Those exotic Arabs, and other Orientalist fetishes

The exoticisation of the “Other” is a subtler component of Western hegemony, writes author.

Palestinian writer and scholar Edward Sa
Palestinian writer and scholar Edward Said created a stir after the 1978 publication of Orientalism, which laid the groundwork for post-colonial studies [AFP]

In the introduction to his masterpiece Orientalism, the late Edward Said writes of “the Orient” as “almost a European invention… a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences”.

Indeed, the exoticisation of the “Other” is a subtler component of Western hegemony, comprised of caricatures that are premised on and reinforce a denial of indigenous agency.

As Said notes:

“… [T]he European representation of the Muslim, Ottoman, or Arab was always a way of controlling the redoubtable Orient, and to a certain extent the same is true of the methods of contemporary learned Orientalists, whose subject is not so much the East itself as the East made known, and therefore less fearsome, to the Western reading public.”

‘Ya Habibi!’

Contemporary objects of Orientalist fantasy include Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri, anointed sexiest man of the year in 2008 by the Israeli women’s magazine Motek – the cover of which proclaimed: “Ya Habibi !”

Bakri’s triumph is commemorated on the blog of Israeli-Canadian journalist Lisa Goldman, who also supplies a translation of a 2007 post in Hebrew by a female blogger in Tel Aviv. Titled “The Man Who Made My Year”, the post is based on Bakri’s appearance in another Israeli magazine:

“Recently I discovered that I am attracted to the Levantine type… And suddenly I’ve got the real thing right in front of me. Not another Jewish guy whose grandparents were born in Morocco or Persia, and not even another ‘Arab-Israeli’ (which, according to Bakri, is a demeaning, misleading, political-Zionist expression), but a real Palestinian!”

Bakri’s other virtues are enumerated as follows:


by ”Najla

didn’t like Arabic music, he liked Wagner and Beethoven. He didn’t want to move back to Palestine and tend to olive trees… But no one wants to believe me. They want him to have been a professional Palestinian.”]

“The close-cropped curls, the chiseled cheekbones and jaw line, the unshaven bristles, the chest hair that peeks through the neckline of his shirt. And the eyes. Oh my, the eyes. That penetrating, tormented gaze. Saleh, I want to have your babies. I want to distribute your wonderful genes all over the world.”

The physical objectification of Bakri may not appear to be politically problematic, given his celebrity status and that the blogger deems him “an amazing, refined creation” in comparison to Israeli model Michael Lewis, who is labeled a “retarded pile of muscles”. In response to the fact that the magazine in question has chosen to grant superior attention to Lewis, the blogger opines:

“Clearly, our national sense of priorities has been seriously undermined – and not just because of cutbacks to the budget for the Arab sector. It’s even difficult to find photos of Bakri on the Internet.”

Bakri’s admirer may purport to challenge the status quo, but in fact she merely reinforces the Zionist position by downplaying a situation of full-blown apartheid and ethnic cleansing to a minor budgetary issue, certainly not as critical as the dearth of web-based photographs of an attractive member of the Arab sector.

To be sure, not everyone in Israel is swooning over Bakri’s eyes. He recently shared with me his recollection of a demonstration in Haifa against the savagery of Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s 22-day slaughter of approximately 1,400 Palestinians, primarily civilians, in Gaza in 2008-09:

“It was a very peaceful demonstration with candles. We were about 100 people. Suddenly the police forces came… I tried to defend an actress friend of mine who was being beaten hard by a few policemen, and I was beaten and arrested. One of the things I remember about detention is that they made me stand in front of the Israeli flag with a camera in front of me in a small room for an hour.”

I asked him to comment on his Motek fame and general experience on the receiving end of Orientalist reductionism. He replied that he didn’t know whether it was worse to be viewed as an object or as a threat, and described Israel’s “militant society” as “look[ing] at the Palestinians from the narrow hole of the gun” – a characterisation that becomes particularly apt when IDF soldiers post Instagram photos of Palestinian children in rifle crosshairs.

Orientalising Edward Said

Other targets for Orientalist exoticisation include none other than Edward Said’s daughter Najla, long-time New York resident and author of the just-published memoir Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family .

In an email to me, Said described regularly “being called ‘mysterious’, ‘elusive’, ‘dark’, ‘intense’, ‘unpredictable’ and ‘striking'” – to which lexicon is added the exoticisation “that goes along with actually being Edward Said’s daughter. Sometimes it is Arab or South Asian men who are interested in me simply because of my dad. But more often, it is intellectual PhD type people who fetishize me”.

Following the publication of Looking for Palestine, the irony has reached new extremes. As Said wrote to me:

“I go out of my way [in the book] to describe my dad as the human being he was, and to remind people that he was an English professor who wore tweed jackets and read Moby Dick again and again. I did this in part because since he died, people seem to want to equate him with Palestine – with nationalism, and all sorts of other things he loathed… [E]ven those who worship him cannot understand that my father, as a human being, did not represent or embody ‘Arab-ness’. He was born with a US passport and was an expert in British Literature. He didn’t like Arabic music, he liked Wagner and Beethoven. He didn’t want to move back to Palestine and tend to olive trees… But no one wants to believe me. They want him to have been a professional Palestinian.”

The fetishisation of the Palestinian cause and the essential Orientalising of Edward Said himself – even by ostensible supporters of his theories – confirms the tendency toward reductionist generalisations that underpins the entire business of Orientalism and enables the rejection of Arab agency and human complexity.

“Those who worship him cannot understand that my father, as a human being, did not represent or embody ‘Arab-ness’,” said Najla Said [Christopher Hazou]

Najla also noted the frequency with which Jewish men in casual social situations “say something about how if and when they kissed me it would be ‘like making peace in the Middle East'”.

Unfortunately, such politico-erotic visions stand little chance of realisation given Israel’s continued opposition to anything but eternal conflict. Israeli intransigence is aided by its de facto absorption into “the Western world” – a unique feat for an entity erected directly on top of “the Orient”. In addition to perks like participation in the Eurovision Song Contest, Israel’s “civilised” Western identity allows the state to pursue its fetish for collective punishment and bloodshed unabated while displacing the blame for barbarity and inhumanity onto Oriental foes.

Of course, the “exotic sensuousness” of the Orient is no match for the IDF habit of uploading racy photographs to social networking sites. Google now suggests augmenting the search term “IDF soldiers” to include “racy photos”, “dancing”, “in thongs”, “underwear”, “strip”, and “facebook”.

Much sexier, no doubt, than other valid search options like “Israeli Airstrike Kills Three Generations of a Palestinian Family“.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, released by Verso in 2011. She is a member of the Jacobin Magazine editorial board, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blog, Salon, The Baffler, Al Akhbar English and many other publications.

Follow her on Twitter: @MariaBelen_Fdez