Orientalism: or “how to sound authentic”

May 11, 2013 § 1 Comment

My summary of the Pakistani General Election is coming. But in the course of writing it I got wracked with liberal guilt about Orientalism and so had to write a lengthy aside. That totally ruined the flow of the piece so I’ve hived it off into a seperate piece. Guilt assuaged, guide not ruined. Here it is:


Edward Said wrote a brilliant and very important book once. It is however exceptionally long and boring. To be honest with you I only finished it because I was stuck in an airport for 36 hours with it. For this reason it is one of the most misunderstood and misquoted books of all time.  Orientalism was a scathing critique of imperialist attitudes within academia, the othering by the west of the rest of the world, and the use of ethnocentric cliché. It did not, however, say:

  • It is totally wrong for anyone to talk about, think about, or even visit any country apart from their own.
  • Cultural anthropology is evil, and sociology and political science are only ok if you do it in a really boring way which means that you interact with your subject matter as little as possible.
  • You can be as glib, othering, ethnocentric, and even downright racist about your subject matter as you like provided you quote the natives saying it about themselves.

But you wouldn’t know it to read some of the guff we’ve been subjected to since.

The problem is that Orientalism sent a generation of guilt wracked liberal lefty types madly spinning round in circles falling over themselves not to be orientalist. And now we are all scared of our own shadows. The result is some really weird conventions have cropped up. Firstly, because everyone loves a good shortcut, we still tend to use ethnocentric chiché – we just try to limit ourselves to one per article. Secondly we all feel the need to talk endlessly about Orientalism, as though name checking it will in some way appease it (ahem). Thirdly, and most tediously, we all try this incredibly grating jokesy self-deprecating style, the idea being that by being only semi-serious we can limit the offence (critics: please accept this own goal with my compliments).

Of course the rest of the world has largely ignored this small section of academia tying itself in knots over nothing. However somewhere along the line some people did pick up on the idea that when writing about places like Pakistan it is now important to sound authentic. I don’t need to write a bluffers’ guide to this because someone already has and it is brilliant. But here’s two extra tips:

1 – Speak Urdu

For historical reasons Urdu is the national language of Pakistan despite not being native to that geography. Even sixty years later nobody really speaks Urdu, most people speak a fused lect of Urdu, English, and various local languages. You can do this too – its just that for you the ratios will be a bit different: 1%-99%-0% say. Just drop “accha”, and “tik hai?” into your sentences at random points. “Accha” and “tik hai?” are great phrases from this point of view in that both can be added to any sentance at any point without substantively changing the meaning.

Even more crucially, the kh at the front of “Khan” and indeed almost any kh is not pronounced as kh in Urdu. It is the Urdu letter خ and it is pronounced as something in between the English letter x and the noise you make when you clear you throat. Pronounce Imran Khan this way and immediately gain +100 Pakistan points. Try to ignore the fact that this is the linguistic equivalent of putting on the “‘Allo ‘Allo” accent every time you say François Hollande.

2 – Tell an anecdote about a time you were in peril.

Preferably from Islamists.


I took this photo. These blokes are from an organisation called Jamaat-ud-Dawa which is the political wing of Lashkar-e-Taiba who were responsible for the Mumbai attacks. They are between me and my hotel and shortly after this photo was taken I was taken in to protective custody. This is probably the biggest amount of danger I have ever been in in Pakistan and to be honest with you I was perfectly safe.

Pakistan has violent extremists in the way the sea has sharks. The sea does have sharks but the sea is absolutely massive and most of it doesn’t have sharks. Moreover we have a fairly good idea where the majority of the sharks live and that still gives us a fair few billion cubic gallons of water which are more-or-less shark free. Even”shark infested” bits of the sea are reasonably safe provided you are a little bit sensible. Of course anyone can get eaten by a shark at any point if the sharks are hungry, or in a bad mood, but realistically it is probably safe to swim in most of the ocean.

To be honest I’m going to leave it there because I don’t find terrorism or extremism that interesting. It sells copy though, which is a shame because it gives people a warped idea of what Pakistan is about. I’d much rather tell my anecdote about the fake cop whose fake badge had a rabbit on it instead of a star, or the washing machine that tried to kill me, or the two servants that I used to take for walks, or the drunk TV guys who used to tell me highly improbable stories about their sexual exploits in Wolverhampton, or the time I accidentally opened a school, or the time I accidentally ended up on Pakistani TV, or the time a security guard yelled at me about Salma Hayek, or the time I played Swiss German card games in Lahore, or the time I went drink driving with a police chief, or the time I witnessed a goat sacrifice, or the time I accidentally walked to Afghanistan, or the time I got wasted with a 97 year old whose grandfather massacred half a British battalion, or the time I found a bunker that had “secret helicopter” in massive yellow writing on it, or the time I walked across this bridge:




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