Everyday Orientalism Quiz: Egypt in Tourist Guidebooks, 1847-2017


Image credit: Matson Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-matpc-17903.

Can you guess when these guidebook descriptions of Egypt were written? All come from travel guidebooks, newspaper articles and other promotional materials designed to help western tourists plan a trip to Egypt. They date from 1847-2017. Note how the language used (‘the mysterious Orient’, ‘touts like flies’) remains remarkably constant. Answers at the foot of the article.

  1. “Papyrus sellers and would-be guides hound you at every turn.”
  1. “There is no better way to conjure the Orientalist mood than by taking a felucca ride on the Nile.”
  1. “A desert nation veiled in millenia of cultural mystery and architectural enigmas, Egypt summons images of towering pyramids, riddling sphinxes, and archaeological adventures.”
  1. Tourists “do not find it easy to resist the fascination of the picturesque oriental life in the native quarters, where it is still possible, when once the Mooski is crossed, for the imaginative traveller to realise the dreams of the Arabian Nights of his childhood.”
  1. “Touts like locusts.”
  1. “Negotiations are hedged round with and amount of ceremony that recalls the stately fashion in the Arabian Nights, when the purchase of a brass tray or an embroidered saddle-cloth was a solemn treaty.”
  1. “Egyptian peddlers have been pestering, cajoling and ‘refusing to take no for an answer’ for far longer than anyone can remember. Elaborate con tricks handed down through the generations will have you parting with your pounds without even realising how it was done. Online forums are filled with tales of bitter screaming matches and accounts of tourists being physically abused by touts if they don’t agree to a camel ride. It makes you almost nostalgic for the good old days, when all they did was overcharge people.”
  1. “A yelling crowd of donkey-boys, guides, porters, interpreters, dragomans, itinerant dealers in sham antiques, and all the rabble that live on the [tourist].”
  1. “Mena House dazzles with intricate gold decoration and air that perpetually smells of jasmine … whitewashed Moorish-style buildings with dark wood balconies, grand arcades and terraces are the European vision of the ‘Orient’ set in stone.”
  1. “Aggressive peddlers can ruin the shopping experience in Cairo.”
  1. “For millennia the iconic sights of Egypt have held visitors in their sway, from the pyramids of Giza to the dazzling colours of the Pharaoh’s tombs.”
  1. “The true Cairene’s ideas, ether good or bad, like his dress, his religion, his social customs and habits, his oddities of speech, his calm, impenetrable reserve, and his disinclination to worry – all date from the Middle Ages.”
  1. Islamic monuments are “curious specimens of the peculiarities of Oriental taste, abounding in great luxuriance of ornament.”


  1. Lonely Planet Egypt 12th edition, 2015.
  2. New York Times, 3 February 2008.
  3. Luxury travel operator Absolute Travel: http://absolutetravel.com/travel-destinations/africa/egypt/, accessed 4 February 2017.
  4. Reynolds-Ball, Eustace A. (1899) Cairo of To-day: A Practical Guide to Cairo and the Nile. London: Adam and Charles Black.
  5. Lonely Planet Egypt 12th edition, 2015.
  6. Reynolds-Ball, Eustace A. (1899) Cairo of To-day: A Practical Guide to Cairo and the Nile. London: Adam and Charles Black.
  7. South China Morning Post, 24 September 2016.
  8. Reynolds-Ball, Eustace A. (1899) Cairo of To-day: A Practical Guide to Cairo and the Nile. London: Adam and Charles Black.
  9. Lonely Planet Egypt 12th edition, 2015.
  10. New York Times, 3 February 2008.
  11. Luxury travel operator Abercrombie and Kent: abercrombiekent.co.uk, accessed 4 February 2017.
  12. New York Times, 22 November 1902.
  13. Wilkinson, Sir Gardner (1847) Hand-Book for Travellers in Egypt. London: John Murray.

Rachel Mairs

Ancient History in the Age of Trump: Time for the Media to Update their Classics

Ancient History in the Age of Trump: Time for the Media to Update their Classics

Since Donald J. Trump’s inauguration as President of the USA, several articles have appeared in mainstream media in which journalists try to make parallels between Trump’s autocratic ruling style and the ancient world, especially the Roman Empire. On January 25, the Guardian published an article of Jonathan Jones entitled « To understand Trump, we should look to the tyrants of ancient Rome ». Should this article have been a school paper, Mr Jones’ uncritical, floppy use of primary evidence would no doubt have deserved him the same as what Donald Trump would have gotten if his Black History month speech had been submitted in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 7-th grade classroom. The conclusion is a gem in itself :

The Romans did not see tyranny as a single fixed set of symptoms. Tiberiua [sic], Caligula, Nero, Commodus and the many freakish rulers thrown up by later Roman history are all different, all singular. When we look at Trump, when we try to get the measure of the world’s most powerful man, we could compare him with these odd and extremely dangerous characters. You don’t have to be a Hitler to threaten democracy and peace, a look at Roman art and history reveals: a Caligula or Commodus is equally scary.[2]

How could the Guardian publish such a mediocre, incoherent article? My colleague Roberta Mazza has already written what she thought of it, and showed that such sensationalist, elitist and, therefore, utterly simplistic uses of ancient history stem from imperialist, essentially male and white gazes and that, accordingly, they cannot be deemed historically viable anymore. I completely agree with her. As Phiroze Vasunia has recently highlighted in this blog, postcolonial and social approaches to Roman (and ancient) history are becoming increasingly normalized within our fields. Yet for some reason, and despite the efforts of Mary Beard, this academic shift has still not been properly integrated in “popular” representations of the ancient world. Thus, perhaps, the current journalistic trend.

I’m not trying to sugar coat what the ancient Roman world was about. Of course, the vast majority of the Roman Empire’s inhabitants remained non-citizens until Caracalla’s universal grant of Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants of the Empire in 212 CE (a measure that most probably stemmed from financial rather than humanist reasons). Of course the ancient world was one where slavery was a normalized fact of social life[1]. Of course episodes of religious scapegoating, racist stereotyping and misogyny abound in the written sources. Of course wars of conquest led to horrible acts of violence against non-Roman peoples that, in the case of Caesar’s Gallic wars for instance, have been qualified as genocide by some scholars. Of course we should not simply copy and paste ancient data into our current world in order to understand what’s going on and where we are heading. Of course, in sum, the Roman world was very different from ours. But provided that they are properly contextualized, these ancient « stories made of true events », to paraphrase Paul Veyne, can contribute to broader reflections on human nature, societies, and the ways in which certain sociological and geopolitical patterns tend to (re)appear. It is, I believe, in such ways that ancient history can and must contribute to current debates and actions against the rise of xenophobic, racist rhetorics of the sort that are now promoted by the ruling powers in the USA and UK, as well as by many parties and groups elsewhere in the world.

In order to lead by example, here is a short reflection that starts from the currently widespread populist discourse according to which the « greatness » of a « nation » comes from a supposed state of original demographic purity. According to this reasoning, the economic challenges encountered by this « great nation » are caused by the infiltration within the nation’s territory of « others » who, attracted by the greatness of the nation in question, are trying to move in and get their share of the cake. This trope is now being used in the USA, UK, and many other countries in order to justifiy the scapegoatings of immigrants, especially (but not exclusively) non white and muslim ones, whose containment, exclusion, or elimination is seen as the best way for the nation to find prosperity and, therefore, be « great » again. Easy peasy. Except that it couldn’t be more disconnected from human reality. And history.

In his first-century monumental work dedicated to the history of Rome, the Latin writer Livy narrates how Romulus, the founder of Rome and descendant of Trojan warrior-turned-refugee Aeneas, managed to find a male population for his new city :

In order that the enlarged city might not be empty or weak, he resorted to the time-honoured fiction of city founders that the lowly and ignoble folk they attract are children ‘sprung from the earth’. He therefore selected a sight for an asylum […]. A motley mob from the neighbouring peoples flocked to the spot, with no distinction made as to whether they were free or slave, and all eager for a new start in life. These men were the beginning of the real strength of the city. (Livy, The Early History of Rome 1.8, Luce 1998 transl.).

The story has it that contrary to Rome’s first male settlers, women did not migrate there voluntarily. For Livy also explains how, to the peoples living in the vicinity of the newly founded Rome, and notably the Sabines, whose presence in the region was more rooted in time, Romulus’ « asylum » and its heterogeneous set of newcomers were cause for distrust and concern. Confronted by disdainful neighbours who were not willing to marry their daughters to his settlers, who were from mostly low and varied backgrounds, Romulus had no choice but to use cunning in order to abduct women from the nearby Sabines. This violent episode came to be known as the « Rape of the Sabines » (Livy Hist. 1.9-13).

Livy’s testimony, which was written at the time of Augustus, obviously contains its share of distortions, mythical elements, and historical retrojections. The last category is precisely what interests me here, for these retrojections offer us some clues as to how Livy, his sources, and his contemporaries viewed what, or rather who, Rome and its Empire were about. Beyond the violence-infused nature of Romulus’ story, which no doubt echoes the atrocities of the late Republican civil war, what is striking here is the idea that Rome was an asylum made of newcomers « with no distinction made as to whether they were free or slave, and all eager for a new start in life ». This way of peopling one’s city with refugees, poor, and vulnerable peoples of different origins corresponded, specifies Livy, to a « time-honoured fiction of city founders that the lowly and ignoble folk they attract are children ‘sprung from the earth’ ». By saying so, he shows himself aware that the notion of autochtony is nothing but a convenient foundation myth, aimed at producing a sense of shared belonging to a group of originally disparate and all-but-glamourous settlers. Given the Imperial might Rome enjoyed in Livy’s lifetime, Rome’s diverse origins appear not only as a fundamental characteristics of the city’s history itself, but also as the root for its exceptional success.

In fact, later Romans were very proud of how open the society of archaic Rome was. After all, they had been ruled by kings who were not only of Latin origin, but also Sabines, Etruscans, and even slave-born. A great testimony of this enduring pride, and of its direct impact on Roman imperial policies, can be found in the Lyon Tablet (CIL 13 1668). As its name indicates, this bronze tablet was found in emperor Claudius’ native city, Lyon (Roman Lugdunum). It contains part of the transcript of a speech given by Claudius to the Roman senate in 48 CE. During that speech, the emperor tried to convince the reluctant crowd of senators that allowing wealthy and deserving Gauls into the Senate was the good and, considering Rome’s early, multicultural history and the more recent initiatives by Augustus and Tiberius, the logical thing to do. A longer and different version of the speech is also provided by Tacitus, who has Claudius use his own family ancestry to make his point:

Of my own ancestors, the most ancient, Clausus, was of Sabine origin, but he was accepted at the same time both for Roman citizenship and for membership in the patrician families of the city. Those ancestors therefore urge me to follow the same procedure in the administration of state policy, bringing here all that is excellent anywhere else. (Tacitus, The Annals 11.24, Yardley 2008 transl.)

These words echo recent speeches by the Mayor of Boston, Martin Walsh, and the Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, both of whom strongly condemned Trump’s seven-nation and refugee ban by highlighting how they themselves, like most Bostoners, New Yorkers, and Americans, come from families of migrants. In both cases, the message is the same : Diversity is strength, and integration rather than exclusion is the key to prosperity and success.

Livy’s account and Claudius’ speech also highlight one of the fundamental characteristics of the Roman State : By essence, and contrary to the Greek conception of citizenship, Roman citizenship was not a blood-based status that was, apart from a few exceptional cases, enjoyed by a close community of individuals. It was rather an inclusive mechanism, which was granted to communities, families, individuals, and eventually all free inhabitants of the Empire, for a variety of reasons, without any consideration for the gods they worshipped, the languages they spoke, the colour of their skin or the place they came from. This openness permeated the highest levels of the political and military sphere, as is testified to by the fact that Roman emperors and their families included Roman citizens from Spain, Libya, Syria, and the Balkans for whom, in some cases, Latin was not their first language, and whose dearest gods were not the members of the Capitoline triad. And if we recognize the use of the title Augusta by Palmyra’s queen Zenobia as evidence of her wish to rule the territory under her control within the Roman imperial structure of her time, Rome also had a female empress.

The Roman use of citizenship as an integration tool is also, according to Claudius, what set Rome well above Athens and Sparta:

What else was it that spelled destruction for the Spartans and the Athenians, militarily powerful though they were, if not their segregation of conquered peoples as foreigners? By contrast, our founder Romulus showed such wisdom that he regarded numerous peoples as his enemies and then as his fellow-citizens on the very same day! (Tacitus, The Annals 11.24, Yardley 2008 transl.)

In many ways, the founding myth of the USA is rooted, like that of ancient Rome, in the idea of a population made of « numerous peoples » that had become « fellow-citizens », and historical evidence amply show that these representations reflect the very early multicultural nature of both these societies. Seen in this light, the populist, exclusivist, and racist rhetoric currently promoted by Trump, May, Le Pen and many other politicians and public figures represents a denial not only of history, but also of what humanity is fundamentally about: movement and cultural diversity.

Non-elitist and decolonized approaches to ancient history contribute way, way more to our reflections on the roots and significance of what is happening in the world these days than the Gibonnian, elitist fetichising of « good » over « bad » emperors or the simplistic reflections on the « rise » and « fall » of the Roman Empire[2]. We need more nuanced and inclusive scholarly voices to speak beyond academia. It is not only critical to current, public debates ; it is also essential to the very survival of our discipline(s)[3]. If you are one of these voices and feel like speaking up in Faces and Voices or Everyday Orientalism, feel free to send your contribution to Roberta or to me.

Katherine Blouin

I wish to thank my colleague Seth Bernard for having read through a draft of this post and provided me with much useful feedbacks.

[1] Although the grant of citizenship to descendants of freed slaves was already commented on as a strange institution by Philip II of Macedon (see IG 9.517 (SIG3 543; ILS 8763)).

[2] See for instance https://qz.com/677380/1700-years-ago-the-mismanagement-of-a-migrant-crisis-cost-rome-its-empire/

[3] See for instance Edith Hall’s June 2015 article published in The Guardian, which focuses on the case of Greek history and language: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jun/20/classics-for-the-people-ancient-greeks

The Classics, (Post)Colonialism, and Reception Studies: An Interview with Phiroze Vasunia

The Classics, (Post)Colonialism, and Reception Studies: An Interview with Phiroze Vasunia

By Chiara Graf

Phiroze Vasunia is a professor in the Department of Greek and Latin and in the Programme for Comparative Literature at University College London. Since receiving his Ph.D. from Stanford in 1996, he has written extensively on colonialism and cross-cultural contact in Antiquity, as well as on the relationship between empire and the study of Classics. He is the author of such works as The Gift of the Nile: Hellenizing Egypt from Aeschylus to Alexander and The Classics and Colonial India, and he has co-edited numerous volumes, including Classics and National Cultures (co-edited with Susan A. Stephens). In this interview, he discusses postcolonial studies, reception studies, and the future of the study of Classics.

On Postcolonial Studies and the Classics

Chiara Graf: I thought I would start by asking you a little bit about yourself. What brought you to postcolonial studies?

Phiroze Vasunia: There are both academic and personal dimensions to your question.  In academic terms, I would say that, when I was a graduate student, I was frustrated by what I took to be the lack of sophistication in scholarship about such important, standard topics as the barbarian in Greek culture, and it seemed to me that classical scholars, with a few exceptions—Edith Hall, for example—had not really attempted to think through questions of method and approach, nor had they quite taken the trouble to look at developments in areas outside of Classical Studies. It seemed to me that there was both a need and an opening there for a scholarship that was informed by postcolonial studies and that was at the same time attuned to the particular specificities of the ancient world. It wasn’t just a question of reading Edward Said’s books Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism but also of engaging with a wider current of thought in postcolonial studies, of looking at scholars such as Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha, who admittedly were only just starting to be accepted into the mainstream when I was in graduate school during the first half of the 1990s.  One wouldn’t want necessarily to criticize classical scholars for not engaging with that work, because that work was just beginning to take off and grab people’s attention. With Said, of course, Orientalism came out in 1978, so it had been there, in the academy, already for some time, and people were beginning to absorb its implications and its claims—and these scholars were working within the context of decolonization and other movements, which went back to the 40’s and 50’s. To me it seemed that there were opportunities to incorporate some of these works, to think about them, to improve upon them, and that Classical scholars, with a few notable exceptions, were not quite doing so.

I guess the personal dimension of this would be that perhaps I was a little more sensitive to these questions because I was a foreign student in America. I came from India, and I was aware, as all foreign students are, of my own foreignness to the culture, but also to what I felt was a lack of scholarly attention to developments outside of Classical Studies. I wouldn’t dwell too much on the personal side of this: I think that one need not only be an Indian, or a Kenyan, or a Malaysian, or a Cuban to work on questions of postcolonialism. There is a whole range of scholars from a whole variety of backgrounds who write on postcolonial studies. Yet, perhaps because of the education I received when I was growing up and the people I read in school, I had a slightly different upbringing than the majority of Classical scholars who were my peers. There might be a personal side to this, which is perhaps worth acknowledging at least, even if I may not quite be doing justice to it and even if I wouldn’t want to place too much stress on it.

It also seemed to me when I was a graduate student that there was a kind of aura about the history of classical scholarship. There was not just a charm to it, but there was something almost theological that Classical scholars felt about their own history.  They looked back at the giants of the discipline with a reverence that seemed excessive in proportion to what one might see in other disciplines: to figures such as Wilamowitz, or Fraenkel, or Dodds, or, going back further, to Bentley, to Porson, to the great Renaissance scholars of Antiquity as well, Isaac Casaubon, Lorenzo Valla, and going back to the Middle Ages and beyond. So it seemed to me that that this was a subject that needed to be discussed, and was not receiving sufficient attention, at least not in the early 1990’s.

I also think that, in a way, Martin Bernal with Black Athena, for all the sensationalism of his account, put the politics of scholarship on the map, and, as anyone will tell you, the better parts of his work are the ones that deal with the history of scholarship rather than with ancient material. The first volume of Black Athena gave scholars a renewed impetus to look at developments within the field in the last two to three hundred years, but an important part that was missing from Bernal’s Black Athena was in fact the question of empire.  I thought this was missing as well from important studies such as Chris Stray’s book, Classics Transformed (which came out towards the end of the 90’s), and it seemed to me that the last 200 to 300 years of the history of the discipline could not be told without thinking or talking about empire. Bernal does mention it in passing, as does Stray, but it didn’t seem to me quite thought through as it ought to have been.

CG: Why do you think Classics had been so slow to adopt the work of Said and other postcolonial scholars? What does this say about us and our anxieties as a discipline?

PV: I would say that it was a slow process of acceptance. Postcolonial scholars are themselves very presentist in their orientation: they look to the last 50 or 100 years, but many of them haven’t looked further back, beyond the period of modern imperialism and colonialism. Postcolonial studies itself did not show an interest in long histories.  On the other hand, as I say, there was an opening here for classical scholars, because Classics as a discipline emerged about 200 years ago, and it in some ways accompanied the rise of the modern empires.  This disciplinary history could have been explored from a postcolonial perspective, but wasn’t, at least initially. But since the 90’s there has been an increase in work done by classical scholars, historians, and archaeologists who take their inspiration from postcolonial studies.  We could mention, from a longer list, and in no particular order, Edith Hall, Richard Hingley, Pierre Briant, Tom Harrison, Lorna Hardwick, Barbara Goff, Carol Dougherty, Irad Malkin, Mark Bradley, David Mattingly, and Chris Hagerman.  These are scholars who, in my view, draw on postcolonial studies in their writings even if they may not themselves identify as postcolonial scholars.  The people who run the blog [Katherine Blouin, Usama Ali Gad, and Rachel Mairs] are themselves people who have contributed to the way in which Classics might benefit from postcolonial studies.

CG: I’m interested in reactions to your work, and whether there have been different sorts of reactions to work on empire and “othering” within Antiquity, as opposed to your work on the reception of Classics and its appropriation by the British Empire. Does the scholarly community take to these iterations of postcolonial studies in different ways?

PV: In terms of the work that I’ve done looking at questions of empire and colonialism, I don’t think it’s been all that controversial. Generally, perhaps because of all the recent work that I was talking about, people don’t seem all that surprised now to know that there has been a connection between Classics on the one hand and colonialism on the other. There seems to be some kind of willingness to acknowledge the sorts of questions that I, and other scholars, have been raising.

There’ve been a few instances when I’ve given papers at conferences or seminars and have been criticized pretty sharply by people, but criticism arose in those cases when I suggested that the history of Classics and colonialism has a genealogy that continues to the present moment. Classical scholars seem to be unprepared to accept that claim, but I would in many ways stand by that claim still today: there is a residue–more than a residue– of empire in our scholarship, and Classics could still do with a healthy dose of decolonization, even in 2017.

As for ancient Orientalism, I’ve written mainly about Egypt and Iran, and worked also with the ideas and writings that classical scholars have themselves put forward, and used these in conjunction with work outside of Classics in postcolonial studies. I think there are some people who think that what I say about Orientalism and imperialism may be more applicable to the modern period rather than the ancient period. So perhaps you’re right; perhaps the implication of your question might be, “Are people more reluctant to accept charges of Orientalism and of colonialism in antiquity than in the present?” There might be something to that suggestion.

If I could add one related point, I think that reception studies itself has not been slow to take up questions of empire, of colonialism, of Orientalism. Far from resisting these types of questions, scholars of classical reception have actually taken up these topics and explored them with quite a heavy degree of intensity and scholarship and detail and rigor.

CG: In your work, you reject a stark binary of self and other. What do we lose when we simplify things to that binary?

PV: Clearly, we’re all complicated human beings, and things have been complicated for thousands of years, so binaries are not going to tell us a lot about the state of culture, civilization, human interaction, artistic endeavor, et cetera. Human beings tend to have multiple allegiances, and we might be partly rational, partly irrational, partly prejudiced by one thing in one part of life and quite unprejudiced in other parts of life: there might be some colonialists who were sympathetic to the people they ruled over, in however complicated a fashion, and there might have been colonial subjects who may have aspired to become as oppressive and violent as some of their colonial overlords. I’d also say that introducing issues of sympathy, for example, in these discussions is not necessarily always a sound scholarly procedure. So, if you are already sympathetic to someone who is colonized, as at least I would be instinctively drawn to be, you are in a way prejudicing your own thought in advance. And Gayatri Spivak has written about this quite extensively, that one needs to understand what one is doing and what one’s own emotional investment is in these sorts of questions, for example, when one divides up the world into colonizer and colonized and says, “I sympathize with the colonized! I think the colonizer is a brute!”– if you approach Antiquity with that attitude you are going to blind yourself to a whole range of cultural, historical, and intellectual complexities. But this is a big subject, and this does not mean that one can justify colonialism, or slavery—that’s clearly not the argument here. The argument is more about arriving at a position that’s thoughtful and self-aware and rigorous.


On Reception Studies

CG: How did you become interested in reception studies?

PV: In some ways, I think I’ve touched on that question: partly, I was of the view that the history of classical scholarship, which in some ways can be seen as a branch of reception studies, had not sufficiently dealt with imperialism and colonialism. But secondly, it also seemed to me that the practitioners of the subject, today, 50 years ago, and maybe even 100 years ago, had a sense of this specialness that ancient Greece and Rome seemed to be imbued with. And it was attempting to understand this charisma coming from classical Greek and Roman Antiquity, trying to understand why Greek and Roman Antiquity still had this powerful hold, within especially elite but also non-elite cultures in Western Europe and North America, that seemed to me a subject worth studying. And also trying to understand my own reaction to this force, this attraction that I felt emanating from Antiquity. And it seemed to me that it wasn’t just true of the present but it was true of Edwardian England, it was true of Victorian England, it was true of 19th century Germany, France, Spain, Italy, modern Greece, the cultures of Eastern Europe. There was this powerful hold that Greek and Roman Antiquity had on thinkers, writers, intellectuals, critics, artists, scholars, and even though I was a student at a time when a disenchantment with Antiquity seemed to be taking root, it seemed to me that there were still traces of this powerful valuation. And so, I think I wanted to understand that better.

CG: Yeah, I’m really interested in that attraction, too, and I wonder, do scholars feel drawn to Antiquity solely out of identification, or do you think there’s any Orientalizing of Antiquity itself that brings some fascination with it?

PV: Yes, it would seem that there are both of those things going on in some ways. We tend to put Antiquity up on a pedestal, we tend to exoticize it, we tend to treat it as if it’s “desperately foreign,” to use that expression, and as a result of that kind of exoticism we feel drawn to whatever construction we are ourselves putting on the ancient world. And part of that invention is clearly a projection of our own fantasies and desires and psychological urges. But I wouldn’t say it’s just that; I think that that’s part of it, and there are many ways in which that fetishizing happens. The fetishism could be connected with nationalism, or with questions of class, questions of civility, questions of gender, education, elitism, as well as personal psychology. So, the Orientalism, to use that word very broadly now, would be very complicated, it wouldn’t just be a simple phenomenon. But I think thanks to the work of the last 20 to 25 years we’ve begun to understand that kind of mystification a little bit better, in our own work and in the writings of earlier scholars. That can be a healthy thing, in two ways: one is that it’s a spur to further thought and scholarly activity, and secondly, it’s also good to say that Antiquity is different from modernity. We wouldn’t want to be surrounded by people who say there is no difference between the ancients and moderns; that would be a very troubling position. So in some ways I think the exoticism is even necessary.


On the Present and Future of Classics

CG: What do you think we can do to ensure that Classics doesn’t continue to either reinforce imperial aims or be appropriated for those aims?

PV: I think any scholar who is self-aware and brings a degree of methodological self-consciousness to his or her work is already doing what he or she can do to avoid being called colonialist, or presentist, or Eurocentric, or elitist. So, a critical engagement with Antiquity, one that is self-aware, one that is rigorous, one that is methodologically scrupulous, is the best that we can hope for. But it’s what a lot of the best practitioners already offer.  Also, being a little more aware of the history of the discipline over the last 200 to 300 years would not be a bad thing for classical scholars. Whatever they’re dealing with– questions about the Roman Empire, or Romanization, or questions of minority cultures, or the Greek-Barbarian issue, or whether they’re dealing with other questions, archaeological, anthropological– I think understanding the circumstances in which these questions have arisen and taken hold and then been pursued can only be a good thing.

CG: Lastly, I’m curious about your prognosis of the field. It sounds like you think we’re moving in the right direction. Do you think we have to continue moving in that direction in order to stay relevant? Do you think there will always be a holdout of people who are resistant to these ideas?

PV: Yes, there probably will always be people who are resistant to questions of colonialism and empire. And I don’t expect everyone in the field necessarily to be writing about these questions either all the time; that would be silly. But yes, I think that as a variety of people come into the discipline from a variety of different backgrounds, and as the subject itself is studied more and more outside of North America and Europe, in countries such as China, or in South and Central America– the more that happens, the healthier will the field be. I also think that if we accept that there is a range of classicisms in the world, not just Greek and Roman but also Chinese, Indian, Persian, Arabic, and if we attempt to understand how these classicisms are similar and different, and not just see Greco-Roman as somehow unique, then I think we’ll arrive at a deeper understanding of the particular classical culture that we at least spend our time studying. So yes, I think, as you say, that things are moving in the right direction, and, with any luck, will continue to move in that direction, and I also think that some of the scholarship from the 80s and 90s and the early part of the 21st century has actually trickled down and been assimilated and absorbed by teachers and students. And it’s practiced by scholars and others without their having to justify the entire scholarly apparatus or scholarly history that others might have had to explain in earlier times. It’s already more a part of the discipline than it was.

Chiara Graf is a Ph.D. student in Classics at the University of Toronto

Orientalist Shit People Say – Part 2

Orientalist Shit People Say – Part 2

“I dealt with Qaddafi. I rented him a piece of land. He paid me more for one night than the land was worth for two years, and then I didn’t let him use the land. That’s what we should be doing. I don’t want to use the word ‘screwed’, but I screwed him. That’s what we should be doing.”

-Donald J. Trump, March 2011 interview with “Fox and Friends”

“Don’t you think your subjectivity can get in the way of your research on Arab literature ?”

-A white faculty to an Arab candidate after a job talk for a tenure-track position in Arabic literature

“The scientific and industrial revolution that followed the Renaissance in Europe enabled the West to lay the foundation for its modern nation-states. India and China meanwhile lay dormant, two ancient and weary civilizations in decay.”

-Minhaz Merchant, The New Clash of Civilizations, Introduction

“Oh, I come from a land, from a faraway place / Where the caravan camels roam / Where it’s flat and immense / And the heat is intense / It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home / Oh, I come from a land, from a faraway place / Where the caravan camels roam / Where they cut off your ear / If they don’t like your face / It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home”

-Disney’s Aladdin, “Arabian Nights” song

“What type of Islam to you promote ?”

-A senior, white faculty to an Arab male candidate working on salafism after the latter’s job talk

“If Mesopotamia was characterized by cultural change resulting from constant contacts with foreign peoples, Egypt was generally isolated from foreign contact and was marked by cultural continuity. The only easy means of access into Egypt were via the Nile River either in the north or the south. As long as these approaches were protected, Egypt was safe from invasion and even to some degree from outside influence. The predictable replenishment of the soil, coupled with the lack of fear of floods or invasions, gave the Egyptians a completely different outlook on life from the Mesopotamians. The Egyptians were supremely optimistic, convinced that they were the best people, with the best life, on Earth. In fact, they thought that foreigners were somehow not quite human.”

-Ralph Mathisen, Ancient Mediterranean Civilizations (2015), 75

“Can you speak English? You make me feel uncomfortable.”

– A white, female passenger to Arabic-speaking Adam Saleh and Slim Albaher in a Toronto-New York Delta airlines flight

“For three weeks I drank cow’s blood for breakfast, washed in the river and slept in a tent that was guarded by kids with AK-47s. I took a lot of photographs, I painted with them, drank ouzo with them, fired guns with them — I became one of them.”

-Nicolai von Bismarck, on his time in Ethiopia

“Though thus useful, beneficient, and indeed essential to the existence of Egypt, the Nile can scarcely be said to add much to the variety of the landscape or to the beauty of the scenery. […] Egypt is at all seasons a strange country […] The geology of Egypt is simple. […] The flora of the country is not particularly interesting. […] Nor can Egypt have afforded in ancient times any very exciting amusement to sportsmen. […] Altogether, Egypt is a land of tranquil monotony. […] The architecture of Egypt is its great glory. It began early, and it has continued late. But for great works, strewn thickly over the whole valley of the Nile, the land of Egypt would have obtained but a small share of the world’s attention; and it is at least doubtful whether its ‘story’ would ever have been thoughts necessary to complete ‘the story of the Nations'”

– George Rawlinson, Ancient Egypt (1897), 8-22

“La prima volta che compresi la sua grandezza fu durante il viaggio in treno che dal Cairo mi portava verso l’Alto Egitto. Da un lato i palmizi, gli agrumeti, i campi di datteri messi a seccare. Dall’altro il colore a volte azzurro a volte scuro e limaccioso del fiume. La mattina frotte di piccoli pesci saltavano nell’acqua, in quel groviglio di correnti e di barche, che lente rientravano dopo la pesca. Pensavo alle inondazioni benefiche del Nilo. Accadevano da quando il fiume esisteva. E lasciavano puntualmente il limo che fecondava la terra. E pensavo anche al modo in cui l’intervento umano, con la costruzione di bacini e di dighe, stava distruggendo tutto questo.”

-Late Egyptologist Sergio Donanoni to La Repubblica, June 21, 2015

Classical Studies’ glass ceiling is white

Classical Studies’ glass ceiling is white

But who are we? And, you know, what is Hollywood anyway? It’s just a bunch of people from other places.

-Meryl Streep, Golden Globes speech, January 8, 2017

From January 5 to 8 2017, Toronto hosted the Annual Meeting of the Society for Classical Studies (SCS). The SCS, formerly known as the APA (American Philological Association), describes itself in these words :

The Society for Classical Studies (SCS), founded as the American Philological Association in 1869 by “professors, friends, and patrons of linguistic science,” is the principal learned society in North America for the study of ancient Greek and Roman languages, literatures, and civilizations. While the majority of its members are university and college Classics teachers, members also include scholars in other disciplines, primary and secondary school teachers, and interested lay people.[1]

For most North American scholars studying or working on the ancient Greek and Roman worlds in English speaking institutions, this huge conference is a must : Not so much because of the quality and depth of the many talks programmed than because of the opportunity it provides them to meet friends and colleagues, network, and, for the most junior ones, be interviewed for jobs. I myself have only attended the conference once, because the committee for my current position was holding long list interviews there, something which, I thought, was definitely worth paying the hefty registration and accomodation fees, as well as all the other expenses linked to making the trip to the city of that year, Chicago. Otherwise, since my “network” is more Canadian, European, and Middle Eastern than American, I don’t find it worth my limited travel expense budget to attend the SCS. However, since the conference was held in Toronto this year, I was happy to be able to meet a few friends and colleagues who were in town for the occasion.

When I entered the conference venue lobby (a huge, American-owned hotel located downtown) on the first morning of the conference, I was struck by how white the tag-bearing crowd was. Apart from the hotel staff and some tourists, everyone I saw that morning was white (and I made a self-conscious effort to walk and look around in search for what I hope would be some diversity; alas). What I experienced echoed the discomfort and sense of alienation I feel whenever I find myself in Torontonian spots where everyone besides my husband is white (some theaters, restaurants, exhibitions). The city being so incredibly diverse, the sight of such white homogeneity makes the adoptive Torontonian I am feel like I’ve just been teletransported to the early 20th century.

I understand my reaction as the result of both my scholarly trajectory (which goes increasingly in the direction of postcolonial approaches to the study of ancient history and of historiography), as well as of my experience teaching and living in Toronto. Canada’s largest city, which has been named in 2016 the most diverse city in the world[2], is a true cosmopolis, and although this multiculturalism doesn’t come without issues and challenges (Torontonians have, let’s remember it, elected Rob Ford), it is generally characterized by a substantially less segregated, discriminatory, and colonial order than what one experiences in many American and European cities.

The undergraduate student body at the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC), where I teach at the undergraduate level, is a mirror of Toronto’s diversity. For whoever is used to Parisian or Québécoises classrooms like I was until a decade ago, UTSC’s (and more broadly Torontonian) ones offer a welcome change : One that involves a  culturally and religiously diverse, transnational, and often diasporic crowd of students, most of whom speak at least two languages, and many of whom came to Canada as children or were born here from migrant parents.

UTSC’s students provide me with a keen, stimulating, and engaged audience with which I can approach a variety of topics in ways I couldn’t in homogeneous, white classrooms. It never happened to me so far, for instance, that I didn’t have at least one Greek and one Macedonian student in class when discussing tensions over who “owns” Alexander the Great’s legacy. Similarly, explaining how ancient Roman “religion” differed from Judaeo-Christian ones is very much facilitated by the fact that many students have been exposed – directly or indirectly – to non Judaeo-Christian rituals or beliefs. I’ve also had several students of South Asian origin come to my office after a special lecture dedicated to the Hellenistic Far East specifically to tell me how strong a moment it had been for them to realize that Greek history was also part of their heritage. One student and her family even planned to visit some Indo-Greek remains located in the region where her family comes from during their summer trip to India. And last term, after showing my first-year students a clip on the destruction and reconstruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan, a student of Afhan origin shared her experience visiting the site with her uncle, who is working with the UNESCO on the restoration of the site.

When I teach in such postcolonial classrooms, the necessity to decolonize the field of Classical Studies seems all the more urgent to me that despite the multicultural profile of the students, the idea that the Greeks and the Romans are the roots of “Western civilization” (for whatever it is supposed to mean) remains widespread. My response has been to highlight how things are much more shifting and, therefore, interesting than that, and how this “Classical” world they are interested to learn more about is part of a much more global, diverse, and complex web of historical dynamics, that, to varying degrees, stretched from the UK to India and China, and from northern Europe to the Horn of Africa. I am also increasingly convinced that introducing undergraduates to the issues surrounding the origins and development of the discipline allows for more honest class discussions, and for a better understanding of why the ancient world matters today.

Why is it then that, while undergraduate classrooms are increasingly diverse, especially in cosmopolitan cities like Toronto, I couldn’t spot one non-white Classicist in the SCS venue lobby? And by extension, why is it that only a very small number of North American (and I think I’m not taking too much risk in saying European) graduate and postgraduate Classicists do not identify as white? One easy answer – and a comforting one for white Classicists – is cultural and concerns family pressure among migrant families : Most non-white parents do not want their children to get a degree in Arts, Humanities, or the Social Sciences. Instead, they hope to see them make an economically secure and stable life for themselves by becoming scientists, doctors, or engineers. Beyond its stereotypical nature, such a phenomenon is, like all stereotypes, in part true. Yet it certainly does not only apply to non-white families nor to all migrants (how many white people were bemused that my parents would allow me to study in the Humanities despite the fact that I was good in school?) and it does not prevent graduate programs and faculty in other disciplines such as History and Anthropology to be way more diverse than Classical Studies and its related disciplines (Classical archaeology, papyrology, Greek and Latin epigraphy) are. Just stroll through the hotel lobby where the American Anthropological Association (AAA) annual meeting takes place (which I did twice) and you’ll see the difference pretty quickly. Although they remain mostly white and aren’t exempt either from issues regarding diversity, these fields have taken on the postcolonial turn at least 25 years ago : The American Historical Association (AHA) created a committee on minority historians in 1990 and adopted a on Statement on Diversity in History Teaching in 1991, while the AAA’s Commission on Minority Issues was created in 1992-1993. More broadly, scholarship in these fields testify to a critical engagement with postcolonial theories and methods that is in many ways only starting to develop in Classical Studies[3]. If almost all graduate students and scholars in Classical Studies remain to this day white, it is therefore also because the discipline doesn’t make non-white students feel included enough for them to consider worth dedicating themselves to it in the long term. It has, in other words, not properly decolonized itself.

The creation in late 2016 by the SCS of a distinct committee on diversity[4] is certainly a great initiative, and a powerful symbol, whose strength is all the more evocative that the announcement was made on the Society’s website less than two weeks after Donald Trump’s election as the Presidents of the USA, in a climate where racism and bigotry seemed to have been unleashed throughout the country. Roger S. Bagnall’s Presidential message highlighted the inspirational role played by retired Princeton Classicist W. Robert Connor, who, through his blog, « challenged the Society to take a more activist and thoughtful approach to the long-standing and persistent underrepresentation of African-Americans in Classics »[5]. I would add that, in the USA as elsewhere in the “West”, this underrepresentation actually applies to all non-white groups, including those rooted in countries that were part of the Classical world itself.

What could and should we do? Quoting Edward Said in passing does not suffice. While waiting for the SCS’s committee on diversity’s work to bear some constructive fruits, I believe it remains the duty of instructors and scholars to honestly confront the deeply imperialist roots of our discipline both within and outside the classroom, to break away from the 19th-century, Eurocentrist canon of “the Classics”, and to fully engage with what all ancient evidence actually tell us : That this world Classicists love so much was multicultural, multilingual, and in its way, global, and that a great number (if not most) of those who ever spoke and wrote in Greek and Latin or lived in the “Classical” world would not qualify today as white nor as western. To paraphrase Meryl Streep’s powerful Golden Globes speech of Jan.8, 2017, the Greek and Roman world was, like today’s Hollywood, « crawling with outsiders and foreigners ». Without them, there wouldn’t be much of that world left for us to study and reflect upon.

Katherine Blouin


[1] https://classicalstudies.org/about/about-scs

[2] http://www.blogto.com/city/2016/05/toronto_named_most_diverse_city_in_the_world/

[3] The pioneering work of Martin Bernal, Phiroze Vasunia, Barbara Goff and, for Egypt, Malcolm Reid, ought to be mentioned here. We must also aknowledge how an increasing number of scholars have been working on ancient multiculturalism, cultural identities, and multilingualisms, as well as on issues of race and ethnicity in the ancient world. The philological and historical study of ancient women and gender dynamics has also imposed itself as a major component of the field (both in terms of research and curricula), and that, in my view, to a level that the sub-field of ancient multiculturalism, race, and ethnicity still hasn’t reached. (This note was expanded after a comment by Deborah Lyons (see below), whom I thank)

[4] This committee was created following the decision to split a former committee on the status of women and minority groups into two separate ones. Interestingly, all the most recent members of that committee are white academics (https://classicalstudies.org/about-scs/leadership/committees). My colleague Regina Höschele also points to me that this year’s annual meeting included a panel on the impact of immigration on Classical Studies in North America.

[5] https://classicalstudies.org/scs-news/diversity-and-equality

Orientalist Shit People Say – Part 1


Brother : Yeah. What I do in 3 hours they [native Armenians] do in a week.

Sister : You bet. They’re so lazy!

-A British Armenian man who had recently settled in Yerevan and his visiting sister


When I came [to Cairo] it was very different from what I thought because I had gone through a 19th century book expecting as such – so it was a disappointment; a lot of people, very crowded and traffic…not so poetic.

– Dutch diplomat and Orientalist Paul Marcel Kurpershoek, http://english.alarabiya.net/en/perspective/profiles/2016/10/22/-Desert-beauty-turns-Dutch-diplomat-into-Bedouin.html


Je connais bien le monde musulman. Je suis allé au Caire, à Alger, il y a quarante ou cinquante ans.

– Jean-Pierre Chevènement: https://www.franceinter.fr/emissions/l-invite-de-8h20/l-invite-de-8h20-29-aout-2016


I wanna walk where Jesus walked.

– Kim Kardashian on the balcony of her Jerusalem hotel


I love history! But not so much the Romans. I prefer violent stuff. Like the Egyptians.

– A  waiter


I don’t like Egypt in general. I only like places where Greeks used to live.

– A University Professor who works on ancient Egypt


Not really. There is no real need for me to go.

– A University Professor who works on ancient Egypt yet has never been there, on whether he would like to visit the country one day


They [the Egyptians] want to build a nuclear power plant?! Forget it : They can’t even build a window that closes properly ! »

– A European scholar who lives in Cairo


I deeply hate Egypt and detest its people […] As long as they [Egyptian scholars] remain Muslim, things won’t change. For islam is the enemy of thought.

– A senior, European academic who works on ancient Egypt


Do they have cows in Egypt ?

– A Ph.D. student in Classics


See, we in the West are the ones who send our people and expertise in these countries to uncover their past.

– A waiter, reacting to his own negative assessment of Zahi Hawass


La Perse est la puissance jeune, pleine de sève, mais sur un autre continent rayonne encore un vieux pays, la terre des plus lointaines civilisations, des arts et des premières sciences, l’Égypte. C’est la nation pétrie de culture qui représente pour un Grec ce que pourrait paraître la France à un Canadien d’aujourd’hui.

– Philippe Sellier, intro to L’Orient barbare, 1966.

Pssst: You’ve heard or read some Orientalist gems lately? Feel free to send them our way! (via our contact page)

The Coloured Tongue : Orientalizing the Québécois from Lord Durham to Today

The Coloured Tongue : Orientalizing the Québécois from Lord Durham to Today

Picture: Michèle Lalonde reading Speak White! during the 1970’s Nuit de la poésie

Imagine a few thousand votes had gone the other way in 1995, and Quebec’s separatists had won their referendum. Today Quebec could be closing in on its 20th year of independence. And what would we have? A small, deeply indebted country cut off from its supply of federal subsidies, its economy weak and state-dominated, its society riddled with corruption from top to bottom, struggling to survive in a much bigger, more successful marketplace uninterested in its cultural worries. Odds are it would be using someone else’s currency, the pragmatic reasoning for that being too strong to ignore. And a key problem would be in keeping its best and brightest at home, the prospects being so much brighter in better-run neighbouring countries. In other words, Greece.

– Kelly McParland, “Quebec’s ‘distinct society’ proves to be riddled with corruption disease”,  National Post, June 18, 2013

In other words, Quebec’s economic prospects — or lack thereof — likely have contributed to its status as “the most corrupt province in Canada.” As Quebecers ponder the arrest of yet another mayor, they may merely be harvesting the fruits of their political choices — rotten apples and all.

– Tasha Kheiriddin, “Corruption, stagnation, separatism – what’s really killing Quebec”, June 17, 2013, http://ipolitics.ca/2013/06/17/the-three-horsemen-of-quebecs-apocalypse-corruption-stagnation-separatism/

Every student from Québec has heard of Lord Durham’s 1839 report. John George Lambton, Earl of Durham, was appointed Governor General of British North America and High Commissioner to Canada in 1838. The previous year, a group of Canadiens – that is, French Canadians, as distinct from the British settlers – rebelled in Lower Canada (today’s Québec)[1]. The episode, commonly referred to in Québec as the Révolte des Patriotes, was crushed by the British authorities, but it remains for many French-speaking Québécois a crucial, bittersweet token of their colonial plight, and the symbol of their anticlimactic yet enduring resilience. In a report published in 1839, Lord Durham accounted for the result of his inquiries on the rebellion throughout Upper and Lower Canada. According to him, the uprising had been caused by issues related to the colony’s political structures of government and by a “conflict of race” that opposed the French and English populations. His assessment of the French Canadians has made him one of the most despised historical figure in Québec history :

They [the Canadiens] are an old and stationary society, in a new and progressive world. In all things and places they have remained French, but Frenchmen who in no way resemble those of France. Rather, they resemble the French of the Ancien Régime. […] There can hardly be conceived a nationality more destitute of all that can invigorate and elevate a people, than that which is exhibited by the descendants of the French in Lower Canada, owing to their retaining their peculiar language and manners. They are a people with no history, and no literature. The literature of England is written in a language which is not theirs; and the only literature which their language renders familiar to them, is that of a nation from which they have been separated by eighty years of a foreign rule, and still more by those changes which the Revolution and its consequences have wrought in the whole political, moral and social state of France.

Durham’s portrayal of the French Canadians is typical of colonial, Orientalist discourses of the time : The subject nation is an “old and stationary society” that is “destitute” because it holds on to its “language and manners”; it has “no history, and no literature”. Just like, according to Kelly McParland from the National Post, Québec’s inclusion within the Canadian confederation is what keeps it from being a clone of today’s Greece[2], so did, in Durham’s view, the solace of the French Canadian “race” lie in its assimilation into the “new and progressive” British Empire. Accordingly, Durham’s report proposed three measures aimed at preventing another rebellion : 1. The Union of Upper and Lower Canada into a single colony 2. The assimilation of French Canadians 3. The granting of ministerial responsibility to the local ruling elite. His first and third suggestions were implemented but, alas for him and his supporters, his second one remains but a fantasy.

In 1968, while in jail in New York city’s Manhattan House of Detention for Men, the former Franciscan turned writer/revolutionary Pierre Vallières wrote Nègres blancs d’Amérique. The province was then in the midst of the Révolution Tranquille (the paradoxical expression perfectly encapsulates Québécois discomfort with open confrontation), a nationalist awakening that brought a sharp end to the control of Québec’s social and economic life by the catholic clergy and the anglophone élite respectively, while giving rise to a French-speaking cultural emancipation whose repercussions can still be seen (and heard) today. That same year, the Québécoise poetess Michèle Lalonde turned the English-Canadian expression “Speak white!”, which was commonly used in Canada to urge French and other non-English speaking individuals to resort to English in public contexts, into the title of a powerful poem, the reading of which, in 1970, is considered one of the highlights of Québec’s cultural decolonization[3]. The beauty and persisting relevance of her verses force me to quote part of it here :

Speak white
tell us again about Freedom and Democracy
nous savons que Liberté est un mot noir
comme la misère est nègre
et comme le sang se mêle à la poussière des rues d’Alger ou de Little Rock

Speak white
de Westminster à Washington relayez-vous
speak white comme à Wall Street
white comme à Watts
be civilized
et comprenez notre parler de circonstance
quand vous nous demandez poliment
how do you do
et nous entendez-vous répondre
we’re doing all right
we’re doing fine
we are not alone

Nous savons
que nous ne sommes pas seuls.

Nègres blancs d’Amérique and Speak White highlight how, to Vallières, Lalonde, and many French-speaking Québécois of the time, the struggle of the French-speaking population of Québec was comparable to that of their southern Black American neighbours and, more broadly, of all men and women living in former colonial countries (Vallières and his friend Charles Gagnon had actually come to New York city to touch base with Black Panthers members, and they both got thrown in jail after starting a hunger strike on the steps of the UN building). For them, time had come to have some self respect and, as René Lévesque later put it, take “Le beau risque” of independence. Yet, forty-eight years and two lost referendums later, Québec is still a province of Canada, and deep down, in subtle yet enduring ways, the founding myth of the Nègre Blanc d’Amérique persists, in what I call the colonized complex of the Québécois people : This fierce egalitarian tendency, whereby someone with too much culture, success, or wealth is seen either as a source of intense collective pride (see, we can do it too !) or as a highly suspicious individual (who does she think she is ?). Despite our socio-economic emancipation, we remain, in many ways, stuck in a colonial limbo when it comes to our sense of self and, concomitantly, the way we are portrayed by the French or the English Canadians.

For Québécois are still subject to two main types of othering processes, whose underlying logic can be seen as an evolution of Durham’s Orientalizing assessment : One coming from France; the other, from English Canada. According to clichés frequently reinstated in mainstream English Canadian media, Québec is both the closest alternative to French “art de vivre” and culture[4], and a corrupt land peopled by racist, intolerant, disorderly whiners.

One striking illustration of this Orientalizing, simplistic stereotyping known as Québec bashing[5] is the now famous cover of Macleans’ issue dated from September 24, 2010 and entitled “Quebec : The most corrupt province”[6]. The dossier, headed by Martin Poliquin, was written in the context of a provincial corruption scandal, that had been brought to light by a team of French CBC investigative journalists[7]. The closed nature of the question it poses is in itself an illustration of its stereotypical and reductive bias : “Why does Quebec claim so many of the nation’s political scandals?” According to the pseudo-sociological analysis provided by Poliquin and fellow English Canadian journalist Andrew Coyne, the answer lies in two main factor : The role played by Québec’s State (the État providence) and the independence movement in the province’s affairs and its catholic past[8]. Nowhere does it occur to the authors that, perhaps, the distinguishing feature of Québec’s treatment of corruption compared to the rest of the country is not so much corruption itself, but the fact that documented collusion systems have been thoroughly documented and made public by local teams of journalists, and that these investigations have led to passionate collective discussions and official (though imperfect) consultation mechanisms. Alas, just like Kelly McParland’s and Tasha Kheiriddin’s neocolonial assessment of Québec quoted above, Maclean’s caricatural portrayal of Québec’s history, population, and State is not disimilar to arguments put forward by white academics to justify the poor representation, if not systemic exclusion, of non-white scholars in their field. In both cases, their inferiority/incompetence/corruption is seen as a fatality that stems from fundamentally flawed State institutions and religious beliefs. Maclean’s point about Catholicism being one of the roots of Québec’s corrupt nature reminds me of a conversation I had recently with a senior white academic, according to whom, “as long as they [Egyptians] will remain Muslim, this [that is their intellectual incompetence] won’t change”. A similar logic applies to the way in which debates surrounding the Accomodations raisonnables have been covered by English Canadian media : According to the prevalent reading, these debates regarding what cultural and religious accomodations should be permitted or not occurred because French-speaking, white Québécois’ obsession with their own linguistic and cultural survival has made them more afraid of change and, therefore, xenophobic than their English Canadian peers. The ghost of Lord Durham looms close.

In mainstream French discourses, “Canadiens” (the pre-1960s term remains the most commonly used ones to refer to Québécois) are amusing “cousins”, who speak a bastardized and archaic version of the proper (that is Parisian) French. Depending on the open-mindedness of each French person, the way Québécois speak is seen as colourful and funny, horrible to hear, or simply impossible to understand. A surreal conflation of xenophobic and colonial views is provided by a conversation between French TV Host Thierry Ardisson and Maurice G. Dantec, a late French poet who became Canadian after migrating to Québec, during a 2006 show of Tout le Monde en Parle. Ardisson, who quotes Dantec saying that he prefers the accent Québécois to bumping into Muslims, says of the Québec accent that “c’est quand même ce qu’il y a de pire”, and concludes by confessing : « Moi, je préfère croiser des Musulmans que l’accent québécois”. The audience then applaudes.[9]

Québécois are also often portrayed using words and metaphors that refer to the time of the Nouvelle-France : The cliché has it that we remain, like the nature around us, wild, coarse fur trapers who enjoy nothing more but hanging out in the woods, a bit like a white, French speaking version of the autochtone or Indien (Native American). A good case in point is an article about Québec chef and businessman Ricardo Lavallée published in the September/October 2016 issue of the French magazine Elle Table. This article is, frankly, an Orientalist gem. Take for instance this passage (words in bold are mine) :

L’appétit autonomiste de Ricardo évoque le fonctionnement des anciens établissements pionniers, ces sociétés de défricheurs capables de tout produire en autarcie, comme autant de petites arches de Noé. Il y a chez lui, comme en tout Québécois, une vénération de la retraite dans l’érablière, équivalent autochtone de la palombière ou de la datcha : pendant « le temps des sucres » (entre 4 et 6 semaines autour de Pâques), un porc est traditionnellement sacrifié et congelé en plein air, véritable garde-manger dont on tire des charcuteries fumées au bois d’érable, des « oreilles de crisse » (chips de couenne de porc frite au saindoux) ou des fèves au lard. Cela se déguste avec des délices de cabane sucrière comme les œufs au sirop ou la tire sur neige (qui consiste à faire tomber du sirop d’érable sur de la glace, tout en l’enroulant sur un bâtonnet au fur et à mesure qu’il durcit). L’influence du personnage dans le Nouveau Monde est telle que la sortie de son premier livre en France sera célébrée par lui-même à l’ambassade du Canada. C’est qu’il est en quelque sorte le meilleur émissaire de l’art de vivre québécois. Ricardo vit à proximité du fort de Chambly, au bord d’un affluent houleux du Saint-Laurent qui a dû servir de décor à la geste de Jacques Cartier et aux guerres indiennes. Sa maison-studio au confort de gentleman trappeur est environnée d’oliviers de Bohème, d’argousiers, de bleuets, de glycines et de rosiers de jardins anglais, entre lesquels slalome une petite frayère pullulant de têtards et d’écrevisses. L’esthétique de Ricardo jette un ouvrage d’art entre l’Amérique et le monde d’expression française. Cette France américaine a quelque chose d’intimement dépaysant, avec son franc-parler, sa franchise en tout qui francise tout. On dirait qu’elle résiste à l’accélération continentale qui est en train de faire de la gourmandise une sorte d’enjeu narcissique, de conquête héroïque.[10]

To sum up, according to the author of this article, Ricardo Larrivée, his North-American culinary empire, and the town it is based in (Montréal!) belong to the realm of the Nouveau Monde’s French pioneers, to a world where people trap furs and, comes Spring, retreat in sugarfarms where they feast after sacrificing a pig. Just like in Lord Durham’s portrayal, for Elle Table, Québécois identity is not theirs : They belong to a static American France where, out of insecurity and naive candidness, they turn everything into French. The online outrage created by the stereotypical and colonial content of this article was such that both an author (not the author of the article) and the editor in chief of the magazine were compelled to publish a justification and apology[11]. The magazine’s humility and ability to apologize to its Québécois readers is commendable. Yet, the core of the issue is, after a full week in Montréal, the author and other members of Elle Table’s team thought that such a festival of colonial clichés was appropriate. Why? Because, according to the magazine’s editor-in-chief :

Cet article n’est certes pas exempt de lieux communs, mais c’est souvent le lot des fantasmes qui poussent les voyageurs à découvrir de nouveaux horizons. Et c’est en partie de cela que se nourrissent la cuisine et l’art de vivre : d’images certes un peu caricaturales, mais réconfortantes.

Now this is precisely where the problem is : In the indulgence with which colonial or dominant cultures think it is comforting to stereotype the colonized Other. It might be so for them, but it is certainly not for the objectified ones.

I’ve once given a talk in Paris during which most of the audience spent their time smiling. Some would at times look at each other with amusement. They really liked how I spoke, they told me later. It was so coloré. What about what I was saying, I thought. French friendly yet neo-colonial judgement of Québécois French is also used by many English Canadians as a perverse way to rationalize why there is no need for them to learn Canada’s second official language. A Québécoise friend of mine who used to work in Toronto was told the following by a couple of English-Canadian colleagues : “Why should we even learn your language? The French themselves say it’s not proper French.” They might as well have saved themselves a few words and just say Speak white!

For many Québécois, me included, to have someone mention our accent when we speak French or English is seen as some sort of a failure : the sign that, despite our efforts to blend in, to self-assimilate into the dominant cultural context we are immersed in, our otherness has been uncovered. Is only fully bilingual he or she who does not have an accent (that is, any non metropolitan one). This is perhaps a symptom of where the main issue lies : In our own inability to see, let alone get rid of, this self-Orientalizing layer that has, subtely yet enduringly, permeated our collective, and also individual, identities.

Katherine Blouin

[1] For a good summary of the events, see : http://www.patrimoine-culturel.gouv.qc.ca/rpcq/detail.do?methode=consulter&id=7945&type=pge#.V9kjhbXFL-s .

[2] I will refrain from commenting on the very condescending, simplistic, and Orientalizing nature of this metaphor from McParland.

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sCBCy8OXp7I See also, for some context : http://plus.lapresse.ca/screens/b52ea324-b39d-46a1-858b-c1a9318c8f49%7C_0.html , where the picture on top of this post comes from.

[4] The case of Québécois cinema, which has been thriving in recent decades, is a particularly interesting one. Unsurprisingly, it tends to travel more to France and francophone Europe than in the rest of Canada. This pheonomenon is generally rationalized by English Canadians as the result of the fact that movies from Québec are in French, a language which, despite the “bilingual” nature of the country, most Canadians don’t speak nor understand. See for instance the following article, whose title appeals to the topos of the francophone therefore entrapped nature of Québec’s society and culture : http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/film/why-quebecois-cinema-finds-itself-trapped-within-its-provincial-borders/article28052385/ .

[5] See notably on the matter http://www.lapresse.ca/le-nouvelliste/opinions/201607/26/01-5004697-le-nationalisme-canadien-et-le-quebec-bashing.php ; http://www.ledevoir.com/politique/quebec/395654/un-deni-malsain-de-la-part-des-medias-anglophones

[6] http://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/the-most-corrupt-province/

[7] http://ici.radio-canada.ca/nouvelles/societe/2009/10/14/002-construction-collusion.shtml

[8] Macleans’ article was not only condemned in Québec – including by Jean Charest, the Premier Ministre of the time, who was personally targeted in the article – but also in the rest of Canada, including the House of Commons, where all parties joined to propose a motion condemning it http://www.ledevoir.com/politique/quebec/297179/le-maclean-s-sur-la-corruption-au-quebec-charest-defend-les-souverainistes

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CAUAoBZVId0 .

[10] http://www.elle.fr/Elle-a-Table/Les-dossiers-de-la-redaction/News-de-la-redaction/Ricardo-Larrivee-3156385

[11] http://www.elle.fr/Elle-a-Table/Les-dossiers-de-la-redaction/News-de-la-redaction/SelonLeELLEFrance-il-faut-savoir-s-excuser-3290695 , which includes some hilarious tweets from Québécois readers.