The Female Other

The Female Other

Reversing the Gaze

By Latifa

The harem had always pricked the imagination of Western people. The desire to penetrate — if only vicariously — the women’s quarters in the Muslim house, to know more about oriental females, had surpassed the prurience of the voyeur… From the earliest encounters between the Christians and Muslims till the present, the harem as the locus of an exotic and abnormal sexuality fascinated Westerners. It came to be regarded as a microcosmic Middle East, apotheosizing the two characteristics perceived as essentially Oriental: sensuality and violence.1

Orientalist travelers of the 19th century have provided fascinating representations of the sensual, exotic life of the Middle East. Especially memorable are the portrayals of Middle Eastern women, who have been depicted by Westerners in literature, painting, and photography 2 as lascivious, wanton creatures sitting in idleness, waiting for an erotic encounter. There is ample literature, both primary and secondary, indicating how the Orientalists viewed Arab women. But suppose we reverse the gaze and ask what Arab men thought of European women? Looking at depictions of European women in 20th century Arabic literature, we again find an erotic female Other, in this case perhaps waiting to be conquered by an exotic traveler from a distant land. This paper will explore these two views of the female Other, as shown first in Orientalist art and travel writing of the 19th century and then a century later in novels and short stories of Sudanese author Tayeb Salih and Egyptian authors Bahaa Taher and Soleiman Fayyad.

Let us first consider depictions of women in Orientalist art. Probably the most recognizable Orientalist painting is “Le Bain Turc” (1832) by Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres. 3 This is a round picture, as if the scene is witnessed by a voyeur through a keyhole. The nude women are lounging in close quarters around a pool in a hammam (which the Orientalists often viewed as an extension of the harem). The woman in the foreground is curvy, soft and supple, in a relaxed serpentine pose that makes her appear almost boneless, and certainly forms a contrast with the stays and corsets worn by European women of the time. She is lost in reverie. Next to her, two women cuddle together, one caressing the breast of the other, providing a hint of the lesbianism that many Orientalists thought would invariably take place in a closed society of women. There is little detail provided of the setting4 , just a few cushions at the edge of the picture, part of a bathing pool to the left, and a small coffee set in the foreground. The background is in shadow. The overall effect is that of an overwhelming amount of bare flesh5—a voyeur’s delight. Another striking thing about the picture is the inactivity of the women; this is common in harem scenes, where the women are almost invariably pictured as idle and waiting (for the Sultan, of course). Ingres was inspired by Lady Montagu’s descriptions of her visits to Turkish baths6 but has chosen to change the overall feeling of the setting. Lady Montagu was charmed by the friendliness and civility of the Turkish women, to herself and to each other. 7 In the scene painted by Ingres, the women relate to each other only in terms of power (mistress-servant) or sexuality. Otherwise, they are self-absorbed.

Jean Jules Antoine Lecomte du Noüy (1842-1923), “Rhamsès Dans Son Harem,” 1885.

Another well-known painter of harem scenes was John Frederick Lewis. His painting “Intercepted Correspondence” (also called “The Harem”, 1869)8 shows a Sultan surrounded by many wives or concubines in a lavish, beautiful setting showing three sides of a harem room richly furnished with beautiful textiles and objets d’art. Light filters through mashrabiyah on all three sides; Lewis is known for his creative use of light in painting. The women are given more dignity than in other artists’ paintings — they are all fully (and opulently) dressed — but they are still stereotypically seductive, idle and powerless. But, harking back to the Melman quote at the beginning of this paper, the sensuality of their languorous poses is coupled with a hint of impending violence; one of the women appears to have been engaged in a covert communication, which is just being revealed to the Sultan.

There is an anecdote involving Lewis that is a perfect illustration of the assumptions of Orientalism, particularly male Orientalism. Lewis had rented a house in Cairo in the late 1830’s and was visited there by William Makepeace Thackeray, who feared, finding his friend garbed in voluminous trousers, that the painter might have “turned Turk.” Looking around for confirmation of his suspicion, Thackeray noted “there were wooden lattices to those arched windows, through the diamonds of which I saw two of the most beautiful, enormous, ogling black eyes in the world, looking down upon the interesting stranger.” What Thackeray has seen are the eyes of Lewis’s “very plain” cook.9 But note his assumptions that she is exotic, sexually alluring, and interested in him, the superior observer.

To sum up this genre of painting, we see a recurring theme of the idle, sensuous harem woman, powerless except for her sexuality, having no occupation other than waiting to sexually serve her Sultan. We’ve had hints of impending violence and we’ve also seen hints of lesbianism. “The notion of women being ‘locked up together’ in the harem and bathing together naked clearly made many men feel both insecure and deprived of the sexual pleasure which was their right.” 10 I would like to briefly mention another general aspect of Orientalist art, that of the usually negative view of Oriental men depicted in such paintings. The males are usually either ugly or engaged in unseemly conduct. Since the women are invariably beautiful and desirable, “this leaves the woman free for the abduction of the viewer’s gaze since she is not attached within the painting, being mismatched with a male who is her obvious inferior. Thus, she must desire to be saved from her fate in some way. By such projection, the European fantasized about the Eastern woman’s dependency on him.” 11

Similar depictions abound in the written word, in Orientalist travel literature portraying women in general and the harem in particular. “Before departing from home European travelers “knew” that the harem was a lascivious world where beautiful, sensual, and idle women were cooped up together, lying around on sofas all day, smoking pipes, waiting for the master to come and choose one of them and, if not chosen, indulging in indescribable activities together—or in some cases described in great detail.”12 Edward Said, in describing the reaction of European travelers to the Middle East, writes, “In most cases, the Orient seemed to have offended sexual propriety; everything about the Orient…exuded dangerous sex, threatened hygiene and domestic seemliness with an excessive ‘freedom of intercourse’.” 13 We have already seen some typical assumptions in the amusing Thackeray anecdote. Many of the writers who visited the Middle East had done their homework. They had already read other travelers’ accounts and knew what to expect—or at least thought they did, based on the perceptions of those who had preceded them. E. W. Lane, for example, saw Arab women as licentious, remarking,

The libidinous character of the generality of the women of Egypt, and the licentious conduct of a great number of them, may be attributed to many causes—partly to the climate, and partly to their want of proper instruction and of innocent pastimes and employments; but it is more to be attributed to the conduct of the husbands themselves, and to conduct far more disgraceful to them than the utmost severity that any of them is known to exercise in the regulations of his harem. The generality of husbands in Egypt endeavour to increase the libidinous feelings of their wives by every means in their power, though at the same time they assiduously study to prevent their indulging these feelings unlawfully. The women are permitted to listen, screened behind their windows of wooden lattice-work, to immoral songs and tales sung or related in the streets by men whom they pay for this entertainment, and to view the voluptuous dances of the ghawazee and of the effeminate khawals. 14

In one selection, Lane perpetuates several Orientalist myths: the universality of the harem-type environment for women, which Mabro points out would be the equivalent of presenting daily life at Buckingham Palace as typical of English family life, manners and customs15 ; the lasciviousness of Arab men and women; and the harem as site for sexually-oriented entertainment, to the exclusion of other activities.

Two other accounts, quoted by Mabro, read a lot, as did Thackeray, into the expression of Arab women’s eyes:

There is something special about the silence—a feeling of life surging up behind the closed houses, the narrow barred windows. Through the walls murmurs can be heard of plaintive women’s songs, of arguments. Sometimes in an open courtyard you can see a group of squatting Moorish women, fat, lewd, and painted like barbaric idols.

And still you go up and up, staircase after staircase, turning after turning. The women in white who are coming down stare at you with a look that is lascivious and yet full of irony. 16

Other women flitted about in the streets The night had fallen, and they came from the trapdoors in the walls, and moved like ghosts on a stage. Sometimes they were alone; sometimes they were accompanied by girls of the household, sometimes by an ebony-complexioned Soudanese. They stood in groups apart from the men, and their gandouras showed harmoniously against the dark background of the night. It was all romantic. Some of them removed the veil in the shelter of the dusk and revealed their charms. But as I wandered by, their veils were dropped. A side-glance, and each woman peeping over the veil seemed to be looking at me with great liquid eyes, fixing upon me the bold glance of one conscious she could see without being seen. Often I felt there was something uncanny about those great eyes of the solemn women, always bright and always black. Big, unblinking, dreamy, sensuous eyes which filled one with a nervous curiosity as to what their owners were thinking about. 17

Another source cited by Mabro conveys very well the Otherness of the Arab female and the boyish excitement of male anticipation:

The Kasbah!

This magic word intrigued me when I was a child. It pursued me over the years, evoking so much mystery, such hazy and disturbing images. When it was spoken it had a special sound, and whenever it was mentioned by my father’s orderlies they always laughed and winked in a special way. The Kasbah! I only knew that bloody fights between Arabs and soldiers took place there at night, and also that women were to be found there. Which women? I had no idea. Undoubtedly they were unnatural creatures, quite different from all other women. I imagined a den of danger and enchantment, straight from the Arabian nights…18

How can one account for the Western view of Middle Easterners in these works? It might be useful to locate these Orientalist observations within their 19th century historical framework. The Ottoman Empire was beginning to decline. Fissures were appearing in its facade, notably in the Balkans and in Greece, both of which achieved autonomy in the 1830’s (with European help). The waning of the Ottoman Empire removed a tremendous real and psychological threat that had been hanging over Europe. This was also the period of the beginnings of European colonialism, with Napoleon occupying Egypt briefly at the turn of the century, the British occupying Aden, Yemen in 1839, and the French occupying Algiers in 1830. Europe’s star was on the rise, and many Europeans began to travel to “the mysterious East.” Kabbani points out the colonial nature of travel writing. “To write a literature of travel cannot but imply a colonial relationship. The claim is that one travels to learn, but really, one travels to exercise power over land, women, peoples.”19 In addition, Victorian travel “remains an intrinsic part of patriarchal discourse, for it fed on and ultimately served the hierarchies of power.” 20 Given the historical circumstances, it is not surprising that European travelers saw themselves (consciously or unconsciously) as the civilized superior viewing a primitive Other and that they enjoyed lording it over the previously threatening “East.” In the case of a male observer and a female Other, the element of the exotic and the erotic are inexorably intertwined. To properly understand the Orientalist view of Arab women, we must remember the circumstances of Victorian England. Women had been rigidly categorized: “the leisured middle-class wife who was supposedly dormant sexually, the domestic servant whom labour unsexed, and the prostitute who was burdened with all that the wife was protected from.” 21 The Orient was, for travelers like Richard Burton, “an illicit space and its women convenient chattels who offered sexual gratification denied in the Victorian home for its unseemliness,”22 since the polarized Victorian view of women saw them as either whorish sexual beings or “caring companions in the home, untouched by sexual ardor.” 23 “Good” women had no sexual desire; sexuality was “bad” and was attributed to the immoral, exotic, and/or lower class woman.24 The sexuality projected onto these exotic Arab women reflected the repressed sexuality in Victorian society. There is also the view that the West feminized the East and eroticized it.25

Turning our gaze in the opposite direction, let us now examine the Arab view of European women. The historical context is the 20th century. The Middle East has suffered through European colonialism, which has engendered a good deal of resentment and anger on the part of the Arabs. They have also seen, with the losses incurred in two world wars, that the Europeans are not totally invincible; there are chinks in the armor. Many Arab students (predominately male) have traveled to Europe to study and have been exposed to European culture, and many feel ambivalent about it. They are conflicted about their enjoyment of the culture of their colonizer. There are things about the culture that they love and prefer to their own, which makes them feel slightly disloyal to their homelands. As an example, consider this passage describing student life in Europe from Lorna Hahn’s book about North Africa. She is trying to explain Habib Bourguiba’s complex feelings about France, which were colored by a desire to be respected by the French and accepted as an equal. Although Hahn is describing a particular colonizer-colonized relationship, her description captures a feeling of student life abroad that can be applied to other contexts:

Student life in Paris — the wines, the women without veils, the lack of traditional family obligations which ensnared a young Tunisian at home, no matter how he might oppose such things intellectually — were France at its best. It is sometimes hard for a western observer to understand how a North African can devote his life to fighting the French, and yet be attached to their language and culture, as are virtually all. The Tunisian might try to explain it by saying, “The French in France are different from the French in Tunisia”, or, in more intellectual terms, “The French language can express nuances, particularly philosophical concepts, which Arabic can not”, or “We wanted to know modern concepts and western ways and those of France were the only ones available to us.” Perhaps. But in most cases, the attachment can be explained mainly by the fact that France provided the young Tunisians with an intellectual and moral freedom, opened to them new vistas which they could never have dreamed of in Tunisia, and provided them with some of the happiest years of their lives. 26

Against this backdrop, let us consider specific examples of Arab writers who have had direct experiences with Europe. There is a well-worn Egyptian novelistic genre dealing with the clash between the Orient and the Occident. Normally, a young Egyptian male travels to Europe on a voyage of discovery. We see the alien culture through his eyes, and he is initially seduced by the technologically superior West. The events of the novel, however, assert the ethical superiority of the East over the West, which is revealed to be technologically advanced but morally decadent. Two examples of this genre are Yahya Haqqi’s The Saint’s Lamp and Tawfiq al-Hakim’s Bird From the East.27 The works we will consider here (Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, Sulayman Fayyad’s Voices, and Bahaa Taher’s Ana al-Malik Ji’tu) present variations on this genre. As we will see from these examples, the European woman is seen as someone representing a superior culture. In the first example, she is a challenge to be conquered, and in the second she is an object of admiration whose approval is sought (as with the case of Habib Bourguiba, mentioned above). The third case is less clear-cut but provides some interesting food for thought.

One of the most striking portrayals of Arab interaction with European women is found in Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North. The compelling main character, Mustafa Sa’id, seduces a number of European women, at least partially motivated by the desire to extract revenge for the damage done to Africa by European colonialism. (One critic describes a “causal relationship between his distorted emotional relationships with English women and the economic, cultural, and physical violence perpetuated by British colonial rule.” 28 ) Salih himself says,

While I was writing this novel, I was concerned with the relationship between us, the Arabs, and Western Europe — France, England and Italy to be exact—the states which colonized us…In Europe there is the idea of dominating us. That domination is associated with sex. Figuratively speaking, Europe raped Africa in a violent fashion. Mustafa Sa’id, the hero of the novel, used to react to that domination with an opposite reaction, which had an element of revenge seeking. In his violent female conquests he wants to inflict on Europe that degradation which it had imposed upon his people. He wants to rape Europe in a metaphorical fashion. 29

And, indeed, Mustafa Sa’id does just that, telling one acquaintance that he will liberate Africa with his penis; 30 his conquests of European women represent a barbaric conquest of modern culture. 31

The first woman Sa’id encounters, when he is a boy of twelve traveling to Cairo to attend school, is the wife of a colleague of his school headmaster. He sees her in symbolic terms, not as a real woman:

Then the man introduced me to his wife, and all of a sudden I felt the woman’s arms embracing me and her lips on my cheek. At that moment, as I stood on the station platform amidst a welter of sounds and sensations, with the woman’s arms around my neck, her mouth on my cheek, the smell of her body — a strange, European smell — tickling my nose, her breast touching my chest, I felt — I, a boy of twelve — a vague sexual yearning I had never previously experienced. I felt as though Cairo, that large mountain to which my camel had carried me, was a European woman just like Mrs. Robinson, its arms embracing me, its perfume and the odour of its body filling my nostrils. In my mind her eyes were the colour of Cairo: grey-green, turning at night to a twinkling like that of a firefly. 32

Later, when Mustafa Sa’id travels to Europe and sees its sights and sounds for the first time as he approaches shore, he remarks, “The smell of the place is strange, like that of Mrs. Robinson’s body.” 33 He is not seeing her as a distinct human being, but as a symbol first of Cairo and then of Europe, both more advanced than the modest village of his origins.

The Arab imagery Sa’id uses when describing his meeting with Mrs. Robinson, when he talks about arriving on his camel, will recur during his relationships with other women. He will also use African imagery, since he reflects the racial mix of his country with his mixed Arab-African blood. He sees himself as “Arab-African Man” and the women he interacts with as “European Woman”; furthermore, he never forgets that they represent European colonial power. When he meets one of his lovers, Isabella Seymour, he is stalking prey in Hyde Park.

I left my house on a Saturday, sniffing the air, feeling I was about to start upon a great hunt. I reached Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. It was packed with people. … Suddenly my eyes came to rest on a woman who was craning her neck to catch a glimpse of the speaker so that her dress was lifted above her knees exposing two shapely, bronzed legs. Yes, this was my prey. I walked up to her, like a boat heading towards the rapids. I stood beside her and pressed up against her till I felt her warmth pervading me. I breathed in the odour of her body, that odour with which Mrs. Robinson had met me on the platform of Cairo’s railway station. 34

Sa’id manipulates his exotic African image to seduce her, and we read his thoughts as they stroll the streets. These thoughts show her symbolic value for him. “We walked along together; she beside me, a glittering figure of bronze under the July sun, a city of secrets and rapture.” 35 Then as the seduction progresses, “Mr. Mustafa, the bird has fallen into the snare. The Nile, that snake god, has gained a new victim. The city has changed into a woman. It would be but a day or a week before I would pitch tent, driving my tent peg into the mountain summit.” 36 Another victory for Africa against Europe.

Since the topic of this article is the Other, it is interesting to note that in the England portrayed in this novel, Mustafa Sa’id is viewed as the exotic Other; women are attracted to him because of his dark skin. He is aware of this phenomenon and uses it to his advantage. He plays the savage Arab/African role to the hilt, decorating his bachelor pad with exotica and telling tall tales to the women he lures there. The scenes between Sa’id and Oxford undergraduate Ann Hammond clearly show her perception of him as an exotic Other and the way he exploits this; Hammond sees “the shimmer of mirages in hot deserts” in Sa’id’s eyes and the “screams of ferocious beasts in the jungles” in his voice. 37 In his sweat she detects “the smell of rotting leaves in the jungles of Africa, the smell of the mango and the pawpaw and tropical spices, the smell of rains in the deserts of Arabia.”38 They indulge in elaborate role-playing in master-slave rituals that seem to suit both of them. With Isabella Seymour, he concocts tall tales to embellish his African background: “there came a moment when I felt I had been transformed in her eyes unto a naked, primitive creature, a spear in one hand and arrows in the other, hunting elephants and lions in the jungle. This was fine.”39

For a different literary approach to the Arab male/European female story, we could consider Sulayman Fayyad’s novel, Voices. Fayyad, an Azhari-educated Egyptian, wrote this book in 1972 after a brief trip to Germany. This novel is a conscious transformation of the Egyptian East-West culture clash theme mentioned earlier. In this novel, instead of having a central simple rural character who travels to “civilized” Europe, the civilized figure — a French woman — travels to rural Egypt. Simone has married an Egyptian, Hamid, who is returning to his village for a visit after 30 years’ absence. She is the central figure of the novel, but, interestingly enough, she has no voice. In fact, she is unable to communicate with the villagers because she only speaks French. There are multiple narrators who talk about her (hence the title Voices); as a literary device this character is used both as a foil and a catalyst. The pending arrival of Hamid and Simone totally disrupts normal village life as the occupants, who see Simone as France personified, spruce up their village so that “we would enable Hamid to raise his head proudly before his wife, and we in Darawish — and indeed all of Egypt — could raise our heads before foreigners as represented by the Lady Simone.” 40 The visit is marked from the beginning by an almost total lack of cultural understanding between Simone and the villagers, with each party expecting the other to adapt to an unstated cultural norm. The women are jealous of the village men’s reaction to this French visitor with her immodest clothing and careless behavior. The reaction of one of the men, Mahmoud ibn al-Munsi, who has studied the French language, is particularly telling. Before her arrival he has been thinking romantic thoughts about Paris and associating these thoughts with Simone. When Simone arrives, his initial impression is that she’s not very appealing. There’s an interesting turnaround of his position within the space of two sentences: “There were many women in the village more attractive and appealing than she was, but she had a certain spirit about her, a self-confidence and strength. There was a lightness and mirth exuding from her, and I felt sorry for all our women when I compared them to her.”41 And then there’s the clincher: Western technology. “Ah, Simone. What a beautiful and magical name! The beauty of her eyes! And the magic of that camera, hung around her shoulders, dangling at her slender waist.”42 When Simone appears at a village gathering (to which she is the only woman invited), she wears a skimpy red dress that contrasts sharply with the covered clothing of the village women. The Omda’s reaction is mixed: “Her appearance pleased me as a red-blooded male but angered me as a gentleman.”43 He later daydreams about her, but when his wife, wearing uncharacteristic makeup and perfume, makes advances, he is repulsed by this departure from village norms and has a change of heart: “Suddenly, I found myself calling on God to save me from the enchanting powers of Simone from the land of the Franks, who appeared to my mind’s eye like a Genie from the Garden of Evil.”44 Simone continues to inadvertently stir up trouble in the village until the story ends in tragedy. Several of the village women, having heard Simone’s skimpy blouses reveal the presence of underarm hair, speculate about whether she has pubic hair and decide to see for themselves and “clean her” of this hair if necessary. The village midwife is involved, and when the women discover during the hair removal that Simone is uncircumcised, they decide to set things right. After the circumcision, they are unable to stop the bleeding and Simone dies. (Chillingly enough, the author says that this is based on a true story of an incident that took place in a Delta village in 1948.45 )

Fayyad’s novel includes numerous allusions to French military actions against Egypt. When the villagers are anticipating Simone’s arrival, the talk naturally turns to stories about France, since Simone is seen as the symbol of that country. Educated people at the village gatherings would talk about the deaths and atrocities committed by French troops after Napoleon’s invasion, in which 17,000 villagers from Darawish and the surrounding areas were killed. The villagers “were all extremely upset and angry about the fact, but we decided…that the requirement of blood vengeance against Simone’s people had dissipated completely with the passing of seven generations.” 46 Later, Mahmoud ibn al-Munsi, the French-speaking villager who had become Simone’s friend, is angered at her cultural insensitivity when they visit the site where Louis IX was held captive after the final offensive of the Crusades in 1250. He longs to tell her about the deaths and atrocities caused by the French but remains silent, and she is oblivious to the problem.

Through Fayyad’s skillful writing, Simone emerges from the composite of narratives as a real person, and a rather engaging and likable one at that, albeit culturally insensitive. The characters themselves, however, for the most part see her as a personification either of France or of “advanced civilization,” whatever that may mean to them personally. Al-Munsi wants to win her approval, at first because he is smitten with the exotic image of her that he has contrived; later, when the villagers begin to become materialistic after being expose to Hamid’s wealth, his motives are less admirable: he has dreams of studying in Paris and hopes that Simone and her rich husband will facilitate things and give him financial assistance. The feelings of the other village men are similar.

The image of European women is less clearly drawn in the works of Egyptian writer Bahaa Taher. In his short story “Ana al-Malik Ji’tu” (“I, the King, have come”), the main character, Farid, travels to Europe for medical training at the University of Grenoble. He falls in love with a French girl named Martine and brings her home to Egypt to meet his father. Farid is afraid she will not like Egypt and will want to return to France, but she loves his country. While they are visiting the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, she takes him to task for doubting that she would like Egypt. “You told me that I might be bored staying here. What did you think of me? I have never before felt so close to the truth of life, and I have never been as happy as I am here.”47 Martine has a delicate, otherworldly quality (the story has a lot of mystical symbolism), and after her visit to Egypt, she becomes mentally ill and is confined to a mental institution.

My own preliminary analysis of the text is that Taher is presenting a variation on the genre mentioned at the beginning of this section. The civilized woman has visited the ethically and morally superior East. She recognizes and appreciates the spiritual superiority of the East, but her Western spirituality, which reflects the decadence of her society, is overcome by it and her mind disintegrates. Colleagues have told me that the phenomenon of a Western woman losing her mind appears in other works by Taher; this topic merits further study. 48

Before proceeding to my concluding analysis of these views of the Female Other, I wish to say a few words about literature. There are those who would say that a study of fictional characters tells us nothing about reality. I do not agree. Edward Said criticizes Orientalists for their avoidance of the study of literature:

What seem to matter far more to the regional expert are “facts,” of which a literary text is perhaps a disturber. The net effect of this remarkable omission in modern American awareness of the Arab and Islamic Orient is to keep the region and its people conceptually emasculated, reduced to “attitudes”, “trends”, statistics: in short, dehumanized. Since an Arab poet or novelist—and there are many—writes of his experiences, of his values, of his humanity (however strange that may be), he effectively disrupts the various patterns (images, clichés, abstractions) by which the Orient is represented. A literary text speaks more or less directly of a living reality.49

Nadje Sadig Al-Ali also decries the lack of weight given to literature, saying “Fictional literature does more than influence our beliefs and values; it contains knowledge of and insights into the world we live in.”50 I believe that the literary examples cited here do show us truths about the perceptions of the men who wrote them and should not be taken lightly.

The examples that have been discussed in this paper show that there are striking similarities in the way that Orientalist men view Arab women and in the way that Arab writers have portrayed European women. In both cases, the women are symbols for their respective cultures. Assumptions about the culture as a whole are projected on to these women and they are treated accordingly. And in both cases, one of these assumptions about the culture as a whole is an image of sexuality. In the case of the Orientalists, Melman believes that the image of the sensual Orient was due to European beliefs about Islam. “…Islam had presented an alternative to Christianity. We may extend this observation to the European obsession with sexuality in Islam. The harem was appealing and, at the same time, threatening because it seemed an alternative to the Western, Pauline-Augustinian model of sexuality.”51 In addition, Arab women were exotic, so they were seen as sexual in the Victorian good girl-bad girl dichotomy mentioned earlier. As for the Arab writers, their culture had conditioned them to expect certain behavioral norms from women. European women, in their eyes, dressed provocatively and acted immodestly; therefore, European women must be immodest. And immodest women are sensual and lascivious. (This viewpoint is not unique to the 20th century. Imad ad-Din, writing at the time of the Crusades, described arriving French prostitutes as “appearing proudly in public, ardent and inflamed, tinted and painted, desirable and appetizing, exquisite and graceful…”52 ) The two viewpoints are therefore similar, but there is a difference. Orientalists are dealing from a position of power and expect sexual attention from the “natives”; it’s their due. For the Arab writers, Europe is at least nominally superior, so the women represent a challenge to be conquered or won over, as we have seen in Salih’s and Fayyad’s works.

In addition to seeing these women as representing their respective cultures and as being sexually receptive, all women are seen as being the same. They are not viewed as individual human beings but are essentialized and objectified. This is graphically illustrated in Ingre’s Le Bain Turc. The women portrayed seem to have been painted from the same model, with pale skin, high, youthfully-rounded breasts, defined waists, rounded abdomens and hips that are slightly wider than today’s anorexic standard. One woman has slightly smaller breasts, and two or three have been given darker skin; there are variations in hair and head coverings. Other than that, it’s the same woman, over and over. The character of Mustafa Sa’id in Season of Migration to the North also views all women (except for Jean Morris) as the same. He equates Mrs. Robinson with other women, and when he’s cruising Hyde Park, any woman will do as long as she’s British. He never forgets for a moment that the women he seduces are part of a European colonial power. And his Orientalist counterparts, a century earlier, never forgot that they were representatives of a European colonial power.


1 Billie Melman, Women’s Orients: English Women and the Middle East, 1718-1918; Sexuality, Religion and Work (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992), 59.

2 For an interesting review of French postcards of Algerian women, see Malek Alloula’s The Colonial Harem (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986).

3 Lynne Thornton, La Femme Dans La Peinture Orientaliste (Paris: ACR Edition Internationale, 1993), 67.

4 This is unusual for such paintings. Often the women are set off by realistically detailed and colorful textiles and household items. The riot of color and textile makes the usually pale nude bodies of the women even more striking or shocking. For a more typical portrayal, see, by the same artist, “La Grande Odalisque” (1814), in which expanses of pale, nude skin are contrasted with the texture and color of her surroundings: patterned silk draperies, an elaborate head wrap, scattered jewelry and an ornate ostrich-feather fan. “As an object that is usually hidden, cloaked, clothed and masked, the woman’s revealed body becomes startling and arousing in contrast with the well-dressed room.” Rana Kabbani, Europe’s Myths of Orient (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 70.

5 Kabbani believes that in this painting eroticism becomes a parody of itself. “For the compilation of bodies in such numerous mass disturbs without arousing. It is a surplus which satiates.” Kabbani, 85.

6 Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Complete Letters, Vol I (Oxford, University Press, 1965), 312-315 and 406-407.

7 Ibid, 314-315.

8 Thornton, 130-131.

9 Kabbani, 83.

10 Judy Mabro, Veiled Half-Truths (London: I. B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 1991), 137.

11 Kabbani, 79-80.

12 Mabro, 6.

13 Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1978), 167.

14 E. W. Lane, Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (London: East-West Publications, 1978), 298-299.

15 Mabro, 6. She also mentions that the 19th century was a time of so much change, and so much need for adaptation that people “tried to freeze things into compartments to reduce their bewilderment.” (p. 9).

16 L’Algerie de nos jours, p. 28; quoted in Mabro, 46.

17 John Foster Fraser, The Land of Veiled Women, pp 75-6; quoted in Mabro, 46.

18 L’Algerie de nos jours, p. 28; quoted in Mabro, 32.

19 Kabbani, 10.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid., 67.

22 Ibid., 7.

23 Ibid., 48.

24 Mabro, 11.

25 Melman, 4.

26 Lorna Hahn, North Africa: Nationalism to Nationhood (Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1960), 15-16.

27 Hosam Aboul-Ela, in Introduction to Soleiman Fayyad’s Voices (New York: Marion Boyars Publishers, 1993), 7.

28 Muhammad Siddiq, quoted in Roger Allen’s Modern Arabic Literature (New York: Ungar Publishing Company, 1987), 268.

29 Tayeb Salih, Tayeb Salih Speaks (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Cultural Counsellor, Embassy of the Democratic Republic of Sudan, 1982), 15.

30 Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North (Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1969), 120.

31 Tayeb Salih Speaks, 21.

32 Salih, Season, 25.

33 Ibid., 27.

34 Ibid. 37.

35 Ibid., 37.

36 Ibid., 39.

37 Ibid., 145.

38 Ibid., 142.

39 Ibid., 38.

40 Soleiman Fayyad, Voices (New York: Marion Boyars Publishers, 1993), 29. This is reminiscent of Taha Husayn’s post-independence fear that Egypt would not live up to Europe’s expectations. See The Future of Culture in Egypt (Washington, D.C.: American Council of Learned Societies, 1954), p. 2.

41 Fayyad, 38.

42 Ibid.

43 Ibid., 54.

44 Ibid, 58-59.

45 Nadje Sadig al-Ali, Gender Writing/Writing Gender (Cairo: American University Press, 1994), 108.

46 Fayyad, 32.

47 Bahaa Taher, “Ana al-Malik Ji’tu” (Cairo: Egyptian General Organization for Books, 1985), 15.

48 Judith Tucker, my academic adviser, notes that there is an interesting parallel here to 19th century European literature, in which a common theme was women losing their minds. This parallel warrants further study.

49 Said, 291.

50 al-Ali, 10.

51 Melman, 61.

52 Francesco Gabrieli, ed., Arab Historians of the Crusades (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), 204.


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Latifa, a longtime student of the late Ibrahim Farrah, is a performer and instructor in the Baltimore-Washington area. She is past President of the Washington Area Mid-East Dance Association (WAMEDA) and a founding member of the Middle Eastern Dance Guild, an organization dedicated to promoting Middle Eastern dance in a positive and culturally accurate manner. Latifa recently received a Master’s degree in Arab Studies from Georgetown University, and has just returned from Cairo where she studied Arabic on a fellowship funded by the Fullbright Foundation.

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