During my visit to Philipps-Universität Marburg I met with Wim Raven (Ghurab Al Bayn – as he call himself, also for Raven means Ghurab in Arabic) the dutch orientalist who unlike many others still prefer to describe himself as an “orientalist”. He told me the story of why he deiced to study the orient. Below is a written version was translated from Dutch into English. But I had the pleasure of listening to the story directly from him in Marburg, Germany June 20, 2018.
*Text originally written in Feb 25, 2019 in Dutch, translated and edited by Wim Raven March 5, 2019.
“Dream of Orient
The oriental dream often lies at the base of both oriental studies and orientalism. Although I never get personal in these pages, for once I want to be it. You have a right to know how I came to become an Orientalist.
My parents’ house was within walking distance of the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam—formerly the Colonial Museum. After the mandatory church service on Sunday morning, I used to go to that museum in the afternoon. There was often something to do: Indra Kamajoyo danced, for example, 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 older, I sucked myself full of the orientalist bookstore that was there.
After a while I knew it: I wanted to go to Java to hear the gamelan playing every night. That I also had to earn my living did not bother me. The best way to work towards it seemed to be to study Indonesian Language and Literature. That should happen in Leiden and I did not want to leave Amsterdam. But to study Indonesian you had to do Arabic and Sanskrit first, and Arabic could be in Amsterdam, so if I started with that … In that Arabic I stayed, although the Middle East was not my dream world at all. But Arabic also had Hebrew for the Semitic Languages Candidate Exam; that fitted me well, so I did it. Later on I ended up in Leiden, where I studied Indonesian and classical Malay for three years. Sanskrit had meanwhile been abolished, Javanese was too bothersome for me and my main subject was and remained Arabic. Egypt, where I ended up, was anything but an Eastern dream, rather an obsession. But after Egypt I could never get used to the Netherlands and I often went ‘back’.
Why that dream? It was very simple: I was not happy with my real environment and wanted to leave. There was no question of colonial desires. I knew that we did not ‘have’ the Dutch East Indies anymore and heard enough talking about the unpleasant mister Soekarno, who held the scepter. But that did not break the dream.
Dreaming was not the only thing I did: I also went to school, listened to European music and lived a normal life. But that eastern dream was strong enough to determine a large part of my future life, although it was not focused enough to take me to Indonesia.
There were also Dutch people who were more focused in their dream and just went. Bernard IJzerdraat (1926-1986) succeeded in building gamelan instruments with great perseverance during the Second World War, on which he performed with his group Babar Layar, among others, in the Tropenmuseum. In 1956 he left for Indonesia, where he lived under the name Suryabrata as a professor in musicology. The current Javanese professor in Leiden Ben Arps was trained in Surakarta as a dalang (puppet player).
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 also had to deal with ‘the Orient’ dreamed together by the dreamers.
There was also a dream of the West in the Middle East. The students in Egypt knew for sure at the time: in Europe you only have to walk into a bar or you will be accosted by willing young women.”
Photos: Oriental section of Marburg University Library which he helped establishing.
Check his personal blog: https://ghurabalbayn.wordpress.com/
Wim Raven is the editor of “Islamic thought in the Middle Ages : studies in text, transmission and translation, in honour of Hans Daiber” Brill, 2008.