Orientalizing Afghanistan

November 27, 2006

Ever since reading the late Edward Said’s oeuvre Orientalism (essential reading for every student of social sciences and areas studies), it is as if I have found a language to express my frustrations about the nonesense that not infrequently comes out of academia and the media about Afghanistan and the Muslim world at large.

The crucial thing about orientalism is not so much that it misunderstands or misrepresents ‘the other,’ but rather that such representations serve an agenda that bases itself on the “nexus of knowledge and power.” In other words, using certain imagery and words to represent the other is not purely scientific and innocuous, but rather a highly political enterprise, and one that is not inconsequential for both the observer and the one represented. More importantly, in the long term the represented comes to see himself in terms that are used to represent him, he finds his history and identity in the orientalist discourse.

Nearly everything about discussions of Afghanitan reeks of such orientalist stench. Frequently we see the media as well as serious scholars essentialize Afghanis as this or that – and as I have pointed out in an earlier post, not infrequently Afghans fall for this and try to seek out their own true essence in a purported “Afghaniyat” attributed to them. Such discussions are always essentialist, fatalist, and contribute to the misunderstanding of Afghanistan’s problems by both Afghanistan’s people as well as outsiders. There would be a hope for all of this to stop, were it not for the fact that they are also most of the time easy to comprehend than reality (which is far more complex), and they are somehow exotic and attractive – in one word, sexy- to the outside observer. It satisfies some urge for the exotic in the outside observer to see Afghanistan as brave, or fearless, or violent, or devoutly religious, “friecely indepdendent and individualist,” or this or that.

So you can imagine how my Afghaniyat(!) boils over in anger when I read something like this: Afghanistan’s National Pastime, a reporter for time magazine describing how watching a game of Buzkashi helped him make sense of Afghan politics.