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Monday, February 17, 2003

Arts & Letters

Stratis Tsirkas’s Anti-Orientalism - Part 2


In the first part of this essay, which focused on Stratis Tsirkas’s novella, Nourredin Bomba (see Stratis Tsirkas’s Anti-Orientalism, Part 1: Noureddin Bomba, December 18, 2002), I indicated that a comprehensive examination of the concept of orientalism in Tsirkas’s writings would require a detailed analysis of the presence of the East in his work as a whole. This, of course, cannot be done within the limited framework of a two-part essay. In this second part, however, I will focus on Tsirkas’s fictional treatment of the East, and of Arabs, in Ariadne, the second volume of the author’s monumental trilogy, Drifting Cities. The representation of Arabs and the East in Ariadne are unique for a Western perspective, and confirm that Tsirkas is not simply a Western author “narrating” the East, but rather a Western — indeed, one could argue an Eastern — novelist writing an Eastern novel.

The Labyrinth

The relation between Orientalist and the Orient was essentially hermeneutical: Standing before a distant, barely intelligible civilization of cultural monument, the Orientalist scholar reduced the obscurity by translating, sympathetically portraying, inwardly grasping the hard-to-reach object….This cultural, temporal, and geographical distance was expressed in metaphors of depth, secrecy, and sexual promise: phrases like “the veils of an Eastern bride” or “the inscrutable Orient” passed into common language. — Edward Said, Orientalism, p. 222.

As I argued in the first part of this essay, Nourredin Bomba differs from traditional Western fictional treatments of Arabs at a narrative level. Throughout the novella, Tsirkas employs narrative techniques that defy traditional orientalist perspectives. His narrative structures depart from orientalist traditions and reject stereotypical and traditional elements in their attitude toward Arabs and the East. The Arab characters assume personal voices and a point of view. As objects of description, the Arabs and the East in the novella are rendered and marked not by means of Western observation and representation but by Eastern ones. Furthermore, geographical descriptions of Egyptian landscapes and cityscapes in Nourredin Bomba suggest notions of comprehensiveness and intimacy. Tsirkas’s descriptions signify a familiarity that alludes to a cultural, temporal, and geographical intimacy that, as Edward Said notes, is absent in typical orientalist discourse.

In Nourredin Bomba, Tsirkas succeeded in writing an Eastern novella in more ways than one. He not only approached Arabs and the East non-stereotypically, but Arabs and their physical environment constituted the focus of the novella. Drifting Cities, however, is a different proposition. The trilogy evolves around the political struggle in wartime Egypt between the Greek communities, the Greek government, and the Greek and allied armed forces. The subject is self-contained enough to have allowed Tsirkas to engage it without considering the Arab context within which it occurs. Tsirkas, however, not only does not ignore the Arab presence, but chooses in the trilogy — and in Ariadne in particular — to pose and answer the fundamental question of how to assume a non-orientalist posture and engage the East. As Tsirkas makes clear in Ariadne, personal experience and intimacy constitute the most important elements of a non-orientalist perception of the East and of its inhabitants. Tsirkas’s notions of experience and intimacy are not based simply on observation, but are physical. They require absorption of the sounds and the smells of the East, and a physical engagement with its people. This becomes evident in Tsirkas’s use of the image of the labyrinth in Ariadne. The neighborhood of Cairo called “the labyrinth” is so only for a foreigner, a Westerner who enters it but is unable to penetrate deep into its structure and become familiar, through experience, with the different intricate elements that constitute its nature:

I don’t really know how I got into the labyrinth; all I remember is that I was in Bustani, with the market of Balaxa Street at my back and the street with the mosque in front of me. I turned left into an opening between two houses that did not differ in the least from the rest. My idea was I would simply walk parallel to Balaxa Street, and then I would eventually turn right again and find myself on our own street. After the first turning, I came upon a long narrow street; it was dark and quiet. Everything exuded humidity, and the dominant tones were lead gray, dark brown and black: the beaten earth, the unpainted hovels, low and dilapidated, the closed doors, blackened with age and dirt, the broken-down lattices, the unhinged shutters. Here and there I came upon an open basement door; in the dark I could just discern shadowy figures moving, I could hear women chatting and babies screaming. I had only to stretch out my arms to touch the walls on either side of the street. I walked fast, my eyes to the ground to avoid the puddles of dirty water. Some of the puddles were blue with laundry bleach, and others were a sickly green. At the foot of the walls rose mounds of excreta, old and new; a half-naked baby sat defecating in a yellow puddle. The houses were so low that if I raised my head a little, my forehead touched the first-floor windows; conversely, if I wanted to enter one of those houses, I would have to stoop very low to go down the basement stairs. The roofs were made of blackened reeds, rusty pieces of tin, and old boards, all strewn with rags, broken crates, and rotten cardboard. I walked on confidently. A woman leaned on a window sill, her face uncovered. She looked at me intently, her thick Negroid lips firmly pressed together, the clear whites of her eyes standing out in her dark face. I passed so near her that our breaths mingled. At that point, I suddenly came up against a wall of unbaked bricks. There was a narrow opening in the wall on the west side; to the east another street, which could surely lead me to Balaxa Street. But I didn’t want to turn back; I could feel the woman’s eyes fixed on my back. So I walked on: this alley was even narrower than the other; the basement windows were covered with wire netting. A fat Arab woman stooped from a flat rooftop and asked me something. I went on without paying attention. I noticed the light growing brighter; an oblique ray of sun touched the beaten earth at the end of it. At last, I thought, I’ll turn into Balaxa Street and I’ll go round by the upper quarter. I came to a kind of square, a round opening that was no larger than an unfolded parachute. In the middle of it, rather unexpectedly, there stood a stubby headless palm tree. But the houses were huddled close to each other right around the square; there seemed to be no way out. (Drifting Cities: Ariadne, translated by Kay Cicellis, pp. 321-22 )

Manos, Ariadne’s protagonist, typifies the Westerner who is culturally, historically, geographically, and emotionally distant from the Orient. He is at the center of Drifting Cities. He has deserted from the Greek armed forces in the Middle East to join the leftists in their fight against the fascists and royalists. The trilogy follows him in his underground operations through three different cities: Jerusalem, Cairo, and Alexandria. The concept of the labyrinth, with its narrow pathways, circles, bewilderment, loss, and deceit is beautifully employed by Tsirkas to signify the inextricability and impenetrability that characterize Western attempts to make sense of the East. To be understood, the East needs to be fully perceived and inhabited. If one tries to penetrate it unaware of its visual, emotional, intellectual, and social complexities, there is no way out — that is to say, there is no way in developing a perspective of it.

In The Idea of the Labyrinth from Classical Antiquity through the Middle Ages, Penelope Reed Doob argues that when it comes to one’s perception of labyrinths, “What you see depends on where you stand….[m]aze-treaders, whose vision ahead and behind is severely constricted and fragmented, suffer confusion, whereas maze-viewers who see the pattern whole are dazzled by its complex artistry” (p. 1). One needs to assume and experience both perspectives to make sense of a labyrinth. One begins as a “maze-treader,” encountering confusion and chaos, in order to become a “maze-viewer,” whose perception of the labyrinth is defined by clarity. What is also clear in Tsirkas’s description of “the labyrinth” is that this particular urban district constitutes a labyrinth in the European imagination only; it is certainly not viewed as or considered a labyrinth by the Arabs who inhabit it, or those who live in Cairo and are familiar with it. “The labyrinth,” indeed, becomes a labyrinth because of Manos’s emotional and cultural failings, which prevent him from seeing it as it really is, a typical Cairene neighborhood.

The concept of the labyrinth can, of course, be easily exploited by orientalist discourse to signify Eastern chaos, corruption, and confusion. For Manos, in fact, one can argue that “the labyrinth” is a site of ugliness and danger, not a complex structure that confuses him only because he is unfamiliar with it and cannot comprehend its underlying elements. That is not the case with Robbie and Kurt, however, the two Europeans who have lived in Cairo for a long time and have become familiar and intimate with “the labyrinth.” As such, it is clear that this particular labyrinth is not an orientalist one: it carries negative connotations only for those Europeans who are unable to negotiate its dynamic complexity.

In the course of their conversation, Kurt remembered Ariadne. He had seen her that very afternoon moving all her belongings to this street. She would be Robbie’s neighbor now. But how strange that she could be called Ariadne and live in a labyrinth, at least until recently.

“Oh, so you call it a labyrinth, too?” asked Robbie.

“Don’t you think that’s the right name for it? This square area, from Balaxa Street to your own street, must be one of the most ancient districts in Cairo. How many Europeans can find their way through it?” (p. 220)


For those, however, such as Ariadne, who have entered into its internal structure and become familiar with it through experience, “the labyrinth” is never a labyrinth and will never become one. Or, to approach it differently, having engaged the labyrinth, Ariadne becomes a “maze-viewer” who can clearly discern its complicated pattern. Experienced by her from within, the labyrinthine structure recedes in complexity. Her familiarity with the district is based on personal experience and intimacy developed over a long period during which she has had an intense physical relationship with this particular topos:

Mark my words, once you’ve lived a lifetime in a particular place, in a particular way, it’s over and done with, you can’t start again somewhere else. Because that lifetime is all bound up with smells and lights, sunshine and rain, and most of all, with people. And these things will stay behind, and you’ll miss them. You’ll wander around like the unburied dead, looking for a ditch to tumble into and come to rest. (p. 273)

Manos finds his way out of “the labyrinth” with Ariadne’s help. The different ways in which these two Westerners perceive this particular Arab neighborhood suggests that real knowledge is achieved only through experience. The East cannot be imagined. It has to be lived. If “the labyrinth” represents chaos and complexity for Manos, it is a celebration of life for Ariadne:

It was Ariadne who got me out of the labyrinth that afternoon. The jungle telephone of the neighborhood, like a tom-tom, notified her that her guest, the man with the scar, had been stumbling about for hours in the back streets. She immediately sent out Nabulion to find me. He took me by the hand and led me gently; he was careful not to frighten me. The exit was exactly under the Sphinx’s window. Just an ordinary doorway. (p. 325)

Eros and the Other
The notion of penetration, of dynamic engagement as a way of experience, and intimacy, is also employed by Tsirkas to describe physical/erotic contact. What Tsirkas perceives and constructs as a form of physical engagement, however, is fundamentally different from the typically distant Western engagements of the East as images and objects of desire. Tsirkas moves far and beyond the “erotic gaze.”

E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India contains a number of episodes in which Indians become objects of erotic desire through close and detailed physical descriptions:

Almost naked, and splendidly formed, he sat on a raised platform near the back…and he seemed to control the proceedings. He had the strength and beauty that sometimes comes to flower in Indians of low birth. When that strange race nears the dust and is condemned as untouchable, then nature remembers the physical perfection that she accomplished elsewhere, and throws out a god — not many, but one here and there, to prove to society how little its categories impress her. This man would have been notable anywhere: among the thin-hammed, flat-chested mediocrities of Chandrapore he stood out as divine, yet he was of the city, its garbage had nourished him, he would end on its rubbish heaps. (p. 217)

Forster’s Indian object of desire is so distanced and objectified as to be completely inaccessible. Forster eroticizes the Indian, but the Indian remains a forbidden object of Western desire. The narrator particularizes his object’s body but the narration remains as distant from it as possible. The Indian is concrete but also remote, since the narration forbids any notion of accessibility. While the narrator’s attractions in A Passage to India cannot be realized, however, Tsirkas constructs and perceives sexual encounters between Arabs and Westerners in Ariadne as a way of experiencing the East and constructing intimacy. Tsirkas not only embraces close proximity, but — in contrast to orientalist discourse and in a reversal of roles — a Westerner becomes the erotic object of Arabs and is physically subordinated to them. Kurt Stoetlin’s encounter with Arab workers is stunning in its physicality and in what it implies:

Kurt tried to explain in Arabic that he was German. But that made no difference to them. He was a khawaga who had disguised himself to eavesdrop on them, just when they were trying to forget how bloody life was. A man pulled at Kurt’s gallabiyeh and tore it. It was summer, so he wasn’t wearing anything underneath. They undressed him; they laid him out on the table and began making obscene gestures. You know, with the middle finger. They emptied their bowels over him and rolled him about in the boozeh, naked. They were terribly excited; there was a smell of revolt in the air. They had gone completely amuck. Kurt was convinced his time was up, and he struggled to retain some images from this extraordinary world, and also the tastes, to take along with him into the world that lay ahead. And then he felt a strange feeling welling up in him, from the depths of his entrails, a kind of euphoria. Perhaps it was caused by the vapors from the fermented liquid, or perhaps somebody had hit him on the head and dazed him. A feeling of serenity and gratitude, an infinite love of the universe lifted him up vertically, yet very gently, beyond good and evil. He told me he experienced his most perfect ecstasy that night. He felt himself dissolved into a Boundless Being. At the same time, there was a kind of pride for having been found worthy of atoning for all the evils and crimes committed by the white race. It was a debt that had worried him since he was a child; and now he was paying that debt among convulsions of heavenly bliss. (p. 263)

Despite its violence, the scene’s sexual interactions contradict stereotypical descriptions and demand attention. The intimacy that occurs is for Tsirkas the key to experiencing and becoming familiar with the East. Sexual penetration functions in the same way that the penetration of the labyrinth functions for Manos. The East has to be experienced — felt; one has to allow himself/herself to become absorbed into/by it in order to understand it. Furthermore, rather than the West seeking to sexually possess the East, the East here takes hold of the West.

Whether it is Ariadne, Kurt the German, or Robbie the Englishman, the second part of Drifting Cities is characterized by the presence of a number of Westerners who have opened themselves to the East and allowed themselves to experience, and consequently be seduced by, it. But Tsirkas’s seduction moves far beyond Forster’s or Flaubert’s in Salammbo. It is a seduction that demands one to expose himself/herself to an intense physical assault on the senses by everyday life:

They left the shop together and walked up the narrow street. “Look at that golden light, how it transforms the most common objects into something ethereal. An oil lamp, blackened with soot. Yet it glitters as brightly as Aladdin’s lamp. Don’t you agree? Look at those men’s gesticulations, listen to their broad, full-hearted laughter. How bright their eyes are — brimming with intelligence and lust, as if they were drifting wide awake through a fairy tale….” He paused in front of a confectioner’s counter and his bony fingers picked out a peeled almond; he put it in his mouth. “Do have another one,” said the Arab confectioner cheerfully. “What a people,” said Kurt. “How they love colored glass, gaudy clothes. And the jokes and funny stories they exchange when they sit up after midnight under the strong lights. And their languorous music that never ceases, that seems to come from nowhere, from everywhere.” Finally, when they got to the upper quarter of the city, he lifted his eyes and gazed at the sky. It was deep and dark that evening. “And then their unaffected simplicity in love-making,” he continued, “the heavy scents, the spices, the sherbets, the women’s faces half hidden by veils — the most subtle device for rousing the senses….Look at those minarets. Symbols, gigantic phalluses raised to the greater glory of the primary law of life.” (pp. 219-20)

One can argue that Kurt’s rapture here is quintessentially orientalist. His evocation of “golden light,” Aladdin’s lamp, “bright…eyes…brimming with intelligence and lust,” peeled almonds, colored glass, gaudy clothes, languorous music, “unaffected simplicity in love-making,” scents, spices, and sherbets, veils, and — last but not least — phallic minarets, is a veritable laundry-list of orientalism. Nevertheless, the issue here is whether or not Western discourse on the Orient can ever be completely non-orientalist, and whether a difference in attitude (positive as opposed to negative) is also not a fundamental difference in type. It is difficult to describe the East — or, for that matter, any Other — in a non-stereotypical manner. Language overwhelms subject and assumes a life of its own. One has to look beyond language to determine orientalist or non-orientalist postures. (That’s Tsirkas’s point about experience, after all.) Any way that Kurt had chosen to describe his clear embrace of life in Cairo would have inevitably veered into orientalism. Moving beyond language, however, and looking into the different ways Kurt, but also Ariadne and Robbie, have chosen to engage Egypt and Arabs, it is clear that their attitude toward the East can hardly be described as orientalist.

As I mentioned in the first part of this essay, Tsirkas’s fictional treatment of Arabs is remarkable by Western literary standards. If Nourredin Bomba was an Eastern novella, Ariadne is extraordinary in the way Tsirkas perceives and constructs the interaction between East and West. One has only to read Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian novels to see how unusual the presence of the Orient is in Tsirkas’s work. It is truly a shame that the English translation of Drifting Cities never really got the attention it deserved. At a time when the West is struggling to understand the East and vice versa, Tsirkas renders a world in which the coexistence of the two is not only possible but intimate.

In addition to being a co-founder of, Stelios Vasilakis is a classical philologist and a former associate of the Speros Basil Vryonis Center for the Study of Hellenism.
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