Through the Looking Glass: The Oriental Roots of Mickey Mouse and Brer Rabbit Are a Well-Kept Secret. but for Centuries Animal Fables Have Bridged the Divide between East and West, Finds Marina Warner

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The celebrated polemic that Edward Said mounted in his 1978 study Orientalism has come under heavy artillery recently, and his attackers, in their often abusively personal animus against Said (Christopher de Bellaigue in the Times Literary Supplement takes a swipe at his shoes), do less than justice to an argument that his oeuvre develops--an alternative story about intercultural exchange and influence over une longue duree, as displayed so vividly in the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Said's thinking about culture enriched the polemical thrust of Orientalism, evolving his thinking and giving it nuance: I once went to hear him lecture at Cambridge on Berlioz's Troyens fully expecting scathing comments about the representation of Trojan barbarians (subalterns), but, instead, he dwelt admiringly on the opera's musical perfections.

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There is a counter-narrative about the Orient and western culture, one opposed to hostility and greed as the operating dynamics of culture. It traces the mutual interrelationship of literature, stressing this symbiosis against ideas of ethnic fingerprinting and cultural clash. In this respect, Brer Rabbit and Mickey Mouse are the descendants of the jackal Dimna and his friends in the 8th-century Arabic story cycle The Mirror for Princes, also known as Kalila wa Dimna (Kalila and Dimna) after its animal protagonists. It reprises many of Aesop's fables, and both collections descend from a Persian version, itself deriving ultimately from the Sanskrit Panchatantra, written in the 2nd century BCE. La Fontaine, the defining ironist of French worldly wisdom, willingly admitted his dependence on both Aesop and Kalila wa Dimna, but few people know that proverbial chestnuts about cunning and folly, such as "The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing", "The Ass in the Lion's Skin", "The Raven and the Swan", "The Tortoise and the Eagle" or "The Lion and the Mouse", have non-western origins.

The animal fable as a principle of civilisation appears under the name of many western philosophers and moralists, including Swift and Voltaire. Ros Ballaster, in her study Fabulous Orients: fictions of the east in England 1662-1785, cites a wonderful example of such storytelling in action from the Spectator of 1712, where the essayist Joseph Addison relates how a cunning vizier tells his tyrannous sultan that he's been taught by a dervish how to understand the speech of birds. They spot a pair of owls haunting a ruin, and the sultan challenges his vizier to listen and report back on what they are saying. So the vizier approaches the birds, but comes back prevaricating and saying that he dare not tell his master. The sultan insists, naturally, and with a great show of reluctance the vizier tells him that the owls are discussing the marriage of their son and daughter, and they are bargaining over the dowry. The father of the groom demands fifty ruined villages. The father of the bride retorts that fifty is nothing; he will lavish on her five hundred. And the bird then blesses the sultan: "Long life to Sultan Mahmoud! While he reigns over us we shall never want for ruined villages."

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When the vizier relays this to the sultan, the sultan is ashamed--so the story claims--and restores the places he has destroyed, ceasing to ravage his people. Addison remarks that "among all the different Ways of giving Counsel, I think the finest, and that which pleases the most universally, is Fable ..."

The fabulist's art of covert political persuasion in a strategic effort to survive has returned strongly to the public arena: telling a story about cross-currents, encounters, imitation and exchange between Muslim and other groups in history has inspired Middle East Now, a very full programme of art and activities at the British Museum, as well as the hugely ambitious Festival of Muslim Cultures, taking place nationwide over the coming year. …