Sunday, 9 September 2007
Turkish delights and postcolonial theory
Last week I visited Turkey for the first time in my life. Everything about Istanbul was mind-blowing, sophisticated and intriquing, but due to some extra-curriculum stress not caused by Turkey or the conference I visited, I came home devastated by the usual stomach flu, peppered with high fever, and basically had to take the whole week off.
Today is the first clear day I see after Istanbul, and tomorrow I'll start my lectures on Postcolonial Theory. This is already the second full course I give on the topic and xnd introductory lecture. However, I don't rely on last year's notes , they seem totally flat and outdated, as usual, so I have to start creating a new Product from the scratch.
In a panicky situation like this, one has to use the sassiest tools available. Yesterday, when I was still holding on to tables and chairs in waves of dizziness, I managed to read a truly clear-headed article by Irad Malkin (2004), "Postcolonial Concepts and Ancient Greek Colonization", in which he re-read the history of Greek city-states through the "middle ground" metaphor, which has also become fashionable in postcolonial theorizing, alongside with "creolization", "hybridity" and "contact zones". As a metaphor, "the middle ground" seems most suitable for any research approaches focused on narration and memory.
One of the great differences between Greek colonies and later European settlements was, of course, the polytheist-monotheist-axis: it is often not emphasized enough in postcolonial theory that most European imperialist projects were deeply Christian projects, and without the deep-seated "civilizing mission", or need to convert the poor heathens, European conquests may have had dramatically different agendas. Malkin, from his classical Mediterranean Civilizations"perspective, has the ability to shake postcolonial theory's conceptual domino game to unexpected horizons.
Today I got inspired by a visit to theorist-novelist Amitava Kumar's blog (www.amitavakumar.com), where I was hinted to get new novels to read and heard the sad news of a brilliant Indian woman writer, Qurratulain Hyder's, passing away. First I got to know about Kumar by reading his book Passport Photos (2000), which is a fascinating combination of theory, fiction and photography. It always warms my heart to find another academically based writer, who is not afraid to keep his writerliness in the closet, who has the ability to let go at least of some layers of conceptual snobbery. So I've been an on and off visitor in Kumar's blog for a couple of years now. In class, I use Kumar (alongside 10-20 other names) as an example of academic writing that can be also aesthetically pleasing and inspiring.
Malkin reminded us of the historical Mediterranean continuum towards the Black Sea, which was not considered as the frightening Other by the Greeks, but a part of oikoumene, the "inhabited" world. This commonness, the lack of epistemological barriers, between the East and West, came somehow flesh to me during the few days in Istanbul. When looking at the mosaics designed in the honour of Alexander the Great, I was reminded of the blonde and blue-eyed Pakistanis I met some years ago, who claimed ascendance from the great Greek forefather and his armies. The same kinds of shivers of recognition from the past happened in Istanbul, too.
All this crystallized on the last night in a discussion with two sophisticated carpet sellers, who were able to give to me the basic information I wanted to find about the Mevlevi Sufi Lodge. Now I know where to find the most knowledgeable young dervish in town, and where the buses to Konya leave. The many possible Silk Roads opened up in front of me. The Sufi wisdom is to pick the road in full consciousness, and to make one aware of the possible consequences of one's choice - but the sweetness about it is that you have absolutely no say about the stops on the way. And the final stop is the ultimate mystery.