WRITING FROM AFGHANISTAN.

Last month’s issue of Words Without Borders (which “opens doors to international exchange through translation, publication, and promotion of the best international literature”) featured Afghanistan and was guest-edited by Anders Widmark, a PhD candidate in linguistics at Uppsala University who teaches Persian and translates Persian/Dari/Pashto literature; his introduction says:

Much of what is said and written about Afghanistan in the West today is still tainted by an outside perspective on the situation—a narrative that keeps repeating and reformulating earlier misconceptions and generalizations. With regard to the ongoing conflict, it is completely incomprehensible to me, even as a layman in the field, that policy-makers on Afghanistan have failed so utterly in understanding this country after a decade of interference. No one seems to listen to the people. No one seems to hear what they are saying or read what they are writing.

Very true, and I’m glad of the opportunity to remedy the lack to some extent.

Comments

  1. “No one seems to… read what they are writing”
    Well, not unless it’s been packaged up with a nice sentimental bow on top by Khaled Hosseini, anyhow.

  2. dearieme says:

    A war of occupation in Afghanistan was a bad idea.

  3. Bathrobe says:

    Well, I agree, this is all arrogant Great Game stuff without any concern for the locals. But, having listened to their voices, what does Widmark have to tell us about the Afghans, and what changes would this deeper undestanding bring about in the way the war is being fought? If it offered any prospect of turning the tides of war, I’m sure the US military would be all ears. Well, maybe.

  4. J.W. Brewer says:

    “Already in 1886, the French scholar James Darmesteter said perspicaciously, ‘if we want to know what an Afghan is, let us put all books aside and receive his own unconscious confession from the lips of his favorite poets,’ an argument which seems even more true today.” Um, I’m a bit skeptical about the widespread pejorative use of “Orientalism” in scholarly spats, but that sounds pretty gosh-darn Orientalist. Or, you know, patronizing.
    Although check out Darmesteter’s tomb, which has an inscription in Arabic-like script. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Darmesteter_s%C3%ADrja.jpg Persian? Urdu?

  5. Bathrobe says:

    Orientalism is a crock of shit.
    The guy is saying disregard the scholars and listen to the people. How patronising is that?

  6. Looks like Persian. In the middle of the night, and walking something. Probably a recognizable quotation to someone more knowledgeable.
    Mary, poet and translator, lived another fifty years, so I wonder when it was set up.

  7. I’m glad to find myself in agreement with Bathrobe and J.W. Brewer. Not having the compactly dismissive concept of “Orientalism” in my active vocabulary, I was riled but didn’t know where to start. The rant would have gone on forever, so I didn’t.

  8. Emotionalism is just as crocky as Orientalism. Widmark is hitching a ride on the vague idea that all people are same-type human in some “fundamental” way. So all we have to do to resolve conflicts is emote and sympathize one-on-one – the “language barrier” is but a fence, and fences make good neighbors.
    Well, look at the history of internal antics in Germany and the USA over only the past 100 years. Have conflicts been avoided even with a shared language ? They have not.
    I have come round to see that “bleeding-heart liberalism” is indeed an unrealistic and dangerously misleading guide to public policy – just like the old farts said. It is based on an idea of society as being nothing more than a bunch of people living in the same place – a sum of individual subjects. Structurally, it starts from the same assumptions as Rumsfeld-Thatcherism, with the additional exhortation to be nice to each other.

  9. The grave inscription is definitely Persian. It says, literally, “A night within, and kind God”
    I have no idea what that means, though. Persian poetry generally baffles me, and it doesn’t turn up anything on google. The only reference I find is to the headstone.

  10. J.W. Brewer says:

    Actually, the quote is not even saying “disregard the scholars and listen to the people”; it’s saying “disregard those scholars with appointments in other departments of the university and listen to the scholars like me, whose academic work consists of translating Afghan poetry into a language you know how to read.”

  11. Bathrobe says:

    @ J.W. Brewer
    Well, there’s nothing wrong with a healthy dose of cynicism. But it’s still not patronising.

  12. Bathrobe says:

    Besides which, I tend to find Widmark’s attitude surprisingly pre-modern. In our post-modern era, where nothing retains the peculiarities of the soil it arose from, but is merely a forest of symbols to be marshalled this way and that, Widmark’s views are a throwback to an era (possibly colonialist, so maybe charges of ‘Orientalism’ are not totally off the mark) when people actually did try and go in and figure out what the ‘natives’ were saying. And given that the context in both cases is one of foreign intervention (imperialism / military intervention), then the charge is even more damaging. But I still can’t see what is patronising about it.
    The problem with Said’s followers is that any attempt by Westerners at understanding a culture outside their own is ipso facto bad, a means of violating the other. Saidism is simply ‘bee-in-the-bonnet’ academism that demonises what it dislikes. When the next crop of imperialists emerges, Said’s lot will miss it because they will still be busy excoriating the West.

  13. The problem with Said’s followers is that any attempt by Westerners at understanding a culture outside their own is ipso facto bad, a means of violating the other.
    Exactly. It has often boggled my mind to witness this attitude.

  14. Bathrobe: The problem with Said’s followers
    Apparently I misunderstood your sentence: “Orientalism is a crock of shit”. I thought you were saying: “The attitude which Said called Orientalism is a crock of shit”. What you meant was: “It is a crock of shit to believe that the attitude branded by Said as ‘Orientalism’ is widespread among academics”.

  15. I wonder if Afghans would come to understand Americans better by reading Emily Dickinson.

  16. Like Andrew said, this seems to be the only page quoting the text of Darmesteter’s tombstone.

  17. Oh, here we go. His Chants Populaires des Afghans. Google has this in Snippet view, but the HathiTrust can do subtraction. He just says, «beau proverbe persan».

  18. MMcM, that’s another link that doesn’t function for me in the way you surely intended. I get “Full view is not available for this item due to copyright © restrictions.” I can search, for instance “beau proverbe persan”, but not see the text where it occurs. All I am told is that it occurs on p. 238.

  19. Bathrobe says:

    @Grumbly Stu
    What I meant was “Said’s beliefs are a crock of shit”.
    He called his book Orientalism, so I used that word as a shorthand for Said and his program.

  20. What I meant was “Said’s beliefs are a crock of shit”.
    I wouldn’t go that far; he had an important point to make. Unfortunately, he went way overboard with it, and his followers lost sight of the ship entirely.

  21. ” that policy-makers on Afghanistan have failed so utterly in understanding this country after a decade of interference.”
    We (the US) had no excuse for failing to understand that place. When you get to the level of watching the interactions of the power players in AfPak at the soap opera level of detail (and there are people at CENTCOM who do just that), it becomes obvious that the place runs just like 16th century Scotland or 19th century Texas (and Kentucky, Missouri, etc) and for all the very same reasons – similar response to similar conditions and preconditions.
    A Swede not not pick up on that right away, and might also not be aware of that about Americans.

  22. Bathrobe says:

    I wouldn’t go that far; he had an important point to make.
    I deliberately refrained from entering into a discussion because it’s such a vast and controversial affair. Suffice it to say that I believe his fundamental point to be wrong. You can’t blame colonialism on Western intellectual studies of other cultures. There are so many strands to colonialism, to Western intellectual studies, and Western society, that building an entire theory on one aspect is simply a massive distortion and a waste of everyone’s time. This whole thing is going to go on for decades, with distortions breeding counter-distortions ad infinitum. In the end, I don’t think it was worth it.
    Hat, I’m not denying anything. Knowledge is power when used against other people (hell, big corporations and governments are doing it all the time right now); the West invaded and destroyed whole societies and cultures (not the first time in history that people have done things like that); the West was arrogant (maybe it had something to do with Christianity?); people did things in the name of distorted beliefs (not a monopoly of the West); all scholarship and most art is made possible by the material and economic conditions of society, which are never neutral; capitalism is based on wringing economic benefit out of anything (nothing is sacred, nothing is left unexploited). The list could go on and on. But to tie all these elements together into the grand thesis that Western attempts to understand other civilisations were evil and exploitative is to, as you say, go overboard. Has Middle Eastern society benefited from Said’s work? I doubt it. Does evil continue to be committed by those in power, whether in the West or elsewhere? Most definitely! To what extent has Said’s work helped in understanding the nature of that evil or preventing evil from being committed? I would say very little, because I think he’s barking up the wrong tree.

  23. Bathrobe says:

    Perhaps my comments above are out of line with LH as a blog. In fact, much of my personal motivation is primarily linguistic. I support the ‘rights’ and validity of non-Western languages and it upsets me to see minor languages destroyed or marginalised. The whole Orientalist structure that Said talked about is still in place. Western languages (especially English) still hold a dominant position over the rest of the world, and indeed, the entire discourse of Orientalism is carried out primarily in English. Said’s lot are part of the picture, not its antidote.
    Where some languages are ‘fighting back’ (like Chinese), it is invariably at the expense of lesser languages like Tibetan, Mongolian, etc. When the whole process is over, will we have a Professor Dais come to the fore to announce the discovery of a new evil force that they’d missed when they were busy denouncing the West? The destruction is going on right now, and it is irrelevant to ‘postcolonial studies’ because it isn’t part of their grand paradigm, which blames everything on colonialism.

  24. In China, some talk about internal colonialism, which is still a good way to appropriate all the intellectual heritage, whatever pile of crap that might be.

  25. the grand thesis that Western attempts to understand other civilisations were evil and exploitative is to, as you say, go overboard.
    I love it ! The infinitive is not just split, Bathrobe has blasted a mountain pass through it wide enough to accomodate a phrase. I wouldn’t bat an eye if I heard that in speech, but seeing it in print is, well, strange. I can hardly wait for an opportunity to do it myself.

  26. You can’t blame colonialism on Western intellectual studies of other cultures.
    Of course not, what a silly idea! But the point I was referring to was that Western scholars of other cultures frequently had unexamined assumptions about those cultures and aided and abetted colonialism without necessarily meaning to, which is an important point that had been largely overlooked. The point needed to be made; it’s unfortunate that it was made in such an overblown way that its effects have, as you say, been to some extent counterproductive. (Contrast, though, with Martin Bernal, who similarly went overboard in the service of a stupid and unscientific point.)

  27. I was happy to see Said’s book when it came out because during my early studies of China I found too many of the books I was reading to work within the framework of US and UK foreign policy, often within the frame “Why China failed” or something like that. But the book itself was mostly about French Middle Eastern Orientalism and didn’t help me much.
    Orientalist scholarship can simultaneously, or maybe alternately, result from imperialism and reinforce it. The consequences are unpredictable, though. The 19th c. missionary scholars and China converted a few million Chinese to Christianity, all told, maybe 10 million in the long run (1%) , but their translations of Chinese classics have had a considerable influence on the US too, and not mostly favorable to Christianity.
    Orientalism is probably a more negative factor in the Mid-East than the Far East, since it was part of a 1500 year war of Greeks and Romans and Christians against Persians and Moslems and Turks. Anti-Chinese feeling is not ingrained in Western culture.
    Recently I’ve found that 19th c. French literature is full of soft porn exoticising Muslim women, though Italian and Spanish women get the treatment too.

  28. Bathrobe says:

    Western scholars of other cultures frequently had unexamined assumptions about those cultures and aided and abetted colonialism without necessarily meaning to
    We all get to a stage in life when we realise that people are always coming from somewhere, even if it’s not grossly visible.
    I suspect I am partly suffering from Confirmation bias. I picked Orientalism up in a Japanese bookshop at a time when I was still trying to come to terms with Japanese culture and its prejudices. To read postmodern deconstructionist mumbo-jumbo didn’t help me make sense of anything. Had I read it, say, 10 years later I might have found it more illuminating. But in the meantime I’ve seen too much of the blatant “Japanese uniqueness” or “Sinocentrism” approaches to culture and history to really feel that Said is doing a special service to the world. The problem is that he was coming from somewhere too, and it wasn’t necessarily any better than what he was criticising.

  29. Bathrobe says:

    Two books helped me get over my irritation at the “Japanese uniqueness” syndrome. One was Karel van Wolferen‘s The Enigma of Japanese Power, which cut through much of the crap that passed as Japanology, and Yoshihiko Amino‘s 日本論の視座――列島の社会と国家 (A New Viewpoint on Japanology: Society and State in the Archipelago). Amino’s book has an entire section with chapters like 「日本民族」論の反省 (Reflecting on the theory of a “Japanese race”), 「日本島国論」の虚構性 (The Island State Theory as an imaginary concept), 「稲作一元論」の克服 (Overcoming Rice-culture monism), 「単一民族」「単一国家」の虚像 (The illusion of a homogeneous race and a homogeneous nation). Sorry, but I have trouble translating these titles into proper English. Suffice it to say, it was good to see a Japanese scholar coming out to identify so many deeply held self-serving concepts as bullshit.

  30. Etienne says:

    Hat, Bathrobe: what first struck me about Said is how he is either: A) utterly ignorant of the history of linguistic study of non-European languages by Europeans, or B) willing to twist the facts to support his thesis.
    The study of Sanskrit in the West, for example, first began in German-speaking Europe, a fact which is most inconvenient for him, since of course Germany never was a colonial power in India, nor indeed was it a serious contender. Furthermore, much of nineteenth-century Orientalism involved deciphering long-extinct languages (Egyptian, Phoenician, Early Prakrits…) whose relevance to European imperialism (in the Middle East, in the first two instances, and India, in the last) was…well, nill, actually.
    Conversely, interest in languages without a written tradition (Arabic “dialects”, Kurdish) was comparatively limited, even when (as in the above examples) the languages in question were spoken in areas of strategic importance.

  31. Hat: I have found an explanation for the fact that recently many contributors have sent their posts twice: your website is not working properly.
    Occasionally, when I have posted a comment, the comment page comes back without my comment. After pressing F5 (page refresh or “reload”, in Firefox), the page then comes back with my comment. If people don’t know about such things, they think their comment got lost, and they post it again.
    A gracious explanation is that some sort of quarantine feature is cutting in. My considered opinion, though, is that somebody has simply made a programming error, since 1) such a feature should not be erratic if it is intentional, and 2) nobody needs such a feature here.
    “Intelligent” software and incompetent programmers are the two main sources of annoying program behavior. Bugs can be fixed, but not bad attitudes.

  32. Orientalism does attempt to encompass German Indologists and Schlegel in particular pops up there and in The World, the Text, and the Critic maybe a dozen times. And to critique 19th Century philology’s preference for dead languages directly in its framework.

  33. I picked Orientalism up in a Japanese bookshop at a time when I was still trying to come to terms with Japanese culture and its prejudices. To read postmodern deconstructionist mumbo-jumbo didn’t help me make sense of anything. Had I read it, say, 10 years later I might have found it more illuminating. But in the meantime I’ve seen too much of the blatant “Japanese uniqueness” or “Sinocentrism” approaches to culture and history to really feel that Said is doing a special service to the world.
    But Said’s book has nothing whatever to do with Japanese culture and its prejudices; you might as well say you picked up The Decline of the West or The Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti and it didn’t help you make sense of anything. I’m sorry you were misled by the title, but that’s not really Said’s fault. His book is about the biases and ill effects of Western scholarship about the Middle East, and to call it “postmodern deconstructionist mumbo-jumbo” is just to insult for the sake of being insulting. Yes, it has severe faults, but again, both its faults and its strong points are unrelated to Japan, and I would think that by the time you got to page 17 of the introduction, where he makes clear that “Japan, China, and other sections of the Far East” are not part of his remit, you would have realized your error and returned the book.
    The problem is that he was coming from somewhere too, and it wasn’t necessarily any better than what he was criticising.
    So since we all come from somewhere and there is no such thing as an unbiased approach to anything, there is no point reading anything? That will free up some time in my day!

  34. I have found an explanation for the fact that recently many contributors have sent their posts twice: your website is not working properly.
    In my experience, nothing in this modern online world works properly on a consistent basis. This is not a problem unique to LH; I have seen it happen at various other websites. In any case, I have no idea what to do about it, it does not happen that frequently, and since I clear out the doubles when I remove the spam, I don’t think it’s that much of a problem.

  35. I would think that by the time you got to page 17 of the introduction, where he makes clear that “Japan, China, and other sections of the Far East” are not part of his remit, you would have realized your error and returned the book.
    It occurs to me that you may have wanted to read the book not because you thought it directly addressed Japan but because you thought its insights into Western culture and its prejudices might help you make sense of Japanese culture and its prejudices. Seems a bit like going around Robin Hood’s barn, but if that’s the case, I’m more sympathetic to your sense of being let down.
    (Charles Earle Funk on Robin Hood’s barn: “Robin Hood’s house was Sherwood Forest; its roof the leaves and branches. His dinner was the king’s deer; his wealth the purses of hapless travelers. What need had he of a barn, and how was it laid out if to go around it means, as the use of the phrase implies, a rambling roundabout course? The explanation is simple. He had no barn. His granary, when he had need of one, was the cornfields of the neighborhood. To go around his barn was to make a circuitous route around the neighborhood fields.”)

  36. Sorry, I just assumed that, as a man of the world, you would know what to do with this matter: delegate it. That is, pass the problem description on to your son-in-law and/or site provider, or some techie who is paid to keep your site running. Nobody deals with such things themselves, unless they are cursed with possession of a certain amount of IT knowledge.
    Here is the simple description:

    Occasionally, when I have posted a comment, the comment page comes back without my comment. After pressing F5 (page refresh or “reload”, in Firefox), the page then comes back with my comment. If people don’t know about such things, they think their comment got lost, and they post it again. This creates duplicate comments.

  37. Bathrobe says:

    But Said’s book has nothing whatever to do with Japanese culture and its prejudices
    Since the book presents itself as having to do with the Western study of non-Western cultures, of course it would be relevant. No Robin Hood’s barn about it. If he’d called his book Bias in Western Studies of the Middle East, (i) I might not have picked it up and (ii) I’m pretty sure “Orientalism” wouldn’t have become a dirty word in academic discourse. But he didn’t call it that; he presented his work as having some kind of universal applicability to Western studies of the Oriental “Other”. It has gone on to become mainstream, affecting everyone’s lives.
    In fact, I was merely providing a bit of personal background as to why I didn’t click with the book, which was meant to be conciliatory since I don’t particularly want to get into a dogfight. Remind me the next time you start on about Chomsky.

  38. Oh, no problem; I don’t want to get into a dogfight either, and I hold no particular brief for Said, whom I’ve often complained about myself. Sorry for being testy—it’s hot and getting hotter.

  39. In the latest n+1, Alexander Bevilacqua reviews some recent works on interactions before what we think of as Orientalism.

  40. MMcM dispassionately points us to a review by Bevilacqua. I will go further, and strongly recommend it as a dispassionate survey of what can be known about cultures in history:

    … Said’s Orientalism (1978). Whatever Orientalism’s merits in explaining the 19th and 20th centuries, which are the book’s primary focus, for the period from the Renaissance to the French Revolution, Said’s model of intercultural relations is not a helpful or accurate explanatory device. In the early modern era, the balance of power had not yet tipped in Europe’s favor, and 19th- and 20th-century events were far from foreseeable. Today, thanks to several recent investigations by historians, it is possible to perceive a richer and more complex history, one that acknowledges both the animosities and the mutual attractions that brought Europeans and Ottomans into contact and exchange. Alongside the great military engagements of the early modern era, and before the very different ones of the 19th century, curiosity, imitation, and translation flowered.

    On a lighter note, I found the curious expression “the Emirods” in the article:

    As a novelty, coffee was initially the object of some suspicion, as Nabil Matar shows in an inspired chapter of his Islam in Britain. While some claimed miraculous benefits from it, among its feared consequences were that it “causeth vertiginous headheach, and maketh lean much, occasioneth waking, and the Emirods, and asswages lust, and sometimes breeds melancholly.”

    In the internet I found an explanation at Five Golden Emerods:

    The major theological debate waged over the 1 Samuel 4-6 passage is whether the condition described is that of hemorrhoids or tumors associated with Bubonic Plague. … There are also strong arguments put forth that the physical affliction was clearly hemorrhoids. For example, the Hebrew word employed to describe this condition “is never read in the synagogue” (Pulpit Commentary, vol. 4). In the reading of this passage in 1 Samuel 4-6, whenever this word occurred the reader was instructed to substitute another less offensive word in its place. Since “the word was not thought fit for public reading in the synagogue, we may feel sure that it means some such tumors as the KJV describes” (ibid). The Latin Vulgate translates 1 Sam. 5:6 — “And He smote them in the more secret parts of their posteriors.” The ancient Syriac and Arabic versions read the same. This would certainly seem to suggest hemorrhoids! Some scholars feel this is being alluded to in Psalm 78:66 — “And He smote His enemies in the hinder parts.”

  41. Whatever Orientalism’s merits in explaining the 19th and 20th centuries, which are the book’s primary focus, for the period from the Renaissance to the French Revolution, Said’s model of intercultural relations is not a helpful or accurate explanatory device.
    Yes, this is fair and well said.

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