Arts & Letters

Wednesday, December 18, 2002


Stratis Tsirkas’s Anti-Orientalism - Part 1

Nourredin Bomba

By Stelios Vasilakis

In his fictional treatment of the Arabs Stratis Tsirkas is unique among Western authors. He is unique, strange as it may seem, because he wrote about Arabs as though they were just like anyone else, whether Greek, French, American, or English. Count how many non-Arab authors have written about Arabs as peers and it quickly becomes obvious how special Tsirkas was.
– E. D. Karampetsos, “Stratis Tsirkas and the Arabs,” Journal of Modern Greek Studies,
1984, p. 39

After Constantine Cavafy, Stratis Tsirkas was the most significant literary figure to emerge from the Greek community of Egypt. Once Alexander Kitroeff (who is, of course, a historian of it) wrote about the community’s demise for (see “Out of Egypt,”), he suggested a subsequent article about the Greek novelist – whom he had met 20 years before – from the standpoint of his political activity as opposed to his literary achievements. Alexander and I then agreed that I would contribute an essay on Tsirkas’s literary work as a way of completing the portrait of this very important Greek writer.

“The Political Tsirkas: Drifting Cities as History“ in this issue recounts Alexander’s attempt, through a number of interviews with Tsirkas, to “reconstruct…the actual political struggles between left and right” in Egypt rather than “their recreation in fictional form” in Tsirkas’s trilogy, Drifting Cities. Alexander’s emphasis on Drifting Cities as a “fictional account of the political struggle…in wartime Egypt among the exiled Greek government, the Greek and allied armed forces, and the large Greek communities in Alexandria and Cairo,” led to my decision to focus on the fictional presence of Arabs in Tsirkas’s work. Obviously, the Greek presence in Egypt cannot be fully examined without considering the enormous Arab context in which it functioned, thrived, and then finally disappeared. Suffice it to say that the Arab presence is monumental in Drifting Cities in particular and in Tsirkas’s fiction in general.

And this leads to one other aspect of Tsirkas’s work that makes it extraordinary. As we approach the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Edward Said’s seminal study, Orientalism, I think it is critical to uncover a crucial feature of Tsirkas’s fictional world that has been largely ignored by critics, although it is unusually important within the larger framework of Western fictional treatments of the East: the Arab presence.

Said famously analyzed – and initiated the study of – the multiple representations by which the West approaches, perceives, and expresses the East, and considered such formations to be the result of the political and economic, as well as intellectual, supremacy of the West over the East. Stratis Tsirkas’s work differs from traditional Western literary treatments of the East as defined by Said, however. Tsirkas’s representations of the East appear to constitute non-orientalist discourses, although he was born and functioned within a space (the Greek community of Egypt) that was often notoriously orientalist in its world-view. Until the end of the capitulations in 1937, the Greeks of Egypt were the beneficiaries of manifest financial and intellectual privileges in relation to the local Arab population. Even after the abolition of the capitulations, Greeks continued more or less to consider themselves superior to Arabs.

While the reasons for Tsirkas’s unique “fictional treatment of the Arabs” have been discussed by other commentators, the narrative structure of this treatment has been mostly ignored. I will attempt in this essay to describe in detail some of the narrative techniques by which Tsirkas’s non- and anti-orientalism functions in his work, beginning with the novel, Nourredin Bomba.

Forster and Tsirkas
Let us begin with the descriptions of the Indian city of Chandrapore in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India and of the village of Kom in Nourredin Bomba. At the beginning of A Passage to India, the narrator describes Chandrapore as ugly and monotonous:

Except for the Marabar Caves – and they are twenty miles off – the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary. Edged rather than washed by the river Ganges, it trails for a couple of miles along the bank, scarcely distinguishable from the rubbish it deposits so freely. There are no bathing steps on the river-front, and bazaars shut out the wide and shifting panorama of the stream. The streets are mean, the temples ineffective, and though a few fine houses exist they are hidden away in gardens or down alleys whose filth deters all but the invited guest. Chandrapore was never large or beautiful, but two hundred years ago it lay on the road between Upper India, then imperial, and the sea, and the fine houses date from that period. The zest for decoration stopped in the eighteenth century, nor was it ever democratic. There is no painting and scarcely any carving in the bazaars. The very wood seems made of mud, the inhabitants of mud moving. So abased, so monotonous is everything that meets the eye, that when the Ganges comes down it might be expected to wash the excrescence back into the soil. Houses do fall, people are drowned and left rotting, but the general outline of the town persists, swelling here, shrinking there, like some low but indestructible form of life.
– E. M. Forster, A Passage to India, pp. 3-4

The description is a classic example of British orientalism, and the city is perceived and described in comparison to and through the image of the distinctively English suburbs that surround it. The narrator seeks to describe a specific world (India/East) by employing esthetic criteria of an absolutely different one (England/West). Thus, all the ugliness and monotony of Chandrapore in the beginning of A Passage to India are what the English think of as ugliness and monotony.

The description in Nourredin Bomba of Nourredin’s village, Kom, evokes a world of ugliness and dissatisfaction equal to Chandrapore’s. Nevertheless, there is an important difference between the two narrators in their approaches to Eastern space. In Nourredin Bomba, the narrator perceives and articulates a negative picture of Kom in relation to and through an esthetically opposite but equally Eastern landscape. Kom is described in comparison to the beautiful landscape on the opposite bank of the Nile. The beauty of the Nile’s western bank is Eastern, as is the ugliness of Kom. While Chandrapore suffers by comparison to the elegance of its English suburbs for the purpose of emphasizing English superiority, Kom suffers in comparison to the beauty of the Nile’s western bank, for the sake, I believe, of a realistic representation of the heterogeneity of the Egyptian landscape:

Once he took me there with him. It was in the early years and it was winter. We crossed the river by boat and there was such a sweetness and magnificence in the water that you felt like a different person. The sky was blue with down-like clouds, and the sun rich, golden. The riverbank that we had left behind was green, I could see the fields with the wheat and the corn; the date trees were scattered in groups like crowns, and you could see sycamores extending over the muddy villages flaring up full dust. A smell thick like cream was coming from the broad-bean fields basking under the sun. We arrived at Kom: mountain, rocks and dust white and thin like powder. There was neither a marsh for the children to splash in nor a single tree. I did not see any form of vegetation other than yellow bushes full of thorns. And the heat felt like hell. The light burned the eyes, blinding you. That’s why the people there had huge eyelashes like Bedouins. The place smelled like a construction site at the time, as the plasterers were preparing the whitewash. A construction site and dog shit, although there was no dog in sight throughout the whole village. They had their reasons for not wanting dogs. For the same reasons they never burned fires or turned lights on in the evening. I saw a few goats munching the grocer’s wrapping paper and dry corncob. All of them were mangy, just skin and bone. As were the people, who laid down on their backs warming their lice. You could count their ribs under their tattered covers.
– Stratis Tsirkas, Nourredin Bomba, pp. 17-18

Speaking Oriental
The difference between the two narrators in their approach to the East is also evident on the syntactical level. In the description of Chandrapore, the narrator uses the verb, to be, with a predicate nominative or a predicate adjective. The systematic use of such linguistic constructions tends to turn the narration into a series of mathematical equations (x=y), since the copulative verb, to be, is not an active, or what I would call sensuous, verb. Thus, the description of Chandrapore reveals a narrator who describes his object not through experience but from a distance, constructing the city as other, and emphasizing its otherness, in this way.

In comparison to the description of Chandrapore, the description of the Dayrut dam in Nourredin Bomba is characterized by the systematic absence of the verb, to be, and the use of a plethora of active, sensuous verbs (mirizo/I smell, moskovolao/I am fragrant, miazo/I resemble, niotho/I feel, kovo/I cut, vronto/I thunder). The presence of these verbs implies the empirical rendering of Dayrut, that is to say, a description based on experience rather than detachment. The personal relationship between the narrator and the Dayrut dam he describes is also clear from the adjectival and metaphorical character of the language. The dominant use of adjectives presupposes and requires the narrator to have an understanding of his object based on experience, since the adjectives used in the specific passage do not describe only outwardly visible characteristics but internal ones as well. The use of metaphorical language indicates the same narrator-object relationship, since the use of such metaphors requires the familiarity of the narrator with his metaphorically described object:

But in the evenings when the weather got cooler, Dayrut smelled like water and trees. You could smell the willows dipping their hair in the canals, and the exotic jacarandas covered with purple flowers. You could smell the fragrance of the silk beards of the ancient lambachs. The deep-rooted sycamores smelled of honey and bitter milk. And the Indian jasmine covered the wet soil with fleshy-like stars. In the deep nights, the waters smelled of clover, while during the flood, of rotting river mud. The noise of a waterfall constantly filled the air. Waters kept falling upon waters. You could hear crashing noises, and chains and reels lifting steel sheet-metal. Clouds of thin water drops covered the bridges. By the bank of the large canal, the fog rose, covering the lights of the station and the café. The light bulbs of the lamps on the bridges looked like traveling balloons. You could feel a fish-like smell in your nostrils. Not that of the sea, of iodine and of salt, but of something else, brackish, full of decomposition and sin. And from further in, from the blackness of the greasy earth rose a suffocating smell of cow dung and weeds, and the smoke from burning fires. Suddenly, your breath was taken away by the stench. The canal would sometimes carry down a donkey swollen like a drum, with outstretched legs, sometimes a dead lamb, sometimes a man. It kept slamming on the iron doors of the water gates trying to get through, to continue its journey to the sea, which it could never reach.
– Stratis Tsirkas, Nourredin Bomba, pp. 9-10

Although the descriptions of both Kom and Dayrut in Nourredin Bomba suggest a non-orientalist discourse, definite conclusions can only be drawn by looking at the novel’s main Arab character. The main question in the depiction of Arabs in Western literature is whether or not their characterization and narrative presence are stereotypical. An essentially stereotypical presence at a narrative level is one in which Arabs are not protagonists but rather marginal characters, lack a genuine voice as well as any control over the development of the plot, and are removed from the narrator.

In Nourredin Bomba, the non-traditional structure of the narrative is reflected in the non-stereotypical presence in the novel of the Arab main character, Nourredin. In discussing Nourredin’s textual presence, however, one must also acknowledge the existence of two narrators in the novel: the author and the mechanic, Polybios, who is the novel’s main narrator and, unless otherwise indicated, the one to whom I refer as the narrator from this point onward.

The first step toward a non-stereotypical representation of Nourredin is his “promotion” from the traditional position in orientalist discourse at the narrative’s margins to its center. Nourredin is not only the main protagonist but also the focal point of the novel’s plot, in which he assumes an active role. In this transition from margin to center, Nourredin also assumes a personal voice. Nourredin’s thought and speech, in other words, are actions primarily of Nourredin himself. This direct speech of Nourredin does not aim so much at realistic depiction as at his establishment as a central character of the novel. Nourredin’s demarginalization and centralization could not have been achieved and maintained successfully throughout the narrative if the character lacked a personal voice. Furthermore, Nourredin’s direct speech assures his individuality in the narrative, and his non-domination by the Western narrator.

In addition to Nourredin’s direct speech, the novel’s other Arab characters assume personal voices as well. Through these devices, the narrator succeeds in avoiding a strictly descriptive presentation of the Eastern characters. What is more important, however, is that the use of direct speech brings about the narrative demarginalization of the Arab characters, and consequently the equal treatment and presence of Arab and Western characters on a strictly textual level.

Another important aspect of the non-stereotypical portrayal of Nourredin is his presence not simply as part of the novel’s plot, but as an active, independent character of great complexity and psychological depth, whose development determines the narrative’s course. Admittedly, Nourredin’s first appearance is occasion for a general description of his external features and occupation, as well as of his place of descent. From this rather simplistic and naive introduction, however, and from this point both temporally and narratively, he develops into the novel’s protagonist. Moreover, he is a dynamic protagonist; he moves, changing locations continually, as he becomes self-conscious and develops as a character, in order to assume mythical dimensions at novel’s end.

A stereotypical depiction of Nourredin would have ended with his humiliation by the English inspector (who cuts off Nourredin’s mustache, throws it to the floor, and steps on it), since it would have been difficult for the narrator to ignore the fact that, at a narrative level, an Arab does not have personal choices, and that his/her development as a character occurs within predetermined (stereotypical) frames of reference. Nourredin’s attitude after the incident with the British inspector suggests that the narrator views Nourredin, not as an uninvolved character controlled by the plot, but rather as an active one who determines it.

The reason for Nourredin’s non-stereotypical presentation should be sought in the nature of his relationship with Polybios, which is radically different from the traditional, that is to say indirect and oppositional, relationship between a Western narrator and his Eastern object of description. The narrator in Nourredin Bomba is not only directly connected to the Arab he describes, but this particular Arab enters and occupies a permanent position in the narrator’s consciousness (memory). Nourredin’s constant presence in Polybios’s memory becomes the main reason for his non-stereotypical presence, since it demands an intimate relationship between the narrator and Nourredin. A necessary precondition for such a relationship is the Western narrator’s desire to approach, become intimate with, and understand the psychological makeup of the Arab he describes.

The notion of intimacy, of a personal world, is, for Stratis Tsirkas, the key to avoiding an orientalist narrative. The stance that both the author and Polybios assume toward Nourredin and Selim (a member of the pasha’s night-watch), respectively, supports this statement. The fact that the author considers Nourredin a thief is due to the lack of intimacy between them, and constitutes a characteristic example of stereotyping. By contrast, Polybios’s position toward Nourredin results from a constant effort throughout the narration to understand the Arab. In the same manner, the neutral and even negative perceptions of Selim that Polybios develops are the result of a clearly superficial relationship. The author’s positive view of Selim can be attributed to his intimate understanding of the character he’s constructed.

Although definite conclusions about orientalism and Stratis Tsirkas require a detailed analysis of the East’s presence in all of his work, Tsirkas’s way of dealing with the particular issue in Nourredin Bomba offers some first markers. The novel is not simply the work of someone who is positively disposed toward Arabs and Egypt, but is, rather, a distinctively Eastern novel, since the narrator represents the particularities of the Arab landscape, individual Arabs, and the traditional structures of social life that characterize a particular place. Furthermore, Nourredin’s non-stereotypical presentation avoids the trap of his simultaneous deorientalization. Nourredin thus escapes the stereotypical position of the Eastern character at the margins of the narrative, and becomes the central persona of Tsirkas’s novel, maintaining his distinctive Arab ethos at the same time. As for Tsirkas, in Nourredin Bomba, he is not simply a Western author describing the East, but rather a Western novelist writing an Eastern novel.

Next: Part 2

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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