I reflected that Jane Digby was one of the first Western outcasts to find acceptance and fulfillment in the Middle East. What was the enigma that drew the lonely and detached -- Burton, Lawrence, Lady Hester Stanhope, Jane Digby, Gertrude Bell, Wilfred Thesiger -- to a community that has such strong rules, such cohesion and ultimately such conformism? Perhaps it was the warmth, hospitality and security of that community which appealed to strangers, allied with the special allowance made for the outsider, who would never perhaps be expected to conform in the same way as its own members. Being a foreigner in an alien culture is a way of institutionalizing your aloneness, of going public with it. You are no longer failing to meet the expectations and values of your own world, nor do you have to meet those of your adopted one -- or if you do, no one expects you do it perfectly.
These words, written by Robert Tewdwr Moss in his travel memoir, Cleopatra's Wedding Present, (reviewed here), speaks to a feeling of otherness which, for many white Westerners, is a rare experience from within their privileged confines; even more unusual is the desire to purposefully seek out such a distinction.
For the better part of the past ten years, I have been drawn to the Levant and Maghreb; traversing the authoritarian states that cup the Mediterranean Sea like a crescent moon. When asked why I travel to such places, I often reply, half-truthfully, that I find the men attractive.
Only upon reading the above passage in Moss's book did I realize that what I sought, and what I continue to seek, is the protective peculiarity of being a stranger in a foreign land.
The privileges afforded to a Western outsider cannot be overstated. Yet, it is this exact sense of manifested privilege that makes the foreigner feel, well, special. Special in the sense that, back home, you are not so special.
Walking along the Nile in Cairo one evening, six months after the overthrow of Mubarak, the tension of social upheaval permeating the streets, I found myself drawn into a certain amount of illegal indiscretions. Yet, I did not question why these opportunities were afforded to me.
Only later did I come to realize that exemption from local customs, laws, and practices--constraints on freedom largely for coercive control of the local populace by the state--did not apply to foreign currency bearing tourists.
Though other considerations were certainly part of the circumstances: the rarity of an American traveler at that time, my appearance and curious dress, my willingness to approach men, and the assumption that I would part with my money.
Reductive though these reasons are, they establish and identify me as an outsider, as other. Though the privilege of otherness is not merely the ability to facilitate in international sex tourism for the sake of fun; that is far too base.
Rather, as an other, the traveler assumes a role of stereotypical representation, endowed with a halo of agency; manifested through the subjective gaze of the men on the street. The wandering tourist afforded certain luxuries irrespective of class, gender, or sexuality.
Yet, unlike those whom I might objectify (or Orientalize as termed by Edward Said), I retained a power far greater than the actual citizens of a dissolved revolution or authoritarian state. Rather than otherness stripping me of power, it further reinforced my identity.
A gay young man, Nasser, whom I met at a hammam in Damascus, spoke of his alienation and the bleak existence of his reality, but did not give up the hope that he would eventually make it to Europe. Nasser's identity was untethered, without association or power. His vulnerability and ambition, mixed with fear, weighed heavily on me.
He hungrily consumed my talk of the West, just as I fed eagerly upon his precarious life. Yet, I was free to leave, to go where I pleased, without the fear that I would face threat or punishment.
My scopophilic gaze had been turned on myself. I became the one who was looked at, eroticized, sexualized, and compartmentalized into the thesis of my people, culture, and homeland. The otherness of the white male, whose gaze has long scourged the shores of the world, holds a respectful, even oppressive power that allowed me to both gaze at the other, and be looked at as other.
Yet, I still retained the power and privilege of my gaze; it was not given over to those who commodified me. I was allowed to continue my voyeurism and agency over them. The power of other is doubled for the foreigner, both because of their otherness, as well as their agency to not assimilate, to not conform, and to remain citizens of another place.
However, within the stupidity of the traveler--who assumes everyone speaks English and can understand his demands--lies his power; the idealization that he has come to this place to find something different on his own accord. What he experiences is, to him, an exotic otherness of misunderstanding.
The privilege of the traveler is to be who he wants to be, each day if he likes; a rare experience of controlled abandon. The Orientalist does not know that he is an Orientalist; yet he is able to perceive, and control, agency through his otherness.
Even those who wish to conform, assimilate, and leave behind the markings of their Orientalist power are never fully able to do so. They will never be absolutely accepted. They will always carry the burden, or blessing, of being an other. And yet, because of their otherness, they retain power that those around them will never obtain. Such is the cursed beauty of privilege.