number of years ago, in an attempt to understand why some people took political and religious offense to pieces of art, I designed and taught a course in South Asian literature called Art that Offends. I chose for the syllabus texts that had at one time or another become the focus of controversy with charges of obscenity or blasphemy. Most notable among these was The Satanic Verses. The university where I taught attracted families from religiously conservative backgrounds with a promise to 'strengthen faith' in students (rather than to proselytise the Catholic faith of the institution). There were several students in my class from conservative Muslim backgrounds. As we began to read The Satanic Verses, some of these students approached me outside of class and told me that members of their families had advised them not to read the book due to its blasphemous content. Having ascertained that none of these relatives had read the book, I asked the students to consider reading it for themselves and then deciding whether or not it was blasphemous. I assured them that they were free to decide whatever they wished and I would not grade them on the basis of their assessment, but rather on their participation and completion of assignments.
The students were required to keep a journal throughout the class and to hand it in once a week. Since The Satanic Verses is long, it took us some time to get through it. Over the period of weeks that we read the text, I noted with interest the reactions of the students who had worried about reading it. The reactions of one girl in particular stood out. A Pakistani-American, she was enthralled with Rushdie's writing style and expressed pride that one of her people could write so cleverly and skillfully. Nevertheless, she did decide by the end that the book was, if not blasphemous, at least willfully offensive, with respect to the sections portraying a brothel populated by prostitutes equal in number to the wives of Mohammed and bearing the same names as his wives.
Thompson illustrates sexual violence against his heroine at every possible opportunity, and his lavish and ornate drawings make each incident unforgettable
For a final project, that student, and another Pakistani-American friend of hers in the class, wrote up an indictment of Rushdie that they read to the class. They had also filmed themselves arguing with a liberal Muslim friend about what punishment he deserved. In the film they resolved to burn a photograph of Rushdie, which they then did, in the bathroom of their apartment. Some students in the class were horrified by the presentation, as have been friends and colleagues when I have told them the story. Yet the tone of the video was playful and exuberant.
I have always prized the memory of that class, feeling that those students took away the valuable lesson that they must determine for themselves what offends them and what does not. They loved the book, and yet, they wanted to burn it. Until recently, I have never been able to fully understand this tension, this desire to burn a work of art that one admires.
II. Orientalism Rides Again
There have been many works of fiction and writing that have sought to dig into the territory of the post-9/11 zeitgeist over the past ten years. One of the most recent is Habibi, a 600+ page graphic novel by artist Craig Thompson. Habibi is a book I really wanted to love. Thompson, who previously wrote and illustrated the insipid (and award-winning) autobiographical graphic novel Blankets, has said that Habibi was born of a desire to learn more about Islam and the Muslim world after the intense negativity leveled toward both in the US following the 2001 attacks. He spent seven years on the book, which he richly illustrated with Islamicate patterns and designs and a fair amount of Arabic calligraphy. The binding makes it look remarkably similar to a holy book, and numerous stories from the Quran are included in the text. In interviews, Thompson has said that he wanted to embrace what was positive about Islam and the Middle East to counteract prevailing narratives of terror and violence. He describes how he then proceeded to 'embrace Orientalism' (his words) and immerse himself in both a study of Islam and 'traditional' tales such as the 1001 Nights.
His construction of what it might mean to embrace Orientalism does not appear to have included any study of the works of Edward Said, and seems to be predicated entirely on studying Orientalist art and literature, which he believes should be considered positive aesthetic depictions of the Arab world and Islam. Both in terms of the narrative and the drawing, Thompson heavily references Orientalist painting and storytelling. The results are visually lovely, but highly problematic in terms of the storyline, which follows an odd quasi-sexual relationship between a child-bride turned courtesan named Dodola, and a slave-child turned eunuch, Cham, whom she adopts. These two inhabit a non-specific Middle Eastern country in the modern era that most of the time resembles the sort of kingdom one would find in the Arabian Nights. In this kingdom, there is a sultan with a harem, and eunuchs to guard the courtesans. Odalisques recline on divans smoking hookahs, and a dwarf marches about the geometric gardens chatting with the castrati. As if this weren't enough, Dodola is subjected to a seemingly endless stream of sexual violence. The only positive character in her life, her adoptive son, Cham, actually volunteers to have himself castrated out of shame of his desire for her. In the end, they fall in love, and adopt another slave child together.
Thompson in his studio
Thompson's infatuation with Orientalism, and his preoccupation with the use and abuse of highly sexualised heroine combine to produce the opposite effect to what he claims he had in mind. The Orientalist tropes are deployed in a non-ironic fashion and are not updated in any way, save for the fact that they are eventually welded to current stereotypes about the Middle East, as the characters move outside the Sultan's palace and make their way through the corrupt, filthy and immoral universe of a generic modern day Middle Eastern city. When asked to defend his use of Orientalism, Thompson has said that it should be seen as a fantasy genre that can be referenced without replicating the racism of the original Orientalism, like 'cowboys and Indians,' he explained. As for the rape, prostitution and all manner of misogynistic depictions of women in the book, well, these have long been the stuff of comic books and graphic novels without the help of Orientalism, and undoubtedly Thompson's influences came from that direction as well.