What is this with Seuss and Arabs?

Eila is becoming more race conscious — which, with reference to a four year old, has nothing to do with justice or history but means only that she’s noticing for the first time that people are different colours.  The other day she said something about her boyfriend being tan all the time.  We told her that where he comes from, Korea, almost everyone is tan.  She was quite surprised.

Meanwhile I’m noticing that though Seuss doesn’t work much with diversity — almost everyone in his books is a generic American white — he sure loves Arabs.  Most of his Arabs are regular guys:  there might be a cultural marker like a name or a turban, but they act like anyone else.  Some of them, however, seem to be strangely overworked.

Like Ali Sard from Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?  Poor Ali has to mow grass for his uncle,

and it’s quick-growing grass
and it grows as he mows it.
The faster he mows it, the faster he grows it.
And all that his stingy old uncle will pay
for his shoving that mower around in that hay
is the piffulous pay of two Dooklas a day.
And Ali can’t live on such piffulous pay!
SO… he has to paint flagpoles
on Sundays in Grooz.
How lucky you are
you don’t live in his shoes!

And then there are those Zizzer-zoof seed salesmen from The Sleep Book:  riding around on their camels all day trying to sell a product that “nobody wants, because nobody needs,” wrapped, at the end of the day, in sleep, forgetting their troubles for a few blessed hours.

These portraits aren’t bad, especially since hard work is a Seussian virtue, and most of Seuss’s other Arabs are even less problematic.  Still I’m wondering why so many.  And I’m also pretty concerned about a single page, from If I Ran The Zoo:




10 thoughts on “What is this with Seuss and Arabs?

  1. K, how do you know the chieftain is Arab and not Persian or South Asian? For Mulligatawny is Tamil and Zind can be taken as one or another South Asian geographical terms.

  2. Hey, thanks. I need your expertise here, as I am not clear on the relevant ethnic differences. I am sure you are right. But how does that change the argument? There is definitely an exoticising and a consequent dehumanizing of something here, but what? The middle east? The east generally? Peoples who wear turbans? How do we sketch the characterization?

  3. Well yes, I was going to say something like, ‘at the risk of being pedantic….’

    I suppose I reckoned that you were after something Orientalist here. Yeah, this would seem to be generic exoticization of everything East of the Jordan. Sard is the guileless type, his uncle, the Oriental despot writ small, and the seed salesmen, the invariably unscrupulous merchantile types (not just the stuff of anti-semitism). And, the idea of putting a ‘Nabob’ in a zoo along with his strange mount is reminiscent of displays from the Great Exhibition to the Chicago World’s Fair.

    Still, I don’t think you can win with this criticism. Make the argument that Geisel was anti-Arab, or to be safe, anti-Muslim, and you get called on your assumption I played with. Recognize diversity in his images of ‘Orientals’, and you’re left with the rather banal claim that Dr. Seuss was a racist. Unless, of course, there’s some other evidence. And without that, you’re also left with a condemnation of all caricature.

    Also, I really don’t want to be too hard on Geisel. I well remember the day he died because I was struck by the number of folk who so dejectedly reported the news to me – I’d taken greater note of the fact that Klauss Barbie also died that day.

    I also don’t have much against Kipling.

  4. I agree. I love Seuss. I think he does great work opening minds. I forgive him his slips, and I don’t think they’re that important. I was just working through it, and a bit worried by the excerpt I posted — as well as another one in the same book depicting chinese.

    Before I respond on Kipling, whom I like too, tell me whether when you say you don’t have much against him, you mean you also think there is something to be said for the Raj.

  5. I’m certainly now too old to praise or damn (most) political formations. And, when I look at the every kind of people among the literate classes who got behind the War on Terror and such, and what they thought was not just acceptable but necessary in the prosecution of that business, 19th century liberals and their sympathizers start to look rather charming and elegant (I might even come around to forgiving the Mills, pere et fil).

    OMG, how much more of a fan of your Mom can I seem! (Too sheepish to consider commenting on her blog – I’d be reassured if she’ll admit that Thomas Babington Macauley, in whom I believe she was once interested, is an irredeemable figure for publishing the Minute on Education. Though I long ago decided that his in-laws, the Trevelyans, more than made up for him – and maybe the Mills.)

    Ok, I do hate the Raj for creating a history which the parasitic, most-gawdawfull-Booker-Prize-winner, The Siege of Krishnapur, was able to feed off of! (Coincidentally, that book popped into my head as I wrote the other reply because there’s stuff in it about the Great Exhibition.)

    Of course, one can’t forget that that lot weren’t merely racists, but perpetrated long and varied series of what we’d call today mass human rights violations and crimes against humanity.

    Still, I’ve no fear of saying there’s something to be said for the Raj anymore than I fear saying there’s something to be said for America. Alright, I fear the latter less – suddenly remembering Irving Layton’s words – because we “have the good fortune of living in a country whose prevailing ideology, when it isn’t rabid anti-Americanism (that favourite camouflage of the philistines and mediocrities in our midst), is an all-pervading gentility.” (Almost a contribution to Janet’s blog.)

    Now, tell me about Kipling.

  6. lol – part ii – can you tell I’m recovering from 3 days with a busted keyboard?

    Kipling: I wish I had the time, inclination, discipline to consider him more thoughtfully. I recovered from that knee-jerk prejudice against him that was a necessary credential for the study of Colonial India in several smallish ways.

    First, some years ago – much to my own surprise – I made it all the way through Kim, and was stunned by much of the language. There’s the description of Gandharan Buddhist art, while not worth a lot as art history, makes much similar description in actual recent art history read like the bad prose of the sciences. Of course, this passage comes basically from the scene-setting beginning. A Tibetan Lama goes to a museum – an ‘Orientalist’ institution – to get information from the British curator about Buddhist Pilgrimage sites in India (although, the Curator cannot tell him that which he wants to know most). Still, a rather elegant defense of scholarship in the Raj, I’d say. (Of course this pilgrimage brings Kim into the Great Game.)

    I also began to think of Kipling differently when I learned about his connection to Twain (and some other stuff about his time on the New World). I don’t have a lot of evidence for it in Kipling’s case, but with Twain, I can’t help but think that these were both men acutely aware of the nature of their times and the dark forces that shaped them.

    “East is East” really gets far too much play; I once encountered another Kipling quotation that says the exact opposite, yet I haven’t been able to find it again! As for “White Man’s Burden,” who can possibly read this merely as ‘stay the course, support our troops’ in fancy dress?

    Finally, even if I be proved to be a dim apologist, Kipling gets forgiven for one thing:

    IN the High and Far-Off Times the Elephant, O Best Beloved, had no trunk. He had only a blackish, bulgy nose, as big as a boot, that he could wriggle about from side to side; but he couldn’t pick up things with it. But there was one Elephant–a new Elephant–an Elephant’s Child–who was full of ‘satiable curtiosity, and that means he asked ever so many questions. And he lived in Africa, and he filled all Africa with his ‘satiable curtiosities.

    I like to listen to Jack Nicholson read it; but I also very much like to read aloud myself, to people, but not necessarily.

  7. I liked The Siege of Krishnapur, though I have not read it for many years. It was my first introduction to the link between technological domination and empire–a new idea for me in my early twenties.

    As to Kipling, we be of one blood, ye and I. I love Kim, and the Just So Stories, and the Mowgli stories (destroyed, for so many people, by Disney). As you say the language is superb, unbeatable. When I read these books (especially aloud) the air seems thick with meaning. I know that is part of what gets them identified with Orientalism–this cast of portent and danger and significance. But my god they are refreshing after all the books out there that belittle the meaning in things, or normalize it — all the adult novels that make it seem like life is petty and crappy, and, worse, the kids books that make it seem like life is happy and simple.

    Kipling taught that life of a mendicant is as noble a calling as the life of governor, and a truer one–and that the world teems with its own orders, its laws, and its mercies. Admittedly, he taught these things in the service of making the colonial rulers more fit to rule, and that’s a problem. But it doesn’t make them any less true, or eye-opening.

  8. I love Dr. Seuss. He was very wise, and ahead of his time. So imaginative! So insightful. Some people say his wife did half of the work. If she did, she was amazing. What did Dr. Seuss say about Sylvester McMonkey McBean? Whom does he remind you of?

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