Salman Rushdie’s East, West: Deconstructing the binary division between Orient and Occident

Term Paper, 2009

20 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. East
2.1. Good Advice Is Rarer than Rubies – Deconstructing the binary division
2.2. The Prophet’s Hair – Deconstructing the binary division

3. West
3.1. At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers – Deconstructing the binary division

4. East, West
4.1. The Courter – deconstructing the binary division

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

While reading the title of Rushdie’s short story cycle East, West a very important question arises in the reader’s mind: does Rushdie use the comma in between the title to show the binary division of the Orient and Occident or does he want to make a bridge between East and West (Homeless Is Where the Art Is 162)?

However, after in depth research on this book, it becomes clear that Rushdie goes even further than this bridging device. He not only tries to connect or mediate both the East and West, but as a traveller and migrant himself, he pokes fun at the traditional notions of Orient and Occident, employing a vast range of styles, genres, structures and techniques, finally deconstructing the binary division between East and West.

In doing so, he subverts the reader’s traditional assumptions about the Orient and Occident and clarifies that, in today’s reality; the East and West cannot be described in such a simplistic way anymore.

In Imaginary Homelands, Rushdie writes that “literature is, of all the arts, the one best suited to challenging absolutes of all kinds” (Beck: 356) this is precisely what happens in his short story cycle East, West. Nothing is “sacred” any longer, hence most of the stories in East, West can be regarded as examinations to provoke and deconstruct the inviolable of Eastern and Western culture (Beck 360).

To summarise, Rushdie mocks absolutist concepts of the oriental and occidental systems. By criticizing and deconstructing traditional notions he points out that, within the global village, the East and West are closely interrelated and cannot be regarded as opposites. Rushdie goes far beyond the familiar row about the binary division of the Orient and Occident.

Although the short stories in East, West on the one hand embrace this deconstructive design and on the other depict the abundance and manifoldness of human existence in the Orient and Occident, they do not provide easy interpretations.

This term paper attempts to determine the way Rushdie criticizes and deconstructs the traditional concepts and prejudices regarding the Orient and Occident and the way in which he disassembles these false images. The thesis that Rushdie deconstructs the binary division between the East and the West and displays the world as an intricate, interrelated system will be the main focus of this paper.

Two stories from the East part of his short story cycle East, West; Good Advice Is Rarer than Rubies, The Prophet’s Hair one story from the West part; At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers, and one story from the East, West part; The Courter, will be examined. These analyses will then supply the foundation for the conclusion.

2. East

2.1. Good Advice Is Rarer than Rubies – Deconstructing the binary division

Good Advice Is Rarer than Rubies describes how people- from the Orient, contrary to oriental thought, are content with living in the east. Miss Rehana, the main protagonist and a very young and beautiful girl from the Orient, is on her way to the British consulate to apply for a permit to go to England when Muhammad Ali, a self proclaimed adviser, begs her to take his advice. He tells her how she should behave in the consulate and how she should respond to their questions. Then he offers to get her a fake passport. Miss Rehana, disappointed by this proposal, rejects it and goes into the consulate. When she comes out with a smile on her face, Muhammad Ali, along with the reader, assumes that she has obtained the permit. However, she tells him that she did not get the permit and that she is quite content with this result, as she did not want to go to England in order to live with her husband of an arranged marriage, whom she had not seen for years (Who is Salman Rushdie, A Man Caught Between Two Worlds).

Within the theory of Edward Said’s Model of Orientalism, women from the Orient are considered as, “sexually promiscuous and exotic” (McLeod: 45). This corresponds to the description of Miss Rehana as being beautiful.

However, another stereotype of the Orient, that “the East as a whole is feminine”, does not correspond to Miss Rehana, as she is described as being an independent girl. Her description would fit more to the image of people from the Occident who are characterized as “self controlled [...] active and dominant” and “heroic” (McLeod: 45). She is active and dominant, as demonstrated when she goes to the consulate by herself without accepting anyone’s help. She is heroic in so far as she does not want to leave her country to start a new life in “bondages” in England. Instead she decides to go back to Lahore and to her job, “I work in a great house, as ayah to three good boys. They would have been sad to see me leave.” (Rushdie East, West 18). She does not seem to be sad about not going to England. “Her last smile, which he watched from the compound until the bus concealed it in a dust-cloud, was the happiest thing he had ever seen in his long, hot, hard, unloving life” (Rushdie East, West 19).

This peak point of the story deconstructs another stereotype about the Orient that people from the East would like to go to England to have a better life (McLeod: 46). Another stereotype that women from the Orient are “submissive” (McLeod: 45) is deconstructed as well. Miss Rehana decides not to go to England to live with her husband of an arranged marriage. She refuses him.

I was nine years old when my parents fixed it. Mustafa Dar was already thirty at that time, but my father wanted someone who could look after me as he had done himself and Mustafa was a man known to Daddyji as a solid type. Then my parents died and Mustafa Dar went to England and said he would send for me. That was many years ago. I have his photo, but he is like a stranger to me. Even his voice, I do not recognize it on the phone. [...] Now I will go back to Lahore and my job. [...] “But this is tragedy!” Muhammad Ali lamented [...] “It is spoilt, and it could have been so easy if advice had been accepted in good time.” “I do not think” she told him, “I truly do not think you should be sad”. (Rushdie East, West 17-18).

This extract makes it clear to the reader that the stereotypical image that women from the Orient depend on their husbands is not applicable to Miss Rehana. Although her parents arranged her marriage when she was nine years old, she refuses to go to England to marry, preferring to work independently in India (Rushdie East, West 18).

2.2. The Prophet’s Hair – Deconstructing the binary division

The Prophet’s hair is a story based on the disappearance of the hair of the Prophet Muhammad from the Hazrat Bal Mosque in Srinagar in 1963. Rushdie develops his story from this incident. He deconstructs eastern absolutes concerning the blind veneration of the Prophet Muhammad. This story introduces a note of magic realism. Through the simple act of spending some time in the same environment as the Prophet’s hair, four paralysed beggars are healed and their mother regains her sight (Rushdie East, West 63).

Hashim the wealthy moneylender is “not a godly man [but sets great store by] living honourably in the world” and asks for interest rates of over seventy percent, despite the rules of the Qur’an (Rushdie, East, West 43). At first, his wife and children live quite a secular life. His daughter Huma, for example, reluctantly visits a Muslim girl, goes to the cinema and does not wear a purdah. No one in the family prays five times a day.

One morning after Hashim accidentally finds the relic of Prophet Muhammad’s hair, his behaviour suddenly changes. He starts forcing his family to live according to the laws of Islam. He becomes a religious fanatic. However, quite surprisingly, this change in his life does not change his morality. He starts beating his wife and daughter and is merciless to his debtors.

The children’s attempt to have the relic stolen by Sheikh, the king of thieves, leads to a vicious circle that tragically wipes out the whole family and the thief as well. The four sons of Sheikh, who, “with a parent’s absolutist love […] made sure they were all provided with a lifelong source of high income […] by crippling them at birth […] so that they earned excellent money in the begging business”, are unexpectedly healed, but this tragically reduces their income by 75 per cent” (Rushdie, East, West 57).

While reading this short story, the first thing that comes to the reader’s mind is the miraculous events that happen in religious tales. Strong conformist Muslims deeply believe in the power of the Prophet Mohammad. They consider his power to be endless and mysterious. In Rushdie’s The Prophet’s Hair, this belief leads to death and ruin.

This sad ending to the story completely offends Muslim beliefs. As the reverence of Muhammad is at the very centre of Islamic belief, devout Muslims try to lead their lives based on that of the prophet. “Every detail of his life has become the ideal of a whole civilization” (Ruthven 34). According to Ruthven, an assault “on Muhammad’s reputation, is perceived as an assault on the Muslim personality” (34).

That is exactly what Rushdie does in The Prophet’s Hair. The reader experiences that a blind orientation on Muhammad’s life and rules can lead to death and tragedy.

In order to understand this deconstruction of the mythical religious image of the Orient, and more specifically Islam, it is important to consider the autobiographical background of Rushdie. In 1947 he was born into a Muslim family in Bombay and grew up in Karachi. In 1961 he was sent to Rugby in England, where he lost his faith, leaving him with a “God-shaped hole inside” (Appignanesi and Maitland 2).

He expressed his attitude towards Islam for the first time in his well known novel Satanic Verses. Immediately after publishing this book, it was officially burned in the Islamic world and led to Ayatollah Khomeini and other mullahs putting Rushdie on the fatwa in 1989. After that, Rushdie had to hide from religious fanatics who followed this fatwa. It is therefore apparent why such a fanaticism has entered Rushdie’s short story The Prophet’s Hair (Rushdie Step Across This Line, Collected Non-Fiction 324).

On a more general approach the story may be considered as deconstructing the notion of the East as a place where the people are dominated by Islamic ideology. As a result, Rushdie dismantles the image of the East as dominated by the blind reverence of the prophet Muhammad (Rushdie Step Across This Line, Collected Non-Fiction 324).

Another point which Rushdie criticizes in the story The Prophet’s Hair, is the demand of many people that all religious beliefs should be protected from criticism. He argues that “it is absolutely wrong […] of [Muslims] to demand that their belief-system –that any system of belief or thought – should be immunized against criticism, irreverence, satire, even scornful disparagement” and that censorship should be abolished (Rushdie Step Across This Line, Collected Non-Fiction 324).

In the same way he explicitly expresses that “the point is to defend people but not their ideas”. Rushdie is strongly convinced of the notion that “democracy can only advance through the clash of ideas”. These opinions and experiences of Rushdie are reflected in his short story The Prophet’s Hair (Rushdie Step Across This Line, Collected Non-Fiction 324).

In The Prophet’s Hair the prophet Muhammad is taken as an absolute model of Islamic life and at times is considered godlike. However, this perspective does not concur with the modern Islamic scholars’ views. He should be considered as a human being and a prophet, but not god-like. Beck is of the opinion that the story does not challenge religion in a sense, but the “totemistic and ritualistic aspects of the cult surrounding Muhammad […] which the prophet himself would perhaps not have approved of” (Beck 362).

Along the way Rushdie seems to play with concepts such as freedom of speech, the role of religion in society and blasphemy. He also appears to criticize people from the Islamic world as using religion “to serve their political ends” (Beck 362). There are fundamentalists who use religion in much the same way as Hashim in The Prophet’s Hair, who uses Islam to justify his brutal behaviour. This story is not merely about religion, but about religion turned into a sick fetish that is used for political needs (Beck 363).

Regarding the four handicapped sons of Sheik Sin, who after having spent some minutes, “under the same roof as the famous hair” (Rushdie East, West 63) are healed but ruined as well, it falls into place that these fates are used by Rushdie to mock the magic and mystery. He deconstructs the notion of the East as the magic part of the world and reconstructs it as a place of irrationality (McLeod 44).

According to Rushdie, the East shouldn’t be considered as a land of fairy tales and myths any longer, since this is not the reality. Rushdie challenges the reader to put all prejudgements aside and consider the Orient as a place that has its own characteristics and problems, but not in the way Western people believe (Beck 364).

To sum up, Rushdie’s short story The Prophet’s Hair criticizes the Orient marked by ideology, religious fundamentalism and irrational attitudes. He destroys the Western notion of the Orient as a mysterious place . As someone between both worlds, Rushdie motivates both the Eastern and Western people to consider the East as a more complex, rational and modern place. Rushdie seems to ask every human being in the world to use his intellect rather than behaving according to religious beliefs (Beck 364).

Complexity and the use of one’s intellect is exactly what is expected while reading Rushdie’s The Prophet’s Hair. A very important characteristic that goes along with this notion is the anachronistic style of narration, in terms of analepsis and prolepsis which constitute typical forms of Rushdian oral narration (Hirsch 103). Rushdie said the following in front of 600,000 listeners in Barodu, northwest India:

An oral narrative does not go from the beginning to the middle to the end of the story. It goes in great swoops, it goes in spirals or in hoops, it every so often reiterates something that happened earlier to remind you, and then takes you off again, sometimes summarizes itself […]” (Hirsch: 105).

This is exactly what Rushdie does in his short story The Prophet’s Hair. The story starts out with a prolepsis when Atta the son of Hashim is brutally beaten up and robbed by two thieves. “Night fell; His body was carried by anonymous hands to the edge of the lake, whence it was transported by shikara across the water” (Rushdie East,West 35-36). A few pages later, the story goes back with an analepsis describing the initial situation, prior to Hashim finding the prophet’s hair. “Six days ago, everything in the household of her father the wealthy moneylender Hashim, had been as it always was. […]” (Rushdie East, West 43).


Excerpt out of 20 pages


Salman Rushdie’s East, West: Deconstructing the binary division between Orient and Occident
University of Wuppertal
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Salman, Rushdie’s, East, West, Deconstructing, Orient, Occident
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Abdullah Buran (Author), 2009, Salman Rushdie’s East, West: Deconstructing the binary division between Orient and Occident, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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