Orientalism: A distorted perception of “the other”

Orientalism: A distorted perception of “the other”

“Arabs, for example, are thought of as camel-riding, terroristic, hook-nosed, venal lechers whose undeserved wealth is an affront to real civilization.” – Edward Said

Orientalism is a built-in system or a method by which the West, not only socially constructed and actually produced the Orient, but controlled and managed it through a hegemony of power relations, working through the tropes, images and representation of literature, art, visual media, films and travel writing among other aspects of cultural and political appropriation. This extract is from the ground-breaking book of the Palestinian author Edward Said, entitled Orientalism. Said shows how Orientalism legitimized Western white supremacy and served as a system of representations, which consolidate the West’s authority and supremacy over the East, and did not just reflect or describe it.

Ever since its appearance in 1978, this book has stimulated a lively and necessary  debate  on  the  asymmetrical  relationship  between  the  West  and  the  East, on questions of colonialism, dominance and power, as well as on long-standing stereotypes and prejudices against the “Other”. Essentially, the West created the idea of the Orient in order to subjugate and control it. This mix of power and knowledge enabled the “West” to generalize and misrepresent the “Orient.” It created a hierarchical structure in which the West represented democracy, modernity, and enlightenment, while the “Muslim world” was backward, stagnant, and intolerant. Besides, all civilizations were defined and judged in relation to the superior West.

What is considered Orient and what is considered Occident? The Orient consists of modern geographic territories known as the Middle East, Turkey, Greece, North Africa and Asia, commonly referred to as the Near East and Far East, respectively. The so called West, instead, is comprised of European powers and, later, the U.S. Orientalism explores the hierarchal relationship between the West and East (Occident and Orient).

Orientalism art is a European concept, popularized during the 19th century by various Oriental artists, as they were called. These artists depicted the East and its places, people, cultural objects, religion, and everyday customs in their paintings. Some of the most popular and influential Orientalist genre scenes depict harems. Probably denied entrance to authentic seraglios, male artists relied largely on hearsay and imagination, while painting decorated interiors with luxuriant odalisques, or female slaves or concubines, reclining in the nude or in Oriental dress. Many artists, like Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, never travelled to the East, but used the harem setting to evoke an erotic ideal in their voluptuous odalisques.

Orientalism entered literature in many ways when stories of European soldiers and merchants who marched around the world during the 19th century, came to revolve around the mysterious and exotic dangers of the Orient. The average English or American reader has obtained his/her ideas about the Arab, in particular, and Muslims, in general, from the Arabian Nights. One of the most influential of many works that aimed to document the culture Middle East was the Description de l’Égypte. It was a twenty-four-volume published in 1809 by the French government, illustrating the topography, architecture, monuments, natural life, and population of Egypt. It had a profound effect on French architecture and decorative arts of the period, as evidenced in the dominance of Egyptian motifs in the Empire style.

We can find an example of Orientalism in movies such as Aladdin, where women are sexualised and men are depicted as aggressive barbarian with no manners. Besides, in the movie there is a clear mix-up in representation between Indian and Arabian culture, there are turbans worn and Arabian princess attire, as well as terms as “Sultan”, but we can also find some Indian culture and stereotypes. For example, in backgrounds, there are men doing snake charms with cobras (widely spotted and well known snake in India), Jasmine has a pet tiger, Rajah, which is India’s national animal, and the use of elephants in “Prince Ali” is an element seen in Ancient India as well. This is what makes up the Orientalist view on two diverse cultures and countries in Asia.

In the pictures below are represented three of the most famous orientalist works, respectively in paintings, literature and movies, from left to right: Women of Algiers in Their Apartment by Eugène Delacroix, the book Description de l’Égypte and the poster of the movie Aladdin.

During the years, Orientalism has erroneously defined the East as everything the West is not, or at least, everything the West does not want to be (or be perceived as), a despotic monolith in contrast with the Occident. This position of Otherness has made it easy to dehumanize Middle Eastern and Asian populations in the past. The direct and indirect results of Orientalism is that westerns allowed stereotypes and perceptions to enter their mind, with pervasive images and definitions.

Orientalism is a concept that dates back to 40 years ago, but we can say that it is still alive nowadays. It displays itself through the occupation of Egypt by the West, through the Vietnam Crisis, the Palestine -Israel Crisis, the declaration of Palestine as the province or capital of Israel by the United States, and so on. One of the most proofs of the existence of Orientalism is the forcible occupation of the eastern lands by the West, their attempts to control them by setting up military bases.

Giudi Aligi 


Orientalism, Edward Said (1978)

Supersummary, Orientalism


Cultural Reader, Orientalism by Edward Said (2017)


The Met, Orientalism in Nineteenth-Century Art, Jennifer Meagher (2004)


Art in Context, Orientalism Art – The Politics and Paintings of Orientalism Art History (2022)


Science ABC, Orientalism: Definition, History, Explanation, Examples and Criticism, John Staughton (2022)


Story maps, How to Spot Orientalism, Bridget Anscombe, Promise Kim, Shourya Verma and Kartika Tanguturi (2021)


ReOrient, From Orientalism to Islamophobia: Reflections, Confirmations, and Reservations, Damir Skenderovic and Christina Späti (2019)


The Organization for World Peace, From Orientalism To Islamophobia: Anti-Muslim Rhetoric And The Rise Of Hate Crimes In America, Melinda Sandstedt (2020)


International Journal of Scientific & Engineering Research, Edward Said’s Orientalism: Is it still alive today in the contemporary world? Tajul Islam (2020)

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