Oriental Eyes, or Seeing and Being Seen: Popular Culture and the Near Eastern Fiction of Marmaduke Pickthall

in Marmaduke Pickthall: Islam and the Modern World
Open Access

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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 The geopolitics we find in the historical references which mark several of his novels, such as the sectarian massacres of Damascus and the appearance of the legendary leader, Abdul Qadir (in Said the Fisherman),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 culture, and anyone who studies tourism, and especially Cook’s Tours, and popular literature will readily agree that both are industrial forms of culture which assume a market of industrialized society and social relations. Raymond Williams was correct, years ago, when he argued repeatedly that the masses and mass culture was, and remains, a way of seeing others, and so, in a sense that is askew or awry there lies the connection to this essay.1 Yet, popular culture is at root about exchangeability, and so, uniformity, on the one hand, but, in the context of our two examples concerning the people and culture of the Near East, an operative idea of absolute difference is an essential feature of the market.

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 interests alone, not justice for Egyptians. And so Abbas sets out for London to inform the British people of the truth where like other Arab characters in Pickthall’s fiction he starts the final downward spiral. Abbas is eventually deported and, in an Egyptian jail, his final words to the narrator are to convert to Islam and forsake England: “Then I realized that he was adjuring me, for my soul’s good, to leave the English and become a Muslim and an Oriental. It made me wince as if I had been stung”.3 The narrator’s companions are outraged by the tale, though due to this last request, not because a good, albeit naïve Arab man ended his life in such a way. This tale involves only one end of the dialectic and tells us much, as the recognition of equals is made impossible by implacable bigotry or, in the case of the narrator the good intentions of a liberal colonial.

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 Greek Orthodox congregation, the majority and “indigenous” group, and the Anglican mission with its English and (few) Arab followers. Clark adds that Iskender (Alexander in English) is from an Orthodox family, but this is not exactly the case as his mother is part of the same small congregation of Palestinian Anglicans – who identify themselves as “Brûtestânts”. The other characters in the novel include the wily, wise, sometimes cruel and sometimes kind priest, Mîtri and his attractive young daughter Nesîbeh, as well as Iskender’s contemporaries, Elias, the bully Yuhanna, and two brothers, Daoud and Selim, whose father, Mûsa Barûdi, owns the local Hotel Barûdi. Mentioned only in passing, though notable today, is Karlsberger’s, an inn owned by a European Jewish immigrant and his wife. The latter is described by the narrator as a “harlot”, which, alas, we should accept as an example of Pickthall’s anti-Semitic prejudice. The mission is led by a preacher known by the villagers as the “Father of Ice” due to his demeanor and harsh sectarian outlook, and there are several English women whom Clark refers to as nuns, though this is not so clear.8

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 Elias has informed him that the boy is poor, not rich as he assumed. Iskender’s response gives us some insight into his character: “He murmured words of thanks perfunctorily, the while he gnashed his teeth with secret rage. Such kindness was an outrage to his love, being given at the bidding, in the presence of the rogue Elias”.10

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 and eventually returns to the village as a successful young man and marries Nesîbeh.

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 up icon painting as a successful career – which he learns as an apprentice in Al-Quds/Jerusalem – allowing him to return to the village with dignity and strength at the end of the novel.

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 second, an obvious point to make is that this is a novel about the tourist trade, a new business in a developmental stage and caught in a dialectic with its antecedent, the Grand Tour. The latter was, briefly sketched, the requisite tour of Europe, especially the Mediterranean countries, which all young bourgeois Englishmen of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century were expected to undertake as part of their education. The tour was supposed to be about scholarship on site in classical locations in Italy (Rome, Florence and Venice) and Greece, where young men might be led on tours by the likes of Johann Winckelmann, the author of History of the Art of Antiquity.16 Indeed crucial concepts of the Augustan era in British culture, such as the beautiful and the sentimental, and the self were intertwined with the journey, the Grand Tour.17 Of course the reality was something else, as these young men of the English elite established a legacy of pleasure seeking and bad behaviour which haunts the reputation of British tourists today. In his excellent (and well titled) book The Delicious History of the Holiday, Fred Inglis notes that James Boswell fully indulged, eating too much, drinking too much, and having as much sex as possible.18 The result was a sexually transmitted disease in Rome, which Boswell waited to rid himself of before venturing on to Venice. There he and an aristocrat companion, Lord Mountstuart, had relations with a prostitute with the same result. Still, Inglis finds something likeable here:

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

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.

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, and then their own steamboats which were in some cases built in Egypt. By the 1880s Cook had regularly scheduled tours up the Nile then back to Suez and up to Port Said and on to Jaffa and the Holy Land tour. John Mason Cook, the son of the company founder, boasted that Cook accounted for over seventy-five per cent of Western tourists to the Holy Land.22 These tourists were not the young aristocratic elite of England, however, but upper middle class and, interestingly, many were women.23

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.

As Clark notes, the novel traces Barakah’s integration into the women’s quarters, and as such it is a novel about women, Arab and Muslim women in Cairo. Clearly, this, the social position and context of the central figure, is notable. The characters include the wives of the Pasha, Fitnah Khânum and Marjânah Khânum, as well as a worldly and wise relative, Aminah Khânum. There are slaves and a eunuch, as well as crones – Umm ed-Dahak – and others who practice the dark arts of a culture far different from that of Barakah’s England. Yet, Barakah quickly adopts her new life, which she sees as a rebellion against her training and previous life in England. Thus, she justifies her position: “What had she to regret? From childhood she had been repressed, humiliated, and ordered to be thankful for her daily bread”.28 As for the religious aspect of her decision, for she has, as the women of the house put it “islamed”, Barakah defiantly tells herself, “In Christian families [previous employers we are to assume] her lot had been unenviable. Here, in the Muslim household, she was somebody”29 Yet before Barakah marries she is summoned to the house of the Consul to meet his wife, Mrs. Cameron. The latter immediately pleads with Barakah, in the strong and prejudiced terms, asking her not to marry the Pasha’s son:

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

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

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 town seeking French women. Instead they are involved in a brawl and the Pasha’s diplomat friend must intervene. So the group leaves for Switzerland, which, again, Barakah was looking forward to seeing, with the forests, streams and mountains, a terrain different from that of Egypt. The Egyptians, however, are disconsolate in this strange environment and so they return to Alexandria forthwith.

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 returns home. Barakah realizes at this moment that she has lived somewhere between the harem and Egyptian life which she held at a distance, and the horror of Mrs. Cameron, and that somehow she was special. She realizes now that she is not special and so returns to the harem, her natural home, and “the teaching of the wise and kindly Prophet her protection”. Thus, “In self annihilation there was peace. This through her striving after Christianity she reached at last the living heart of Islam”34

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 instance, though Veiled Women is about the life of a lower middle class English woman in Cairo, she is very clearly the creation and mouthpiece of a man.

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 century as British and Western women travelled to North Africa and the Near East they were able to visit the few functional harems of the major cities – again, only wealthy men and their families maintained such quarters – and their reports often recounted a scene contrary to the fantasy of the West. Men from outside the (Egyptian) family and Western non-Muslim men especially, were not allowed into the harem as a matter of definition and practice, and so women’s accounts gained credibility and a corresponding readership.

Reina Lewis, an authority on these women travellers’ accounts, focuses in Rethinking Orientalism: Women, Travel, and the Ottoman Harem, for example, on three Turkish women writers who wrote about the harem from within, that is, the sisters Zeyneb Hanim and Melek Hanim, the Greek Ottoman (and Christian) Demetra Vaka Brown, and Halide Edib. Lewis states

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

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

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 Marcus’ landmark book, The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography. More recently Diane Long Hoeveler traces the topic as a female centred literary – and popular -genre to texts such as Penelope Aubin’s Noble Slaves: Being an Entertaining History of the Surprising Adventures, and Remarkable Deliverances, From Algerine Slavery, of Several Spanish Noblemen and Ladies of Quality (1722).41 Long Hoeveler notes that this novel included reference to the captivity of Madame de Prade, who was “consigned to the sultan’s harem and never heard from again”, a “horrific example” which, she states, “haunted the margins of British and French culture”.42 Aubin followed with similar novels, as did other authors such as Elizabeth Haywood with Idalia (1723), The Fruitless Inquiry (1727), and Philodore and Placentia (1727). A notable example in this genre and period, albeit not well known at all, unlike the previous popular examples, is Elizabeth Marsh’s The Female Captive (1769), a personal account of her own four month experiences as a captive of Moors.43 Notably, Marsh’s account addresses claims that she renounced Christianity, which resonates with the scene cited above when Barakah visits Mrs. Cameron prior to her marriage. The latter has assumed the Englishwoman was forced or intimidated into agreement, and then is most horrified by Barakah’s “we” and her tacit admission of conversion.

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 or herself Muslim, or simply dressing and taking up the appearance and attitude of, say, an Egyptian Arab. Concerning the former, Rudyard Kipling, in particular, warned against marriage – and possible conversion to another faith – in poems and short stories such as “Lispeth”. Yet, the reading public did not entirely disapprove, for the idea of “going native” and everything implied thereof was certainly titillating. There are many examples of the latter, and, again, Richard Burton stands out here as his Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah (1853) is from the opening pages about dressing as an Arab and his newly adopted persona, being found out, and switching to other guises – Haji Abdullah – so that he might visit the holy cities of Islam as a faux pilgrim. Burton never fully discouraged rumours that he had converted, and often assumed a pro-Muslim attitude in his writings and actions. Of course by the early twentieth century T.E. Lawrence, in collaboration with Lowell Thomas and the photographer, Harry Chase, with the publication of With Lawrence in Arabia (1924) and an earlier multimedia stage show, the former was a modern hero, an icon of a new English masculinity, yet dressed as an Arab sheik. Actual conversion and profession of Islam was another matter, however, as our author and others such as Abdullah Quilliam knew all too well. As Jamie Gilham documents in his recent book, Loyal Enemies: British Converts to Islam,44 it was one thing to dally with the look and signs of Islam and Islamic culture, but another situation altogether to write about the Quran, and then organize British Muslims and proclaim a Western form of political Islam.

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

In her well known essay, “Female Trouble in the Colonial Harem” Emily Apter offers another approach to English women’s writing about the harem and to “cross dressing”, focusing on women travellers who “masked their sex and national identity at the same time”. In so doing, Apter argues, these writers “flirted with colonial mimicry and in doing so helped to dissipate the boundaries or difference used to keep colonial authority in place”.46 Her primary example is the life and work of Isabelle Eberhart who travelled through North Africa, especially Algeria, dressed and passing as a man. Apter calls her behaviour “subversive” as she was reviled by the colons. Apter is probably right here, given the misogyny and homophobia (though she was bisexual) of the time and place, yet, we have to wonder how meaningful Eberhardt’s work was in that same time and context, that is, as anti-colonial critique. Apter focuses on the literary characteristics of Eberhardt’s work, such as what she calls the writer’s “ethnographic realism” and her use of the Arabic word for a book title – mektoub. This word is used today in contemporary Algeria, and, as Apter tells us, it has an Islamic definition as it means, “it is written”. It is a word that is used to explain events in a way Westerners would view as fatalism, and does not have the feminocentric sense which Apter would ascribe to it.

Clearly the question at hand is whether an English or Western woman can, as a woman, represent the lives, culture and struggles of non-Western colonized women. In his review of related literature James Buzard asked, “What if the neglected voices which the critic allows us once more to hear, and the neglected agency she allows us once more to see, turn out to speak and serve racism and domination”?47 Mary Louise Pratt, whom Buzard distinguished from other feminist critics in this context, offered useful critical terms, such as “contact zones” and the “anti-conquest”. The former term she applies to the “space of colonial encounters” that is, the spaces where the colonizer and colonizer encounter each other, which certainly describes the presence of the English or Western woman traveller in the harem. The “anti-conquest” is most relevant here, as it concerns the “strategies of representation whereby bourgeois subjects seek to secure their innocence in the same moment as they assert European hegemony”48 Other women critics, following the work of Gayatri Spivak have been most sceptical about such accounts, and the possibility of an anti-colonial Western women’s point of view. Pointedly, it was an Egyptian woman critic, Sahar Sobhi Abdel-Hakim who stated:

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 (still) new and, in a productive sense, disturbing and unresolved. I argue that these two novels, and Pickthall’s other Near Eastern fiction are meaningful today because he takes on these intractable problems, in a sense, more than he can handle. Indeed, Pickthall is most authentic in the way he presents his readers with characters and plot dilemmas which offer no “way exit” in the usual acceptable sense. Also, these characters and plot dilemmas suggest terms which ground his work in most vigorous debates – and disagreements – in literary and cultural studies today. And so, three terms with which we might conclude our (unresolved and ambiguous) reading of The Valley of Kings and Veiled Women, are overdetermination, routes, and enjoyment.

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.

The second term, routes, is derived from James Clifford’s thoughts on ethnography in Routes. By routes he refers to the travels of all people, not the journey of the ethnographer to the village, the deracinated visiting the rooted ones, as, say, Claude Levi-Strauss made famous with his Triste Tropiques. All peoples have travelled, and these are journeys we bear in our names and customs, and family and personal histories – in our bodies. Routes concern “diverse practices of crossing, tactics of translation, experiences of double or multiple attachment”. Moreover, these routes have been “powerfully inflected by three connected global forces: the continuing legacies of empire, the effect of unprecedented world wars, and the global consequences of industrial capitalism’s disruptive restructuring activity”. Yet, Clifford continues, the results are uneven, as here differences are upheld, and there obliterated, or, later, “certain travelers are materially privileged and others are oppressed”.51 This is travelling theory and, given the two novels, seems an apt way to grasp the uneven features of both texts. What I mean here, specifically, is that on the one hand Cook’s tourists, or by the mid-nineteenth century post Grand Tour in its classic sense – all Western tourists were engaged in an increasingly industrialized process. Even before there were steamships and hotels, and before the arrival of British and European goods and related services, and before European quarters were built in Levantine cities – especially in Alexandria – that these tours were successful and popular (in a market sense) all brought about the industrial process as a matter of inevitable tendency. Mass culture, the result of the industrial process produces sameness. The same transportation, the same tour route, the same information (the new expertise of Murray’s tour guides) and the same food. By the end of the nineteenth century the tour was such a literary cliché that Arthur Conan Doyle was able to write a related and successful political thriller, The Tragedy of the Korosko (1898). And yet these tourists had their needs, and their first and fundamental need was absolute difference. Westerners needed – and still need – to see archaeology and experience a climate which was very different and distinct from that of home. The same point applies to people, as the natives of Egypt and Palestine were ideally like their ancient predecessors, and if not so they were different in a most absolute sense (albeit repugnant to Westerners), hence the tainted discourse of race, religion, and culture.

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 for tourists, while Barakah is an Englishwoman who has converted to Islam, married an Egyptian, had children with the same man, and speaks Arabic and knows the culture from the inside. Both have routes – London to Cairo to Paris to Jerusalem to the village – which explain their lives and the complexities and contradictions which they endure in this world of absolute difference. These positions became untenable, which resonates with the sombre tone of Pickthall’s remarks in the foreword to As Others See Us, that is, his longing for the optimism of those pre-war years, and the reality we live with today. In the Near East and North Africa now we have isis and other extreme sectarian groups whose mission is to enforce absolute difference by any means necessary, a most reactionary and reprehensible response to the obliteration of difference posed by the West.

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.


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1See Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, 1780–1950 (New York: Columbia up, 1983), 300.
2Marmaduke William Pickthall, As Others See Us (Charleston sc: Bibliolife, 2009), 61.
3Pickthall, Others, 70.
4Peter Clark, Marmaduke Pickthall: British Muslim (London: Quartet, 1986), 86.
5See Lynne Withey, Grand Tours and Cook’s Tours: A History of Leisure Travel: 1750 to 1915 (New York: Morrow, 1997), 257–62 and Piers Brendon, Thomas Cook: 150 Years of Popular Tourism. London: Secker & Warburg, 1991, 137–40.
6For a brief overview of religious tourism in Palestine see Doron Bar and Kobi Cohen-Hattab, “A New Kind of Pilgrimage of Nineteenth and Early 20th Century Palestine”, Middle Eastern Studies 39, 2 (2003), 131–48.
7Clark, Marmaduke Pickthall, 86.
8Marmaduke Pickthall, The Valley of the Kings (London: Dent, 1914); Clark, 87.
9Clark, Marmaduke Pickthall, 87.
10Pickthall, Valley, 71.
11See the Brown University Petra Excavation website at https://www.brown.edu/Departments/Joukowsky_Institute/Petra/excavations/history.html.
12See Donald Malcolm Reid, Whose Pharaohs? Archaeology, Museums, and Egyptian National Identity from Napoleon to World War i (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 82–4.
13Reid, Whose Pharoahs?, 260.
14Pickthall, Valley, 39.
15Ibid, 87.
16Reid, Whose Pharoahs?, 141.
17Fred Inglis, The Delicious History of the Holiday (London: Routledge, 2000), 14–17.
18Inglis’ chapter on the Mediterranean is particularly relevant here.
19Inglis, Delicious History, 20.
20Ibid, 27.
21Ibid, 18.
22Withey, Grand Tours, 257–62; also see Piers Brendon, Thomas Cook: 150 Years of Popular Tourism (London: Secker & Warburg, 1991).
23Withey, Grand Tours, 259.
24Pickthall, Valley, 116.
25Reid, Whose Pharoahs?, 69–73.
26Clark, Marmaduke Pickthall, 89.
28Marmaduke Pickthall, Veiled Women (London: Eveleigh Nash, 1913), 24.
29Pickthall, Veiled Women, 24.
30Ibid., 31.
31Ibid., 32.
32Ibid., 122–3.
33Ibid., 311.
34Ibid., 313.
35Clark, Marmaduke Pickthall, 93.
36For comprehensive accounts of Western literature and art about the harem see Yeazell, Harems of the Mind: Passages of Western Art and Literature (New Haven: Yale up, 2000), and Mary Roberts, Intimate Outsiders: Intimate Outsiders: The Harem in Ottoman and Orientalist Art and Travel Literature (Durham: Duke up, 2007).
37Melman, Billie. Women’s Orients: English Women and the Middle East, 1718–1918 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998); Richard F. Burton, A Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, Now Entitled The Book of the One Thousand and One Nights. With and Introduction and Explanatory Notes, 10 vols. Benares: Kamashastra Society, 1885.
38Melman, Women’s Orients, 78; Lady Wortley Montagu, The Turkish Embassy Letters, London: Virago, [1763] 1994.
39Reina Lewis, Rethinking Orientalism: Women Travel and the Ottoman Harem(New Brunswick: Rutgers up, 2004), 14.
40Melman, Women’s Orients, 62.
41Diane Long Hoeveler, “The Female Captivity Narrative: Blood, Water, and Orientalism”. In Long-Hoeveler, Diane and Jeffrey Cass, eds. Interrogating Orientalism: Contextual Approaches and Pedagogical Practices (Columbus oh: Ohio State up, 2006).
42Hoeveler, “Female Captivity”, 51.
43Ibid., 59–65.
44Jamie Gilham, Loyal Enemies: British Converts to Islam, 1850 to 1950 (London: Hurst, 2014).
45Shirley Foster, “Nineteenth-Century Travel Writing”, The Yearbook of English Studies 34(2004), 6–17, 7.
46Emily Apter, “Female Trouble in the Colonial Harem”, Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 4, 1 (1992), 205–24, 215.
47James Buzzard, Review: Victorian Women and the Implications of Empire, Victorian Studies 36, 4 (1993), 443–53, 444.
48Pratt, Imperial Eyes, 6–7.
49Sahar Sobhi Abdel-Hakim “Gender Politics in a Colonial Context: Victorian Women’s Accounts of Egypt”, Paul and Janet Starkey, eds., Interpreting the Orient: Travellers in Egypt and the Near East. Reading: Ithaca, 2001, 209–17, 120.
50Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Screen 16.3 (Autumn, 1975), 6–18.
51James Clifford, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century (Cambridge ma: Harvard up, 1997), 6, 7, 35.

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