Sunday, 20 January 2008

Of Bolsheviks and Orientalists


And a belated happy new year to you all, dear blogsters...

I've been kept slightly off the blogging scene for a while due to a variety of international peregrinations. After a couple of weeks in Japan, I was in North Africa over the New Year and upon my return to the UK fell victim to the dreaded Man Flu from which I have only just recovered.

First things first however. For those of you interested in matters Sosekian, quite a few reviews and articles about the new book have now appeared in the Japanese press and I will be posting links to these on the 'articles' page of the Japanese side of this site. There were articles in all five national daily newspapers as well as numerous regional newspapers and I've also been interested to read comments about the book on many blog sites and to receive personal emails from readers. (One kind reader went so far as to invite me out for dinner at a Japanese bistro with two of his friends when I was last in Osaka which made for a magical evening.)

While working hard to promote the new book on Soseki, I've been leading a slightly schizophrenic existence as I'm currently doing research on Arabic literature - of which more in a moment.

For Christmas, my girlfriend very kindly gave me a wrapped-up copy of a library book with a gift tag marked 'This is a loaner!' on it. The book was Simon Sebag Montefiore's Young Stalin and although she also gave me a variety of other (thankfully non-loaner) gifts, this was by far her best pick. I commenced reading it on Boxing Day morning and found it entirely gripping and unputdownable.

Stalin must be one of the ten most important people of the last century and yet I knew virtually nothing about what kind of person he was or how he emerged to take hold of the Soviet Empire with such an iron grip. Stalin's early career as an ex-trainee priest turned communist ideologue, gangster and relentless womanizer, who was repeatedly imprisoned and exiled, is such a fascinating story that it seems incredible that it is only now - well over fifty years after Stalin's death - that it is finally coming to light.


When I was a teenager I had a considerable interest in Marxism, the Bolsheviks and the radical socialists of the early twentieth century and in my youthful folly even fancied myself a great revolutionary in the making. And yet there seemed to be an iron curtain of cold unknowable remoteness about Lenin and Stalin. The victors in the Russian Revolution had done their best to cover up their human foibles and promote an aura of godlike authority. I was drawn instead towards the bungling, all-too-human history of German socialism and when I was about fifteen I was completely fascinated by such characters as Karl Kautsky, Karl Liebknecht (pictured above right) and Rosa Luxemburg.

Of the many revelations in Montefiore's book, here are just a couple. Firstly it is startling to discover that one of the chief sources of funding for the Bolsheviks in the early twentieth century were oil magnates like the Rothschilds and Nobels. Why would such embodiments of the capitalist establishment fund an organization that was so completely counter to its interests - that would indeed ultimately seize all their assets in Russia? Part of the answer was a desire to pay a kind of protection game with the Bolsheviks to prevent acts of terrorism against them; another was a sneaking sympathy with some of the Bolshevik aims and indignation with Russia's ruling class.

Then there is the question of how it was that such a dangerous character like Stalin, the mastermind behind so much murder, extortion and robbery, who was constantly monitored by the Okhrana (the Tsarist secret police) and sent to prison and Siberian exile on countless occasions, could yet live to oversee the annihilation of the entire Tsarist order. It seems extraordinary that the system of Siberian exile should have been treated as a kind of amiable reading retreat from which radicals could easily escape. The entire system of exile is described by Montefiore as a 'sieve'.

So entertained was I by this account of Stalin's early life that I decided to sacrifice some of my precious restricted baggage weight towards this hefty hardback when I set off to Tunisia. My girlfriend and I did the usual tourist thing and stayed at a hotel brimming with British holidaymakers in Sousse and then took in all the classic sights (Tunis, the Roman amphitheatre at El Djem, the caves at Matmata etc). Here is a picture of me looking suitably frozen outside a pretty doorway in Sidi Bou Said.



I had always imagined Tunisia to be a kind of tamer version of Morocco with a heavy exposure to some of the more unfortunate aspects of the tourist scene - and so it proved. A lot of people of a certain age who used to encamp themselves in British seaside hotels for the winter now seem to be ensconced in the super-cheap hotels of Tunisia. Seeing the busloads of tourists on the two-day production-line 'Sahara Explorer' trips, dressing up in local garb and doing one hour trips on camels, made me think less of Lawrence of Arabia and more of donkeys on the beach at Blackpool.

Anyway there are still many pleasures to be had. The Roman mosaics at the Bardo Museum in Tunis were a highlight. Pictured below is a marble carved section of the palace that houses the collection.



Midway through my Tunisian travels I finished Young Stalin and swapped to the more appropriate Meadows of Gold by Masudi and The Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature by Robert Irwin, a very entertaining and informative book. Thanks to the latter, I have learnt a great deal about some fascinating Arabic writers and some extraordinary lives and deaths. I certainly never knew for example that so many Arabic poems were about the pleasures of drinking alcohol or that there is such a strong tradition of satire and comedy in Arabic letters.

I particularly enjoyed the story of the poet Jahiz who so loved to read that he would pay bookshops to allow him to spend the night perusing their volumes and eventually died when a pile of books landed on him; or the quips by the poets that the only reason some people went on pilgrimage to Mecca was to check out the faces of the beautiful women not required to wear a veil en route.

The author of this book, Robert Irwin, sounds like an interesting character. The blurb tells us that as well as having taught Arabic and Middle Eastern history at various universities, he has published various books on Arabic history and art, as well as six novels of which the last was called Satan Wants Me. We are also told that he is the director of a publishing company. I note however that this anthology was first published under the title Nights and Horses and the Desert. If this was his choice of title, then I can only conclude that he is a much better writer than he is publishing director...

An internet search reveals that Irwin has also recently written a rebuttal of Edward Said's Orientalism called For Lust of Knowing. Although 'orientalism' seems to refer to the Western perception of the Islamic world, this does connect to the way in which the cultures of central and east Asia are also perceived in the West.

For example I studied Japanese at university within the confines of an absurdly named 'Oriental Studies Faculty' with Japanese, Chinese and Korean packed in alongside classes for Egyptology, Sanskrit, Aramaic and Hindi. In fact my director of studies was an expert in Sanskrit who paced around the faculty in sandals and wore an all-seeing-eye medallion on his hairy chest. What exactly had learning about modern Japanese society got to do with Sanskrit, Hebrew and Egyptian hieroglyphics apart from the fact that they were all perceived as 'oriental' in the eyes of the west?

I've never read Edward Said's book, but if it is this type of thing he is criticizing then it's hard not to agree that such attitudes towards non-western cultures are appallingly arrogant and demeaning.

On the other hand however - and here again I'm guessing the thrust of Irwin's rebuttal before actually reading it which is always dangerous - the great 'orientalists' were surely not puppets of any imperialist establishment, but rather counter culture figures who genuinely wished to explore little known cultures and explain their riches to the west. It was their love of obscure, ignored and unknown cultures that formed a common bond between them and eventually led to interests in completely different cultures being lumped together under the catch-all title 'oriental studies'.

Apparently after Said's book came out, 'orientalism' became something of a dirty word in the world of Arabic and Islamic studies. Yet, from another point of you, being an 'orientalist' - someone who is permanently trying to escape the narrow confines of western culture and explore new worlds - is surely a very fine thing to be. Indeed I'm beginning to realise that delving into Arabic literature is perhaps for me not so much a quantum leap as an extension of my own 'orientalist' interests.

I like to think of us Orientalists as the Bolsheviks of the Artistic world: few in number, lurking on the margins, permanently plotting the overthrow of the cultural establishment. Brothers and sisters, let us unite! Come the worldwide literary revolution and it'll be us, the orientalists, who will be running the planet!

2 comments:

HBA said...

Hi
Really funny your comment about your trip to Tunisia...only one thing is bad (perhaps because i am tunisian!)...you said about Tunisia "tamer version of Morocco"...i don't think so...as you describe you only visited some parts of the "Sahel" (the middle east of tunisia near coasts)...and between as
don't you think it's a little bit ridiculous to talk again in 2007 about lawrence of arabia...so i advice you to visit the south of Tunisia where to find the sahara and the real life of bedouins...
Anyways i visited you own country (England i think...no?!) for many times...i know london, milton keyns , luton...
England is special...we know all that...but certain aspects are really bad sometimes unacceptable ...i found certain forms of racism ...and that begins in the airport...but that is another story...expecting your answer...

HBA

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