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Orientalism

by Doria Ayadi and Boubakeur

  Orientalism 
The Algerian Case

Since the foundation of Islam in the seventh century, the mysterious Orient, the contemporary nations of North Africa and Near East, characterized by the Arabian Nights has been the source of inspiration for occidental writers, poets and artists. Seduced by its exoticism, Muslim women of the harem, the desert, the colourful streets, and the Kasbah, but limited in their visits, they produced an abundant but imaginary literature, paintings and later photographs. The interest in the Orient was also due to its growing theological and political threat especially with the incursions of Muslims into Christian lands. This growing interest led to the emergence of Orientalism as a discipline. The support of colonialism allowed Orientalits to build huge libraries and train new generations. Thus, they became linked to colonialism.

In 1830, the French occupied Algiers. The declaration read to the population and translated by the Orientalist Silvester Desacy stated that “The Sultan of French” is there by the will of Allah, to do the work of Allah and to watch over the well being of the people”.[i] “It was not a conquest after all, but liberty.”[ii]

The creation of the “Bureau Arab” was not only intended to maintain order by force but also to collect information on the Algerian population. After about twenty years, the Bureau Arab came out with a new object that emphasized the orientalist dichotomy of the Orient versus the Occident. The Berber represented as European opposed the Arab, who conquered him and ruled the country. The “Société Archéologique de Constantine” aimed at collecting and preserving the Roman heritage of North Africa. The idea to be established was that North Africa was a European land invaded and populated by Arabs.

During the same period the vast Algerian territory began to serve to shape “the image of the (Other), the contrasting image, idea or personality of the West”2 .The writings produced in the years that followed the conquest were key instruments through which the Other was represented as backward, passive, irrational, barbaric i.e. evil. This image full of stereotypes was intended to serve to convince the people in Europe of the nobility of the mission of France. In their book “l’Algérie des Antropologues” Philippe Lucas and Jean Claude Vatin showed some fascination with the beauty of Algiers, its fine weather and the good temper of its inhabitants (Noble Savage). However, they could not avoid picturing the city, its people, their customs and even their music in a stereotypical, disgusting way. “There is nothing to equal the bizarre ugliness of Algiers, but nothing to equal its magnificence either…you can not imagine how barbaric Moorish music”.[iii]

A darker and inferior image full of racist stereotypes of the indigenous populations that describes their presence as alien, impenetrable and unacceptable is suggested by Clot in his Novel “Fantômes au Soleil” .“They are really filthy and as lazy as a tortoise. He found their presence frankly unpleasant.”3 Filled with generous notions and the great ideal of humanitarianism the superior races gave themselves the right and even the duty to dominate and rule the “primitive people” of the desert and the Savannah.

In addition to writers and scientists, the French expedition included artists, draftsmen and photographers. They portrayed Algerians of all social and ethnic backgrounds. Nevertheless, the non-accessibility of the women made them a favourite subject above all the others. Through their portrayal of women, artists maintained the discourse that represents Said’s idea of the Other as inferior and backward. The harem, which was a private space reserved to women and prohibited to males outside the family, exercised a powerful fascination over the the Westerners. It was presented as a place of deviance and oppression. The access of Eugene Delacroix to this private space of the Algerian women, during his brief visit to Algiers, gave birth to his famous work entitled “Women of Algeria in their apartment”. Thought to be too real, this work was much criticised in the 1834 Salon. It did not fulfill the Western view of the harem. But Delacroix understood at that time that it was the impenetrability of the harem that made it more desirable, that’s why he kept the women on the painting covered. However, they look too relaxed, and too natural in the presence of a foreigner to be real.

delacroix_algiers.jpg Women of Algeria in their apartment

During the postcard boom the images of the Arab women were widely sold through out Europe. Making use of all possible motifs, photographers exploited the image of the sensual, backward Algerian women. The image of “The beautiful Fatima” suggests indolence as well as sexual availability. Other postcards sent home by European tourists and travelers were sexually suggestive or explicitly racist, showing women and men in exotic or erotic ways. They served to distance the native, colonized, indigenous from the superior, modern, enlightened European.

 The beautiful Fatima

The orientalist thought born in the 19th century did not end up with the independence of the Arab countries, but it was inherited by post colonial institutions, universities, and research centres. They maintained the same idea of the white man’s (Europe, US) superiority over the inferior darker races.   


1-http://cdy.sagepub.com/cgi/content/refs/161/71

2- www.edwardsaid.org

.3-Dunwoodi, P. (Oxford  University 1998). Wrting Algeria.Claredon press,Oxford.

4-chnm.gmu.edu/wwh/lessons/lesson9/lesson9.php?s=0

5-http://dissertations.bc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1087&context=ashonors