An old friend is visiting from Mumbai, and I take her to an exhibition called “The Lure of the East”, showing how British Orientalist artists from the 1790s to 1920s saw the world beyond the Mediterranean: British aristocrats dressed as pashas, their women as princesses, imagined harems and decorative interiors of Muslim homes, teeming bazaars, and quaint relationships between classes and sexes. As social commentary, the exhibition is outstanding, telling us as much about the observer as the observed.
The paintings reveal how “the other” differs, and the impulsive colonial response, of curiosity, attraction, and voyeurism. There is a certain shock at work, but there is also awe. In 1978, Edward Said debunked cloying imperial sentimentality in his book Orientalism, saying Western scholars depicted the East as “exotic” with a deep political bias, where Eastern men are devious, feminine and weak; Eastern women are enchanting, sensuous and passive; its societies mysterious and confusing; and the region itself justifying preconceived notions of a superior Western order. Said has redefined — or reoriented — the way we look at postcolonial societies.
Some scholars disagree with the implication that racism drove the colonial impulse. In Ornamentalism: How the British Saw their Empire (2002), David Cannadine argued that far from seeing Malayan sultans, African tribal chiefs and Indian maharajahs as their inferiors, many Britons were in awe of that royalty.
So what was it, shock, or awe? And why did it matter that afternoon?
Later that evening, as we went for a walk by the Serpentine, the lake in Hyde Park, what we saw could have been Georges Seurat’s painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, except that almost everyone we saw was Muslim. There were men in white and women in black, some women (their heads covered by scarves) revealing their faces, their children insisting on ice cream: It was a hot, but cheerful, evening. Nobody looked angry, no one felt threatened, and there was none of the charged, edged undertone that dictates perceptions of Muslims in Britain.
The irony was that in one of Britain’s leading parks, nobody around us “looked” English. In Hanif Kureishi’s novel, Something to Tell You (2008), the protagonist celebrates London as “the city of exiles, refugees and immigrants, those for whom the metropolis was extraterrestrial and the English codes unbreakable”, which meant they created their own codes.
The people in the park acted as if they owned the place. In a charming essay in The New York Times in 2005, the writer Suketu Mehta talks of his grandfather strolling in a London park, when an Englishman confronts him: “Why are you here?” Mehta writes, “My grandfather responded, ‘We are the creditors. We are here because you were there.’”
That evening, nobody asks the Muslim families, or us, brown desis, for that matter, why we are there. Some would like to ask, but they are on the other side of the lake. As we cross the bridge, we see white families lying on the grass. Nobody has planned that separation; it is there.
It is striking how different the two groups look. Fully-clothed on one side, near-nakedness (in some cases) on the other. In 2006, Jack Straw, a leading Labour Party politician, wrote how he felt uneasy talking to someone he could not see, criticizing Muslim women who wear the niqab (the veil that reveals only their eyes).
Straw had identified a simmering issue, now part of Britain’s cultural wars. The French solution was simple: outlaw the veil, though now there is awareness that some women may want to wear the veil. At the art gallery, we had seen a William Holman Hunt painting of a Cairene lantern-maker “feeling” a woman’s veiled face. Denied the pleasure of looking at her, he must imagine by running his fingers over her veil. Her curled toes indicate her discomfort, but her eyes are impassive. An embarrassed British pedestrian in a top hat hurries away. That was the Victorian age.
Straw’s discomfort with the niqab, and the woman’s choice to cover her face, show the gap the two must travel. Straw’s liberal impulse, to free the woman, is right; but he is wrong in assuming that the veil is her prison. The woman has the right to wear the veil, but only if she wants to; it is wrong if she is forced to wear it.
Negotiating that gap is not easy, so stereotypes prevail. Later that night at home, we see images of the blasts in Bangalore and Ahmedabad. The police are searching bearded Muslim men on motorcycles. It is not unreasonable, given the context, but that’s where disconnect begins, where we judge people by how they look.
Few people carry their intent on their sleeve. Motives aren’t always visible. And piercing the veil is not easy. We can start by discarding our prejudices and preconceptions.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Comments are welcome at email@example.com.