Images of Women

Images of Women

Portrayal of Women in Photography of the Middle East 1860-1950

By Jamila Salimpour

In a book which portrays women in photography of the Middle East, Sarah Graham-Brown has gathered together a series of photo portraits rarely seen in one collection. Ranging from a stereoscopic slide from the second half of the nineteenth century which depicts French soldiers in Algeria being served by native Algerian women and men, to on-the-spot photographs of the Egyptian Nationalist campaign for the withdrawal of British troops from Egypt, including the Suez Canal Zone, Ms. Graham-Brown’s book spans a period of almost one hundred years from 1860 to 1950. Included are chapters on the development of photography in the Middle East which had a vast market in British, European and American cities partially due to the great exhibitions held in these countries at the turn of the century. Ms. Graham-Brown writes, “All these exhibitions, all the racial and social stereotypes of ‘oriental’ and ‘primitive’ societies could flourish in replicas of ‘Cairo Streets.’” Often, articles which were published as ‘ethnographic’ literature would place inaccurate ethnographic labels on the people they described.

Umm Kulthum in her early days in Cairo c. 1925. Published in Radio Misriyya, 25 June 1938. Source: Sarah Graham-Brown, Images of Women.

According to Ms. Graham-Brown, photography first appeared in the Middle East a few years after its invention in 1839. Because of the exposure time needed to take a picture—up to two minutes—mostly historical monuments were photographed, misleading the public into thinking that the Middle East was scantily populated. Maxine du Camp, who accompanied novelist Gustave Flaubert to Egypt and Palestine in 1848-1849, used an Egyptian sailor clad in a loincloth as a model next to the monuments to show their proportions. In order to get him to hold still for the necessary length of time he “told him that the brass tube of the lens jutting out from the camera was a cannon, which would vomit a hail of shot if he had the misfortune to move—a story which immobilized him completely.”

Although many of the subjects were unwilling models, such as the destitute Egyptian washerwoman resigned and seemingly hopeless, others depict family portraits full of love and pride. The photographs of four generations of women from a well to do Armenian family covers their years of affluence in Turkey and subsequent exile and dispersal resulting from the massacre and deaths of many members of the clan. Petite Arshalouys Zelvayan, whose gloved hand is held by Arshak Tashdjian in their wedding portrait, looks out at us with the innocence of a bride who was not consulted about the marriage. A young Druze woman from Lebanon poses seriously wearing the high conical Tantur headpiece which marked her status as a married woman. Photographs produced by the earliest process for color printing, known as Photochrome, were mass-produced as postcards for the tourists. The elaborate costumes of Bethlehem were one of the most popular subjects among photographers.

Tancrede Dumas was based in Lebanon in 1860, but also took photographs in Palestine and Egypt. He posed his models in what we now know to be incongruous combinations of clothing and poses. In a photograph which Graham-Brown describes as “a bizarre concoction of a costume,” she goes on to say “where it was supposed to come from is uncertain.” Ms. Graham-Brown points out the title of the photo is “Falah Arabe,” which translates as “peasant Arab,” and although the woman is described as a peasant, she is wearing the face veil of silver coins prevalent among certain Bedouin tribes of Egypt, Sinai and southern Palestine, and not worn by peasant women. The author further analyzes Arab customs and concludes, “Whether she was a peasant or Bedouin she would have been unlikely to wear her hair loose. If it had been allowed to show at all, it would have probably have been tied in a plait. The picture suggests that the photographer has deliberately posed his model with her veil pulled back and her arms exposed. The un-veiling of Arab women was a subject of controversy. Early Egyptian feminists were aware the “removing the veil would mean harassment and even violence in the streets. It would also be regarded as a sign of low social status, leaving them open to the attentions of predatory males who regarded ‘free’ women as sexual prey.” The question of the veil was the most political aspect of women’s dress because it was closely bound up with questions of male authority.

Contained in her book are some very unusual and charming photographs of people dressed as someone other than themselves. An Egyptian woman from a well-to-do family dresses as a peasant (c 1920); Zillu-Sultan and his favorite daughter dressed in boy’s clothes (c 1889); a young woman from Iran dressed as a man (1883). Many domestic scenes of mothers and children and working women, especially village labor scenes, remind us how little has changed, especially in the rural areas.

'Concert d'Alger'. Photograph in the collection of Prince Roland Bonaparte of the Paris Exposition of 1889, showing the life performance in the 'Moorish cafe'. Source: Sarah Graham-Brown, Images of Women.

The selection of photographs of women as entertainers range from the earliest public musicians and dancers from Iran (circa 1870); an Algerian concert from the Paris Exposition of 1889 depicting a performance of an Ouled Nail, to the other familiar scenes of Ouled Nails which were favored by National Geographic. The one error in this wonderful collection is a photograph on page 180 entitled “Egyptian Dancing Girls,” from the opening of the St. Louis Exhibition, 1904. The correct photo must have been misplaced. I believe the ladies are of some Slavic group and it might have been a printing mix-up or some paste-up person who put the wrong picture in the wrong section. It should have been caught in the proofreading, but, hey, you win some and …you know.

This book is a feast for the avid collector of old photos and interesting tidbits of information. The inclusion of short biographies of Asmahan, sister of Farid al Atrash, Badia al Masabni and Umm Kulthoum revealed the author’s depth of research. I guess my favorite photograph was one that was already in my collection. It was in an article from an old National Geographic and it never said who the woman was. And then suddenly, here was the picture again in Sarah Graham-Brown’s book and the caption read: “The doctor said: ‘Well, my dear, how’s your poor tummy now?’” Sarah Graham-Brown wrote:

The photograph is used to illustrate a narrative of an Englishman’s adventures in the “fleshpots” of Cairo. His description of the dancer is reminiscent in its ribald tone of similar accounts of encounters with nightclub dancers in Europe, yet with an added touch of the alien and exotic. The woman is assumed to exist entirely for the amusement of this clientele.

“One black-eyed Arab of ugly but amiable countenance sat down beside the Doctor and myself after her performance, and we conversed to the extant of our powers. She knew three words of English and about four of French, we a little more French and English, but no Arabic, which was her native language.

Musicians and Dancers, probably Ghilan Province, Iran, c. 1870. Source: Sarah Graham-Brown, Images of Women.

“The Doctor said: ‘Well my dear, how’s your poor tummy now?’” This, in the Doctor’s French, was rather funny.

“And she said: ‘Anglais-pint-bitter-bottled’ (i.e., English beer). ‘Thus you see how truly expressive is our language even in the mouth of a Cairo dancing girl. She drank a pint of beer, then another half pint; and no doubt her tremendous exertions required exceptional quantities of liquid support. Then she sent the empty bottles on to the stage, and they were set on a little table beside her place there that all the men might see that she had been entertained in the audience and so put money into the pocket of the proprietor. She smoked cigarettes for some time, failed to make much conversation or understand ours, then bade us farewell. My brother said that these girls generally die young, as their business is calculated to put a tremendous and unnatural strain upon their systems. I was sorry to hear that poor ‘pint-bitter-bottled’ could not hope to enjoy a long innings, and trusted the Doctor might be in error here. At any rate, her life, if short, will be merry, and she will probably pass away in the sure and certain hope that an eternity of wriggling awaits her in a better world, where the ‘bitter-pint-bottled’ will be plentiful and free.’”

Jamila Salimpour began her performing career at the age of sixteen in Ringling Brothers Circus as an acrobatic dancer. She studied Middle Eastern music and dance, and in 1947 began appearing at cultural events and ethnic clubs in Los Angeles, and later in San Francisco where she owned the Bagdad Cabaret. She began teaching in 1952, developing a unique method of verbal breakdown and terminology for her movements. She has trained innumerable teachers and performers from all over the world, and produced weeklong seminars and festivals, often co-teaching with her daughter, Suhaila. In 1969, she created Bal Anat, performing and touring with the forty-member troupe. Jamila Salimpour’s complex finger cymbal patterns were published in a “Finger Cymbal Manual.” She also published a history of Middle Eastern Dance, From Cave to Cult to Cabaret, as well as a photographic collection of Middle Eastern dancers at the Chicago World’s Faire, and the “Dance Format” manual. From 1974 to 1990, Ms. Salimpour was the Contributing Editor for Habibi.

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