Orientalism: loss of identity in fear of the “other” within us

While both reading Orientalism by Edward Said and watching Soleil O by Med Hondo, it was clear to me that the works do a great job in explaining in words and visuals the struggles of the colonized. The film, shot over a four year time span with little to no budget, embraces a more ironical tone and approach, offering a radical critique of racism and (neo/post)colonialism. The text considers a more historical and political background in order to better convey the issues at stake. I believe it fairly obvious to catch, but nonetheless very interesting. Hondo and Said’s works, produced in the late 60s and 70s (with citations of contributions from 1910), sound very current, in a way that they could have been written or shot last year. It makes you reflect on the meaning of progress for society.

The two works offer a very copious amount of inspiration for themes to pick and reflect on. However, the main one that I wanted to explore more is the loss of identity of the colonized civilization, in response to the fear of their own “other”.

Orientalism: losing one’s identity

As the film starts, one of the very first scenes that takes place in a church. We see a priest baptizing a group of men that seem to be coming from different places in Africa. As the scene unfolds, they are given new names and we witness a moment of transformation. If the viewer has a religious upbringing, they will interpret it as a moment of re-birth. However, what is really happening is that they are being stripped from their identity “for their own good”.

Similarly, towards the middle of the film, the main character (who, to further prove my point, is never called by first name throughout the film, as he didn’t have one) sits down to have a talk with what seemed a powerful white business man. He tells him that it’s important for black people coming from Africa to France to think like them (Europeans) and give the same meaning to words. Formally, it’s as if immigrants from Africa were asked to undergo a “whitewashing” process in order to be accepted.

Except, as the film showed, no conformity according to the former colonizer’s rules was accepted, not if the people conforming were black and in lack of finances. As the film also mentions: “Dear France, I’m bleached by your culture, but I remain a Negro.” (Hondo)

In his work, Said has an excellent grasp of this erasure of identity. I believe it becomes clearer by explaining it on two levels.

The first level (or layer) justifies this erasure by saying that the colonized simply “did not have it in them to know what was good for them.” (Said 1979, p. 37) Here there is a dynamic of power and knowledge that come into play. Since the countries that came to colonize seem to know more and think more logically than the countries that are being colonized (for what standard – I’d like to ask), then the colonizer is acting in the colonized’s best interest in order to “export ‘the very best to these countries'” (33).

On a second level the oblivion of identity happens when “subject races”, the colonized, are called the Oriental as group. Indeed, this happens as all of populations that are colonized are considered to be behaving in the same way as the others (38). That’s convenient for the colonizer, who believes that the colonized is easily managed, as it’s now categorized and put into specific boxes (that all look the same).

In the end, it seems like that until a large portion of Europeans believe that the natives deserve to be (and are lucky to be!) colonized, but also that Europeans know the “Orient” better than the natives, the term Orient will keep “creating” itself, perpetrating an unbalanced power dynamic.

Said, E. W. (1979). Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.

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