And furthermore ...

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Wednesday, 2 June 2010


19th century portraits from Egypt and North Africa

One curious thing here is the respect, or rather the terror, that everyone displays in the presence of the Franks, as they call Europeans.
Flaubert in a letter to his mother from Alexandria, dated November 17, 1849

When Gustave Flaubert accompanied the photographer Maxime du Camp to Egypt in 1849 he wasn’t yet a famous author but he was a diligent writer. He took notes, kept a diary and sent letters home. Those he sent to his mother described visits to ancient ruins, the heat and encounters with various characters; everything she’d expect to hear from a dutiful son broadening his mind with travel. The letters he sent to his friend Louis Bouilhet had a somewhat different focus:

At Kena I had a beautiful whore who liked me very much and told me in sign language that I had beautiful eyes … and there was another, fat and lubricious, on top of whom I enjoyed myself immensely and who smelled of rancid butter.
(June, 1850)

Flaubert was hardly establishing a tradition – hundreds, perhaps thousands of 19th century travellers had explored Egypt’s ruins and brothels before him – but their descriptions tended to the asinine or only hinted at what they got up to in the evening when they returned from sightseeing. He was one of the earliest writers to depict the somewhat schizophrenic attraction of Egypt. On the one hand it was the land of an ancient civilization still influencing European culture, on the other, cities like Cairo offered all manner of sins and iniquities at bargain prices. The Islamic veil, supposedly intended to protect and distance women, became a symbol to Europeans of exotic, sensual mystery.

For Europeans, access to the world beyond the street was usually difficult to obtain. They were left to wonder what lay behind the walls of the harems, or rather, they left that to their imaginations, were rarely permitted to enter mosques let alone photograph the interior, particularly when people were at prayer, and there are so few accounts of Westerners entering ordinary homes it can be assumed it never happened. It’s not surprising then that so many portraits from the period are of poor tradesmen and workers. These were the people Europeans came into contact with most often and they would have been happy, at least willing, to pose on the offer of a few piastres. What they weren’t to know was that their portraits would appear in expensively produced albums for the European market and they would become representatives from the Arab world. Cairo and the other cities were dusty, squalid places full of beggars and thieves. The dim, narrow streets contained hidden dangers. The intrepid adventurer risked his or her life going there.

It’s worth remembering that people weren’t any kinder towards the denizens of London’s slums. The world Dickens described was every bit as depraved as Cairo and Henry Mayhew’s three volume London Labour and the London Poor catalogued a vast economy of street operators. Mayhew couldn’t illustrate his accounts with photographs but he could use lithographs based on them. The difference was that Dickens and Mayhew were reformers. The photographs here show types whose poverty and physical debilitations were less affecting than their confirmation of everything exotic, sinister and strange about the Middle East.

In 1869, some years after she’d broken up with Flaubert, the writer Louise Colet was in Egypt and went looking for one of the prostitutes he had eulogized. She had a name and a location but wherever she went she met ignorance or indifference. What did she expect? Kucuk Hanim (‘Little Lady’ in Turkish) had probably died abused and neglected years earlier and who was likely to remember her? Only a Frenchman obsessed with his own prowess.


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