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From Empire to Independence: Contrasting Perspectives in Rihani’s The Book of Khalid and Naipaul’s A Bend in The River   

From Empire to Independence: Contrasting Perspectives in Rihani’s The Book of Khalid and Naipaul’s A Bend in The River   

                                                                                      Mirna Raymond Shoueiry                                             

Post-colonialism is one of the major schools which was launched to respond to colonialism. In fact, occupying other nations is not exclusive to the nineteenth century, because history reveals many examples of strife among nations. The only new aspects of colonization are the ideologies that accompanied the colonizers, which are noted by Edward Said as Orientalism and Imperialism. Said explains the illusory nature of this ideology as follows: “Orientalism is nothing more than a structure of lies or of myths which, were the truth about them to be told, would simply blow away” (1994, p. 17). These ideological misconceptions serve to form a new identity for the colonized, hence facilitating the hegemony of the colonizers, thus helping them to maintain their power over the colonized. Colonization has led to a new crime against humanity: distorting the identity of the colonized and imposing a pseudo image on all aspects of their culture, forming new common traits among colonized people. This distorted image was in direct contrast to the colonizers’ image, and this dichotomy of images was imposed on all fields of knowledge.  Said argues that,

Thus a very large mass of writers, among whom are poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists and imperial administrators have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts of the Orient.” (1994, p. 151)

Moreover, colonizers have planned to fix this dichotomy in the structure of colonized culture by transfixing their focus on this segregation between themselves and the colonized via the repetition of differences between both. According to Homi Bhabha,

Mimicry does not merely destroy narcissistic authority through the repetitious slippage of difference and desire. It is the process of the fixation of the colonial as a form of cross-classificatory, discriminatory knowledge within an interdictory discourse, and therefore necessarily raises the question of the authorization of colonial representations. (1994 p. 131)

Similarly, Achebe claims that the aim of colonial novels is to fix the boundaries between the colonizer and the colonized:

As everybody knows, Conrad is a romantic on the side. He might not exactly admire savages clapping their hands and stamping their feet, but they have at least the merit of being in their place, unlike this dog in a parody of breeches. For Conrad, things being in their place is of the utmost importance. (2001, p. 6)

Achebe considers this construction of boundaries by the colonizers as the most important tool used by the colonizers to maintain their power in the colonies.

Colonial literature was resisted by post-colonialists who formed a literary resistance, but post-colonial theorists resisted colonial literature in different ways.  Some writers such as Homi Bhabha criticized the mimicry used by the colonizers (1994, p. 131), whereas, Aimé Césaire critiqued the mission of colonialism which works to brutalize not only the colonized but also the colonizers, who not only kill and control locals’ lives, but ruin their culture. For example, Anita Desai delves into the Indian history searching for the complexion of Indian novels before colonialism.  Ameen Rihani resisted colonialism by criticizing both East and West. On the other hand, some nonwestern writers attacked the native people who fell through the cracks of the colonial authority and caved in to the colonialists’ system. For example, in A Bend in the River, which was first published in 1979, V.S. Naipaul critiques post-colonial Africa. The aim of this essay is to show that although colonialism oppressed nonwestern countries, and that some works like Rihani’s The Book of Khalid counter colonialism, but some literary works such as Naipaul’s A Bend in the River are colonialists and counter postcolonialism.

Although Naipaul witnesses the injustice of colonialism against his own people, he does condemn the colonial power that has taken over his country.  Because of this, Naipaul is antagonized by many post colonialists. Edward Said argues that, “Naipaul does not impartially ‘tell the truth’; rather he flatters the prejudices of ‘ignorant’ Western audiences that have of late grown weary of the problems of the Third World and of the decolonization process itself” (1992, p. 60). In The Postcolonial Intellectual: A Discussion with Conor Cruise O’Brien, Edward Said & John Lukacs, Said also claims that, “Naipaul is a third- worlder denouncing his own people, not because they are victims of imperialism, but because they seem to have an innate flaw, which is that they are not whites” (1986, p. 79). In addition, Theodor W. Adorno (1973) claims that, “Modernist art works, among which we may include Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, may be historically meaningful as damaged vehicles of historical truth” (p. 274). William Pritchard, on the other hand, claims that Naipaul’s political writings lack literary style: “What I find disturbing in Naipaul’s political novels from the 1970s is a tonelessness at their centre; an absence of narrative performance – of ‘style’ if you will – that novels have not often tried to do without” (1998, p. 223). Christopher Wise adds that,

            Not only does Salim [Naipaul’s protagonist] reject magical African art, he also recoils from the sublime or ecstatic aspects of African art and nature. Naipaul, in fact, relies   heavily on Conrad’s description of the African bush as elementally dark and horrific            (1996. p. 65).

Unlike Naipaul, Khalid, the remnant of Rihani himself, counters colonialism emphasizing the injustice of colonial power.  When he openly critiques present-day religious and political matters within the Great Mosque of Damascus, the Ottoman authorities take action to apprehend him. He views the cultural and political complexities of the Arab world, he does so with both Eastern and Western perspectives.

Khalid is a postcolonialist who is not only against colonial power in the East, but he also tries to unmask the fake democracy of the American democracy. When Khalid first reaches the new land, he is hypnotized by the American dream. Later, he works in politics and becomes an officer at a lawyer’s bureau, but when he discovers the ugliness of politics in America, he abandons his work there, and returns back to the East. In doing so, he encounters the imperial ideology which claims that the East is the root of evil, but for Khalid, the old world represents spirituality.

Khalid delivers many speeches in the new land revealing that the American government is engaged in unlawful activities:

We are content in paying tribute to a criminal Government for pressing upon our necks the yoke and fettering hopelessly our minds and souls– and my brave Phoenicians ah, how bravely they thought and fought. What daring deeds they accomplished! What mysteries of art. (Khalid, p. 272)

Similarly, Rihani asserts in his Ar-Rihaniyyaat essays,:

Political leaders are never the solution as they are all the same, and if we remove a tyrant another will simply replace him. The true change that Lebanon needs is a personal change within the mind and heart of every Lebanese. Educating the people and teaching them to refuse being blind followers, to resist oppression, to discern political opinion, to critically scrutinize leaders, to be knowledgeable of their rights and respectful of their duties is the true politics and is a significant part of the real country building, in which no tyranny will be able to survive. (1910/2010, p. 212)

Rihani’s Khalid is aware that imperial power tries to distort nonwestern cultures. Because of this, he sheds the light on the history of his homeland. Conversely, Naipaul does not appear to believe in the importance of the past of his nation, and he criticizes the cultures of the colonized. In A Bend in the River, Salim states that, “All I know of our history and the history of the Indian Ocean, I have got from books written by Europeans”[1] (Naipaul, p. 11). Furthermore, Naipaul hints to his readers that his nation is not developed: “It was from this habit of looking that the idea came to me that as a community we had fallen behind. And that was the beginning of my insecurity” (Naipaul, pp. 15-16).

In many occasions, Khalid emphasizes that the Phoenicians are the ancestors of the Americans hinting to the fact that the red Indianans are the real owners of America. Khalid is aware that the imperial notion that the history ends with capitalism is a lie. For this reason, he sheds the light on the Phoenicians who were traders and opened to other cultures, so the roots of liberty in politics is from the East and not the West.

            Furthermore, Naipaul does not exhibit characters who defy colonial literature. In

A Bend in the River, Naipaul displays a black protagonist, Salim, who represents the bourgeois, and he does not show that his culture is more civilized than that of the colonizers; Salim, in A Bend in the River, represents the conventional attitudes of the bourgeois, given the fact that he is a shop owner. He emerges from a group, Asians in Africa, who have allied themselves with the Europeans. Although he has never lived among Europeans, he acquires access to European civilization through books, and he identifies himself with them. For instance, when he examines the ruins of his town, he thinks like a colonial European perceiving African civilization as dead:

You felt like a ghost, not from the past, but from the future. You felt that your life and ambition had already been lived out for you and you were looking at the relics of that life. You were in a place where the future had come and gone (Naipaul, p. 30).

Salim tries to have the privileges of the white colonizers by rejecting his people for not being white: “Our way of life was antiquated and almost at an end” (p. 59). He perceives his people through the colonizers’ eyes, so he is discontent with his culture, and affiliates himself with the white colonizers. He even claims that as a nation, they (Africans) are not advanced: “It was from this habit of looking that the idea came to me that as a community we had fallen behind. And that was the beginning of my insecurity” (Naipaul, pp. 15-16).

Salim, like any white colonizer, endeavors to protect his power by using the same means that colonizers used in the provinces. He tries to distort the blacks’ cultural identity because as Sartre claims, colonizers attempted to wipe out the culture of the colonized without contributing to them their culture (1963, p. 13). By using this method, Salim destroys the blacks’ national identity and existence, because a nation can be ruined by demolishing its culture, and this will intensify the “inferiority complex” of the blacks. Throughout A Bend in the River, Salim consistently denigrates African art because of its “religious”, “primitive” and “magical” ties, and he makes fun of this art which he ironically describes as “junk”. He tells us that looking at Father Huismans’ museum is “like being on the river at night”. For him, Father Huismans makes the fatal error of finding “human richness” in African artifacts where everyone else “sees only bush” (Naipaul, p. 72). On the other hand, Salim praises European art throughout the novel, and he is astonished how an ordinary British postage stamp enables him to detach himself from his local surroundings. In other words, here he is associating himself with whiteness: “Small things can start us off in new ways of thinking, and I was started off by the postage stamps of our area. The British administration gave us beautiful stamps” (Naipaul, p. 15).  In light of this, it is hard to ignore Salim’s eagerness for “new ways of thinking.” At this juncture, Salim associates the whites with progression and inadvertently shows his distaste for archaic ideas which he amalgamates with blackness.

Unlike Naipaul, Rihani’s Khalid try to counter colonial power. His inclination toward Wahabism stems from the impact of colonialism has planted in the mind of the colonized that “before the advent of colonialism their history was dominated by barbarism” (1963, p. 15). Khalid is a spiritual leader who criticizes both East and West. He thinks that all people are equal, regardless of their differences: “In the Lakes of Light, Love, and Will, I would baptize all mankind. For in this alone is power, and glory, O my European Brothers; in this alone is faith and joy, O my Brothers of Asia” (Khalid, p. 247).

Unlike Naipaul’s character, he does not have inferiority complex toward the West. On the contrary, Khalid criticizes the West, for its maternalism. He is aware that the essence of the American dream is the desire for glory. Unlike other immigrants, he advises the Americans to abandon materialism. He also contends that they should go back to nature.

Salim uses another means to maintain his position as white; he delves into Africa’s past to connote the superiority of the whites and to lock blacks into the image of perpetual slaves. According to Paul Gilroy,

People are discouraged from seeing identity as a relational field in which they encounter one another and live out social, historical relationships. England’s black settlers are seen as forever locked in the bastard culture of their enslaved ancestors, becoming a problem precisely because of their difference and cultural distance from the standards of civilized behavior which are second nature to authentic [white] Britons (As cited in Reid, 1995, p. 133).

Like the colonizers, Salim tries to narrate the history of the colonized nation and tries to show that slavery is their right. Salim recounts vividly the history of slavery and mastery in Africa, and reports that many Arabs and Indians on the east coast practiced the slave trade.  For instance, Salim’s grandfather once shipped a boat of slaves, and he claims that there were two slave families who had lived with his family for at least three generations, first as slaves and later as domestic servants.

Unlike Salim, Khalid is against all kinds of slavery. In both worlds, he refuses to be enslaved by any kind of power. His message is spiritual who sheds the light on spiritual leaders from Eastern history like Rumi who claims that humans are able to unite with God: “God called out from a tree: ‘I am God!’ Everybody heeded and was pleased by this call. If a man says the same thing, do not say that this word cannot be uttered due to your spiritual blindness” (Qtd. Can, 2005, p. 138). Similarly, Khalid sees himself equal to God, so he eats Mujadara with him, and he finds God in nature and the simple life of the hermits. Additionally, the most important message of Khalid is love and tolerance, and unlike the racist Salim, Khalid is a bridge-builder who endeavors to reduce the gap between both worlds. At the end of the novel, Khalid disappears indicating that this world is not ready to resolve the clash between both worlds.

            In conclusion, literature is a very dangerous tool used by imperial governments to maintain their power in the world. For this reason, the aforementioned powers launched colonial literature, but another voice emerged to counter the lies of colonialist, and it is the school of postcolonialism.  Unfortunately, not all colonialists hail from the Western world. The influence of Eastern colonialists like Naipaul, can be even more perilous than their Western counterparts. These writers legitimize imperial oppression for Western audiences. On the other hand, certain postcolonial voices, such as Rihani’s, play a vital role in debunking colonial falsehoods for non-Western readers.


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