The failed mimicry of the Orient
Applying a standard colonial trope, Ross observes the Persians and sees a failed attempt to imitate the West.
Within colonial discourse, it is common to encounter images of the colonized other attempting to adopt patterns of Western consumption, but failing to do so in a manner that passes Western muster. From the point of view of the Western onlooker, European clothing is not worn properly, European products are used incorrectly, etc. and the other becomes positioned as the object of ridicule. This discourse is one of Western self-assurance: the other desires the West, yet poses no threat through this desire; even if equipped with Western goods (and by analogy, Western technology, knowledge, and experience), the other is unable to properly make sense—or use—of them.
Colin Ross adapts this discourse in his treatment of Persia as the “biggest disappointment” of the Orient. It’s not just that Teheran doesn’t live up to his imagined orientalist fantasy of A Thousand and One Nights, but that the Persians are engaged in failed attempts to westernize. “It is strange that the Orientals, who, after all, still produce outstanding work in certain of the applied arts, immediately lose all sense of style as soon as they have anything to do with European products […] here, they seem to have taken great care to acquire not just kitsch, but kitsch of the lowest possible value”. (pp. 109, 112) And: “The stairs that lead to the royal chambers [of the Shah] are already decorated with an odd jumble of objects. On each side of every step there is a “treasure”: a wonderful old bronze is followed by a gold-plated plaster figurine, an exquisite vase is followed by a distasteful European lamp. I was particularly struck by two wonderful Chinese vases in which metallic, glinting glass balls had been set, like our farmers put between their flowers”. (p. 109) Ross is particularly interested in delegitimizing the Shah as leader of Persia, whose failed understanding of Western products contributes to an overall portrait of weakness.
Colin Ross. In den Palästen des Königs der Könige. In: Der Weg nach Osten: Reise durch Rußland, Ukraine, Transkaukasien, Persien, Buchara und Turkestan. 1. Aufl. Leipzig: F.A Brockhaus; 1923; 108-113.