Dreaming of the Orient

Both orientalism and Oriental Studies often are based on the oriental dream. Although I never get personal in these pages, for once I want to speak about my self. You have a right to know how I became an Orientalist.
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My parental home was within walking distance of the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam—formerly the Colonial Institute. After the mandatory church attendance on Sunday morning, I enjoyed going to that museum in the afternoon. There was often an event: Indra Kamajoyo, for example, danced there, or Javanese fairy tales were recited, about Kancil the mischievous mouse-deer, or something from the Mahabharata. The best thing was to hear the gamelan orchestra playing, possibly with wayang (puppet theatre). When I was a little older, I absorbed myself in the museum’s Orientalist bookstore.
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After a while I knew it: I wanted to go to Java to hear the gamelan play every night. That I also would have to earn my living did not bother me. The best way to work towards it seemed to be studying Indonesian Languages and Literature. That was possible in Leiden and I didn’t want to leave Amsterdam. But to do Indonesian studies you had to do Arabic and Sanskrit first, and studying Arabic was possible in Amsterdam, so if I started with that. Then I stuck to Arabic, although the Middle East was not my dream world at all. But Arabic also included Hebrew for the candidate exam in Semitic Languages. I liked Hebrew too, so I thought it was okay. Later I did end up in Leiden, where I studied Indonesian and classical Malay for another three years. Sanskrit was no longer mandatory by then, Javanese I found too bothersome and my main subject was and remained Arabic. Egypt, where I spent a winter, was an obsession rather than an Oriental dream. But after Egypt I could never get used to the Netherlands again and I often „went back“.
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Why that dream? It was very simple: I was not happy with my actual environment and wanted to go away. There was no question of colonial desires. I knew very well that we no longer ‘had’ the Indies and heard enough talking around me about the unpleasant mister Sukarno, who held the scepter there. But that didn’t break the dream.
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Dreaming was not the only thing I did: I also went to school, listened to European music and lived a normal life. But the dream of the Orient was strong enough to determine a large part of my future life, although it was not focused enough to take me to Indonesia.
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There were also Dutch people who were more focused in their dream and just went. One of them succeeded in building gamelan instruments during the Second World War, on which he and his group gave performances in the Tropenmuseum. One day he left for Indonesia, where he lived as a professor of musicology. The current professor of Javanese in Leiden was trained in Surakarta as a dalang (wayang puppeteer).
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Of course there were countless people who did not concern themselves with the ‘Orient’ on the basis of dreams, but, for example, to trade, to conquer or to rule. Yet they too got to do with an Orient that the dreamers had dreamt together.

Further reading:
The OrientOrientalism and Oriental Studies: the concepts.
The sword of Islam.
Orientalising the Dutch East Indies, or: Pimp your princes. Dutch colonial rulers imitating Javanese princes.
Orientalist painting.