The Struggle for Cultural Identity: Orientalism and Occidentalism in Post Colonial Literature

“A post occidental intellectual is able to think at the intersection of the colonial languages of scholarship and the myriad languages subalternized and banned from cultures of scholarship through five hundred years of colonialism.” – Walter Mignolo (qtd. in Cushman).

Snow by Orhan Pamuk

Snow by Orhan Pamuk

The fact that Tariq Ali’s work is rife with Orientalism is interesting in regards to him having been raised in a Muslim culture and later educated at Oxford, that for him, self-fashioning (whether he wishes to admit it or not), is distancing himself from his Muslim roots by Orientalizing his characters in “Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree,” while at the same time Occidentalizing the West in much of his political writings.

On the other hand, Orhan Pamuk goes out of his way in his novel “Snow” to show how his Eastern characters are each individuals that Occidentalize the West.

As an article in “The Paris Review” on Pamuk insightfully pointed out, there are “intricacies of identity in a country that straddles East and West” (Gurria-Quintana 115). Nowhere do those intricacies become more convoluted than when discussing the work of Ali and Pamuk, two Eastern born writers with heightened Western awareness.

Considering the connection that the Arab world had with the scholars of the middle ages it is safe to compare, at least philosophically, an Islamic reformation as being a type of Renaissance. According to an article written by Jahed Ahmed:

One of the prime reasons attributed to Muslims’ intellectual enrichment during middle age is the substantial impact of Greek rationalistic Philosophy on Muslim intellectuals. During seventh & eighth century, Islamic empire was expanded from Spain to Persia and Muslims gained access to works of such great Greek thinkers as Plato, Aristotle, Democritus, Pythagoras, Archimedes and Hippocrates. Consequently, the core of Greek science, literature and philosophy fell into the hands of Muslims (par. 4).

Dr. Perez Hoodbhoy, a professor of nuclear and high-energy physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan wrote an impassioned article that was published first in the Washington Post entitled, “Muslim and the West after September 11” that dealt with this very issue. According to Hoodbhoy, “between the ninth and the thirteenth centuries—the Golden Age of Islam—the only people doing decent science, philosophy, or medicine were Muslims” (par. 16).

The Clash of Fundametalism by Tariq Ali

The Clash of Fundametalism by Tariq Ali

Both Ali and Hoodbhoy speak of their mutual friend, Pakistani professor, Abdus Salam who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979 for the unification of the weak and electromagnetic forces. They speak of him because he is the only Muslim to have won the Nobel Prize for Physics. They also point out that while he was a Muslim when he got the prize, he was later informed by law that he was no longer, by an act of Pakistani Parliament, a Muslim (Hoodbhoy par. 13 and Ali “Clash” 337).

While Professor Salam is a rarity these days, in the past, according to Ali, “The secular or the intellectual […] there were lots of people like that in the medieval Muslim world, lots of people” (Ali Class interview). “But in the twelfth century Muslim orthodoxy [was] reawakened, by […] Imam al-Ghazali [who] […] damned mathematics as against Islam, an intoxicant of the mind that weakened faith” (Hoodbhoy par. 18).

When Ali asked “What explains the rigor mortis?” (337) in “Clash of Fundamentalisms” in terms of why the Muslim world no longer produces intellectuals and scholars it must have something to do with the fact that nowhere in the “Muslim world [are] intellectuals […] allowed to speak their mind when it comes to Islam” (Ahmed par. 30).

Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree by Tariq Ali

Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree by Tariq Ali

The Renaissance model holds true for the characters in Pamuk’s novel, “Snow” who are working with the concept of self-fashioning much like the Europeans were doing in the middle centuries following the re-conquest.

Furthermore, much of the self-fashioning in “Snow” implies a regional desire to resist westernization. For some Muslims, at least, there is echoed a bit of embarrassment in the perception of Muslims being fundamentalist and thereby obsolete. The example given by Hoodbhoy in his article about two nuclear engineers in Pakistan who “proposed to solve Pakistan’s energy problems by harnessing the power of genies” (par. 15) goes a long way in explaining this archaic thought process linked with fundamentalism and also the deep desire for many Muslims to self-fashion for the West.

This “pseudoscience” as Hoodbhoy refers to it as, is widely detrimental to not only an Islamic reformation but also to any possibility of a national, political, literary or spiritual Renaissance in the East.

When deciding how best to get the attention of Europe with an article to be printed in a German paper, this sentiment is echoed in the Islamist militant character Blue who “had decided the West would take the statement more seriously if the Kurdish nationalist who signed it was also an atheist” (Pamuk “Snow” 268-69).

This attitude is repeated by Ali who said in his book “Clash of Fundamentalism,” that in “the second half of the last century a large proportion of educated Muslims had embraced modernity. They realized that organized religion was an anachronism” (15). As Hoodbhoy points out, “Islam choked in the vice like grip of orthodoxy” (par. 19). Surely it was intentional that some of the characters in “Snow” are aware that the Muslim faith might be considered by the West to be outdated.

That self-fashioning has become a form of resistance is not all that surprising: As Ali said, “There were others […] that professed the faith, but […] they did so sheepishly” (Ali “Clash” 15). However, Ali decided to write “Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree” because he saw a famous person on BBC during the time of the Gulf War that said, “The Arabs are a people without a culture” (Ali class interview).

Undoubtedly, the need to resist Westernization for the characters of “Snow” is linked to Pamuk’s experiences with the West. In his novel he seems to make quite an argument that even though his character’s are engaging in Occidentalism quite openly, it is necessary for their survival: They must stay true to their roots.

Wishing for acceptance of the West can destroy a person, “There’s no escaping humiliation except by proving at the first opportunity that you think exactly as they do.” This is echoed by Ali who in “Clash of Fundamentalisms” wrote, “For the West democracy means believing in exactly the same things that they believe” (332).

One of the best reasons to resist Westernization in the novel “Snow” at least is that “it can break a man’s pride” (277). Though for some of the characters of “Snow” in order to oppose the West on some level, one must Occidentalize, “even if they gave me a visa [to Germany] I wouldn’t go” (276). It is precisely the “othering” of the West that lends individualism to the characters who are able to gain momentum in their self-fashioning by being critical of the Occident, “[if] the first Western man I met in the street turned out to be a good person who didn’t even despise me, I’d still mistrust him, just for being a Westerner, I’d still worry that he was looking down on me” (277).

So while the stereotyping is on the surface, so too then is still the desire to be accepted: The Kurdish youth who spoke the sentence is concerned that he will be judged unfairly. The desire to be seen as an individual and not as a “brainless, lazy, dirty, clumsy fool […] from a poor country” (276) is inherent in all the characters of “Snow.”

Even as they resist Westernization by engaging in Occidentalism they yearn for acceptance through their impassioned need to be seen as individuals, “It’s as if they’re saying, ‘I’m so sorry I’m not a Westerner’” (277) while at the same time shouting, “We will never be Europeans” (277).

While there is a strong desire to resist the West, there is also a need to be accepted by them. Turget Bey is one character who wants to be accepted by the West, “I wish to prove to the Europeans that in Turkey, too, we have people who believe in common sense and democracy” (272). It seems to him that if he can get the West to accept the fact that the people of the East are in many ways like the people of the West than surely not only will the East be legitimate, but they will also not be the “other.”

For a Kurdish boy in “Snow,” a desire for acceptance embraces the subconscious need to merely be taken seriously, “We’re not stupid, we’re just poor! And we have a right to want to insist on this distinction” (275). The need to be acknowledged is tied explicably with the need to be seen as a legitimate culture, one that has a justifiable voice in the fabric of humanity. No matter what though that cultural identity is once again linked with Occidentalism.

For the characters of “Snow” there are constant attempts to individualize but it is consistently linked with the need to stereotype the West, “When they write poems or sing songs in the West, they speak for all humanity. They’re human beings — but we’re just Muslims. When we write something, it’s just called ethnic poetry” (279). Blue is also strongly effected by this same sentiment of being able to be heard “not just in Kars and Istanbul but also in Frankfurt […] we’re not speaking to Europe […] we’re speaking to all of humanity” (271). For the characters of “Snow” putting down the West is part and parcel to elevating the East.

For Ali who thinks that the time for an Islamic Reformation was in the ninth through the twelfth centuries and that even though it should happen, “it won‘t happen unless the West stops interfering with that world” (Ali class interview) it is little wonder that he perpetuates stereotypes.

Tariq Ali

Tariq Ali

If there is a historical value in the description of the secularism with the family in the book “Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree” it is weakened by the juxtaposing of jarring descriptions that reinforce negative stereotypes of the Islamic world. When it comes to “Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree” there is a pervasive “Orientalist imagination” (Harrison 124) in Ali’s work.

“The alluringly and unassimilably foreign and exotic” (Harrison 124) descriptions of food; “four separate dishes […] a plate of sweetmeats […] heavily spiced […] lamb, rabbits stewed in fermented grape juice […] brown truffles (Ali 17) are just the beginning of the Orientalism in this post colonial literature. Zuhayr “cut[s] a very fine figure as he raced out of the village” (Ali 28) on horseback.

He was known as Zuhayr the Stallion: The typical image of the young Arabian knight. Other images that we have grown accustomed to when reading fiction of the orient are not overlooked in Ali’s work. The young boy Yazid even had his brush with stereotypes when “the overpowering scent of jasmine flooded his senses like hashish and made him drowsy” (Ali 11).

There is something insidious about it even, because it obviously goes beyond historical relevance when a nine year old likens the scent of flowers to an illegal street drug.

There are numerous more examples of Orientalism with descriptions of wild parties, loose Arab sex and other exotic images that seem bent on proving a secular Muslim culture, but is at the expense of not ultimately deepening empathy in the western audience for which it was written? Ali though claims that “it is fatal to imagine an audience” (class interview).

Perhaps then the audience is an audience of one? Perhaps Ali writes to discover his own fractured identity that has been split between the two prevailing cultures of East and West, not even realizing it.

When it comes to female identity in post-colonial literature certainly both Ali and Pamuk have a difficult time understanding the motivations of women and thus paint them as beautiful and exotic creatures. What is of particular interest is that Ali, who wrote his novel in response to the Arabs not having a culture, seems bent on proving centuries of Orientalism rather than destroying it. Following is an excerpt from the Ali interview at University of Michigan.

It is quite telling in that it shows how Ali is divorced from reality. His own identity seems confused: It is not patently absurd to deduce that a large portion of his bewilderment can be traced to his Eastern childhood and subsequent Western education; furthermore, he seems unable, despite all evidence to the contrary to see that “ism” does exist in his novel “Shadows the Pomegranate Tree” : That of Orientalism and sexism.

Q: One thing that women characters in comparison to male characters…are used less frequently, do you think that contributes to maybe the fact that sometimes it seems as though you are portraying them only in an Oriental fashion, like you’re playing to the stereotype of the Oriental / Arab woman?

Ali: Just the opposite [omitted interviewer interjection], the women characters are portrayed as very strong.

Q: But they are exotic and they are kind of very sexually liberated.

Ali: The wise queen sexually liberated herself.

Q: That’s part of the Oriental stereotype.

Ali cannot see the Orientalism or the sexism in his novels. He cannot see that only creating women who are virile and sexually active or have a history of sexual wantonness, or a history of being sexually objectified as being 1) repressive and 2) obscenely occupied in “ism.” Really, there seems to be no other value for them.

Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk

Additionally, in Pamuk’s “Snow,” Ipek is strong and smart but she’s also first and foremost in nearly every account of her astoundingly beautiful. The character Orhan in “Snow” struggles even to “fathom its depths” (412).

When Pamuk’s female character Kadife removes her head scarf in the final pages of the book, “Snow,” “all of Kars gazed in awe at Kadife’s long, beautiful brown hair, which the cameraman finally screwed up his courage to show in tight focus” (403).

Furthermore, while Pamuk seems to think that there is some freedom in this so-called sexual liberated female there is a definite line in the sand that should not be crossed. In other words, Kadife can only go so far in her cathartically staged unveiling. The last thing she would want is to be seen as the infamous devil with the blue dress on, “[the American woman] was wearing a blue dress with straps” (Pamuk “Snow” 280) (italics added for emphasis).

One thing absolutely fundamental in both Orientalism and Occidentalism is that the women must be seen as whores, “We’ve all seen European women like that […] we’ve all been tempted by the devil” (Pamuk “Snow” 280). Not surprisingly, according to Ali, his representations of women in literature was met with umbrage, “In the Book of Saladin, for instance, the lesbian love affair between two women, now that shocked people in Turkey […] lots of Islamic people got up and complained.

They were saying, ‘Why have you portrayed something which couldn’t have happened?’” (Ali class interview). It is wondrous that Pamuk, a Turk, paints Western women as being whores, but, according to Ali the Turkish people cannot comprehend that their women could even be homosexual let alone be relegated to the status of being a whore.

While both writers struggle to represent women in their novels, Ali had an admittedly harder task in that he was writing about medieval women of which little is recorded. The strange thing about the women in “Snow” though, in particular that of Kadife, is that since the novel is set in modern times and surely had real-life counterparts that could be consulted and observed, she ends up being a practical literary twin of Sophocles’ Antigone. Side by side, Kadife and Antigone stack up almost to the letter.

Pamuk, created the character Kadife to be nearly identical to Antigone and whether it was intentional (like August Wilson who wrote Fences and created his main character, Troy, on the blue print of Oedipus) or subconscious is not as important so much as recognizing that Eastern women remain a mystery to men, to the extent that rather than refreshing their roles, they are merely reprised. Both Ali and Pamuk fall back on “ism” and they both seem unable to realize that.

That Kadife would share some traits with her ancient sister is not really all that remarkable though, when once again considering the influence that the Greeks had on the Muslim intellectuals during the Golden Age of Islam. Both Antigone and Kadife have immense respect for their fathers and furthermore, it is reciprocated.

For instance, Oedipus realized that if it was not for his daughter’s kindness and strength he would have a harder life than he already did, “But it was from these, girls as they are, as far as their nature could, I had my sustenance, and ground to tread on without fear, and the support of kinfolk” (Oed Col 446-49). Sophocles was clearly showing that Antigone was an important supporter of her father, much in the same way that Pamuk shows Kadife to be in that same role when she helps her father down some dark stairs and he says to her, “Don’t let go of my arm” (267).

Turget Bey needs his daughter, and she seems to adore him as well: “’What a brave man you are, Father!’ [Said Kadife] And then he did what he always did when he heard his daughters utter these words […] [he] enfolded Kadife in his arms and shuddering, kissed her cheeks” (267). This deep abiding respect that both literary women share for their fathers seems somehow to raise them to a higher level, above common women: They are special.

Also, both Antigone and Kadife are women that negotiate matters of state, are fiercely independent and are involved in self-fashioning and ultimately are faced with either upholding religious values and suffering political fallout or as Pamuk states it, “faced with two important decisions — one about baring her head, the other about committing suicide” (“Snow” 395).

When Kadife addresses the men at the meeting for the German paper, the narrator points out that they were “[unaccustomed] to seeing a woman address a political meeting with such confidance” (Pamuk “Snow” 270). 

Postcolonial Criticism by Nicholas Harrison

Postcolonial Criticism by Nicholas Harrison

Sophocles, by giving Antigone her own play in which she buries her brother despite the law saying it is punishable by death makes her plight pitied by the people, but commanded by the gods. Sophocles, like Pamuk was observing the ability of a woman to be strong and act according to her own beliefs. Kadife is clearly autonomous and secure in herself, “she was the only one in the room to stand up when she was speaking” (272).

When it comes to suicide, both Kadife and Antigone have strong opinions that seem motivated by a higher calling. For Antigone, her actions and words seem to be provoked purely by the commands of the gods and furthermore, the people are on her side. In this way Sophocles and Pamuk were effectively able to create righteous and strong female characters who were not afraid to die. Furthermore, Antigone came to the conclusion that there was a freedom in death that she was not able to achieve in the living world, “How can such as I, that live / among such troubles, not find a profit in death?” (Ant. 463-64).

Kadife also attempts to show the benefits of death when she says, “In a city where men are killing each other like animals just to make it a happier place, who has the right to stop me from killing myself?” (Pamuk “Snow” 394). For both women, death takes on an almost mystical and very important role. The chorus in Antigone said, “Surely it is great renown / for a woman that dies, that in life and death / her lot is a shared lot with demigods” (Ant. 834-36). This stance is echoed by Kadife who says that women kill themselves “to show their pride” (397).

Furthermore, according to Kadife, “Women kill themselves because they hope to gain something” (Pamuk “Snow” 397). Surely Antigone hoped to gain freedom from a slow and agonizing starvation death in the cave, so did she hope to gain freedom in her suicide? Was Kadife channeling her literary twin when she said, “women commit suicide to escape all forms of punishment” (398)? And here’s another question: How much has changed for the women of Turkey if a popular culture literary heroine is based on a woman from ancient Greece? The character Creon in Antigone is of the mind that only men were able to be in charge, “While I am alive no woman shall rule” (Ant. 527).

He was convinced that maleness was a prerequisite for leadership ability. This attitude about women, set against Antigone’s rebellion against the state, made her ability to rule over her own self that much more poignant and is repeated in Kadife’s statement on the independence of women when she claims that, “It’s not my intelligence that frightens you, you fear me because I am my own person […] here in our city, men don’t fear their women’s intelligence, they fear their independence” (401).

While Kadife does not go through with the suicide in the end, and Antigone does, Kadife is still imprisoned at the end of the story: Much like Antigone she is locked away. This creation of a modern strong female character based on an ancient one shows that Muslim women, still to this day have a very small and painfully insignificant voice, even smaller than the Muslim men, in today’s culture.

As Ali pointed out in the University of Michigan class interview, a Muslim twelfth century scholar wrote in one of his treaties that “a world in which half of the population is treated like vegetables, i.e. women, and not allowed their part in governing the state, will atrophy and die.”

In a sense then, by basing Kadife on Antigone (consciously or not), Pamuk shows that part of the major problem with the concept of an Islamic reformation lies squarely with a seemingly cultural bias in allowing women to self-fashion along with the men. Kadife though pushes forward to self-fashion when she considers what to tell the German papers, “I have a few things to say to the German papers, write them down […] [tell them] a young woman of Kars — no don’t write that; say a Muslim girl who lives in Kars” (281). The idea that she is thinking about how her audience will view her and changing her statement to suit that is indeed the very definition of self-fashioning.

Unquestionably the situation of cultural identity in the East is tied both understandably and mysteriously to the West. If Ali is not conscious of his Orientalism than it is because his individuality is based on his need to Westernize. On the other hand, the characters of “Snow” need to engage in Occidentalism to individualize.

The fact that both Pamuk and Ali are Eastern born men with varying degrees of exposure to the West cannot be overlooked when it comes to the things they write about and the core beliefs they hold on Eastern identity.

Our Post Colonial Criticism class went out to eat with Tariq Ali on University of Michigan, Winter semester 2009.

Our Post Colonial Criticism class went out to eat with Tariq Ali on University of Michigan, Winter semester 2009.

Ultimately, the need for one culture to “other” the other is detrimental, steeped in fallacies, and while stereotypes do exist for a reason, perhaps the biggest reason is that they are perpetual. In a continuous attempt to individualize themselves, the characters of “Snow” are torn between their hatred of the West while at the same time showing numerous examples where they wish to be accepted by the West.

Indeed, the concept of self-fashioning for the characters of “Snow” becomes so mottled that some characters start to believe that if they do achieve individual identity than they are playing directly into the hands of the West. Conversely, Ali Orientalizes his characters in a perhaps subconscious attempt to show how different he is from them, but at the same time Occidentalizes in much of his political writings.

In a similar vein, the characters of “Snow” Occidentalize the West to show how different they are from them. But in the end, the differences become the similarties, in the end, perhaps, (hopefully) the “intricacies of identity” will not be the rope that hangs us, but the ties that bind us together.

 Works Cited

Ahmed, Jahed. “Islam’s Lost Heritage.” 14 January 2007. 18 April 2009. <;

Ali, Tariq. Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree. London: Chatto & Windus. 1992.

Ali, Tariq. Clash of Fundamentalism. London: Verso. 2002.

Cushman, Ellen. “The Public Intellectual, Service Learning, and Activist Research.” Cross Talk in Comp Theory. Ed. Victor Villanueva. Urbana, IL.: National Council of Teachers of English, 2003. 819-828.

Gurria-Quintana, Angel. The Paris Review: Issue 175. “Orhan Pamuk: The Art of Fiction No. 187.” 2006. 115-141.

Hoodbhoy, Perez. “Muslims and the West After September 11.” Free Inquiry Magazine, Volume 22 Number 2. 18 April 2009. Council for Secular Humanism. <;

Harrison, Nicholas. Postcolonial Criticism. Cambridge: Polity Press. 2003.

Pamuk, Orhan. Snow. New York: Random House. 2004.

Sophocles. Antigone. Trans. David Greene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1991.

Sophocles. Oedipus at Colonus. Trans. David Greene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1991.

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