Book Review, August/ September 1987, Art & Artists
The Colonial Harem, Malek Alloula
Intro. by Barbara Harlow
University of Minnesota Press, Theory and History of Literature,
Volume 21, Minneapolis, 1986
In the past few years there has appeared a plethora of new books—in most cases accompanying exhibitions—on late 19th-century photography of the Middle East. While one has come to welcome this interest in peripheral topics, these books have aestheticized the photographs which were in most cases nothing other than inscriptions of colonial and/or military dominance on the Middle East. The study of the periphery, furthermore, as in the 19th century, is tailored to Western eyes and pockets in a complacent marriage of the market and scholarship.
Given this background, the publication of a book on postcards of Algerians taken in the first three decades of the 20th century by their French conquerors and written by an author who himself is an Algerian is welcome. Malek Alloula, the author, aware of his “intrusion” into the arena of Western scholarship, emphasizes his position as Other with a vengeance. ln his words, the aim of the book is “to return this immense postcard to its sender”—a neat paraphrase of the opening quotation from Marx in Edward Said’s Orientalism: “They (the Orientals) can not represent themselves, they must be represented.” It is not often that a Middle Eastern author breaks out of the marginality, sometimes silence, imposed upon him or her by the West.
The English translation, published as part of the valuable Theory and History of Literature series by the University of Minnesota Press, begins with a long introduction by Barbara Harlow which covers areas not taken up by Alloula. With its solid documentation and Strong historical emphasis, Harlow’s introduction acts as somewhat of an interference and is in dear opposition to Alloula’s interpretive framework. In this respect, the book becomes the site of a battle between the emotional, at times “irrational” (Oriental) style of Alloula and the “hard” (Empirical) approach of Harlow.
This said, I will discuss the text of the Colonial Harem as an Other Middle Easterner. Alloula fabricates a visual narrative of striptease from postcard images of Algerian women. The book ends with the ghoulish photograph, “An Arab woman with a Yachmak,” in which signs of absolute interiority and exteriority (signified by the absence of dress before one’s lover as well as its complete presence, including the partial coverage of the face in traditional North African society) clash in the symmetrical presentation of both. The costume exposes the woman’s eyes and breasts while covering the rest with a black overgarment. The breasts, severed from each other by the hanging black cloth, appear as independent objects of desire suspended from an unknown locus.
In this image, the dominator (the photographer and the Western gaze concomitantly) inscribes His own image. His history—without rhetoric, without excuse, without hiding himself—on the body of the Oriental/female Other. The image summarizes, inadvertently, two modes of oppression: the first, His, in giving the North African woman a vengeful visibility, like a piece of goods prepared for market; the second, “traditional society’s” nycatolpy— the use of woman for private consumption and reproduction. Ultimately, Malek Alloula’s book is nothing but a recapitulation of the Westerner’s panoptical domination of His colony: His moments of frustration at the resistance of the colony’s refusal to be gazed at, His production of Orientalist truths, and finally the discipline that He imposes on the image, using people living in an economy that He himself has destroyed, who are eager to do anything to put bread upon their tables.
Alloula’s poetic maneuvers are nothing less than brilliant, although his semiotics are forced and operate without text and context. But, the main problem of the book lies elsewhere. Alloula’s ideological stance, which according to him is a point of nature, a moment of harmony before the advent of Western hegemony, and to which he turns constantly, is as oppressive as the one he criticizes. This is evident in the misappropriation of his theoretical mentor, Roland Barthes, to whom Alloula dedicates this book and from whose work, Camera Lucida, he quotes at length. Roland Barthes has written that the photograph authenticates the visual field it covers. He thus promotes an absence—an absence of the Body between a thing and its imprint. This is why a photograph is more a thing than its imprint. This is why a photograph is more about verification than representation. Although the photograph is largely continuous with the thing it reproduces, thus giving it truth value, the thing itself is subjected to a prior discipline and held in check by the encyclopedia of Orientalist truths through which the potential viewer will recognize its meaning. The scenes, harem and other topoi are augmented by reality effects, and kaoua (coffee) and the hookah, and completed with the phantasm: the odalisque, the almeh, and the algerienne.
Malek Alloula fails to understand the absence Barthes refers to, and how that absence is compensated by ideology. For Alloula there is on one side, a genuine Algeria and on the other, adulterated representations of it. He writes that “the photographer will respond to [the] quiet almost natural challenge [of the veil] by means of a double violation: he will unveil the veiled and give figural representation to the forbidden.” Here, a dangerous binary parallelism is set between a truth and a lie, a meaning and a sign, a natural state and a condition of conspiracy. It seems to me that the colonialist does not even need a prior reality to distort; he constructs an alternative hegemonic representation, in effect the only one that can be transmitted. In Edward Said’s words: “The images purporting to contain knowledge about something actual can create not only knowledge but also the reality they appear to describe.”
Contrary to Alloula’s belief, the logic of these postcards is derived, neither from the structure of the postcard, nor from an approximation of Oriental actuality, but from the theatrics of Orientalist painting. “Truer than a painting, more fanciful than an observation,” the photographic postcard is a cheap, egalitarian, reproducible succedaneum of a visual tradition. In particular, the postcards parallel Orientalist paintings which were touted as being “objective” and “archaeological.” As the prototypical “objective” painter, Gerome, for example, concealed his labor by suspending the plastic signifyier, offering a seamless surface laid out as a visual trophy for male desire. Both “scientific” practices (of photography and painting) operate by distancing themselves, representing subjects from the objects of representation. This principle of exteriority is nowhere more evident than in representations of the Orient.
Alloula attempts to deconstruct the imagery by exhibiting a panoply of postcards in ascending order of sexual deviancy (not the sexual choice of the photographed figures of course, but an order imposed on them for the delectation of the male gaze). Now, deconstruction can be possible only when the ideology in question is concealed. These images are so banal they need no deconstruction. He writes, for example, that “for the photographer as well as for the viewer, kaoua is the sublimation of the aromatic soul of the orient.” Such tiresome textual maneuvers abound, many spiced with a paranoid dash of conspiracy theory. Speaking of the photographs’ “tawdriness,” he writes, “It is its original sin, its mark of infamy, in sum, its signature at the bottom of a counterfeit.”
Furthermore, Alloula narrowly defines his subject matter, choosing not to place the postcards in their historical context. In fact, the postcards do not constitute an isolated case. The practice of a trade in photographic images of “Oriental” women was neither separated from, nor unique to the general manufacture of, “Oriental” imagery. Postcards of women were rather a part of the Orientalist stock in trade which also dealt in “touristic,” “ethnographic,” “architectural” and biblical photographic views. Starting in the second half of the 19th century, these photographs and postcards were sold in studios instituted by Europeans and in hotels all over North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean.
Europeans classified and institutionalized not only Middle Eastern peoples, but other “primitif” and peripheral cultures. Representation of the Algerienne takes its place within the general representations of certain classes of women: French laundresses, ballet dancers and so on as well as the Bretonne peasant. The “scientific”/ ethnographic pretext used to bare women’s breasts in some of the Algerian postcards, or their obvious puns (such as the depiction of a woman subtitled “cracked jug’’) are merely hvperbanal versions of an iconography that also operated to painting, both inside and outside Orientalist contexts.
Alloula treats the subject of Algerian woman as a metaphor for his own traditional dispossession into the hands of the superior intruder. Social blindness is his only strategy of resistance. Alloula’s statement that “Algerian society, particularly the world of women…counterpoises to [the photographer] a smooth and homogenous surface free of any cracks through which he could slip his indiscreet lens,” and his concepts of both “the womanly gaze” (that which returns another’s gaze like a mirror, a surface refusing signification), and the “unmixing of the sexes” represent no more than a need to reestablish the status quo.
While one has to call into question the photographic operation itself—as exposing and metaphorical trophying—one might also take issue with the systems of enclosure, not only in the North African city fabric (dead ends, privatized streets, doors opening to blind walls) but also in women’s dress codes which allow them to carry their privacy from the home and into the street. Tins elaborate system of shells, the sole function of which is to divert the male gaze, has the woman at the center. Alloula cherishes this paradigm.
That his revanchism embodies a patriarchal emasculation is most apparent in the last sentence of the book. “Voyeurism turns into an obsessive neurosis. The great erotic dream, ebbing from the sad faces of wage earners in the poses, lets appear in the flotsam perpetuated by the postcard, another figure, that of impotence. ‘’