informs her he has learned about her religion at school and has been to Mecca! What a relief is then felt in her ‘Оh,’ once she hears it had only been ‘In a book.’ She enquires what he believes in and, surprised when he admits he does not believe she exclaims, ‘That’s terrible! That’s really terrible!’ (112)
Instead of a typical encounter between a dominant and oppressed culture and depreciation, which we are conditioned to expect in such moments, we witness the opposite. Shadia is the one who is unprepared to accept Bryan’s difference. To defend herself against all these unexpected statements while they are drinking coffee, she rises and, about to leave, tauntingly suggests he should accept her faith. Again another blow: Bryan responds he would not mind this because he enjoyed the book, while her eyes fill with tears. She will cry only on one more occasion, at the museum of Africa in Aberdeen, which they visit at Bryan’s request.
As Shadia enters the museum with him, she appears to be entering the heart of Eurocentrism. She expects to see the sun, boats on the Nile and minarets. She is welcomed by a stark contrast: Africa tamed by the first colonisers and harmless enough to be placed in a museum or any other encyclopaedia of colonialism. In other words, it is an abstract vision and a construct, which only extols the bravery of the first ‘explorers’ who conquered an unfamiliar continent.
‘There is no … collective memory … But there is collective conditioning’ asserts Susan Sontag. Memory is local and individual and disappears along with the ones who remember. On the other hand, ‘collective memory is not a memory but a contract’ (2006, 87, 89). Certainly one nation favours its collective memories and exhibits in a museum only those images which support, and, naturally, construct those memories; therefore this museum of Africa favours as a subtext the heroism of the explorers, to the suffering of the natives. Once again Sontag reminds us: ‘A visit to a museum or a gallery is a social activity … Museums have evolved into more than … leisure [and] a warehouse/storage room … The basic function of the museum is entertainment and education … as well as advertising experiences, tastes and simulacra.’ (121)
Our hero, likewise, is predetermined and fixed by his culture, education and tastes. At the museum he studiously reads everything and decodes the messages of his own culture. They tell him that the imperialists were heroes who wished to escape from home. This latter part reveals the extent to which he cannot surpass his own personal experiences and prejudice – he sees these personages of the past in a manner he would like to see himself, as people who have managed to escape from home.
Regarding this visit, Jason Cowley claims that ‘intrigued by her exotic difference, [Bryan] fails to realise … that, for Shadia, Aberdeen has its own perplexing exoticism.’ (Cowley, 2000) Shadia too has created her own abstract version of Scotland (to her liking, surely – cold, discriminating and unmannerly, among the rest). However, Bryan’s blindness is a beginner’s misjudgement. When he sees her in tears, he is ready to change.
He said, ‘Museums change; I can change…’
He didn’t know it was a steep path she had no strength for. He didn’t understand. Many things, years and landscapes, gulfs. If she was strong she would have explained and not tired of explaining. She would have patiently taught him another language, letters curved like the epsilon and gamma he knew from mathematics. She would have showed him that words could be read from right to left. If she was not small in the museum, if she was really strong, she would have made his trip to Mecca real, not only in a book. (119)
I will only partially agree with Brendan Smyth that ‘[b]oth she and Brian are victims of the misrepresentation of her culture’ at the museum. (Smyth 2007, 171) I believe they are equally victims of her own relentless need to protect her integrity and her misconceptions related to his culture. Aboulela herself states ‘she is the one who is unable or unwilling to be a catalyst for [his] change.’ (2007) The museum in the title of the short story is the museum they visit, but also the virtual museum she has built about the ‘First World’ in herself.
Fortunately, if she does not accept and has no strength, at least the narrator, and Aboulela with him, leave a possibility, an ‘if’, which might be realised in another occasion, under different circumstances.
3. Educational otherness
The first allusion to western education is the ‘white scribbles’ on the board Shadia does not understand. She is familiar with the notations only, but is unable to follow how the formulas lead to one another and understands almost nothing of what they are studying. (99). Indeed, mathematics to someone uninitiated seems unreal, like hieroglyphs – as the Arabic alphabet seems to the uninitiated. The problem, still, is the fact that Shadia is not uninitiated, she is only not initiated in Eurocentric mathematics.
The formulation above sounds unconvincing due to the prejudice we share about the universality of mathematic language, as abstract and freed of context, nevertheless, Alan J. Bishop calls into our attention the fact that ‘[m]athematical ideas, like any other ideas, are humanly constructed’ and ‘have a cultural history’(Bishop 1995,72). He goes even further to assert that although many nations have participated in the development of mathematics, it is legitimate to speak of a ‘western mathematics’ for it is western European culture which has disseminated it as one of the ‘secret weapons’ for ‘cultural invasion’ and ‘continuation of cultural imperialism.’ Not only did it impose its symbols and concepts by means of trade, administration and education, but also the very values implicit in those symbols and concepts: the western values of rationalism, objectism, power and control. Whereas, students who prepared for higher education in the European centres were ‘educated away from their culture and away from their society’ and subjected to a ‘deliberate strategy of acculturation’. (73-76)
Aboulela appears to have this acculturation in mind when she plays with the mathematical allusions in the short story. Linear Modules is the first statistics class named for us, and is a symbol of the linearity of ‘western’ and patriarchal culture. Linearity is also present in Eurocentric writing. In her intriguing study of cultural fixation performed by professors of English language, Alastair Pennycook indicates that students are ‘fixed and defined and determined by their cultures.’ The manner they behave is also construed: they write circularly, they only memorise the material, they quote too much, they start with false premises and they cannot support their arguments (1998, 187-189). Namely, English language professors have fixed expectations from the students depending on their origin even before they check their knowledge. These expectations in relation to the students of the ‘Third World’ are that they do not follow the linear western logic. If this applies to the foreign language professors, I cannot see why it should not be applicable to mathematics professors as well.
Bryan feels comfortable in the cultural hegemony of Eurocentric mathematics. He graduated with First Class Honours at the same faculty, he easily follows postgraduate studies lectures and he is due to get a Distinction. He is familiar with the lecturers and the system to such a degree that he can afford to treat them as equals and not to speak to them with respect (once again a reminder of the cultural difference with the stricter education in Africa, at least at the time when Aboulela studied there). Unlike him, Shadia is frustrated because she cannot find her way along the corridors, she manipulates with the photocopying machine with difficulty, she cannot manage to find the books she needs at the library, she does not write neatly like Bryan and she even smears his notebook with tears. At times, she almost seems she might persuade both us and herself that all of these are criteria for having or not having mathematical knowledge.
‘Us and them, she thought. The ones who would do well, the ones who would crawl and sweat and barely pass. Two predetermined groups.’ (100) In a certain sense Shadia is right, the former are imbued in Eurocentric mathematics and understand it. However, irony lies in the fact that this successful group is represented by only two Europeans who distinguish themselves from the class: a girl from Spain, who is a stranger likewise, and a poor Scotsman, who is a stranger in terms of class.
In fact, Shadia disproves her theory. Later we learn ‘His notes were the knowledge she needed, the gaps,’ (106) in mathematics, and in his culture as well. Once she has filled these gaps and gained knowledge, she no longer considers herself subjugated. Quite the opposite, she becomes arrogant towards Bryan. It appears she will never overcome the inherent (perhaps retaliatory and safe) feeling of superiority.
4. Class otherness
If Shadia is the underprivileged character in terms of her origin and gender, then Bryan is the margins regarding his class status. We sense this on the first pages. We are informed he always wears the same shirt, a fact Shadia notices compulsively, as though she has a necessity to constantly remind herself of it. While this is not yet an alarming sign for her, his bad English pronunciation is a sufficient signal for his lower class. She herself cannot but comment that she has a better pronunciation than him. We learn his parents are indeed poor towards the end. His mother sells lollipops; his father works as a jointer. Whereas, the narrator informs us, ‘Fareed hired people like that to work on the house. Ordered them about.’ (109)
Unlike him, Shadia is the child of a renowned gynaecologist. He married another woman, but her mother had a sufficiently luxurious position, being a woman in Muslim society, to opt for upbringing her six daughters alone; incidentally, all now with eminent professions and of repute in the city. In order to secure them even more, she married them to honourable men of the local elite. Shadia she engages to Fareed, heir to on owner of a 7Up franchise and a paper factory with a monopoly on handkerchiefs.
Aboulela’s humour is subtle, yet acutely aware of reality. Although Fareed’s mother and his sisters comprise the wedding arrangement along with the large newly-built house, this same arrangement includes Shadia’s postgraduate studies. Her mother is fully conscious of her threatened social position and warns her to have education as a counterbalance and a safeguard for the riches she will get from her husband.
Let us leave aside the awareness of poverty awaiting Shadia’s family (unless they manipulate with caution), and concentrate instead on the fact that she is a member of the local elite, and is also privileged as opposed to many emigrants or temporary residents in Scotland. As Ahmad claims
Most individuals are really not free to fashion themselves anew with each passing day … only the privileged can live a life of constant mobility and surplus pleasure … Most migrants tend to be poor and experience displacement not as cultural plenitude but as torment. (1997, 373)
In ‘cold’ Scotland she is not forced to work in order to pay for her postgraduate studies. Instead, she can enjoy and remember the pool at the club she used to frequent with her sisters where they drank lemonade and were served by waiters in white. Not to mention the engagement with Fareed at the Hilton with five hundred guests. Her discourse is far from disqualified and silenced. Some of the true subalterns of this story are probably the waiters at the pool or the workers Fareed orders about, and Bryan’s parents. ‘In Khartoum, [Shadia] never mixed with people like that.’ (106)
Even secured in this respect, she bears in mind her economic situation. She is aware she is wasting a lot of finances because of her studies and meticulously calculates the money she has spent, while at home only ‘the sterling [is] enough to keep a family alive’. (103) In Khartoum, we find out, she ‘allowed’ Fareed to pay her bills and saved her money to purchase presents for her mother. Fareed too is worried about his money, although he has an abundance of it. He is quite thrifty with his means when he builds his new house and wants all the bathrooms to be painted in one colour to get a discount. Eagleton is right to state:
It is not in the end questions of language, skin colour or identity, but of commodity prices, raw materials, labour markets, military alliances and political forces, which shape the relations between rich and poor nations. (1996, 205)
I will add the relations between rich and poor people, as well. Postmodernism (Lyotard for instance) proclaims the end of all metanarratives, but as Ahmad claims, ‘the most meta- of all metanarratives … the creeping annexation of the globe for the dominance of capital … has met … with stunning success.’ (1997, 364) This being true, Shadia is among those who profit from the dominance of capital. Her wealth (Fareed’s factories) is what will emancipate her into elite, not knowledge and by no means Bryan.
Finally, a question arises whether Shadia would have left Bryan if he were a rich representative of the First world, with royal pronunciation and, say, a villa in Spain and a Rolls Royce to counterbalance the colossal house Fareed is building and his Mercedes. Is she discriminating more in terms of class than colonialism? She probably is. Aboulela herself states ‘protection is a woman’s right from an Islamic point of view’ (2007) and it, therefore, follows that it is normal for Shadia to seek an economically protected life. However, in such a case, the wealthy Bryan would have posed a lesser threat to her identity and would have been less interesting for us.
5. Gender otherness
‘“Femininity” is as important a discursive field … as “religion.”’ (Spivak 1988, 215) Religion, in addition, plays an important role in dispersing the concept of femininity. If we believe Aboulela, then we shall accept that, ‘A woman, in Sudanese/African/Arab culture, is considered to be more attractive if she is quiet, soft-spoken, not opinionated, not selfish, not forward, and the list goes on!’ (2007)
A part of this belief is reflected in Shadia’s upbringing. She knows her rules. ‘It was not difficult to please people. Agree with them, never dominate the conversation, be economical with the truth.’ (111) At home she is considerably more marginalised than in Scotland. Fareed indeed phones regularly for advice on how to furnish the new house, but he always ‘discusses’ with her once he has already decided on his own.
A more serious aspect of femininity in Sudan is what Cicely Hamilton calls ‘marriage as women’s compulsory trade, a ceremony which marks their entry as wives and later mothers into the sexual economy of a patriarchal society’ (in Whitlock 1995, 351). We discover that
Fareed was a package that came with the 7Up franchise, the paper factory, the big house he was building, his sisters and widowed mother. Shadia was going to marry them all. She was going to be happy and make her mother happy. Her mother deserved happiness after the misfortunes of her life. (103)
In this case the initiator of Shadia into female production and the propagator of patriarchy is an egotistic and selfish mother who behaves like a child and constantly victimises herself. ‘No one suffers like I suffer,’ she says indulging in self-pity. (105) Shadia and her sisters live their mother’s dream: because she did not continue her education, they all have to have high education.
She secretly visits her father and is fascinated by his wildness and her stepmother who has fewer worries than her mother. As she gets more familiar with Bryan, she distances herself from the strong influence of her mother and identifies with the traitor in the family, the exile, the nomad – the father who escaped. Subconsciously she constantly thinks about the other parent. When she enters the museum of Africa she expects to see what she misses about her home, and among the things listed are ‘[p]eople like her father’.
6. Diasporic otherness
Derrida states ‘what is proper to a culture, is not to be identical to itself … not to be able to … take the form of a subject only … in the difference with itself“ (1992, 9-10) This difference is the most palpable for our heroine now she is relocated to a culturally foreign ground. A problem, in addition, is that she is dislocated from her generic culture. She is doomed to, as Derrida would say, an eternal ‘double genitive’ (10)
Displacement is a traumatic event. Dislocated from one community, international students in this story seek protection in another group. They are always together, always a ‘collection’, ‘collective fear’ and ‘collective silence’, and the Nigerian who committed suicide is a ‘brother’. They stick together as though the group will protect them and give them a feeling of belonging. In their behaviour and their whispering and giggling they resemble high school teenagers, insecure in their identity, who prefer to identify themselves as a group since they will not feel threatened in this way.
It is quite amusing then that these same people, to whom Shadia clings so tightly before she befriends Bryan, she later avoids. It is easy, under different conditions, at home and on a secure ground, to consider these same people intruders. With Asafa, though he is from a neighbouring country, they meet thrillingly in Scotland, while at home they could have been enemies.
Faith in the homeland is also delusive. Even if they return home time will not stay for them, ‘they're in for a shock because their countries will have moved on,’ Aboulela warns us. She confesses: 'This is what I fight against. I don't want to get stuck. I don't want to be nostalgic for the past.’ (in Sethi 2005) Liminal diasporic others do not belong anywhere. They are idiorrhythmics who are unaware that they are in fact cenobites, in the words of Milorad Pavić.
‘The foreigner’s friends … could only be those who feel foreign to themselves.’ (Кристева 2005, 261) Shadia, the ‘cynical stranger’, has an even greater need of the company of Bryan, the ‘stranger believer’, but ‘does not expect anything’ from that company. (247) That company jeopardises her identity too much.
7. Otherness within
‘One becomes a foreigner in another country because one is already a foreigner from within’ (Кристева 2005, 251) Bryan is the one who stirs otherness in Shadia and challenges the borderline she has set to separate herself from others. Separation does not only imply expelling others but expelling a part of ourselves as well. When he dares to walk across her borderline he leaves her with the feeling of in-betweenness, with awareness that she must either extend her borders or expel even more.
To accept a part of what she has abjected her whole life, she must admit, among other things, that she is not in love with Fareed, that her mother is oppressing her, that her father left them because he had a good reason and that Sudan is not large enough for her.
A part of what she has to expel is her similarity with Bryan. Both of them are quiet, timid and not quite talkative. They share their interest in mathematics, and they could share one in religion too. Bryan is willing to accept Muslim religion and to become deeply religious. Fareed, on the other hand, is not very religious. Alone in the company of Bryan she feels comfortable, with Fareed, even in the rare cases they are unaccompanied, she imagines she is with her mother or her sisters.
Furthermore, both do not fit the identities in which the museum photographs fix them. Bryan has no purpose and strength in his look, whereas Shadia is ‘too modern, too full of mathematics.’ (116) To a certain extent, they are unrepresentative of their cultural ideologies.
There is a need to root otherness, to position it, to confine it and isolate it from oneself. It should not inspire excessive intrinsic fear, but allow us to feel threatened and relish this secret experience at the same time. Pleasure, fear and power all in one. Much as we believe we can control it, otherness is stronger than us. It negates our comfort. With it or without it, we cannot be at peace.
There is an easy escape from this situation. Elizabeta Šeleva says derisively, ‘I shall die or I shall consider repulsive all those who do not belong to my (privatised) experience of my self-difference difference.’ (2005, 124-125)
1. Constructing ‘the West’
Lazarus speaks of the constructedness of the concept ‘the West’. It ‘has no coherent or credible referent [and] is an ideological category masquerading as a geographic one,’ serving ‘to specify a social power’ yet also ‘to mystify’ it as it ‘references neither a polity nor a state … but a “civilization”.’ (2002, 44) He suggests particularising that “West’ as capitalism or Eurocentrism. Indeed, ‘the West’ serves as a useful shorthand on which we can spill all the frustrations of being underprivileged, but with this generalisation we often forget at whom we should direct our anger: at capitalism, Eurocentrism, and also at neocolonialism, patriarchy, racism, religious fanaticism, homophobia and the like. The choice depends on the situation and on the fact who is being marginalised.
Colonialism ‘always works alongside other structures’ and should be referred to ‘with caution and qualifications,’ ‘it is not [in Hulme’s words] simply a ‘merit badge’ that can be worn at will,’ (Loomba 1998, 18-19) and it ‘is not just something that happens from outside’ but ‘can be duplicated from within.’ (12) For instance, in the relation man-woman or higher-lower class.
Shadia, as well, is entangled in these discursive traps, whether consciously or not. Experience has instilled in her anger towards ‘the West’ and she identifies it with the geography of the same term. What she others as ‘the West’ is probably the closest to capitalism and postcolonialism. She recognises capitalism from her experience in Sudan as something coming from outside: Burda and other expensive foreign magazines, 7 Up, Listerine mouthwash, computers, cars and furniture from abroad. About colonialism, she has heard from others: in the stories about British rule in Sudan. Postcolonialism is something she really experiences. It is her mistake to contribute her marginalisation to every western citizen. Even to such a ‘non-player’ as Bryan.
At the museum she is faced with a canonical image of Africa, its reduction to its past and images of wild animals. The conquerors are also shown, but in their canonical image the dead Scottish fighters for freedom from English rule are not included. One could argue that this is a museum of Africa and in it there are no Scots but, generally speaking, British conquerors. Then, Britain is reduced to a stereotype too – the museum does not show poor workers such as Bryan’s parents. The museum’s representations, nevertheless, are a means by which Britain represents itself, whereas Africa is there only to be seen through the eyes of Britain.
In this short story Britain is also being watched. When they hear about the Malaysian’s broken window, Shadia asks, more naturally, whether it was the thieves who did it; however, the Turkish girl comments, ‘Racists.” Shadia discriminates too. Instead of realising Bryan is confused when she approaches because he is shy, or in love, or caught unprepared, or simply surprised, she sarcastically imagines he thought she was an insect.
In moments such as these ‘the projector of difference perceives and places themselves mostly in the role of an innocent victim’ ‘transformed into a sort of a fetish of suffering’ (Шелева 2005,115) Are we forcing ‘the West’ to conform to our expectations and are we relieved when it does so, and thwarted when it doesn’t? It is appealing and convenient to have a typical West.
Bryan is not what he is, but what she constructs him to be. Is he to blame for this? Perhaps he too readily makes compromises regarding his position, yet his identity is more nomadic. He is in search of himself and receptive to change, considerably more receptive than Shadia. Perhaps he does not discern the hidden intent of the colonialists hanging on the museum walls. Nevertheless, this is due to the fact that he is trained to have a positive opinion about his countrymen. He identifies with their unrootedness, strength and ‘heroism’, not with their violence.
2. Othering as defence
In the beginning several types of defence from otherness (and from oneself) are offered for the diasporic intellectuals. Shadia cries; the Ethiopian Asafa drinks. There is a more sinister escape. A Nigerian student committed suicide and this fact pervades the whole story like a leitmotif. It is etched in the subconscious of the whole ‘collection from the Third World’ and they keep returning to it although we are told they are ‘ashamed of that brother they had never seen.’ (2001, 101) His mentioning is a form of secret pleasure and desire.
When she wishes to defend herself from the emotions that destabilise her self-perception the first thing she reaches for is impoliteness, in order to become repulsive to Bryan. She admits she has been trained in pleasing people since she was little. Those rules, she feels, need not be applied to Bryan now. She misleadingly believes the reason is the fact that he is not worthy of such attention and does not represent a threat to her. She acts like this precisely because he is a threat to her and he reveals the hypocrisy beneath her politeness.
She is hypocritical because she likes to mock him and to humiliate him, because she does not keep company with Bryan and the others from the ‘Third World’ at the same time (later she even completely forgets them), because she is ironic when he does not know where Sudan is, she boasts, she believes in stereotypes, and is a 25-year-old whose mother washes everything for her, even the underwear.
A second means by which she defends herself is through attack on his social status. ‘One cannot hope to displace or overturn Eurocentric reason by inversion … such a strategy merely replicates, rather than challenges the thoroughgoing essentialism of the dominant optic,’ says Lazarus. (2002, 54)
In the need to make a class difference, Shadia emphasises her status. She boasts that her father is a doctor. Naturally, she forgets to mention that her father is a gynaecologist, a profession which left childhood traumas because of her friends’ teasing. Moreover, she hyperbolises the beauty of her homeland in a description so abundant with pathos that she recognises its own fictitiousness.
Once she alters it, his appearance no longer scares her; once she equates her mathematical knowledge with his (owing to his help), she can afford to mock him. His difference is, obviously, what attracts her. When it disappears, what is left is the fear of sameness. Some people live all their lives believing in the myth of a soul mate. Yet, what happens when that soul mate begins negating our identity or threatening our uniqueness?
In the masterly wrought dialogue of this short story, the more Bryan approaches Shadia and tests the limits of otherness she has set, the more meagre her discourse becomes, to end, finally, in complete silence at the museum. Invited to speak about her country, Shadia uses minute, literary, and at moments consciously pathetic descriptions. In the beginning, when she needs to defend herself from the powerful feelings towards him she makes a fool of herself: she says that she does not like his earring, that her mother would have been a princess had not the British colonised Sudan (an absolutely pretentious overstatement) or that The Nile is superior in relation to Bryan’s river The Dee. However, truly threatened, she does not use language in defence.
‘[T]he foreigner is a baroque person’: in order to blend in the new atmosphere they rely on rhetorical sophistication so as to assert themselves to those who do not accept them and try to adopt the new language as soon as they can. Still, their ‘kingdom is silence’. The memory of their mother tongue fades and the new one can never be mastered. (Кристева 2005, 251,252,158) Shadia decides to be silent. This silence is an escape from otherness and oneself, a non-acceptance and a refusal to challenge ones self-sufficiency.
In the last scene, inside the museum, we do not have a dialogue between two cultures. At a more private level, we do not have a dialogue between two individuals. ‘[W]ithout interculturality (about which Bakhtin and Lotman spoke so prophetically) multiculturality will probably remain solely a vacant – even though, politically correct slogan.’ (Шелева 2005, 128)
Shadia is not prepared to accept otherness. She wishes to see Bryan as in a museum. An unchanging, fixed and discriminating Eurocentric subject who has tyrannised her people in the past and now subjects it to derision and cultural repression.
Nevertheless, Aboulela, with her subtle use of language challenges her unpreparedness and her fear. In an interview, asked about the Occidentalism of some of her characters, she states
As long as fiction is committed to reflecting real people and not only a sophisticated elite, then fiction will reflect people's prejudices, and their small minds which are a result of their small limited lives. Some of my characters do perceive the West in a reductionist way but they are challenged as the story goes along and this challenge is what is interesting. (2007)
Hope should not be searched for in the individual only, it is a social responsibility. However, the individual is the locus where we may intervene first. Some advice regarding the solution of this problem is given by Spivak, ‘distancing oneself in third person and self-irony,’ ‘logical and esthetical distance,’ and ‘the return to third person, having undermined one’s roots’. (2003, 35-36)
Everyone is ‘other’ to a certain degree and there are acceptable and unacceptable degrees of otherness for everyone. The fact that some are more other than the others is because we are not completely prepared to make that distance of self-irony.
Кристева, Јулија. 2005 (1997) Токати и фуги за другоста. Превод од англиски Роберт Алаѓозовски, Искра Гешоска, Емилија Георгиевска, Илина Црвенковска и Мимоза Петреска Георгиевска Скопје: Темплум.
Шелева, Елизабета. 2005 Дом/идентитет Скопје: Магор.
Сонтаг, Сузан. 2006 (2003) За страдањето на другите Превод од англиски Владимир Јанковски Скопје: Темплум.
Спивак, Гајатри Чакраворти. 2003 Постколонијална критика. Превод од англиски Лавинија Шувака и Роберт Алаѓозовски Скопје: Темплум.
Aboulela, Leila. 2001. Coloured Lights Edinburgh: Polygon.
Derrida, Jacques. 1992 The Other Heading: Reflections on Today's Europe, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael B. Naas. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
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Bishop, Alan J. 1995 Western Mathematics: The Secret Weapon of Cultural Imperialism in The Post-colonial Studies Reader еd. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin London and New York: Routledge 71-76.
Lazarus, Neil. 2002. The fetish of “the West” in Marxism, Modernity, and Postcolonial Studies еd. Crystal Bartolovich and Neil Lazarus Cambridge, New York, Port Melbourne, Madrid and Cape Town: Cambridge University Press 43-64.
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Aboulela, Leila. 2007 Interview with Leila Aboulela http://www.abdn.ac.uk/sll/complit/leila.shtml
Sethi, Anita. 2005 Keep the Faith The Observer June 5 http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2005/jun/05/fiction.features2
Cowley, Jason. 2000 Commentary – Glittering prize New Statesman September 11 http://www.newstatesman.com/200009110048
Smyth, Brendan. 2007 To Love the Orientalist: Masculinity in Leila Aboulela's The Translator in Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality Vol. 1 No. 2 170-182 http://www.jmmsweb.org/issues/volume1/number2/pp170-182
1. Milorad Pavić 1990 Предео сликан чајем (Landscape Painted with Tea) Земун, Драганиќ. (124) All translations from Serbian and Macedonian are mine.
2. Кристева (2005, 308). This work is a translation of the original written in Macedonian. Where an English translation was unavailable to me I was obliged to translate into English from Macedonian sources.
3 Shadia forgets that the earring and the long hair constitute a part of the ‘strangeness’ of the East as well. In many countries in Africa, men wear earrings, and in India they are considered a protection against evil. The long hair has an equally long tradition in China.
4. The references to the quotations from the short story will henceforth include only the page number.
5. Aboulela perceives religion ‘as a very private, personal thing’ and says, 'I can carry [it] with me wherever I go, whereas the other things can easily be taken away from me.' (quoted in Sethi 2005). At the same time religion, for her, is something universal, surpassing individual and cultural differences, something ‘beyond the political’. (Aboulela 2007) Thus, religion, in her view, is something prior to the political, prior to the cultural and prior to the individual, which is to say that she considers herself determined mostly by her religion.
6. The Marischal Museum is not entirely devoted to Africa. A virtual tour of the collection which includes exhibits from Africa is available at http://www.abdn.ac.uk/virtualmuseum/index.php?page=southgallery
7. Bishop indicates how destructive these values are to the cultures like Navaho where it is believed that the phenomena are in constant flux and cannot be isolated and some African cultures where the objects are unknowable. (72,74)
8. Aboulela also did postgraduate studies in statistics, but in London.
9. It is interesting to note that the small and oppressed individuals (even nations) always need myths about small, yet cunning characters, of the type of the Macedonian Itar Pejo, who defy tyranny. This is a sort of escape from imperialistic rule for those not strong enough to free themselves. There lies a great satisfaction, at least, in the idea that you are considerably smarter than your opponent (whether it be Ottomans, Greeks or ‘stupid’ Americans). We might recall sour grapes and sweet lemon here.
10. It is said in the United Kingdom that one’s class can be discerned as soon as one opens their mouth. The dialects there are more class based than geographically based.
11. Spivak reproaches African Americans when she states ‘Diasporic Blacks … Produce a certain kind of idiom of resistance; but [in] the Third World at large, … You won’t be able to dissolve everything into Black against White, as there is also Black against Black, Brown against Brown, and so on.’ (1990, 65) After all, Darfur is an adequate current example.
12. “Even before being like, ‘I’ am not but do separate, reject, ab-ject.” Julija Kristeva 1982 Powers of Horror An Essay on Abjection, trans: Leon S. Roudiez New York, Columbia University Press. (13)
13. Sudan became independent in 1956, Aboulela was born in 1967. She also cannot be a direct witness of colonialism.
14. Leela Gandhi describes Ashis Nandy’s term non-players as ‘the “other” West which refuses to participate in an imperial view’ of the world ‘and the non-West which is able to live with this alternative West.’ (Gandhi, 172)