It was my third time walking around the Vieux Port of Montreal with my family, when we suddenly we ran into a rather intriguing sign. It was advertising the Festival Orientalys and immediately I grew skeptical. Itâ€™s my natural reaction when I see something that includes â€śorientâ€? in its title. One step into the festival and I was greeted by a Chinese dragon posing in front of a tarp that was guarding the main area of the festival known as La MĂ©dina.
With that image my suspicions were confirmed, but I decided to proceed further into this ridiculous showcase of â€śculture.â€? Countries ranging from Morocco to Japan were represented at this festival, each with booths that either had information, merchandise, or food. I first came across the Algeria booth and after perusing it I stepped out and to my surprise, found that the China booth was right next to it. I wondered if it would make more sense to at least group countries of similar cultures together, but then I realized that as long as they are being referred to as the â€śOrient,â€? it doesnâ€™t matter.
If this festival wasnâ€™t enough, during my trip to Quebec City, we found a boutique called Ziba BeautĂ©s dâ€™orient. It is a chain that carries items that its website claims have Â â€śA Touch of the Exotic Orientâ€?. They sell a wide range of items like lamps, clothes, jewelry, and rugs that range from Morocco to India. Naturally the prices are insanely high and this just another mechanism to exoticize their products. By placing all these products under one roof, they lose the individuality and everything just blends into creating the image of the Orient that the store wants to market.
These are just snapshots; the original notion of the Orient itself originates from a powerful discourse known as Orientalism, which was coined by Palestinian scholar Edward Said. While once a respected study during the Imperial Age, Orientalism has come under heavy scrutiny ever since Saidâ€™s classic book Orientalism, which detailed how the West created a skewed version of the East in order to profit off and exploit it. While academia has turned away from this view of the world, festivals like this convey that the idea of the Orient is still alive and well. Itâ€™s a ridiculous ideology and it is truly embodied in the movie West is West. In this scene, the main character Sajidâ€™s principal recounts the glorious days of British imperialism in the Subcontinent (Scene ends at 5:06).
While it is important to highlight the connections many of these countries have with one another, festivals and stores like the ones I described are not the way to do it. They inorganically store various cultures all under one roof without providing any useful way for people to learn. Instead of just placing the booths of Algeria and China next to one another, why not highlight the 40,000 Chinese nationals living in Algiers which also happens to have the Arab Worldâ€™s only Chinatown? Food is a always an important part to any festival, so why not use it to show that zlebia, a North African sweet, and jlaibi, a South Asian sweet are in fact just two different words for the exact same sweet! Would it kill Zibaâ€™s management to not use the words orient and exotic in all their advertisements? Frankly, itâ€™s just racist and ignorant to use and it promotes an ideology that was used to exploit people. But hey, Ziba has been given Martha Stewartâ€™s seal of approval so they must be doing something good! Whoâ€™s to say?