“Each age and society re-creates its “Others.”
The Edward Said quote above is from his seminal book Orientalism. While the book itself is a dense, sometimes difficult book to read, the message can be summed up in the following passage:
…”the essence of Orientalism is the ineradicable distinction between Western superiority and Oriental inferiority, (Throughout the book the Middle Easterner is called the Oriental) then we must be prepared to note how in its development and subsequent history Orientalism deepened and even hardened the distinction.”
In short, Said argues that because of a colonial history dating back to The Crusades, the West has always viewed the East as inferior and that these stereotypes are the roots of the underlining racism that feed the War on Terror and Israeli aggression in Palestine.
Throughout the Self-Portrait challenge process, I have wanted my portraits to be more artistic than political, but sometimes the line is difficult to draw. I guess the best way to wrestle art away from politics to make it personal. So here is my story and my portrait. Keeping with the theme of enclosed spaces. I have chosen the enclosed space of living in the Middle Eastern Stereotype thrust upon the Middle Eastern world by the West.
I was born in Iran in 1974, a relatively calm period in my nation’s turbulent history. Most people, American in particular, are not familiar with the fact that Iran is one of the only Middle Eastern nations that is not made up of Arabs. We speak our own language, Farsi, and while we share similar culture traits, we have a culture separate from that of our Arab neighbors.
But the War on Terror does not make these distinctions, and so neither will I for this piece. I will stand in solidarity with my Arab brothers and sisters, since I am persecuted in the same manner for being an Oriental. We, Iranians and Arabs a like, have been vilified for years. I cannot remember ever seeing a film that shows a rational, calm Middle Eastern man, or an independent woman, in the last twenty years.
Said goes on to say, “on the one hand there are Westerners, and on the other are Arab-Orientals; the former are rational, peaceful, liberal, logical, capable of holding real values, without natural suspicion; the latter are none of these things.”
Our women are subservient, sheltered victims needing liberation from the West, while our men are angry, scowling demons hell bent on destroying Western civilization. The term terror has become synonymous with Arab. On the TV we are always seen in large crowds, often chanting and beating our chests, but never does the West see into our homes and private lives. Never do they see our woman dancing and clapping, never do they taste our foods, or hear our music. Never do they see our galleries, or read our poetry.
This racism is so deeply ingrained in the West that even I was infected by it. I left Iran in 1979 and spent the next twenty something years growing up in California. I finally made a trip back to Iran in 2002. Because of the through brainwashing I had received as a child during the Reagan years, I expected to see a country shrouded in grief and deprivation. I expected to see bearded soldiers, policing the state for accordance of Islamic law. But what I saw was a vibrant, dynamic, beautiful country. The people were generous, hospitable, funny, and diverse. Walking the streets of Tehran, I reconnected with my culture. The sounds of Farsi being spoken, the food, and music, all the thing that make us who we are were on display everywhere I looked. But nowhere in the West are these Iranians shown. We have been lumped in the crowd, and we have become the other. I am planning on taking my American wife and new daughter to Iran soon, so they too can experience the Iran I know exists, but I can feel her trepidation and fear. It is this fear that feeds the racism. It is the same fear you feel when you see me board a plane. It is the same fear that traps me in your version of who I am meant to be.
In my portrait, I chose to wear a Shemagh, this is a traditional Arabic headscarf and not traditionally worn in Iran, but if the West chooses to assume I am an Arab than I will stand in solidarity with my Iraqi, Palestine and now Lebanese neighbors. Although I grew up in the West, I still feel the claustrophobia of living in the shadow of Arab racism. I feel it every time I travel and I am asked to be searched a second or third time; I feel it every time someone mentions a terror act and looks to me for some kind of explanation, as if I somehow understand these insane actions.
All over the world we, Middle Easterners, are forced to live in the enclosed spaces of racist stereotyping and Western fear. I hope someday we can share our cultures as equals. I am normally not very nationalistic, and I frown upon patriotism, but I am very proud of my Iranian heritage. We are a kind, open, and sensual people. We need not be feared. After all we have been here since the beginning of civilization, we started the concept, so it is not fair to now be painted as the barbarians. Someday soon, the people of the world will unite and see that we have more in common than we have differences. I encourage you to go to Iran, see for yourself. I assure you will be welcomed with open arms
Self-Portrait: Enclosed Space of a Stereotype: