Month: June 2018

Canadian mining and settler nationalism:  legitimizing possession by erasing indigeneity behind the guise of modernity, expertise and benevolence

Canadian mining and settler nationalism: legitimizing possession by erasing indigeneity behind the guise of modernity, expertise and benevolence

By Leilah Elmokadem

The recent death of Peter Munk, chairman of Barrick Gold, flooded Canadian media with glorifying obituaries and odes to the supposed philanthropists’ accomplishments, contributions and achievements. Described as a renowned man of “lofty global ambitions”, Munk is praised for his leadership as an entrepreneur with “willingness to take risks, spot overlooked opportunities, and challenge the status quo” (Bickis, 2018). He is said to have pursued his national loyalties and global ambitions with “audacious vision and a relentless internal drive”. His legacy is considered one of “business success, charitable donations, and an outspoken defender of the benefits of capitalism” (Bickis, 2018). Left-wing activists and academics certainly did not hesitate to disrupt the celebratory narratives of Munk’s legacy, calling out Barrick Gold’s atrocious legacy of corruption, abuse, exploitation and environmental degradation of indigenous lands.

newsfrontLA_DSCF9806_px626Protest Barrick rally, Toronto, Tuesday, April 26, 2016 (Image: Tanja-Tiziana, Now)

The debates that ensued in light of these contesting narratives highlight the crucial placing of mining within constructions of Canadian history and national identity. The Canadian mining industry appropriates and reproduces a unique type of imperialist rhetoric to orchestrate a certain imagination of the Canadian miner’s personality traits—in ways that align with Canada’s national identity, hereby legitimating colonial settlement by fostering an unquestionable sense of righteous and deserving entitlement to land and resources. This post seeks to dissect this relationship with special attention to the erasure of indigeneity and settler nationalism as historically persistent enablers of resource extraction in Canada.


            As primary evidence, I deconstruct narratives from Canadian mining company reports and legal documents dating back to the 1800s, as well as contemporary texts sourced from present-day affiliated institutions such as the Canadian Mining Journal, the Fraser Institute, and the Canadian Mining Association. The intention here is to discern the ways in which “discovered” resources are described by miners (individuals and institutions), how miners themselves are constructed as “explorers”, and where indigenous peoples are included (or omitted) from these texts. To analyse these findings, I draw from Paula Butler’s book: Colonial extractions: race and Canadian mining in contemporary Africa” (2015), particularly its anthropological insights regarding the historically constructed identity of the Canadian miner. Audra Simpson and Eva Mackey’s works offer the theoretical groundwork for understanding settler nationalism and European entitlement, which is central to the discussion on legitimized resource extraction on colonized land. Lastly, I engage with the works of Alejandro Paz and Edward M. Bruner in an attempt to situate the relationship I establish—between mining and Canadian nationalism—within a broader process of authoritative story-telling that maintains state secrets and emblems to secure white capitalist state sovereignty. Throughout the paper, I corroborate my claims and analyses using literature that demonstrates how orientalist constructions and erasures of the indigenous “other” have historically served imperialist purposes, such as Timothy Mitchell’s “Rule of Experts. Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity(2002).


            It is useful to first briefly clarify and justify my position on Canadian mining as an imperialist project. This is not a novel suggestion; several anthropologists have analysed mineral extraction as a manifestation of neocolonial capitalist globalization. The mining industry has served as a cornerstone of Canadian settler society since the mid-1800s (Butler, 2015). Mineral resource extraction was a key motivator of northward expansion in Canada, a colonial incursion into Native territory that has only recently, and inadequately, been redressed with legislative efforts such as land claims and impact and benefit agreements (IBAs) (Keeling & Sandlos, 2015, p. 22). Globally and contemporarily, as well, Canadian-led resource extraction serves to exploit, displace and dispossess indigenous populations across central America and Africa (Butler, 2015). The objective of this post is certainly not to test this claim, as it is already sufficiently justified by existing literature. Rather, my intention is to unpack how the romanticized nationalist construction of Canadian mining has historically and perpetually erased indigeneity to secure settler sovereignty. Although these ideas have been posed by the scholars I mention in the previous section, I attempt to complement their work by adding an analysis of “othering” and techno-politics to resource extraction as an imperialist project. A key point here is that the “erasure” of the indigenous, in the history of Canadian mining, has not simply entailed a passive omission of indigenous peoples from dialogue and text. Rather, it has relied largely on a conscious and strategic construction of the pre-modern, deficient native inhabiting a fruitful land of unrealized potential.


Settler colonies, such as the US and Canada, conjure “fictions of entitlement” that are tied to the idea of “first discovery” (terra nullius) that maintain, and make logical, an unquestionable European entitlement to native land, necessitating Western concepts of property/land ownership that are based on the rule of “first possession”. European settlers managed to utilize this rule despite centuries of Indigenous presence by constructing the colonized land as “vacant”. Despite being inhabited for centuries, Western notions of land ownership that deemed native lands as “not governed by human control” because Indigenous peoples occupied, used and related to land/nature in ways that were unfamiliar to colonizers. Claiming “first possession” depended upon misrecognizing non-agrarian relationships to land which was “occupied – not owned—and therefore empty of people/societies that mattered” (Mackey, 2016, p. 48). The history of legitimizing possession in settler colonies is evident in the historical processes and narratives of acquiring legal ownership for resource extraction in Canada.

Adolphus Hart was a barrister at law of “lower Canada” and counsellor at law of the state of New York. In 1867, he wrote and published a book titled Practical Suggestions on Mining Rights and Privileges in Canada.

Hart 1867 cover

Legal authorities and officials described the text as “very useful (…) for persons engaged in Mining operations” when “legal operations come in their way” (Hart, 1867, p. 4). Hart produced this piece with the intention of clarifying ownership rights to discovered minerals in Canada, and whether they legitimately belong to the Crown, the “proprietor” of the land, or the discoverer of the minerals in said land. The complexity of the language used in this text yields a level of difficulty in discerning the exact suggestions he poses, particularly without the legal expertise required to sufficiently understand some of the legal terminology used. However, I was able to discern that he draws from ancient Roman, French and English legislative frameworks to explain certain ownership rights of discovered minerals in Canada: He writes:

“By the ancient Roman law, they (mines) belonged, without restriction, to the proprietor of the land wherein they were found; he might freely dispose of them like any other revenues or profits derived from his property, and he who made the discovery could have no pretensions to the treasure, unless the mines had been found in lands which had been deserted and abandoned” (Hart, 1867, p. 12).

The strong emphasis on the “proprietor” is evident throughout the text, specifically where he cites legislation that states “by the law of nature mines belong to the proprietor of the soil, and in the present enlightened era of legislation it may be presumed that all restrictive rights, whether by the Crown or its representatives, would be regulated, and in many aspects modified, by due regard to the interests of the owner or proprietor.” (Hart, 1867, p. 14). Even under official property of the crown in the 1900s, mineral resources were often handed over to mining companies as part of the government’s approach to economic development; no special rights to lands or resources based on Aboriginal rights of historical ownership existed (Keeling & Sandlos, 2015, p. 237).

            The significance of these excerpts lies in one troubling fact: throughout this entire book regarding ownership of discovered minerals in Canada, the question of indigenous presence and ownership is completely omitted; not once mentioned. Mackey’s explanation of “first discovery” and entitlement can explain the logical and expected omission of indigenous presence from this legal document regarding ownership of resources. Specifically, the concept of “proprietor” in itself is one riddled with European conceptions of property/ownership in relation to personhood—specifically European ideals of improvement, individualism, civilization and “productive elaboration” and their centrality to “civilizational identity”, which serves to determine what kind of person is deserving of land ownership/citizenship/sovereignty (Mackey, 2016).

            The role of “civilizational identity” in delegitimizing, and even problematizing, Native presence is evident in past writings on resource extraction. “Eighty Years Progress of British America” is a report published in 1865 outlining the “wonderful development of (Canada’s) natural resources”.

Capture d_écran 2018-06-12 à 15.48.18

The section on mining articulates, as one of the “principle difficulties to be contended with”, “the hostility of the native tribes of Indians, who, though at present apparently friendly, are treacherous and capricious” (Hind, et al., 1865, p. 367). Another text narrating an explorer’s journey in Klondike, which is a gold-rich region in present-day Yukon, describes the tribe inhabiting the region as one that “seems to conform to the unprolific and dreary aspect of the country which they inhabit. They are very wretched looking objects, in a combination of civilized and native clothes” (Stansbury, 1897, p. 15).


Klondikers carrying supplies ascending the Chilkoot Pass, 1898 (Source: Wikipedia)

The construction of the Native in both cited examples serves to erase indigenous presence on land by delivering a notion of passive inhabitancy that is contrasted by the explorer/miner’s active desire to develop and utilize the land’s potential in ways that the native simply cannot due to their primitive, non-individualistic, ways of being. Stripping the native of a “civilizational identity” has been a prominent instrument of colonial rhetoric—as demonstrated by Mitchell’s analysis regarding the construction of the Egyptian peasant as “plural” because he lives “always as a member of a group” in a “formless” village where “all is dust and disorder” (Mitchell, 2002, p. 7).


            In my search through the “mining” section of the Fraser Institute webpage, I can confidently assert that “uncertainty” was the most frequently occurring word in publications pertaining to Aboriginal peoples. At least six articles problematize land disputes and Indigenous protests regarding land rights and mining practices; particularly how the resulting “uncertainty” is detrimental for investor confidence, hereby costing Canada billions of dollars:

Canada has a serious problem with land-use certainty that may threaten future investment in the sector. Across the country, uncertainty surrounding disputed land claims remains a significant barrier to investment in the development of natural resources, particularly investment in the mining sector” (Bains & Jackson, 2018).

Mackey traces how concepts and practices ensuring “certainty of settled expectations” of entitlement serve to deny Indigenous sovereignty. She poses the puzzle of how it can be that Indigenous peoples have a recognized “inherent right to self-government” yet remain in constant confrontation with the contradiction that they only have these rights as long as they can be “reconciled with the Crown’s assertion of sovereignty over Canadian territory” (Mackey, 2016, p. 42). The sense of entitlement within the mining industry, which poses land disputes as direct disruptions to the economic prosperity of the nation, can be understood using Mackey’s theoretical framework. Laws, she explains, were established to recognize certain aspects of Indigenous rights and occupation of their territories, yet such rights remain partial, limited and secondary so long as the ultimate and higher sovereignty is always the property of the settler government (Mackey, 2016, p. 43).

Ultimately, what we are seeing in the rhetoric perpetuated by the Fraser Institute is a manifestation of the fantasy of entitlement clashing with, disrupted and challenged by indigenous sovereignty. The settler nation was initially built on the assumptions of a vacant, ungoverned land—an assumption that remains in constant battle with Indigenous sovereignty (Mackey, 2016). Dispossession makes possible the conditions of settler states as they are predicated upon the active ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples from land and life (Simpson, 2011, p. 168) This battle, then, absolutely necessitates the framing of indigenous land rights as an obstacle to the nation’s sovereignty as a White capitalist settlement, which is largely perpetuated through resource extraction. It is useful to conceptualize Canada’s mining industry as an example of colonial continuity that is infused with contradicting functions: while it serves to maintain a nationalist “certainty of settlement expectations”, it also extends the ambit of the state to marginalized indigenous communities, hereby paving avenues for indigenous expressions of sovereignty in the form of resistance against environmental degradation and exploitation.


            Erasing and problematizing the indigenous other is only one part of a twofold process, in which the latter part typically entails the strategic construction of a landscape in a manner that necessitates action for improvement and advancement. A historical example of this is the French colonial construction of the Algiers as potentially fruitful due to its natural topography, yet untended and neglected by its native inhabitants, hereby necessitating French intervention to advance the agricultural practices for the purpose of realizing the land’s potential (Davis, 2007). In the context of Canadian mining, however, the process of “making-technical” and constructing the miner as the intelligent expert can be understood as a discursive instrument that serves to de-politicize and legitimize mining practices on indigenous land.

            In Canada, past northern development visions and policies have been tightly linked to the exploitation of the region’s natural resources. Particularly post WWII, mining was promoted by politicians and bureaucrats as the key to assimilating northern people and territories into the national economy. This agenda entailed an effort to transition Aboriginal economies away from traditional land-based subsistence and trade economies, and towards wage economies and settlement life (Keeling & Sandlos, 2015, p. 7). Bell (2013) examines how the issue of rural poverty in Northern Canada is “rendered technical” in relation to natural resource projects. In Canada, the promotion of careers in mining for Aboriginal persons is part and parcel of national policy and public culture. Aboriginal participation in resource industries has increasingly been framed as “access to the good life”. The problematization of northern populations is intimately connected to the practices of identifying certain deficiencies—strategically to reduce a range of complex social and historical issues simply to a matter of “employment” (Bell, 2013, p. 120).

            Upon a searching through the “mining” section of the Fraser Institute’s webpage and the Mining Association of Canada (MAC), extremely evident is this process of de-politicization that functions by positioning resource extraction as the technical, expert solution to a supposed livelihood deficiency that is attached to indigeneity. Under the “Aboriginal Affairs” tab on the MAC webpage, the following paragraph is found:

“Across the industry, significant progress has been made in the realm of Aboriginal participation in the sector. More than 300 agreements, including Impact and Benefit Agreements, have been negotiated between mining companies and Aboriginal communities since 1974. These agreements have set out such commitments as education, training, jobs, business development and financial payments to help ensure mining projects bring long-lasting benefits to Aboriginal communities. In terms of employment, the mining sector has become, proportionally, the largest private sector employer of Aboriginal people in Canada. Given the proximity of many Aboriginal communities to current and potential mining operations, as well as the large number of Aboriginal youth, employment in well-paying, skilled mining jobs is poised to increase well into the future.” (Mining Association of Canada, 2018).

This apolitical narrative that constructs resource extraction as philanthropic work serving indigenous people in Northern Canada also exists with respect to Canada’s global mining practices. The Fraser Institute, in an article titled “Mining helps build prosperous communities. So why do governments embrace anti-mining policies?”, asserts that “developing nations and their people gain substantially from resource extraction.” (McMahon & Cervantes, 2018). Butler challenges this narrative throughout her entire book, in which her interviews with Canadian miners in African countries reveal that mining in Africa is attractive due to the “cheap labour” and their “unexplored rich deposits” (Butler, 2015, p. 107). Yet, the exploitive neocolonial nature of Canada’s unruly mining practices abroad is shielded by, 1) the process of “rendering technical” that justifies the logic of bringing employment opportunities and mining expertise to the untapped natural resources of developing nations and 2) the benevolent, philanthropic identity of the Canadian mining industry, which I explore as part of a national emblem in the following section.


            This post has thus far discussed the erasure of indigeneity, the problematization of indigenous sovereignty, and the construction of Canadian mining as a benevolent development project. I now want to unpack how these interconnected processes function intricately to position mining within a national identity that serves to maintain settler sovereignty and legitimize colonial extractions. Butler suggests that mining activity is romanticized as an adventure story in which Canada becomes a nation through the vision, risk-taking and grit of geologists and prospectors willing to venture into Canada’s unexplored frontier territories (Butler, 2015, p. 61). Engaging with and appreciating the value of understanding this problematic historical narrative, I draw also from other ethnographic literature that reveals indigenous perceptions of mining in an attempt to conceptualize their interplay with state narratives as a form of dialogic narrative.

In imagining the mining industry as a cornerstone of Canadian history, miners are widely described in texts as brave explorers:

(…) the tenacity of our early explorers and prospectors”, men who “reserved” with the happy result that “thousands of jobs” were created along with “new communities”, “extended transportation networks” and “commercial development throughout the nation, thus helping Canadians attain one of the highest standards of living in the world (Butler, 2015, p. 62) (cited from “Longo’s Historical Highlights of Canadian Mining”).

In addition to this discourse which places emphasis on the miner’s praise-worthy personality traits, Butler reveals how an element of cooperation and friendliness with indigenous populations permeates the writings of early Canadian miners. She brings forth an example in which a miner narrates his experience sharing a tent with an Algonquin man and his two sons, who taught him how to work efficiently in the woods and to survive. He had gained appreciation of First Nations as it was “one of the richest times of (his) life because of (their) warmth and generous spirit” (Butler, 2015, p. 83). The strategic telling of such a story, Butler explains, reproduces a normative imaginary an conceptual order required to legitimize continued colonialist relations of power, control and resource appropriation (Butler, 2015, p. 83).

            Butler sets the stage for my analysis on Canada’s mining industry as a perpetuator of colonial secrets and emblems. The romanticizing authoritative story-telling of Canada’s mining history, akin to Paz’ example of Israeli state secrets that effectively erase the atrocities associated with Zionist settlement (Paz, upcoming), can be understood as part of a discursive national construction. While in the Israeli context, the emblem remains imbued in Biblical claims to territory, the Canadian emblem can be considered one of reconciliation and cooperation with indigenous peoples; an effort to legitimize settler presence by feigning a sense of recognition that effectively situates indigenous sovereignty in the past. Spectacles, apologies and recognitions are used in settler societies because they continue to redirect emotions, histories and possibilities away from the means of societal and historical production—indigenous dispossession, disenfranchisement and containment (Simpson, 2011, p. 207).

            In this analysis, however, I face the risk of discarding indigenous resistance, sovereignty, and historical memory that continually exist in constant dialogic narration with the authoritative nationalist story of mining. The notion of dialogic narrative suggests that a story cannot be viewed in isolation, as a monologic static entity, but must be understood in a dialogic or interactive framework; all stories are constructed and interpreted in ways influenced by historical memory (Bruner, 2005, p. 172). Importantly, authoritative versions of stories are derived from the power of the state, and therefore, if challenged, carry the risk of disintegrating the nationalist narrative which is often the fabric of settler societies. Native northerners in Canada embrace the complexity of their mining histories, critiquing colonialism and environmental degradation that was invariably tied to mining—but also retain collective memories of taking advantage of wage labour opportunities when presented and adapting to mineral development through strategies that ranged from engaging in ad hoc labour to eventually applying political pressure for the establishment of indigenous mineral rights and/or royalty regimes through IBAs and comprehensive land claims processes (Keeling & Sandlos, 2015, p. 10). It is this recollection of history in relation to settlement, livelihood, dispossession and resistance, that represents the ever-surviving indigenous sovereignty, which must remain secret in nationalist Canadian rhetoric.


            In this post, I have sought to explore the narratives reproduced within the Canadian mining industry as a case study that exemplifies the crucial role of erasure in maintaining settler sovereignty. The mining industry is historically intertwined with colonial discovery and exploration—in intricate ways that cannot be separated so long as Canada remains a white settler colony. My intention has been to engage with anthropologists, such as Paz, Bruner and Simpson, who have offered incredibly insightful frameworks of national discourses and identities; particularly their role in serving settler colonial purposes. I had initially intended on utilizing a larger body of archival texts from early Canadian miners, which Butler so effectively achieves in her book. However, I found difficulty accessing this material publicly or within the university database and therefore decided to draw from her findings and insights in order to inform my discussion of national identity and erasure of indigenous sovereignty. The colonial imaginary that is perpetuated in Canada’s mining industry can be traced back to conceptions of land vacancy that legitimized colonial acquisition of land—a concept that the industry continues to grapple with as indigenous peoples mobilize for their rights in ways that threaten the capitalist accumulation of wealth that relies on the perpetual extraction of resources from stolen land.

Leilah Elmokadem just graduated from UTSC

note: This post was originally written as a term paper for the UTSC course “Constructing the Other: Orientalism through Time and Place” (Winter 2018). Students were free to pick any topic of their choice related to the course’s broader theme, and this essay was chosen among 40+ papers by a jury of 3 faculty (Katherine Blouin and Girish Daswani, who were the course instructors, as well as Maggie Cummings). Leilah wishes to thank Prof. Cummings, whose course “Anthropological Insights on Race and Racism” (Fall 2017) inspired the topic for this paper, for providing her with some insight on finding sources.


Bains, R., & Jackson, T. (2018). Saskatchewan attracts mining investment while land-claims disputes damage Ontario and B.C. Fraser Institute.

Bell, L. A. (2013). Diamonds as Development: Suffering for Opportunity in the Canadian North. Toronto.

Bickis, I. (2018, March 28). Barrick Gold founder Peter Munk, a man of lofty global ambitions, dies at age 90. Financial Post.

Bruner, E. (2005). Chapter 3- Slavery and the Return to the Black Diaspora: Tourism in Ghana. In E. Bruner, Culture on Tour: Ethnographies of Travel (p. 172). The University of Chicago Press.

Butler, P. (2015). Colonial Extractions: Race and Canadian Mining in Contemporary Africa. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Canadian Mining Journal. (2018, March 28). OBITUARY: Barrick Gold founder and chairman Peter Munk dies at 90. Canadian Mining Journal: Canada’s First Mining Publication.

Davis, D. (2007). Chapter 2: Nature, Empire, and Narrative Origins, 1830-48. In D. Davis, Resurrecting the Granary of Rome: Environmental History and French Colonial Expansion in North Africa. Ohio University Press.

Hart, A. (1867). Practical Suggestions on Mining Rights and Privileges in Canada. Montreal.

Hind, H., Keefer, T., Hodgins, J., Robb, C., Perley, M., & Murray, W. (1865). Eighty Years Progress of British America. Toronto: L. Nichols.

Keeling, A., & Sandlos, J. (2015). Mining and Communities in Northern Canada: History, Politics, and Memory. Calgary, Alberta: University of Calgary Press.

Mackey, E. (2016). Chapter 2: Fantasizing and Legitimizing Possession. In E. Mackey, Unsettled Expectations: Uncertainty, Land and Settler Decolonization. Fernwood Publishing .

McMahon, F., & Cervantes, M. (2018). Mining helps build prosperous communities. So why do governments embrace anti-mining policies? The Fraser Institute .

Mining Association of Canada. (2018). Aboriginal Affairs. Retrieved from Mining Association of Canada:

Mitchell, T. (2002). Chapter 5: The Invention and Reinvention of the Peasant. In T. Mitchell, Role of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity. University of California Press.

Paz, A. (upcoming). Settling History in Silwan: State Emblems and Public Secrets in Occupied East Jerusalem. 1-35.

Simpson, A. (2011). Settlement’s Secret. Cultural Anthrpology, 26(2), 205-217.

Stansbury, C. F. (1897). Klondike: The Land of Gold. New York: F. Tennyson Neely.

Judging a magazine by its cover or The social life of a thing, part I: The red veil

Judging a magazine by its cover or The social life of a thing, part I: The red veil

This post is the first of a summer series dedicated to Life‘s 1955 “Great Religions Part IV: The World of Islam” issue. The texts, images, and overall packaging of this collectible offer a fascinating window into post-WWII American representations of the peoples, cultures, and ancient-to-modern histories of North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.

by Katherine Blouin

About two years ago, while browsing through one of the second hand/vintage stores that had recently opened in the fast-gentrifying Toronto East End, I found myself attracted to a particular issue of the American magazine Life whose title was “Great Religions Part IV: The World of Islam”. The cover was almost entirely red. It featured a smiling young woman wearing a Tikka headpiece, earrings, and the traditional red and golden South-Asian marital veil. The caption read “Moslem girl of Pakistan”. The issue was dated from May 9, 1955.

Life May 1955 Cover

The first owner of the magazine was “Mrs L. Hurwitz”, a subscriber who lived on Ava Road, in Cedervale, that is in one of Toronto’s wealthiest neighborhoods (funnily enough, the house, described by the real estate agent’s an “amazing 5-bedroom home sitting on a tree-filled lot” recently sold for a “modest” 2.3 million $). Cedervale was also already at the time home to an important Jewish community, which, based on her name, Mrs Hurwitz’s household might have belonged to. How long did Mrs Hurwitz hold on to her pile of magazines? Did she get rid of it herself or were they sold after she passed away? In what exact circumstances did the issue make its way from posh, post-WWII Cedervale to today’s fast-gentrifying East End of the Danforth? Clearly the shop owner had bought a bunch of vintage magazines somewhere in town. As for the rest, I had no clue. But there it was, a 1955 feminine, bridal, and veiled American take on Islam, reigning supreme on top of a pile of other old magazines, surrounded by country vinyls, clip earrings, hippy woolen ponchos, locally-made organic soaps, and old Fisher Price toys.

In 1955, the retail price of Life was 20¢. Mrs Hurwitz probably paid a bit less as a subscriber. The Danforth vintage shop was now asking 10$ for it. A hipsterish price, but not a shocking one. I couldn’t resist.

I brought the issue to my office, and it has been lying next to my desktop ever since, covered by a fluctuating pile of more urgent paperwork. Now that the school year is finally over, and that my schedule is allowing me to get back to more intensive research and writing, I thought the time was ripe to have myself a treat and turn this gem of a time capsule into a series of posts. Through them, I hope to explore how the texts, images, and overall packaging of this collectible offer us a fascinating window into post-WWII American representations of Islam, as well as of the peoples, cultures, and ancient-to-modern histories of North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. In other words, I will attempt to pull an Arjun Appadurai and reflect on the “social life” of this particular thing.

So let’s get started, shall we?

As the title reads, the issue is part IV of a series of five entitled to “The World’s Great Religions”. It was released after Part I Hinduism, Part II Buddhism, and Part III Religion in the Land of Confucius. Part V focused on Judaism.

Wait? Isn’t something missing, you might ask. Where’s the issue on Christianity?

Well, get ready for some exciting editorial twist: Life did indeed publish an issue on Christianity. But it did so later, that is just in time for Christmas 1955. In this case though, the issue is not linked to the previous series. Rather, it is said to a “Special issue” that corresponds to “Two issues in one” and, for that reason, was sold 35¢ instead of 20. What a deal! And what a treat!


Life’s “Great Religions of the World” series and the “Christianity” special issue (photo: ebay)

The overall set was published over a period of 8 months (April 4 to December 23, 1955). The order in which the issues were published is, in itself, telling. One can observe a “progression” from what stereotypically qualifies as polytheism (Hinduism) to eastern “philosophies” (Buddhism, Confucianism) to monotheism (Islam, Judaism, Christianity). Similarly, the issues move from so-called “Eastern” (Part I-IV) to “Western” (Part V and special issue) religions, this to the detriment of any chronological logic. The special status of the issue on Christianity – and the absence of text other than “LIFE” on the cover – also indicate that this last “religion” has, for the magazine’s editorial team and what they saw as their main audience at least, a “special” status.

In addition to this, the covers betray a gendered subtext. Three covers feature pictures of human beings. In all cases, the subject is a female one (a child/young teenager, a “girl” dressed as a bride, a “mother”). The cover captions respectively read “Vigil at Indian festival of light” (Part I, Hinduism), “Moslem girl of Pakistan” (Part IV, The World of Islam), and “Jewish mother blesses Sabbath light” (Part V, Judaism). All female subjects are portrayed in a ritual context (Diwali candle burning; wedding ceremony; Sabbath light blessing); their bodies, and especially their head and face, are adorned with accessories that would qualify as “exotic” or “traditional” among white, North American audiences in 1955: Head veils, Tikka headpieces, face painting, embroidered fabrics. In two cases, we see burning candles. The three remaining covers represent male gods: Buddha (statue), depictions of “Earth Gods” (painted festival boats), Jesus of Nazareth (crucifix). These covers thus represent the divine realm is a male dominion, whereas the female plays a central ritual role in the (re)production of the relationships between the human and the godly.

In the case of the cover picture of the issue on Islam, the identity of the generic “Moslem girl” (called “Pakistani Moslem” in the table of content) is actually specified in the caption to another picture that can be found inside the issue (p.81). Her name is “Raiza Khanum” (Khanum is actually a Persian title meaning ‘lady’ that is used as a polite way of referring to a woman in Pakistan/Afghanistan, so it is not a family name; for this reason, I’ll hereby refer to her as Raiza), and she was pictured, it is said, during a mock wedding “enacted by Pakistani girls”.

Raiza other pic

Raiza Khanum, the bride of a mocked wedding “enacted by Pakistani girls” (Life, May 9 1955, p.81)

Raiza, we learn in the caption to that latter picture, “wears a gay scarf used for festive events” (my italic). What the caption doesn’t say, however, is that red and golden saris and veils are traditionally worn by both South Asian Hindu and Muslim brides (red is the colour of the planet Mars, which is believed to oversee marriages; it is also associated with the rising sun, and thus symbolizes prosperity and fertility). They are absolutely not, in other words, a sign of a woman’s Muslim identity, but rather an indication that she is getting married and that her wedding includes a traditional, South Asian component. Thus Kim Kardashian’s recent – and controversial – red-themed photoshoot for Vogue India has, from a South Asian perspective, a clear bridal touch.


Kim Kardashian in Vogue India, March 2018

The Life cover picture is, therefore, a cliché. It is a cliché because, well, the eroticization (as well as fetishization, and stigmatization) of veiled, Muslim – and more generally “Oriental” – female bodies is an old Orientalist trope, about which a lot has been written, and which is still very much alive. From the theft of Tanit’s veil in Flaubert’s Salammbô (studied notably by Mary Orr) to the Enlightenment allegory of the Veil of Isis, to Orientalist painting, to public “de-veiling ceremonies” staged by French colonial authorities in Algeria, to recent public debates regarding the presence of “veils” or “headscarfs” (that is, let’s be real here, a metonymic way to refer to visibly muslim women) in “secular”, public spaces (a recent case of which involved a candidate of the French version of The Voice), the ability to access – and control – what exists behind a women’s veils has been an ongoing obsession in Europe, North America, and Oceania for a long time.

To the average reader of Life in 1955, Raiza’s veiled portrait must have been experienced as exotic. It must also, somewhat, have felt a bit familiar too. Why? Two words: Virgin. Mary.

Indeed, Jesus’ mom is commonly represented wearing a veil, and while the typical Catholic Mary wears blue and white, its Orthodox version is dressed – and veiled – in red and gold. In this case, the chromatic convention expresses the “royal”, divine status of Mary, who is said to belong to the House of David. For in the ancient Mediterranean, purple (also called “Tyrian red” for its redish colour) garnments – all the more so the ones embroidered with gold – were very expensive, and thus generally the prerogative of royal and religious élites (Sarah Bond has written a handy post on the topic).

The parallel between Raiza’s picture and Orthodox Mary struck me when I was cooking one night. The thing is, I have been accumulating a nice number of “Virginal” icons over the years, and these cover a nice geographical and denominational spectrum (I like to rationalize this particular taste of mine by the fact that the iconography and cult of Mary is, in many ways, a Christianized version of those of Isis, Artemis, and more broadly of several ancient mother goddesses). It is the case of a close-up, plasticised depiction of the Virgin I was blessed enough to buy several years ago on a small stand right next to the entrance of the Coptic quarter in Cairo (call it tacky as much as you want, I find it absolutely amazing a catch; and if ever you wonder, no, it is not a toilet seat cover). I also have an Armenian icon featuring the same veil, and the icon painter’s workshop I visited in Athens recently featured several similar depictions.

IMG_1174IMG_1175Life May 1955 Cover

Coptic (left) and Armenian (center) icons of the Virgin Mary; Life’s May 9, 1955 cover

In my next post, I’ll focus on the specific section to which the second picture of Raiza belongs. For now, I’ll end by pointing out that the person who took her picture is American photojournalist David Douglas Duncan (the authors of the text and captions of the section on Islam are not specified). According to a profile put online by Life on the occasion of Duncan’s 100th birthday (2016), the WWII soldier-turned-photographer is particularly famous for his pictures of the Korean and Vietnam Wars; he also covered the end of the British Raj.

When it comes to assessing the potential biases and subtexts of magazine photographs, we ought to assess what part of their perceived effect stems from the artists’ own work, and what part results from the overall journalistic product they are embedded in (that is the organization of pictures in a documentary whole, and, especially, their definition through captions, and relationship to the main text). Some of Duncan’s photographs feature in the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center’s aria windows. The online “From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows“, provides some context to Duncan’s complicated relationship with LIFE’s editorial choices:

In 1946, just one month after discharge from the military, Duncan was hired by Life magazine to be its correspondent to the Middle East, a position he held until 1956. The magazine sent Duncan all over the world to cover important events, including the end of the British Raj in India, various cultures of Africa, Afghanistan, and Japan, and conflicts in both the Middle East and—most notably—Korea. His photographs and captions reflect the viewpoints of ordinary people as well as those in power. While working for Life, Duncan grew increasingly frustrated when his images were used to illustrate articles by writers with whom he strongly disagreed. So in 1951, he published This Is War!, his own photo-narrative of the Korean War. Since then he has published 25 photography books on a number of subjects.

The artistic quality of Duncan’s photojournalistic work cannot be doubted. Yet in the context of the issue that interests us here, his cover portrait of Raiza comes across as yet another iteration in a long-standing series of iconographical fantasies about the “Orient”. Thought relatively bare, the cover as a whole is faithful to Orientalist tropes according to which the “World of Islam” (for whatever it means) is an exotic, feminized, virginal, passive, and ancient, “frozen in time” space that sharply contrasts with the familiar, male, conquering, active, and forward-moving “West”.

In what context did Duncan take the picture of Raiza? How did he get access to what seems to have been an all-female “mock wedding”? Why was this picture chosen for the cover? And by whom? I wasn’t able to find any answer to these questions. I now pray that Duncan will somehow stumble upon this post, and feel generous enough to share some of the back story with us.