Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Francis Frith in Egypt and Palestine - Globalization and the Middle East - 2400 German Troops to go to Lebanon

A recent headline in Germany is that 2400 German troops will be stationed in Lebanon as part of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).

What does the increasing presence of Western forces in the Middle East tell us about world affairs and how are we to interpret them in light of current events?

The basic issues are well identified in a recent book by Douglas R. Nickel about English photographer Francis Frith, one of the first photographers to photograph Egypt and the Holy Land in the 19th century. Frith's photographs portrayed an Egypt whose monuments had been left to fall to ruins. Frith, for example, was the first to photograph the Sphinx and Abu Simbel, showing them largely buried in desert sand. His photographs of the Holy Land definitely had Biblical overtones.

Nickel's book about Francis Firth
Francis Frith in Egypt and Palestine: A Victorian Photographer Abroad
(Princeton University Press)
has been reviewed online by Margaret Regan and below is an excerpt of what she writes. Of course, we do not agree with either Regan or Frith on all the questions below, but we think that Regan's discussion clearly points to the essence of the prevailing subliminal problems which are at the root of the conflagrations in the Middle East region:

"The book ... excavates what Nickel calls the "archaeology" of Western misconceptions about the Middle East--ideas that unfortunately still shape geopolitics today....

Frith subscribed to the prevailing "Orientalist" view that Arabs were exotic, "half-civilized" and decidedly inferior to Europeans.

In a typical passage, Frith wrote, "The Arabs who infest (Palestine) are the laziest, the most cowardly and worthless set of fellows."

Contemporary Western politicians fall into the same trap, Nickel says, stereotyping the people and the various cultures of the region....

When we talk about the Middle East, he says, we talk in the same dualities Frith used: "We're Christian; they're Muslim. The Westerner is industrious; the Middle Easterner is lazy. The Westerner is modern and scientific. The Middle Easterner is superstitious and backward."

... Muslims as a group are equated with terrorism....

Frith thought that Muslims were illegitimate landholders of places that truly belonged to Christians. The best thing all around, the photographer believed, would be for the white man to take up his burden and rule these wayward people....

Such ideas sound remarkably familiar to today's political sloganeering, though nowadays we talk less about Christianizing the Arab world and more about democratizing it. But the impulse is similar....

"The interesting thing is that so much of the issues that pertain to Frith in the 1850s we see going on around us right now," Nickel adds. "A lot of things in the world have (changed), but the relationship between the East and West hasn't changed. All of the things, the rhetoric, that you find on the nightly news is the same rhetoric you would have found back in the 1850s as well. Frith is an interesting kind of case study in how modern issues of globalization were already playing themselves out back in the 19th century and all of the same sort of agendas were already in place. You can't think of the issues in the Middle East as modern in vintage, as relatively recent
."

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