More on Orientalism and Sri Lanka
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday April 27 2017.
In previous articles, I have noted that much of what is written by foreigners about Sri Lanka conforms to Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism. Said wrote in that book about “middle-brow journalists, all of them re-cycling the same unverifiable fictions and vast generalizations so as to stir up ‘America’ against the foreign devil.” Said’s book contains many telling phrases: “Orientalism has not allowed ideas to violate its profound serenity.”
Fantasies of Virtue
In an article in The Atlantic dated 1 July 2009 entitled To Catch a Tiger, Robert D Kaplan acknowledged the success of the Sri Lankan government in defeating the Tamil Tigers. Kaplan asks if the US can learn from Sri Lanka’s success but answers: “These are methods the U.S. should never use.” That is outrageous. The methods Sri Lanka used to defend itself from brutal terrorists within its sovereign boundaries seem benign compared to what the US has done to achieve and maintain world dominance.
The US is the only nation ever to have used nuclear weapons. They dropped atomic bombs on civilians. 90,000 (this is the low estimate) died immediately at Hiroshima. The estimate for Nagasaki is 20,000. During the Vietnam War, up to 5 million civilians (including citizens of Laos and Cambodia) lost their lives. Obama killed wedding guests by remote control. Trump drops huge bombs on caves.
America is today an imperial power with military bases instead of colonies. George Orwell commented in 1943, “It is difficult to go anywhere in London without having the feeling that Britain is now Occupied Territory.” Citizens of many nations today get that same feeling. Those populations hosting US bases are expected to be grateful that the bases are contributing to democracy and freedom, but instead feel exploited because the bases are used to control trade, resources, local supplies of cheap labour, and the political, economic, and social life of host countries. They also force them to support American imperialism, including foreign wars, despite harmful fallout to local populations.
There are 38 U.S. military facilities on Okinawa. They account for 78 percent of the bases in Japan and use up 30 percent of the land mass of the island. The U.S. military bases on Okinawa also cover over 40 percent of the arable soil, once some of the best agricultural land in Japan.
Figures up to 1998, show that since 1972, 4,905 crimes were committed against Japanese people by U.S. military personnel, their dependents and U.S. civilian contractors and employees. More than ten percent of these crimes involved serious crimes of murder, robbery or rape. In most cases, the Japanese authorities were not allowed to arrest or question the alleged perpetrators.
On a somewhat lighter note we have Peter Grimsdale’s unexciting “thriller” Perfect Night which illustrates Said’s comment: “The mind of the Oriental, on the other hand, like his picturesque streets, is eminently wanting in symmetry. His reasoning is of the most slipshod description.” Said quotes V G Kiernan’ phrase “Europe’s collective day-dream of the Orient.”
Grimsdale’s narrator Nick Roker(who surely must be the hunky babe-magnet that Grimsdale would like to be) first arrives in Sri Lanka to be met by the beautiful Tamil, Anita Jeyarajah. Her job is to educate him about the country but this irritates him. In this he could be the epitome of many western journalists. “Over the next two days she delivered a continuous monologue on the marvels of the island and her faith in the peace process as we criss-crossed Colombo by tuk-tuk. After the sixth meeting, I called a halt. I grabbed her clipboard and drew a line through all the other appointments. ‘No more old farts. I can’t make a film about peacemakers if I can’t see the war’ “.
Do you see how representative this is? Like many western journalists, he is not interested in the positive aspects of Sri Lanka that enthuse a Sri Lankan. He wants the glamour of war, not boring peace. Incidentally, Roker’s previous experience was making holiday programmes. This nicely underlines the link between the fantasy world of tourism and the delusions of “serious” journalism”.
Here is Said on travel guides: “many writers of travel books or guidebooks compose them in order to say that a country is like this, or better, that it is colourful, expensive, interesting, and so forth. The idea in either case is that people, places, and experiences can always be described by a book, so much so that the book (or text) acquires a greater authority, and use, even than the actuality it describes.”
Grimsdale presents an “actuality” that is full of misconceptions and factual errors about Sri Lanka. I understand that HRF Keating wrote most of his Inspector Ghote books, with the aid of a Bombay street map and telephone directories, without actually visiting India. I do not doubt that Grimsdale did visit Sri Lanka, but it is not the Sri Lanka I know. He might have benefited had he consulted a street map and a telephone directory.
Perfect Night is just fiction, just entertainment. I have no objection to a writer trying to make a few bob writing about Sri Lanka. I am concerned about the infantilising nature of delusion generally in the media, both in fiction and “reportage”. It gives me a queasy feeling when real and tragic events are served up as entertainment and little effort is made to get beyond simplistic stereotypes or to bother with accuracy. In his acknowledgements Grimsdale thanks Chantal Krishnadasan and Shirani Sabaratnam for vetting “all the Sri Lankan and Tamil material”. They have failed you badly Mr Grimsdale.
Here are some examples of Grimsdale’s faux Sri Lanka:
- There are references to the “British Consulate” in Colombo. Was it not the High Commission in 1995? It was when my father-in-law was working there alongside Anton Balasingham in the 60s. It is the High commission today.
- A boatman charges 50 rupees to take Nick and the journalist Greer (Marie Colvin? Frances Harrison?) out to a cruiser almost in open sea. Nick was “in too much of a hurry to haggle”. Some foreigners are notoriously stingy in their transactions with “the locals” but in 1995 50 rupees was worth half a British pound.
- There is a reference to the “Northern Territory”. Isn’t that in Australia?
- Dr Sivalingam smokes a “bindi”. In Indian restaurants bindi is “lady’s finger” or okra. An odd choice of smoking material but I have seen people trying to get high smoking bananas! Bidis are smoked by Tamil estate labourers but it is unlikely that a Tamil doctor would smoke them.
- There is a photographic business whose address is “Witjerwarra Chemist. 310 Galle Road Colombo 7.” Galle Road is very long but none of it goes near Colombo 7. According to Arjuna’s Street Guide the postal address is Colombo 3.I have never encountered a Sri Lankan called Witjerwarra.
- Greer and Nick are having dinner and wine at a hotel populated by cliché annoying European tourists (you know, not adventurous types like our hero or our author). A small girl appears at table the selling ball points. I have encountered this on the trekking trails of Nepal but not in a Colombo hotel catering to Europeans.
- Greer has what seems to be meant a harrowing journey from the hill country to Colombo because her “driver was detained at a roadblock near Kandy”. Would that have been harrowing even in 1995?
- I always sense that a writer is hovering between ignorance and condescension about the land of Johnny Foreigner when I read references to “tuk-tuks”and “the locals”.
There’s more of this kind of stuff but I don’t want to bore you. The general effect is the familiar one of parachute dilettantes exploiting our country for local colour for their own fantasies. Tamil terrorism is not seriously addressed. It is just a sideshow. People are dropping like flies (pardon the cliché) all around Nick but neither the Tigers nor the GOSL seem to be to blame – I can’t tell you why they are dying.
I leave the final word with Edward Said: “Knowledge no longer requires application to reality; knowledge is what gets passed on silently, without comment, from one text to another. Ideas are propagated and disseminated anonymously, they are repeated without attribution; they have literally become idées reçues: what matters is that they are there, to be repeated.”