Photograph by Asma Balfaqi

Orientalism: A NYUAD Tradition

Why is the knowledge of orientalist attitudes and structures so important to us at NYUAD?

Mar 5, 2017

Encountering the work of cultural critic Edward Said and his seminal theory of Orientalism almost seems like a rite of passage for an NYU Abu Dhabi student.
A post on the NYUAD Confessions page on Feb. 22 said, “Edward Said died too early. ‘Orientalism’ sales at NYUAD Magrudy's would have made him a millionaire.”
Many students agree that the prevalence of Said’s ideas on Orientalism is so enmeshed within the fabric of NYUAD’s curricula that it may be regarded an academic tradition. Even if Said’s text is not assigned, students will certainly encounter excerpts and references to it within other academic works.
But first — what is Orientalism? According to Said, Orientalism is a construction, by the West, of the East that represents neither the actual culture nor truth of the Orient, but merely the Western idea or image of it. In other words, it is an act of ignorant romanticization, one that ascribes unreal, exotic qualities to Eastern cultures without a balanced understanding of them. Orientalist ideas are often found and perpetuated in literary texts, such as in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which means Said’s work regularly crops up in literature classes. However, Orientalism is also studied in theater, film and social sciences, among other disciplines.
But why is the knowledge of orientalist attitudes and structures so important to us at NYUAD? Our location in the Middle East is surely one factor. Orientalism first began as an explanation of the West’s false romanticization of the Middle Eastern region in particular, before the theory was stretched out to include the rest of Asia. Disproportionate, distorted and falsely exotic depictions of the Arab world, not to mention the rest of Asia, are still rampant in the Western media. It’s easy to see then, why Orientalism, and the study of it, still remain so relevant; our global society is clearly still a perpetuator of it.
Another reason for Said’s prevalence in NYUAD classes is, of course, our aim to be a global university, founded on the inclusive principles of multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism. In other words, with a student body representing over 100 different nationalities together on a small campus, it becomes important to discuss theories about interactions, both positive and negative, with people from different cultural backgrounds.
This idea is somewhat addressed in the recent Reading Group Letter, which argues that “Anglo-centric educational privilege” and “Eurocentrism”, along with a “lack of representation of non-white, non-Euro-American … content in instructed material” is still an issue prevalent at NYUAD. It seems that despite the prominent position given to Orientalism and post-colonial theory within NYUAD syllabi, we have not been able to prevent or reduce incidences of students and faculty perpetuating Orientalist and other structurally oppressive ideas — at least according to the Reading Group.
This begs the question: is Said enough? Is placing texts that explain and discuss theories such as orientalism, enough to make our classrooms more global and cosmopolitan, as NYUAD strives to be? These questions remain to be answered — but it is important that we continue to discuss them, both among students and faculty, in order to progress towards more inclusive pedagogies.
Vamika Sinha is Deputy Features Editor. Email her at feedback@thegazelle.org.
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