Of Walls and Veils
Book Review

Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction
Robert J. C. Young
Oxford [UK], Oxford University Press, 2003
180 pages, ISBN 0192801821, £ 6.99

Reviewed by Rumina Sethi, Panjab University, Chandigarh, India

Robert Young’s Colonial Desire (1995) presented an interestingly engineered contrast between the East and the West through his description of the zero degree GMT Meridian that runs arbitrarily through the Old Royal Observatory in London. Tourists almost always straddle the narrow brass strip and have themselves photographed with each foot in a different hemisphere. This is a narrative technique by which the author connects image with theory, a method he uses to advantage in Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction. This book is a neat summation of his ideas about postcolonialism intended for the beginner but also, one might add, equally useful for the expert.

Young’s engagement with theories of (post)colonialism began with White Mythologies, a landmark achievement in postcolonial criticism. His most recent book, Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction, is full of conversational directness and makes early ingress into a style of writing completely at variance with the perplexity of many books on the subject. As Young writes, “[s]ome of this theoretical work has gained a reputation for obscurity and for involving complex ideas that ordinary people are not able to understand. . . . This is unfortunate, since many of these ideas were never produced by academics in the first place and can be understood relatively easily once the actual situations that they describe are understood.” Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction acquaints the completely unfamiliar reader with ideas such as domination, the exploitation of the marginalized, and inferiority, and links them to the terminology of postcolonial studies, addressing such concepts as subalternity, hybridity, and gender.  One narrative of postcolonial theory is that it developed with the intention of dissolving master narratives, and postcolonialism also grew as a system of interrogative practices much like feminism, often contradictory but generally supportive of a balance between the west and the non-west, black and white, men and women, elite and “subaltern.” The colonial imbalance evoked responses as varied as the “surgical intervention” of the two revolutionary doctors and patron saints of national liberation, Che Guevara and Frantz Fanon, or, as Young points out, the “ayurvedic medicine” approach of the great healer, Mahatma Gandhi. Postcolonial Theory is the road academics have taken.

Through a series of images, Young defines the term “postcolonial.” So, we have that postcolonial gesture when Langston Hughes flings the books of western knowledge far, far into the sea as he sails from New York to Africa or Che Guevara’s postcolonial challenge to the Western world at the Tricontinental Conference in Havana in 1966: “The contribution that falls to us, the exploited and backward of the world, is to eliminate the foundations sustaining imperialism.”

But western imperialism has not been easy to overthrow. Since the 1920s, Iraq has been waiting for freedom from the west’s “right to bomb.” As Young points out, “this burying, this suppression, this suffocation, literally sucking the air out of the lungs of men, women, and children, becomes the metaphor for the suppression of the colonized world itself — the air that it breathes sucked out in the moment that the west likes to describe innocuously as ‘the colonial encounter’.” Right from the earliest days of European conquest of the “new world,” native communities have been exterminated to make way for new nations. And while the new entrants celebrate the condition of “diasporic” migrancy in literature and theory, those forcibly given refugee status can hardly become part of this jamboree.

Almost poetic in conception, the book has echoes of Eliot. It sometimes reads like a travelogue and sometimes like the narrative of an orientalist (ironically?) as Young traverses between Kabul and Cuba. The narrative of the disempowered world is as horrific in its imagery as “The Burial of the Dead” with its accounts of refugees from Somalia, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Algeria, Mexico or the West Bank who may be lucky to get out of Refugee Camps within months. We are shown photographs of displaced families without homes and women consigned to invisibility. Side by side, we are provoked into discovering the vital difference between pictorial objectification and the reality of its subject. Young creates an immediate gap between the “out of place,” walled-out refugee and the settled westerner, the probable reader of his book, when he writes “[o]ne thing that you would be unlikely to do in the Jalozai camp is to read this book, even if you were literate, and it had been translated into Pushto.”

Having redefined “minority” communities and diaspora on his own terms, Young explains how nationally constituted communities and “democratically” elected governments continue to serve the self-constructed core cultures such as the Hindutva in India or the exclusionary Sinhala movement in Sri Lanka. These imagined “nations” are, furthermore, aided and abetted, paradoxically, by people outside the nation (such as the US charity, India Development and Relief Fund, which pours money into India to keep Hindutva afloat). The nation thus becomes an entity which is constructed by those outside it when it should ideally belong to all its members. Equally bizarre is the way in which corporate capitalism manufactures dissent or “commodifies” resistance by funding its opponents in the effort to show off its broad liberal outlook which even encourages difference. Governments are known to give huge sums of money to NGOs which may be a means of containing and manipulating opposition.

The fence or the wall, an image which stands for both exclusion and neo-colonialism, figures prominently in Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction. The Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, Hadrian’s Wall, the walls being built in the West Bank, are all instances of strict border controls exercised by the wealthy countries of the west. Asphyxiated bodies of refugees have often been found in containers of automobile spare parts or sport equipment carried in the underbelly of aircrafts. In stark contrast are the people living in the West who are hardly exposed to these harsh realities. Guatanamo Bay or Al-Gharib are simply too remote for everyday contact or a revival of sensitivities. There are also the walls of “free markets” and “open societies”: some African countries, for instance, fence-off their institutions against their own people on the advice of the World Bank. Streams of water become unavailable when Pepsi or Coke decide to set up production units in Kerala. Huge infrastructure projects such as the Sardar Sarovar Dam are built by governments at the cost of destroying the homes of the natives. In Argentina, the very idea of democracy is threatened when the IMF rejects requests for loans on the pretext that social spending should be reduced and further privatization should be introduced. State-level barricading has come up from multinational seed giants who dictate which genetically-modified crops should be grown; they regularly indulge in seed-tampering and patenting which affects natural farming all across the Global South by preventing farmers from re-planting existing seeds cheaply. The American military-industrial complex has far exceeded its production of arms and armaments. News is also blocked out. The absence of news about Africa tells the tale of how news is controlled. Only Al-Jazeera may blare on because it broadcasts messages of those America wants to smoke out.

It is funny how leaders of the First World also hold their summits within moats and barriers, that is, they make the conference area inaccessible owing to threats posed by violent protesters. During the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in 2001, downtown Quebec was completely caged so that all residents were forced to show proof of identity in order to have access to their own homes. The G-8 summits, for instance, are also usually held in isolated locations to prevent not only life-threatening terrorists but rightful protesters as well.

Another ‘virtual’ wall is the veil, a standard of exclusionary politics which creates that ultimate oppressive orthodoxy urging the west to find ways of liberating the Eastern woman. Pushing aside Edward Said’s analysis of such essentialism, recent criticism has pointed out that the veil may be taken instead as a symbol of Islamification which women choose of their own free will. As Haleh Afshar writes: “For them the veil is a liberating, and not an oppressive, force. They maintain that the veil enables them to become the observers and not the observed; that it liberates them from the dictates of the fashion industry and the demands of the beauty myth” (124). And yet, outside Iran, that piece of cloth is always used to strengthen the belief that all that stands between emancipation and oppression is its removal. Young goes further and calls it “a fluid, ambivalent garment,” one which some Islamic women living in European societies such as Spain or France want to wear passionately. It may surprise a Western woman that many “liberated” Hindu and Sikh women of the Indian upper class occasionally wear the hijab instead of an evening dress to make a fashion statement. Interestingly, by whatever name we call this garment — abaya, burqa, chador, dupatta, hijab, or niquaab — it has a different meaning when men wear it. For men, it becomes the mask of Zorro, that ultimate romantic masculine symbol of the outlaw; it is also a means of hiding identity and protection from authority. But the question remains: why is the veil considered to be oppressive for women but macho when men wear it?

If I may call Young’s earlier work “theoretical” in its contemporary implication, that is, sometimes a little difficult for the first-time reader of “theory,” Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction, in its very familiarity with non-western cultures, music, writing and way of living, and its lively narrative style, is an extremely accessible and impressively researched book. Readers in the Third World (who will read it when it is translated into Pushto or Tamil) will find his or her culture-specific items here — the rebellious Algerian raï or the Indian chipko — and be reassured that for once a book coming out of the western academy has succeeded in dislocating the western white reader completely.

Works Cited

Afshar, Haleh, ed. Women and Politics in the Third World. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.

Young, Robert J. C. Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.

- . White Mythologies: Writing History and the West. London and New York: Routledge, 1990.