Orientalism

I found it interesting to research orientalism because it isn’t the same as how most people define racism. When thinking of racism, most people associate hate with it. But orientalism is sort of the opposite of that. Orientalism is more of badly placed and odd admiration. It depicts Arab and Asian culture as exotic, yet still pegs them as the “other”.

In my various classes, we have had multiple units on racism towards African Americans. It has been covered in history classes, English classes, and even biology classes. But my classes have never talked about racism toward any other group of people. It does make sense to focus on racism towards African Americans because of the terrible history of slavery and Jim Crow laws in the U.S. But I think that we need to expand the conversation about racism toward any group. Racism towards Muslims increased after 9/11, but I have never had any discussions about that. And now with COVID-19, there is an increasing amount of racism towards Asians, yet there haven’t been any discussions about it. I can see how people could dismiss orientalism as being nice or being fond of a different culture. Because people usually associate racism with hate, and orientalism is sort of the opposite, many people might write it off. Despite this, orientalism is still racist, just in a different way.

Before reading GOST and doing my own research about orientalism, I didn’t know much about it. After doing research, I realize that orientalism is more common than I though, but I just didn’t notice it before.

The Motif of Pappachi’s Moth

Pappachi’s moth is introduced at the beginning of the novel. It is the moth that he discovered but he did not get credit for. His moth also marks the beginning of his abusive tendencies towards Mammachi.  The moth represents his anger and the fear in others that accompanies his temper tantrums. It is said that Pappachi’s moth haunts the family,  “tormented him and his children and his children’s children,” (24). But in a broader sense, the moth symbolizes any uncomfortable feelings in uncontrollable situations.

The moth becomes most prevalent for Rahel. In situations where she feels scared and out of control, Arundhati Roy places descriptive imagery to depict the moth landing, tiptoeing, and envolepoing Rahel’s heart. An example of this is when Ammu tells Rahel that when she hurts people, they love them less. Roy describes, ” A cold moth with unusually dense dorsal tufts landed lightly on Rahel’s heart. Where its icy legs touched her, she got goosebumps. Six goosebumps on her careless heart. A little less her Ammu loved her” (104). This is a scary moment for Rahel. Her mother just told her that her careless words made her love Rahel less. Especially for a child, that is very frightening and unexpected. Rahel doesn’t want her mother to love her less, and feels guilty, and so the moth lands on her heart to remind us of Rahel feeling insecure. The moth motif continues throughout the novel, and comes back at one of the most critical points of the novel as well, specifically when Esta and Rahel lose Sophie Mol to the river. Roy depicts, “On Rahel’s heart Pappachi’s moth snapped open its somber wing” (295). Again, Rahel feels unsure, scared, and as though she might have just killed her cousin. This causes the moth to come back. Another interesting thing about this passage is that it suggests that the moth never truly leaves Rahel, it just opens at certain times. This connects to the idea that Pappachi’s moth will truly haunt his descendants forever, never leaving their hearts. Finally, I would like to point out that the moth also seems to become present at times when Rahel is exposed to darker feelings and emotions. Feeling of abandonment and of fear of murder are not typical feelings small children have. The moth is there to guide Rahel into more adult feelings that contrast her normally childlike manner.

The Way Roy’s Writing Hits You

There are a plethora of disturbing books out there in the world, many of which I and our AP Literature class have read; but none hit harder than Arundhati Roy’s novel, “The God of Small Things.” There are two main reasons that her depictions of trauma hit hard: they usually come as a surprise and many moments are seen from the innocent mind of a child.

One of the most infamous and brutal places in the book is when Estha is molested by the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man. The scene starts out innocently, Estha is asked to leave the movie theater because he was being too loud. The refreshments guy in the lobby starts asking him questions in return for a free lemonade, which is disturbing on its own but then comes the real shocker:

“Now if you’ll kindly hold this for me,” the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man said, handing Estha his penis through his soft white muslin dhoti, “I’ll get you your drink. Orange? Lemon?”

Roy 98

There always seemed to be something off about the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man (a great name by the way), and maybe this behavior pattern was to be expected. However, the way Roy fits this horror into a sentence that makes us think one thing (that he was going to hand Estha an ingredient or the drink) and shatters this expectation with just one word is simply cruel.

But Roy does not stop there, towards the end of this scene, Estha’s hand is covered in “White egg white, Quarter-boiled” (Roy 99). Needless to say, that description from the point of view of a confused child scars readers on a whole other level. God of Small Things is a book that does not refrain from giving the full story, no matter how gruesome it might be, and because of that, it is powerful.

Is Crazy Rich Asians Enough?

I have now seen the movie Crazy Rich Asians 3 times. What can I say — it’s a great movie. Awkwafina is hilarious, Constance Wu is brilliant, and Henry Golding is attractive. But something I hadn’t taken into account until recently is that maybe it’s a little too simplistic. I’m not here to bash the movie because at the end of the day, it was a HUGE win for Asian Americans. But it was exactly that: a win for Asian Americans. What never crossed my mind, though, was how it portrayed Singaporeans. Once again, I still believe this was a landmark film in increasing representation in Hollywood. As director Jon Chu said a while back, it’s a movement. While the movie has enjoyed massive success and shed light on a non-white cast, some people still think it could’ve gone even further.

Take this quotation from a profound article on Vox, “While it’s definitely significant that Hollywood is finally producing an all-Asian film, the anticipation for this film demonstrates that representation can mean different things to different groups of people, and that there is a divergence between the needs and priorities of Asian Americans and Asians in Asia.” I couldn’t agree more. Here, as a Singaporean of Chinese descent, author Kirsten Han touches on how she felt the film was flawed in more ways than one. What she wrote next made me come to another realization. In western films, we really only see Asia depicted in 1 of 2 ways: as “rising Asia” with modern architecture, servants, and next-level wealth, or as an extremely impoverished place with a lack of social mobility. When I think about the films I’ve seen with an Asian cast in the past year, it totally fits the description. In one of my personal favorites, Parasite, we see this deeply-entrenched divide between the rich and the poor. In Raise The Red Lantern, we see extreme generational wealth and tradition. While I loved both of these films and I actually think they did a great job with representation, it makes me wonder. Is Orientalism at play here? Is this really an accurate depiction, or are these over simplistic?

In other western movies, what we see of Asian countries is very little. And what we do see motivates these 2 narrow stereotypes. We see overwhelming markets with foods that seem foreign to us, tech-savvy people, expensive homes, and action movie backdrops. We see a place with more than 4.4 billion people through one, white-washed lens. I think it’s interesting because something perceived so incredibly progressive in the U.S was actually perceived as not diverse enough to people from Singapore.

 

Love: Estha and Rahel

Hey everyone! I thought it would be interesting to write about Estha and Rahel’s relationship throughout the novel.

Both Rahel and Estha are seen to be the main characters of the novel. We mostly seem to see the world through Rahel’s eyes however, therefore we end up understanding her a little clearer than Estha.

From the beginning of the novel, the twins are written to be completely complementary halves of one another. The two even consider themselves to be “one” when they are together, and seem to be lost when they are apart. For example, Roy writes,

Rahel stood in the hotel room doorway, full of sadness… The sadness of Ammu’s loving her a little less. And the sadness of whatever the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man had done to Estha (110).

This quote shows the connection that Rahel and Estha always shared throughout their childhood. Rahel felt the pain that Estha had endured from the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man and is able to connect with him on another level. I think it can be inferred that Estha also feels the same connection to Rahel as she does to him.

When the twins are separated for 23 years, they realize that they are essentially not able to lead lives apart. We learn that the only reason Rahel really came back to Ayemenem, was because of Estha.

Estha and Rahel’s relationship turns out to be a bit unorthodox with the act of incest being presented at the end of the novel. However, I think that this act ties up the essence of the novel perfectly. From the beginning of the novel, the two considered one another as “one”. Their connection was stronger than anything, with the ability to break societies harsh standards against incest. Even when 23 years separated the two, they ended up finding their way back to each other. Overall, it is clear that the two are meant to be together and that they are not whole apart. Their love is obviously pure and real and it was very interesting to see their relationship pan out throughout the book.

Marriage Under the Patriarchy

In Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, women have difficulty escaping the confines of the patriarchal society in which they live. No matter what caste the women are born into, all of the women in the novel face struggles and suppression. Specifically, one of the biggest struggles women face in the novel is the societal pressure to get married and the issues that come along with these marriages. 

For example, Ammu was at a disadvantage when trying to find a husband: “Since her father did not have enough money to raise a suitable dowry, no proposal’s came Ammu’s way” (38). In the patriarchal society that is India’s caste system, a marriage is arranged by the father of the bride. It is the father’s responsibility to produce a dowry to entice a man to marry his daughter. 

After failing to find a suitor, Ammu married a man against her father’s wishes, and it turned out poorly for Ammu: “She was twenty seven that year and in the pit of her stomach she carried the cold knowledge that, for her, life had been lived. She had had one chance. She made a mistake. She married the wrong man” (38). I think that this reflects the absolute dependence on men that women in the caste system have. Roy’s diction shows no hope for Ammu’s future, and that is solely because she married the wrong man.

Additionally, Rahel also faces the consequences of living in a patriarchal society: “Rahel grew up without a brief. Without anybody to arrange a marriage for her. Without anybody to pay her dowry and therefore without an obligatory husband looming on her horizon” (18). With the way Roy shows marriage as being necessary for a woman in the novel, the societal pressure of marriage looms over Rahel and marriage seems impossible for her at this moment without a father to arrange it. This conveys how women have absolute dependence on their fathers to find them a husband and secure the future that they are expected to have. 

Instead, Rahel decides that she wants to live her own life and break free from these societal expectations: “So as long as she wasn’t noisy about it, she remained free to make her own enquiries: into breasts and how much they hurt. Into false-hair buns and how well they burned. Into life and how it ought to be lived” (18). This quote truly conveys Rahel resisting what is normally expected for a woman and her desire to be in control of her destiny. 

I think that in the novel, marriage overall has a negative impact on the characters and their struggles with the pressures of marriage are very evident. The societal pressures of marriage, such as the absolute dependence on men that the women have to have, the belief that having a successful marriage makes or breaks your future, and society dictating who you can and cannot marry, is absolutely confining and it’s no wonder why marriage is depicted so poorly in the novel.

Who is the God of Small Things?

In a society focused around “big things” such as class conflicts, political affiliations, and marriage, Roy points out the “small things” to the reader. These small things include secrets, promises, and sins. Even though the novel talks a lot about class relations, culture tensions, and child abuse, it revolves around the perspective of the twins. While there are bigger things to be talked about, it is the small things and their God that Roy narrates about. 

This is a passage from the final chapter, where they refer to Ammu & Velutha, “Even later, on the thirteen nights that followed this one, instinctively they stuck to the Small Things. The Big Things ever lurked inside. They knew that there was nowhere for them to go. They had nothing. No future. So they stuck to the small things” (320). Ammu and Velutha accept their own fates because they know that they had nothing and nowhere to go. So much goes against them as they break the “Love Laws” of caste and race (“big things”). Even though they purposely limit their thinking of the “small things” that enable them to enjoy their love, they still recognize the powerful presence of the “small things”; there is always someone watching.

In chapter 11, Ammu dreams of Velutha. From her dream, we get the idea that the God of Small Things represents Velutha. He is a father figure to his children and fills their lives with innocence and joy. I think the God of small things is someone who lives in the beauty and innocence of this world. Velutha appreciates the beauty of love and is both humble and caring towards others. I believe that Estha and Rahel are believers of “the God of small things” because they are still children, and are not tied to the world of “big things” as the adults.

Roy’s Writing Style as a Device

Pappachi’s Moth has to be one of my favorite chapters in this novel. The way Roy has the omniscient narrator speak in the voices of each character is something I’ve never read before.

For example, there is a great sort of childlike wonder is the way Estha and Rahel view the world at this time in the book. One of my favorite sentences in this chapter is found on page 37: “Rahel’s new teeth were waiting inside her gums, like words in a pen”. It’s so like a little kid to make up an analogy to help explain away a concept. And to a kid, it makes sense. Words come from pens, that’s how you see them. They must be stuck inside there if they’re able to come out through the top. You can’t see them, but they’re there. Like new teeth in your mouth.

Or, later in the novel, when the kids decide to read everything backwards. It’s the kind of high effort-low reward activity that I think all of us used to do as kids. Roy has such an attention to detail to how children act in the book. At a deeper level, it’s not just their actions, but she writes the methods behind them. She does this masterfully, sometimes not even explicitly stating what they mean; you only get the full picture if you take a step back while reading.

Take “zebra crossing”. At first glance, you might think it is a crossing for zebras. But Roy doesn’t want you to think like that. You have to be with Rahel and Estha. It’s a crosswalk, striped black and white like a zebra.

Roy utilizes this technique to envelope the reader in the kids’ perspective. I’ve never seen it done before and I can’t stop appreciating it.

Pride and Orientalism

Orientalism is defined as a way of seeing that imagines, emphasizes, exaggerates and distorts differences of Arab peoples and cultures as compared to that of Europe and the U.S. This is a very backwards view as it makes our way of life better. There is no way to judge whose lifestyle is “better.” It is purely subjective. There is no way of determining whose is better and it is selfish to think that there is. We need to broaden our horizons on culture and be willing to accept everybody’s backgrounds and ways of life. This is what makes America great.

Motherly Love in The God of Small Things

As I was reading The God of Small Things today, I found myself connecting similar themes to past books and movies I’ve read and watched. Particularly, I found myself thinking about the theme of “Motherly Love”. I found this to be prominent in some of the first chapters of GOST; in addition to GOST, I recalled a similar theme in Beloved, a book we read earlier this year. From what I can see, there’s this pining that children have for their mother’s love and become paranoid when they feel they are losing it.

Specifically, after the Estha, Rahel and family arrive at the theater to see The Sound of Music, and Estha experiences the traumatizing event regarding the Orangedrink Lemondrink man, he sees Rahel being reprimanded by Ammu after her comment on her marriage.

‘D’you know what happens when you hurt people?’ Ammu said. ‘When you hurt people, they begin to love you less. That’s what careless words do. They make people love you a little less.’ (107)

Ammu’s comment implies that she loves Rahel “a little less” and it shook Estha to the core. After this, he was even more afraid to tell Ammu about what had happened with the man at the theater which led to him just never mentioning to her. This longing for motherly love is also seen in Rahel after this where she constantly checks if Ammu loves Sophie Mol more than her and Estha and when she feels she needs to be punished for losing some of the love Ammu has to offer her. This seems like an ongoing theme that led to consequences later in the book.

She thought of the phlegm and nearly retched. She hated her mother then. Hated her. (153)

Similarly, you see this in Beloved where a child too focused on obtaining their mother’s love eventually turns against the mother. This ongoing theme throughout GOST says a lot about the household Rahel and Estha grew up in (at least in my opinion). The constant fear of losing their mother’s love led to several holes and traumatizing events throughout their childhood and I think it shows in their adult life. In some sense, the instability of their mother led to them to seek love from each other which turned problematic too.

Overall, the theme of motherly love seems to run deep throughout The God of Small Things. I remember before we started Beloved, there was a google form questionnaire we had to fill out and I think one of the questions was “A mother’s love can possibly lead to a decision to destroy a child.” and we had to give our opinion on it. I think this speaks to both Beloved and The God of Small Things (though I think there were also more factors than just Ammu’s instability that led to how damaged Rahel and Estha were in the future.

Xenophobia and Disease Outbreaks

The United States of America is a country comprised of immigrants. Despite this fact, Americans have a history of discrimating certain ethnic or racial groups. 

Under various presidents, there has been immense discrimination against minorities, such as Mexican and Latino groups. This is especially evident under the Trump administration, where he has often mentioned the idea of “building a wall” between Mexico and America. 

However, the recent coronavirus outbreak seems to have shifted the hatred towards oriental groups. Some folks have blamed China on creating a biological weapon, while others have used newspaper headlines to their advantage to spread hate.

While xenophobia is strongly routed in American history, disease outbreaks especially aid feelings of hatred towards ethnic groups. In fact, the coronavirus is not the only case. In 2014, the Ebola crisis led to racism directed to the those of African American descent. 

As a result, I feel that there is a craving amongst Americans to target and be hateful towards certain groups. They seem to find any reason to discriminate minorities and this needs to change. 

Does Estha develop PTSD as a Result of Molestation?

In the God of Small Things, a strong theme is the concept of love and sexulity. However, the idea of love and sexuality in the novel is not always associated with a positive connotation. This is especially evident as Estha is molested by the Orangedrink-Lemondrink Man.

When I read the novel, I saw the instance of molestation as more than just a negative experience, but instead one that resignated with Estha forever. As a result, I wanted to analyze and see whether Estha developed symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

According to the American Psychiatric Association, PTSD is “a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, rape or other violent personal assault.” In fact, the main symptoms of PTSD are hyperarousal, intrusion, and constriction. 

These symptoms are evident in terms of Estha’s molestation. Right after the incident, he experiences hyperarousal as he worries of the man finding and harming him again. The symptoms of hyperarousal are evident later in the novel as Estha and Rahel take a boat they find to Velutha’s house to be repaired. As Kuttappen gives the two children hope that the boat will be fixed, Estha’s body was still in a state of alert and was constistently reminded of the traumatic event. 

This post was not simply to diagnose Estha. Instead, it was written to hopefully change peoples’ minds of the severity of molestation. Whether it be a minor incident or one greater such as kidnap and rape, these situations change peoples lives, as is evident in Estha’s situation. 

Nicki Minaj: Superbass or Super-culturally-inapropriate?

Orientalism is the depiction of aspects of Asian cultures through Western imitation or expression. It was derived from a prejudice interpretation of Asian culture, as European people saw their culture as exotic and unusual. Orientalism can be strongly abused and broadcasted on a large scale by people that have heavy influence in society.

Nicki Minaj, an unusual suspect of enacting orientalism (in my opinion), insults the Asian culture in her song, “Your Love”. In the music video for the song, Nicki alters her usual appearance to exhibit Asian influence. She dresses in silk clothing (also wears a Japanese geisha), slants her eyes using makeup, and puts chopsticks in her hair in addition to several other Asian “imitations”. Her attempt at embodying the Asian culture is extremely limited and false, and she takes away from the true diversity and complexity of this culture.

One of the lines of her song states, “Anyway I think I met him in the sky / When I was a geisha he was a samurai / Somehow I understood him when he spoke Thai / Never spoke lies and he never broke fly”. My interpreation of these lyrics are that the relationship between a geisha and a samurai is glamorized and falsified. She is using the idea of an “exotic” relationship to add to her song, and through that idealizing the concept of having a “foreign lover”. She also states that the Samurai spoke Thai, yet Samurai’s are a part of the Japanese culture.

In my eyes, she is mushing multiple Asian cultures together throughout the song, failing to give recognition to the beauty of each individual culture.

I’m Still Standing by Elton John and Bernie Taupin

Poetry Analysis

Repetition

I’m still standing yeah yeah yeah
I’m still standing yeah yeah yeah”

Don’t you know I’m still standing better than I ever did
Looking like a true survivor, feeling like a little kid

These four lines are repeated throughout the song since they are a part of the chorus. They are also reiterated on multiple occasions to suggest to the audience of this song that the singer is going to persevere and persist through the hardship the intended audience put them through. When listening to the song, it is clear that the purpose of the writer or singer is to prove that they are getting over a person, over a hardship, or over a circumstance that is not optimal to them.

Why I chose it for the playlist

The playlist constructed by Bernie, which I listen to on the daily, is meant to procure a sense of positivity and resiliency in the listener. During this time of uncertainty with the coronavirus looming large, I felt like a song about getting over adversity would help work towards the goal of the playlist.

This song has always been helpful for me when I have felt the hardship of an unexplained or upsetting circumstance, and I feel like it can help out anybody who feels like this virus has done them wrong. This virus is unexplainable. I have tried to reason with why it has to occur now, and I have yet to find an answer. I dread over the idea of never going back to OPRF as a student again. I miss my classmates, my teachers, and my friends. This song doesn’t solve those grievances, but it helps.

I hope it can help you too.

(My binge watch suggestion of the day is to check out the movie Sing)

(If you don’t know, the picture is a character from the movie who sings this song)

Celebrate Everyday Like A Birthday

For one of my posts, I decided to analyze one of my favorite songs, “Sky Walker” by Miguel and featuring Travis Scott. To me, the overall purpose of the song is to show that although you may not be in control of what happens to you in life, you ARE in control of how you let things affect you and you have the ability to grow from pain instead of letting it set you back.

The opening line of the song, “Quick to dead the bull like a matador”, is repeated many times and I think it is one of the most important lines in the song. I believe that Miguel is trying to say that whatever problems or hardships you may come across, it is better to face them head on and deal with them instead of compartmentalizing them, which only hurts you more later in life. You have the power to break out of bad habits and let go of negatives that are only bringing you down.

One of the next lines, “Don’t sleep you gotta stay up”, is talking about paying attention. Paying attention to the people around, your surroundings, and living in the moment of your experiences. It also means paying attention to yourself, and staying true to your own morals and beliefs throughout any craziness you may face in life.

He then says, “I’m outstanding so I stand out”. This might be a little bit cheesy, but I think the message is to show the power of your own confidence. We are constantly told to be confident and release our insecurities, but then insulted when we love ourselves “too much” or compliment any part of ourselves. I think Miguel is trying to say that it’s GREAT to be proud of yourself and you should always recognize your own value and worth.

In the chorus of the song, he states “I’m Luke Skywalkin’ on these haters”, maybe a little corny, but I think it carries a much deeper meaning. Luke Skywalker is the “chosen one” and carries a tremendous amount of strength and perseverance. In a world where one can be a “hater” by simply typing something negative on their phone, it’s important to rise above and thrive despite the hate.

He ends the song by stating, “First you put the work in til it works out / Work it out til it’s turnt out”. I think this line is really powerful and an excellent conclusion to the song because he is saying that you need to work hard and give your all, and eventually you will get a positive return.

Oh, the Humanity

Arundahti Roy’s God of Small Things is a novel of great detail that multiple times left me speechless. Roy makes the words leap off the page with her twisting of time and figurative language. Though I did not have too many similarities with the characters, I found it very easy to relate to their conflicts and emotions. I attribute this level of buy-in to the book to Roy’s ability to relate all situations to the human condition. That said, the book is very dark at times, leaving characters feeling insignificant. The book is very aware of itself and it makes the reader squirm. Arundahti’s book kept me encapsulated the entire time and though it was rather dark, it was well written and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a good read. The characters’ wants and desires are simple like that of most humans. The book takes simplified desires and makes them seemingly unachievable. This in itself is dark. There is no worse feeling than having a goal be out of reach.

How the Last Chapter Resolves the Book.

Reading the book, you notice the little things that make a character the way they are. It’s these tiny flaws or problems that show the development of a character throughout the novel. I think the final chapter of “God of Small Things” wraps up the book in a satisfying way. One significant change is the way Ammu receives the English song she is listening to. It says, “Barely listening to the music…She couldn’t believe it. The cheap coincidence of those words… Then suddenly she rose from her chair and walked out of her world like a witch. To a happier, better place” (314). That fact that Ammu feels so inspired by the song shows how much her feelings for some of the “smaller things” have changed through out the novel. At the beginning of the book she said she felt an “unsafe edge” when listening to similar music. Not only did she feel safe with this music, but she felt inspired to go and pursue Velutha which is probably very far outside of her comfort zone.

The author wrapped up the chapter and the book in the best way possible. He left us off with Velutha and Ammu finally ending up together. In this final chapter he is showing how strong the love is between them. They also discuss all of the “small things” that they enjoy. One of the “small things” that isn’t mentioned is the promise they make to each other. They promise that they will be with each other the following night but nothing else in the future because they are unaware of it. This is a perfect example of a “small thing” that they cherish and hold on to. This final chapter shows the reader what the book is about and why it earned this title. Even though the characters have faced years of violence and hardship, it’s the little things that they love that keep them going. The author is trying to convey the message that even small acts of love can outweigh the biggest acts of wrongdoing.

Aladdin’s Unfair Portrayal of the Arab World

Aladdin | Disney Movies

Aladdin was released in November of 1992 by Walt Disney Pictures, being ranked as the fourth highest film based on popularity (“Best Disney Movies”). This movie was one of my favorites as a kid because I love how adventurous it was, specifically the magic carpet scene. However, the film has been criticized for its unfair portrayal of the Arab world and is a clear example of modern Orientalism. 

Aladdin’s opening theme song, “Arabian Nights”, is often criticized for its lyrics “Oh, imagine a land, it’s a faraway place/ Where the caravan camels roam/ Where they cut off your ear/ If they don’t like your face/ It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home” (1992 Original Aladdin). The lyrics indicate to the viewer that Aladdin’s home is not just a faraway place, but a place of mystery much different from the audience’s. When the song says, “…where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face/ it’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home” it demonizes Aladdin’s home and reinforces the audience to recognize it as uncivilized and barbaric. This idea further supports the film’s representation of “faraway place” not able to be related to by the audience. 

After several complaints, Disney changed the lyrics to “Where it’s flat and immense/ And the heat is intense/ It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” The new lines still represent a false reality to the audience. Previously, Aladdin’s home was viewed as barbaric and mysterious, but the song still portrays Aladdin’s home as mysterious, but with these new lyrics, it gives the impression that his home is a boundless and uninhabitable area.

In addition to song lyrics, the movie uses characters with strong accents. The characters perceived as the good ones speak with American accents. The rest of the cast, mainly antagonists of Aladdin, have exaggerated Arab accents. Since Aladdin is one of the main protagonists in the film, he is given an American accent, which allows the audience to distinguish him from the antagonists who speak with Arab accents. To Americans, the American accent sounds very familiar, while the Arab accent is recognized as foreign. In a kid’s perspective watching Aladdin, they may think that the negatively represented Arab accent is bad, mysterious, and foreign. 

It’s Still Here

Europeans used the term “Orient” to describe the peoples and the places of Asia and the Middle East. Europeans believed that due to their better understanding of the history of a culture, and their superior culture, they needed to dominate other cultures in order to improve them. While it was widely accepted prior to the nineteenth century, the term now has created tons of criticism. The effects of Orientalism on American society created foundation for conversations between American people and Asian people. Some researchers say that orientalism is over, but its effects on society sat that the fact it is far from over. The debate over Orientalism continues in the United States, especially after the events of 9/11. According to researchers, “in many ways it has just begun”.

Right now, I think Orientalism will be shown a lot more due to Covid-19. I mean we already have our president calling it the “Chinese virus.”

In my life, I have seen many different occasions of Orientalism. Sasha Baron Cohen’s 2012 film The Dictator portrays the Middle East in a racist and offensive way that may be taken seriously. A scene that really brought me there shows The Dictator giving a speech to the citizens of Wadiya, where the crowd cheers in response to his command that they will not stop their building of  nuclear weapons. He then continues his speech by declaring that the nuclear program is peaceful, but instantly bursts into laughter knowing that what he just stated is false. This implies to the American belief that Iran was constructing weapons of mass destruction. I’d say Orientalism is still alive.

Orientalism in Ellington and Strayhorn’s Far East Suite

In 1963, as part of an effort to spread democracy internationally, the United States sent Duke Ellington and his band on a state department sponsored tour to show off it’s most democratic art form. The band played American jazz in India, Iraq, Pakistan, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iran, Egypt, and Sri Lanka (before the tour was canceled) and over the next few years would develop the music that became The Far East Suite. The title can be misleading as most of the music was inspired by what we refer to as the middle east.

An early version of the work was called Impressions of The Far East, and I think that their intention in writing, performing, and recording The Far East Suite was always to share their American impressions of the cultural experiences that they had on the tour. The music quite obviously presents a view of the east through the lens of an American big band and I believe aims to represent what the band experienced through a medium with which they were familiar. The whole suite is arranged for a big band, with the musicians emulating everything from local dances to prayer calls to native birds with fairly standard jazz instrumentation.

In the opening track, “Tourist Point of View” Ellington and Strayhorn seem to acknowledge that their perspective is not the only narrative to be had of the east. They know that their understanding is limited and that there is more to the music of the east than the tired harmonic minor scales that have so often come to represent it in popular American culture. They also seem to demonstrate awareness that their “impressions of the east” do not define the region.

This is not to say that there are not problematic aspects of The Far East Suite. One only needs to look at the cover of the album, complete with minarets and elephants, to see that the concept is clearly orientalist in its execution. I would argue that if the music itself is in good taste, there were certainly aspects of its marketing that were misguided.

Ellington had a history of writing “exotic” sounding music for a white American audience where there was a demand. This was commonly referred to as his “jungle sound”. Many early Ellington pieces from the late 20s and early 30s were supposed to evoke pictures of Africa for white audiences featuring mysterious percussion and growling brass. Despite their exploitative, exotic allure, Ellington’s portraits of this nature were always sophisticated, elegantly arranged, and anything but primitive. He may have written for this audience but knowingly did so with as much class and dignity (in the music – not always the marketing) as possible.

Much later in the bands career, at the time that The Far East Suite (1967) came out, they had the unquestioned respect of the American mainstream as artists and intellectuals. However, their motives in releasing the work are debatable. We can look at it as an honest artistic product of their life experiences or we can see it as their attempt to draw in western audiences using the exploitable “mystery and exoticism” that the east had to offer. Either way, it is undeniable that they knew it would be marketable as such.

Overall, I’d definitely recommend listening to the Far East Suite, orientalist or not, but with an open and critical mind. If you want to get the full orientalist experience, I’d recommend checking out “Ahmad”, “Tourist Point of View”, and “Agra” but there is also so much more that the work has to offer. Although these are some of my favorites, it wouldn’t be fair for me to reduce the work to a handful of its most orientalist pieces. The most culturally significant standard on the album is probably “Isfahan”, named after the city in Iran, and makes no attempt to be something it isn’t. It is just one of the many genuine pieces of art sticking out between the blatant mosques and snake charmers on the covers. I think that with awareness and understanding, there is nothing wrong with enjoying this great music.