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Criticism 46.3 (2004) 415-439
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Strolling in Syria with William Biddulph
It's as if to return
reporting, "I've seen the past
and it worked."
Backward into the East
I want to think about Orientalism and some of its prehistories and alternative archaeologies by focusing attention on questions of time and the experience of time. I suggest that such questions interrupt the tendency to treat Orientalism primarily in terms of space, of East and West as simply spatial categories, by necessarily entailing ideas about history and historical development. As an object of knowledge for the West, the East seems to have been, from the start, a site of origins, a place with an important past but a troubling present. Edward Said's Orientalism (1978) opens by evoking the figure of nostalgia in recalling how a French journalist, reporting from Beirut after the civil war of 1975–1976, "wrote regretfully of the gutted downtown area that 'it had once seemed to belong to . . . the Orient of Chateaubriand and Nerval.'"1 For Said, the Orientalist chronotope is necessarily "backwardness," since the idea of Eastern backwardness follows directly from European ideas of "positional superiority" that have permeated Western thought "from the late Renaissance to the present."2 In assigning the East to the past, Orientalism operates chronotopically, telling a story about time. Orientalism is also constituted by a formalized array of chronotopical elements that might well occur within systems of signification otherwise unrelated to Orientalism: nostalgia, for instance. Chronotopes both embody and convey some instantly recognizable or at least seemingly transparent sets of attitudes about another time by linking that time with a place. As such, they provide rhetorical ways of using temporality to provide at once a measure of both spatial difference and spatial distance. [End Page 415]
The term itself combines chronos and topos—time and place—and suggests fixing time in space as a means by which certain temporal attitudes become ever present through association with a place. In what follows, I wish to examine how the idea or trope of backwardness figures in European ideas and descriptions of the East in ways that are not invariably linked with the historical development of European power, and further to suggest that certain observable legacies from the Ottoman past deserve serious attention as models for desirable futures. Sometimes, cultural features that Orientalizing Western visitors consider to be symptoms of backwardness might also be ecologically sustainable ways of living in a climate and landscape unsuited to the kinds of development dear to those who are enamored of progress.
From the late Renaissance to the present, traveling east seems to have meant entering another time zone, a place where time had different meaning. For Eliza Fay, a nineteenth-century Englishwoman writing about her life in India, arrival in the East became a constant crisis over measuring time. For Mrs. Fay, time needed to be spent writing in order to arrange the details of one's life, hour by hour, day by day. Mrs. Fay panicked over keeping her watches going and was horror-struck by "the custom of reposing, if not of sleeping after dinner," which she found to be "so general that the streets of Calcutta are from four to five in the afternoon almost as empty of Europeans as if it were midnight." She disapproved of her compatriots who, after eating long and luxurious meals at which "a good deal of wine is drank," were clearly fit for nothing afterward that could suitably be reported.3 But attitudes toward time, time keeping, and what to do in the afternoon after lunch marked notable and genuine differences. Between 1581 and 1599 the Ottoman moralist Gelibolulu Mustafa Ali wrote volumes satirizing the social habits of Ottoman gentlemen, damning their luxurious lifestyles and the costly status symbols that characterized moving beyond one's rank. Luxury was contrary to good behavior, and Mustafa Ali railed against ostentation and vulgarity in clothing and weapons, recommending modesty in the keeping of servants, horses, and decorating of homes. Those who...