Sadly, Orientalism has not yet run its course. On the contrary, it has assumed different forms and has gained momentum in recent years.
No doubt, this love child of Imperialism which has helped create an inconceivable chasm between the East and the West has naturally done away with any possibly constructive interfaith and intercultural interaction in the world.
In fact, the emergence of extremist groups such as Daesh or ISIL in the name of Islam is a byproduct of this systematic effort by the West. By way of cementing its misrepresentation of the East in general and Islam in particular, Imperialism proceeds with its long-pursued agenda of creating stereotypes in the world and portraying the easterners as ‘despotic and clannish’ when they are placed in positions of power and conniving and sycophantic when in subservient positions. No wonder, extremism is generously funded and promoted by the West.
Lending an absurd quality of strangeness to the easterners, Imperialism generally depicts women as the beleaguered class and the dissidents as victims of the most monstrous forms of human rights violations while it itself masquerades as champion of truth and freedom.
As Edward Said encapsulates this notion in his seminal work Orientalism (1978), this attitude reflects a political vision of reality whose structure promotes the difference between the familiar (Europe, West, us) and the strange (the Orient, the East, “them”).
Thus, demonizing and otherizing the easterners serve as effective tools in the hands of Imperialism. After all, the ulterior motive behind Orientalism is the intellectual colonization of public opinion on the one hand and on the other, a ravenous desire to seek a safety-valve to the colonization of the natural resources of a certain country.
To Demonize or not to Demonize; that is the Question
Demonizing operates on two levels: they demonize you because they simply wish to colonize you; 2. they demonize you because they dread your increasing power, i.e. they are afraid of your emerging power which they fear to confront or/and which they find impossible to subjugate.
As part of this pernicious practice, Islamophobia can be defined as any concerted effort to demonize the glorious faith as monolithically bad, to consequently fabricate a fear of it and all that is considered Islamic and to ultimately dispel the mounting spread of the faith in the world.
In a similar vein, Iranophobia can be viewed as an extension of the demonization process by the West and as a new form of neo-Orientalism.
The new harbingers of neo-Orientalism sometimes infiltrate the Muslim communities under the guise of scholars, philosophers and intellectuals. Some of them are either well paid by Imperialism or they may be following their own fiendish agenda which may spring from their inveterate fear of or loathing to the Muslims or the easterners.
In modern times, these self-styled intellectuals infiltrate the eastern communities through modern means such as seminars, conferences and symposiums in order to avail themselves of a double pleasure, that is, to visit the country and subsequently deliver a ‘believably’ twisted account of their observations in the first place and to quench their voyeuristic quest for adventurism for the Orient which has long been on their wish list in the second.
Something Wicked this Way Comes
In November 2014, Harvard scholar Stephen Greenblatt readily accepted an offer to serve as the keynote speaker to the First International Shakespeare Conference in Iran at the University of Tehran without asking for any honorarium or travel costs as is the wont especially for someone of his fame and in view of his “busy schedule”.
“In April 2014 I received a letter from the University of Tehran, inviting me to deliver the keynote address to the first Iranian Shakespeare Congress.”
This came rather as a big surprise to one of the organizers who initially broke the matter to him as a shot in the dark, for his earlier efforts to invite other celebrated scholars to lecture at the Shakespeare Conference had failed like water off a duck’s back due to the lack of financial support.
So, Greenblatt was more than available and he was a well-known scholar in the field to boot. Besides, he had made some name in New Historicism School which made him even a far better candidate for the job. Given that, the organizers took the bait and decided to go on with necessary arrangements without thinking even for a moment that the Harvard scholar might be pursuing other than anything academic. Parenthetically, the professor had in his first email expressed his insatiable passion to visit the land of his dreams and how he was fascinated as a child by the photos he had seen of Isfahan and Persepolis.
That was how he had shrewdly obliterated any room for mistrust. Of course, once by way of dismissing any gaping suspicion, he had briefly asked who would pay for him or if any of his costs would be covered by the conference only after all arrangements had been made. And he secretly gloated over his easy triumph in outsmarting the organizers.
Eventually the promised day arrived and he deplaned at one in the morning at Imam Khomeini International Airport while the first organizer against whom he later spewed out his spiteful diatribe in an unmanly essay received him warmly at the airport.
“And there, waiting for me when I deplaned at 1:00 AM, was none other than the author of the articles denouncing the secret Zionist investors who controlled the world. He was smiling, gregarious, urbane.”
Eventually, the next morning, Greenblatt delivered a rather incoherent keynote speech at the conference as though he had not even spent a reasonable amount of time in preparing himself to deliver a decent lecture and later paid a two-day luxury visit to Isfahan and Shiraz to fulfill his dreams which inflicted an exorbitant cost on the University of Tehran.
Once back home, Greenblatt declined to convey even a word of gratitude to the first organizer who had spent two sleepless nights because of him through email or through any means of communication hitherto invented by human beings. That was extremely odd especially for a man who made a display of etiquette and gentlemanly manners to be so precociously unappreciative.
Et tu, Brute?
A few weeks later, the professor wrote an essay titled ‘Shakespeare in Tehran’ in the New York Review of Books and made a relentless attack on the first organizer and censured him to extremity, exhausting all his linguistic competence to this end. Unlike the established code of conduct by critics, Greenblatt numerously quoted him out of context from the different articles he had written in condemnation of Israeli atrocities. In the attitude of traditional Orientalists, he had cherry-picked some anti-Zionist rhetoric which seemed to have enormously pained the professor.
To everyone’s chagrin, Greenblatt implicitly voiced his support for Israel and Zionism.
“Did my prospective host—someone who had presumably grappled with the humane complexity of Shakespeare’s tragedies—actually believe these fantasies reminiscent of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion? A simple check online showed me that one of the scholars who signed my letter of invitation had written, in addition to essays on “The Contradictory Nature of the Ghost in Hamlet” and “The Aesthetic Response: The Reader in Macbeth,” many articles about the “gory diabolical adventurism” of international Zionism. “The tentacles of Zionist imperialism,” he wrote, “are by slow gradation spread over [the world].” “A precocious smile of satisfaction breaks upon the ugly face of Zionism.” “The Zionist labyrinthine corridors are so numerous that their footprints and their agents are scattered everywhere.”
Of course, that was the beginning of Greenblatt’s invasion on the organizer’s personality which can be interpreted as an egregious instance of character assassination.
There was a time when I transiently presumed that the age of stereotyping and otherizing is over but unfortunately, Greenblatt’s essay proves that the Orientalist viewpoint still prevails, that there is a cosmic gap between the West and the East and that this trend of stereotyping is painfully promoted by some western scholars.
One May Smile, and Smile, and be a Villain
Now it tragically transpired to everyone that the scholar who seemed so politically naïve, never expressed a political word and persistently presented himself as an agreeably smiling man with intellectual resources suddenly proved to a be a covert pro-Zionist who may even garner a medal of honor from Mr. Netanyahu.
Unfortunately, his superficial account did not end here.
Apparently overwhelmed by paranoid fear and ‘New Historical’ conspiracy theories, he saw himself surrounded by spies and intelligence agents at the faculty site.
“I also noticed among the men a few who stood apart and did not seem to be either students or faculty. It was not difficult to imagine who these might be.”
At the dinner table, when I asked him about Shakespeare’s anti-Semiticism (without consciously trying to hurt his delicacy as he was a Jew; besides, Greenblatt seemed affable and somehow likeable), he felt extremely agitated, saying that “Shakespeare was just curious about the Jews.” It was then when I came to understand the multilayered meanings of curiosity which was until then to me a naked word.
However, another instance of Greenblatt’s brazenly distorted representation of Iran is about Bagh-e Fin in Kashan:
“I wanted to see the late-sixteenth-century Baghe Fin, one of the walled enclosures that in old Persian were called “paradises.” (Other English borrowings from Persian include the words peach, lemon, and orange, along with cummerbund, kaftan, and pajama.)”
Here, the professor ridicules this paradise which was to him “a relatively small, dusty, square garden with very old cedar trees lined up in rows along very straight paths. A twinge of disappointment is built into the fulfillment of any desire that has been deferred for too long, so it is not surprising that my experience of paradise, in the form of the Bagh-e Fin, was a slight letdown.”
To deliver Greenblatt from his cocoon of ignorance as to the wonders of Iran, it should be noted that Bagh-e Fin is a garden in the midst of the desert. Iranians are noted and praised for their exceptional talent in building paradisal gardens in the heart of the desert such as Bagh-e Fin in Kashan and Bagh-e Shazd-e in Kerman.
But how can a man evidently endowed with critical intelligence fail to understand this simple fact?
What, Can the Devil Speak True?
In his depiction of Iran, Greenblatt is judgmentally biased and even before coming to the country, he had carried with him his baggage of pride and prejudice but what he observed in Iran fiercely challenged his entrenched expectations and dealt a heavy blow to his hidebound beliefs as well as to the hatred he had so keenly harbored in his heart in years about the Islamic Republic of Iran.
To his bewilderment just before him stood women and men who spoke courageously, intelligently, and boldly. Before his very eyes, he beheld women and men whom he had surreptitiously denigrated.
“… and there began a question period, a flood of inquiries and challenges stretching out for the better part of another hour. Most of the questions were from students, the majority of them women, whose boldness, critical intelligence, and articulateness startled me.”
But now his eyes reeled and his head swam when he found himself incapacitated to imbibe all that grandeur of a great nation where he had come with an agenda pushed under his arm by the Zionists before coming to Iran. In fact, the illusion of ‘American Exceptionalism’ which was clearly discernible in his condescending attitude towards the Iranian scholars and students as well as the conference organizers was shattered to smithereens.
That is how the scholar’s neo-Orientalist mission failed altogether. There are serious responses to his illogical and biased essay in Iran and abroad. Even Iranian runaway malcontents like Hamid Dabashi have blasted him for his essay.
The similitude of Greenblatt is as the similitude of a non-practicing scholar whom the Persian poet Sa’di compares to “a bee without honey. Tell that harsh and ungenerous hornet/As thou yield no honey, wound not with thy sting.”
The Rest Is Silence
In Literary Theory Course for PhD program which I am teaching this semester, my students vehemently refused to cover any of Greenblatt’s theories, insisting that I skip him as a critic in our course which I welcomed as I perceived their wounded pride and their monumental mistrust of New Historical theories and other lies represented by Greenblatt.
This commendable display of resilience and patriotism on the part of Iranian students evinced an unbreakable bond between them and their country as well as an overpowering repugnance to the enemies of Iran and those who wish to tarnish the image of the nation.
I can’t say for sure if I for one regard any respect for Stephen Greenblatt as a scholar not because he has made craven efforts to assassinate my character in his cabalistically dictated essay but because he has unforgivably insulted my nation. As William Shakespeare rightly put it, “To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand.”
Mr. Ismail Salami is one of the frequent contributors for The 4th Media.