Walk Like an Egyptian? How Modern Fashion Appropriates Antiquity

Walk Like an Egyptian? How Modern Fashion Appropriates Antiquity

by Katherine Blouin

Chanel took over New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Arts on December 4 for its annual Arts et Métiers fashion show. This year’s theme? Egypt. Except that, in many ways, it was not. What, and most importantly, who was showcased, then? The answer is unsurprisingly predictable, yet for this very reason, it powerfully illuminates the current, Orientalist and colonial reception of ancient Egypt in contemporary fashion and pop culture, and the ways in which this reception hasn’t changed much (if at all) since Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of the country in the late 18th century.

The yearly Arts et Métiers show began in 2002. It aims at showcasing the wide-ranging array of Métiers d’art that are part of Chanel under the Paraffection umbrella. The event is staged in and pays tribute to cities that are connected to the life of Gabrielle Chanel: Paris, mostly, but also Dallas, Edinburgh, Salzburg, Rome, Hamburg and, this year, New York, a place that Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel first visited in 1931, and where she returned in 1939 as one of France’s representatives of the “Couture and Perfumery” during the New York World’s Fair. The Fair’s theme was “The World of Tomorrow“. Yet despite, or perhaps rather because, its futuristic, consumerist craze, that ” tomorrow” proved to be a grim one, for within six months of the fair’s opening, World War II broke. This might be one of the reasons why, apart from Chanel’s emblematic tweeds and geometric patterns alluding to the city’s skyscrapers, Karl Lagerfeld’s designs avoid any obvious reference to the New York of the late 1930s. Instead, the designer proposed a nostalgic, Orientalist take on the city’s – and on France’s – relationship to Egyptian Antiquities. His New York is an Egyptomaniac one, whose focal point is the Temple of Dendur.

capture d_écran 2019-01-11 à 16.17.27Details of the 2018/19 #CHANELMetiersdArt collection … including gold and scarab beetle adornments by #Montex.” (Image and caption: Chanel’s Instagram)

Set around the temple, the 15-minute procession of Hatshepsut-eyed models was a spectacular display of craftsmanship, and a testimony to Karl Lagerfeld’s unstoppable creative genius. The theme was further enhanced by the musical soundtrack, which began and ended with Egyptian Lover’s 1984 Egypt, Egypt. There were dozens of mostly white, but also black, brown, and Asian models, whose long, regal silhouettes walked in circle around the sandstone temple. There was gold, black, lapis lazuli blue, turquoise and silver. There was a dress covered in feathers arranged in chevrons, pleated skirts and an overabundance of intricate, heavy jewels. There were pyramid handbags, metallic gloves and collars made of dyed reptile skins, gems and pearls. There was Pharrell walking in an all-gold ensemble. There were dresses covered in hieroglyphic-like graffiti, diaphanous underskirts that echoed Hathoric dresses and mummy wrappings. There were lions, lotuses and scarab beetles, gilded tweeds, beaded fishnets and golden flats.

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Pharrell walking the runway Chanel Arts et Métiers 2018 show (Image: Pharrell’s Instagram)

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Hand-applied feather marquetry by #MaisonLemarie at the #CHANELMetiersdArt show in the @metmuseum, depicting a graphic reinterpretation of Egyptian paintings” (Image and caption: Chanel’s Instagram)

The temple of Dendur’s impassive presence acted as the stage’s pivotal anchor. The getaway and temple were originally located on the Nubian site of Dendur, south of the traditional Egyptian border at Aswan. The ensemble was completed in 10 BCE, that is twenty years after Octavian-Augustus’ victory over Mark Anthony and Cleopatra at Actium and the ensuing annexation of the Ptolemaic kingdom to Rome’s Empire. The temple, thus, like several of the most popular temples of Upper Egypt (Edfu, Dendera, Kom Ombo and Philae) was built (in great part) under Macedonian and Roman rules. It is primarily dedicated to Isis of Philae, a name that refers to the island of Philae (c.80 km north of Dendur), which hosts a larger temple to Isis. In addition to her, her spouse Osiris, as well as Pedesi and Pihor, two brothers who might have been deified sons of chieftains, and the Nubian gods Mandulis and Arsenuphis, are also honored. Like the several other Egyptian temples commissioned by Augustus, the Dendur one follows native architectural, iconographical, epigraphical standards. Augustus’ regal profile shows him in full Pharaonic garb, surrounded by hieroglyphic texts. If you are not an Egyptologist, you cannot tell the reliefs date from the Roman period and were commissioned by a foreign ruler.

Capture d’écran 2019-01-11 à 16.08.21.pngKarl Lagerfeld was inspired by Egyptian civilisation and the spirit of New York for the 2018/19 #CHANELMetiersdArt collection dedicated to the savoir faire of CHANEL’s Métiers d’art, presenting it in The Temple of Dendur in the @metmuseum” (Image and caption: Chanel’s Instagram

Fast forward almost two millennia, to the 1960s, and Lower Nubia, a region that stretches from southern Egypt to northern Sudan, found itself about to be submerged following the construction of the High Aswan dam. Lake Nasser, the vast reservoir lake called after the then President of Egypt Gamal Adbel Nasser, eventually covered c.2,000m2 of land, forcing the relocation of local, Nubian communities, and the destruction of many archaeological sites. Ahead of its creation, the UNESCO set up the “International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia“. Fifty countries took part in the campaign, including the USA, which offered the biggest monetary contribution and thus were the first to choose their archaeological “gift” among some of the salvaged monuments. Their pick: The temple of Dendur. In 1965, Egypt officially gave the USA the temple and its getaway and two years later, after a competition among interested American cities and institutions, President Lyndon B. Johnson offered it to the Met. The dismantled structure was shipped to New York, before being restored and rebuilt within the Sackler Wing. Bordered by a reflecting pool and naturally lit thanks to a large bay window that overlooks Central Park, Gallery 131 is more than a museum display of Pharaonic-style sacred architecture and Nubian heritage. It is, also, a rendition of Egypt’s topography that acts as a versatile, socio-cultural space of its own.

Contrary to what the temple itself and the monochromic tones of the room might indicate at first glance, it was originally, like all ancient Egyptian (and ancient Mediterranean) temples, painted in deep, vivid colors. Just like for statues, what mostly remains today of these ancient buildings is their bone structure. Likewise, average ancient Egyptians did not walk around covered in gold, lapis lazuli and turquoise, looking like Tutankhamun’s funerary mask or Isis Almighty. Nope. But this doesn’t matter. What matters is that Chanel’s Egypt is a familiar place for western audiences. And we can conveniently blame Napoléon and his army of scientists and scholars for it.

When Napoléon Bonaparte added Egypt to his empire in 1798, he brought with him a contingent of French engineers, artists, and scholars, whose duty was to document all aspects of ancient and modern Egypt’s landscapes, ruins, cities, villages and customs. The final result was the Description de l’Égypte (“Description of Egypt”, thereby DE), a massive series of thirty-four, almost 1m2 volumes published in Paris between 1809 and 1829. The DE was an imperial vanity project; one whose scholarly and cultural ambition was to compensate for Napoléon’s loss of Egypt (and of the Rosetta Stone) to the British in 1802. If France didn’t occupy Egypt militarily anymore, it still, so the DE signaled, controlled and produced the knowledge pertaining to its past and present. Edward Said has brilliantly analyzed the implications of this enterprise and the foundational impact it had on Orientalist scholarship ever since in his seminal work Orientalism.

DE Frontispice bordure

Description de l’Égypte, frontispiece page

I’ve been obsessed with engineer, drawer and member of the Expédition d’Égypte François-Charles Cécile’s 1809 frontispiece page of the DE for a while now. To me, this black and white work is the foundational articulation of all “Western” (that is European and North American) political, cultural, and scholarly treatments of Egypt ever since. The frontispiece is also a wonderful pedagogical tool, which I’ve been using in several of my classes. I often say that should Classicists and Egyptologists spend more time mulling over it, we would save ourselves a great part of the psychoanalytical work our disciplines remain in dire need of. For almost all of the ensuing representations and receptions of the country replicate its fundamental characteristics.

So, what do we see?

We see two distinctive components: A Classically-inspired frame, and an ‘Egyptianizing’ center. The central drawing is a shrunk landscape of Egypt that runs from the Mediterranean shore on the top right, to Aswan, at the rear. A selection of Pharaonic-style monuments are set along the meandering Nile, which acts as the drawing’s topographic anchor and gives rhythm and further perspective to the composition. The only dissonant element is the so-called column of Pompey, in reality the sole remaining column of Alexandria’s famous Serapeum (temple to Sarapis). The fact that the column was a common feature of European touristic and cartographic representations of Egypt in the early modern period might explain why it made it into the frontispiece despite its Greek look. Left of the column, “Cleopatra’s needle” stands out. The “needle” is in fact a reused granite obelisk from the reign of Thutmoses III that was first erected in Heliopolis. Together with a second one that now stands in London, it was moved to Alexandria in 13 or 12 BCE in order to be integrated to the city’s Caesareum (temple to the deified Julius Caesar whose foundation dates from Cleopatra VII’s reign). In 1880, the Khedive Ismail offered it to New York, and it now stands in Central Park.

nile statue rome

Statue of the Nile, Piazza del Campidoglio (author’s picture)

In lieu of frame, the composition is surrounded by a neo-Classical frieze that pays tribute to Napoléon’s military prowess and civilizing mission in Egypt. It also contains to symbolic references to his Italian campaigns (1792-1802). The top register features Napoléon-Apollo followed by Muses-like female personifications of the Arts and Sciences. Naked except from a flowing cape, the French emperor rides a four-horse chariot. And this is not any random four-horse chariot, but the bronze quadriga looted in Constantinople’s hippodrome by the Venetians during their sack of the Byzantine Empire in the context of the fourth crusade (1202-1204). The bronze horses were embedded in the central façade of the Saint Mark basilica, but they’ve since been replaced by a replica, the original being housed in the basilica’s Treasury. Thus riding his Constantinopolitan/Venetian horses, Apollo-Napoléon rolls towards the right of the frieze, preceded by the imperial eagle. His targets? The defeated Mamluks, who are portrayed on horseback fleeing Egypt. The latter is represented at the bottom right of the register as a reclining bearded man holding a cornupia. This personification of the Nile River corresponds to the statue that now stands, together with a similar statue of the Tiber River, in Rome’s Piazza del Campidoglio. In Antiquity, the pair was part of the city’s Serapeum. On the left and right-hand sides of the frame, one sees a series of Roman-style military standards with the name of battles Napoléon’s army won during its campaigns in Syria-Palestine and Egypt. At the bottom, Magi-looking Mamluks and their camels are seen bringing tributes to Napoléon, who is represented by a crowned letter N. The message couldn’t be clearer: Pharaonic Egypt’s monumental glory is enframed, contained and enlightened through the arts and sciences by Napoléon, who is portrayed as the embodiment and promoter of a French, Classically-fed imperialism, and the antidote to Oriental despotism.

If that is what we see when we look at the frontispiece, then what is not there?

As a matter of fact, we don’t really see Egypt. There are no living beings, be they animal, humans or, except a few palm trees here and there, vegetal; no villages; no cities; no fields or agricultural landscapes; no dikes, canals, roads, boats or harbors; no life. The DE‘s Egypt is an empty, still space whose monuments are up for grab.

Chanel’s Met show represents yet another rendition of the DE‘s frontispiece page. A swirling one that is, where temporality is articulated according to a cultural divide: on the one hand, Egypt is firmly rooted in a grandiose, gilded and mysterious yet immobile past; on the other, that static, Oriental past is pulled forward and into the future by western know how. Model, photographer and Vogue UK contributor Laura Bailey’s take on the show eloquently testifies to how, despite its claim to innovation, the story proposed by Chanel is one we’ve heard many times before, one saturated with the same old Orientalist dichotomies: East and West; old and new; spirituality and technology; eternal, mysterious past and futuristic modernity. The same old story with the same old tropes, packaged as “futurism”.

Creation is turning the old into new.

Creation is spolia.

The term spolia is a Latin word that originally designated spoils of war. In modern scholarship, it refers to the practice of reusing and repurposing older precious objects and (parts of) monuments into more recent buildings and works of arts. While spolia have traditionally been associated with Late Antique art (and thus deemed less sophisticated than earlier, “original” works from earlier, “Classical” periods), the truth of the matter is, the practice has always existed. Rulers and artists have traditionally practiced spolia out of both practical (re-use of abandoned monuments and building materials; saving costs and time) and ideological (boosting one’s reign and socio-political or religious capital by associating oneself with a popular ruler, god or saint) reasons. In many ways, it continues to this day, from former factories-turned condos or restaurants to vintage fashion, to musical sampling, to the practice of excavating, collecting, and exhibiting older objects, monuments and bodies. It also includes the Met’s Gallery 131, as well as the Chanel show that took place in it.

For the Temple of Dendur is not the only Antiquity on display in Gallery 131 of the Sackler Wing. Two statues of Amenhotep III (c. 1390-1353 BCE) from the temple of Amun at Luxor stand in front of the water pool, as if to guard the temple. These were offered by the Egyptian Government in 1922. Towards the back of the temple’s left side, one also finds a pink granite sphinx of female pharaoh Hatshepsut (c.1479-1458 BCE) that originally stood in the ruler’s funerary temple of Deir el-Bahari on the westbank of Luxor, and that features prominently in the video caption of the show. The sphinx, which was found in the context of the Met’s 1926-1928 excavations, came to the Museum following a division of finds in 1931.

dendur 01Temple of Dendur (Image: Metmuseum)

Just like the DE frontispiece, Chanel’s vision of Egypt is a disembodied one inasmuch as it draws its inspiration from artifacts found for the most part in funerary and religious contexts. What mattered most with the Paris-New York show was not Egypt per se; it was America’s, France’s, Chanel’s Egypt. Karl Lagerfeld’s Egypt is bookish and touristic, and this should not come as a surprise. How many of us are willing to experience Egypt beyond what we imagine it to be? From Napoléon to today, the country remains, for most audiences, a lifeless landscape made of sand and stones, of colossal monuments and sphinxes and obelisks. Egypt is a stage. Egypt is a fossil of a long-past imperial glory whose appropriation by the “West” can only be rationalized through its complete disconnect from everything that came after that purported “grandeur”, and especially the Arab conquest and the slow conversion of the country’s population to Islam.

It is to that effect telling to compare the New York show with the 2015 Dubai Chanel Cruise one. While the latter drew heavily from local craftsmanship, fashion codes and esthetics, and while it took place in Dubai itself and included a substantial amount of local guests, judging from the footages and pictures available online, modern and contemporary Egypt were completely absent, and so were living Egyptians and their culture, from the New York Arts et Métiers show. That there is a substantial market for Chanel in the Gulf States certainly justifies the choice of Dubai, and the same can be said of the 2009 Paris-Shanghai Arts et Métiers show, which was staged in Shanghai’s Bund area. More recently, Karl Lagerfeld wanted to stage the 2018 Chanel Cruise show amidst Greek ruins, but facing the refusal of Greek officials, he decided to recreate his vision of ancient Greece in Paris. What was his vision? Not colorful ancient Athens, but the white ruins that are left of it.

Capture d’écran 2019-01-11 à 16.13.04.pngChanel Cruise 2018 show (Image: Chanel’s Instagram)

The show’s set up recalls the 2010 Paris-Byzance and 2011 Paris-Bombay Arts et Métiers shows: Both were inspired by places located in the “East” (Turkey and India) yet staged in Paris; both are named after old toponyms (Byzance rather than Istanbul; Bombay rather than Mumbai) that echo European, Christian Empires; both drew heavily from local iconography, craftsmanship and esthetic codes, leading, in the case of Paris-Bombay, to discussion around cultural appropriation. In an interview given during the 2011 Paris-Bombay show, Lagerfeld said “India for me is an idea. I know nothing about reality, so I have the poetic vision of something maybe less poetic”.

What these fashion events have in common is their location in an imagined Orient; one whose relationship to Chanel’s esthetics resides in ideas surrounding its past, immemorial, imperial grandeur and exoticism. In places where the wealthy ruling class’ buying power is high and the (female) demand for French luxury fashion particularly strong, we see Chanel runways move East (Shanghai, Dubai). Otherwise (Turkey, India, Egypt), shows seem to have stemmed more from a desire to explore the western, French or American, gaze on foreign (past) lands and cultures than from a will to engage in an unmediated way with these locations.

Given that, one can hardly ignore how Chanel’s New York show was also staged so as to maximize the brand’s ability to tap into the current force, and therefore marketable potential, of Afrocentrist, Afrofuturistic and Afrosurrealist esthetics among African American and other black communities beyond the USA. Singer and Chanel ambassador Janelle Monae sums it up well: “I love that Egypt was an inspiration, a futuristic yet timeless place, and that’s what I got from the collection”. Chanel here follows Balmain in appealing directly to African-American customers by offering them pieces of design that tap into the central, ongoing role played by Pharaonic Egypt in Afrocentrist discourses. Beyoncé’s Nefertiti looks at Beychella? Olivier Rousteing for Balmain. The feathered hieroglyphic outfit she wore during her Global Citizens Festival set in Johannesburgh in early December? Olivier Rousteing for Balmain. Rousteing, a black designer who is known for advocating for more diversity in the fashion world, approaches Egypt from a deeply personal, future-oriented place. As Manon Renault has shown, both his and British creator Pam Hogg’s Egyptian references partake in a political agenda that draws from and contest the established (gender, racial) order.

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One of Beyoncé’s custom-made Balmain looks (Source: Balmain’s Instagram)

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Beyoncé’s custom-made Balmain look for the 2018 Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100! (Image: Balmain’s Instagram)

Chanel’s idea of Egypt is a highly selective and curated one; one that speaks more of the creators’, brand’s and audience’s own positioning than of Egypt’s actual history, heritage and multi-layered culture. The thing is, Karl Lagerfeld’s and Chanel’s Egypt is not about Egypt. It is about Paris and New York. It is about the wealthy, Western “us”. It is about the ideas, the stories of Egypt that the world has been retelling itself again and again since 1798. It is about a fantasy of Egypt that sells. It is an impeccable, inspired, beautiful but ultimately truncated representation of peoples, cultures and histories; one that fetishizes the rich and the powerful; one that does care about Egypt only so far as it sends back to oneself the feeling that one can, too, partake in the riches, power, and enduring memory.

This is a cross-post with the SCS blog



Culture and Orientalism in Language Instruction Books – الثقافة والاستشراق في كتب تعلم اللغات

Advertisements inside Brin and Biancardi’s (1942) Say it in Arabic and see Egypt.

by Rachel Mairs

ὁ Δικαιόπολις ἐκβαίνει ἐκ τοῦ οἴκου καὶ καλεῖ τὸν Ξανθίαν. ὁ Ξανθίας δοῦλός ἐστιν, ἰσχυρὸς μὲν ἄνθρωπος, ἀργὸς δε· οὐ γὰρ πονεῖ, εἰ μὴ πάρεσιν ὁ Δικαιὀπολις. νῦν δὲ κάθεύδει ἐν τῷ οἴκῳ.

“Dikaiopolis leaves the house and calls Xanthias.  Xanthias is a slave, a strong man, but lazy: for he doesn’t work if Dikaiopolis is not present. Now he is sleeping in the house.”

Athenaze, Chapter 2.

لا أحبّ مدينة نيويورك كثيراً بسبب الازدحام والطقس … أشعر أحياناً بالوحدة في هذه المدينة الكبيرة، فـوالدي ووالدتي مشغولان دائماً، ولي صديقة واحدة فقط اسمها ليلى وهي أمريكية من أصل تونسي.

“I don’t like New York City very much, because of the overcrowding and the weather … I feel lonely sometimes, in this big city, since my father and mother are always busy, and I only have one friend.  Her name is Leila, and she’s American of Tunisian descent.”

Al-Kitaab fii Ta‘allum al-‘Arabiyya, Chapter 5.

The texts above are excerpts from the early chapters of two of the main textbooks from which I learnt Classical Greek (in the early 1990s in the United Kingdom) and Modern Standard Arabic (in the mid-2000s in the United States).  Both are languages for which I feel a deep affection, and which I use every day in my professional life.  I am now at the beginning of a one-year British Academy-funded project ‘Teach Yourself Arabic: Foreigners Learning Colloquial Arabic, 1850-1945’ (thanks, BA!), and this seemed a good time to reflect on how I have learnt and taught languages in the past.  I’m particularly interested in how written instructional materials are used both inside and outside formal educational contexts (i.e. taking a class vs self instruction), and on how the content of these instructional materials both derives from, and in turn influences, contemporary attitudes to the peoples, cultures and polities behind the language.

Learning a language always means learning about another culture.  Language textbook authors’ main concern is teaching the language, but they also have a duty to communicate the culture in a way that is both accurate and responsible.  This can be tricky.  It is important not to sugar-coat impalatable truths about the ancient Mediterranean world – Greeks and Romans owned slaves; in law and in practice women were often little more than the property of their male relatives – and it is also important not to normalise them.  As Erik Robinson has noted of the Cambridge Latin Course, “it is hard to address the problem of slavery seriously after it has been turned into a recurring punchline” (““The Slaves Were Happy”: High School Latin and the Horrors of Classical Studies”, Eidolon  25 Sept 2017).  As a schoolchild, I doubt I spared much thought for how the trope of the lazy slave was introduced in my Greek textbook, nor later when I started to read Greek literature.  Twenty-five years later, teaching using the very same textbook, I was astounded not just at how casually the book handled ancient Greek attitudes to owning another human being, but how reminiscent this rhetoric was of that of much nineteenth-century US pro-slavery literature.  It was impossible to use the textbook in class without addressing this directly with my students.

I have a slightly different love-hate relationship with my Arabic textbook.  As with Athenaze, I did find Al-Kitaab paedagogically effective.  (I know they don’t work for everybody’s learning style, but they happen to for mine.)  The textbook follows the stories of lonely Maha in New York and her shy cousin Khaled in Cairo, whose lives are maelstroms of tragic parental deaths, social alienation, broken romances and transcontinental miscommunication.  Khaled’s social life revolves around sitting sullenly with his friends at the club while they banter about their (supposed) love lives, while Maha prefers to mope at home, waiting for her over-worked parents to pay her attention.  Thanks to their disaffection, I can still express negative emotions (أشعر بالخجل،  كان أصعب قرار في حياتي) far more eloquently in Arabic than I can positive ones (أنا سعيدة).  My teacher and classmates dealt with the relentless negativity by joking about Maha and Khaled, and their slow drift towards a blatantly doomed arranged marriage. Naturally, the pair are cult figures online (see e.g. https://olimarjot.wordpress.com/2015/05/27/144/http://teammaha.com/2014/11/who-is-maha/).  Al-Kitaab has been criticised for its supposed political stance, but it is not my intention to consider that issue here.  Rather, my problem with the book is how it managed to suck the joy out of learning about people studying, socialising and working in Cairo (a real-life experience I adored).

The presentation of cultural and social material in historic language teaching books is addressed in a fascinating new collected volume (The History of Language Learning and Teaching III: Across Cultures, ed. Nicola McLelland and Richard Smith, Legenda 2018).  The topic has also been explored in the publications and conferences of the AILA Research Network for the History of Language Learning and Teaching, such as an event I organised at the University of Reading last summer.  With Al-Kitaab and Athenaze, problems with the content can be somewhat mitigated by the efforts of the teacher (highlighting the callousness with which slaves and women are treated; pointing out that it is possible to have a much nicer time in Cairo than poor Khaled).  But what of cases where all the student has is the book?

There is nothing new about books which claim that they can help a student to learn a language by themselves, or about students who think that this is feasible. Self-instruction ‘teach yourself’ language books have been a lucrative business since the second half of the nineteenth century.  Many earlier language instruction books also accept that the purchaser may be working without a teacher.  For languages such as Arabic in northern Europe, finding a book would often be much easier than finding a native speaker, although both may have been tricky.  As long as people have been trying to teach themselves languages from books, others have also been making fun of the results – some more kindly than others.  Rifa’a al-Tahtawi (1801-1873) met Sylvestre de Sacy (1758-1838) in Paris, and while he admired his book-learnt erudition in literary Arabic, did point out that this had not equipped him to actually speak the language:

وقد تعلم اللغة العربية على ما قيل بقوة فهمه، وذكاء عقله، وغزارة علمه، لا بواسطة معلم  إلا في مبدأ أمره، ولم يحضر مثل الشيخ خالد فضلاً عن حضور المغني مع أنه يمكنه قراءة المغني، كيف وقد دّرس البياضوي عدة مرات، غير إنه حين يقرأ ينطق كالعجم ولايمكنه أن يتكلم بالعربية إلا إذا كان بيده الكتاب، فإذا أراد شرح عبارة أغرب في الألفاظ التي يتعذر عليه تصحيح نطقها

He learned Arabic, so it is said, by his powers of understanding, his keen intelligence and wide erudition – and without the help of a teacher, except at the beginning. He did not have instruction on, for instance, Shaykh Khālid – not to mention al-Mughnī, which he can read.  Indeed he several times taught classes on al-Bayḍāwi.  However, when he reads, he has a foreign accent and he cannot speak Arabic unless he has a book in his hands.  If he wants to explain an expression, he uses strange words, which he is unable to pronounce properly.

(al-Tahtawi 1834, Takhlīṣ al-Ibrīz fī Talkhīṣ Bārīz aw al-Dīwān al-Nafīs bi-Īwān Bārīs; trans. Newman 2004.)

I don’t have space to go into de Sacy’s role in the construction of Orientalist knowledge here (as discussed by Edward Said and many others), but his experience of learning Arabic through books is relevant.  The Orientalist project was a textual one: “Sacy’s achievement was to have produced a whole field. As a European he ransacked the Oriental archives, and he could do so without leaving France” (Said 1978, Orientalism, 105).  How people learnt and taught the Arabic language in Europe was intimately connected to what they they thought and wrote about the Arab world.

My project focusses on the period after 1850, when there is a dramatic growth in less formal publications to help foreigners learn Arabic.  Orientalist notions about the Middle East are, naturally, alive and well in even cheap, popular phrasebooks for tourists in Egypt authored by foreigners.  It would be easy to fill blog post after blog post with examples like the following, from R. A. Marriott’s Egyptian Self-Taught (Arabic) of 1914:

Screenshot 2019-01-10 at 12.44.09.png

Note how the ‘Simple and Practical Phrases’ are mostly about giving orders or expressing displeasure, reinforcing the social hierarchy between Egyptians and foreigners.  (And, of course, the phrase “he learned Arabic by himself”.)

So how did Arabic-speakers view the results – both linguistic and cultural – of foreigners using books like this?  Journalist and playwright Ya‘qūb Ṣannū‘ aka James Sanua (1839-1912) wrote a skit al-Sawwāh wa al-Hammār (‘The Tourist and the Donkey Driver’), in which an English tourist ‘John Bull’ comicly mangles book-learnt fuṣḥa (standard literary Arabic), and the frustrated donkey driver says in ‘āmmiyya (dialect) that it would be easier if they just spoke English.

‘John Bull’ is not the only character in Ṣannū‘’s plays who is depicted as speaking bad Arabic for comic effect (see Fahmy 2011).  Ṣannū‘, who was himself multilingual, had experience of teaching foreigners Arabic. He published a satirical journal under the pen name Abū Naḍḍāra (‘the man in the glasses’).  I reproduce here the header of an issue of 1904, published in exile in Paris:

Abu Naddara.png

In this same issue Ṣannū‘ offers Arabic instruction:

Arabe en 32 lecons.png

It is not clear whether he is selling a self-published booklet containing his ‘méthode inédite’ or providing actual lessons, but the implication is clear that currently-available published materials for Arabic instruction are inadequate, and that he claims to have a better option.  It would be fascinating to know what cultural information Ṣannū‘ included in his lessons, but so far I have not been able to find any evidence for this.

At this stage of the project, my research is focussing on examples of authors of Arabic instruction books who did include appropriate and useful cultural information (I’ll come back to the more blatantly-Orientalist or completely irrelevant ones later).  I like to think Ṣannū‘ might even have taught his students, as tourists, how to have a proper conversation with that donkey driver in Egyptian dialect.  The archaeologist Flinders Petrie includes a list of what he finds useful Arabic vocabulary for working in the field in his 1892 memoir Ten Years’ Digging in Egypt.  My favourite so far is Yacoub Nakhlah, whose New Manual of English and Arabic Conversation, published at the Bulaq Press in 1874, includes copious materials on how to manage a busy social life (with Egyptians, not other foreigners) in Cairo, playing cards and hanging out in coffee houses – and there is no Khaled sitting sullenly in the corner complaining about his disappointments in life.

Further Reading

Fahmy, Ziad (2011) Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation through Popular Culture. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

McLelland, Nicola and Richard Smith eds. (2018) The History of Language Learning and Teaching. London: Legenda; Modern Humanities Research Association.




Orientalism, the Classics & Egypt III, or why you must be in Alexandria on March 11

Orientalism, the Classics & Egypt III, or why you must be in Alexandria on March 11

Will you (or are you searching for the perfect excuse to) be in Egypt on March 11? Do please come and join us at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina for the third Orientalism, the Classics and Egypt (OCE) workshop. This year’s event will focus on the reception of Egyptian culture and heritage in academia and beyond. We promise a day of energising debate and hilariously-awful stories about colonial scholarship, as well as a supportive, collegiate atmosphere, for scholars at all stages of their career. The speakers and titles are listed below, together with a description of the OCE workshop series. Full details of the programme and venue will be announced closer to the time. This will be a bilingual event, in Arabic and English, with translation available.

Katherine Blouin, Usama Ali Gad and Rachel Mairs

Speakers and titles:

Dr Hakem al-Rustom, University of Michigan, USA: Internal Orientalism: The Case of Ottoman and Kemalist Orientalism

Dr Magda Elnowieemy, University of Alexandria, Egypt: What is Egyptian in Classical Scholarship?

Dr Monica Hanna, The Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport, Egypt: Decolonizing Heritage

Dr Rachel Mairs, University of Reading, UK: Archaeologists, Tourists and the Arabic Language in the Nineteenth Century

Dr Myrto Malouta, Ionian University, Corfu, Greece: Tony Harrison’s The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus as Post-Colonial Criticism

Dr Franziska Naether, University of Leipzig and Egyptian Museum-Georg Steindorff, Germany: Oh Faraó! Reception of Egypt in Brazilian Carnival

Event abstract

The concept of Orientalism was developed by the literary scholar Edward Said who, in his seminal work Orientalism (1978), defined it as “the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient – dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it : in short, Orientalism [is] a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient”. Said’s Orientalism dedicates only a minimal space to ancient history. His short discussions of Aeschylus’s Persians, Euripides’ Bacchae and Herodotus’ Histories (p.21, 56-58) are meant to root Orientalist representations in the ancient Greek world. Said’s superficial treatment of this important topic represents a weakness within his work. Yet this alone cannot explain why, if we exclude the field of reception studies, his concept and the scholarly debates it triggered have so far had a much more limited impact on the work of historians of the ancient Mediterranean than they have on other disciplines within the Humanities and Social Sciences. This phenomenon must be understood as the symptom of a belated engagement with (if not a certain resistance to) postcolonial theory within the field and, as Phiroze Vasunia pointed out regarding Classics, of its “failure to acknowledge [its] colonial genealogy”[1]. Nevertheless, the relevance of Orientalism to the study of ancient Mediterranean history expresses itself on two, interconnected levels that have profound socio-cultural implications: Our understanding of ancient imperialisms and dynamics of “Othering”; our grasp of the interconnectedness of modern historiography, imperialism, and modern identity-making. While things are slowly starting to change, a great deal of work remains to be done.

Forty years after the release of Orientalism, this Egypt-based yearly workshop aims to bring together scholars from the Middle East, Europe, and North America, in order to reflect on the many ways in which Orientalism has shaped the field of “Classics” and its relationship to Egypt’s territory, history, and heritage.

This year’s event is made possible through the generous support of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and the British Academy

[1] Vasunia, Ph. 2003, “Hellenism and Empire: Reading Edward Said”, Parallax, 9 (4), 88-97.


katherine.blouin@utoronto.ca, usama_gad@art.asu.edu.eg, r.mairs@reading.ac.uk.


The Ancient Mediterranean in 5 words or What difference does a course make?

The Ancient Mediterranean in 5 words or What difference does a course make?

by Katherine Blouin

Last Fall, I decided to do a little experiment in my 1st-year undergraduate course “The Ancient Mediterranean” (a Classics and History course). On the first day of class, right at the start of lecture, I distributed a homemade, anonymous survey to the group, which contained a few questions: What 5 words come to their mind when they think about the Ancient Mediterranean? Why are you taking this course? What are you expecting with this course? Is this your first course in ancient history? If no, what other high school or university course(s) did you take? How many languages do you speak?

On the last day of class, that is 13 weeks later, I distributed another survey, in which I asked students to respond to the 5-word question again. How different or similar would their answers be this time around? I was excited to find out, and so were the students. What follows is thus dedicated to them.

This before/after survey exercise is by no means scientific. Yet I believe it nevertheless illuminates certain trends regarding the general perception of ancient history and Classics among young Ontarians, and thus help us teachers think about how both high school and university curricula/syllabi can foster more nuanced, intersectional and de-Eurocentrized perceptions of ancient history amongst students, including those who won’t pursue a Classics or History degree.

The group

The course’s size went from 180 students on week 1 to 150 on the day of the final (attrition-wise, this is normal by UofT standards). The two main reasons for enrolling include an interest in history and (for more senior students) program requirements. Most students were first year undergraduates. Since the course was offered in the Fall, this means they were mostly coming straight out of high school. In other words, given the reduced historical curriculum in Ontarian high schools, and also the rather outdated nature of the conception of history the official program promotes (namely the biological model whereby “civilizations” sprout, blossom then decay/fall), the majority of them had not been exposed to any ancient history before, and when they had, it had been mostly through the problematic yet still popular “Classical word is the root of Western civilization” trope.

One of the most incredible features of the UTSC student body is its diversity and, also, the fact that most students are bi-/multilingual. In addition to English, languages spoken by students enrolled in the course include: Albanian, Arabic, Armenian, Bengali, Bulgarian, Cantonnese, French, German, Greek, Gujarati, Hindi, Igbo, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Polish, Portugese, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, Sinhalese, Tagalog, Tamil, Turkish, Urdu, Vietnamese. Such diversity, and the breadth and depth of personal, family, and collective experiences it testifies to, impacts the way students relate (or not) with ancient Mediterranean history, as well as with several of the phenomena discussed during term (multilingualism, migration, religion(s), wars, the politics of heritage).

The course

The course provides an aerial survey of the history of the Mediterranean-at-large (including the Near East), from the development of agriculture to the Umayyad caliphate. The idea is to allow students in Classics and History (the course is double-numbered) to be able to contextualize the “Greco-Roman” world within the broader historical, geographical and cultural worlds they belonged to, and to also have a general sense of how ancient history’s connections to later periods are multifaceted and profound. In other words, the course aims to de-Eurocentrize ancient Mediterranean history.

You can find a description of the course as well as its syllabus here.

Before – Week 1

On the first day of class, 139 students filled the survey (that is most of those who were in class that day). Almost all of them answered the 5-word question, for a total of 612 entries. In total, the group came up with 214 different words or referents (words referring to a territory and its people – i.e. Greek and Greece – were grouped together).

Capture d_écran 2018-12-29 à 19.22.52

Table 1: What words come to your mind when you think about the “Ancient Mediterranean”? – Week 1 (word + nb of entries)

The 20 most popular words are listed in the table below:

Capture d_écran 2018-12-29 à 17.36.13

Table 2: The Ancient Mediterranean in my class’ 20 most popular words – Week 1

The most striking feature of Table 2 is that for almost half the students who filled up the survey, the ancient Mediterranean was seen as Greek. The words ‘Rome’ [not Italy] and ‘Roman(s)’, come in second, but in lesser number, since they show up in about a third of the copies. I was expecting these two referents to be popular, but the sheer prevalence of “Greece” over “Rome” was a surprise. Likewise, they amount to way more entries than the following top words, which refer to general, obvious features traditionally attached to ancient History and Classics (notably an emphasis on military history, politics, and trade) and the Mediterranean Sea itself in popular culture.

The traditional, mostly Eurocentric and at times Orientalist picture that emerges from Table 2 is both confirmed and nuanced by several of the thematic clusters one can observe in Table 1. These include words related to food (production) (agriculture, fishing, food, goat, kabob, olives, salad, souvlaki, spices); climate and landscapes (Aegean Sea, beach(es), blue, camel, coastal, desert, fertility, hot, nature, ocean, palm trees, rivers, sea/bodies of water, sun, tropical, villages, water); people (Alexander the Great, Aristotle, Augustus, Bedouins, Caesar, Gaius, Hypatia (the only female), Thucydides); “religion” (Christian, gods, goddess(es), Islam, Jupiter, mythology, polytheism, Poseidon, Zeus); archaeology (loot, paint, rubble, (ancient/destroyed) ruins, sculpture, statues).

As for epithets, there is quite a variety of them: advanced, ancient, beautiful, central, cool (sort of), diverse, fun, hopeful, interesting, mysterious, old, pioneering, rich (in culture), tumultuous, unknown (to me), vintage, weird, western, wild, wonderful. One should also highlight a few words that refer to later (or fictional) periods and cultures: Black Death, Ottoman Empire, Sinbad, Sultan, Venice (does it show one of my colleagues at UTSC works on the Venetian and Ottoman Empires?) and…dragon.

Finally, almost 30 toponymic referents appear in Table 1, though most often in only one or two surveys: Africa, Anatolian, Asia, Asia Minor, Athens, Babylon(ia), Carthage, Constantinople, Cyprus, Egypt/Egyptians, Eurasia, Europe(an), Greece/Greek, Iberian, Levant, Macedonia, Malta, Mesopotamia, Middle East(ern), Peloponnesian, Persia, Phoenicia, Rome/Romans, Silk Road, Spain, Sparta/Spartans, Troy, Turkey, Tyre.

Once students were done with the survey, I asked those who felt like it to share some of the words they had in mind with the group. Here was the result (which includes words not in the surveys themselves).


All in all, that was a good start; one well worth building upon. And complicating.

After – Week 13

Fast forward to week 13, that is the last day of class. 75 students filled the survey. That’s about half the number of students still enrolled in the course by then (yes, the end-of-term mayhem leads many to skip lectures). This second round of surveys provided 351 entries amounting to 162 different words/referents.

Capture d_écran 2018-12-29 à 19.23.04

Table 3: What words come to your mind when you think about the “Ancient Mediterranean” – Week 13 (word + nb of entries)

My efforts to teach ancient Mediterranean history beyond the Classics seems to have resonated with students, for the top 20 word ranking looks substantially different. The most popular word is now “diverse”, which appears in about a quarter of the copies. Related words such as multicultural(ism)/-faith/-religion/-lingual (16 entries), varied (1 entry) or connection/connected/interconnected (8 entries) also express similar or related ideas.

Capture d_écran 2018-12-29 à 19.31.02

Table 4: The Ancient Mediterranean in my class’ 20 most popular words – Week 13

Another noticeable change is the lower number of references to “Greece” and “Rome”. Not only are these two referents not in the first and second place anymore, but they feature after “Egypt(ians)” and “Mesopotamia”. You can go ahead and put the blame on my passion – if not obsession – for these two regions. New toponyms (Alexandria, Ur, Ionia, Nubia, Sparta), hydronyms (Euphrates, Tigris, Nile) and peoples (Octavian, Parthians, Persians, Sargon, women/women’s rights) also appear on the list, and one notes more words conveying the idea of change, flux or complexity than on week 1.


So what difference did that one course make? I can certainly not answer for my students, of course, and the survey only reveals a truncated picture of what overall pieces of information they will carry with them in the months and years to come. Yet one thing seems clear: the diachronic, de-Eurocentrized and intersectional nature of the course’s syllabus did lead to a substantial recalibration of the overall image the students have of the “Ancient Mediterranean”; one that shifted from a sepia zoom to a colour panorama.

What and whose stories we historians chose to share with our students matter, and the more voices they hear, the merrier we’ll all get. As Stó: Nation author and teacher Lee Maracle aptly said in October 2018 at the University of Toronto’s “Humanities Pedagogy: Confronting Colonization” workshop, we scholars and teachers ought not to “take anything away”. Rather, we need to “change the way we look at it. The start is facing ourselves and our own history.”

Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean beyond the Classics: A Syllabus

Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean beyond the Classics: A Syllabus


by Katherine Blouin

Since I arrived at the UofT’s Scarborough campus more than a decade ago, I’ve taught a few times a 1st-year undergraduate course entitled “The Ancient Mediterranean”. The course provides an aerial survey of the history of the Mediterranean-at-large (including the Near East), from the development of agriculture to the Umayyad caliphate. The idea is to allow students in Classics and History (the course is double-numbered) to be able to contextualize the “Greco-Roman” world within the broader historical, geographical and cultural worlds they belonged to, and to also have a general sense of how ancient history’s connections to later periods are multifaceted and profound. In other words, the course aims to de-Eurocentrize ancient Mediterranean history.

Most students who take the course come straight from high school, and so have very little (or no) background in history, let alone in ancient history. The group is a mix of students enrolled in a CLA or HIS program and of students taking the course as an elective. The classroom size is of 150-200 students and the group is very diverse.

In the light of conversations with colleagues, I thought it might be handy to share the latest version of my syllabus’ calendar and reading list.

Some preliminary cues:

1. One of my main aims was to tone down the “Mediterranean Antiquity = Greco-Roman” paradigm. As I like to say, the so-called “Classical” world did come emerge out of the blue. Far from it.

2. Accordingly, I’ve made sure to distribute the material in a way that allows a maximum of seats at the table. So contrary to all available textbooks on the topic, the Greek and Roman worlds do not take up most of the term lectures.

3. I’ve paired up Empires (Roman-Carthaginian, Achaemenid-Hellenistic, Roman Dominate-Sassanian) that are usually not taught with equal emphasis

4. The weekly calendar is meant to convey to students the importance of challenging historiographical myths such as the “Fall” of the Roman Empire (and thus the biological model of “civilizations“) and the idea whereby the Arab conquests brought about a complete socio-cultural rupture.

5. Online (blog) articles, podcasts and TedEd videos proved to be very useful pedagogical tools, especially when introductory readings on a particular topic are rare on unsatisfactory for the needs of the course.

Feel free to take on whatever you deem useful from what follows, and if you do, let me know how your students responded to the material.

Required Material and Readings

  • Podany, A.H. 2014. The Ancient Near East: A Very Short History. Oxford, OUP.
  • Shaw, I. 2004. Ancient Egypt: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, OUP.
  • de Blois, L. and R.J. van der Spek 2008. An Introduction to the Ancient World. NYC, Routlege.
  • A selection of episodes from BBC 4’s In Our Time
  • A selection of podcasts from BBC 4’s A History of the World in 100 Objects (AHOW in weekly calendar)
  • A few other readings/videos (references provided in the weekly calendar)

Weekly Calendar

Week 1 Course Presentation


– Appiah, K.A. 2016. “There is no such thing as western civilisation“, The Guardian

– Blouin, K. 2018. “Civilization: What’s Up with That?“, Everyday Orientalism

– Futo Kennedy, R 2017. “We condone it by our silence: Confronting Classics’ Complicity in White Supremacy”, Eidolon

Week 2  Ancient Mesopotamia, from Uruk to the dynasty of Ur

Readings: Podany 2014, ch.1-5

Podcast : AHOW 012 and 015

Week 3 The Ancient Near East, from the Old Assyrian Empire to Cyrus’ conquest

Readings: Podany 2014, ch.6-10

Podcast : AHOW 016 and 21

Video: The rise and fall of the Assyrian Empire“, TedEd

 Week 4 Ancient Egypt 1

Readings: Shaw 2004, ch.1-4

Podcast : AHOW 011 and 017

Video: “A day in the life of an ancient Egyptian doctor”, TedEd

Week 5 Ancient Egypt 2

Readings: Shaw 2004, ch.5-8

Podcast : 020 and 025

Video: The pharaoh that wouldn’t be forgotten“, TedEd

Week 6  Reading week = No class

Week 7 Midterm

Week 8 The Aegean and ancient Greek World

Readings: De Blois and van der Spek 2008, ch.8-10

Podcast : AHOW 018 and 027


– “Why is Aristophanes called “The father of Comedy”?“, TedEd

– “The myth of Arachne“, TedEd

Week 9 The Achaemenid and Hellenistic Worlds


– De Blois and van der Spek 2008, ch.11

– Llewellyn-Jones, L. 2017. “The Achaemenid Empire“, T. Daryaee ed. King of the Seven Climes.

– Zuckerberg, D. 2017. “Don’t Quote me on That“, Eidolon

Podcast : AHOW 031 and 032


– “Why is Herodotus called “The father of history”?“, TedEd

Did the Amazons really exist?, TedEd

Week 10 Rome and Carthage: From Cities to Empires


– De Blois and van der Spek 2008, ch.12-13

– Futo Kennedy, R. 2017. “Colorlines in Classical North Africa“, Classics at the Intersections

Podcast : In Our Time, “The Phoenicians” and “Carthage’s Destruction

Video:Who were the Vestals virgins“, TedEd

Week 11 The Roman World, from the Late Republic to the Dominate


– De Blois and van der Spek 2008, ch.14-15

– Padilla, D. 2015. “Barbarians Inside the Gate, Part I: Fear of Immigration in Ancient Rome and Today“, Eidolon

Podcast : AHOW 035 and 040


-“Why would you read Virgil’s “Aeneid”?“, TedEd

-“A glimpse of teenage life in ancient Rome“, TedEd

Week 12 The Late Antique Roman and Sassanian Empires


De Blois and van der Spek 2008, ch.16

– Daryaee, T. and K. Rezakhani 2017. “The Sasanian Empire”, T. Daryaee ed. King of the Seven Climes. https://www.academia.edu/32690732/T._Daryaee_and_Kh._Rezakhani_The_Sasanian_Empire_KING_OF_THE_SEVEN_CLIMES_ed._T._Daryaee_Jordan_Center_for_Persian_Studies_2017_pp._155-197

Podcast :

– AHOW 043 and 044

– In Our Time, “The Sassanid Empire

Video: The rise and fall of the Byzantine Empire“, TedEd

Week 13 Early Islam and the Arab Conquests


“Arabs” and “Muhammad” in The Encyclopedia of Ancient History

Sarris, P. 2015. “Byzantium and Islam”, Byzantium: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, OUP.

Podcast :

– AHOW 045 and 046

– In Our Time, “The Arab Conquests


In addition to a midterm and a final, the students had to write a “podcast manuscript”:

A History of Ancient Women in 180 ROM Objects 30%

Students are asked to visit the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and, on that occasion, to select one of the many objects from the Ancient Mediterranean world that is related to girls/women (including goddesses) on display there.

Then, in the fashion of BBC’s AHOW series, they shall write the manuscript of a podcast in which they offer a historical analysis of the object in question.

The 4 to 5-page manuscript (1.5 spaced) shall be structured as follows :

  1. Introduction
  2. Primary evidence analysis
  3. Conclusion

In 2014, I assigned a similar paper for my 2nd-year Roman History and Culture course, with the Roman world as the general theme. The ROM generously partnered up with me and turned 5 of the best papers into videos starring the students. The selection was made via a long list established by myself and my GA. Then, students whose papers made it to the long list and who were interested to participate had their paper sent to a small jury made of ROM curators and associate researchers. The 5 winners can be seen on the ROM’s Youtube page.

“Infants in our Soul”: On (Ancient) History as Responsability

“Infants in our Soul”: On (Ancient) History as Responsability

by Katherine Blouin

When the governor of the country, who, if he wished, could have by himself suppressed in a single hour the tyranny of the mob, pretended not to see what he saw and not to hear what he heard but allowed them to wage war unrestrainedly and so wrecked the peace, they became still more excited and pressed forward to carry out shameless designs of a bolder kind.

-Philo of Alexandria The Embassy to Gaius 20, F.H.Colson 1962 transl.

When the news of the shooting in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue broke, I thought of Philo of Alexandria. I thought of the Jews of ancient Alexandria; of the Jews of Hellenistic and Roman Egypt; and of how some patterns of othering fundamentally don’t change, nor disappear. Instead, they remain, lingering under societies’ tolerant, polite veneer, until circumstances – a crisis, the need for a scapegoat whose identity fits the agenda of a charismatic leader – make them surge again in the open. Unfettered.

In 38 CE, upon the accession of Gaius Caligula to power, the Jews of Alexandria – who had accounted since the early Hellenistic period for a substantial portion of the city’s population – were violently attacked by Alexandrians and stripped of their rights by the then prefect of Egypt Aulus Avilius Flaccus. This episode, known as the Judaeo-Alexandrian conflict, unfolded over a period of 3 years. It is the earliest pogrom we know of. We know of it thanks to ancient writers (Philo, Josephus and the author(s) of the Acta Isidori), a copy of a letter from emperor Claudius to the Alexandrians preserved on a papyrus, and some allusions in a few other documentary papyri. It has been reconstructed and studied at length, notably by the late Joseph Mélèze-Modrzejwski, in his seminal book on the The Jews of Egypt from Ramses II to Hadrian, as well as by Sandra Gambetti and myself.

Philo, a Jewish philosopher from Alexandria (and the uncle of the later prefect Tiberius Julius Alexander), is mostly known for his philosophical writings, in which he brings together Jewish texts and Greek paideia. Yet he is also our main source on the conflict between the Jewish community of Alexandria and the city’s Greek citizens. His testimony is all the more powerful that he was a first-hand witness and actor; one who led the Jewish embassy that met with the emperor Gaius in Rome some time after the pogrom. His version of events is at the core of two of his works: Against Flaccus and The Embassy to Gaius. In this post, I want to focus on what Philo says regarding the relationship between dehumanizing (some might say totalitarian) othering narratives, political leadership, and violent attacks perpetrated by civilians.

According to Philo, Flaccus was a fine prefect until the emperor Tiberius died, but things changed following Gaius Caligula’s accession to power. Having supported Tiberius Gemellus instead of Gaius for the succession of Tiberius, Flaccus then found himself in a very vulnerable position (so vulnerable in fact that he seemed to have literally feared for his life). It is in these circumstances that the prefect is said to have made a pact with some leaders of the Alexandrian civic community, whereby they would target the city’s Jewish community. According to Philo, Flaccus and the Alexandrians were convinced that their attack would please Gaius, on the ground of his ” indescribable hatred of the Jews” (Embassy to Gaius 20). Thus Flaccus first let the Alexandrians publicly disrespect king Agrippa, whose stopover in the city led to a public parody involving a mentally impaired man; then he encouraged the desecration of the city’s synagogues, and ended up declaring Jews “foreigners and aliens” (ξένους καὶ ἐπήλυδας; In Flacc. 8).

Flaccus’ (in)action led to a full-on pogrom, during which the members of the Jewish community were confined into a small area of the city (what amounts to a ghetto), their houses pillaged, and many of them killed by a mob. Philo provides a long, detailed and graphic narration in his work Against Flaccus (which is, as the title indicates, a pamphlet against the prefect, whom Philo deems responsible for the entire episode). He also includes a condensed version in his Embassy to Gaius, which was published after the emperor’s death. Here is an excerpt:

The promiscuous and unstable rabble of the Alexandrians perceived this, and thinking that a very suitable opportunity had occurred, attacked us and brought to light the hatred which had long been smouldering, reducing everything to chaos and confusion. For treating us as persons given over by the emperor to suffer the extremity of calamity undisguised or as overpowered in war, they worked our ruin with insane and most brutal rage. They overran our houses, expelling the owners with their wives and children, and left them uninhabited. Then they stole the furniture and cherished valuables and, not needing now like robbers through fear of capture to watch for night and darkness, they carried them out openly in daylight and exhibited them to those whom they met as if they had inherited them or bought them from the owners. And if several agreed together to share the pillaging they divided the spoil in mid-market, often before the eyes of the owners, jeering and reviling them the while.

After driving all these many myriads of men, women, and children like herds of cattle out of the whole city into a very small portion as into a pen, they expected in a few days to find heaps of dead massed together, perished either by famine through lack of necessaries, since having had no prophetic inkling of the sudden disasters they had not provided what was needed, or else through overcrowding and stifling heat. For no sufficiency of room was obtainable, and the air was vitiated and lost all its life-giving properties through the respirations or, to give them their true name, the gasps of expiring men. (Embassy to Gaius 18, F.H.Colson 1962 transl.)

In both works, Philo writes of artificially-created famine in the ghetto; of looting; of attacks of children, women, and elders; of public torture in Alexandria’s theater; of Jews being beatten, lynched, burnt alive, and crucified. A graphic description of the parading of dead bodies in the city’s streets is reminiscent of the fate of Hector’s corpse in the Iliad. Other ones of what we know of the female, Alexandrian philosopher Hypatia’s death by lynching, which was to take place in the same city c.400 years later.

Apart from naming a few of the Alexandrian leaders, Philo ascribes these acts of indescribable violence to an anonymous mob. Yet we should keep in mind that any mob is, in fact, an aggregate of individuals. Emboldened by the silent then open support of the prefect, these Alexandrians perpetrated or passively allowed violence on a scale many of them would most probably never have thought themselves capable of performing or witnessing a few years earlier. In that regard, the social conformity Philo’s narrative testifies to is reminiscent of the Nov. 9, 1938 Kristallnacht, or of what Timothy Snyder writes in On Tyranny regarding the looting and “Arianization” of Jewish property that followed the 1938 Nazi invasion of Austria:

Local Austrian Nazis captured Jews and forced them to scrub the streets to remove symbols of independent Austria. Crucially, people who were not Nazis looked on with interest and amusement. Nazis who had kept lists of Jewish property stole what they could. Crucially, others who were not Nazis joined in the theft. As the political theorist Hannah Arendt remembered, “when German troops invaded the country and Gentile neighbors started riots at Jewish homes, Austrian Jews began to commit suicide. (Timothy Snyder On Tyranny 15-16)

How many Greek Alexandrians did actively participate in the 38 CE pogrom? How many did not? How many did help Jews take refuge, water or food? We don’t know. What we should keep in mind is that just like in 1938 Germany and Vienna, most of Alexandria’s Greek population did not openly oppose the violence and overturn of the city’s customary state of Law.

If Flaccus was really hoping to gain favor in Gaius’ eyes, his plan was a complete failure. Shortly after the pogrom, he was, indeed, arrested in Alexandria and exiled to the island of Andros. The following year, he was executed following the emperor’s order. The effect of Flaccus’ discriminatory policy did not end with his demotion though, as the continuation of the conflict over the following two years shows.

Philo’s criticism of Flaccus is in many ways comparable to that expressed by critics of President Trump following the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue as well as several other events/policies (the violence that took place in Charlottesville, the assault on LGBTQ2 rights, the separation of asylum seekers’ families and the ongoing detention of migrant children in camps, the series of bombs sent to opposition figures, the GOP’s stirring of anti-immigrant fears through the “Caravan” story, and recent calls by the President for the suppression of the 14th amendment via executive order). In both cases, we find a political leader who, facing accusations of corruption or lèse-majesté, exacerbates lingering xenophobic (anti-Jewish in one case; Islamophobic, anti-Semitic/immigrant, homophobic in the other) sentiments in the hope of self-preservation and political gain. Not only did Flaccus not condemn the attacks on the Jewish institutions, property, and bodies, he also, later on, decreed the Jews “foreigners and aliens”, thus enabling the use of physical violence by the Alexandrian “mob” against the Jews. Sounds familiar?

This short post is a case in historical relevance. Donald Trump is no Avilius Flaccus, and Washington is no Alexandria. But deep down, the tides of othering that currently shake the USA, and many countries of the world, are made of many of the same reductive topoi and populist rhetorical backbones as those that led to Alexandria’s pogrom of 38 CE. History doesn’t repeat itself. But human societies do tend to inherit the consequences of, and reproduce their forebears’ collective misdeeds. And they are especially prone to do so when they collectively lack the historical and critical skills required for them to be self-reflective on why that is so.

I shall end this post with two quotes that speak to each other and, I believe, to us all. The first one is from Timothy Snyder; the second, from Philo:

History allows us to see patterns and make judgments. It sketches for us the structures within which we can seek freedom. It reveals moments, each one of them different, none entirely unique. To understand one moment is to see the possibility of being the cocreator of another. History permits us to be responsible: not for everything, but for something. (Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny 130)

How long shall we the aged continue to be children grown grey in our bodies through length of years, but infants in our souls through want of sense, holding fortune, the most unstable of things, to be the most unchangeable, nature, the most constant, to be the most insecure? (Philo, Embassy to Gaius 1, F.H.Colson 1962 transl.)

I’m From Singapore & I Saw Crazy Rich Asians: What I Saw Was What I Did Not See

I’m From Singapore & I Saw Crazy Rich Asians: What I Saw Was What I Did Not See

By Girish Daswani

I am from Singapore. I grew up in an apartment close to Chinatown in the 1970s and remember wandering through the streets and shopping centres, as I killed my boredom of being an only child, reading books on Buddhism and searching for the best lanterns during the Chinese lantern festival. When my father left (I was about 8 or 9) and my mother could not afford to pay the rent anymore, we moved to the East: Siglap Road, Frankel Avenue and finally Marine Parade. My mother started her childcare centre in the different bungalows she rented, the children played below and we shared a room upstairs until the business grew and a room was made available for me (I was 14 by that time!). When we moved into our own two-bedroom apartment in Marine Parade, I was thrilled to have a home again – without the morning cries of children leaving their parents as they headed to work or the invading groups of naughtiness that interrupted my sleep when an extra room was needed for teaching. Even if it meant I had to share the HDB (Housing Development Board = public housing, commonly referred to as Singapore’s “Heartlands”, and where most Singaporeans live) flat with my mother’s brother, who was usually in a bad mood, or a room with my mother, I sensed a new freedom: I was then in junior college and about to head off for military service (Kranji did not have an MRT station at the time), and I was later to assume a coveted spot at the local University. I studied Sociology, was part of a local band, my “Malay”, “Chinese”, “Indian” and “Eurasian” friends became my extended family, and we spoke about the world outside Singapore through music and politics.


Aerial view of Marine Parade’s HDB flats

The world was my oyster – or that was how it felt. I started travelling, backpacked through Europe, volunteered for an NGO in Bangladesh, lived in Ghana with my father’s forgotten family, did my higher education in London and finally found myself in Toronto with a job as a university professor.


The author and his son in one of Singapore’s “Heartlands”

So, what has this to do with me having watched Crazy Rich Asians (CRA) last week? Well, having seen the very entertaining, much acclaimed, and Hollywood blockbuster film set in Singapore, I felt like everything I knew about Singapore was stolen, taken away from me. I’m being too dramatic, maybe? Maybe, but that’s how I felt. Some say that the movie (and the author of the book the movie is based on) depicts a side to Singapore that was previously hidden to many, including myself; that it draws the curtain that usually hides the obscene amounts of wealth, “old money” and patronage that have always been part of Singaporean society. And they may be right. Others are happy to see Singapore featured and photoshoped into an Asian-American Hollywood film that brings the tiny island-state into the international spotlight with a more joyful twist than the controversies of the recent Trump-Kim-Jong-un Summit (let’s not even discuss how some think that summit was a “good” thing). And they have every right to their happiness. The Singapore Tourist Board must have also been salivating on the free marketing advertisements that portrayed Singapore’s mouth-watering local food, its synthesis of colonial, Peranakan and modern architecture, its post-modern infrastructure, and the futuristic hotel (and prophecy of the end-times depicted by the Noah’s Ark) that is the Marina Bay Sand – an Ark built on reclaimed land. Salivate all you want, I say.

What I saw was different. What I saw was what I did not see. And this is important. It is important because, just as CRA claims to be a success for “Asian-Americans” (let’s just cut to the chase and say “Chinese-Americans”) representation in Hollywood (and that is indeed something important), it was a failure in being an ally to the indigenous people and other minorities of the country the movie is set in. These groups have been under-/not represented in the country’s own post-colonial public image; their concerns are generally not heard or seen as lacking credibility because of the country’s nationalistic ideologies of meritocracy and multiculturalism. The only Malay (the indigenous person of Singapore) in the movie was…. wait, were there any Malays in the movie? The “Indians” were represented by the colonial figures of the Sikh soldier or bodyguard, scary bearded brown men with turbans. It is them who guarded the property of the crazy rich Chinese family, and the short scene in which they appear is meant to trigger laughter among the audience. As for Tamils, they are only seen as usherers at the wedding. Filipinos and Indonesians (the “new Singaporeans”) are stereotypically cast as the docile domestic helper more commonly called “maids.” Even CRA’s representation of “Chinese” people seemed confused. Elements of Hakka, Peranakan, Teochew, Hokkien, and Mandarin-speaking cultures are indiscriminately blended together in ways that are unrecognizable to the Chinese Singaporean.

The very fact that I’m using “Chinese”, “Malay”, “Indian” (let’s not forget “Eurasian”) is not random: These are the four official “Races” of Singapore. “Race” is a thing in Singapore, part of our post-colonial baggage that helps the government structure and divide Singaporeans according to “origin” types, and comes with the usual racial stereotypes. It is so central to the bureaucracy that it is printed on our identity cards.


Poster for Singapore’s “Racial Harmony Day”

The metaphor and bureaucratic use of racial “types” can also be linked to Singapore’s fascination for “nature” (or how “race” is sometimes linked to “nature” and natural selection) and its attempts to control it (Joanne Leow). This fascination justifies a series of politics, from control over marriage and purity (see Teo You Yenn’s Neoliberal Morality in Singapore), to control of public housing (allocation of homes and mixing of races), to control over language (each race has its own “mother tongue”). How does it relate to the movie? Well, because CRA makes it seem like Singaporeans don’t really mix or intermingle beyond hierarchical, practical purposes (like the Sikh guards, the Tamil usherer opening your door, or the Filipino maids hiding their Chinese boss’s Jimmy Choo shoes and fancy jewellery in drawers). Maybe crazy rich people mix less with others – some anthropologists might agree with that. But as a middle class Singaporean who has also mingled with wealthier locals, I would say that the mixity is a lot more prevalent and complicated than the segregation-like social landscape the movie portrays.

I grew up speaking standardized (British) English in school, with Malay as my second language, and I used Singlish amongst my friends and other locals, a way of speaking English interspersed with words in Malay, Tamil, Mandarin, Hokkien and Teochew. My friends were from various socio-economic, cultural and religious backgrounds: Say Chong was my friend in Primary 3; with him, I watched the latest kungfu movies from Hong Kong (myself, Say Chong and others used to pretend “fight” using the martial arts moves we learnt in movies). Timothy was one of my closest friends from primary 3 to 6; he introduced me to the wonders of climbing down monsoon drains and protected me from potential bullies. Others became like brothers and adopted sisters (we played football in the void decks, participated in plays and school debates and made music together). Together, we shared a tapestry of experiences: we lived in Singapore and were attracted to each through common interests, schools, neighbourhoods and the need to connect with a person or group outside our respective family unit. I never limited them to their “race”. We spoke a common language: the language of being from a place, in a place. As such, we shared the experiences and frustrations of its rites of passage, including the Primary School Leaving Examinations (through which you were placed into “Normal, “Express” or “Gifted” streams), ‘O’ levels, ‘A’ levels, and military service (for males only).

I experienced racism for the first time in the army. My platoon mates mainly spoke Hokkien and Mandarin to each other, and I did not speak enough. Some did not like me and only referred to me as “Keling Kia”, never by my name. The expression “Keling Kia” comes from the colonial era. Then, South Indian labourers of Tamil or Telugu decent were called “Keling” (in Hokkien, Cantonese and Teochew) and “Kia” was often used in Teochew to refer to non-Chinese ethnic groups.


Indian coolies, Singapore, c.1900

The first Chinese girl I went out with was a friend of my cousin’s. My cousin was not pleased. To be fair, I never told her I was pursuing her friend romantically. But when the girl’s parents found out about us (they saw us at a bus stop, close to her HDB block, holding hands), they were incensed. She broke up with me immediately after that. I heard from a reliable source that her parents forbid her from seeing me, compared me to other Indians – cause we apparently all abuse alcohol and our wives – and told her that if she wanted to continue seeing me, she could “roll in the mud” (I assumed at the time that this was not a New Age cleansing ritual) and leave home. She made the right choice, went to a different university than me and her parents had her brother introduce her to his Chinese friends from NTU – one of whom she later married. I’m not bitter. I was hurt at the time but I had my friends and I had my music to channel my frustrations (one result was “She Don’t Care Anymore”, Big O Singles Club No. 5). University seemed not to place limits on me and I blossomed into a graduate.


The author (singing) with his fellow bandmates of The Trip in concert

Why, again, am I sharing this with you? How does it relate to CRA? Well, it is to counter-balance the movie’s picture of singularity (Singapore = rich and Chinese) and the absence of conviviality between the so-called different groups and to point to the many Singaporeans who live together and with each other, mainly in the HDB flats that the cinema screen scans over quickly (you see them in the background while the characters drive to their parties and exclusive destinations). It is to point to the prejudices that already exist politically and socially; prejudices that would not allow a non-Chinese become Prime Minister. As Singaporean historian Thum Ping-tjin put it:

[The] most competent and popular politician in Singapore is not allowed to be prime minister because he is the wrong race, he doesn’t meet the qualifications of an (mandarin) elite.

If I am sharing this with you, it is to alert you to the hidden secret that there is poverty in Singapore, even as its officials try to rationalize it, provide tips on how to better manage the rising cost of living and transfer the bulk of the responsibility to the economic choices people make (see Teo You Yenn 2018 and this).

Also, where are the Crazy Rich Singaporeans who are not Chinese? Are we all not “Asians”? Why could the movie director not have taken some creative and intellectual initiative, hired some Singaporean consultants who knew about the politics and the history of the place, put more Singaporeans into leading roles (we have great actors by the way, including Tan Kheng Hua, who I was thrilled to see play the female lead’s mother), and made some modifications to the script by making the main character’s best friend Indian, Malay or Peranakan (unless the idea was to only portray local characters who had gone to élite Chinese language schools; yes, that is a thing in Singapore)? And why was there a (most probably fake) quote from Napoléon Bonaparte at the beginning of the movie? Why had the director picked that Orientalist warning whereby China, the feminized “sleeping giant”, would one day awaken from its slumber as the movie’s epigram? Has “China” ever been sleeping? Is Singapore China? Are Singaporeans Chinese? Is Asia China?

To me, CRA came across as a movie about Chinese hegemony and neo-colonial domination more than about “Asians” anywhere. I found myself entertained by the movie but perplexed at the same time. It haunted me for a few days, and I ended up watching it a second time with my (Singaporean) niece. Why did Jon M. Chu’s team come to Singapore only to film clichés and Photoshop the country, relegating its true diversity into the far, very blurry background? I understand that this isn’t meant to be a movie about Singapore, but why try to break some stereotypes by perpetuating others? While Hollywood reproduces stereotypes all the time, and in this CRA is no different from other American Hollywood bluckbusters, the movie’s claim to be a “movement” (in the fashion of Black Panther – a comparative analysis of this requires another blog post) or a work that is about representing “diversity” and “Asians” is misleading. For the movie’s lack of attempt to provide a true diversity of representations as unproblematic is problematic to me.

In response to my frustrations with the lack of representation in the movie, a Chinese-American told me on Twitter: “I’m not sure why you as a Singaporean are inflating your sense of importance. It’s based in Singapore not a film about Singapore. This is a clear distinction.” He was quite right. This was not a film about Singapore, but a Hollywood-American movie based on a book whose author is, yes, a Singaporean, but one who left the country at age 11 and has since been living in the US. It is also a movie that, although set mostly in Singapore, includes a substantial amount of shots filmed in Malaysia and reworked through CGI (including the Young family house). CRA‘s Singapore, thus, is a highly Orientalized, imagined “Asian” fantasy. It is not my country.

Yet some of the film’s scenes do, paradoxically, tell you a lot about the country and its ties to diversity, colonialism and imperialism. While Nick Young’s best friend’s wedding takes place in CHIJMES, whose hall we see turned into a tropical forest, the after-wedding party is held in Singapore’s majestic “Gardens by the Bay”. In line with its fame as an international “Garden City” known for its beautiful Botanical Gardens and bountifully green public spaces, Singapore’s famous tourist attraction is also a symbol of the unseen labour that goes into maintaining racialized divisions and naturalizing the status quo. These divisions and hierarchies are, unsurprisingly, maintained in CRA. Designed by a British company, Gardens by the Bay consists of two climatic zones (Mediterranean and Tropical mountain range) that hold around a thousand species of plants, flanked by “Supertrees” (the purple tree-structures you see in the movie, about which someone watching the movie close to me exclaimed, “Just like the movie Avatar!”) and “themed gardens” that include four “Heritage Gardens” called “Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Colonial”. University of Saskatchewan scholar Joanne Leow has shown how these correspond to “racialized, codified spaces that classify the main ethnic groups and their related botany in Singapore as scholarly Chinese, artistic Indians, rural Malays, and enterprising colonials”. So just scratch a little below the surface and you will find a history of peoples, managed and organized through colonialism, simplified into types and re-created as living and breathing stereotypes.


Aerial view of the Gardens by the Bay

Singapore, thus, includes many peoples not seen or experienced in CRA. While I have problems with how Race (and Nature) is manufactured and imagined in the country, I have more problems with how Singapore’s neo-colonial complexity is purposefully left out of the movie. One might then respond that CRA is about Family, that it is a rom-com focusing on how love triumphs over traditions and class differences. But what of the intimacies between “Chinese Singaporeans” (a modern invention, by the way) and other racialized Singaporeans? In her book The Intimacies of Four Continents (2016:16) Lisa Lowe writes:

it is the pronounced asymmetry of the colonial divisions of humanity that… privileges particular subjects and societies as rational, civilized, and human, and treat others as laboring, replaceable, or disposable contexts that constitute that humanity.

I could also respond, where were brown and black bodies – are other Singaporean / Asian bodies replaceable, disposable or treated as less than Singaporean / Asian? By her use of the term “intimacies” Lowe (2016:18-20) is suggesting that we instead focus on the close connections and relations between colonized people; slaves, peoples of indigenous descent and colonized labourers (for example, slavery in the Caribbean and Chinese and Indian free-labour “coolie” systems). These alliances and social ties of affinity created between different colonized people are important to consider because they actually existed (even as they might have been resisted), but (as complicated as they are) were often eclipsed by the dominant Anglo-American narrative.

How to understand that we are all intimately connected, even if in a complicated way that is not always straightforward? A last story from my years in Singapore might help. I remember spending long nights in Cuff Road, just off Serangoon Road, Singapore’s Little India. I would sit in my adopted uncle’s office, a converted shop-house, one of many that lined the street he had grown up on and continued to call his home.


Shop houses, Little India, Singapore

My uncle (Māma, lit. “mother’s brother” in Tamil) was a well-known astrologer in Singapore and I got to know him soon after my father left my mother. He loved talking about politics and history. As I grew older, these conversations – involving groups of people, usually his close friends – went on late into the night and sometimes well into the morning. I would watch his paan-stained lips, red from the juice of the beetel leaf and areca nuts, articulate connections between India and Singapore and how their histories converged. Māma was talented at revealing the connections and convergences between the stars, the past, the present and the future, and what these alignments said about the present and what they signified personally and politically for everyone in the room. He was a gifted astrologer, but also an exceptional connector of worlds and people.

Rather than connecting us, CRA reinforces a narrative of division (“races”, classes, “civilizations”), while simultaneously erasing or occluding the other intimate connections and convergences that exist – and which I’ve experienced and tried to write about in this post. It reinforces an American identity-politics that bears the burdens of imperialisms (old and new). It may be a win for Asian-American “representation” – we need to acknowledge that many Asian-Americans of East Asian decent, and beyond, are rightfully-so, personally elevated and emotionally affected by this movie – but it is a loss for the larger battle of truly addressing (mis-) representation and considering the concerns of other minorities who are also part of the story. Until we recognize that and come together in new and unexpected ways, to expose the simple and simplistic mainstream narrative, we will only reproduce division, racial difference and exclusivity – something that I thought CRA was trying to challenge. I am secretly grateful for having watched CRA. Having spent half my life away, I thought that I had left Singapore behind me. But having watched the film, I realized that Singapore is very much still inside me. CRA doesn’t do justice to what life in Singapore is for most Singaporeans, me included.


Chua, Beng-Huat. 2002. Political Legitimacy and Housing: Singapore’s Stakeholder Society. Taylor and Francis.

Leow, Joanne. Unpublished. “New Asian Tropicalities: Reading Nature in the City in a Garden.”

Lowe, Lisa. 2016. The Intimacies of Four Continents. Duke University Press.

Teo, You Yenn. 2011. Neoliberal Morality in Singapore: How Family Policies Make State and Society. Routledge.

Teo, You Yenn. 2018. This Is What Inequality Looks Like. Ethos Books.

Purushotam, Nirmala. 1998. Negotiating Language, Constructing Race: Disciplining Difference in Singapore. Mouton de Gruyter.