Mirna Raymond Shoueiry
2020 / 7 / 29
Borderless World in The Camp of Al-Morca
Borders have distorted humanity because they have led to clashes between civilizations and conflicts among groups of people with various cultural and religious belief systems. Because of this, colonial literature, which maintains its power by enhancing a variety of boundaries, was launched in imperial countries. To counter the hegemony of colonial literature, postcolonial literature was established as an alternative voice and as a means to build bridges, deconstruct borders and dismantle the consequences of division. Iraqi novelist, Jabir Khalifa Jabir, attempts, in his novel The Camp of Al-Morca (1997), to deconstruct many of the world’s fixed dichotomies: East-West, colonizer-colonized, reality-hyperreality, male-female, Muslim-Christian, Occidental-Oriental, etc. In doing so, he creates a borderless world, hence launching new values which may resolve these collisions.
The first border that is deconstructed is the one that segregates Easterners from Westerners. In a bid to dismantle such a well-established dichotomy, Jabir narrates stories from the history of the Castilian Kingdom when many Spanish Muslims, called Moriscans, disguised themselves as Christians to escape religious persecution. Under the Castilian reign, Moriscans were brutally killed and thrown into the sea. Jabir’s work epitomizes an era where there are no boundaries among Muslims, Christians and Jews.
It is possible that Jabir chooses this historical timeframe to exhibit a new image of Islam that is unlike the distorted portrayal of Islam conveyed in the West i.e. he illustrates a peaceful Islam that deterritorializes the image of Muslims as terrorists and challenges Islamphobia, as Islam is sometimes misrepresented as “uncivilized”. In Uncovering Islam (1997), Edward Said states,
…like so much of the postcolonial world, Islam belongs neither to Europe nor, like Japan, to the advanced industrial group of nations. It (Islam) has been regarded as falling within the purview of ‘development perspectives’, which is another mode of saying that Islamic countries were considered for at least three decades to be in the need of ‘modernization’ (p. iii).
Jabir’s work illustrates that terrorism is not connected to Islam´-or-any other religion. In one instance, one of the orders of Muslims to their soldiers was not to cut a tree´-or-kill a woman´-or-a child. This is juxtaposed to the Castilians who closed the public bathrooms, sealed them by the cross and banned the closing of windows to prevent the Moriscans from praying. Jabir also uses another symbol, raising pigeons, to indicate that Islam’s message is peaceful, and the order of the Castilians to kill the pigeons suggests that Muslims are not radicals in contrary to what Oriental reports claim. For instance, Meredith Jones’ analysis on the portrayal of the Saracens (a term widely used among Christian writers in the Middle Ages to describe an Arab Muslim´-or-Turk) in the Medieval narrative Chansons de Geste, invites an illuminating discussion on the Medieval representation of the Orientals: “They are evil people, they spend their lives in hating and mocking at Christ and in destroying His churches. They are the children of the author of all evil, the Devil… They are frequently presented as physical monstrosities” (1942, p. 201). Furthermore, Said explains that the reason why Muslims are regarded as “others” is due to the fear of Islam in Europe:
Even when the world of Islam entered a period of decline and Europe a period of ascendancy, fear of ‘Mohammedanism’ persisted. Closer to Europe than any of the other non-Christian religions, the Islamic world by its very adjacency evoked memories of its encroachments on Europe (1997, p. 5).
Moreover, Jabir claims that Christianity was born from the womb of Islam and likewise, Islam was born from the womb of Christianity:
The greatest Cathedral in the Catholic world was Seville Cathedral´-or-Sephia Cathedral-;- it was born from the womb of the mosque, embracing and motherhood … there was a mosque in Istanbul, the great Mosque begot from a church, the church of Aba Sofia-;- some of us begot from some of us, and all of us to heaven (2017, p. 92).
Another border Jabir deconstructs is the one that disjoints the past from the present. In one instance, he claims that Amar Ashbelio, a Moriscan, sent him, via email, stories which were told in a camp of Al-Morca. These stories give a voice to an oppressed, voiceless group of people in history and show that they are not inferior to the Castilians (p. 97).
Although Jabir depicts many historical events that occurred at the time, the Camp of Al-Morca is an illusory world in which every tent is a symbol of one of the regions of Spain. It is possible that the novelist mingles illusion with reality to create a pluralistic historical record of oppressed peoples unlike the records found in history, which are typically written by the vanquishers. This alternative voice is dualistic and reveals stories about oppressed groups of people who were deprived of telling their own stories. Additionally, the illusory historical elements may imply that historical “facts” are lies invented by colonial scholars. Through this medium of story-telling, Jabir deconstructs an important tool which colonizers have used for centuries in order to maintain a dominant position i.e. history has been used as a weapon to delve into the past and sustain the “superiority” of the colonizers, and to entrap the colonized into a web of perpetual slavery. According to Paul Gilroy, people are discouraged from seeing identity as “a relational field in which they encounter one another and live out social, historical relationships” (qtd. in Reid, 1995, p. 134). England’s black settlers are seen as “forever locked in the bastard culture of their enslaved ancestors”, becoming “a problem precisely because of their difference and cultural distance from the standards of civilized behavior which are second nature to authentic (white) Britons” (Ibid.).
By telling stories about such a hybrid group, Jabir deconstructs the concept of the “other”, which is purposely fabricated by the Western logo centric. In other words, the West considers anything that is different than their culture as the “other”. By the same token, Sartre claims that Easterners were transformed into the “other” because “Western enlightenment about Asia actually came to Westerners first from irritated missionaries and from soldiers” (1999, p. 17). On the other hand, Jabir narrates the stories of Muslim Spaniards deconstructing “otherness” by mirroring a hybrid race, hence showing that no race is pure and unblended.
Jabir also disentangles the concept of “others” in colonial literature because the colonized were depicted as passive and voiceless, however, Jabir’s work depicts neither the Christians nor Muslims as “others”:
The people of the village affirmed that many of the Christians who attended the festival swept their tears in order not to be seen by anyone. A mother of two sons Ahmed and Jaffer cried when they hurt her son Jaffer (p. 71).
Furthermore, many scholars claim that Westerners have tried to sexualize the East to transform it into the “other”. According to Said, the sexualization of the East has operated as an ideological prop for Western imperialistic desires because most of the Oriental tales were fixed on the harem. Another reason for the penetration of the erotic character of the East was the translation and wide reception of the Arabian Nights’ Entertainment in the early eighteenth century. Scheherazade, the charming and seductive female narrator of the Arabian Nights, tantalized the West. Perhaps Jabir deliberately writes his novel in the form of tales to deconstruct the erotic yarns of the Arabian Nights.
Sexualizing the East has transformed it into “female” and the West into “male”. To illustrate, Eric Meyer asserts that Lord Byron’s Oriental Tales are,
Fixated on the topos of the Oriental harem and on the figure of the veiled Eastern girl who stands as a synecdoche for the colonial other . . . to assert authorial hegemony over the feminized East and bring it under the regulation of the masculine West” (1991, pp. 659-660).
Basing his views on Michael Foucault’s perceptions of power and sexuality, Meyer assumes that political power renders the West masculine and weakness renders the East feminine (1991, p. 684). However, in Jabir’s novel, East and West have no gender. On the contrary, Jabir creates an androgynous world, which is defined as,
The state in which an individual does not choose to be male´-or-female but both, based on the fact that each mind has a male and female side, and these people are also abject because they destabilize the binary system of the patriarchal society where every member of society chooses to play a male´-or-female role (Krishnaraj, 1996, p. 11).
Likewise, Jabir creates an epicene world which is abject for not being patriarchal. To Jabir, the world is both male and female, giving the world a cross-sexual identity.
Jabir also deconstructs the border between the Orient and Occident. In Edward Said’s Orientalism, Said demonstrates that Orientalism is an ideology that -function-s to construct boundaries between the East and West. This dichotomy of images is imposed on all fields of knowledge:
Thus, a very large mass of writers, among whom are poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists and imperial administrators have accepted a basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social de-script-ions, and political accounts of the Orient (1979, p. 151).
Although Said provides plenty of examples of Orientalists who have distorted the image of the East and Eastern people, he does not mention any cases of genuine Orientalists who have not deliberately tried to tarnish the image of the East. One of the most genuine Orientalists was Lady Mary Wortley Montague. As the wife of Edward Wortley, who was an Ambassador to the Court of Turkey, she was able to cross the forbidden borders of the harem in 1717. In her works, she asserts that Turkish women are more independent than European women. To boot, Jabir attempts, in his novel, to exhibit remnants of such genuine Orientalists such as Peter Basten, a Dutch Orientalist, who forms such a close relationship with the Muslims that he is mistakenly thought to be a Muslim himself. Through such a character, Jabir deconstructs the borders between Orientalists and Occidentalists.
In conclusion, The Camp of Al-Morca serves as a nexus between many fixed dichotomies. This renders Jabir a bridge-builder who asserts that only through tolerance, all types of conflicts can be solved. Moreover, his work shows that all kinds of radicalism distort both the East and West, so only through the acceptance of the “other” can one pave the way for a better future.
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