Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 797
Two weeks later, in the morning, Emily is sitting at the dining table in the Upper East Side apartment, drinking coffee and reading a newspaper. She reads aloud from a report of Imam Fareed’s trial, in which Amir is quoted. Amir complains that the report is misleading, giving the impression that he is the Imam’s legal counsel, when in fact he simply made a statement to the newspaper, giving his opinion that the Department of Justice had failed to make their case. He is worried about the public impression the report will create and its possible effect on his career.
The intercom buzzes, announcing the arrival of Isaac, a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, who has come to see Emily and her paintings. Before Isaac reaches the door of the apartment, Amir and Emily argue about the newspaper story. Emily believes that it will have no effect—or perhaps even a positive one—on Amir’s career. He does not want to discuss the matter and prepares to leave for work. The atmosphere is still palpably tense as Isaac, who is a smart, attractive man of forty, enters the apartment. Amir quickly leaves, coldly saying goodbye to Emily, and Isaac asks her if this is a bad time. She says it is not and makes Isaac some coffee.
Isaac refers to a previous discussion in which he had told Emily that a white artist should not be working with Islamic art forms. After looking at some of her work online and reading a review which compared her work to that of the French Post-Impressionist Pierre Bonnard, he has revised his opinion. As they look at her paintings together, Emily points out that the technique she uses of bending the picture plane appeared in Islamic art four hundred years before Bonnard used it. When she says that Western art might not even have discovered visual perspective without the example of Islamic works, Isaac says that she will be accused of Orientalism by the critics, adding, “I mean, hell. You’ve even got that brown husband.” Emily replies, “Fuck you, I think,” which Isaac regards an an encouragingly robust response to the type of criticism he anticipates.
Emily challenges Isaac to examine and contemplate the importance and influence of Islamic art. She says that submission brings freedom, which is a common maxim in Islamic theology. In her own case, this is not a theological point but an artistic one. She submits not to the Islamic faith but to the formal rules of Islamic art, and she finds that following these repetitive patterns demands concentration and quietness. When Isaac observes that she sounds “like a mid-century American minimalist trying to obliterate the ego,” Emily responds that the Islamic tradition has been trying to accomplish this end for a thousand years. Everyone understands the debt of Western art to the Greeks and the Romans, but even critics as well educated as Isaac underestimate the importance of Islamic art. In Emily’s view, it is time critics understood how much Islam has contributed to Western artistic traditions.
This brief scene develops two of the threads introduced in scene 1: first, the growing rift between Amir and Emily and, second, Emily’s affinity for Islam. The two points are connected by Emily’s fervent admiration for a culture Amir has spent years trying to escape. Although it is the aesthetic qualities of Islamic art that primarily attract Emily, she also views her use of traditional Islamic designs as a form of spiritual practice. She tells Isaac that the artist who follows these intricate patterns must submit to the formal aspects of Islamic culture in a quasi-religious spirit and that she achieves a sense of inner quietness when she does so.
It is Isaac who first raises the issue of Orientalism. This term, which was once a neutral word for the study of Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, has been heavily loaded since the publication of Edward W. Said’s influential critical work Orientalism in 1978. Said’s work is the basis of contemporary notions that Western appreciation of Eastern cultures has generally been condescending in tone and often covertly imperialist in intent. The “Orient,” according to Said, is depicted in Western art and literature as exotic, decadent, irrational, luxurious, and primitive, with populations incapable of governing themselves. Art has therefore operated as a tool of imperialist oppression, providing justification for colonialism. Orientalist attitudes include sexual fetishes for “exotic” partners, hence Isaac’s comment that Emily’s marriage to Amir will be regarded as evidence of her Orientalist attitudes. Although it is Isaac who says this, it is suggested that Amir also sees Orientalist tendencies in Emily’s uncritical admiration for a culture to which she does not belong.
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