To Kenyans, China cannot be oriental

Friday February 27 2015

By PHILIP OCHIENG
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If the word east is Indo-European, what about the word orient? I ask because our newspapers recently described a visiting Chinese official as “oriental”. Given the world’s Eurocentric orientation, that question is posed again and again.

Even in Kenya, we think of the lands just east of the Mediterranean Sea as the “Middle East”. How nonsensical! How can Kenyans call “Middle Eastern” lands which are situated directly north of Kenya?

The answer: Because we come from Eurocentric classrooms. And, from Western Europe, Latin referred to Palestine, correctly, as the “Orient.”

We know it because the English substantive is derived from the Latin noun oriens, which — coming from the verb oriri, “to rise” — referred to “the rising sun”. Of course, no European would be interested to know that this Latin verb has any link to a non-European source. Can we trace it, for example, to a Nilotic language like Kenya’s Dholuo?

Yes, the Latin verb ir occurs in Nilotic languages as ur or — as in Dholouo — as ru, which, in reference to the sun and the sun-god ra, means to rise, to come up and, in the same process, to shine. We learn that the Latins owed oriri to the Nilotic ir, irir, urir and ur — the last one reminiscent of “Ur of the Chaldeans”, the eastern land to which the Israelite-Jews traced their “Abraham”.

CELESTIAL BODIES

In the Nilotic languages, the reverse of these — simply ri and ru — meaning to rise and, with regard to the celestial bodies, to cause to dawn by coming up in the east, the word has produced the names of at least two Nilotic gods, Ra and Osiris. It is not an idle statement of the obvious that, every morning, my Luo people greet themselves with: Oru! or: Piny oru (literally: “the world has woken up”).

Naturally, to the Romans — in the world’s pre-Copernican geocentric ignorance — the sun always rose immediately east of the Mediterranean. For that reason, the Palestinian area was also called the Levant, a former name of the eastern Mediterranean area now occupied by Lebanon, Syria and Israel.

But why levant? Because levant is the gerund or continuous tense of the French verb lever, from the Latin levare, meaning to “elevate” or “to raise”. For there is a connection between that word and not only the verb to levitate but also the levitic Nilotes of Egypt who, led by Pharaoh Akhenaten (“Moses”), were what, in real history, imposed the monotheistic religion on their Israelite slaves.

With regard to Palestine, both to the rising sun and the “risen son” (of later Euro-Christianism), to “orientate” was to face or to cause to face “east” the Orient, the Levant, Palestine, Judaea. But the question is: To face it exactly from where? Obviously, only from Western Europe. Soon after Rome had nationalised Nilotic Christology, “orientation” could no longer be any kind of “facing”. Ever since Constantine, what is now known collectively as Syro-Palestine has had a dangerously tight grip on Europe’s mind.