Last semester I took Professor Commins’s history of the Middle East from 1750, the class covered a lot of what we have been reading about, defensive modernization and imperialism. One of the books we had to read for the class was Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih a Sudanese writer (I thought it was a great novel and I recommend it to anyone interested about imperialism). It’s a fictional novel about a man named Mustafa Saeed and his response to imperialism.
We had to read this book from the perspective of how cultural westernization affects people and how other cultures respond to such interventions. I don’t think Cleveland delves too deep into the concept but we came across the idea when he talked about “French knowers” these were individuals who studied in France and adopted western cultural practices and thought. Cultural Westernization is processes in which individuals or nations adopt western values and culture into the society.
What I find most interesting about this concept is when it’s forced on to a people. Take for example Reza Shah during the 1920s he instated a law in which men were required to wear hats (western style hats, with visors), while women were required to unveil themselves. Men were forced to change hats three times a day depending on what time it was. This new initiative was met with resistance by all peoples and the Ulma. The Ulma considered the visor an impediment in praying. However Reza Shah believed that he was doing this for the betterment of the nation, to modernize Iran We also had to read about incidents where women did not leave the house for weeks at a time because they were required to be unveiled. To come back to Seasons of Migration, the story of Mustafa Saeed is interesting in that it shows a man who reacted to cultural westernization on his individual basis. He travels to London for his studies but he has an uncanny ability to lure English women into his bedroom by harping on their orientalist fantasies. However I felt as though the novel ends with a message that cultural westernization is superficial only skin deep, and in some ways its impossible to change a persons culture by dressing them a certain way or educating them about the west. We kind of read about that in Bernard Lewis’s paper about how the Arabs had no comparable concept of liberty. How do people negotiate their identities, values and faith when they are forced to change?