Orientalist Domination and Colonialism

  February 15, 2022   Read time 2 min
Orientalist Domination and Colonialism
In the Russian travelogues about Iran written in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries one of the primary logistical operations is observing the “Orientals” in order to study them.

The “travelees” are positioned on an unequal level and are not allowed to observe the travelers; they are presented as an object of examination and are expected to be passive and silent, allowing the “Orientalists” to observe them. The observer usually remains distant and often presents himself as someone who can see without being seen, as if he were invisible to his “objects”: “The Orient is watched, since its almost (but never quite) offensive behavior issues out of a reservoir of infinite peculiarity; the European, whose sensibility tours the Orient, is a watcher, never involved, always detached.”3 David Spurr devoted a well-argued book to the study of the rhetorical modes, or ways of writing, by Western Europeans about non-Western people. It has proved to be useful for the analysis of the Russian accounts of Iran. The first trope Spurr analyzes is surveillance: “Gazed upon, they are denied the power of the gaze; spoken to, they are denied the power to speak freely.”

Among the Russian travelogues, probably the best example of such “surveillance” is the article by Sergei Cherniaev under the title “Den’ persiianina. Ocherk chastnoi zhizni v Persii” (A Persian’s Day: An Essay on Private Life in Persia). As the author states in his first paragraph, he just talks about “what we have seen,” and he only cares about “the truthfulness of our essay.” Cherniaev follows the events in a typical day of a Persian man of means, including the time he spends in private. Details, presented by the author in a mocking way, create the impression that he is present beside his object, able to observe him from the moment he wakes up in the morning till he goes to bed at night:
With the exception of several weeks during the short winter, the nights in most parts of Persia are very warm; the night sleep of the inhabitants therefore is not deep and quiet . . . It is not easy for a poor Persian, who has spent a night turning from side to side, to get up from under his blanket at that very moment when he starts feeling an opportunity to have some sound sleep. However, the Muslim law is implacable in this case. Having shaken off his laziness and rubbed his sleepy eyes, a Persian immediately seeks consolation in his unfailing friend – the kalian [water pipe]. Without smoking a kalian, he is absolutely unable to start doing anything, even praying, and the first sound that is heard in the hour of morning silence all around Persia is the sound of bubbling water in the kalians. The freshness of the morning air and in general that special inclination to smoke which a person feels on an empty stomach makes the first morning kalian unspeakably sweet for a half-awakened true believer. Its salutary smoke refreshes his brain, drives away the remains of sleep, and the Persian returns to life; now he is ready to start his day with the obligatory praising of Allah and his prophet.

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