The Ghaziya and the Khawaja

The Ghaziya and the Khawaja

Kuchuk Hanem and Flaubert’s Sexual Homelessness

By Stavros Stavrou

It is the evening of Wednesday, March 6, 1850. In Essna in Upper Egypt Kuchuk Hanem is giving a private performance for her French guests, Gustave Flaubert and Maxime du Camp and their servant Joseph. The room is lit by three wicks burning in oil-filled glasses that hang on the wall in tin sconces. There is plenty of liquor, dark eyes, the clanking of coin necklaces, and European males overwhelmed by urges of physical desire. Kuchuk’s companions in dance are Bambeh and Safia Zugairah and they are accompanied by musicians playing the rebab and “darabukehs.” “They all sang, the darabukehs throbbed, and the monotonous rebecs furnished a soft but shrill bass; it was like a rather gay song of mourning” (Flaubert in Egypt 117). The allure for Flaubert derives partly from the erotic character of the dance ritual and partly from the antiqueness he sees in it. In the movement he sees reified a sexual invitation evoking the desire to possess the body that seems to exist and perform only for his pleasure. Flaubert’s first impression of Kuchuk’s dance earlier on the same day is that it is “brutal.” He records her steps paying attention to specific details:

“The Almeh (With Pipe),” Jean-Leon Gerome, 1873.

She squeezes her bare breasts together with her jacket. She puts on a girdle fashioned from a brown shawl with gold stripes, with three tassels hanging on ribbons. She rises first on one foot, then on the other — marvelous movement: when one foot is on the ground, the other moves up and across in front of the shinbone — the whole thing with a light bound. I have seen this dance on old Greek vases. (Flaubert in Egypt 115)

This is an oneiric night for the aspiring twenty-seven-year-old Frenchman. A staged private performance for his blue eyes only complete with musicians and a troupe of dancers who perform antiquity and sensuality for him. In between shows he has the opportunity to relish sexual intimacies with Kuchuk and her dancers. The experience will remain unique, unforgettable, and celebrated in Flaubert’s travels. He indulges in the occasion with devout concentration, as if he feels blessed with a rare blend of mysticism, passion, tenderness, Oriental art and, most importantly sexual intercourse with the dancers.

Many commentators, critics, and scholars have paused at this meeting, drawing a number of interesting and useful conclusions. Michalis Tsianikas discusses Flaubert’s taste for prostitutes and his predilection for paid sexual intercourse. It is a kind of love whose poetic possibility excites him and offers him an immediate aesthetic and a poetic exuberance. Kuchuk’s display and marketing of her erotic charms endows her with a “masculine” quality, and, apparently, Flaubert has always found masculine women irresistible (Tsianikas 65). Indeed, Kuchuk transgresses laws as she exists and operates outside established social and sexual institutions, such as repudiation, polygamy and sexual segregation, which have served male strategies intended to contain female power.1 Wendy Buonaventura dwells on Flaubert’s melancholy attachment to Kuchuk and her lasting impression on him. Buonaventura suggests that purposely Flaubert cultivated the melancholy aspect of his amorousness so as to extract to the full the bittersweet nature of an encounter with a courtesan (Buonaventura 76-7). Judith Tucker gleans the same travel narrative and reaches some interesting conclusions about Kuchuk’s skills and talents as well as her economic and social status in relation to the repercussions of her banishment from Cairo as a result of the 1834 edict.2 Tucker finds that on her evening with Flaubert, Kuchuk “danced, played, and sang with a grace and skill bespeaking a past with the awalim,” (Tucker 152) the learned female performers. In his seminal work Orientalism, Edward Said discusses the same event as a paradigm that exemplifies the thesis of his book: “My argument is that Flaubert’s situation of strength in relation to Kuchuk Hanem was not an isolated instance. It fairly stands for the pattern of relative strength between East and West, and the discourse about the Orient that it enabled” (6). Said proceeds to make a number of interesting remarks and draw some useful conclusions regarding the influence Kuchuk had on Flaubert. He points out that she is “the prototype of Flaubert’s Salambo and Salome, as well as of all the versions of carnal female temptation to which his Saint Anthony is subject” (187).

Yet, how does one read Flaubert’s interpretations of Kuchuk’s dance? Could her choreographies, as bequeathed to us, have any implications on colonial discourse and theories of dance? In other words, can we not focus on the movement itself in order to complicate some of the conclusions regarding Imperial perceptions of Middle Eastern dance in the context of colonialism? Dance often frightens us with its evanescence. Unlike the written word a move is executed literally and figuratively. It transpires just at the moment the body gives it life. Therefore, it feels much safer to discuss a written memoir or a travelogue rather than a choreographed moment that reaches us through the viewer’s, often poor, translation. Nevertheless, it is the native dancing body that often becomes the fetishized sign of eroticism, passion, unbridled sexuality, or even a symbol of savagery and brutality. Therefore, my efforts in this paper are driven by the bifurcated wish to challenge the usual silence that greets Kuchuk’s choreographies in critical work and to escape the formulaic interpretations, such as Said’s, that often dominate discussions of this particular narrative that I am concerned with here. I am not confident that I will yield answers to my questions yet I would still dare to urge the dance to speak even from the confines of a journalistic interpretation in an attempt to extract any narratives that may be concealed there. Kuchuk’s dance might speak of her body’s relationship to space and of how moves create meaning on the dancer’s body. Yet, what is more likely is that the traces it leaves on the Imperial body will disclose how dance influenced the trafficking in Flaubert’s emotions.

While on his Oriental tour, Flaubert claims to desire to speak the Orient differently from his literary predecessors, breaking with the Romantic tradition that venerated remnants of the revered civilizations of Classical Greece, Rome, and Ancient Egypt (Tsianikas 132). He sports indifference to erudition and culture in an attempt to punish his century by denouncing the long and arduous inheritance that has accumulated since the Renaissance (Tsianikas 99). In the context of his desire, then, to enact the bad boy on an illicit adventure, his quest for the dancers seems quite predictable since the ghawazee are an embodiment of what the Empire finds reprehensible. Kuchuk offers him the perfect opportunity to indulge in a performed Orient that he may possess totally, i.e. sexually, so in eager anticipation he celebrates the occasion by depicting her in images that have been hitherto unorthodox in travel descriptions. Of course, an Eastern vision culled from the Bible and from Oriental accounts and paintings existed in his imagination long before he embarked on his tour, inflaming him with a yearning to indulge in sexual escapades.

Predictably, then, Kutchuk’s image has a distinctly romantic coloration. In their first meeting she emerges through his description in a literal sense from her bath, and in a figurative sense like Aphrodite. “She had just come from the bath, her firm breasts had a fresh smell, something like that of sweetened turpentine; she began by perfuming her hands with rose water” (Flaubert in Egypt 114). She has the aura of a mother earth figure, mystical and imposing. His description of her resounds of a ritualistic recreation of Kuchuk relishing the process as an erotic substitute. She is a heavenly sphere silhouetted against the sun, an earth suspended in a bright Oriental sky. She is “[o]n the stairs, opposite us, surrounded by light and standing against the background of the blue sky. . .”. Not before long, the landscape of her body emerges in the description monumental as the land of Egypt itself:

When she bends, her flesh ripples into bronze ridges. Her eyes are dark and enormous. Her eyebrows black, her nostrils open and wide; heavy shoulders, full, apple-shaped breasts. (…) Her black hair, wavy, unruly, pulled straight back on each side from a center parting beginning at the forehead; small braids joined together at the nape of her neck. She has one upper incisor, right, which is beginning to go bad. For a bracelet she has two bands of gold, twisted together and interlaced, around one wrist. Triple necklace of large hollow gold beads. Earrings: gold disks, slightly convex, circumference decorated with gold granules. (Flaubert in Egypt 114-5)

Juxtaposing adjectives, Flaubert seems anxious to force a certain metaphysical potential he perceives in Kuchuk. At once she is mortal and divine, and as appealing as the Orient itself: dark and enormous, black, open, wide, and unruly. But she is also mortal, and Flaubert can only relish his mystic vision through the relentless evocation of a confining pragmatism. The reference to the bad tooth in the characteristic Flaubertian precision has an important function: to force temporality upon this formidable female, to reduce her awe-some appearance by an unkind reference to a marker of decay and mutability that will eventually consume her power. At the same time, however, he wants her to be continuing an ancient tradition. Being the educated European in possession of the gaze (her dark eyes are not given vision or a look) he attempts to record and confine this woman in this description. Yet, even at this moment Flaubert is revealing his own weakness and abjection since his observations gesture towards limitations (mutability, decay) from which the writer himself is far from being exempted.

In Flaubert’s panorama, Kutchuk Hanem’s body comes to replace the ancient monuments, which leave him indifferent. Nevertheless, during the tour he studies Greek and reads Homer every day (Letters 114). Moreover, Kuchuk’s dancing is familiar to him from “old Greek vases” (Flaubert in Egypt 115), a comment illustrative of the long tradition he recognizes in her dance, yet also indicative of his education. In his words, the representations on the vases from antiquity and the dancer in front of him are conflated, emphasizing the continuity of the dance through the ages and cultures. There is also a suggestion that Greece and Egypt are both the same Orient whose culture survives unaltered through time. Moreover, in a certain sense, his comment attests his iconoclastic attitude towards the literary legacy of Europe. Greece is not the classical land that gave birth to Western refinement, but a land of unruly potential with women who engage in orgiastic Bacchic rituals depicted on Attic vases. Not only are Greece and Egypt conflated into one Orient, but also the ancient past is still alive and dancing in the body before him.

Following the wild party, Flaubert lies with Kuchuk to experience the only choreography he is adept at. Later, she sleeps and snores while he is vigilant and contemplative. In fact, the effect of her choreography and what it induced in Flaubert is manifest not only in the immediate description of her dance, but afterwards when he is sharing her bed. He writes to Louis :

I sucked her furiously, her body was covered with sweat, she was tired after dancing, she was cold. I covered her with my fur pelisse, and she fell asleep … As for me, I scarcely shut my eyes. My night was one long, infinitely intense reverie. That was why I stayed. Watching that beautiful creature asleep (she snored, her head against my arm;…), I thought of my nights in Paris brothels — a whole series of old memories came back — and I thought of her, of her dance, of her voice as she sang songs that were for me without meaning and even without distinguishable words. (Letters, 117)

He “sucks furiously” as if to consume the spirit that possessed her during the dance. The spirit, however, has departed, leaving the body cold and Flaubert desiring what he will inevitably be denied. Kuchuk’s art remains a signifier without a referent for Flaubert, who feels compelled to supply one himself almost blindly. While Kuchuk is snoring he is alert and looking at himself watching his ineffectual presence beside this woman unable to formulate any meaning, his imperial subjectivity incapable of securing him a safe arrival at the site he yearns for. His mental processes counterbalance his lack of kinesthesia. While Kuchuk’s dancing body marks space and time Flaubert’s body is inert, his eyes gazing at the spectacle. When Kuchuk is asleep he is vigilant, the moment being appropriate for him to engage in some kind of activity that will parallel Kuchuk’s dance. This mental activity involves an almost conscious attempt to exoticize Kuchuk, and I would like to underscore the imperative of this process, as it allows Flaubert to mark gender, racial and cultural difference. Also, to paraphrase Marta Savigliano, exoticism creates the abstract, unfulfillable desire to attain completeness in the colonized while extracting his or her passion.3 This desire is what we see manifest in the French poet’s letter, although it also forms a pattern that has overwhelmed the colonial narratives of many males.

In his notes, but not in the letter, Flaubert articulates with unexpected honesty and clarity one of the motivating thoughts that generate this mixture of yearning and anxiety:

How flattering it would be to one’s pride if at the moment of leaving you were sure that you left a memory behind, that she would think of you more than of the others who have been there, that you would remain in her heart! (Flaubert in Egypt 119)

Morroe Berger distills Flaubert’s lament in a sentence whose reductionism and unenlightened simplicity are quite disturbing: “This is the vain dream of the romantic young artist: to leave an impression upon the whore” (Berger 33). To this day dancers still suffer from similar imperialist onslaughts. Moreover, in connection with Flaubert’s scenario I see a great deal more complexity. On her body he has inscribed his physical desire numerous times, pouring his spirit inside her hoping to inundate with his own any other kind of ecstasy she is capable of experiencing. Now, not surprisingly, he wants his subjectivity inscribed in her heart. It is another strange moment of ambivalence: he possesses her body with a feeling of submission to this formidable courtesan. Albeit an imperial subject, he is forced to acknowledge the limited control he has over Kuchuk’s physical and mental domain. This crisis seems directly linked to Kuchuk’s choreographies, her movement inciting his fixation.

It would seem that Egypt’s dancers would provide him with the perfect scenario for pleasurable fulfillment, a sexual abode of sorts, since they could offer him something exquisite that he could not find in Parisian prostitutes. Since he claims to recognize this dance as a surviving art form with an ancient history it seems to extend beyond his temporal constraints as a western viewer. Furthermore, the nature of the dance itself, its suppleness, and the ritualistic quality of the performance, appear to the spectator as a challenge to physical restrictions, motion stretching the body’s potential for expression. Moreover, contemporary discussions of the tradition of this dance insist that the dancing body is endowed with a certain sanctity: “The trance, or ecstatic element, was crucial, for it released an energy in the body which helped the dancer enter into another realm of experience and unite with the deity, whose power was thus transferred to her” (Buonaventura, 31). Similarly, in Dionysian rites, which might be what representations Flaubert has in mind when he thinks of Greek vases, or primitive Mother Earth rituals, ecstasy achieved through the dance signified spiritual union with the goddess or god.4 Yet, I cannot help but wonder how much of this discourse Kuchuk would be aware of. How did she feel the dance in her body? Did she possess a spiritual dimension of dance as many women today lay claim to? While condemned to mere speculation these questions might be helpful in assessing Flaubert’s role in the meeting with Kutchuk. How aware was he of such dance dynamics? If he saw the dance on Greek vases then these are meanings that he may have been conscious of, or, more likely, that he had been on a quest for. Clearly though, the character of the dance is made to coincide with notions of the East itself (enthralling, spiritual, sensual, primeval), so that in Flaubert’s imagination the ghaziya and Egypt are conflated into a metaphor for Oriental exoticism. In this conflation lies the formula that I complained about earlier.

However, the issues are complicated further if we take into account the fact that her performance requires his voyeuristic gaze and her profession (courtesans) allows him access to her physical body. This exchange sets up a system in which Flaubert feels he has a control that he sees as fascinating in its totality. What he seems to perceive is that having sexual access to the body whose serpentine movements and formidable agility achieve a divine ecstasy means, ultimately, possession of oriental magic. This is the fantasy. However, her dance leaves its traces on his body; traces of sexual homelessness and nostalgia. On a practical level Kuchuk’s perspective doubtlessly differed greatly. What is certain is that her performance was an economic exchange that earned her a living. She does not wish her guests to stay overnight, since burglars who know about their visit might attempt to break in and steal her jewelry, which Judith Tucker believes to be a memento from older and more prosperous times (Tucker 152). Because such economies may very well have been at play, there may even have existed a certain element of auto-exoticism in her performance, an effort to offer the wealthy visiting patron the product that he expected to receive. In fact, in this context of autoexoticization, it seems to me that Kuchuk’s striking gesture of squeezing her bare breasts together and tying her jacket around them could perhaps be an indicator of a performativity intended for consumption.

Flaubert is merely left suspended between his physical desire, which seeks to inscribe itself on her body, and his mental desire, that seeks to occupy the space that she defines for herself but does not succeed. Following his trip to the East, he becomes sharply aware of these limitations. In a very telling letter to Louise Colet he attempts a pragmatic take on his affair with the Egyptian ghaziya:

As for Kuchuk Hanem, ah! Set your mind at rest, and at the same time correct your ideas about the Orient. You may be sure that she felt nothing at all: emotionally, I guarantee; and even physically, I strongly suspect. She found us very good cawadjas (seigneurs), because we left a goodly number of piastres behind, that’s all. (…) The oriental woman is no more than a machine: she makes no distinction between one man and another. Smoking, going to the baths, painting her eyelids and drinking coffee—such is the circle of occupations within which her existence is confined. As for physical pleasure, it must be very slight, since the famous button, the seat thereof, is sliced off at an early age. What makes this woman, in a sense, so poetic, is that she relapses into the state of nature. (Letters 181)

Subdued and rather dejected the tone here may be a gesture to appease Louise. Nevertheless, his dismissal and reductionism regarding his affair remain problematic. Being full of falsehood, inaccuracies, and stereotyping the letter registers a strong attempt to dismiss the experience. His comment that the “Oriental woman” is a machine has a tone of misogyny and becomes an uncalled-for attempt at defense. Moreover, much of his bitterness lies in his frustrations at being unable to be Kuchuk’s, or indeed any ghaziya’s, distinguished guest who leaves a lasting mark on her. And then, his courtesan’s routine, outlined so as to elicit derision, contempt, and rejection is a decadent lifestyle which Flaubert himself adopted for a time. He also knows that it is not a fair representation of her life, especially because she will lose at least one of her incisors fairly soon and because his visit threatens her physical safety in her own house. It seems to be an attempt to curtail this woman’s independence by outlining her dependence on habits considered frivolous in the dogma of the capitalist work ethic. Furthermore, his comment that Kuchuk received clitoridectomy at a young age comes as a shock since in his travel notes he refrains from commenting on this fact—if indeed it is a fact. This gives rise to speculation: does he refrain from mentioning it in order to enhance the effect of his sexual performance when delivering it to Louis Bouilhet, his keen receiver? Or does he want to avoid the thought that even during sexual intercourse he is denied the accommodation he seeks in this woman? Whatever the case might be, if what he relates here is indeed factual, then Kuchuk’s impotence at feeling pleasure is another form in which Flaubert is denied access to the Orient. His final gesture in this very problematic attempt at defending his inadequacies is to connect the dancer with the “state of nature.” Like his previous comments this also carries a measure of obscurity. Whichever way one wishes to interpret it, what could be said with some certainty is that the romanticized Kuchuk becomes the female savage endowed with a certain nobility (poetry) because of her primitive capacity to live in her “natural” self and be in harmony with her humanity through kinesthetic ecstasy. A moment when Flaubert’s sexual homelessness and nostalgia for Kuchuk is strongly manifest occurs while he travels through Turkey. Here he misses her greatly and his words reveal, I think, the extent of his fixation on her as well as his nostalgic attachment to her:

Why have I a melancholy desire to return to Egypt, to go back up the Nile and see Kuchuk Hanem? All the same, it was a rare night I spent there, and I tasted it to the full. How I missed you! (Letters 131)

Although Flaubert was anxious to break with Western tradition he betrays an attachment to it. Through his various attempts at intercourse with the dancing body he hopes to gain agency over what he feels is the timeless oriental body. He seeks the dancers persistently in Upper Egypt. He feels that through scopic conquest and sexual possession he could subdue the ghawazee’s power, tame their fancy, and somewhere in the process give form to his own existentialist, bewildering chaos. As processed through his male conquering gaze, the sight of Kuchuk’s motion proved more overwhelming than what he had set in his mind before he arrived in Egypt. In the end, the body undulating before him is not the very site of Orientalism laid open and available. Indeed, Said reaches similar conclusions, yet my main motivation in this paper has been to turn the attention to Kuchuk’s dancing as a starting point of investigation and remain focussed on the movement as much as possible. During the dance Flaubert tries hard to decipher the hieroglyphic scripture inscribed in the air by the dancing body. Watching the choreography he is possessed by the desire to be the god entering her body and also be the body that is conquered by the god. His gaze reveals at once a will to possess the dancer , a cathexis in the dance as an ecstatic ritual, and an aporia or gap in his understanding. His gaze is ineffectual because it does not help him read what he sees and there is a sense, I believe, in which he knows that Kuchuk’s dance is not the dance he saw on Greek vases. One also feels that he lacks agency not over the object of his gaze but over reinscribing a new trajectory for his life following sexual union with the dancer. His attempt to conquer Kuchuk through scopic and sexual means does not help him arrive at the spot he yearns for. The ghaziyah’s dance seemed to offer a similar promise. However, it fulfilled no promises. Instead, the choreography remained like an enigmatic oracle with undecipherable but nevertheless overwhelming meaning.



1See Fatima Mernissi’s Introduction in Beyond The Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society (Cambridge: Schenkman Publishing Company, Inc., 1975).

2 See Edward Lane’s Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, 384.

3 See especially “Introductions” and “Chapter 5: Exotic Encounters” in Marta Savigliano’s Tango and the Political Economy of Passion.

4 See Lillian Lawrel’s article “Terpsichore: The Story of Dance in Ancient Greece.” Dance Perspectives Magazine: Winter 1962, 2-56.

Works Cited

Berger, Morroe. “A Curious and Wonderful Gymnastic; The Arab Danse du Ventre.” Dance Perspectives Magazine 10 (1961): 4-43.

Buonaventura, Wendy. The Serpent of the Nile: Women and Dance in the ArabWorld. London: Saqi Books, 1989.

Flaubert, Gustave. The Letters of Gustave Flaubert: 1830-1857. Trans. Francis Steegmuller. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1980.

Lane, E. W. Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians. London: Everyman’s Library; New York: Dutton, 1966.

Mernissi, Fatima. Beyond The Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society. Cambridge: Schenkman Publishing Company, Inc., 1975

Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes; Travel Writing and Tranasculturation. London & New York: Routledge, 1992

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979.

Savigliano, Marta. Tango and the Political Economy of Passion. Bolder: Westview Press, 1995.

Steegmuller, Francis. Flaubert in Egypt: A Sensibility on Tour. London: The Bodley Head Ltd, 1972.

Tsianikas, Michalis. Flaubert in Greece. Athens: Kastaniotis, 1997.

Tucker, Judith E. Women in Nineteenth-Century Egypt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.


Stavros Stavrou was born in Nicosia, Cyprus, and has pursued English studies in Canada. He is currently working on his Ph.D. dissertation, which employs colonial discourse theory in its examination of male and female dancers in the eighteenth and nineteenth century Middle East. He has presented his research at conferences in Edmonton and Calgary, Canada. His publications include an article entitled “Belly Dance: Erotic Fantasy or Empowerment,” published in Habibi, Vol. 17, No. 4, as well as a forthcoming article on male performers in the Middle East, due to appear in a book project from Zed Press. Apart from research, Mr. Stavrou has performed Oriental dance at festivals and fund-raisers in Calgary, Canada. Email:

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