Debunking Postmodern Orientalism with Barthes The Case of Betty Mahmoodys Not Without My Daughter

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2001

18 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A)

Free online reading

The ideological moblilization of the US populace in the wake of 11 September would not have been possible without the preexistence of deeply entrenched myths. One of these is undoubtedly the myth of the Oriental Other, which has been propagated and perpetuated by the dynamics of Orientalism in Edward Said's sense. The tacit acceptance of Orientalist images after the attacks in both popular and academic discourse of the Western world was greatly facilitated by Orientalist forms of low culture abounding in the latter part of the 20th century. One of the best-known and most revolting instances is Betty Mahmoody's Not Without My Daughter, a US housewife's popularized account of the abuse and seclusion she endured at the hands of her husband in the Iran of the mid 1980s. First published in 1987, it was subsequently translated for non-English book markets and turned into a successful and equally popular movie by Brian Gilbert in 1991. The blurb on the front page of the Corgi edition[1] advertises the novel as "the multi-million copy international bestseller" from which we can infer that, together with the film, it attained a circulation and popularity rarely enjoyed by more sophisticated publications. This means that the story and its portrayal, either through its written or cinematographic text, were for some time accepted into popular discourse and thus influenced the individual and collective psyche of several million readers and viewers.

The reader is given on 417 pages a detailed description of how Sayyed Bozorg Mahmoody ("Moody"), a US doctor of Iranian origin, travels with his family to Tehran for an initially short family visit, which turns out to be permanent retainment against the author's and her daughter Mahtob's will. This takes place only five years after the Iranian revolution of 1979, which toppled Mohammed Reza Shah and the Pahlavi dynasty, an economic, military and strategic ally of the US in the midst of the Cold War, and transformed the centralized and repressive monarchy into a centralized and repressive Islamic state. After 18 months, the two manage with the help of a Kurdish smuggling network to escape the maltreatment of Moody and his aiding and abetting clan and to flee via Iranian Kurdistan into Turkey – another US ally in the region.

This autobiographical story is furthermore advertised on the back cover of the Corgi edition as the "story of a woman's courage and total devotion to her child", which "would give any loving mother nightmare". Yet when applying the Barthesian myth theory[2] to the novel and its content, one easily finds that the legitimate fight of a woman for her basic rights substantially occludes the novel's mythical substructure which is not only Orientalist, but defamatory and racist. Since the underlying Oriental mythology of Not Without My Daughter is always able to hide beneath its monopolizing surface structure, a woman's struggle against patriarchal violence, every attempt at criticizing the novel will necessarily seem mysoginist and inhumane. In reality, Not Without My Daughter, the book as well as the film, is a text tightly woven into the intertextual fabric of an extreme form of Orientalism, successfully using the Barthesian myth mechanism both to construct an overtly racist and dehumanizing picture of the East's inhabitants and to obfuscate and shield it against criticism. The text's ability to make its racism seem acceptable, or to cover it up altogether, surely facilitated its popularity and its entrance into Western discourse of the late eighties and nineties of the last century.

The acceptability of this particular instance of contemporary Orientalist texts is largely due to the cultural tradition of Orientalism as described by Edward Said in his trailblazing work of the same name published in 1978.[3] Orientalism, the Western construction and representation of its alter ego, the East, entered the realm of texts long before the birth and expansion of Islamic culture and statehood in the 7th century. Yet with the latter looming at the eastern and southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, and even establishing itself as an imminent threat on the Iberian Peninsula, it entered the consciousness of European Christianity as an uncomfortable menace.[4] The Islamic movement's seemingly unstoppable dynamism and success called not for explanation and appropriate investigaton, but rather for ideological dominance. Thus, in medieval times, Islam was always described as the antithesis of Christianity, eternalized in literary monuments such as La Divina Comedia, El Poema del Cid, La Chanson de Roland or Piers Plowman. The Oriental Other was appropriated as the negative side of the Occident. Since according to medieval thinking, Muhammad was to Islam what Christ was to Christianity, the term "Mohammedanism" was coined, used to the present day although offensive to Muslims. The prophet Muhammad is usually portrayed as a renegade cardinal and false prophet, in short a heretic impostor. Intrigue and mendacity as essentially Eastern traits become from then on canonized in the Orientalist mind-set.

Moreover, the paroxysms which in Muslim tradition seized the prophet when Quranic passages were revealed to him, are interpreted as a sign of epilepsy and mental disorder. Particular interest is also taken in his sexual life, whose purported excesses and libidinal promiscuity elucidate his sexual perversion.

With the end of Ottoman expansionism in southeastern Europe and with the advent of enlightenment and rationalism, Islam and with it the Orient ceased to be measured against the Christian paradigm. Reason, the new touchstone, replaced the former, yet the binary logic inherited from the Middle Ages continued to be applied. Images abound based on the notion that the Oriental mind is, unlike its Western counterpart, incapable of rationality. Despite the predominance of new standards, the older ones were readily perpetuated, one of them being the projection of sexual debauchery onto the Orient.

The preponderance of pseudoscientific and imaginative writing in academic Orientalism gave way to a more immediate appropriation of the Eastern Other with the rise of Britain and France to imperialist hegemony in the Middle East. The political discourse of the emerging instrumental Orientalism was translated into a cultural discourse which proved to be even more influential and ubiquitous. The power institutions of the respective empires, be they political, economic, military, social or cultural, produced a huge variety of texts which all in one way or another orientalized the Orient; the Other, both existent and nonexistent, first had to be ‘othered’. Signs, inherited from an already abundant lore of Orientalist concepts, were codified anew and again until complete canonization. The imperialist consensus underlying all these texts, the "fact" that the Orient was inferior to Europe, created dense fabrics of intertextuality and therefore developed into a common signifying system applicable to the East. A doxological language by which one was able to talk about the Other solidified to the extent that no other method to approach the Orient seemed legitimate or normal. Thus, an Orientalist mentality proliferated and disseminated in the context of a tried and tested tradition, handed down from generation to generation and from institution to institution, so as to impede any alternative narration. Knowledge became a function of power whose discourse remained a unilateral movement of silencing the Orient as opposed to an antithetical or bilateral dialogue. In addition to this, the triple equation Middle East=Islam=Arab became canonized, according to which many of today's enlightened Westerners still think of the Arabic-Islamic world, disregarding that three unrelated concepts, one geographical, one religous and one linguistic, are conflated into a single entity.

Since the Second World War and the subsequent political decolonisation of the Middle East, Britain and France ceded their hegemony to the United States, which exercise both political and ideological influence in the region. Lest we forget, the best part of the global oil reserves lie in "the Orient", whose sanctity to US and other Western economies legitimized the crusade of the Second Gulf War. Educational institutions like the prestigious American Unveristies of Beirut and Cairo ensure the loyalty of future Arab elites to the US cause. Even though the most powerful Arabic-Islamic states, such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Egypt and Jordan, are in league with the US, the stylized Orient, and Islam in particular, have since the early 1990s stepped into the void left by the implosion of the Soviet Union. As an illustration of this, political scientist Samuel Huntington has conjured up the spectre of the 'crescent-shaped Islamic bloc', whose 'bloody borders' are the result of the impending clash of civilizations.

When Iran experienced the Islamic revolution in 1979 and the concomitant hostage crisis, in which several dozen US officials were held hostage in the US embassy in Tehran, a complaisant and Westernized ally of US influence in the Middle East ceased to cooperate and transmuted into a state of Islamic fervour and anti-Americanism. The coverage of the events in Iran during the first few months by the US media and the sudden transformation of a former satellite state into an anti-Western threat are thoroughly covered by Edward Said in his book on postmodern Orientalism titled Covering Islam. [5] The pun apparent in the title, i.e. the reporting on Islam while misrepresenting it simultaneously, harks back to the occlusion mechanism in the Barthesian myth scheme.

A myth in Barthes’ theory is comprised of two interlinked semiological levels, both consisting of the Saussurean triad of signfier, signfied and sign. The sign of the first level functions also as the signifier of the second level, the level on which mythic imagery is integrated into the two triads. The second-level signifier is thus already semantically motivated by virtue of being the sign of the primary level. Yet the latter is emptied of its partial motivation by imposition of a new signified onto it on the secondary level. The second-level signfied is the mythic imagery which with its signifier (the first-level sign) constitutes the actual myth. The partial motivation of the second-level signfier, i.e. the meaning of the first-level sign, is crucial for the sustenance of the myth whose signification would not be viable without the primary sign, even though the latter is substantially deformed and obscured by the former.

The exact same technique of mystification is at work in covering the Orient and its metonym Islam. The primary sign might be called "the Arabic-Islamic region with its highly diverse population and complex culture", which is reduced from its myriad of meanings to a mere form or receptacle called "the Orient". The vacuum thus created is filled up with negative aspects associated with, but not necessarily pertaining to the primary signfier: kidnappings, stoning of women, hate for Westerners, omnipresent bombs etc. The highly diverse populace and complex culture of Arabic-Islamic region is predominantly repressed from the secondary signification while remaining an integral part of its definition. The crux of the matter in the Orientalist context is the dogmatism of fictitious imagery about the Orient, with which the emptied first-level sign can be repleted. In other words, the Orientalist tradition provides a whole range of half-truths which in fact are racist lies and with which it is for everyone legitimate to motivate and perpetuate the Oriental myth. As a result, the Barthesian myth critique is at the core of understanding the binary relationship between a fictitious Occident and a fictitious Orient.

The establishment of antinomic relationships is fundamental to Orientalism and one of its postmodern contributions, the novel by Betty Mahmoody. It pervades most of the judgments about and portrayals of Orientals and Occidentals in the text. These two terms become synonymous with Iranians and Americans, respectively. In syntax, this opposition manifests itself in simple parallelisms such as "my country, my people...his country, his people" (28) and "I don't want to be Iranian...I was born an American. I want to be an American citizen"(71). Further examples include "She was not a dutiful Iranian child: she was my resolute American daughter"(361) and "I had married the American Moody; this Iranian Moody was an unwelcome stranger."(351). The fact that the East is not the West is hammered home by multiple repetitions as in "Ordering strange food from a strange menu in a strange land,..."(408). At times, a more political or even military register is employed in establishing borders when the author calls herself and her daughter "inseparable allies"(198) and notices that her "little five-year-old already knew who her friends and enemies were."(98). Even the integrity of her Kurdish rescuers is questioned with this terminology: "Do the Kurds hate Americans too? Or are we allies, common enemies of the Shiite majority?"(388).

The uncompromising adherence and loyalty to what the author calls "our common heritage"(182) becomes the prerequisite to fit into her Occidental autostereotype ("a Christian, an American" [58]). After meeting Elen, a compatriot who was also retained by her Oriental husband, yet who chose to stay and live in Iran, the author frenetically enquires her motivation for doing so: "How could any American woman – or anyone – choose Iran over America? I wanted to shake Elen by the shoulders and scream: Why?!''(149). Moody's wish to live with his family in Iran and his consequent defection from the United States are contrasted by the questions on the application form for US citizenship to which he answered in the affirmative (212) and with which he apparently should have espoused the authour's nationalist allegiance. Even the name-giving after their daughter's birth degenerates into a test for national loyalty (220/21).

Her explicitly chauvinist stance is evident whenever she encounters justified or unjustified Iranian criticism of 'the duplicity of the American government'(157) and its involvement in the First Gulf War (1980-1988). This she is unwilling to accept because of 'the viciousness of their irrational attacks on America'(217), actively excoriating them as in 'This was too much for me to bear. I rose to the defense of my country...'(217) and even more so when 'America was emasculated before the world'(223) during the hostage crisis of 1979-1981.

An essential part of the defintion of the author's autostereotype and a touchstone against which the Other is judged is 'comfortable normalcy'(3), i.e. the material standard of the United States. Whether a bathroom has 'an American-style toilet'(13), towels and a shower curtain (19), whether a kitchen sports dishtowels and potholders ('Iranians are unaware of their existence' 38) becomes the main criterion for belonging either to Occident or Orient. The fact that 'there is no credit in Iran and no one paid by check'(31) belongs to those 'cultural differences'(37) distinguishing the Orient from 'normal American lives'(16). Only after their flight to Turkey, when the author is able to offer her daughter 'a breakfast of eggs, and hashbrown potatoes smothered in ketchup' and when she herself drinks 'real American coffee'(416) does the world seem to be in order again. Furthermore, the very essence of some meals is defined by their semblance of the American standard; a pizza is only a pizza if it is an American pizza (89).

Another related aspect to the one above is her obsession and minute description of sanitary conditions, personal hygiene and her Iranian in-laws' eating habits. It starts with 'the largest cockroaches we had ever seen'(13) and 'an enormously ugly rat'(153), and goes on to 'the overpowering stench of unwashed humanity'(38), i.e. the Iranians or Orientals. Her imagery finally degenerates into the 'tiny black bugs' and 'wriggling worms'(92) in her in-laws' food, which her formerly civilized husband consents to eat ('Moody ate the bugs' 27). These images develop from single instances to generalizations as in 'Rats are a fact of life in Tehran'(154) and 'Cockroaches ran rampart'(85). Yet the author's greatest obsession seems to lie in her 'American habit of showering every day'(27). As a result, she starts chapter 11 with the assertion that 'Once a year everyone in Iran takes a bath'(163) and characterizes one of the taxi-drivers as 'a particularly pungent Iranian'(275). Taking a shower is the baptismal ritual of proving ones Westerness, which her daughter willingly performs after their arrival in Turkey: 'Mahtob headed immediately for the bathroom, ready to wash Iran off her body forevermore'(412). In the last image, Iran as a representative Middle Eastern country is metaphorically equated with filthiness. The impossibility to integrate such dehumanizing images into a film so as not to reveal one's covert racism, make them a particularity of the written text. The clean kitchens and bathrooms in the film lack 'fly-infested piles'(6), eating scenes are portrayed without 'wriggling worms' and the food seems to lack 'the rancid taste that appeals to the Iranian palate'(28).

An Orientalist technique mentioned in Orientalism [6] is the representation of the Oriental in large numbers in order to deindividualize him and evoke fear of group dynamism, which is a recurring method in Not Without My Daughter, both the novel and the film. In the film, the arrival scene in Tehran shows the deluge of Moody's relatives engulfing him, adding dynamism to the scene by shooting the group's fast approach first from the top and then gradually lowering and accelerated the camera against its direction. In the text, the relatives in this scene are described and deindividualized as "a mob of robed, veiled humanity"(9) and as "an innumberable multitude of young male relatives"(7) that always appear "in droves"(22). Deindividualizing images of "hordes of people"(29) abound, and sentences such as "the Iranians attacked the meal like a herd of untamed animals desperate for food" (15) corroborate the evidence that Orientals are not really human. The picture of the "the mob" is also activated in most street and taxi scenes where we find "the horde of unsmiling Iranians scurrying through the streets"(105) and "twenty individuals prepared to crowd into two cars."(67). The faceless uniformity of the Oriental mob is posited in flagrant senteces like "His eyes grew dim and void, like those of so many Iranians"(39).

Another Orientalist dogma discussed by Said and materialized in Not Without My Daughter is the total absence of organization and temporal efficiency in Middle Eastern societies, i.e. the omnipresence of chaos, irrationality and unpredictability.[7] The "outlandish procedures" (64) which the author encounters at the airport underscore her assumption that "[t]ime means so little to Iranians"(304), especially after seeing how her in-laws "moved frenetically and chattered constantly, but seemed to accomplish little."(8). Tehran is described as a "city with fourteen million sometimes hostile and always unpredictable people"(274) and Iran as a "bizarre land" in which she "could expect almost anything to happen"(389) and which was "populated almost totally with villains"(334).

To presuppose such a mental disorder is of course crucial to explaining the Oriental's purported stagnation, lack of progress and retrograde traditionalism. The author is amazed from the outset "at the power of their society and their religion"(5) and, referring to her husband, at "the unfathomable pull of his native culture"(69). She confides to the reader that it took her stagnant husband "nearly a year to become desensitized to his childhood, to really notice the squalor that his countrymen accepted as the norm"(259). A similar unwillingness to assimilate to the "American Standard" is epitomized by "an Iranian woman who had lived in America for twenty years and did not know what a dishtowel was"(49). The kitchen is thus in the author's opinion the ultimate locus for acculturation and national integration.

The frequent mentioning of religious fanaticism and anti-Westernism is explained by the Iranian teaching method which is supposedly based on rote learning and which clarifies 'why so many Iranians are meek followers of authority'(114), why Iran 'had the most openly hostile attitude towards Americans of any nation in the world'(3) and why it is 'a country full of people so eager to kill, so ready to die.'(161). These images tie in nicely with another subtradition of Orientalism, the myth of Oriental despotism, which is treated in detail by Allan Grosrichard in The Sultan's Court.[8]

Some passages in Not Without My Daughter cast some serious doubt on the author's actual presence in Iran and thus on the authenticity of the story, which I nonetheless want to adhere to. Her apparent expertise in cultural and religious matters, underscored by her attendance of Koran study classes and a glossary at the novel's end, turns out to be either complete ignorance or based on the dogmas of "Oriental expertise" in Said's sense.[9] Using the medieval binarism of Christianity and Islam, she claims that the leader of a masjed, of a mosque, is "the counterpart of a Christian priest or pastor"(23), even though a comparable office is absent in Islam, even more so a comparable hierarchy. Friday, the Muslim day of congregation, is termed "the Moslem sabbath"(11), where she uses the Judeo-Christian concept of Saturday to explain the day of Friday in the Muslim world. This illogicality permits her to say that her husband's sister "was accustomed to having the entire family gather at the house on Friday, to celebrate the sabbath,…"(123). The most flagrant proof of her limited knowledge about the rituals of Islam is her observation that "[t]hree times a day, every day, the call to prayer intrudes upon the lives of everyone in Tehran."(166). Every half-educated person knows that praying five times a day, not three times, is one of the five basic tenets of Islam, which the author seems not to have remarked during her 18 month stay in Iran. When her in-laws want to take her to Qum, an important city not far from Tehran, she asks "What is that?". Her ignorance of this symbolic place where Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution studied, and where the first riots broke out in early 1978 is virtually impossible. She herself informs us about her husband's interest in and his explanations of the events in Iran prior to their trip.

Edward Said mentions the 'imaginative geography' of Orientalism which exaggerates and dramatizes the geographical distances between what is known and unknown.[10] I allow myself to adduce an instance from my personal experience. Many people, even educated ones, initially disbelieve the geographical fact that Prague, the native city of my parents, lies farther to the west than Vienna. Prague, because of its fromer location in the Eastern Bloc, must necessarily be farther to the east than Vienna, which has always been a 'Western' city. A superb example is also found in Not Without My Daughter. During Christmas, the author's daughter gives up the hope of Santa Claus appearing in Iran because 'Iran was too far away from the North Pole for Santa to make the trip.'(312). A glance onto a world map refutes this statement since Tehran is closer to the North Pole than Corpus Christi in Texas, the family's home town and thus the point of both geographical and ideological reference. The discrepancy between factual and ideological distance to the imagined Other become visible in this scene.

The representation of languages spoken in the Middle East, namely Farsi and Kurdish, become representative and functional in reinforcing the other traits of Orientals.[11] Their language is depicted as aggressive, loud and essentially unintelligible:

To a westerner, a normal Iranian conversation appears to be heated argument, filled with shrill chatter and expansive gestures,(18).

She finds the 'never-ending chatter of imponderable tongues'(18) and the 'cacophony of Farsi'(15) oppressive, especially when 'Standing in midst of hundreds of babbling Iranian men,...'(329). Oriental speech is fundamental in the film as well; spoken Farsi is omnipresent, yet never translated or subtitled. All one sees are scowling faces screaming at each other aggressively and 'carrying on extended, animated, incomprehensible discussions'(351), as it says in the novel. The author overtly exhibits her monolingual arrogance in the text, expecting everybody to speak English in her presence (16). Whenever somebody does so, she belittles their command of it as 'passable' (18/21). Even the logic of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is used, according to which language shapes our perception of the outside world and thus our mentality. When she notices that her husband stops using contractions in English after some time in Iran, she fears that he 'reverted to thinking in Farsi'(21).[12]

Yet her linguistic expertise is no less ignorance than her cultural knowledge.[13] It permits her to state that Farsi, the official language of Iran, is written in Persian characters, even though these do not exist. Farsi, just like Arabic, Urdu and several other languages, is written in Arabic script, which is slightly altered by diacritics to represent Modern Persian. No one in Europe would claim that English or Italian are written in 'English' and 'Italian' character, respectively. It must be added here that a lot of Westerners, even educated ones, ignore the fact that Farsi, not Arabic, is official in Iran and that it is a Indo-European language, whereas Arabic is a Semitic one. Thus, many assume that using the Arabic script for Farsi means that Farsi is equal to Arabic, i.e. that script and language form an inseparable whole.

Despite the Farsi and the Quranic Arabic that the author supposedly studied, she shamelessly admits not even to understand the greeting "Salom...or something like that"(390) by one of her Kurdish rescuers in his "unintelligible Kurdish dialect"(388). This formulaic greeting ("an introduction of sorts" [388]), derives from the Arabic word for peace and is used not only in Farsi, but in several languages and among Muslims throughout the world.

With the variegated descriptions of her in-laws, the author clearly enters the realm of racist typologies of Orientalism.[14] The ethnic standard of her autostereotype is best expressed with the acronym WASP, i.e. white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. After meeting a woman who corresponds to her image of the typical Iranian ("dark-haired, and with a slight tinge of bronze" [289]), she is all the more surprised to find out her US origin. The film opens with an idyllic WASP scene not in the book, which hammers home the point that what is normal, sane and acceptable in the Manichean polarity of Orientalism is the light part, being WASP, and not the dark part, being Oriental.

Edward Said argues both in Orientalism and in Covering Islam that non-Jewish Middle Easterners are probably the last group of people which can still be denigrated and dehumanized in the US media[15] ; other groups have become immunized by means of political correctness and hyphenation. That this is true is again evidenced in Not Without My Daughter. Less offensive descriptions alternate with more offensive and disgusting ones. The descriptions of both her husband and one of his relatives uses the phrase "Arabic features" (7/47). I already explained that Arabic is a purely linguistic term denoting a person speaking Arabic and not linked to religion or race. Several million Christians in the Middle East are Arabs and many Arabs have fair hair and blue eyes. Even if there was such a thing as "Arabic features", how can Moody's family be Arabic if they are not from Khuzestan, the only Iranian region with an Arab minority? Even in the late 1980s, it seems to be legitimate for the author to use the image of the hooked-nose Semite, once used to defame the Jews and rife in Nazi anti-Semitic publishing such as Julius Streicher's Der Stürmer. This nasty image is not only attributed to Moody's "hawk-nosed sister"(165) whose "nose was so huge" that the author "could not believe it was real"(9), but also to the Kurdish women she sees during her escape and whom she describes as "scowling, ugly women with huge noses"(387). The imagery of the non-Jewish Semite and the Jewish Semite is basically the same, which means that anti-Semitic clichés can easily be transferred from one to the other.[16] These images lack of course in the film out of security reasons.

Even more abominable are her references to incest and "genetic aberrations"(33), which are purportedly common among her in-laws and among Iranians in general. She remarks that some of her in-laws have "birth defects or deformities"(17) and writes about one relative as having "deformed feet, twisted backward" and whose "head was also misshapen"(17). The above sentence about Iranians having "dim and void" eyes (page 8 above) is only topped by the most repugnant instance of explicit racism in the novel. Concerned about the future of her daughter Mahtob in Iran, she utters the following sentence which probably remained unnoticed by millions of readers because it was obfuscated by "one woman's struggle ... to win freedom" (cover of Corgi edition):

"Would he [i.e.Moody] marry her off to a cousin who would beat her and impregnate her with vacant-eyed, deformed babies?"(103)

This sentence is a blatant confirmation of one of the premises of Orientalism: the biological inferiority of the Oriental. Since the author informs us that her in-laws "were counted among the elite"(31) in Iran, most of them "well-educated" and with "university degrees"(8), we are forced to infer from everything that has been said above that the average Iranian is little more than a filthy, semi-human creature wallowing in his own feces. In addition to all of this, the entire repetoire of denigrating generalizations is based on her open admission that her "only contacts with Iranians were with members of Moody's family"(96). The film's depiction of Moody's relatives is diametrically opposite. Suddenly, they are not very educated, simple and very religious, which is of course due to the difficulty of visually conflating "university degrees" and food with "wriggling worms"(92).

Orientalist imagery of the oversexed and perverted Oriental[17] are the only ones used sparingly in both the novel and the film. A scene of sexual harassment - completely lacking in the book - is nevertheless shown in the film. The author is sexually molested by one of her Kurdish rescuers while she is asleep in his hut. Yet the written text is not devoid of these sexual allusions either. One of the taxi drivers is labelled 'a smelly, ugly man, who leered at [her] out of the corner of his eye.'(265).

Finally, Moody himself is depicted as a classic example of the Oriental and his relationship to the author is an atomic equivalent of the larger-size juxtapostion and opposition of Occident and Orient. While in the USA, his "paradoxical personality" is a "blend of brilliance and dark confusion", i.e. "culturally he was a mixture of East and West". The categorical distributions in the Orientalist polarity is again clear-cut: the West stands for brilliance and the East for confusion. Once Moody is in Iran, he becomes anew the fully-fledged Oriental whose laziness and fatalism are also typical (111/346).[18] Whereas in the US he was "a loving husband and a father", in Iran he is the "venomous stranger"(42), "his eyes glaring with the righteous menace of a Moslem man crossed by a woman"(72). On page 79, we are told that for once "logic penetrated his madness" where again the Occident is logic and the Orient lunacy. Further mention is made of the "growing tinge of irrationality"(184) in his eyes and "his forhead burning with blood-red fury"(186). The narration becomes more dramatic and even ghoulish when the author describes herself as a "caged animal"(202) which the Oriental threatens to mutilate "[w]ith a big knife" and whose "nose and ear" will be sent back to the US together with the "ashes of a burned American flag"(188). Vampire imagery is evoked when the Oriental bites into her arm "deeply, drawing blood"(199). The reader finally enters the realm of biblical imagery when she fears her husband's "diabolical plan"(329) and when she depicts the "ultimate struggle"(199), i.e. the minute Armageddon, in which the West and the East, Christianity and Islam, Good and Evil meet in apocalyptic confrontation.

Most of these vivid images did not enter the cinematographic text, mainly because of their conspicuousness, which would have undermined the film's credibility. Huntington's 'Clash of Civilizations' is nonetheless depicted in a non-violent fashion in the scene where Moody swears on the Quran to take his wife and daughter back to the US after their visit to Tehran. The credulous Western woman wears an unobtrusive necklace with a cross around her neck, while the blasphemous Oriental sits beside her with his hand on the Quran, making empty promises.

This scene is at the outset of the last Orientalist dogma discussed hear which spread as a literary topos through the intertextual fabric of Orientalism and is also reflected in Not Without My Daughter: Oriental mendacity and conspiration.[19] 'The convoluted intrigue' (128) that causes the author's constant paranoia is announced already in the US by 'clandestine late-night conversations' in Farsi between her husband and one of his visiting relatives. In the Orient, she then realizes that Iranians, 'used to living in a clandestine manner', 'actually enjoy intrigue...' and even that 'plots and counterplots abound...within their families'(173).Wherever a language other than English is spoken, paranoia and fear predominate in the text. The same holds true for the film where entire scenes are spoken in Farsi without translation, thus leaving most viewers in a state of confusion. At one point, the author calls her in-laws 'a bunch of liars'(47), which later in the text leads her to ask: 'How far could I trust any Iranian?'(96). Mendacity, hypocrisy and a perfidious eagerness to intrigue are embodied in the character of Moody, the full-blood Oriental, which reminds us of medieval images of Muhammad, the impostor.

We thus return to the medieval binarism of Christianity and Islam or Occident and Orient in which the actual Middle East is occluded by projecting repressed fears and perversions onto an imaginary Other. The alter ego is mystified through the myth mechanism in Barthes' theory. This mystifying technique is applied twice in Not Without My Daughter: once for constructing the Other and once for obfuscating racism. As has been illustrated above, the alterity of the Orient and its inhabitants is invented much along the lines of consensus-based Orientalist doxology, which Said calls "latent Orientalism".[20] Its concrete realization, i.e. its "manifest Orientalism", is Betty Mahmoody's specific contextualization. The cunningly stage-managed abduction, detention and abuse of a woman by a patriarchal man and her legitimate struggle against it is the manifest surface image, under which we find the latent canon of Orientalism. Yet the Barthesian mechanism is active simultaneously to occlude the Orientalist nature of Not Without My Daughter. Orientalism, this time the first-level sign or second-level signifier, is reduced to accomodate the male-female antagonism of the signified, which becomes the pre-eminent picture, repressing the novel's and the film's racism. Both were uncritically digested by millions of readers and viewers, making an anti-Semitic and racist text of the late 1980s a profitable blockbuster. Said has remarked that the process of canonization continues[21], since Orientalism cannot develop, it being the "doctrinal antithesis of development."[22] Therefore, the quintessence of the binary Orientalist worldview, the West's supremacy over the East, also remains cemented.

Furthermore, popular and readable texts like Betty Mahmoody's Not Without My Daughter are influential in confirming the menace of alterity in general. The text's multifaceted fetishization of both the Self and its perversion, the Other, are amply illustrated above. Yet nowhere is the author's narcissism more orgiastic than in the last scene of both the book and the film, where she worships the US national flag at the US embassy in Ankara. This chauvinist fetishization of Stars and Stripes is the most nauseating instance of self-glorification in the text:

"She [i.e her daughter Mahtob] pointed to the American flag, waving freely in the wind." (416, my emphasis).

She is not able to retain "the tears that now flowed freely"(417, my emphasis) from her eyes when she reads the word "America" on her daughter's scrap paper (417). The flag scene, provided with appropriate background music, is also the undoubtable climax of the film.

Because of this excessive fetishization of the Self and the Other, the text belongs to 'imaginary colonialist literature', a term coined by Abdul R. JanMohamed.[23] He elaborates on ‘the affective benefits proffered by the manichean allegory’, i.e. the narcissist self-satisfaction gained from reiterating one’s moral and cultural superiority. Whereas ‘symbolic’ texts allow a certain dialogue and thus a certain hybridity, ‘imaginary’ ones preclude a dialectic between Self and Other which always entails a reevaluation of one’s own position. Criticism of the Self is unthinkable in the seemingly universal and essential polarity found in Not Without My Daughter. Therefore, mutual approach and consequent hybridization are excluded from the start, posing a serious threat to the 'global village' of today where alterity lives right next door. Hybridization within traditional typologies handed down to us is a prerequisite for mutual coexistence in the globalized future. The widespread circulation and continuing acceptance of a superficially feminist, yet covertly Orientalist text like Not Without My Daughter in the postmodern age is disturbing. Its Orientalist myth, based on the essentialist and univeralist conviction of Western superiority, is not necessarily bound to the Middle East, but to the notion of the ‘foreigner’ in general. In the context of the global village with its constant migrations, perpetuating Orientalism in ‘imaginary’ texts like Not Without My Daughter not only impairs, but makes approaching and contacting our new and changing neighbours impossible.

More disturbingly, the same mythic technique used in Not without my daughter is arguably at work in current forms of medial Orientalism in the West after 911, whether deliberately or unintentionally. Orientalist punditry is also rife and pervasive in the German-speaking media and academia, epitomized by prolific, omnipresent and well-read authors like Peter Scholl-Latour and Bassam Tibi respectively. The former's Orientalism has been convincingly deconstructed by Klemm et al. (eds.)[24], whereas the latter may be termed an 'Orientalizing Oriental', i.e. a Middle Easterner who – just like his Western accomplices – perpetuates Orientalist myths in order to advance his publications among a broader audience. Therefore, whenever self-proclaimed experts on the Arab-Muslim world elaborate on the purported incompatibility of 'Islam and the West', one must never connive at the potential Orientalism in their epistemology. Again, Betty Mahmoody's international success with her novel is a prime example of such broad-based acquiescence in flagrant Orientalism.


Barthes, Roland. 'Myth Today'. A Barthes Reader. ed. Susan Sontag . London: Vintage, 1993.


Grosrichard, Allain. The Sultan's Court: European Fantasies of the East. Trans. Liz Heron.

London: Verso, 1998.

JanMohamed, Abdul R.. 'The Economy of Manichean Allegory'. The Post-colonial Studies

Reader. ed. Bill Ashcroft. New York: Routledge, 1995. 18-23.

Klemm, Verena and Karin Hörner (eds.). Das Schwert des 'Experten'. Peter Scholl-Latours verzerrtes Araber- und Islambild. Heidelberg: Palmyra, 1997

Mahmoody, Betty. Not Without My Daughter. London: Corgi Books, 1989.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. London: Penguin Books, 1995.

_____ Covering Islam. London: Vintage, 1997.

Sardar, Ziauddin and Merryl Wyn Davies. Distorted Imagination: Lessons from the Rushdie

Affair. London: Grey Seal Books, 1990.


[1] Mahmoody, Betty. Not Without My Daughter. London: Corgi Books, 1989.

All subsequent references to the novel are inserted parenthetically in the text.

[2] Barthes, Roland. "Myth Today". In: ed. Sontag, Susan. A Barthes Reader. London: Vintage, 1993, pp. 93-149.

[3] Said, Edward. Orientalism. London: Penguin Books, 1995. All subsequent references to this work are abbreviated in the following form: Said, (page number). Other texts referred to by the same author take the following form: Said, (page number) in (name of the text).

[4] Said, 68,69,74.

[5] Said, Edward. Covering Islam. London: Vintage, 1997.

[6] Said, 154,252,287,311.

[7] Said, 38-40,106,205.

[8] Allain Grosrichard, The Sultan's Court: European Fantasies of the East, (London: Verso, 1998).

[9] Said, 236.

[10] Said, 54,55.

[11] ibd., 255. Said explains how single aspects of the Orient confirm the Oriental doctrine through 'inductive generalizations'.

[12] Said, 320. Said describes how Orientalism canonized the ‘dangerousness’ of the Arabic language.

[13] In Covering Islam, Said mentions the case of one Judith Miller, journalist on the New York Times, who speaks neither Farsi nor Arabic, yet has 'competently' covered the Middle East for 25 years. To impress her readers and emphasize her 'expertise', she gives (false) transcriptions of Arabic names and phrases in her articles.

[14] Said, 119.

[15] ibd., 262,282 in Orientalism. ibd., xii in Covering Islam.

[16] Said, 286.

[17] ibd., 190,311.

[18] Said, 102.

[19] ibd., 38,287 in Orientalism ibd., xxxiv in Covering Islam

[20] Said, 221.

[21] ibd., 157 in Covering Islam.

[22] ibd., 307.

[23] Abdul R.JanMohamed, 'The Economy of Manichean Allegory', The Post-colonial Studies Reader, ed. Bill Ashcroft (New York: Routledge, 1995), 18-23.

[24] Klemm, Verena and Karin Hörner (eds.). Das Schwert des 'Experten'. Peter Scholl-Latours verzerrtes Araber- und Islambild. Heidelberg, 1997

18 of 18 pages


Debunking Postmodern Orientalism with Barthes The Case of Betty Mahmoodys Not Without My Daughter
University of Zurich
1,0 (A)
Catalog Number
File size
429 KB
Debunking, Postmodern, Orientalism, Barthes, Case, Betty, Mahmoodys, Without, Daughter
Quote paper
David Jan Slavicek (Author), 2001, Debunking Postmodern Orientalism with Barthes The Case of Betty Mahmoodys Not Without My Daughter, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Debunking Postmodern Orientalism with Barthes The Case of Betty Mahmoodys Not Without My Daughter

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free