The Museum of Imagined Orientalism Items
How I imagine I see them as they see an imagined me...
Welcome to my substack #9. Soundtrack to this post: The Orientalism of Mecca, CA
1. I spent the past four months immersing myself in writing a screenplay where two Muslim women go to a vintage store in the desert and “rescue” orientalist racist items from the potential hands of White people. For the rest of their road trip through the Coachella Valley the night before Ramadan begins, they pull items out from the vintage store to be used – disguises and weapons, mostly. This story was, of course, shaped by how I rescue items when I go to vintage shops. There aren’t many items to rescue at the average Southern California thrift store – unless you go out in the desert where The Orient was in vogue in the 1920s and again in the 1950s and again in the 1970s and with all the old people dying off, their collections are at estate sales and everywhere. I own a copper wall hanging of a rickshaw-wallah from Yucca Valley, a mirrored dome of a mosque from Palm Springs, and an embroidered turquoise caftan from Chino. I think often about the Rajasthani dagger I did not buy in Joshua Tree.
2. If I had a museum of my own, these are the items of imagined orientalism it would hold.
3. I do not rescue dolls or busts, though they are abundant. I watched Chucky as a child too many times. The dolls I most often find are foot-tall natch girls, the kind you find in open air markets in India. The faces are 3-D ceramic wall hangings of exaggerated faces of Arab men. These England-made Bosson Chalkware pieces were popular in the 1960s and you can see examples by searching “Persian Arab Sheikh Head” on eBay. I wonder often what kind of people would hang these faces on their wall and what kind of jinns possess these ceramic faces now.
4. I rescue jewelry only sometimes and will wear after a thorough cleanse as the energy of the previous owner can get trapped in the jewelry and I can’t afford that kind of luck. I often search “Allah” on eBay and Poshmark just to see what kind of vintage jewelry show up.
5. On my recent Ramadan trip to Palm Springs, Randa and I went to my favorite vintage store – and I always looking in the brass section. There are the usual brass tea sets, and brass camels, and brass plates. Like magic, in the center was a brass genie lamp casually hanging out. I was in shock - it hadn’t been there two weeks prior when I had last visited the store. Randa thought I had planned the whole thing – I was wearing my punk Jasmine shirt a little too perfectly. Randa bought it and she smoked it with incense and prayers before I let it into my car for the drive back to Los Angeles. Whatever was attached to it was released into the Palm Desert wind.
6. My bookshelf has a section of old Orientalist fiction that I’ve picked up from various used book stores. My favorite is a coffee table picture book with “Oriental Erotica” embossed in gold on the spine – inside are pictures of Mughal paintings and ancient pottery with people having sex and one picture of a painting of elephants having sex. For my artmaking, I like the texture of pages from books from before the 1960s – it’s thin and absorbs pigment intensely, paper that I like to paint and collage into my visual art. But I can’t bring myself to cut up just any old book – it’s too precious. But books called “The Road to Agra”, “Jaguar Island” and “Kim” I felt much better cutting through the spine of.
7. I was raised in that unique space in time before we knew how cultural appropriation was problematic and where we were such lonely Brown kids that seeing any type of Brown representation made our skin tingle. That and a dash of distancing myself from my parents’ version of how they wanted to raise me as Bangladeshi and not American. At this intersection, we were thrilled to see versions of ourselves in orientalist tropes in pop culture because it meant we were seen through a local lens at all. Through the White Gaze was the only way to have permission to see ourselves back then.
8. As a teenager I went to the Renaissance Faire only once, thinking it was a place for White people to play in their European ancestral imagination. I was shocked to find the dedicated section to the Silk Road – belly dancers, knife throwers, snake charmers, gauzy curtains and kohl lined eyes. I felt oddly at home while also feeling oddly out of place as these White people cos-played as my peoples. It was the 90s and I wasn’t sure how to process it. I didn’t have words like exotification or orientalization. Technically it made factual sense, how else would Renaissance Europe access spices like black pepper and chille without trade from “The Orient”? But why did that look like this? I left the faire eager to dress up as a gypsy-pirate in a keffiyeh and abaya next time I went. I would not dress up as a haram girl.
9. I celebrated turning 21 years old by staying at the Sahara in Vegas. We had a big group of 20 all piled into 3 hotel rooms. The hotel had just opened and the first floor was decorated in kitchy Arab aesthetic and we would chase down Aladdin cosplayed staff for photos. I liked it because it felt like we were in Agrabah and the guys liked it because they had dollar poker tables. I was really into dollar bets back then and that trip someone gave me a stack of dollar bills so that I could dollar bet my friends the whole weekend. I would, of course, bet them a dollar to take pictures with the Aladdin cosplayed staff.
10. In the Vegas airport is where I first found the electronic Arabian Nights slot machine and it is is my favorite gamble – the genie will grant you a wish, that is if you pull the right combination of fez, lamp, scimitar or desert tent. The bonus round is animated with lots of festivities and lights and sometimes your seat will shake. It’s like Dubai on ecstasy. I don’t gamble, but I will always hunt for this machine when in the casino.
11. The music wing of my museum would be extensive, dedicated to the 1950s exotica music genre started by Les Baxter. I was obsessed with this music in college, and had a large stack of CDs I’d listen to while studying. The wing would have a special room for Korla Pandit, a popular turban wearing organist in the late 1940s who would play while staring hypnotically into the camera. It was only found two years after he died in 1998, that he was actually a black man from Missouri who adopted the persona because he thought it would play on the exotic appeal of the White Gaze. So committed to the persona, his two sons didn’t know that they were actually black till after he died. After finding out, one son changed his name from Koram to John.
12. Another wing of the museum would be dedicated to high school shirts of racist Oriental mascots – in Southern California we have the Hollywood High Sheiks, San Gabriel High Moors, Coachella High Arabs, Indyo High Rajahs. Technically, The Hollywood Sheik is named after Rudolph Valentino’s character in the 1921 film The Sheik, so it’s a White mascot, on a technicality, but possibly, the most layered of them all. I have so far only procured the T-shirt of a Rajah, and am constantly on the hunt for a Sheik, Moor, or Arab. In fact, if you happen to be in the desert on October 29th, you can even go to a football game of the Arabs vs Rajahs. I can only imagine what kind of chants a bleacher full of White Desert Dwellers will say. It is afterall the same region where heinous islamophobic attacks have occurred in the recent past.
13. The film section of the museum would screen on loop the classics – 1962’s drama “Lawrence of Arabia”; Brooke Shields in the 1983 race-across-desert movie “Sahara”; the incredibly kitchy 1965 “Harum Scarum” where Elvis Presley kisses many harem girls during the month of Ramadan; every single episode of the 139 episodes of “I Dream of Jeannie”. I would bring in contemporary depictions as well – all of the Indiana Jones movies; Prince of Persia with Jake Gyllenhaal in kohl-lined eyes; Mike Myers in a long beard in the 2008 “The Love Guru.” One section would be dedicated to the Brown faces – Steven Fisher as Ben Jabituya in Short Circuit 1/2 to Ashton Kutcher in that Pop Chip commercial to the Filipino kid that plays the Indian drug dealer roommate Vivek in the currently airing show Grown-ish.
14. Osho and the Rajneeshees get a wing – they did create a sex cult outside Portland, Oregon out the White people’s fascination of the Imagined Orient, after all. Hot Yoga’s Bikram Choudhury and Deepak Chopra get inserts in this exhibit as well.
15. When walking around the Silverlake reservoir, to the west crestline you can see what looks like an outline of a mosque on the ridge. I am fascinated by the spattering of Spanish-Moorish architecture in Los Angeles – as a student at USC my walk daily to campus was shadowed by the giant Shrine Auditorium. No one could explain why the place that hosted raves looked like a place of worship to me. It was especially strange knowing the mosques I attended of my youth were in suburban office park while the imagination of architects of Spanish-Moorish style, meant expensive homes for White people were allowed minarets. The house on the crest, I learn, was built in 1935, worth $2.5 million, and is nicknamed The Mosque House, which I find entirely appropriate. That being said, I would love to live in an iconic Spanish Colonial Revival Moorish home.
16. There are seven cities in the United States named “Mecca”– California, Texas, Florida, Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, Tennessee. I have been to Mecca, CA often, usually on the way to buy boxes of dates for Ramadan. I was fascinated by the idea of a pilgrimage to Mecca when I couldn’t go on an actual pilgrimage to the actual Holy City. This was the closest I had now. This Mecca went by a different name. There is nothing Islamic about this Mecca, particularly, except the people are Brown, but not our kind of Brown. It is where the laborers and migrant farm workers of the farmland live. The city was originally called Walters and renamed in 1904 by the wife the Mecca Land Company because of similarities to the deserts of Mecca in Arabia. How would she know though – Mecca, in Saudi Arabia was reserved entrance only for Muslims. We know when trying to make the desert habitable, they were trying to heighten appeal for habitation by renaming all the cities with orientalist imagination appeal. Bombay Beach on the Salton Sea, with its now disintegrating trailer park and dead fish lined coast, is my favorite contradiction of imagined exotic lure versus sad American reality.
17. Of course, Doris Duke’s Hawaiian vacation home of Shangri-La is the height of what the imagination of a White woman with money will do after going to the Taj Mahal on a honeymoon. It was surreal living in her pool house for that one week residency surrounded by flowered mosaic that resembled India, tiles painted with Persian dancing girls, lit by Moroccan lanterns and a mirrored bathroom designed for a Mughal princess. My South Asian ancestors spoke through my skin as I walked barefoot on the white Makrana marble – it felt shockingly familiar but how could it if it wasn’t for my ancestors speaking through my skin? “This is mine,” my skin spoke. “This should be mine. I never got to experience these as mine. Why should money give her the privilege to feel these as hers, when these belong to us?” At least I got to pretend it was mine for that week.
18. What I’m fascinated by isn’t the fusion or the hyphenation. I’m not particular a fan of how Ravi Shankar performed sitar for wealthy mostly White audiences or how The Beatles went to India or how Indophiles show me their items from their transformative trip to South Asia. I’m interested in the imagination of these places through the White Gaze which runs awkwardly parallel to my 2nd gen American Born Brown Skin Gaze. I have an imagination, too. One where our family growing up couldn’t afford to fly Bangladesh regularly or bring back items from back home. I had to make up my own imagination of my peoples when distance space was dictated before the internet, accessible knowledge, and affordable travel. How dare they have a version of imagination of my peoples when I don’t even have the artifacts to create an imagination of my own. I don’t get to go to South Asia, so these tidbits of culture I get access to exist in are my imagination as well.
19. It was representation but it wasn’t. But it was the best thing I could have in that moment.
20. I want the luxury to play in an imagined reality of my peoples, too.
21. Happy Islamic History Month, y’all.