Orientalism and captivity in North-Africa in the 17th Century

Toby Wikström, Assistant Professor of French Literature at Tulane University in New Orleans, USA, gives a lecture entitled „Was there a pan-European orientalism? Icelandic and Flemish perspectives on captivity in Muslim North-Africa“. Þorsteinn Helgason, Associate Professor of History at the School of Education at the University of Iceland, will discuss the lecture.

The event will take place on Friday 15 April at 12-13 in room 102 in Lögberg at the University of Iceland.

Abstract:

One of the central claims of Edward Said’s perennially controversial and influential Orientalism (1978) is that “the Orient […] helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience” even before the rise of orientalism proper in the late eighteenth century.  Underlying this claim is the assumption that different cultures in the area now called Europe, despite obvious divergences in religion and culture, imagined the Muslim world in a similar manner. Yet what of the geographical and cultural space forming Europe’s southern frontier, the Mediterranean?  Scholars within the rising field of Mediterranean studies have in the last decade mounted a serious challenge to Orientalism, arguing forcefully that the Christian-Muslim binary at the heart of Said’s theory does not reflect the hybridity and porous cultural boundaries of the Inland Sea.  The theoretical challenge posed by Mediterranean studies to Saidian orientalism prompts the following questions.  Was there, as Said might assume, a pan-European discourse on the Muslim world born out of specifically Mediterranean experiences that helped fashion a collective European identity?  Second – and this question is inevitable, given the enduring critical traction of Orientalism and the scholarly debates surrounding it – if such a general discourse existed, might one call it “orientalist” in the Saidian sense of the term?  In this lecture I will attempt to give a preliminary answer to these crucial questions by examining two narratives of Mediterranean, and more specifically North African, captivity: the Travels of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson (Reisubók síra Ólafs Egilssonar), written in Iceland in approximately 1628 and The Account of the Captivity and Liberation of Sir Emanuel D’Aranda (La Relation de la captivité & liberté du sieur Emanuel D’Aranda), which was authored by a French-speaking native of Flanders in the Spanish Netherlands and first published in 1656.  My comparison of these texts will demonstrate both the relevance of orientalism for European identity formation and the need to bring Said’s perspective into productive dialogue with Mediterranean studies.

This event is organized by the departments of comparative literatures and Mid-Eastern studies at the University of Iceland, in cooperation with the Vigdís Finnbogadóttir Institute of Foreign Languages.

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