Scheherazade and our ghouls
If what is happening to this country was not of vital importance to us that inhabit it, then who could blame us if in a moment of despair we were to simply write it off as a case of a hulk ship rotting in the water, obsolete and no longer seaworthy, its engines and equipment gutted by unscrupulous scavengers, an abandoned wreck only just managing to keep afloat, a leaking container of its own putrid bilge (consisting of stubborn delusions and sheer stupidity)?
Of course, we can’t surrender to hopelessness. If for no other reason than that is exactly what the scavenging ghouls are hoping for. With no one who cares around to prevent them, they would tear the decaying hull itself apart and sell it for scrap. They would cannibalise every bit of metal, wood, canvas and bone, not excluding pallid forgotten dreams of decency that may still be hiding in forgotten corners below deck in quaking fear for their own dear life.
Hmmm… ghouls. Come to think of it, the term first appears in the English language in 1786 in William Beckford’s novel Vathek. From the Arabic ghūl (from ghāla, which translates into “he seized”), it refers to an evil spirit that robs graves and feeds on corpses. The success of Bedford’s novel owed a lot to the 18th and early 19th century fascination with whatever was imagined to be Oriental. The One Thousand And One Nights, that wonderful collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian tales brought together in the Golden Age of Islam (mid-seventh century to the mid-13th century) and first published in English translation in 1706, was a driving element in the Orientalist fashion.
The Nights is probably the earliest known surviving corpus of stories that features ghouls. The History of Gharib and his Brother Agib – in which a disgraced prince defeats a clan of ravenous Ghouls, reduces them to slavery and then converts them to the true faith – is a case in point. Readers will certainly enjoy reading this classic tale in Sir Richard Burton’s translation, available online at www.globusz.com/ebooks/1001v5/00000050.htm and www.globusz.com/ebooks/1001v6/00000011.htm. It took Scheherazade 18 of her precious nights to narrate this story to the King and the effort kept her head in place. It will only take you about an hour and is well worth the effort.
But back to “Orientalism”. Sometimes used to refer to 18th century French artists and intellectuals who sought inspiration from North Africa and the Mediterranean Levant and, when possible, toured these places, the term “Orientalism” is today mainly used to refer to a body of scholarship born with the ground-breaking study by Edward Said, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia, Orientalism, published in 1978. Professor Said, a US-Palestinian, identifies a powerful Western tendency to impose its own pre-constituted images of the Oriental on colonial and former colonial peoples.
It is now a commonplace of post-colonial studies that, sadly, the “upper classes” in the colonies gradually come to identify with these stereotypes of the populations of their own countries.
Conveniently, they (imagine they can) exclude themselves from the orientalising gaze of their (former) colonial masters and look at the subaltern social groups in their countries from the same prejudiced perspective from which they – pathetic wogs (wealthy oriental gentlemen) – are seen by their said masters. Needless to say, the “lower classes” themselves in these countries will tend to adopt the same prejudices in relation to peoples from countries further to the south and east and to persons in their own country that they perceive as even “lower” than themselves.
Also needless to say, we Maltese cringe at the very idea we are or may have been interpreted in an Orientalist manner but the truth is we have and, possibly, still often are. We do not tire of quoting Disraeli’s description of Valletta as “a city of palaces built by gentlemen for gentlemen” (though there were more barefoot beggars in Valletta than gentlemen during that stifling August of 1830).
But on which promotional website do you read Flaubert’s conviction that there was “something Oriental” about our capital? Or Maxime du Camp’s view – in his Souvenirs Et Paysages d’Orient of 1848 – that although Malta was on the frontier between Europe and the Orient, the Maltese were more Oriental than European. We should be grateful to Thomas Freller for having brought these cameos into one marvellous volume (Verses and Visions. The Maltese Islands in World Literature. Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti, 2008).
The monthly Ariadne Workshops are one forum for laymen and scholars interested in deconstructing our own home spun Orientalism.
The excellent talk on The Collegium Melitense. A Frontier Mission between the Christian And Moslem Worlds given by cultural historian and social anthropologist Carmel Cassar (November 25) and sociologist JosAnn Cutajar’s engaging Let Me Learn. The Impact Of Borrowed Epistemologies On Identity And Perceived Agency (December 16) put into question, rigorously but illustrated with a wealth of archival and field evidence, received images of ourselves and indicated that progress is impossible unless we engage in more of this critical re-evaluation. See www.ariadneworkshops.com. Exorcising the demons of our culture, its stubborn delusions, is good training for challenging the ghouls.
The original of this article appeared in Dr Vella’s regular column on The Times of Malta on December 20, 2010 and may be accessed at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110103/opinion/scheherazade-and-our-ghouls