The Mediation of Popular Culture: Tours and Travellers Accounts
Much of Marmaduke Pickthall’s Near Eastern fiction, as well as his commentary and reportage on the Muslim and Arab world, concerns representation, or, simply put, how the West sees the people of the region and how they see us, hence seeing and being seen. This is not, however, an egalitarian dialectic of recognition rather it is a one-way relationship of domination where the serf recognizes the master. Moreover, as Pickthall understands this dialectic, this relationship of seeing and being seen is intertwined with geo-politics, commerce, and, in the case of the West, the bigotry and related fantasy that accompanies empire, especially when the people and culture Near East are involved. The geopolitics we find in the historical references which mark several of his novels, such as the sectarian massacres of Damascus and the appearance of the legendary leader, Abdul Qadir (in Said the Fisherman), or the Suez Canal and the ‘Arabi uprising (in Veiled Women). Pickthall grounds his fiction in historical events as though to tell remind the reader that the issues in his novels are wrapped in fictional narrative, but the kernel of the story at hand is very real. However, the stuff that finally wraps and obscures this kernel of truth which Pickthall is so intent on preserving and exposing is the commerce and bigotry/fantasy which mediates the conquest of the region and everyday life for everyone, colonizer and colonized. In two of Pickthall’s novels I will address here, The Valley of the Kings and Veiled Women, the commerce involves powerful forms of popular culture, that is, the tourist trade, from the Grand Tour to Cook’s Tours, and popular literature about the region, especially travellers’ accounts, and especially those written by Englishwomen about Arab women and the harem. I will show that the way Pickthall sets up each novel, as a matter of character and plot, is his novelist’s way of undermining the truth discourse of these forms of popular culture.
As a matter of definition I refer to popular culture as “popular” in that the common usage of this word evokes the “people” which usually refers to the middle class, or the masses. In this last sense popular culture is finally mass
In 1922 Pickthall published a collection of short stories, As Others See Us, written in the decade before World War i. We should remember that in the aftermath of World War i Pickthall was pressured by the political, professional and social fallout of his wartime public stances – With the Turk in Wartime, for example – and his conversion to Islam, and so in some ways this collection is a farewell to his pre-war literary persona, a sentiment which resonates with his comments on the foreword page of the collection. Many of the stories concern the Near East (and Turkey), and also, as the title suggests, concern representation and the Western-Arab/Muslim encounter. One short story, “Between Ourselves” is particularly striking as it differs in tone from his novels, though one of the characters, an Egyptian journalist named Abbas, portends other abject figures in Pickthall’s novels, such as Said or Iskender. The difference of tone is due to the structure of the story as it is for the most part a first-hand account rendered as a kind of colonial tale and so it is entirely comprised of the language and world view of three pompous and bigoted British colonials. In the story these three friends are aboard a steamer, literally sitting in deck chairs aboard the P & O Marmora – the name is a signifier of Oriental travel – and in a narrative setup akin to the work of Joseph Conrad, they tell tales of their colonial adventures (after an encounter with a fellow traveller, an Anglo-Indian woman, which suggests something else altogether). The narrator tells about his relationship with Abbas, whose acquaintance he humoured and tolerated for a while, and then the latter’s relationship with an American woman, who “studied Egypt” and “published a book in which I figured as the love-sick hero”2 Abbas is at once a kind of nationalist and an Anglophile, as he believes the British occupation will bring just-rule to Egypt, for which he is slandered in the press by rival political parties. He turns to the narrator and the British for help, and so the narrator tells him bluntly that the occupation is about British
A Portrait of Self and The Valley of the Kings
Peter Clark, the eminent expert on the life and work of Marmaduke Pickthall calls this 1909 novel a “tale of guile and gullibility”4 which it is, and more, for while the tone of the narrative is neutral, the story traced here is at once bitter and sweet. Clark identifies the setting as “coastal Palestine” which was a larger and much different region prior to World War i. The time of the novel is approximately the 1870s as the details concerning Cook’s Tours and the local tourist trade – the use of independent dragomans and ad hoc trip organization – suggest a moment on the cusp, just before the 1880s industrialization of Holy Land tourism by the former company.5 Moreover, as we shall discover, the liminality of this moment is important for the theme and narrative trajectory of the novel. Of course, as this is Palestine one might expect the novel to concern Biblical topics or such, and though it does in some respects insofar as religion is a factor in the novel’s plot, the novel does not offer the usual fare.6 We might start to delineate the differences with the central character, whom Clark succinctly describes as “a poor Palestinian Christian called Iskender”.7 The village where the latter lives is Christian, though sharply split between the
The novel opens with the eldest of the mission women, Sitt Carûlîn, chastising Iskender for making romantic advances on the youngest of the women, Sitt Hilda. Iskender loves to paint and the latter gave him advice and at some point touched his hand, a gesture he interpreted as an invitation. As a result Iskender is banished from the mission though he quickly finds a substitute object of desire – Clark tells us that Iskender “becomes besotted”9 – that is, a newly arrived young Englishman, known throughout the novel as the “Emir”. The main business of the village seems to be tourism of an early sort, and the local men have related jobs as cooks, hoteliers and hotel staff, and, most importantly, as dragomans, or tour guides. Indeed, Iskender’s uncle Abdullah is a Cook’s dragoman, a point we will return to shortly. Iskender meets the Englishman by chance when the latter approaches him from behind while Iskender paints, oblivious. The Englishman offers some advice, a point we shall also discuss shortly, and invitations are offered. Iskender’s mother presses him to offer the “Emir” his services, presumably as a youthful dragoman or personal assistant, which he does, though for reasons contrary and all his own. Instead of wanting to please the Englishman with services for hire, for the Emir to pay him, Iskender spends his own money and time, and uses his own social resources to please the “Emir” for no compensation. Iskender simply wants the Englishman’s approval and friendship, and, yes, perhaps his love. At one point, after a series of small gifts, and while accompanying the “Emir” on a tour with Elias acting as dragoman, the Englishman gives Iskender a gold coin, a “trifle”, as
Indeed, it is Iskender’s jealousy towards Elias, for the love and attention of the “Emir” that brings about a decisive series of events. Unable to compete with the audacity and obsequiousness of Elias, Iskender offers to take the “Emir” to see the Valley of the Kings, thus the title of the novel. This site, where he promises the “Emir” he will find gold, is not the famous ancient Egyptian archaeological site, but, Clark suggests, possibly the ancient Nabatean city of Petra in modern Jordan. Though Petra is very well known now, it was not officially excavated until the early twentieth century when it was acclaimed by the likes of amateur archaeologist, soldier and folk hero, T.E. Lawrence.11 Iskender has no idea where this site lies, like many dragomans before, at least before Cook’s Tours – more on this company shortly – he nonetheless gathers together the requisite food and camping gear as well as donkeys, horses, and support staff. The trip is a disaster as the “Emir” falls ill-presumably with a viral infection, or worse as cholera was an epidemic in the region at that time – and as they narrowly avoid being taken hostage by a Bedouin tribe who instead host them when Iskender informs them his “Emir” is crazed.12 For his effort the Englishman violently strikes Iskender and the situation deteriorates the latter dispatches the cook on the horse to the mission and help.
Father Ice, the preacher, rides out with the women of the mission and carry the “Emir” back to the village. Iskender follows, but he is now a disgrace to everyone. As an abject character at his lowest point, instead of leaving the village or somehow breaking and rising above the situation he spies on the mission, hoping for a glimpse of the “Emir” and imagining a possible romance with Hilda, now the Englishman’s nurse. Once he is caught he can sink no lower, though he is fortunate that Mîtri offers him a deal: as a convert and with baptism in the Orthodox Church he will send Iskender to Quds (Jerusalem) to apprentice with a family member as an icon painter. Iskender accepts the deal
Clark emphasizes several aspects of the novel which distinguish it: the representation and thematic function of religion and the role of art. Religion in The Valley of the Kings is not the expected Muslim-Christian divide, but rather a cold and occasionally hostile relationship between the Greek Orthodox church, that is the “indigenous” form of Christianity, and the Anglican mission, whose outsider status seems to be a large part of the way these missionaries function. In no sense do the English missionaries want to assimilate their faith and practice, never mind their bodies amongst the local Palestinians. Moreover, and this is a point Clark does not make, though it is clearly within the terms of the novel, Western Christians were infamous for their contempt for Arab Christians. The Copts and Armenians, in particular, were despised by Western travellers, just as, Donald Malcolm Reid comments, “philhellenes” despised modern Greeks for not being the ancient heroes they wanted to see.13 On the other hand, and as Clark notes, Mîtri, the Arab Orthodox village priest is also aware that he too must obey an outsider, in this instance a Greek superior appointed by the church powers based far from Palestine. It is this last point that Clark, rightly, interprets as a theme of the novel, that Iskender’s final embrace of the Orthodox Church is more than a religious expression of faith, but also a demonstration of solidarity with his village and larger, Palestinian, community. Indeed, and as Clark quotes from the text, Mîtri declares, “With the Muslimîn we have in common language, country, and the intercourse of daily life. Therefore, I say, a Muslim is less abominable before Allah than a Latin or a Brûtestânt”.14
This same theme of communal solidarity carries over to painting. Again, for most of the novel Iskender is painting with paint sets – probably watercolour – which were provided, at least in the second instance, by outsiders (the young Englishman). Two English characters, Sitt Hilda and the “Emir” offer Iskender advice about perspective and technique. As Clark comments, “Iskender’s instinct is to make the most important object he represents occupy the largest portion of the canvas”.15 One, rather humorous example is the landscape which features the large head of a camel, which, as we might imagine is a kind of portrait of an unaesthetic animal. Clark’s point though is that Iskender is attempting to paint as a Westerner but in his heart and artistic soul he is Eastern, an Arab Christian. It is apt then that the novel is resolved when Iskender takes
The graph of the novel’s narrative traces a low point, followed by a dip down, and then a precipitous drop, a bottoming out followed by an equally sharp rise to a new highpoint. That is, at the start of The Valley of the Kings we meet a young naïve Iskender clumsily seeking affection from an (unavailable and horrified) Englishwoman, a situation which worsens when he abjectly pursues the attention, even love, of a rather shallow young Englishman, all of which ends up with the near-death of the “Emir” and leaving Iskender a near pariah in his village. Yet with the return from Jerusalem – and all this implies in a Biblical sense – Iskender is reborn, to such an extent that, as Clark notes, he is neither jealous nor ashamed when he catches sight of his previous rival for attention at the mission. Asad, the latter, is now a minister and married to an Englishwoman, whom Iskender notes, is not attractive, while he is not ashamed in the eyes of his former rival. Two points are clear with the above in mind. First, this novel is clearly a kind of bildungsroman centred around the bildung or development (of character and consciousness) of an Arab Palestinian, Iskender. Of course that Iskender is the colonized native, not the colonizer traveller is Pickthall’s innovation and provocation. Also, Iskender is never cast in any essential or romantic way as a simple or purer character, from an organic community. Again, as noted above, he is a gullible, abject young man from a village which is in no sense pure but rather where all the villagers are in some way attached to what we now know as the tourist trade. Yet, at the end Iskender rises above all circumstances as a new man, a stronger native consciousness, portending a kind of nationalist consciousness which can engage the modern world.
The “Emir”, a weak character who flees the village under the wing of his bigoted soldier uncle – veteran of India – is a far cry from the sort of sensualist ideal Boswell and his exploits might represent for some.
The terrific zest with which Boswell participated in all the life he met was inseparable in the man from his ingenuousness, his egoism, his openness, his sheer likeability. It makes him an irresistible reporter of his vacations. This is how to enjoy yourself; it is to feel things so fully, partly because they are worth it, partly because he’s like that. He lives it all, and mitigates nothing. This is feeling in the big Romantic sense, for he is on his Sentimental Education.19
Back to the novel, Iskender’s painting is by no means a coincidence here. As Inglis explains at length, many of these young men went on the Grand Tour to view paintings by the masters of the Renaissance and also to paint. As watercolour paints were portable and inexpensive – think back to Iskender’s paint box – these were the medium of choice so that these young gentlemen could record their experiences and thoughts on cartridge paper.20 Iskender is inspired, and unconsciously so, by an eighteenth-century ideal of the Grand Tour.
Yet Boswell and his ilk were not simply tourists, and more akin to a kind of traveller. Travellers integrated themselves into the life of the place they visit. They spend time there and meet the locals.21 By the nineteenth century this distinction, between travellers and tourists was to develop sharply as Cook, in particular, turned the holiday trade into an industry with a geopolitical dimension. Starting in 1868 Cook established Nile river holidays using local boats,
Though The Valley of the Kings is clearly set in the time of Cook’s Tours, as, again, Abdullah is a “Cook’s man” and we are told that “[e]ach steamer that touched at the port disgorged a little crowd of travellers”,24 these Westerners are still travellers, as the text tells us, not yet tourists. This point is important as tourists use guidebooks in addition to dragoman services, and, more to the point, Pickthall’s novel is mediated, as a novel set in Palestine, by the burst of guidebook publication in the late nineteenth century. Reid documents the publication and increasing expert advice offered by Murray, Baedeker and Joanne guidebooks, a literature which haunts Pickthall’s novel.25
Iskender’s “Emir” is by no means a deep character, for we do not even know his name. Yet, he serves a structural function here in two respects, and with regard to the Grand Tour and what it represented and the Cook’s Tour. If we consider this novel as a kind of Arab Palestinian bildungsroman, then Iskender is going about, in some ways an outdated Grand Tour, as his painting suggest. He is attempting to understand and live through Romantic concepts of self and beauty which are, first, antiquated, and with which he has no meaningful connection. Iskender is not Boswell, whether as a lover, painter or writer. Yet his foil is the “Emir” to whom he ascribes virtues and value the shallow young Englishman does not merit. In fact the “Emir” is just another tourist, nothing special. If the novel were set twenty years later perhaps the young man would have been part of a Cook’s Tour and he would never have encountered Iskender. What we should understand is that this process of bildung, of developing consciousness and an authentic sense and strength of self, is mediated by the legacy and present of the tourism trade. Iskender must first throw off the ideological baggage of the Grand Tour and pursue meaning which works for him and in his terms, that is, of Palestine.
The Harem Viewed Awry: Veiled Women
Marmaduke Pickthall’s Veiled Women was published in 1913, a date which precedes his pro-Turk wartime writing and his conversion to Islam (publicly announced in 1917), and in some ways marks an end to his career as an otherwise mainstream English prose writer. Veiled Women is a novel, and, as the title suggests, it is about just that, and more specifically the harem or women’s quarters of a high level Egyptian official in the administration of the Khedive, Muhammad Pasha Salîh. The central figure, our heroine of sorts, is a governess whose English name, the rather banal Mary Smith, we do not learn until late in the novel is known by her Arabic name, Barakah. She is given this name early in the novel, for she has no sooner arrived in the household and met her young male charge, Yûsuf Bey, the son the Pasha, than the young man falls in love with her. His unrequited love quickly manifests as an illness, though he confesses the cause to his horrified mother Fitnah Khânum.
Peter Clark declares Veiled Women to be the author’s “most ambitious novel”, for “[i]n it he is explaining, describing and justifying harim life”.26Veiled Women is especially interesting and remarkable today as it is a novel about the life of an English woman, an orphan without independent means, working within an upper class Egyptian household in Cairo. The novel falls roughly into two parts, as Clark notes, with the first part set in the courtship and early years of the marriage and the second set in “the period of the ‘Arabi revolt, 1879–82”.27 This novel is ambitious as in its time and today it is about how Arab women are seen and how they see themselves, from their perspective in a mediated way (Barakah is finally English, after all), and then how others see and write about Arab women, both travellers and critics. As we shall see in turn, the view of the harem – by men and women, English and Arab – spying on Arab women has a proved a robust and profitable popular literary idiom.
We should note here, that Mrs. Cameron declares herself ready to commit what we know in the West as a an honour killing, to which Barakah responds, using “we” to include herself among the Egyptians, that she, Mrs. Cameron, knows nothing about the lives of native women. She continues, “Underneath our veils, in our own houses, we are just as happy and as free as you are. […] It is too droll!”31
My love, you must not be allowed to do it – you, an Englishwoman! It degrades us all. I have lived out here for years and I assure you that, if a daughter of mine declared her will to marry one of them, sooner than it should happen I would kill her with my own hands. A girl! – It is unheard of! With their view of women.30
Indeed, Barakah truly believes that life in the harem is free by comparison to a woman’s life in England. Thus, “The world of women [in the harem] was, she found, a great republic, with liberties extended to the meanest slave, and something of the strength that comes with solidarity”.32 And so, Barakah is at first content to explore the terms of her new life, but runs afoul of the culture when she goes for a walk alone and is harassed by local men. Yûsuf Bey, her husband, berates and beats her, while her father-in-law, the Pasha, counsels her to accept the lack of freedom as part of her new life and culture. To satisfy her, however, the Pasha moves her and her household to a separate house. Later, the Pasha and Yûsuf arrange a visit to Paris. Barakah has looked forward to seeing the city – she speaks French – yet it ends disastrously when she and Yûsuf’s brother’s mistress are left in their hotel rooms as the men go out on
The Pasha is clearly a kind of benign patriarch, but, for Pickthall, a patriarch in a pejorative sense nonetheless. In the second phase Barakah gives birth to several children, most of whom die in childbirth or due to typhoid. The first one who survives is a boy, Muhammad, who is a spoiled bully. As his behaviour turns violent towards other children the rest of the female household pleads with the Pasha to intervene, which he does. His solution is to take the child away from Barakah and, when he is seven, send him to school. Barakah is devastated but accepts the situation, and her son grows up apart from her.
Veiled Women, like several of Pickthall’s other novels – Saïd the Fisherman, for example – has a world historical dimension; that is, the narrative of the novel is intertwined with real historical events. And so there is mention of the Suez Canal and Cairo performances of Don Giovanni, and, as Clark notes, the ‘Arabi revolt takes up a good deal of the last part of the novel as Barakah’s son, Muhammad, though only fifteen, joins the nationalist army to fight the English occupier as an Egyptian nationalist, despite his English mother. Unfortunately he is tasked to train new recruits, both boys and men, who are largely peasants, fellahin. As he is both a brat and an elitist, his behaviour towards the men is ugly and violent. It is no surprise when the men mutiny and stab him to death. Muhammad is proclaimed a martyr and given a funeral procession, though his mother is devastated. After the funeral Barakah flees the house and her husband, and races across Cairo, whose streets are full of people, variously fleeing the British army. With the loss of her son, at this point Barakah doubts her life in the harem and her faith in Islam, though she returns, eventually, to Yûsuf’s house and her Cairo life. Soon, however, Barakah leaves again and presents herself to the British authority, a military man unknown to her. She tells him her name and that she has married an Egyptian, but wants to return to England, to “return to Christianity”. As she speaks she realizes the official is staring at her appearance as she looks like an Egyptian woman due to her make-up, clothing and even her accent. “She was not a European any longer. Her very words resounded with a foreign accent. From the moment of her entering the presence of this hateful man, she had been persuaded of the folly of her errand, out of heart with it”.33 Of course her request is refused and she
Clark, as noted above, argues that Veiled Women stands out in Pickthall’s oeuvre, largely due to its topic, Arab and Muslim women. He writes: “Men in Egypt, Pickthall shows, have a political and economic monopoly of power in public. In the home this monopoly is circumscribed by the force of personality of women and by property rights safeguarded in the marriage contract”.35 Today most readers would find Clark’s defence of Pickthall unacceptable, though he is correct to point out that Pickthall is as aggressive in critiquing the deficiencies of life in the harem – concubines, polygamy, the inability to move freely, and spousal violence, all of which are features of Barakah’s life in Cairo. Another way to read Veiled Women, other than as a treatise about women, Islam and the West, is as Pickthall’s riposte to the popular accounts of the harem written by English and Western women travellers. Perhaps he had Emmeline Lott’s racist narrative of an English governess in mind, The English Governess in Egypt, Harem Life in Egypt and Constantinople (1866). In fact, there are many similar books and texts which preceded and followed Pickthall’s novel, and some were written by women, both English and Egyptian.36 This novel differs in that the protagonist, Barakah, is, poor and without significant relations, so we might safely assume her to be lower middle class, a subject position which is unknown in this genre of literature, broadly construed.
Yet, even as our protagonist is unique – as a matter of class and attitude towards England – she is not the narrator or voice of the novel, that is, the novel does not directly represent the consciousness of a lower middle-class English woman, but rather her thoughts are rendered through the voice of an absent and omniscient narrator. And, of course, this leads any reader to align the narrator’s voice with that of our author, Marmaduke Pickthall. So, in the last
The point of view of a man is, however, a feature of this genre of Orientalist literature, if not Orientalism as a whole (cultural and historical form). Indeed, Billie Melman, whose Women Orients: English Women in the Middle East, 1718–191837 is dedicated to the recovery and substantiation of an alternative Western women’s point of view vis-à-vis the Arab and Muslim world, and especially Arab and Muslim women, establishes early in her argument that the Antoine Galland compilation and translation (first into French then into English) of The Thousand and One Nights is critical to our understanding of nineteenth century Western thought – or fantasy in this instance – about the everyday life of “Orientals”, especially the women of the region. Consider, then that a fundamental structural feature of this “Ur” text of modern Orientalist thought and fantasy is the posture and pleasure of the male viewer, in this instance the two kings who spy on their wives as the latter make love with slaves, that is, in a viewing posture intertwined with passive if not vicarious pleasure. As she points out, the Galland version of the text edited out the bawdy and lewd language and scenes of the original text, all of which Richard Burton, of course, reproduced and emphasized in his later annotated editions of The Thousand and One Nights.
Veiled Women has characters, plot lines and themes in common with three established subgenres of Orientalist fiction of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These are harem literature, captivity tales and conversion narratives. Concerning the first, Reina Lewis, following Billie Melman’s work, argues that Cook’s Tours and other popular means of travel had much to do with an explosion of interest in stories about the harem, or the haremlik, the interior space of a (usually) wealthy Ottoman family where the women and small children of the family lived. Of course, and with reference again to The Thousand and One Nights and the languid odalisques of European painting, the harem was also the quarters of the mythic Sultan’s concubines and the site of orgy and debauchery. Melman establishes Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Turkish Embassy Letters of 1763, though the Western female account of the harem fully blossomed only in the following century.38 Thus, by the middle of the nineteenth
As to the popularity of the genre, it precedes this niche market – women travellers eye-witness accounts of the harem – and has a good deal to do with the literary and art examples noted above which nurtured the licentious fantasies of the “fleshpots of Egypt”. Billie Melman cites Flaubert’s accounts of Kucuk Hanim and Pierre Loti’s novels as examples of male fantasy-laden accounts which are countered by the later women’s accounts. From this difference Melman extrapolates her argument, that these women’s accounts of the harem were not only truly informed, but as women’s accounts about other women, are also “a challenge to traditional notions on the Orient and to middle-class gender ideology in the West”.40
Women’s insights into the harem were enthusiastically, though not uncritically, received and women were well aware that their access to the mysterious harem would make their books or articles desirable. After the flush of publications of in the 1850s numbers rose steadily until they peaked in the 1890s. Though numbers of new books published after that started to decrease dramatically (to below the 1850 level), the field remained popular, during, and after the First World War.39
A variant of the harem novel is Orientalist captivity literature, which we can trace to various accounts by men and women from the sixteenth century forward, a list which includes Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, as well as Daniel Defoe’s famous literary character, Robinson Crusoe. Of course there is also The Lustful Turk (1828), a pornographic English novel of uncertain origin and authorship, set in Algeria, and the basis of a chapter in Steven
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the captivity narrative remained popular, especially during the 1884 to 1899 Anglo-Egyptian war in the Sudan (such as key scenes within the infamous prison in Omdurman in A.E.W. Mason’s The Four Feathers (1902)) and published prisoner narratives from this campaign. The tangents of the captivity narrative, that is the female captivity narrative and the pornographic examples such as The Lustful Turk, are intertwined in the twentieth century with the huge popularity of Edith Maude Hull’s The Sheik (1919) – and the film adaptation (1921), starring Rudolf Valentino – and even Paul Bowles’ mid-century American novel, The Sheltering Sky (1949).
Veiled Women overlaps with a third popular literary genre, the conversion or “crossing over” narrative. Again, Mrs. Cameron’s horror upon hearing Barakah’s “we” invokes this genre, though there is a later scene, at the end of the novel, which produces the visceral nature of the responses which these narratives provoked. On the other hand tales of conversion were popular. Conversion here might refer to an English man or woman proclaiming himself
The “cross dressing” examples above are all of men, though there were Englishwomen who dressed as Arab women, as in well-known photographs of Lady Blunt and others, while Lady Stanhope famously dressed in Arab men’s clothing. Shirley Foster dedicates a good deal of attention to these women’s accounts, particularly those of the Honourable Mrs. William Grey, Emily Beaufort, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Lucy Duff Gordon. All of these women commented at length about dressing as Arab women, with special attention to the make-up (eyebrows and eyeliner), and the bodies of Arab women. Most were disgusted or at least put-off, though now their comments – especially comments concerning the bodies of Arab women, which they viewed in the baths and while dancing in the harem quarters – are quite racist and prudish (at the least). It is difficult to accept, then that Foster, following Melman’s lead, finds that these accounts “offer a counter-hegemonic viewpoint” as they are women’s accounts, indeed, about other non-Western and colonized women.45
Victorian women writers did not (could not) challenge male discursive strategies. They adopted male gender politics and pursued the sexual metaphor in their perception and representation of themselves and the Egyptians, acceding rather than subverting male fantasy.49
Some Terms for Conclusion
At this juncture, and especially with regard to Veiled Women, it would seem that Pickthall has taken on an intractable problem, that is, the bigotry of the West towards the Arab Muslim world, and the ways that this bigotry functions as a constitutive fantasy which is intertwined with cultural, economic, and political relations – geopolitics in the broadest sense. I have suggested that in Veiled Women and to an extent in The Valley of Kings, Pickthall has resorted to religion in order to bring about a satisfactory conclusion to each novel, and so resolve this same intractable problem. Iskender, after all, resolves his life situation and the knots of the plot in The Valley of Kings, as well as his self-doubt, when he returns to the “indigenous” Greek Orthodox Church. Narrative conclusion is a matter of faith in Veiled Women as well for it is Barakah’s acceptance of her lot, and, according to the narrative voice, her discovery of true Islam, at the conclusion which ends the novel, and yet leaves most modern, if not early twentieth-century Western readers discomforted. Indeed, read in a most critical light, Pickthall, has literally brought God into the novel machine, offering a way out of the dilemmas of plot and topic through faith. Moreover, as Veiled Women is about women, and the position of women in a patriarchal society, the recourse to mektoub (again, “that which is written”) suggests that women accept the unacceptable. On the other hand, mektoub is in a general sense a familiar idea in both Christian and secular Western culture, for while it is a fatalistic approach to the challenges of human life, it entails a recognition that the universe is greater than any single human being. We might call this a kind of existential nothingness, or the “boum” of Forster’s Marabar caves.
Yet, we can accept these two novels in the religious spirit with which Pickthall intended them, and still find something here which is refreshing and
Given the dispute over the meaning of Western women’s travellers’ accounts of the Near East, and Arab women and the harem, and indeed all such Western accounts, how can or should we read these texts today? That is, despite good intentions (stated or imputed), and despite the ambiguity which a good critic can draw from these accounts, are they all in the last instance so laden with the burden of empire and racism? Overdetermination, as it is derived from the work of Sigmund Freud to describe how the multiple sources of a dream form a unity, a dream narrative is useful here, for this term might help us understand that while all the tangents and loose ends of these accounts suggest something noble, or transgressive, nonetheless the consequence and final reading of these texts is otherwise. How does the norm assert itself and shape or trim these loose ends? The difficulty which this term brings, first lies with ascribing meaning in any absolutist manner, whether to dreams or to Anglophone accounts of the Arab world, and then to emphasize the particular over the determining factors which might be in play. Moreover, the determining factors here are the rules and terms with which Egypt, or the Orient, might be represented. So, jumping to another more modern medium, film, and following Laura Mulvey’s thoughts on the male gaze, just as we learn to see and enjoy Hollywood films from a male perspective, so Orientalism as a system of representation offers only a male and decisively tainted way of representing the harem.50 In order to see or represent we cannot simply declare new ways of seeing or writing. To get there from here, to undo Orientalism – and much more – requires a long revolution. And this point concerns Pickthall as much as the Western travellers to the Oriental harem, and their latter-day critic advocates, as now we have to view the conclusion of both novels as our author’s recourse to idealism or (religious) mystification, or both, but all in order to end and bring closure to the painful narrative at hand.
Again, Pickthall is an idealist as, at least in these two novels, his central characters, Iskender and Barakah, are themselves hybrids of a sort. Iskender is from a village which depends on tourism and his function is as a native informant
Finally, there is enjoyment. By enjoyment I refer to the pleasures of mass culture, of candies and packaged fun and distraction. I also refer to enjoyment as the carnivalesque, that is, as the tumult and excitement of anything that breaks the monotony of the everyday. For Westerners and in our novels, enjoyment was met in both senses – the exoticism of the Near East offered pleasures of the senses, especially the body, and something which broke the monotony, a world which was violent, noisy, disorganized, and unruly. I am not sure Pickthall had an answer here, only asceticism and withdrawal, where something more powerful and critical was needed, and today as then.
Abdel-HakimSahar Sobhi. “Gender Politics in a Colonial Context: Victorian Women’s Accounts of Egypt”. in Paul and JanetStarkey eds. Interpreting the Orient: Travellers in Egypt and the Near East. Reading: Ithaca2001209–217.
BarDoron and Cohen-HattabKobi. “A New Kind of Pilgrimage: The Modern Tourist Pilgrim the Nineteenth – Century and Early Twentieth-Century Palestine”. Middle Eastern Studies392 (2003) 131–148.
HoevelerDiane Long. “The Female Captivity Narrative: Blood, Water, and Orientalism”. in Long-HoevelerDiane and CassJeffrey eds. Interrogating Orientalism: ontextual Approaches and Pedagogical Practices. Columbus (OH): Ohio State UP2006.