The Portrayal of the East vs. the West in Lady Mary Montagu's Letters and Emily Ruete's Memoirs

By Rawi, Ahmed K. Al- | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

The Portrayal of the East vs. the West in Lady Mary Montagu's Letters and Emily Ruete's Memoirs


Rawi, Ahmed K. Al-, Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)


INTRODUCTION

AFTER THE PUBLICATION OF Edward Said's Orientalism (1978), a great deal of controversy emerged that basically dealt with the West's elitist outlook and misrepresentation of the East. Very few studies concentrated on the other trend that embodied positive ideas. Some Western writers actually glorified the East and even considered it superior to the West. Geoffery Nash's study, From Empire to Orient: Travellers to the Middle East 1830-1926 (2005) falls into such a category. The author argues that the picture is more complex than the one previously proposed by Said who has mainly based his arguments on the Western 'hostile corpus.' (1) Nash points to the Spirit of the East (1838), [written by the First Secretary at the British Embassy in Istanbul, David Urquhart (1805-1877)] as a pioneering work in this trend. Thus, for Nash, Urquhart stands as a 'discursive instability within Orientalism." There was also a woman who lived before Urquhart who could be considered, the pioneer in her views toward the East; namely Lady Mary Montagu (1689-1762). Many critics of Montagu focused on Montagu's presumed lesbianism or licentious description of the seraglio. However, Montagu made various insightful and important comparisons between the West and the East, whether in the manners of people and habits, or in issues like slavery and women's rights.

I would also like to point out some commonalities between Montagu's views and Emily Ruete's (1844-1924) Memoirs (1880s), which is the first known autobiography of an Arab woman. Ruete or Sayyda Salme, being an Arab Muslim princess living in Zanzibar, was the daughter of Sultan Said bin Sultan Al-Busaid of Oman (1791-1856). She stated her observations of Zanzibar and Oman between 1850 and 1865. The Arab princess, who later converted to Christianity to marry a German merchant, lived the rest of her life in Germany, criticized both the German and British societies.

Ruete knew English as she was hosted by an English family in Aden upon leaving Zanzibar. She also quoted two English writers in her book in relation to the issue of slavery and she herself visited England in the midnineteenth century to up with meet her brother, Sultan Barghash (1837-1888).

EAST/WEST INTERACTION

In order to understand the importance of Montagu and Ruete, one has to briefly examine the prevalent Western attitudes toward the East and Islam before the 18th century. After the fall of Constantinople at the hands of the Ottoman leader Mohammed II (1432-1481) in 1453, Islam was seen as a threat and its prophet an impostor. Christian Protestantism, for instance, considered the Pope and the Turk as the two arch-enemies of Christ and his Holy Church, and if the "Turk is the body of Anti Christ, the Pope is the head." (2) As a matter of fact, Islam as a religion was identified with the shortcomings of the Catholic Church (being the opposite image of pure Christianity). Martin Luther (1483-1546) believed that the one "who fights against the Turks ... should consider that he is fighting an enemy of God and a blasphemer of Christ, indeed, the devil himself." (3) But in reality, the Turks were used as touchstones in the conflict between Protestants and Catholics in the sense that each party used the atrocities of its opponent in comparison to the Turks. In some eases, the Turks were favoured to other Christian sects since the former practised more religious tolerance. In other cases, Islam was not seen as a revealed and separate religion but a deviation of Christian belief because both religions carded similar noble values and high ethical standards. For instance, Thomas Carlyle wrote in a letter sent to Ralph Waldo Emerson that Islam was a kind of "bastard Christianity." (4)

Generally speaking, the term 'Turk' was used pejoratively in Europe. It was well known to be attributed to any Muslim but it also took other meanings starting from the sixteenth century, including "a cruel, rigorous, or tyrannical man; any one behaving as a barbarian or savage; one who treats his wife hardly; a bad-tempered or unmanageable man. …

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