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The Middle East as Seen Through Foreign Eyes

Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries

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Pilgrims Going to Mecca

Pilgrims Going to Mecca

This painting by Leon Belly is another excellent example of nineteenth-century Orientalist art. It captures several common and recurring stereotypes of the Middle East including: 1) the centrality of religious life (Muslims performing pilgrimage to Mecca); 2) a desert landscape foregrounded by a camel caravan; and 3) bearded, robed, and turbaned men with no detectable trace of women. While it is possible to acknowledge the aesthetic qualities of this painting and presume there was no nefarious intent on the part of the artist to demean or degrade Middle Eastern people, it is also important to be aware of how an image like this conditions an outsider’s (in particular, a European’s) imagining of the Middle East and thereby sustains reductive stereotypes of a foreign place and culture.

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