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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On the Orient and Orientals

In memory of my Father-in-Law, Izhak Kohai - a beautiful soul

Going through my father’s Second World War photographs, most of which are so tiny and faded that it is often hard to make out very much, I came across one which showed two Australian soldiers in a field outside the city of Homs in Syria. They were my father and a friend, and they were standing together in the bleak landscape with four Arab boys. The photograph was typical of many others in the album, but carried a caption added by my father that I found, for the attitude it displayed, amusing, disturbing, but mostly interesting for the way in which it illustrates what was in the past an acceptable way to relate to people of different cultures, one that has changed in some societies, but sadly remains in others, and even seems to be on the increase. Under each figure on the photograph Dad had written a word of identification. He wrote: “WOG ME WOG WOG WOG JIM – HOMS”. I recall seeing this a great many years ago and asking him the meaning of this short appellation - “WOG”. For him, as, I suppose for many other young Australian soldiers in the 1940s, coming from very different and what seemed to them far less interesting places, this was an encounter with people who were strange and exotic. The term Wonderful Oriental Gentleman meant merely that. It was a way of expressing that these boys were very different, certainly oriental, and consequently, somewhat wonderful. It was no more intended to be derisive or condescending than if he had referred to them as "BLOKES", as he might have done had he been in some other part of the world. The trouble is that, like most collective labels, there are those who do regard themselves as superior and use such terms to offend and to express a perceived superiority. Such attitudes are found today even in advanced western societies where political correctness is valued, sometimes excessively. They certainly existed in the Middle Ages.

The landscape of the Orient, its hills and forests and deserts, held a great fascination for westerns in the crusader period, but the crusaders had not conquered an empty land, nor had the Frankish settlers that followed occupied an untenanted one. Under Fatimid and Seljuq rule in the eleventh century, the eastern Mediterranean lands that were to become the crusader states were densely settled by urban and rural populations composed of Muslims (mainly Sunnī) and Oriental Christians (Greek Orthodox, Syrians, Armenians, Nestorians, Maronites and Jacobites). There were also Druze, Jews and small communities of Samarians. In addition, within and surrounding the Frankish states there were different types of Muslims, other than the Sunnī’s; Shī‘is, and a number of minor sects like the Nizari Ismailis known as Hashashin (Assassins). European attitudes towards these Eastern populations were generally, and perhaps not surprisingly deprecatory, and were often very far from the truth. The German pilgrim Theoderich described Arab peasants ploughing the fields near Nablus on the road leading north from Jerusalem as somewhat barbaric, giving “…hideous yells which they thundered forth, as is their wont whenever they set about any work…”.[1] John of Joinville, the thirteenth century crusader and chronicler of the Seventh Crusade led by Louis IX, described the Bedouin as " ugly race and hideous to look at."[2] Even after Christian rule was lost these attitudes remained prevalent among westerners. The fifteenth century German pilgrim, Felix Fabri described the Arabs he encountered as: “… a naked, miserable, bestial, wandering people, who alone can dwell in the desert which is uninhabitable to all others [and who] attack, harry, and conquer all men alike…”[3] Not that the Muslims overly admired the Frankish interlopers. The Andalusian traveller, Ibn Jubayr used a typical term employed by Muslims when describing the Christian interlopers. He referred to them as pigs. Agnes of Courtenay, mother of Baldwin IV he described as “…the sow known as Queen… mother of the pig who is Lord of Acre” and he wrote that in Acre “…pigs and crosses abound…”[4] The thirteenth century Muslim physician, astronomer and geographer, al-Qazwini ‎(1203–1283) wrote that the Franks: …do not cleanse or bathe themselves more than once or twice a year, and then in cold water, and they do not wash their garments from the time they put them on until they fall to pieces...".[5] Perhaps he was referring to newly arrived Franks as his statement is quite different from the condemnation the Bishop of Acre, James of Vitry, himself a new arrival used when he describe the long-established Franks as "...more used to baths than battles."[6]

As to the Jews of the East, not surprisingly considering the medieval European attitude towards Jews in general and the violent antisemitic events of the First Crusade, they were regarded with considerable loathing. The anonymous author of the Tractatus de locis et statu sancta terre, with a display of ludicrous ignorance used the archetypal description -Jews were obstinate, weaker than women, and were even physically like women in that they experienced a monthly flux of blood.[7] Nor did the Samaritans escape harsh judgement. They were cruel enemies to one another, but they too were feeble, and biologically weak in that they produced few offspring and numbered only some three hundred.

1. Theoderich, Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, vol. 5, trans. Aubrey Stewart, London, 1896, p. 61.

2. John of Joinville, London, 1848 (reprint New York, 1969), p. 420.

3. Felix Fabri, The Book of the Wanderings of Brother Felix Fabri, vol. 7.1 trans. Aubrey Stewart, London, 1896, p. 258.

4. Ibn Jubayr, The Travels of Ibn Jubayr, London, 1952, p. 316.

5. Abu Yahya Zakariya' ibn Muhammad al-Qazwini, Athar al-Bilad, trans. B. Lewis, Islam from the Prophet Muhammad to the Capture of Constantinople, vol. 2, 1974, p. 123.

6. James of Vitry, Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, vol. 11, trans. Aubrey Stewart, London, 1896, p. 64.

7. B.Z. Kedar, "The Tractatus de locis et statu sancta terre", in The Crusades and their Sources, Essays Presented to Bernard Hamilton, Aldershot, Brookfield, Singapore, Sydney, 1998, p. 130.

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