The men fuelled by their desire to reorient the East

Empire to Orient - The Orientalist
March 24, 2006

I never left Dublin;" wrote Sean O'Casey. "Joyce never left Dublin. You cannot leave Dublin - you carry it round on your back for the rest of your life, like an elephant with his howdah." English travellers in the East have carried a similar load, and although many have worn their howdahs lightly, their cultural interactions are profoundly shaped by England.

In From Empire to Orient , Geoffrey Nash explores a succession of Oriental travellers who took seriously the traditional societies of the Muslim East, in the teeth of imperial policy: David Urquhart, W. G. Palgrave, Wilfrid Blunt, Lord Curzon, Edward Browne and Marmaduke Pickthall. Curzon is the odd man out among these urbane rebels; he (along with Lord Cromer, Percy Cox and Arnold Wilson) provides the "Orientalist" theme to which the five others, the counter-Orientalist "troublemakers", play counterpoint. Each appropriated a culture and "spoke for" it - Urquhart, Palgrave and Pickthall taking Turkey; Blunt, Egypt; and Curzon and Browne, Persia.

What Nash demonstrates is their ultimate inability to accept Muslim society on its own terms. They moved only within the relationship between the metropolis and the ancient cultures in the path of its geopolitical steamroller, as they sought a good relationship between Britain and the Islamic East. They had intimate experience of Muslim societies, but their stage was London, their tools were pamphlets, books, committees and letters to The Times .

The Orientalist discourse was a purposeful interpretation of the cultures it subjugated, "the code of the childish, irrational Oriental, incapable of governing himself, and therefore apt subject for European tutelage". The counter-Orientalists refused to accept this infantilisation and proposed very different models for relationships with the Muslim East. All accepted that Muslim nations needed "reform"; that their future depended on accommodation with European modernity. None questioned the alien idea of nationalism. But they looked for altruism, a British empire that would protect and seek mutual benefit: Urquhart wrote that "power should be deployed in such a way as to create reciprocity (though not... total equality), in preference to a wholesale European takeover of the Orient."

Urquhart believed that "not only were things done differently in the East, they were done more morally", and that the East had virtues in some ways preferable to England's. He understood that even goodwilled Western analysis subverts its subject by imposing its own categories and concepts:

"to be able to convey thoughts, (a traveller) must feel as they do, and describe those feelings in a language that is not theirs; and that is an overwhelming task." He sought solutions in indigenous political traditions; but whatever he intended, they were solutions to European problems.

And here, in "not total equality", is the fundamental contradiction: none advocated leaving these societies alone (clearly impractical) or treating them as equal partners (practically unthinkable). They were inescapably part of a world system that even Blunt and Browne could imagine only in European terms. Above all, what needed reform was Islam. For Curzon, "a cause of atrophy, an enemy of progress", it was the heart of the solution for Nash's troublemakers. Palgrave wrote of "Mahometan Revival". Blunt knew Jamaluddin al-Afghani and Mohammed 'Abdu and promoted a reformed, modernist Islam as "the Cause of Good". Browne looked to Babism to reinvigorate Persia. Pickthall became a Muslim. Their positioning towards Islam was "a decisive variant between imperialist and anti-imperialist discourses."

But they could not simply accept Islam as itself: support for Tanzimat, Babism, Islamic modernism or an Arabian caliphate were external attempts to fit Islam into a European world. Today we hear constantly, again, about "modernising" - in effect Anglicanising - Islam, and we harbour the same chimerical conviction that all societies necessarily converge upon a single modernity. There are, within Islam, impulses that push Muslims in many directions, some (we dimly perceive) reassuring, some (equally dimly) threatening. But it is naive to believe that the West can guide debates between Muslims, and the words "moderate" and "mainstream" used by Western politicians are often a kiss of death.

All these travellers shared an appreciation of the exotic. "Do we ever," Curzon asked, "escape from the fascination of a turban, or the mystery of the shrouded apparitions that pass for womenI?" It was shared, too, by a pampered boy in pre-revolutionary Azerbaijan, staring from his nursery window onto vulgar, oil-rich, multicultural Baku. Lev Nussimbaum was a Jew who imagined a spiritual home in the East; and was then swept by Bolsheviks, Nazis and adventures across Persia, the Caucasus and interwar Europe, human flotsam on a Nansen passport. Like Palgrave, his "perception of his own identity was flawed", and he reinvented himself serially. "His main survival skill - his imagination - was," writes Tom Reiss in his delightful biography The Orientalist , "uniquely appropriate to someone who had lived in a gilded cage dreaming of adventure, until events more dramatic than he could ever have imagined suddenly erupted around him."

Reiss unpicks the cocoon of Lev's fictions. He was indeed a pre-Saidean Orientalist, an apt student of language and culture who wrote widely on the East and on Islam. Reiss's tremendous evocation of emigre Berlin in the 1920s reveals a bewildered Lev, desperate to escape poverty and Russianness; who saw Jewishness as a ticket to the more generous multiethnic society of Urquhart's and Palgrave's Ottoman Empire. Reiss delineates the often forgotten phenomenon of Jewish Orientalism that flourished in interwar Berlin, "the catalyst for a rebirth of the Orient and the end of its subjugation to European colonial might".

Lev's imagination made him a novelist (his Ali and Nino , written as Kurban Said, is still the Great Azeri Novel) and a serious but not over-earnest Muslim -looking, in Islam, for what Reiss calls "cultural shelter". Ali and Nino celebrates the "cosmopolitan Caucasus on the eve of the revolution - when a hundred races and all the religious groups fought together only in battles of poetry in the marketplace". When Lev converted to Islam in 1922 he was signing up not only to a religion, but to the vast, multicultural polity of the Ottoman caliphate. Within a year it was abolished, and Lev was left a refugee from an imaginary homeland.

His second identity as Essad Bey was an assertion of Eastern cosmopolitanism, shaped by childhood and exile. His third, as Kurban Said, enabled him to continue publishing, once "outed" as a Jew by the Nazis. He was both a brave assertion of an imagined East untainted by European nationalism and a demonstration of the futility of resisting what Browne called "the 'White Peril' that threatens Asia".

He died in 1942 in a pensione in Positano, destitute and consumed by a ghastly necrotising disease. Known simply as "the Muslim", he was buried in the town's clifftop cemetery, under an elegant Ottoman headstone topped with a turban. In a curious way, he illustrates the ultimate futility of the counter-Orientalists' quest for differently framed relationships with the East: a self-fashioned Ottoman, ground down by millstones of nationalism and "modernity", he died stateless, a Muslim Jew precariously protected from death by Italian friends, and then forgotten for 60 years except as the pseudonymous national author of a people reluctant to accept that he was Jewish.

Martin Rose is director of Counterpoint, the British Council's think-tank on cultural relations. He has worked extensively in the Middle East.

Empire to Orient: Travellers to the Middle East 1830-1926

Author - Geoffrey Nash
Publisher - Tauris
Pages - 252
Price - £24.50
ISBN - 1 80543 767 X

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