Colonial blindness Seeing ‘natives’ as one’s own image

August 16, 2003 12:00 AM

When William of Tyre wrote his account of the Crusades, he kept referring to Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem as The Temple of the Lord. The texts of the Koran which are written almost on every wall of the mosque and the dome seemed to go unseen by that famous historian of the Crusades. In a lecture at Harvard University, Bernard Lewis described the political system of the Islamic Republic of Iran as a church, and Khomeini’s theory of Velayat-e Faqih as some sort of Christianizing Islam. During the first month of the American occupation of Iraq, an American soldier appeared on TV dancing and clapping to the rhythm of Shiites hitting their chests commemorating the death of Hussein. In Egypt there is a proverb that says “Where is your ear, Joha?” ­ Joha being a semi-imaginary wise fool known in Arabic and Turkish cultures, who, when asked to point to his left ear, would stretch his right hand over his head and touch the upper tip of his left ear rather than use his left hand. The proverb is said to describe unnecessary complications that happen while performing simple tasks.

When Evelyn Baring, commonly known as Lord Cromer, Britain’s strongman in Egypt during the first phase of the British occupation, once asked an Egyptian peasant to touch his left ear, the peasant stretched his right hand over his head just like Joha. The peasant, stunned at the absurdity and weirdness of Cromer’s request, most probably was making bitter fun of him. Of course, Cromer came to the due conclusion from his “scientific experiment:” The Egyptian race was one whose intellectual abilities were inferior to that of the Anglo-Saxons!

These are not sporadic instances of misinterpretations of cultural difference. Rather, they are instances of a calculated blindness that is characteristic of every discourse held by a group of people seeking to subjugate another group, for behind any form of colonialism hides some sort of racism. To legitimize domination one must assume some sort of natural or cultural superiority, whether that superiority is called development, modernity, civilization, democracy or simply “the white man’s burden.”

Therefore the native, who, on his own cultural terms, is a normal human being, has to be convinced that he is not, that he is inferior in one way or another to the standard man, the colonial man. The native has to be redefined into slavery. Seeing the native with the native’s own eyes thus deconstructs the colonial world view, yet seeing him with the eyes of the colonial master is not seeing him at all; rather, it is seeing what the colonial master has in his mind.

The colonial master, for all practical purposes, has no eyes. This structural blindness results in the creation of the fictional world of colonialism, where Al-Aqsa Mosque is the Temple of the Lord, the Islamic Republic of Iran is an enlarged imitation of the Vatican, and the mourning, anger and will to revenge of the Iraqis in Karbala are some sort of musical celebration of the invading army. As the killing of Saddam Hussein’s two sons in Mosul was reported on TV, one could easily hear Koran being read aloud, probably from a nearby radio. A few dozen Iraqis gathered in the place holding pictures of Saddam Hussein and chanting slogans from the old days. Very few American media channels reported the incident, and those who did saw nothing more than a few insane supporters of a decadent dictator.

But this is the usual colonial blindness. Saddam Hussein was truly the most brutal of all Arab leaders; his brutality was such that almost no family in Iraq escaped suffering at the hands of his various security apparatuses, including his own family. Precisely because of this very fact, mourning Saddam Hussein’s sons has meanings that the Americans cannot get; people who so hate Saddam Hussein hate the US occupation even more. The pain they had to overcome in order to raise Saddam Hussein’s pictures is enormous. Their endurance of that pain, like people who burn themselves in protest, is meant only to get the point through to the Americans; that they hated them so much they are willing to raise even Saddam’s pictures to prove it. The US sees only the horrors Saddam Hussein had caused his people, and those horrors are true; yet the United States is totally blind to the horrors it caused and is still causing the Iraqis, from starving them to death for 11 years to attacking them with depleted uranium and bombing their capital every time an American president had some internal or even confidential affair to escape.

Yet blindness is a double-edged weapon. Refusing to see his native opponent allows the colonial master to assume the native’s virtual absence until a redefined, tamed, and altogether “right” native is created in his place. But assuming the absence of the native allows that native to attack unnoticed. Occupation forces refuse to admit that the vast majority of the population wants them out. They insist that they are fighting a minority, a few madmen who for no apparent reason are resisting their blond mentors, while in fact they are fighting almost everyone, hence the traditional motto: Resistance always starts when you think it ended. Like in horror movies, those phantoms of the native haunt precisely the people who deny their existence.

A couple of weeks ago it was reported that four American soldiers fell to the ground and sought shelter in the middle of a Baghdad vegetable market when a little Iraqi boy threw an eggplant at them. The people laughed at the soldiers, but I am sure no one blamed them ­ seriously speaking, that eggplant might well have exploded.

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