No.5 October 2000

Re-Orienting the Orient

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Last month I talked about the significance of Turkey’s being a bridge between east and west.  The topic this month is the concept of the Orient.  While much is made of the fact of Turkey’s being a bridge between the East and the West, it’s also true that it is part of what has long been referred to as the Orient.  Don’t worry.  The present writing isn’t yet another example of a bemused, besotted, befogged Westerner indulging in fantasies of “the Oriental.” Not at all.  Rather, what I want to do here is to reclaim, revive and remind us of the real meanings of the word “Orient.”  Just as Confucius tried to do in the 6th century (and for much the same reasons), this is an attempt at the rectification of names.  Since no doubt only a few readers may have heard of Confucius’ teaching about this and even fewer will know precisely what he said, I want to begin by quoting it in its entirety.  “The Rectification of Names” is Book 13, verse 3 from The Analects of Confucius and is one of numerous themes about which that wise man had something to say. 

Tsze-lu said, “The ruler of Wei has been waiting for you, in order with you to administer the government.  What will you consider the first thing to be done?”

The Master replied, ‘What is necessary is to rectify names.’  ‘So! Indeed!’ said Tsze-lu.  ‘You are wide of the mark!  Why must there be such rectification?’ 

The Master said, ‘How uncultivated you are, Yu!  Superior persons, in regard to what they do not know, show a cautious reserve.

If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things.  If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.

When affairs cannot be carried on to success, properties and music do not flourish.  When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded.  When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot.

Therefore superior persons consider it necessary that the names they use may be spoken appropriately, and also that what they speak may be carried out appropriately.  What superior persons require is just that in their words there may be nothing incorrect.’ “

  I’m with Confucius on this one.  People who know me are aware that I always try to say exactly what I mean and that I hate “small talk” with a passion.  Small talk is ugly and meaningless.  Language is important.  It’s undeniably true that people have taken absolutely beautiful meaningful words and turned them into ugly, meaningless crap.  It happens in English all the time – look at what people have done to the word ‘love,’ for example.  ‘I love you, darling,’ they may say to each other, while the tones of voice suggest that something far from love is going on.  I see it happening in Turkish, too.  Just look at the word ‘canim.’  When my partner first explained the meanings of that word to me (during that period when I was “drunk, on raký and love, both” that I wrote about last month) I couldn’t believe it.  I felt as though I was being initiated into some secret, mystical language.  ‘My soul,’ ‘my heart,’ ‘my life’ – I thought to myself:  “Imagine having a language that has one word for stuff like this!”  Well, those were early days.  Since then, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been kissed on both cheeks and called “canim,”’ canim” and even “canim benim” by Judas-like shark-ladies who then say something absolutely abhorrent about me the moment my back is turned.  Notwithstanding my suffering at the hands of the shark-ladies, I continue to maintain my stance about the importance of language.

Anyway, generally-speaking, when we use the word ‘orient’ now we mean the vast geographical region otherwise designated as ‘the East;’ that is, all the so-called ‘non-Western’ countries, especially East Asia, China and Japan.  The same term used to designate the eastern parts of the Roman Empire, which later became the Byzantine Empire.  To say that something is ‘Oriental’’ can merely designate its geographical region or it can be used to mean something that is very, very different, baroque, exotic and complicated – all in relation to what is ‘Occidental’ and hence, familiar.   The original etymology of the word is what I want to look at here. 

  The word ‘orient’ is from the Latin ‘oriundus’ meaning ‘arising from,’ ‘springing from,’ ‘proceeding from.’   At first glance it appears to have been used as a relative term almost from the beginning since it usually referred to the “lands where the sun rises, as seen from Europe” (emphasis mine).  However, when we take a closer look, the idea that it was relative in our current sense of that term may be wrong.  In Latin, if you wanted to tell someone to ‘orient yourself’ (literally or figuratively) you would tell him or her “ad orientem versus, ‘turn towards the East” for the simple reason that once a person knows where the sun rises they know where they are in this world.  Thus, the East, the Orient, the place where the sun rises, was the center of the world, not some marginal, underdeveloped ‘third world.’     

Here’s what I want to know.  How is it that a place that used to mean the center of the world came to mean a place that is at the outskirts, the margins of the world, the edge?  I recently wrote an old friend and colleague a long e-mail.  I’d not communicated with him for a number of years, but took it into my head to reconnect and wrote this long, impassioned letter about my travels (inner and outer) and of course my living in Istanbul.  I also explained, in some detail, the beauty of the place where I live, the city, the apartment, the garden, etc.  He replied via e-mail saying he wanted to write a “serious” letter and so was writing by hand and using ‘snail mail.’  I waited.  In due time the letter came and I opened it eagerly.  He began by saying some wonderful things that showed he understood.  Until I came to this last sentence:  “But I worry about you as I think of the future and hope that some unexpected break will come and save you from growing old in such a place.”  Where did he get that from, I wonder?  It wasn’t from the e-mail I sent him because that had gone on and on about how wonderful Istanbul was.  It was an ode to Turkey, in fact.  He didn’t get a cue from me in what I wrote about my partner, nor my apartment.  So, where did it come from?  I can only conclude that my friend, educated, sophisticated and worldly though he is, has internalized the stereotype of Turkey as an under-developed country so that ultimately he couldn’t connect with the richness I attempted to describe for him. 

 I don’t mean to suggest that my life here is easy.  It isn’t.  On the other hand, to describe it merely as “difficult” isn’t doing it justice either.  My life here is one of constantly having to balance the spiritual scales of my own soul lest I fail – to get through a day, or an experience of some kind or other, or a particular interaction with some new person.   Yes, it’s true.  I live in Istanbul, Turkey.  The place where I live is the Orient.  That means I live in the center of the world, where the sun rises.  And that means I’ve got a hell of a lot to live up to.. 

No.1- April 2000 No.11 April 2001 No. 20 July 2002 No 29 April 2003
No.2 June 2000 No.12 May 2001 No. 22 September 2002 NO 30 MAY 2003
No.3 July/August 2000 No. 13 June 2001 No. 23   October 2002  NO 31 JUNE 2003
No.5 October 2000 No.14 July 2001 No 24 November 2002 NO 32 JULY 2003
No.7 December 2000 No.15 August 2001 No 25 DECEMBER  2002 NO 33 August 
No.8 January 2001
(No. 8 Ocak 2001 - Türkçe tercume
NO 16 September 2001 No 26 January 2003 No 34 September 
No.9 February 2001 No. 17 April 2002 No 27 February 2003 No 35 October 
No.10 March 2001 NO 19 JUNE 2002 No 28 March 2003 No 36 January 2004

No 37 February - March 2004 No 38 April 2004

 

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