February 11, 2005

Orientalist meets occidentalist

As part of a recent blog exchange (blogversation?) with Juan Cole, Martin Kramer told this joke, which he credits to Charles Issawi:

A Western orientalist goes to Egypt, and strikes up a conversation in Arabic with his taxi driver. The poor driver, after straining to understand his passenger, plaintively asks him how he came to know Arabic. Ana mustashriq! the orientalist answers proudly. In reply to which, the taxi driver mutters: Wa'ana mustaghrib...

Kramer doesn't offer a translation -- "here's an addendum," he writes, "but only if you know Arabic." I hate to miss a joke, so I asked Tim Buckwalter, who explained it to me.

Sharq = orient, and the denominal istashraq = approx. to orientize or orientacize, hence the active participle mustashriq = orientalizer or more properly orientalist.

Gharb = west, but the parallel form istaghrab is a denominal from ghariib (= strange), hence istaghrab = to regard as strange, to be puzzled (lit., to find something ghariib), and the active participle is mustaghrib, which parallels mustashriq perfectly.

"I'm an Orientalist!"
"Oh, yeah? I'm puzzled." [i.e., I can barely understand you!]

In this context the term mustaghrib could also be interpreted literally to mean someone who studies the West, but the term Occidentalist is not used.

BTW, ghuraib (as in abu ghuraib, or abu ghreib), is the diminutive of ghariib.

In my opinion, the term Occidentalist deserves wider currency. I think of it only in connection with Buruma and Margalit's recent book Occidentalism, which according to Amazon's "search inside the book" feature uses the word "occidentalist" 35 times in its 160 pages. Checking Google for occidentalism turns up 718 instances, including a review of Occidentalism by Eric Kenning, under the cute title "Occidents Happen", which contains this even cuter passage:

The most intriguing response [to French Enlightenment universalism] came from philosophical historian Johann Gottfried von Herder, whom Buruma and Margalit discuss as if he fit their Occidentalist profile, though he doesn't. Herder wasn't a nationalist who believed in the superiority of German or any other culture. He was a kind of libertarian traditionalist with, in Isaiah Berlin's words, "his acute dislike for political coercion, empires, political authority, and all forms of imposed organization." He believed that cultures had a specific individuality, and that to understand other cultures (or periods of history) you needed sympathetic imagination, not just facts and analyses. Once you understand them, you see that they're not just defective versions of yourselves. Different cultures should be valued and preserved as great works of art are valued and preserved, for their unique creativity and individuality. If Herder were around today, he'd be a familiar figure, making documentary films about South American rain forest tribal cultures and displaying STOP GLOBALIZATION and FREE TIBET and U.S. OUT OF IRAQ bumper stickers on his Volkswagen.

I'm not sure -- maybe today's Herder would an earnest young intern working with Samuel Huntington over at the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies (some background for this conjecture is here). Of course, Kenning's lefty filmmaker and my Huntington intern might just be two sides of the same anti-globalization coin.

Anyhow, the mustashriq /mustaghrib exchange is a good joke, with several layers of contemporary meaning. I'm glad I asked.

[Update 2/12/2005: an anonymous reader writes to suggest that a better translation for mustaghrib in this joke might be "disoriented". Cute, but it misses the east/west thing. If only the word were "disoccidented"...

It's curious that in English to be "oriented" is to know where you are and where you're going, whereas in Arabic to be "occidented" is to be confused by the strangeness of things. ]


Posted by Mark Liberman at February 11, 2005 05:47 PM