African Orientalism

Though I was born in the US, my parents made sure I was proud of where we were from.

We crossed the North Atlantic Ocean once in a Blue Moon to visit Néné, the matriarch of our family, and my hundreds of aunts and cousins in Conakry, Guinea. The first time we visited, I remember the surprise of my expectations for Guinea conflicting with my preconceived notions about the place immediately upon exiting the airport.

The stark contrast of what my expectation of west Africa was compared to the reality of the country made me question when are how my misconceptions had first formed. My image of my country had been supplemented by stories from my father, images around our house, and most influentially Guinean and French media portrayals.

How Africa has been defined has always been a product of its interactions with foreigners. Even as Pan-Africans, we who have close roots to the continent still identify more with our individual clans like, Susu, Malinké, or Bantu, than with the identity of “African”, as this is how Africans themselves differentiated each other far before European cartography dividend the continent into arbitrary countries based on colonial rule at the Berlin Conference. Even the etymology of the word “Africa” can be traced to the Amazigh and Greco-Roman languages.

All this is to say that it is important not to forget the way the European/Western gaze still determines how those who’ve never perceive Africa.

Shakespeare on Masculinity

Thousands of articles, blog posts, and journals have been written on the subject of how Shakespeare wrote his female characters, and for good reason. Arguably, his presentation of female characters correlates to his feelings about women, but inarguably, they correlate to what a woman’s place in society looked like during Shakespearan times. Looking at the roles Shakespeare gave women can act as evidence of the way women had far less freedom and agency during the Elizabethan era.

Less spoken about is the way Shakespeare’s male characters also reflect the gender roles of the time. Shakespeare’s men have at least double the lines, character depth, and stage time as his women but especially in King Lear- the male characters give an interesting point of view of what made a man in Shakespeare’s time and unveil the ways toxic masculinity has not developed much since the early 1600s when Shakespeare wrote King Lear.

For example, in Gonereil’s argument with her husband she effectively attacks his “manliness” by ridiculing his actions and traits she deems womanly. She tells Albany, “France spreads his banners… whilst thou, a moral fool, sits still and cries ‘Alack why does he do so?'” This quote is indicative of Shakespearean gender roles on two fronts. On one hand, her belittlement of Alabany for not rushing to the battlefront reflects how then and now “bravery” (often disguised stupidity) is deemed imperitive for a man to be “manly”. However, at the same time, Gonereil is reacting to Albany’s evaluation of her power-hungery “disposition” as an affront to nature. This contrast displays the fraught tensions between the genders which remains to this day.

The Poet Ms. Lauryn Hill

For those unaware, the singer and songwriter Lauryn Hill soared into the music scene as part of the hip-hop trio “Fugees” before launching her solo career with the critically acclaimed album ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.’ The album was dropped at the height of her stardom, under enormous stress from the media about the identity of her unborn child, the grandson of Bob Marley. The entire album, but especially the eternally jammable, “To Zion”, is beat poetry centered around the theme of motherhood and unconditional love.

Initially, Hill talks about the trials of choosing to become a mother

But everybody told me to be smart

Look at your career they said

“Lauryn, baby, use your head”

But instead I chose to use

my heart

This line speaks of the trials of motherhood facing a successful woman. When it comes to starting a family, so often in the music industry, as with the rest of the world, the freedom and flexibility afforded men isn’t available across the gender line. The media was asking why. When she’s at such an important moment in her career, why would she get pregnant now? Hill’s answer is clearly heard rest of the song.

Woe this crazy circumstance

I knew his life deserved a chance

“The joy of my world”, chanted throughout the song speaks of more than the joy of having her first child, there is a tone of fearlessness in the words that come from Hill choosing happiness.

Prayer and Spiritualism Within Migration

Within the pages Exit West, Mohsin Hamid captures a larger theme seen through his character’s relationships with religion. Hamid intentionally forewent giving the specific religion followed by Saeed and Nadia’s family. I believe he did this to emphasize his larger message: religion can be more than a spiritual faith — it can be a tie to home, a connection to family, a practice in the memory of ancestral tradition, or all of the above.

Similar to the way Saeed “prayed even more” after the migration from home, my own father deepened his spiritual connection after immigrating to the United States. The passage on page 200 struck a deep chord and inspired me to ask my migrant family members about their connections with religion, home, and otherness.

I learned about the fundamental difference between being a Muslim in an Islamic country and in an Islamophobic country. I learned how faith can endanger you, but also about how spiritual practices connect you to the feeling of your home and of your family left behind similarly to the way Saeed prayed to feel like “a man who stood for community and faith and kindness and decency, a man, in other words, like his father.”

The Stranger and the “Arabs”

Although it is debatable whether Albert Camus intended for his narrator to seem righteous in his murder of the Arab man (addressed only as thus), the way Camus writes the non-European characters is evidence enough of his support of the dominant narrative surrounding people of color. Though the portrayal of Algerians as violent is incredibly harmful to immigrants who already face bias, the stereotyping of the only POC in the novel as exotic, word-less, and identity-less is equally toxic yet talked about in different ways.

When referring to Arab persons, Meursault never fails to attach them to their race. The word “Arab” accompanies every Arab character, all nameless. This phenomenon reflects a larger truth about white society during the time Camus wrote “The Stranger”. It was written in 1942 and at that time large portions of Africa were under the control (and open to exploitation) from the French. It is not a stretch to say that a similar stripping of POC of their personage beyond their race continues to happen across the world in a continuation of attitudes like Meursault’s.

In the novel we see that the Algerian male citizens are described as a “group of Arabs”(40). There is no individuality attached with the Arab population in the novel. Their namelessness leads to their de-humanization. Only in few cases the Arab is called a “man” (96) or a human in most of the instances in the novel they are either “ an Arab” (88) or “ a body” (68). This shows not only the lack of empathy of Meursault or Camus, but also of European society as a whole.

Existentialism & Social Media

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I was scrolling through social media late on a Sunday evening, procrastinating completing my blogging assignment for Mr. Heidkamp’s AP Literature class when I witnessed an event of true absurdity. On the cracked screen of my iPhone, a video displaying a recipe for a bizarre fish and rice entree flashes before my eyes. However, in an even more absurd twist, stitched beside a viral clip of a stranger outlining existentialist theories introduced to me only days earlier.

The speaker lets out a deep breath before outlining that, “in the myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus outlines what he believes is the central conflict of humankind: that we are looking for order and meaning in a world that is inherently chaotic and meaningless. This conflict is called ‘the absurd’. While some existential philosophers believe we should try to find meaning by transcending absurdity and others believe we should face absurdity and try to live life to the fullest in the face of it. The person who does this is an absurd hero…” She goes on to describe Camus essay on Sisyphus and the happiness he finds in completing his “silly little tasks”.

The top comments on this video include: “One must imagine Sisyphus vibing.”, “Why did this tiktok change me as a person?”, and “Love this! Also it made me feel uncomfortable.”

Reflecting on the complete absurdity of stumbling upon this interpretation of Camus’ take on existentialism makes me question my own belief in the absurd instances like that tiktok find my account among the millions of videos circulating. “#Existentialism” has 51.6 million views and the tag “#camus” has 20.8 million views. I believe this phenomenon is comparable to the wave of popularity in existentialist thought that that struck post-WWI. It is likely the post-Covid-19 generations may prove to be especially vulnerable to the positives and negatives of viewing life as a combination and random and absurd events due to the turmoil of the pandemic.