Capturing the Orient

 ‘Literary Orientalism’ is simply defined either as ‘the depiction of the Orient/ Orientalism in western literary texts’ or ‘the study of the (mis) representation of Islam and Muslims in the English (literary) works’. And it is this sub-field which serves as a window ‘to view the centuries-long, though mostly hostile, relationship between the two major world religions and civilizations, the Christian/ Western and Muslim Orient’.

A significant feature of ‘Literary Orientalism’ is “Romantic Orientalism”: a combination of two words/ concepts, “Romantic”, which refers to the writers, the ideas and culture they reflect, of the Romantic Period (1785–1830), and “Orientalism” (as described, for example, in Edward Said’s path-breaking work ‘Orientalism’, 1978) which refers to the geography and culture of large parts of Asia and Arab World—Middle East & North Africa. This gives a clear idea of the meaning and connotation of the phrase “Romantic Orientalism”.

However, in the (English) literary history, to put it straightforwardly, ‘Romantic Orientalism’ is the recurrence of recognizable elements of Asian and African place names, historical and legendary people, religions, philosophies, art, architecture, interior decoration, costume, and the like in the writings of the British Romantics. Precisely, “Romantic Orientalism”, a significant sub-field of ‘Literary Orientalism’, is a very fascinating, cross-cultural area of study and a substantial category of English literary studies.

The Orientalism of British Romantic literature has roots in the first decade of the eighteenth century, with the earliest translations of The Arabian Nights into English (from a version in French, 1705–08). On the reception of Arabian Nights in England (specifically), Muhsin Jassim Ali (Scherherzade in England, 1981, p. 3) aptly remarked that “Very few books have caught such a spell on the reading public as the Arabian Nights”.

Arabian Nights was applauded and admired for its exoticism, its depiction of strange social manners, and its machinery of such enthralling figures as jinns, fairies, magicians, and talismans. And for E. F. Bleirer (Three Catholic Novels, 1966, p. xxviii), these stories appealed “with a wide range of opportunities, delicacies of style; elaboracies of construction, adventure, eroticism, moralism, sensibility, fantasy, philosophy and irony”. Along with the Arabian Nights, the Persian Tales (1714), Turkish Tales (1708) and Mogul Tales (1736) further strengthened the genre.

Among these, many works of Lord Byron have a special position in the genre of ‘Literary Orientalism’ and in ‘Romantic Orientalism’. That is, in the genre of “Romantic Orientalism”, one of the significant writers is Lord Byron—who is famous, among others, for his ‘Turkish Tales’.

George Gordon Byron (1788—1824)—commonly known as Lord Byron—was an English poet, peer, politician. He is considered as one of England’s greatest poets, a leading figure among the Romantics (Romanticism), and a contemporary of P. B. Shelley (1792-1822) and John Keats (1795-1821). A widely read and influential literary figure, he is described not only as the “major Romantics”, but as the “most fashionable poet of the day” as well. His multi-faceted personality found expression in satire, verse narrative, ode, lyric, speculative drama, historical tragedy, confessional poetry, dramatic monologue, seriocomic epic, etc.

Byron captivated the Western mind and heart as few writers have, stamping upon nineteenth-century letters, arts, politics, even clothing styles, his image and name as the “embodiment of Romanticism” (for details, see Byron Society and The Byron Journal,  http://www.thebyronsociety.com/the-byron-journal).

Though much has been written now on ‘Literary Orientalism’, both from western and eastern perspective, however, in the Indian (rather South Asian) context, the scholar who has been engaged in this field of study is Professor Abdur Raheem Kidwai (Professor of English, Aligarh Muslim University, India). In this area/genre specifically, he is the author of these works: Orientalism in Lord Byron’s Turkish Tales (1995); Literary Orientalism: A Companion (2009); “Perception of Islam and Muslims in English Literature: A Historical Survey” (2001); and Orientalism in English Literature: Perception of Islam and Muslims (2016).

In Orientalism in Lord Byron’s Turkish Tales (1995; originally based on his PhD Thesis submitted to Department of English, University of Leicester, UK, 1993), Kidwai ‘approaches Byron’s Turkish Tales from within the field of Oriental perspective, contributing largely to the existing body of knowledge on the tradition of Orientalism in English literature’. This work is regarded as the first attempt wherein ‘Byron’s intimate grasp of the life of the Orient and his remarkable cross-cultural empathy and insights are pointed out’ in an ‘in-depth study of his Oriental sources, diction, similes and characters’.

Literary Orientalism: A Companion (2009), an edited volume, is ‘a systematic compilation of the instances of Literary Orientalism in English literary and critical texts, organized in six categories: Writers, works and critical studies Critical books Articles and conference presentations’. It has a substantial stuff on Byron as well (pp. 59-70). Orientalism in English Literature (2016) inspects and discusses the image of Muslims and Islam in English Literature through history, and identifies and examines the imperialistic as well as the positive pluralistic perspectives of Islam by the Western world’. The Volume, highlighting the theme ‘of image of Islam and Muslims in English literature’, is a modest attempt of ‘identifying the unfortunate negative portray of Islam/ Muslims in most of the English literary texts and of highlighting and lauding their occasional positive depiction in a few texts’. It has many chapters devoted to Byron and his Turkish tales vis-à-vis Literary Orientalism (like “’Samples of the Finest Orientalism’: Images of the Orient in Lord Byron’s ‘Turkish Tales’”, pp. 44-59).

“On studying the English literary texts”, as Kidwai puts it, “which are representative of Literary Orientalism, one comes across a wide range of responses from sheer hatred and revulsions to demonization, caricature, contempt, ridicule, light-hearted humor, and occasional acclaim, respect and appreciation”. And in the literary works of Lord Byron, especially his ‘Turkish Tales—namely The Giaour (1813), The Bride of Abydos (1813), The Corsair (1814), and The Siege of Corinth (1816)—“stand out for their rich Oriental content and context, [and in] their cross-cultural empathy”. In them, one finds “refreshing, positive Orientalism”, and thus “representing”, what Kidwai terms as, “‘the samples of finest Orientalism’”.

For Seniha Gülderen-Krasniqi & Salih Okumuş (University of Prishtina, Kosovo) the Turkish tales of Byron “brought different novelty from the western world. … The choice of subject and dominant Oriental content in Tales fortifies Byron’s admiration of this region”. His motto was to “stick to the East” as “the public was Orientalizing”.

Among the different characters—persons, places, and possessions (customs, rituals, events, etc.)—he depicts differently the oriental women characters in his four Turkish Tales (see, for example, Dr. Basma Harbi Al-Azzawi and Suad Abed Ali Kareem, “Representations of the Oriental Woman in Lord Byron’s ‘Turkish Tales’”, Journal of Arts, Literature, Humanities and Social Sciences, 4, 2016: 197-207).

However, there are many similarities among their depiction. For example, though in depicting Leila, Zuleika, and Gulnare (in The Giaour, The Bride of Abydos, and The Corsair, respectively) Byron uses different vocabulary, but they are similar as well. All these are “in varying degrees, embodiments of idealized beauty, but have also in common the darker features that they are victims of loveless marriage and of injustice”. Leila and Zuleika, who are casted in a “traditional mould”, “suffer silently and are the cause of tragedy”, while as Gulnare “actually revolts against the conventional gender role”.  For Kidwai, “Byron’s Oriental heroines are, on the whole, true-to-life, subtly used, and reflective of Byron’s cross-cultural sympathies—qualities which are conspicuous by their scarcity in both his predecessors and his contemporaries”.

However, it is important to mention here that in the ‘Turkish Tales’ Lord Byron has depicted Muslim characters, especially female characters/ heroines, in a negative, passive, and distorted form. In a recent work (Images of the Prophet Muhammad in English Literature, 2018, pp. 96-98), Kidwai writes about Byron vis-à-vis orientalism in these words: “Byron’s allusions to Islam, the Prophet and Muslims appear mostly in his Turkish Tales … and occasionally in his Beppo and Don Juan. Since his Turkish Tales have the Oriental locale, the preponderance of Muslim characters in his corpus is not surprising. What is indeed striking and refreshing is that his Muslim characters are largely true to life, reflective of Byron’s cross-cultural sympathies.

These qualities are conspicuous by their scarcity in both his predecessors and contemporaries. Most of his remarks about Muslims do not betray any prejudice. … Throughout his ‘Turkish Tales’ Byron depicts a remarkably positive image of Islam and Muslims.

For example, his Giaour subverts the imperialist and evangelist discourse of the early nineteenth century, built around the belief in the redemptive power of Christianity.  In his Bride of Abydos all characters are Muslims. More importantly, there is no attempt on Byron’s part to Christianize them. So doing, Byron represents a significant departure from convention. His predecessors and contemporaries  are  often  seen  resorting  to  the  strategy  of  redeeming  a  Muslim character by his disavowal of Islam and conversion to Christianity. …. Byron’s Orientalism, including his references to the Prophet is, on the whole, positive, reflecting cross- cultural empathy”.

In sum, Lord Byron has contributed enormously in the literary genre which is generally referred as the ‘Romantic Orientalism’. Most of the Turkish Tales, like other ‘Oriental tales’, have received a great reception, response, and appreciation, through a great deal of research, as becomes evident from the above mentioned works.

Asmat Jan’s M. A.  Dissertation was on ”Romantic Orientalism: A Study of Lord Byron’s ‘Turkish Tales’”