On Orientalism Among Erasmus Students


By Malte Spielmann & Tim Wolff

Translated from German by Malte Spielmann & Judith Blumberg




When did we realize, we were Orientalists? Probably while writing postcards.

A Western European spending a semester abroad in Istanbul quickly learns that they are somewhat different and begins to notice the impact of this difference on nearly all aspects of their daily life. Hardly any Erasmus get-together takes place without the obligatory sighs about being recognized as a foreigner or complaints about the cunning simitçis, who charge foreigners three lira instead of one for a simit. Yet, while complaining about the downsides of being a Westerner in Turkey is a wide-spread pleasure, reflecting on its advantages, i.e. its privileges, is much less of a common practice.


Edward Said and the Library of Orientalism

If one is willing to self-critically reflect on the relationship between East and West and one’s own role in it, there is no way getting around Edward W. Said. For Said, a Palestinian American scholar, who was born in Jerusalem in 1935, raised in Egypt and educated in Britain and the U.S., it was a well-known experience throughout his career that he was often the only Muslim [Correction 12.9.2017: Said was born into a Christian family and it has been argued that he was an agnostic] and therefore “oriental alien”. This led him to write “Orientalism”, a book published in 1979, which nowadays belongs to the seminal texts in the discipline of Postcolonial Studies. In his thorough study of the unequal relationship between East and West, he found it to be governed by Orientalism, a set of rules and norms circumscribing the West's interaction with the so-called Orient and drawing a clear-cut line between the two regions. According to Said however, this separation is much less of a clear line or geographic reality than Western media, politics and science make it out to be, and rather an enormously influential construct allowing Europeans (and later Americans) to separate their own identity from a negatively connoted “other”.

This allowed for the emergence of a discourse, in which the countless texts written about The Orient merge to form a single body, which Said calls the library of Orientalism and which every author wanting to write about the Orient has to reference, be it willingly or unwillingly. The general theme of this body of work is the normative distinction between a rational, modern, active and productive Occident and an irrational, despite historical achievements underdeveloped, impulsive and passive, i.e. feminine, Orient. Said traces back the origins of the library’s core assumptions from today over the renaissance back to antiquity. While in ancient times the Orient primarily stood for mysterious and unexplored lands inhabited by barbaric tribes. Over the centuries, it came to stand for the threat of an Arab/ Ottoman invasion, symbolized by a hostile Islam. With the increasing European power and the emergence of British and French colonial empires the written depictions of the Orient more and more came to serve as a justification for European imperial claims. It did so by asserting the Orient’s inferiority as well as the West’s far-reaching knowledge about it.

Accordingly, the heydays of colonialism also were the “shining days” of Oriental studies, meaning the scientific exploration of the Orient by Western researchers. The most prominent projects of these times, for instance Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt or the construction of the Suez Canal were always accompanied and commented on by Orientalist scholars and their writings. The close connection between knowledge and (occupying) power shows itself in the curiosity that many colonizers were themselves authors of Orientalist literature. Thus, when Lord Cromer, British governor of Egypt, wrote about the ignorance of his colonial subjects and that a benevolent ruler therefore must consider these innate limits when exercising his power, he spoke at once as a colonial bureaucrat and Orientalist. The Orientalist asserts that all Orientals are essentially similar (in their underdevelopment) and that therefore they can all be ruled in a similar fashion. By doing so he suggests that only the scholarly Colonialist, equipped with his knowledge over the Oriental nature, can and should govern the Orient. Eventually, this mind set would lead to the destruction of the Ottoman Empire including the failed attempt to partition its Turkish territories and the fateful drawing of Middle Eastern borders.


Orientalism – Still alive and kicking

While the phenomena of colonialism has gradually disappeared or at least become subtler, Said does not assume the same for Orientalism. Instead it has adapted to the circumstances of the late 20th and 21st century. Key features of modern Orientalism are the persistent speechlessness of the Oriental and the widespread as well as potent stereotypical depictions of Orientals in general and Arabs in particular. Orientals remain speechless because – even in the 21st century – the discourse on the East is dominated by Western scholars writing for an overwhelmingly Western audience. The very speechlessness created by the Orientalist discourse now allows the Orientalist scholar to hinder any direct interaction between individuals from West and East. Because the Oriental has been silenced it falls to the Orientalist to make him speak. In order to see how ludicrous this assumption actually is, one only has to imagine a research group on German culture, which is made up solely of Turkish scholars and draws only on Turkish literature.

Of course there has been some change during the last hundred years and today’s texts are not as racist and stereotypical as were those written by British travelers during the 19th century. Nevertheless, terms like Oriental despotism, discussions on Islam’s particularly violent nature and the idea of a distinct Arab mentality remain common and tend to go unchallenged. In popular culture on the other hand the range of Oriental roles hardly exceeds those of the benignant sheikh, the bomb-throwing fanatic and a harem’s mysterious concubine.


Experiencing Orientalism as an Erasmus-Student

For most foreigners coming to Turkey, including ourselves, these concepts seemed distant and not easy to relate to. Why should we, young, educated and supposedly open-minded, be prejudiced? Didn’t we by the very choice of coming to Istanbul prove our sincere interest in Turkish culture? Sadly, it takes more than good will to break the subtle but powerful spell of Orientalism. Coming from society like that of Western Europe, where orientalist concepts are deeply entrenched in our understanding of history as well as our perception of geography, it is only with great difficulty – if at all – that one can emancipate her/his thoughts from Orientalist thinking patterns.

Notwithstanding this harsh critique, neither this article nor Orientalism in general should not be understood as a moral reproach directed at any specific individual. Instead it is a critique of a collective discourse. In applying this critique to the Turkish case it is also not our intention to justify or judge any of the recent developments in Turkey. Our intention is to share our own personal experiences and to describe how, once we started seeing it, we realized the stunning influence of Orientalist thought on our daily life.

So we can begin our impressions with a classic figure of speech that we encountered, namely the heroisation of one's own cultural characteristics while simultaneously devaluing the other culture. This manifested itself in the belief for example that Germans are disciplined, reliable and punctual, while everything in Turkey usually happens with major delays and in an unorganized manner. This went hand in hand with constructions of opposition between rationally-acting Germans and irrational Turks. Whenever one was met with bad organization and unpunctuality, this discourse was referenced. No one asked for specific reasons or assumed disorganization particular to those moments, because the predetermined template just worked too well. Classical tales of disorganization told of the regular electricity cuts, the chaotic traffic on the streets or of the “creative” methods of fixing cars, with duct tape. Yet attention was never paid to the reasons for these which potentially lay in structural issues like the lack of adequate financial resources.

The Orient as a construction of irrationality and primal sexual instinct was similarly expressed in images of predatory Turkish men and easily available Turkish women. In conversations you often heard how easy it was for Europeans to “conquer” Turkish women, as if they were passive objects. While European men were certainly allowed to carry a certain positively connoted set of expectations towards these women, when the same was applied to Turkish men, they were labeled negatively as primal and predatory. The idea, that issues like patriarchal societal structures and women's oppression are only present in Turkey and could likewise never exist in our own countries, albeit in different forms, fit perfectly into the perception of a backwards society. Most commonly, this is exemplified in the controversies surrounding headscarves and women's position in Turkish society.

How often Turkish society is viewed as passive and not capable of self-management within this Orientalist construction, might be best exemplified in the Erasmus Social Program. Acquaintances, who involved themselves, reported how exciting it was, that field trips were organized in which “we European students” were sent to “those needy people” to provide our “help” for a couple of hours. Like this, they visited “poor Anatolian” children, taught them for a few hours, played with them and took pictures together. This campaign was combined with the appeal to bring the wonderful, diverse culture of Europe to those, who would otherwise never have a chance to experience it. This led to a highly paternalistic and neo-colonial approach towards people, who were supposedly dependent on the help of the special, culturally privileged Europeans. They themselves are not seen as independent actors, but instead as passive objects who thereby fall silent.

Another aspect of the Orientalist mentality, which was frequently mentioned in conversations, is the question of so-called authenticity and therein contained constructions of opposition between Western culture and local, traditional culture. Accordingly, there existed by certain members of the Erasmus group the desire to experience “authentic” Turkish culture. What this was supposed to mean exactly, often remained vague and difficult to decipher, but generally these were ideas of the “real” Turkish culture being traditional, poor and/or conservative. More open, multicultural and “modern” lifestyles were then implicitly deemed as inauthentic and therefore denied as originating from and belonging to the local culture. The mentality of opposition between Western and non-Western, i.e. traditional shows similar patterns of categorization. When looking at the formation of the Turkish Republic, it becomes apparent that Atatürk sought to align with Western culture and values, yet simultaneously, this narrative holds the danger of denying the particularity of Turkey's own culture and history and merely labeling it as an imitation of “Western culture”.  In some instances this was brought to the extreme, when people claimed that the West had brought culture and civilization to Turkey, which was now being attacked and destroyed by reactionary forces. Moreover, this was reflected in the statements, which designated Atatürk as “one of us” (of Western, civilized society). Other than that this again denies the intrinsic value of Atatürk for his own Turkish society, these remarks show no critical analysis towards the founder's nationalistic, discriminatory and antidemocratic nation building and governing process. The traditional parts of society were thereupon often associated with a reactionary Islam. Accordingly, perspectives on Islam are frequently misaligned through orientalist constructions, in which it is either essentialised or perceived to be backwards, fundamentalist, oppressive towards women and dangerous. Knowledge about the multiplicity as well as about progressive movements within Islam rarely existed.

At the same time, the Turkish side fell back on orientalized images. Tourism for example, which remains reliant on Western tourists, reproduces these images in line with its clients, by offering arranged group photos as sultans posing with their ladies of the harem. These reproductions occurred just as much in daily experiences, when Turkish students, lecturers at the university or Turkish friends reported about the lazy and unreliable Turkish “mentality”, while praising the efficient and disciplined Europeans or when the local ESN group either organized a belly dance event or a paternalistic “social project”.

No matter from what side this discourse was referred to, its influence remained substantial. The contradiction of statements made in passing, meant as “jokes” and celebrated among the peer group or organized problematic events, remained, and still remains, difficult. The discourse acts in a reciprocal manner, in which both sides contribute to its construction. The firm, prescribed categories work too well, they are filled with individual experiences and supported by the supposed cultural knowledge about the “other”.

As mentioned earlier, these mindsets have structural roots and should therefore not be perceived as moral accusations. Coming from a perspective that has been socialized in Europe, where racism particularly against Muslims and other xenophobic attitudes have gained in popularity and influence the political culture’s discussion, it is not surprising that certain images are reproduced (albeit subconsciously at times). However, this also demonstrates the necessity of consistently critically reflecting social and personal perceptions of the Turkish culture and having the courage to challenge the dominant narrative.


What about the postcards now?

So here we are, writing postcards to parents, grandparents and friends. These cards, whether they show the magnificent Hagia Sofia, the Sultan Ahmet Mosque or the Grand Bazar in its golden light, evoke the images of a distant and mysterious Orient. And since it is so easy, our letters do the same. We tell those at home about the call of the Muezzin that wakes us in the morning, we speak about our life at the doorstep between East and West and we might even make a quick joke about the “new Sultan” in Ankara. By doing so, we unintentionally reproduce century old stereotypes and assume the role of the Orientalist scholars, who spoke for the Orient and thereby silenced it.

So what now? Can a few sentences, scribbled on the backside of a postcard overcome such a powerful discourse? Of course not, that’s why it is so easy to draw on the Orientalist catalogue in the first place. But in times where the anxieties between Turkey and Germany are on the rise, it becomes even more important to step up against clichés and alleged differences. Anyway, our next postcards should be about the colorful, loud and incredibly courageous Women’s Day Parade or the old (headscarfed) lady, in whose grocery store you could buy a bottle of Raki long after 10 pm. Not at all a deviation from the norm. Absolutely normal!





Malte Spielmann and Tim Wolff are guest authors at MAVIBLAU, a German-language online magazine which is based in Istanbul and deals with stories, events and encounters between Turkey and the German-speaking world in the field of art, culture and society.

IG/FB/Twitter: maviblaucom

Youtube: maviblau