From Empire to
Orient: Travellers to the Middle East (1830-1926)
Since the formulation of Edward Said’s Orientalism, the Imperial encounter has been viewed in the context of West’s political and cultural domination of the East. However, in the book under review, the author, Geoffrey Nash, Lecturer in English at the University of Sunderland, challenges Said’s conceptual framework of fixed and linear progression. He discusses those British civil servants, politicians, public men and writers who were so profoundly affected by their travels in the East that their cultural allegiance shifted, and they vehemently opposed Western Imperialism, and championed the cause of self-determination of the Middle Eastern countries.
By using a variety of original sources, Nash provides a vivid mixture of travel writing and cultural history in the context of international politics in which national rivalries surfaced for political domination. Nash’s survey of extensive travel writing refreshes and deepens our understanding of Orientalism, its working, and its limitations.
In the first chapter, Nash traces the process of European penetration and also expansion in the East. He highlights also the hopes, aspirations and programmes for Islamic reformation within the period. He also shows how David Urquhart, a political enthusiast and maverick, had played a prominent part in espousing the cause of the Turkish Ottomon Empire, which he wanted to remain intact. In 1836, Urquhart was posted as Secretary to the British embassy at Istanbul. He adopted the Turkish dress, mastered the Turkish language, and employed the empathy of Turkish aristocracy and kept closely in touch with Sultan Mahmud II and his reforming minister Rashid Pasha.
Urquhart strongly condemned the British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston’s foreign policy calling it a "treachery", where it developed a foreign instance in India and Afghanistan as when it worked in tandem with Russia against Turkey’s interest. He went to the extent of demanding Palmerton’s impeachment for betraying the Turkish people and their democratic rights. In attacking the British foreign policy, and supporting free international trade in Ottomon Turkey, Urquhurt gave the lead in the adoption of anti-imperial posture to generations to follow.
Another pioneer, W.G. Palgrave, this time in Arabia, articulated of a Muslim response to British Imperialism. It is contextualised according to a proposed British strategy of containment of the Islamic revival within its Imperial domain.
Inspired by the writings of the outstanding thinker Jamal-al-Din Afghani and the Egyptian Grand Mufti Muhammad Abduh, with whom he maintained close contact, Wilfrid S Blunt propagated that Islam and modernity were not incompatible. An anti-Imperialist, he favoured the liberal reform of Islam from within rather than outside by Europeanism. However, Lord Crommer, Consul General in Egypt (1883-1907) thought that the parliamentary system of government for Egypt was out of question.
Nash shows how George Nathanel Curzon by using travel as a strategy to establish himself as acknowledged expertise on his subject, furthered his political career which provided the Imperial dominance over large areas of the East. Curzon’s writings and speeches fit in within the mould of Said’s Orientalist analysis. Between 1887-1994,
Curzon made five eastern journeys, including two that took him around the world.
From Nash’s close analysis of Curzon’s writings, two striking features emerge: firstly, Curzon’s aesthetic enjoyment of the Oriental travel which thrilled him. Secondly, his political appraisal of the cardinal weaknesses of Islamic people that made them fit subjects for "aggrandisement by Britain’s Imperial strategy". Thus in Curzon’s conception, "aesthetic orientalism merges into Imperial aesthetics". Convinced of the moribund state of Oriental Society, he thought it England’s bounden duty to give the
Eastern people the benefit of Western civilisation such as democratic rights and science and technology, etc.
Nash also illustrates the political ideology of E.G. Browne, a profound Persian and Arabic scholar and a fervent proponent of Persian Nationalism. By emphasising
Browne’s anti-Imperialist stand and his support for the Persian national cause, Nash places him within the counter-Orientalist framework thereby questioning Said’s central thesis of marginalising dissent of British writers. Browne figures nowhere in Said’s writings. It was his spiritual quest that had drawn Browne to Persia. His discourse of
Iranian ideology, the author maintains, was influenced by the logistic-racial formulations floated by the 19th century German thinkers. In Chapter 6, Nash focuses on Marmaduke Pickthall as a champion of Turkish revolution, who showed a striking ambivalence in his attitude towards British Imperialism.
Nash’s scholarly work has been written with candour and detachment is a strong challenge to Said’s famous "Oriental" formulations.