Saladin Trilogy: Beyond the Book #5 – Fan mail / Neo-Orientalism

One of the more surreal aspects of being a writer is receiving fan mail (or fan email, to be more precise).  It’s not something I thought much about before I published my first novel.  I write because I love it.  I love digging into history and bringing the past to life.  I feel privileged – ridiculously lucky, really – to be paid to do it… all the more so since I would keep writing even if I were not paid.

The writing process can be intensely private.  For months, I’m locked inside my own head, only coming out to consult history books or ancient documents.  During the day, I live with my characters in Constantinople or the Holy Land or, lately, Rothom and Westchester.  And when I finish a book, I move right on to the next one.  The publication schedule lags about a year behind my writing pace, so by the time one of my books hits the shelves, I’m usually putting the finishing touches on draft one of my next novel.

So when someone writes me to tell me they liked one of my books (or not), I feel somewhat like a fish that has been caught in a net and yanked from the water.  I am immensely pleased, of course.  I feel honored that my writing could inspire someone to write to me.  But it’s also a bit disorienting.  Here I am, swimming in the waters of 11th century Normandy and England, and along come an email about the fall of Constantinople (Siege) or the Crusades (Eagle or Kingdom).  It’s a strange feeling.  I often blink in surprise as I think: yes, I did write that, didn’t I.  Then I smile and write a note of thanks, which is truly heartfelt.

Occasionally, I receive a message that inspires a bit longer of a response.  Recently, a reader wrote to me about Eagle concerning the image of Arabs as portrayed in the West and “Neo-Orientalism.”  Since one of my goals in writing the Saladin Trilogy was to challenge popular stereotypes of the Middle East (and of Christian crusaders), I thought I’d post her letters (edited a bit for brevity), and my responses here:

Message to me:


I am working on my MPhil dissertation these days. I am working on the Arab image in Tariq Ali’s “The book of Saladin” with reference to what he calls the Orientalist’s exotica… In Mr Ali’s book I came across the fact that he is over turning the Stereotypes related to the Arab’s and portraying instead the ‘barbarian’ western invaders. Keeping this idea in mind i was looking for a book that portrays the same idea and I came across your book “Eagle”, I read it, liked it…  You have mentioned in your historical note that the Islamic Orient at that time was much more advanced than the west. If we keep this in mind can we safely say that the Overturning of the Oriental and Occidental stereotypes is an upcoming feature of Neo-Orientalism? Plus is it safe to say that in doing so, you have abrogated the Western seat of power and appropriated the same dynamics of power to the East? And do you consider yourself a Neo-Orientalist?

Waiting anxiously for your reply

My response:

First off, I’m glad you enjoyed “Eagle.”  I’m also glad you’re working on Tariq Ali’s “The Book of Saladin.”  It is a wonderful book.

If by Neo-Orientalist you mean someone who would like to overturn established tropes and stereotypes regarding the East and West and replace them with a more nuanced and accurate picture, then sure, I am a Neo-Orientalist.  While I do believe that it is important to overturn these stereotypes, I don’t see myself as “appropriating the same dynamics of power to the East.”  Indeed, I don’t believe that power can be transferred by the mere construction or deconstruction of what Edward Said referred to as “imaginative geographies.”  If you have not read Said’s “Orientalism” — which seems to have strongly influenced Tariq Ali’s ideas — then you should.  Said points out that the practice of imaginative geography (the way that exotic, distant places are imagined in terms of local experiences and concerns) takes “place between all cultures, certainly, and between all men.”  That is to say that people in the East have their own set of stereotypes and misconceptions of the West, based more on their own history, politics, and concerns than on reality.  But these sorts of ideas alone do not generate any sort of power dynamic.  Indeed, the West’s imaginative geography of the East only became Orientalism, in Said’s view, when it was applied in a context of imperialism.  That is: imaginative geography allied to political, military, and economic dominance is what produced Orientalism.  So overturning the myths of Orientalism will not be enough to dissolve western power or to grant power to “orientalized” peoples.  That must happen at the level of politics and economics, though, hopefully, cultural changes can help to spur political and economic change.

That said, the best that I hope for from my books is greater understanding between the West and the East.  Understanding is the first step to overcoming fear and prejudice, and if people in the West can overcome their fears of the East, and the Middle East in particular, then perhaps it will free our leaders to make more enlightened decisions.  I hope so, anyway.

All the best.

Her reply:

Thank you so much for your reply, it has made me rethink my idea of the appropriation of power to the East. I just have one more question, do you believe that the twain (East and West) can meet? Can East and West be friends on, lets say, more than individual levels? Are nations of Johns and Yusufs possible?

My answer:

I’m glad to have been of help.

I do think that the East and West can be friends, although I think that the East (a rather all-encompassing term for a rather heterogeneous group of nations) first needs to address its own internal divisions.  Remember that for most of its history, the West has itself been riven by internal conflict.  If you had asked a European as late as 1944 if all of Europe could coexist in harmony, they would have been deeply skeptical.  The current period of peace and cooperation amongst European nations (disagreements over monetary policy aside) is truly remarkable and I think offers hope for the rest of the world.  If India and Pakistan, China and Japan, Iran and Iraq, Armenia and Azerbaijan, can find a way to cooperate and set aside their difference, then I think that will be a first and perhaps necessary step towards greater harmony between East and West.


And now, it’s back to medieval England!




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