Imagining the Locals

TWO FRENCHMEN IN THE ORIENT

Part 2

The most recurrent – and delightful – materials found in Flaubert’s stories from Egypt are precisely the author’s reflections on the very act of writing. Flaubert basically writes about writing. He is the writing-traveler, the traveler preoccupied more with his adventures’ inspiration for his later novels, than with the actual experience of the freshly discovered country. Unfortunately, I cannot really claim to be fundamentally different. But one would not deny that there is also a more humanistic interest in the project of travelling. Meeting another form of humanity is at the core of the departure, even if the prospect for potential literary material is never far behind. Just arrived in Cairo, Flaubert writes to Louis Bouilhet: “In a word, this is how I sum up my feelings so far: very little impressed by nature here—i.e. landscape, sky, desert (except the mirages); enormously excited by the cities and the people.” 1 Foreignness as the disclosure of the other was, for me too, undoubtedly a feature of my migratory plan. It was the totally different other, conceived under the (reductive) impression of India as “the last great alternative to western life,” as I often heard myself say. Flaubert keeps repeating that the travel is confirmation of one’s preconceived ideas rather than an authentic discovery (“Anyone who is a little attentive rediscovers here much more than he discovers. The seeds of a thousand and notions that one carried within oneself grow and become more definite, like so many refreshed memories” 2), but this hardly applies to my extraordinary initial ignorance. That white tomb  built by a murderous king was located, for me, somewhere in Arabia, while ‘cashmere’ was nothing but a type of (cheesy) old-school sweater. While Flaubert simply had to ‘fill in’ the already set pattern of “the indigenous,” my own motif was yet to be molded. Me too, I would soon imagine the locals. It would not be a hard task.

“Just the evening before,
we had been in a monastery of dervishes
where we saw one fall into convulsions from shouting ‘Allah’! …
None of it made me laugh in the slightest,
and it is all too absorbing to be appalling.
The most terrible thing is their music” 3

A Sunday morning, late summer 2009. Leaving the international territories of antiseptic airports, I do my oriental entry. Perhaps I had heard that the scorching heat of June was behind us, but this did not ease the sensorial assault when the automatic doors let a wall of 35 degrees fall on my skull. Physical absurdity. First human contact, directly feeding my bridled imagination: half a hundred males, maybe twice more, forming six or seven untidy rows of bipeds. Luckily, on this early morning of early August, several decades of post-colonialism had not (yet?) made the useful dragoman disappear. I was saved. For a few hours.

“In Europe we picture the Arab as very serious.
Here he is very merry, very artistic in gesticulation and ornamentation.
Circumcisions and marriages seem to be nothing
but pretexts for rejoicing and music-making …
The ‘most extreme excesses of our Press’
would give but a feeble idea
of the buffooneries that are allowed in the public squares…” 4

Trop c’est trop. Nearly seven hundred days later. July 2011, I pack boxes and medium sized furniture in a two-days late tempo truck. My once beloved folkloric neighborhood, Ghanta Ghar, a comfortable twenty minutes walk from Delhi University, has definitely gotten on my nerves. The little district, organized around an overhang clock tower, was historically famous as the biggest vegetable market of Delhi, before being ousted by Jahangir Puri. I used to like the boiling activities, sights and sounds of the nearby market area. The soothing and benevolent hand shakes of the local shopkeepers. I had almost become a local myself. But two decades of existential boredom in France did not suffice to transform me into an enthusiast of one of India’s most sensorially exhausting environments. The orient as the noisy, the smelly, the crowded, the chaotic: the Orientalist cliché, the foreigner’s hors d’œuvre that I – even I! – could not manage to avoid.

Our landlord was the owner of a sweet shop at the corner of the clock tower. His ego and business competitiveness had managed to make me see him as a bigger shot than he maybe was. Stéphanie, my first housemate, and I, experienced with Rahul our first authentic encounter of a local. I remember stating that, even after a year studying as an undergrad philosophy student in Hindu College – an institution mostly populated by western-oriented elite Indians – Rahul was, culturally, the most important person I had met thus far. The forty-something lived with his parents, brothers, wife and two children in a multi-storeyed building, two doors from ours. The first moments were awkward: Stéphanie recalled a silent dinner with Rahul, his brother and his father, who ended up silently staring at her, while she was eating, alone. The wife was almost playing hide-and-seek, permanently peeking at the scene, behind an oblique wall of opaque windows, while keeping plates ready in the kitchen. And a surprisingly young boy, or even two of them perhaps, started running back and forth between the rooms. Stéphanie and I were initially puzzled by the chotus, clearly as young as Rahul’s son, but definitely not playing the same roles. Two centuries might have gone by but my feeling was hardly distinct from Flaubert’s: “All the time I am at Medinet I am given as groom a little girl, ten or twelve years old … Can it be that parents in this country are even stupider than in ours?” 5 The months making us more comfortable, we ultimately questioned Rahul on the matter. “I plan to stop having underage servants,” he replied. “It gives me a bad image.” But the chotus, replaced on a rotating manner every few months, were there until my departure two years later, and even for my occasional visits a few months after that. “They don’t go to school anyway, and would be stealing in railway stations for their parents otherwise. Here, at least, they learn something and they are treated well”, Rahul concluded. Back at home, Stéphanie and I were sharing the same feeling of discomfort. Rahul’s reasoning was not sufficient. We were about to fall into another trap. The five senses cacophony is not the only sin of the oriental. Soon appear the profoundly questionable attitudes. The imagination is at work: “they still have not reached our modern values.”

It is when the ethical and cultural contrarieties accumulate that the visitor reaches his peaks of bigotry. Flaubert’s pseudo-scientific hypotheses were hardly moderate. They were still acceptable in his time: “There are, I think, even more varieties in the negro race than in the white. Compare the negro of the Senaar (Indian type, Caucasian, European, pure black) with the negro of Central Africa; the head of the negro from Guinea is a head of Jupiter beside it.” 6 Everything is targeted: race, physical traits, cultural expressions, communication and language. “If Boileau thought that Latin words offend chaste sensibilities, what on earth would he have said had he known Arabic! Furthermore, the Arab needs no dragoman to make himself understood: pantomime illustrates his comments. Even animals are made to participate in the obscene symbolism.” 7 Even before stepping into my own imagined Orient, I would have found such statements outrageous. But what had happened, so that even two years down the line, then a Master student in Buddhism, I would be able to write the following?

“Finally, all these characters are not evil. These teachers and these students are here, simply because the rest of the university world does not want of them. They are, at worse, classical, not very original, expected, without hopes. That is what a teacher explains to me: “a third-world country like India, with billions of desperate people, is different from the West, and that is also true for moral values. Therefore, one should go gently on the matter.” Or my good Italian friend who finally left my previous flat in Ghanta Ghar to benefit from the easy life at the residency [for international students]. He just told me that in the Divine Comedy, Dante, on the way to hell, discovers that the largest group is not that of the damned, heroes of evil, but the crowd of the Vestibule of Hell, a mass of souls, neutral by cowardice, who acted really neither in good, nor in bad and who, consequently, cannot even treat themselves with a seat in hell.” 8

This came from me, the rationalist and culturally aware young citizen of the world, who had renounced his traditional Christianity and slowly turned towards Buddhism, for its remarkable introspective preoccupations. I had believed that a medieval epic poem imbued with theological supremacy could alleviate my frustration at the department’s microcosm. I came to consider that irritation and cultural incomprehension could only be evacuated through the sarcastic and artistically aspiring prose of the foreigner that I was. Falling into the extreme, in quasi-racist class denigrations, was my clumsy attempt to bridge the cultural gap. Or at least to stop thinking about the effort it called for. In order to forget, some have liquor. Others have writing.

(Many have both)

guill top right

The traveler’s imagination of the local is not just a simple demonization. Its symmetrical opposite is also at the heart of the foreigner’s representation, and discourse. … Flaubert was certainly in an unconsciously Semitic worldview when he approached Egypt as a land, not only of primitive barbarism, but also of primordial peace and union. Flaubert wished to find through his journey the signs of an antique, uncorrupted lifestyle freed from the anguish of modern Europe.

guill bottom left

The traveler’s imagination of the local is not just a simple demonization. Its symmetrical opposite is also at the heart of the foreigner’s representation, and discourse. The Orient is equally a fantasized land, well before the travel, and during the journey, when the long-discussed difficulties seem momentarily bypassed. Flaubert was certainly in an unconsciously Semitic worldview when he approached Egypt as a land, not only of primitive barbarism, but also of primordial peace and union. Flaubert wished to find through his journey the signs of an antique, uncorrupted lifestyle freed from the anguish of modern Europe. The ideal unity of nature and humans is systematically connected to the idea of a lost past. “One of these days we’re going to consult fortune-tellers—all part of our quest for the old ways of life here.” 9 Local life becomes romantic and attractive in virtue of its being uncorrupted by the meanders of modern life: modern Egypt is just the overtime of ancient Egypt.

My approach of the non-aging Orient was a bit more sophisticated than Flaubert. I simply had more time in hands than him. I did not stroll among Gupta ruins or look for psychics, but an apparently naïve curiosity about my interlocutors’ culture made me reach basically the same conclusions. One central feature appeared simultaneously strong and reassuring: the force of tradition. This was naturally connected to the prevalence of non-separated families, which I saw as a healthy sign in comparison with the degrading and degraded state of families in my familiar West. Marriage is actually the ideal example of the Orientalist’s fantasy of an ageless civilization. Marriage is the success over the test of time in two ways: across generations, as a cultural heritage, and within each marriage, as the faith in the soundness of the couple. Still partly unaware of the ‘inside stories’ of Indian marriages and families, I took the apparently eager acceptance of young Indians as the sign of a sense of modesty and trust in traditions, which had disappeared in a West led by narrow-minded egotistical choices: “This sacrament seems above all to mark the integration of the individual in a lineage of tradition, the story of a family.” 10 Even though my reflection ended with a coward acknowledgement that none of ‘the two systems’ was evidently better, and that I had encountered young people somehow unhappy in their tradition, there was undoubtedly a sense of awe for me when gazing at this institution. It was clearly different, and therefore less imperfect, than what I knew well. I simply assumed that my Indian contemporaries, intentionally or not, were not faced by the existential dilemmas of modern Westerners (and myself in particular):

“On the whole, simply, the institutions of marriage and of the family are understood differently. In Europe, it is the aspirations to personal choices that matters … To some extent, it is the same here too, but once reached twenty-five, thirty years maximum, it is time for everyone to think about contributing to the greater scheme of things, and the protégés of two close clans will be perfectly suited to form beautiful descendants and prolong the prestigious names. Concessions are different; it is also that life, at the individual level, is seen differently. Here, there are no existential doubts regarding the construction of one’s personal identity, in what would otherwise be a world of lost values, where decisions are numerous and destabilizing.” 11

“The modern Indian” and I were simply not in the same world. He was still enjoying the unperturbed existence of the individual happily minimized within a strongly affirmed tradition, while I was the post-Sartre rootless worldwide wanderer who had escaped from a diseased West. “The modern Indian”, on his side, was simply uncontaminated.

Years have passed and the inadequacy of my rational interpretations have at least made me become less talkative on all mediums. But the indigenous dream is still a part of my daily life. This one may not have to do with the social and cultural norms anymore – their reassuring solidity had become dubious after the months. It is now the environment, a few saved places, the last sites of a true experience of absolute peace, which I continue to fantasize. In his short journey, Flaubert came across such places. It is best seen in his lyrical descriptions of certain spots: “I walk by myself in Cairo, in fine sunshine in the section between the prison and the Bulak Gate … I keep losing my way in the maze of alleys and running into dead-ends … Quiet way of life here—intimate, secluded.” 12 The tourist stumbles upon a peaceful street, an empty backyard or a calm market and he daydreams about the peace of a life out of time, forever settled in this eternal, unexpected and newly rejoined Eden.

Through a concourse of circumstances, I moved in August 2012 to the cozy upper-floor of a separate house in a rather empty residential area of Parkala, a little village a few kilometers away from Manipal. The best spot in the spacious and luminous living-room is without a doubt the desk, which faces three huge, permanently open windows and overlooking an empty piece of land, a small street and finally the house of my landlord’s sister. As I start my days, for once unperturbed by my loneliness (the sleep appeased me), I notice the simple, ‘standard’ family, having, and showing its happy life before my eyes. The father leaves his newspaper to get ready; the boy awaits on the swing for his mother to accompany him to the school bus; the daughter, a conscientious eighth standard student, checks again that she knows her lesson well. Even the mother, generally the object of a legitimate concern in Indian society, seems content in what looks like the most balanced of lives. Fifteen hours later, in the unambiguous dark, while on the phone, I day-, or rather, night-dream of spending the rest of life here. As if all the problems of my quarter-of-a-century, unemployed, European existence in India would suddenly get resolved through this eternal, arguably a-spatial fantasy. The ‘happy family Parkala’ is truly a utopia, a non-place, a naïve imagination, even as one believes that it is there, tangible, close by, before his eyes. Actually, the only eternity that the orientalist finds is his unchanged imagination. Unchanged even after standing the test of time. Because tonight, I will go back, again, and dream.

[placenotes]
References

Image courtesy: Shishkin Gallery

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Footnotes

  1. Flaubert, Flaubert in Egypt, 42.
  2. Ibid., 81.
  3. Ibid., 94.
  4. Ibid., 80.
  5. Ibid., 175.
  6. Ibid., 188.
  7. Ibid., 80.
  8. Samuel Buchoul, “Le Vestibule,” Indianasam (blog), October 9, 2011, http://www.indianasam.net/fr/2011/10/09/le-vestibule/.
  9. Flaubert, Flaubert in Egypt, 86.
  10. Samuel Buchoul, “La valse des generations,” Indianasam (blog), November 19, 2011, http://www.indianasam.net/fr/2009/11/29/la-valse-des-generations/.
  11. Flaubert, Flaubert in Egypt, 86.
  12. Ibid., 77.