The Alchemist and Orientalism

Orientalism is a faulty representation of the east conceptualized from the western world’s perception of what Asia and Africa look like and how the people of said origins behave.  Orientalism began as one person with misconstrued information providing a story of eastern countries and from there everyone developed their ideas and stereotypes of the east off of a false notion. Through the years this has only grown more prevalent and grounded in America and western societies as the “ideal other”. The ideal other is a group of people that is presented in a way to make the western world look better and more developed, an example would be shaping the middle east as barbaric, mysterious, and full of magic among other negative and/or misleading connotations to build a superiority complex on the western world.  The biggest culprits submitting to orientalism are various media such as film, television, and books. Some notorious media promoting these stereotypes are Aladdin, A Passage to India, and another big contributor is The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.

The Alchemist is in some aspects a self-help book, it follows a Spaniard Shepard through a journey to find a treasure under the pyramids in Egypt. A message about personal legends is enforced by an old king and so the Shepard sells his sheep and sets off on a journey to fulfill his personal legend( to find treasure under the pyramids). Towards the end of the book, the Shepard finds himself in a village in the middle of the “Arab desert” where they encounter alchemy, dangerous tribes, and thieves. Additionally, in a village, where the Shepard stays for a short while, he falls in love with a woman who has promised to wait for him as he continues on with his quest. All of the following depictions heavily align with the false characteristics of the Arab world. 

The Shepard from the west throughout the novel is seen as an observer, as though the east is something to be observed or to be labeled “fascinating” by a so-called superior European man. This notion objectifies people from the middle east and then continues to promote the idea that they should be observed as captivating to impressionable readers. Additionally, both the magical and savage tropes in the dessert are condescending and repetitive as they are often shown in European works when characterizing the east. This colonial attitude is shown most prominently when the Shepard is being taught to turn into sand and fly away to escape the savage and violent tribe he and the alchemist encounter during their travels together. Similar illustrations can be seen in the movie Aladin with the genie and magic carpet and also barbaric characters presented through the film.

Women in the east is another example of orientalism, in The Alchemist the woman, Fatima, is set to wait around for the Shepard to come back for her as if this is her only purpose. She is portrayed as submissive and nothing without a connection to a man, again playing into the classic western narrative of the east. This depiction of women extends past Fatima as all the women in the village are holding the fort and waiting fearfully for their husbands to return from the war on-going.

I believe that these false notions and characterizations are harmful to everyone who encounters it, however, it is arguably most destructive when orientalism in writing and film is targeted toward a European/western audience. It only advances the fabricated representation that is continuously being built upon each time another ill-informed European/America decides to write about or surrounding around “The East”.

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