Author: everydayorientalism

Wonder how male & Eurocentric your Antiquity-related field is? Try the committee test!

Wonder how male & Eurocentric your Antiquity-related field is? Try the committee test!

On February 10, Lisa Lodwick posted the following thread on Twitter:

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As I write these lines, some scholars have already started to take action and write to the conference organizers and the Associazione Internazionale di Archeologica Classica to complain. It will be interesting to see if some of the scheduled keynote speakers will take on Josephine Quinn‘s suggestion to “pull out in protest”.

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While Lisa Lodwick and Josephine Quinn’s criticism highlights gender imbalances, it made me think of a different yet comparable experience I had a couple of years ago. When preparing a paper for the 2016 International Congress of Papyrologists, I compiled the data related to the country of origin and affiliation of all the committee members, Vice-Presidents, and Presidents the AIP had since its inception in 1930. To my surprise, the list did not include a single scholar who was not white. Thus, although the overwhelming majority of the papyri that have come to us were found in Egypt, although there are Egyptian papyrologists, and although Arabic papyrology is now a blossoming sub-field within the discipline, Egyptians have to this day been completely absent from the executive apparatus of the Association.

When it comes to gender balance and diversity, the field of Classics and the sub-fields that sprouted from it remain among the most conservative ones within the Humanities. The data provided in Lisa Lodwick’s tweet can no doubt be linked to broader issues surrounding gender inequalities among “Classical” archaeologists. Yet a quick look at the Congress of Classical Archaeology website also shows that just as all committee members/keynote speakers are male, so do they all “happen” to be of European descent and affiliated to ‘western’ institutions. More still, apart from Canada, all keynote speakers work in one of only five western European countries, all of which have a recent or ongoing colonial history – UK, Germany, France, Belgium, Netherlands. Can we just pause and appreciate how ironic it is that the list does not even include a Greek or an Italian scholar?

That made me wonder: How do things look among Classically-related international associations? And what about Egyptology and Coptic Studies, fields I am sometimes, depending on who I speak with, included in[1]? Are women better represented? And what about academics from non-western institutions, and notably those located in countries that were once part of the so-called ‘Classical’ world (especially considering that over half of that Classical world at large is actually located outside the boundaries of western Europe)? I’ll let the following table speak for itself. But before doing so, I’ll only say this: The usual (most often reductive, patronizing, and Orientalist) excuses thrown at those who lament the lack of diversity in the field are part of the problem. As those of us who took part in Aven McMaster and Mark Sundaram’s recent The Endless Knot podcasts repeatedly say, when it comes to dealing with their colonial legacies, Classics and its related sub-fields still have an awful lot of catching up to do in order to get a passing grade.


President Vice-President Committee members[2] Female committee members (%) Committee members not affiliated to a ‘western’[3] institution (%)
FIEC (Classical Studies Associations) M F 10 5 (50%) 0 (%)
AIAC (Classical Archaeology M F 18 8 (44%) 0 (0%)
AIP (Papyrology) F M 19 6 (32%) 0 (0%)
SIEGL (Greek and Latin Epigraphy) F M 19 6 (32%) 0 (0%)
IAE (Egyptology) M F 21 11 (52%) 4 (19%)[4]
IACS (coptic Studies)[5] M F (President elect) 10 5 (50%) 0 (0%)

Table: Gender and diversity in the current committees of Antiquity-related international associations

Katherine Blouin, @isisnaucratis

[1] For many colleagues specializing on Pharaonic Egypt, I am not an Egyptologist. Yet, for many Classicist colleagues, the fact that my research focuses on Egypt makes me an Egyptologist(ish).

[2] Includes President, Vice-President, Treasurer, etc. but excludes honorary members.

[3] That is not affiliated to a European, North American or Australasian institution.

[4] That is 3 from Egypt, 1 from Israel.

[5] I thank Malcolm Choat for this update. It corresponds to the latest board composition, which is not available yet on the IACS website.

Orientalism, the Classics, and Egypt II –  or why you must be in Cairo on April 10

Orientalism, the Classics, and Egypt II – or why you must be in Cairo on April 10

Image credit: The Griffith Institute

*Going to be in Cairo on 10 April? Do please come and join us at the EES for the second (we hope, annual) Orientalism, the Classics and Egypt workshop. We promise a day of energising debate and hilariously-awful stories about colonial scholarship, as well as a supportive, collegiate atmosphere, for scholars at all stages of their career. Full details of the programme and venue will be announced closer to the time. This will be a bilingual event, in Arabic and English, with translation available.


-Professor Usama Ali Gad, Ain Shams University, Egypt

-Dr Heba Hesham Abdel Gawad, UK/Egypt

-Prof. Myrto Mallouta, University of Corfu, Greece

-Prof. Roberta Mazza, University of Manchester, UK

-Prof. Mohamed el Maghrabi, University of Alexandria, Egypt

Prof. Katherine Blouin (University of Toronto, Canada) and Prof. Rachel Mairs (University of Reading, UK) will be pouring the coffee (and take care of other more suitably feminist tasks).

Event abstract

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

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

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

Facebook page event:



The Arabic Announcement:

كلاكيت تانى مرة 

 “الإستشراق والدراسات الكلاسيكية و مصر”

هل تستطيع/ى الحضور إلى القاهرة يوم الثلاثاء 10 أبريل القادم؟ إذن إنضم/ى إلينا بجمعية إسكتشاف مصر (EES) بمقر المجلس الثقافي البريطاني بالعجوزة (British Council) في ثانى لقائتنا (السنوية ، إن شاء الله ،) حول ” الإستشراق والدراسات الكلاسيكية ومصر”. نعدكم بقضاء يوم جميل ملئ بالنقاشات القوية و الحكايات المروعة والمسلية في نفس الوقت عن فترة الإستعمار بكل ما أنتج حولها من دراسات. كل هذا في جو تسوده روح المودة والتشجيع بين كل الباحثين المشاركين بغض النظر عن تدرجهم الوظيفى. اللغة المستخدمة في النقاش هي العربية والإنجليزية مع ترجمة فورية إذا لزم الأمر. برنامج اللقاء النهائي ، بالإضافة إلى مزيد من التفاصيل ، سوف تصل إليكم في القريب العاجل إن شاء الله وذلك قبل موعد اللقاء بوقت كافى. يدير اللقاء كلاً من الأستاذة الدكتورة كاثرين بلون من جامعة تورنتو بكندا و الأستاذة الدكتورة ريتشل ميرز من جامعة ريدنج بالمملكة المتحدة و الأستاذ الدكتور أسامة على جاد من جامعة عين شمس حيث سيتولى كل من الدكتورة كاثرين و الدكتورة ريتشل صب القهوة ( وغيرها من الأمور التى -طبقاً للصورة النمطية- تجيدها النساء). أما دكتور أسامة جاد فبالإضافة إلى ثرثته المعتادة (!) عن المركزية الأوربية فسوف يقوم بإدارة النقاش في هذا اللقاء . وفيما يلى أسماء المتحدثون الرئيسيون في هذا اللقاء:

الأستاذ الدكتور أسامة على جاد من جامعة عين شمس (جمهورية مصر العربية)

الدكتورة هبة هشام عبد الجواد ( المملكة المتحدة/ جمهورية مصر العربية)

الأستاذة الدكتورة ميرتو مالاوتا من جامعة كورفو ( اليونان)

الأستاذة الدكتورة روبرتا ماتسا من جامعة مانشستير ( المملكة المتحدة)

الأستاذ الدكتور محمد المغربى من جامعة الإسكندرية (جمهورية مصر العربية)

للتسجيل نرجو :

أولاً :تأكيد الحضور هنا على صفحة الفيس بوك هذه :

(Facebook page event:

ثانياً : التواصل مع أحد المنظمين عبر بريده الإلكترونى :

(,, :@).


Same but not the same: White fantasies and (in)difference in the time of Trump

Same but not the same: White fantasies and (in)difference in the time of Trump

by Girish Daswani

It was just after September 11, 2001. Like everyone else, I was still reeling from the shock of having witnessed planes fly through buildings in New York City and kill thousands of people. It felt like my world was different. That everything was about to change. A few days after this happened I was at the Singapore international airport, waiting in line to board my plane for London where I was to start my PhD in Anthropology. There were many red-skinned, overly tanned English men in that same line. Most probably returning from their sun-soaked holidays on the beaches of Bali, Kosamui and other such exotic destinations. I noticed one of them looking at me disconcertingly. With a nervous laugh, he turned to casually ask me, “You’re not Muslim are you? No bombs in your bag then?” Others in the line started to focus their attention on me, waiting for my response. I retorted, “Why should it matter whether I am Muslim…. No, no bombs, just books.” Another English man turned to the men waiting in line as if to defend me and ease the tension. He laughed, looked at my passport and said, “Well, that’s good to know. You’re from Singapore, aren’t you?”

I realized that my body and my identity were being managed for me: by those who distrusted me and by someone who felt sorry for me. That was the beginning of my new relationships with borders, of being suspiciously pulled out of line, stopped again and checked by police after I had cleared customs, being questioned more than anyone else about the religious nature of my brown skin or the ethnic qualities of my name.

I start with 9/11 because I view it not as the ‘beginning’ but as another point of intensification, a moment of intense formation and a shift in our shared reality: a sign of what was to come, including the plunder of and wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and later Syria, the further imperial expansion of the US and Israel, the wall street crash of 2008, the Occupy movements and Arab Spring and other popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes and the exploitative conditions of neoliberal capitalism.

In this post, I argue that the “time of Trump” represents both a further intensification and an unravelling of a colonial and imperial fabric that continues and persists through a White Fantasy and that represents another shift in our shared reality.

Trump’s ban on visas for people from certain Muslim countries – what some have called the “Muslim ban”; his call for a wall to be built between Mexico and the US to keep out people he called “murderers” and “rapists”; his policy to ban trans-gendered people from joining the army; his declaration that DACA was no longer upheld and children of “illegal migrants” from Mexico and Latin America should be sent “back” to where their parents came from; his support of white supremacy – his claim that there were “good people on both sides” during the Charlottesville demonstrations, where white supremacists and alt-right members calling themselves “white nationalists” marched amidst other counter-protestors, holding lit tiki torches; his attack of NFL players – calling them “sons of bitches” – who take a knee during the national anthem to protest systemic racism and the brutal murder of black people by police in America on a daily basis; his refusal to lift the Jones Act until the very last minute, purposefully preventing foreign ships from bringing aid and relief to the hurricane-struck people of Puerto Rico when they needed it most and then his focus on their financial debt to America rather than how they deserved the same help as every American. The list goes on and grows longer with each passing day.

And to relate a few events outside of the US, there has been Brexit, the rise of xenophobia and racism in Europe and in other parts of the world.

These are not ordinary acts. These are not ordinary times.

Racism, Sexism, Xenophobia, Trans-phobia, Islamophobia.

They are on the rise and these words all accurately describe the present moment in which we live. They can also be held together by one commonly heard phrase: “You are not welcome here.”

A few years ago, I gave a Tedx talk at UTSC entitled “Where are you from, really?” It was meant to address the question that most migrants, foreigners, or non-white people in Canada and in other Western countries are often asked. “Where are you from?” Of course, there is nothing wrong with someone asking you “where you are from”. It could stem from a genuine interest in you and it could be a way to get to know you better. But the word “really” – in “where are you from, really” – was meant to distinguish a potentially innocent question from one that is aimed to identify you, objectify you as someone who comes from somewhere else – not “here” – or someone who does not fit the “same” box as the person asking the question. In today’s situation, we can quickly transition from such masked questions to the use of statements like “go back to where you came from” or, “there are too many of you” or, “your people… don’t know how to speak English” or “you should know your place”.

While aspiring to a universal condition of a shared humanity – some people are reminded, constantly, that they do not belong or are sufficiently different and will never truly share in the same intimate spaces of the dominant group (Hage 2015). They are told: “You are not welcome here” (or “I refuse to use the terms in which you would like to be addressed”) – whether the “here” is in reference to the nation or another personal-political-economic space reserved for those who are considered the dominant group and, in some instances, consider themselves as descendants of a “Western” or “Christian” civilization.

It is important to acknowledge that such phrases as “You are not welcome here” have a history, one that is marked by the uneven, unsettled qualities of histories that fold back upon themselves and in that folding reveal new surfaces, new planes, new articulations. You can be a noble peace laureate and also say these words to a minority group in your own country – I’m thinking of Aung San Suu Kyi here.

Think “same, but not the same” as we move forward.

The events of 9/11 were also the beginning of changes in scholarship. They prompted scholars to better understand and to reassess the U.S. empire: to return to an analysis of “colonialism” as a continuing presence (and not simply study the residues of its past) and to “settler colonialism” as a specific and violent colonial form. They have opened up new conversations about the long-term damage done to populations and to the dispossession of their lands and the harm done to their identities and their self-respect. They focus on the “unsettledness” (Stoler 2016) and “stuckedness” (Hage 2015) of colonized and immigrant lives, and on the relationship between colonialism, nationalism and ongoing forms of spatial-social containment.

I now want to turn to some ways in which we can understand the continuing presence of colonialism in our societies vis-à-vis racism. We can all agree that there is a problem – racism. But why does the problem persist? There are obviously several answers to this question. Let me start with one.

Frantz Fanon is a psychoanalyst, activist and philosopher from the French colony of Martinique. He famously wrote a book called Black Skin, White Masks, (first published in 1952). In it he shared an experience of being in France, when a small boy, frightened by Fanon’s appearance, leaps into his mother’s arms yelling “Look… Mama, a Negro!” Fanon writes:

While I was forgetting, forgiving, and wanting only to love, my message was flung back in my face like a slap. The white world, the only honorable one, barred me from all participation… I was told to stay within bounds, to go back to where I belonged.

Fanon was living in the time of colonialism and at the beginning of decolonization. Although “postcolonial” is often used to allude to post WWII history, the sad truth is, we continue to live in its affective and structural presence today.


Frantz Fanon speaking in Accra (1958)


Fanon convincingly argued that the long-term stability of a colonial system of governance relies as much on the “internalization” of the forms of racist recognition imposed and bestowed on the racialized and Indigenous populations as it does on physical violence and force. This “psycho-affective” dimension works in embodied and unconscious ways, and it is this same affective dimension of colonialism that persists in how we feel, think and express ourselves and hold opinions of others. It importantly points to the unconscious ways through which we do not see how our supposed “inferiority” (racial, gendered, religious) becomes internalized or how our first world and white privilege is taken for granted and used to systematically distance ourselves from others and their experiences.

Anthropologist and historian Ann Stoler (Stoler 2016) calls this “political aphasia” – the “capacity to know and not know”, which “simultaneously renders the space between ignorance and ignoring […] a concerted political and personal one” (12-13). It is not as easy as “self-deception”, she writes. “Colonial Aphasia” is also the occlusion of knowledge and of how colonial entailments have been occluded from national history. Our indifference to these things is both learned and subconsciously internalized.

These same psycho-affective forms of colonialism and their strategies of occlusion serve to empower a dominant group’s mode of self-perception – the fantasy position of cultural dominance born out of a history of European expansion. Let’s call this a “white fantasy” position about cultural and racial superiority that has been discredited by science but that continues to exist structurally, institutionally and in people’s ordinary lives and imagination.

This white fantasy position is not about a simple repetition of colonial policies or about a clean temporal break from colonialism. It is about how the presence of a colonial logic purposefully maintains division through a hierarchy of races, sexes and categories of people, and is ultimately about economic power and wealth that financially benefits a small group. For the longest time, these categories that contain people and the violence they commit have been hidden, managed and sustained through policies such as “multiculturalism” or through terms such as “recognition”, “diversity” and “tolerance.”

What has changed in the “time of Trump” is that the ongoing and historical effects of this colonial logic can no longer sit in the recesses of what we want to say, try to say, cannot say, or only say in specific forums. They have boiled to the surface and in their rising, have emerged different currents of hate, love and indifference that are screaming to be heard and recognized.

Trump’s policies and hateful, insensitive, words have had an impact on people across the world, including here in my adoptive Canada. They have emboldened some with racist, sexist and xenophobic rhetoric – especially people who call themselves “white nationalists” and even supporters of “free speech” on university campuses in North America; those who claim to defend free speech but who actually promote misogynistic and arrogant views of “Western” civilization. But this time of Trump has also inspired others to act, to stand up to face the injustice and to critique systems of intolerance that they had become indifferent to.

Then there is the third group, who continue to sit by and watch, whose perspectives are defined by an indifference to the exceptional nature of our times and who believe that critique and social rhetoric should remain as before – carefully positioned. That we need not say nor do anything new. These people do not want to rock the boat. They are usually comfortable, self-interested. They believe that their worlds are complicated enough. But such a position is becoming more untenable. People are going to have to decide what they think about these issues, which formerly existed on the surface and beneath the national, social, and moral fabric.


It would be too easy to call Trump or others like him and who support him “monsters” or simply “evil”.

They are our indifference. Our own indifference to the strategies of separation and the cynicism that leads us to believe things will carry on as before and we need not do anything to change it.

In order to better understand indifference, let’s turn to the political theorist Hannah Arendt who escaped Germany during the Holocaust, and to her concept of “the banality of evil”a tendency of ordinary people to obey order and to conform to public opinion without a critical evaluation of the consequences of their actions.

Arendt (1964) was looking into the question of whether evil was radical or a function of thoughtlessness:

It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never “radical,” that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is “thought-defying,” as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its “banality.” Only the good has depth that can be radical.

It is through the lens of bureaucracy as a weapon of totalitarianism that Arendt (2006) arrives at her notion of “the banality of evil” — a banality reflected in the trial of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann, who embodied “the dilemma between the unspeakable horror of the deeds and the undeniable ludicrousness of the man who perpetrated them.”


Hannah Arendt

In a passage that applies to Donald Trump, she describes Eichmann:

The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.

So what if part of the solution to our troubled times consists in cultivating our ability to think about or from the standpoint of somebody else?

In fact, this is Anthropology’s claim to fame: to study difference and to be able to understand and convey other people’s perspectives. Anthropologists’ thing is to engage with people who are, in certain respects, substantially different from them.

In this pursuit, anthropological tools have helped us to both understand difference and conceive of it as something provisional, specific, active, subject to change – both mobile and as located in the world. For example, racial categories can be mobilized for different projects – racism, anti-racism and multiculturalism. They have polyvalent signatures that hold different possibilities and agendas. Anthropological tools also allow us to take a genealogical approach, to pay attention to messy beginnings and refuse to search for distilled origins. It attends to differential histories, unrealized possibilities, undocumented or counter narratives of the past, failed experiments or even hidden happenings.

So, in order to understand the time of Trump and its effects on us. I want to use these anthropological tools and return to how certain beginnings are imagined, to the idea of “whiteness,” a fantasy position of cultural dominance born out of the history of European expansion.

Drawing largely from Ghassan Hage’s 1998 book White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society, I describe ‘Whiteness’ here as not an essence (or the colour of one’s skin), but an aspiration – something that one can accumulate and claim. For what “white nationalists” are defending or fighting for is a perception of themselves, one according to which they have a privileged relationship to the nation and its institutions.

White fantasy and racism

Ghassan Hage wrote White Nation at a time when xenophobia was on the rise in Australia and the targets of attacks were mainly Asians, Lebanese and Aboriginal people. In particular, he was responding to a politician who he describes as poisoning “the very texture of our daily lives” (25) and in doing so, he was trying to understand the perspectives of white Australians, who are often called “racists”.

Before America had Trump, Australia had Hanson. Pauline Hanson was a Member of Parliament who never became Prime Minister of Australia but who certainly received plenty of support and was incredibly popular in the 1990s. She’s starting to gain favour once again in this time of Trump: Her recent stunt, which involved her walking into the Australian parliament wearing a burqa, made the news.


Pauline Hanson wearing a burqa in the Australian Senate in 2017

Take segments of her first speech in 1996:

We now have a situation where a type of reverse racism is applied to mainstream Australians by those who promote political correctness and those who control the various taxpayer funded ‘industries’ that flourish in our society servicing Aboriginals, multiculturalists and a host of other minority groups. biblio

The White Australian here becomes the victim of racism and the target of attack by groups representing Aboriginals and minority groups. Fast foward 20 years, and we now see this argument becoming a popular rhetoric again, even in the academic world, where some intellectual voices are decrying “diversity” policies on campuses and claim that the minority groups who call out academics for their racist or misogynistic remarks are actually performing “reverse racism”. The anti-racists and anti-sexists are now frequently called opponents of “free speech” or “postmodern neo-Marxists”.

Let’s read another passage from one of Hanson’s speeches:

Along with millions of Australians, I am fed up to the back teeth with the inequalities that are being promoted by the government and paid for by the taxpayer under the assumption that Aboriginals are the most disadvantaged people in Australia. I do not believe that the colour of one’s skin determines whether you are disadvantaged.

Let’s put some things into perspective:

Until 50 years ago, the Aboriginal people of Australia were not included in the census — so in the eyes of the government, they were not counted as people. It took a referendum in 1967 to change that. Then there were the Stolen Generations. This expression refers to generations of Aboriginal children who were systematically removed from their parents by the Australian government. The government was so obsessed with whiteness that up until the 1970s, there was the so-called White Australia Policy, a collection of policies banning non-Europeans from migrating to the country. In other words, you had to be white to move to Australia.

Sounds familiar?

Hanson was (and still is) participating in a “colonial” or “political aphasia” whereby (1) she assumes that there is a level playing field, that everyone has the same opportunities and the same capacities to succeed as “equals”, (2) it is the Aboriginal and the immigrant that is granted special status and privileged access to resources, (3) a reverse racism that disadvantages ordinary, hard-working White Australians is at play.

Hage (2000) argues that these policies and speech-acts are actually nationalist practices. And it is the fantasy of the “Whiteness” that holds these nationalist claims together.

I want to also emphasize that these nationalist practices are the enduring effects of colonial histories and settler-colonialism – a form of power that creates a scar across our shared social fabric and affects us all, but also one that is not truly acknowledged.

Hage (2000) suggests that words like racism or Islamophobia do not necessarily carry within them the imperative for action. One can dislike or even hate other people without actually acting on these feelings. What is more likely happening when a Muslim woman’s headscarf is forcibly removed from her head is that the person doing this violent act imagines that there is a privileged relationship between “me” and a territory – even as racism or xenophobia is deployed in these interactions.

We remain caught and entangled in colonialism’s conceptual net. Whether we like it or not, whether we realize it or not, it is in our historical and societal DNA and the consequences of such an entanglement is that it also allows some of us to effortlessly look away from dispossession and discrimination. We do so partly, I think, because we assume that it does not affect us directly, and partly also because we believe ourselves to be better than “those people” – whoever those people are. Such perspectives empower us to benignly mislabel people, to see ourselves as the custodians of their cultures or to crack jokes that are not funny, except to a privileged few.

So, can Anthropology shine a light to show us the way forward?

I believe Anthropology has a lot to offer – as I’ve already shown. But there is a glass ceiling. Before Anthropology can offer support and guidance it needs to confront its own suppressed colonial past and ongoing privilege (Asad 1995). As people who think about others and their difference, anthropologists continue to take up a managerial position – one that allows them to accumulate privilege and “Whiteness” in their pursuit of academic excellence and relevance.

We need to think more specifically about the “thought-defying” capacities that colonialism and nationalism foster, of what Hannah Arendt calls the banality of evil. But we also need to think further about what at first glance appears as “thoughtful” speech (say in current academic discussions), namely discussions that continue to leave unpacked central questions about our privilege and that do not go far enough in addressing many unconscious aspects of our indifference and the power relations involved in its continuity.

I want to share two examples: one from Anthropology’s famous ancestor Franz Boas and another from a living and respected elder in Anthropology. These examples are not meant to be compared according to the same criteria of evaluation: they are not equivalent cases; they are incommensurable. Yet their difference does not mean that they cannot speak to each other or that they are not productive for comparison.

Anthropological study of race / racism

Franz Boas was a German-American anthropologist. He is held in high esteem as an anti-racist crusader and a founder of American Anthropology. Having worked with the Baffin Island Inuit and the people of the Pacific Northwest in the late 19th century, he is highly respected as one of the first anthropologists who challenged the scientific and cultural evolutionary assumptions of “race”. He stood up against racist orthodoxy and moved away from an evolutionary model that assumed that people evolved through different cultural stages. Boas worked hard to demolish any scientific basis for the racial inferiority of others including native Indians and black people. However, less is said and written about Boas’ complicity in indigenous death and dispossession.

In his book White Lies About the Inuit (2009), anthropologist John L. Steckley problematizes Boas’s ethnography The Central Eskimo (1888). Boas, he writes, neglects to mention the presence of white whalers and their influence on the Inuit through the diseases they brought and the illnesses and deaths that occurred as a result of their presence: “The harsh hand of White disease was having a profound effect on the people. Yet Boas took no significant anthropological notice” (33).

In 1896, Boas became assistant curator of the prestigious American Museum of Natural History in New York and Professor at Columbia University. Steckley (2009) tells the story of how Boas asked an Arctic explorer Robert E. Peary to send him a living specimen, “a middle-aged Inuk from northwestern Greenland so that he and other anthropologists could study this person in the museum” (34). Instead of one, six individuals – that is a man and his wife and their adopted daughter, another man and his five-year old son, and another woman – were sent to Boas. They arrived in New York in late September 1897 and were housed in the cold and damp basement of the museum. Eventually, all six of them caught pneumonia and were hospitalized. When they eventually returned to the museum, they were moved to the caretaker’s apartment on the sixth floor. However, four of them died in 1898. Only the young, five-year old boy, named Minik, and the woman, Uisaakassak, survived. The brain of Minik’s father, Qisuk, was later studied and the findings published in a 1901 American Anthropologist article entitled “An Eskimo Brain”. The mourning rituals of the Inuit were documented and published in 1899 by a soon-to-be-famous anthropologist Alfred Kroeber.


Minik Wallace in New York

It was later revealed that Boas and the museum had staged a fake burial for Qisuk (using a log wrapped in furs instead of the dead body), mainly for Minik’s benefit. In that way they could continue to study the body, which was eventually preserved and mounted in the museum. When a reporter questioned Boas about holding on to the body of a man whose family was still alive, he supposedly replied:

Oh that was perfectly legitimate. There was no one to bury the body, and the museum had as good a right as any other institution authorized to claim bodies. (35)

When the reporter protested that the body should rightfully belong to Minik, Boas replied:

Well… Minik was just a little boy, and he did not ask for the body. If he had, he might have got it. (35)

While he was alive, Minik is quoted as saying something that does not agree very well with Boas’ patronizing narrative:

I can never be happy till I can bury my father in a grave…It makes me cry every time I think of his poor bones up there in the museum in a glass case, where everybody can look at them. Just because I am a poor Esquimau boy, why can’t I bury my father in a grave the way he would want to be buried?

Minik, who was raised by William Wallace, the superintendent of the museum’s building, and his wife Rhetta, never left the USA. He died of the Spanish flu in a New Hampshire farm in 1918 and was buried in Pittsburg’s Indian Stream Cemetery. It is not until 1993 that his father’s bones were finally returned to Greenland and given a proper burial.[1]

“Where Have All the Cultures Gone?”

Let us now fast forward a century and turn to a contemporary – and very different – case. In a Facebook post that was re-posted by the Anthropology journal HAU, anthropologist Marshall Sahlins described the demise of Anthropology as a comparative human science. He was specifically writing about the training and work of anthropologists, which, he lamented, did not engage with certain ethnographic classics. Here is his full post:

Emeritus rant
Maybe I’m wrong. It happens. But,
Where Have All the Cultures Gone?

What happened to Anthropology as the encompassing human science, the comparative study of the human condition? Why is a century of the first hand ethnography of cultural diversity now ignored in the training and work of anthropologists? Why are graduate students in the discipline ignorant of African segmentary lineages, New Guinea Highlands pig feasts, Naga head-hunting, the kula trade, matrilateral cross cousin marriage, Southeast Asian galactic polities, Fijian cannibalism, Plains Indian warfare, Amazonian animism, Inuit kinship relations, Polynesian mana, Ndembu social dramas, the installation of Shilluk kings or Swazi kings, Azande witchcraft, Kwakiutl potlatches, Australian Aboriginal section systems, Aztec human sacrifice, Siberian shamanism, Ojibwa ontology, the League of the Iroquois, the caste system of India, Inner Asian nomadism, the hau of the Maori gift, the religion of the Ifugao, etc. etc. We are the custodians of this knowledge, and we are content to let it be forgotten. Where else in the university are these things to be taught, or is it that they are not worthy of scholarly contemplation, and should just be confined to the dustbin of intellectual history?

At first glance, there is nothing wrong about this “rant”. When I first read it, I could see hundreds of anthropologists nodding in agreement. For we (including myself) see such examples as an important staple of what we ought to teach and what distinguishes us as anthropologists. Yet the way these examples were strung together in succession made me uncomfortable. And, judging from the long discussion thread below the post, I was not the only one. I kept asking myself: Is something missing here? And are we focusing on the right problem?

I came to realize that my discomfort stems from the post’s rhetoric, which I find reminiscent of a “white (liberal) fantasy” that still persists (be it consciously or not) in Anthropology. The claims, made by one of the most esteemed scholars in the field, that certain classic works are being forgotten – which, for many of us, they really are not – echo a nostalgic longing for a time when anthropologists were accounting for, describing and comparing other peoples’ cultures. Yet as seminal as they are in some respects, these “classics” are also ignoring the systemic violence that many of these people were enduring and continue to endure. By omitting this important fact, the “rant” seems like an unapologetic nod to a time of novelty, an era during which anthropologists were writing about and contributing to something seen by them as new.

Anthropology cannot effectively provide a moral compass or a voice for a shared understanding of difference or alterity without properly acknowledging its historically-anchored, complicit positioning in imperialism and class privilege. It also needs to reflect more on its own aspirations to “Whiteness”, which I understand here as the aspiration to belong to, emulate and maintain a dominant group whose members enjoy an élite status (particularly interesting in that regard is the fetishization of “western” theory and philosophy, a phenomenon which has recently been the subject of intensified resistance).

Our ability to provide windows into alternative worldviews is mediated by a problematic nostalgia for the past (“culture” or the “rediscovery” of our ancestors), unproductive forms of navel-gazing and the illusion that we are part of a single community (“the anthropological tribe”) who can easily disentangle white colonial presence and white privilege from the “anthropological/universal” (see Hage 2017). The idea that somehow, privilege affects only some of us, as anthropologists, and that it does so only some of the time, needs to be unpacked once and for good.

I do believe in “the labour of disentangling the white from the anthropological” while “engaging in ethnography”, as Hage (2017) suggests. However, by simply defending Anthropology for the sake of defending cultural “difference” and/or advocating for an alter-politics, we are ignoring the changing perspectives within Anthropology. Some voices have started to critique the discipline’s ancestors and to see its alignment with and implicit acceptance of dispossession and violence as highly problematic.

There is something else we need to consider: That the desires to “send the other home” and to “protect the other” are actually two sides of the same coin. Both sides feel themselves entitled to manage the other and speak for the other.

We, anthropologists (and I’m sure this applies to many other scholarly disciplines as well) cannot systemically turn a blind eye or to look away from various forms of discrimination, misogyny and violent behavior when it suits us or because it benefits us professionally and personally (Goodman 2016). We continue to be indifferent because it is easy. Yet, in this age of Trump, we simply cannot afford to be indifferent anymore.

Some concluding thoughts

In conclusion, I want to suggest how we can all benefit from this “Time of Trump” even as we seek to understand it and to resist it.

Since my experience at the Singapore airport after 9/11 and since moving to Canada in 2007, I have continued to reflect on what it means to be seen as different. As much I have accumulated “whiteness” and use my education and new status to my advantage, I also know that I have not internalized all the criteria for being truly accepted (even though a part of me desires “acceptance”). I instinctively identify and empathize with others who are objectified on a more frequent basis than me, and whose bodies, lives and land are violently encroached on by others.

Is there a better way to understand human difference in the time of Trump? The answer I provide is not a simple one. Instead it asks that we start by looking at ourselves, that we acknowledge our prejudices, our privileges, our “whiteness”, our implicit participation in dispossession, and of our comfort or indifference in the face of different, ongoing forms of injustice, because it does not concern us or because the racist and misogynist or the targets of anti- (racist/sexist) movements look and speak like us.

Noone should claim intellectual superiority or an enlightened perspective while participating in acts of disassociation between “me” and racism, “my world” and the ongoing presence of colonialism, “my privilege” and the inequalities and injustice experienced or expressed by others. Likewise, I disagree with the claim that anthropologists (me included) should live with the motto that we are the “custodians” of culture. Instead, they should be the custodians of the full spectrum of human experience even as they strive to understand cultural difference. For Anthropology to move forward, it has to first come to terms with its hidden and not-so-hidden privileges and to challenge its representation as a white, masculine and elitist space.

More broadly, in this moment of intensification, citizens around the world have to better engage with what’s happening around them and become true allies of the disenfranchised, the dispossessed, the minority voices, the non-nationalists, the activists. The language of ownership and possession and the unconscious ways through which it takes a hold of us have to be carefully unravelled and laid out before us before being discarded. Many voices have already started to ask such questions, both within and beyond academia. Yet as we continue to live in this time of Trump and in its ongoing aftermath, we will have to not take for granted the highly held opinions we often have of ourselves and those that sound or look like us.

I believe that increasing discomfort towards the fantasy of “whiteness” and the colonial histories that inform them is evident and necessary. Indifference, in other words, is not an option anymore. Lest we lose ourselves in our own, twisted reflection.

Girish Daswani is Associate Professor in Anthropology at the University of Toronto

[1] For another critique of Boas, see Audra Simpson’s upcoming paper “Why White People Love Franz Boas, or, The Grammar of Indigenous Dispossession”.


Arendt, Hannah. 2006 (1963). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Penguin Books.

Arendt, Hannah. 1964. Letter to Gershom Gerhad Scholem. In The Hannah Arendt Papers at the Library of Congress.

Asad, Talal. 1995 (1973). Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter. Humanity Books.

Fanon, Frantz. 1991 (1952). Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press.

Goodman, Z. 2016. “What’s the Point of the ‘Mauss haus’? The Gift and Anthropology Today.” FocaalBlog, June 16.

Hage, Ghassan. 2000 (1998). White Nation: Fantasies of White supremacy in a Multicultural Society. New York: Routledge.

Hage, Ghassan. 2015. Alter-Politics: Critical Anthropology, Political Passion and the Radical Imagination. Melbourne University Press.

Hage, Ghassan. 2017. ‘Anthropology is a white colonialist project’ can’t be the end of the conversation. Media Diversified, September 4.

Simpson, Audra. In press. “Why White People Love Franz Boas or, The Grammar of Indigenous Dispossession” in Indigenous Visions: Rediscovering the World of Franz Boas.  Ned Blackhawk and Isaiah Wilner, (eds). New Haven: Yale University press.

Steckley, John L. 2009. White Lies About The Inuit. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Stoler, Ann Laura. 2016. Duress: Imperial Durabilities in our Times. Duke University Press.

Pauline Hanson’s 1996 maiden speech: full transcript.

Red Book, White Masks: British Pharaohs and the Nile Expedition

The Egyptian Red Book.jpg

Images of the Egyptian Red Book are available at the online Travelers in the Middle East Archive.

In February 1884, General Charles ‘Chinese’ Gordon arrived in Khartoum.  Gordon had been Governor General of the Sudan from 1876-1879.  Since that time, the Egyptian army had suffered heavy defeats by the forces of the self-proclaimed Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad.  The British government (which effectively controlled Egypt at this period, although it remained in name an Ottoman province), after much debate, decided to evacuate Egyptian forces from the Sudan.  Gordon had returned, in theory, to oversee this evacuation.  In fact, he intended to try to defeat the Mahdi.  He made appeals for help in this endeavour to William Gladstone’s government.  These were rejected.  By April, Gordon and his forces were under seige at Khartoum.  A few months later, Gladstone belatedly agreed to send an expedition to relieve the city.  This finally arrived in the environs of Khartoum in January 1885, two days after the city had fallen and Gordon been killed.

This is very much to cut a long story short.  (Those interested in pursuing the subject further may wish to consult one of the dozens of memoirs written by those who participated.)  The Nile, or ‘Gordon Relief’, Expedition of 1884-85 was the subject of vigorous public debate in Britain.  At stake was the image of an imperialist popular hero, Gordon, whose death was mythologised and romanticised in art and literature.  Also at stake was British imperial pride.  The Nile Expedition proceeded in classic colonial fashion: British and Egyptian soldiers with guns faced local fighters with swords and spears, who had been told by their messianic leader that he could make them impervious to bullets.  Khartoum fell nevertheless, and in the following decades the Sudan became a battleground for the assertation of British prestige in north-eastern Africa.

The Nile Expedition and the fall of Khartoum can contribute to discussions of the ideology of colonialism in many ways.  What, for example, of the 1966 film Khartoum, starring Charlton Heston as an unlikely Gordon, and – incredibly – Laurence Olivier in blackface as a still more unlikely Mahdi?  “His stab at a Sudanese accent sounds like Sebastian, the singing Caribbean crab from Disney’s The Little Mermaid, pretending to be a Russian spy” (Alex von Tunzelmann in The Guardian, 12 November 2009).

One contemporary piece of commentary on the Nile Expedition, however, defies a straightforwardly Orientalist reading.  Many in Britain blamed Prime Minister Gladstone for the débâcle at Khartoum: both for having sent Gordon in the first place, without a more substantial force, and for having delayed in sending the Relief Expedition.  The political cartoonist George Roland Halkett (1855-1918) published a series of illustrated pamphlets against Gladstone and his policies: The Egyptian Red Book in 1885, and continuing with The Irish Green Book (1888) on the Home Rule question.  He also produced A Diary of the Gladstone Government (1885) and The Coming(?) Gladstone (1892).  These short pamphlets were issued by publisher William Blackwood & Sons, of Edinburgh and London.  They sold well, in their tens of thousands.

In A Diary of the Gladstone Government, Halkett comically depicts the Liberal Gladstone being fished out of the Nile – and the jaws of a crocodile – by the Tories (Conservatives).  In the background is the Sphinx.

Old Gladdy.jpg

Gladstone’s handling of Egyptian affairs has left him floundering.

In The Egyptian Red Book, Halkett adopts Egyptian imagery with even greater enthusiasm.  The pamphlet opens with an ‘Egyptian Puzzle’: on first glance, an ancient Egyptian scene, complete with hieroglyphic captions.  Large Roman letters scattered across the picture spell out the phrase ‘The too late Govt in Egypt’.  Lingering on the image, we find that the ‘hieroglyphs’ are actually cunningly concealed English words and phrases.

The Egyptian Puzzle Annotated.jpg

Egyptian though the overall effect may be, there is not a single Egyptian figure in this scene.  The Mahdi stands in front of his Sudanese army, who are depicted as ‘Nubians’ according to traditional Pharonic convention: dressed in animal skins, a disordered mass in contrast to the regularly-spaced and highly stylised ‘Egyptians’.  The ‘Egyptians’ are all British.  Gladstone, the so-called ‘grand old man’ appears in several places: sitting, weak and ineffective, borne upon the shoulders of others, and with his head superimposed on a snail, as a kind of sphinx.  General Gordon, in military hat with feathers, mustache visible in profile, stands as a strong, triumphant pharaoh on his chariot.  Liberal politician Joseph Chamberlain, bespectacled, is labelled as ‘Brummagem’ (i.e. from Birmingham, his parliamentary seat).  The Earl of Derby, Colonial Secretary, reclines like an odalisque under a map of New Guinea, which he was blamed for having failed to annex when Britain had the chance.  The Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs is a mummy.  The soldiers of the Nile Expedition appear on Egyptian papyrus boats, flying the Union Jack.

The scene is cleverly constructed.  The field is filled in with ancient Egyptian motifs (crocodile, vulture, monkey, cartouches), but there are modern touches: a German eagle (for German New Guinea), an hourglass, camel, snails, a hanged man, a fortification upon which the Mahdi stands.  As befits a political cartoon, the symbolism is simple and easy to read.  Gladstone is a snail-sphinx (because he was too slow to save Gordon – get it?).  On the title page of the Red Book, ‘Indecision’ is represented as a camel (because camels are stubborn).  None of this imagery is subtle.

Sleeping Beauties.jpg

Not all the subsequent cartoons  in The Egyptian Red Book have an Egyptian theme.  The four which do, like the ‘Egyptian Puzzle’, represent British politicians as ancient Egyptians.  One modern Egyptian appears: a bearded man in a long robe and turban, leaning on a spear, in front of a reimagined Abu Simbel.  The colossal statues bear the faces of the ‘Sleeping Beauties’ of the Gladstone government, including Gladstone himself, and the Foreign Secretary, the Earl Granville.  The partially-destroyed statue is labelled ‘Notice – J. Bright Resigned’.  John Bright had stepped down from the Gladstone cabinet in 1882 in protest at the British bombardment of Alexandria.  A frieze of fake hieroglyphs reads ‘We have slept for 1000 years’.  Pharaoh Gladstone’s seat again bears the ‘hieroglyphs’ ‘G.O.M.’ for ‘Grand Old Man’.  (Gladstone’s opponent, Benjamin Disraeli, said that the letters stood instead for ‘God’s Only Mistake’.)  A smaller, faceless, figure above the temple door is captioned ‘Khedive’.

Egyptian Policy.jpg

In the next Egyptian scenes, Gladstone and Granville labour to bring the ship of ‘Egyptian Policy’ across either a Nile cataract or a stony desert.  The Sphinx (with Granville’s face) and two pyramids are in the background.  One of the major challenges facing the Nile Expedition was taking their boats through the cataracts, which they achieved by portage and the expert boating skills of a group of Canadian Mohawks.  General Wolsely, who led the Nile Expedition, is depicted bent under the weight of a sack of useless supplies, many of which have names indiciative of the situation in which he found himself: pickles, tooth picks, kid gloves, napkin rings, and ‘Gladstone jam’.

Nile Picnic.jpg

The final Egyptian cartoon presents us with a ‘Mummy Government’.  A ‘hieroglyphic’ frieze names towns and the sites of critical battles in the Sudan.  The first Mummy is of course Gladstone himself, clutching a hatchet.  Queen Victoria’s fondness for horse racing is lampooned on her bandages, with horseshoes, bets (‘£. S. D.’, i.e. pounds, shillings and pence) and odds (‘2 to 1’).  She carries horsewhips folded across her chest, instead of the pharaonic crook and flail.  The next in line is Sir William Harcourt, the Home Secretary.  His mummy bears some of the very few readable hieroglyphs in The Red Book: the word miw, ‘cat’.  Is this an intentional jibe at cat-like qualities (laziness? cunning?) or simply serendipity?  Behind Harcourt is Joseph Chamberlain: the screw manufacturer from Birmingham is appropriately decorated with small screws, and labelled ‘Brum’.  The Secretary of State for War, the Marquess of Hartington, has ‘hieroglyphs’ composed of guns, cannon and swords.  The Earl of Derby holds a copy of a ‘New Guinea Blue Book’, which Halkett may have planned, but which was never produced.  Last in the line of mummies is Earl Granville, holding a white feather, symbol of cowardice.

Such Painted Puppets.jpg

Other illustrations in Halkett’s Red Book parody famous images from Christian iconography or Classical and Neoclassical art, such as Raphael’s The Three Graces.  Egyptian art had passed into a visual repertoire which an educated British public could be expected to recognise.  The Irish Red Book continues this tradition, with images of Members of Parliament as Roman Senators, but – aside from the occasional harp or shamrock – does not go in for local colour in the way its Egyptian companion does.

As I have already indicated, Halkett’s satirical commentary on the Nile Expedition cannot be read in a straightforwardly Orientalist sense, although its context is certainly that of British colonialism and increasing tourism in Egypt.  It is not even truly about Egypt.  Its text consists mostly of excerpts from parliamentary debates, written reports and quotations from British writers such as Shakespeare and Pope.  Rather, images of Egyptian antiquities are used to communicate a message about contemporary British politicians as ‘pharaohs’ and ‘mummies’: monolithic, conservative, unmoving, intransigent, despotic.  By showing them semi-clothed, in exotic regalia, it also makes them ridiculous.  The exception, of course, is General Gordon, a heroic Pharaoh on a chariot.

Rachel Mairs


Classical Egypt, Egyptian Classics : Toronto graduates in Classics reflect on their first encounter with Cairo and Alexandria

Classical Egypt, Egyptian Classics : Toronto graduates in Classics reflect on their first encounter with Cairo and Alexandria

Guilty Orientalists

This spring, Prof. Katherine Blouin planned and executed a trip to Cairo and Alexandria for the six extremely lucky members of a graduate seminar on “Orientalism and the Classics.” We spent the week utterly overwhelmed by the beautiful architecture and museums bursting with papyri. Besides giving us the opportunity to engage in the standard sightseeing, the trip aimed to further illuminate the history of Western scholarship in Egypt. We toured the Institut français d’archéologie orientale (IFAO), and we participated in a workshop entitled “Orientalism and the Classics,” which featured one talk on the biases that have prevented Western scholars from adequately acknowledging the history of wine production in the Mareotic region of Egypt, and another on the failure of 19th century scholars to learn Arabic, despite their frequent research trips to Egypt. These activities drew attention to the hold Orientalist attitudes had on our discipline, and we felt empowered to critique and resist their influence.

At the same time, we often found ourselves making the very sorts of observations about Egypt we had been critiquing during our seminar and at the workshop. I repeatedly stifled the thought that the older buildings in Alexandria were beautiful in their own crumbling way, or that the spice market in Cairo, was “just how I imagined it,” namely, colorful, bustling, fragrant– in a word, exotic. The six of us joked that we should call ourselves the “Guilty Orientalists,” because we continually caught ourselves and each other having these sorts of reactions to the sights that surrounded us.


Picture 1: Pharaonizing street art, Cairo (credit: Katherine Blouin)

In academic settings, such as our seminar at the University of Toronto or the “Orientalism and the Classics” workshop in Cairo, we had been faced with countless examples of 19th-century scholars who embodied a voyeuristic and exploitative academic gaze. In exploring the museums and sites of Egypt, however, we became aware of our own Orientalizing perspective, which we hoped to have already exorcized. Without having taken the “Orientalism and the Classics” seminar, we may have been less attuned to our own reactions to the cities we visited, but without the trip we may never have appreciated the pervasiveness of the Orientalizing attitudes we were critiquing: despite our active attempts, we ourselves were unable to fully eliminate these biases.

– Chiara Graf, Ph.D. candidate, University of Toronto

Of mosques and men

I have to admit that when we first received our itinerary for the Egypt trip, I was most excited about our planned excursions to the ancient sites – and antiquities museums – the Pyramids, the Serapeum in Alexandria, the Egyptian Museum. This was the Egypt I wanted to see, since it was the Egypt I was most familiar with. To think about the “modern,” non-ancient Egypt in the weeks before the trip was a little frightening, given the recent April bombings. In the last few weeks before the trip, I could not help but think in the back of my mind that Egypt is, after all, very close to ISIS’ caliphate, the new media boogieman. Ancient Egypt, I thought, was what I would enjoy most, not so much the rest.

Oh, how wrong I was. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy every aspect of the trip, I now have a new found appreciation for Egyptian history post 500 CE. On our second day in Cairo, we had the wonderful opportunity to explore the old city centre, the site of the spice market and many medieval and Ottoman period mosques, with Islamic art and heritage expert Karim Badr. My knowledge of medieval Egyptian history before our trip was spotty at best. I knew the general outline of the political history, but my knowledge really only focused on areas where Egypt bisected with western European history, like Saladin and the Crusades, or Napoleon’s invasion. The names of the Mamluk and Fatimid rulers Karim mentioned as he pointed to all the old buildings admittedly went over my head, but seeing what remains of their city really brought into perspective just how rich and diverse the history of Egypt really is, and how unsatisfactorily it is presented in the West. Visiting the old mosques, built by these unfamiliar rulers, I was struck by how reminiscent of European medieval churches they were, and realized how Egypt’s Islamic history was not such a foreign entity.

Though most of the mosques we visited in Old Cairo were no longer in operation, we did have the opportunity to visit a few still open to worshipers. These visits changed my outlook on the institution of the mosque. Before this trip, I had never been in a mosque, and though I never believed the media’s hype that mosques were “dens of radicalism,” I still only really pictured them as places of worship and religion only. Yet when I was in the Al Jame’Al Anway mosque, near the old medieval wall of Saladin, there was almost no “religion,” or at least the stereotypical version of “religion” I had in my mind, to be seen. Instead, the place was more like a park, where people could come to get out of the heat, rest, or simply hang out with friends. The image of a little child chasing after a rubber ball on the polished marble floor (Picture 1) has forever changed my view of the function of “the mosque” in society.

Old Cairo was but one amazing experience that our trip to Egypt gave us, and I cannot deny that when we finally did get to see the ancient sites, I was no less awestruck. However, Old Cairo in some ways was for me the unexpected highlight of our trip, since it challenged my preconceived notions of “modern” Egypt, that is, non-ancient Egypt. This Egypt is no less fascinating than that of the people who built the Pyramids or Alexandria, and indeed needs to be better acknowledged in the West.


Picture 2: Ibn Tulun mosque, inner courtyard (credit: Drew Davis)

– Drew Davis, Ph.D. candidate, University of Toronto

Ancient Greek literature in the flesh

Throughout our trip, some of my favorite things to see as a student of literature were papyri of texts that I recognized. Among many other examples, we saw a page of the Iliad, a fragment of Gallus, and a page of Menander, carefully preserved and on display in museums in Cairo and Alexandria. Because I’m used to reading texts after they have been edited and presented in neat, bound, modern books, it’s startling and exciting to me to see the delicate pieces of papyrus that have preserved them for thousands of years. It’s thought-provoking, too—looking at a shred of Misoumenos behind glass really makes a New Comedy student like myself realize how little stands between her and having no Menander at all.

In the Egyptian Museum, we had the privilege of visiting the lab where papyrologists work on the conservation of their collection. We spent an afternoon there learning about how papyri are cleaned, preserved, and displayed in a room that is crowded with storage cabinets and filled with tools and equipment that I’d never seen before. In the same way that I don’t often think about what ancient texts look like before they’re edited and published, I don’t often think about the work that goes into saving them from deterioration. When you spend all day, every day, reading millennia-old texts out of books that you touch, carry around, write in, and know well, it’s surprisingly easy to forget how far removed from you those texts actually are. The distance between modern classicists and the literature that we study is measurable not only in miles and in years, but also in technological advancements and academic interventions. The papyri collection in the Egyptian Museum was a salutary reminder to me of something that I should never forget in my modern library—how contingent the survival of ancient literature is, and how much work goes into keeping it.

– Rachel Mazzara, Ph.D. candidate, University of Toronto

The Ancient Library lives again


Picture 3: The interior courtyard of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (credit: Emily C. Mohr)

Those who have the opportunity to visit Alexandria, as my peers and I did this past spring on a class trip to Egypt, will observe that the ancient Library of Alexandria lives again in its modern instantiation, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Completed roughly fifteen years ago, the Bibliotheca boasts storage for millions of volumes and exists as one branch of an elaborate complex, including four museums, a Planetarium, and a conference center for hosting thousands, just to name a few.

First endowed by Ptolemy I, the ancient Library of Alexandria existed as a part of the larger palatial infrastructure, itself attached to the Museion, and provided lecture halls, meeting and multipurpose spaces, and a dining room for its guests. The vast compound served as a model for a community research institution similar to today’s colleges and universities. Intentionally “dedicated to recapturing the spirit of openness and scholarship of the original,” the Bibliotheca does not fail to impress.[1]


Picture 4: An interior glimpse of the Bibliotheca from the main viewing platform (credit: Emily C. Mohr)

The project of the ancient Library was an intellectual one in many arenas: it advanced Alexander’s goal of spreading Greek culture and positioned its multinational host city as a dominant force in the Mediterranean. The enormous scale of the Library, which may have stored up to a half a million volumes, and its ambitious classification system distinguished it from other ancient libraries in the Hellenistic kingdoms, such as those of Antioch and Pergamon. As did the Library in antiquity, the Bibliotheca now symbolizes Egypt’s cultural and intellectual achievements and advertises the growing contributions to scholarship from Arabic-speaking researchers.

Although the ancient Library fell into disrepair sometime during the late Roman Empire, the modern Bibliotheca Alexandrina achieves its aforementioned purpose and acts as a testament to its ancient predecessor. It is a thriving research institution, faithfully serving its community of local students and scholars, along with visitors from around the world, who queue down the street waiting for access. Perhaps the most encouraging aspects of the Bibliotheca are the sense of camaraderie it fosters among its users and the promise that it holds for future generations: As the academic world diversifies, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina readily offers its services to a new ensemble of academics that pays homage to Alexandria’s ancient reputation.


Picture 5: The external facade of the Bibliotheca, inscribed with the languages of the world (credit: Emily C. Mohr)

– Emily C. Mohr, Ph.D. candidate, University of Toronto

Moments in Masr

I immediately felt the urge to pinch myself upon looking up at the Pyramids in front of me; the moment hardly seemed as if it could be real. As a wonder of both the ancient and modern world, many people have only ever dreamt of seeing the Great Pyramids of Egypt, and here I was fortunate enough to be standing in front of them. Yet while walking among the Pyramids certainly is a moment I will never forget, what this trip in its entirety emphasized to me the most was that Egypt, or Masr, is so much more than just it’s Pharaonic past.  The ancient history is astounding – no doubt about it – but so is the more recent history (as in the past two thousand years…), and of course the country’s wonderful culture and people.

Just the city of Cairo, for instance, blew my mind because of the different cultures and religions that had taken root there over the centuries. In that city, Coptic Christian churches were constructed as early as the 4th century, the Mosque of Ibn Tulun was built by the Turkic Abbasids sometime in the 9th, one of the oldest universities in the world, Al-Azhar, was founded under the Fatamid dynasty, and in the middle ages the Ayyubid ruler Salah al-Din (known in the west as Saladin) commissioned the construction of the Cairo citadel.

What’s more, much of this multicultural and multi-religious history can be appreciated just by strolling the streets of old Cairo (for instance in the Khan el Kalihi and in Coptic Cairo) or peering inside all the city’s wonderful museums (like the museum of Islamic art or the Coptic Museum, both located in central Cairo). In true honesty, the various styles of architecture and art made me contemplate a completely new field of history to study. At the very least, the visit opened my eyes to a history that I truly had previously had only limited exposure to, and now am eager to improve my knowledge of.


Picture 6: An afternoon in Zamalek (credit: Katherine Blouin)

And yet, it must be mentioned that Egypt is not just its past either. The amalgamation of so many histories has over time pinnacled into one of the most beautiful cultures (and I must add, cuisines) of our present world. Some of my most vivid memories of the trip to Egypt do not even involve the (stunning) historical sites and museums mentioned above. Everyday experiences, such as watching locals smoke shisha at an ahwa (or coffee-house), drinking tea with mint on the roadside, eating gooey fresh dates right off the tree, or watching fresh bread being delivered in rectangular shaped baskets on the heads of bicyclists, are other instances that strongly illustrated to me the richness of life in this country.

Egypt is living history, and like other countries and cultures, much more than what is read in textbooks or seen on the news. I am enormously thankful for having the chance to join my Professor on such a trip. Travel is one of the best ways to learn and experience the many ways in which we as humans live, as well as clear the mind of any preconceived notions installed there by the colonialist or Orientalist discourse which has unfortunately long been perpetuated in the western world. I plan to visit Egypt again in the future, as there are still not only so many places to see and moments to experience, but culture to learn from.

– Shona Scott, Ma candidate, York University

Cairo first hand

When asked about my experiences in Egypt, the first thing I find myself trying to convey to others is how I was amazed by the long and diverse history of Cairo upon visiting the city. I have always been enamoured with Pharaonic Egypt since a young child, and admittedly, I set out on this trip with my excitement and expectations directed mostly towards seeing the antiquities and sites of ancient Egypt. The Pyramids of Giza and Cairo’s Egyptian Museum certainly did not disappoint my anticipations. However, I saw so much more of Cairo than just the relics of the Pharaonic past, and these other facets of the city’s history left a deep impression upon me. My peers and I visited some of the oldest Coptic churches in Cairo, as well as the Coptic museum, where we saw wonderfully preserved wooden and textile artifacts and religious icons. We also wandered through the spice market of Islamic Cairo, which was tucked beneath an old mosque, and explored several of the district’s historic mosques and mausoleums. With the guidance of our knowledgeable friend, Karim, we learnt all about the history of Islamic Cairo, an era about which I know little, but that I am now eager to learn more about. Visiting these different districts, Coptic Cairo and Islamic Cairo, left me with a deep impression of the different historical and cultural layers of this ancient city, both as they existed in the past, and as they are still enduring in the present. Pharaonic Egypt is just the very start of Cairo’s story. Cairo is a city with an incredibly rich and varied heritage, which is reflected in the city’s present life by the different, coexisting traditions and religions of its inhabitants. In our seminar last fall, we discussed how in the past (and still to some degree now) Egypt had commonly been defined by only its Pharaonic, Ptolemaic, and Roman phases in European scholarship. However, it was not until I experienced Cairo first hand and caught a glimpse of its historical and cultural complexity, that I understood the true meaning of our discussion, and realized that a consideration of Egyptian antiquity alone provides only a very shallow understanding of Cairo’s past, as well as its present.

– Naomi Neufeld, Ph.D. candidate, University of Toronto

History is not a plant: Some thoughts on high school and undergraduate (ancient) history curricula

History is not a plant: Some thoughts on high school and undergraduate (ancient) history curricula

Last September, a student enrolled in my 1st year undergraduate course “The Ancient Mediterranean World” came to me after the first class because he wanted to tell me that it was the first time he had heard that the ancient world was diverse and characterized by many cultural interactions. “So far, all I was taught in high school was that the Greeks and the Romans were the ancestors of the West. I felt alienated so until today, I’ve never had any interest for ancient history”. The student was a Canadian of Asian origin who grew up in the Toronto area and was enrolled in the History program.

Recent online storms surrounding the whitewashing of ancient Mediterranean history should not entirely come as a surprise given what (little) most western high schools and universities teach students about Antiquity. Despite survey courses on Ancient Mediterranean, or on ancient “world” history, two fundamental, intertwined problems persist: 1. Very little space is allocated to the teaching of ancient history 2. State curricula, publishers, and teachers alike still tend to fetishize the Greek and Roman worlds on the ground that they are the “roots” of “western” civilization.

Anyone who has taught a survey course on ancient Mediterranean history at the undergraduate level has faced the challenge of finding a satisfying textbook. To date, such publications tend to dedicate 20 to 25% of their pages to what precedes the Minoans and follows Justinian. In other words, they remain “Classical” history textbooks, albeit ones endowed with bonus chapters that act as prologue and epilogue to an essentially Graeco-Roman narrative. As a result, whoever seeks to offer students a more balanced initiation to the wide-ranging sets of cultures, States, and historical dynamics that made up the ancient Mediterranean is forced to complement the said textbook with a selection of readings for all the weeks where something else than Greek and Roman history is planned. As the table below shows, Ralph W. Mathisen’s Ancient Mediterranean Civilizations, the most recent of such textbooks available in English, does a better job, dedicating 39% of its pages to non Graeco-Roman cultures. Alas, the book’s many factual inaccuracies and methodological issues seriously undermine this quantitative improvement[1].

Textbook Total pages (introduction to conclusion) % non Graeco-Roman content % Graeco-Roman content Pages on early Islam
2004. Winks, R.W. and S.P. Mattern-Parkes. The Ancient Mediterranean World. Oxford: OUP. 255 25% 75% 1p.
2008. de Blois, L. and R.J. van der Spek. An Introduction to the Ancient World. London; NYC: Routledge. 295 23% 77% 0p.
2010. Nagle, B. D. The Ancient World. A Social and Cultural History. Eighth edition. Boston: Pearson. 302 20% 80% 2p.
2015. Mathisen, R.W. Ancient Mediterranean Civilizations. From Prehistory to 640CE. Second Edition. Oxford: OUP. 535 39% 61% 6p.

Table 1: Recent ancient (Mediterranean) history textbooks available in English

All the above textbooks reproduce – willingly or not – a botanical model of “civilizations”, whereby “early civilizations” such as Mesopotamia and Egypt (other cultures and States tend to get a minimal treatment at best) set the tone for the “rising and blooming” of ancient Greece and Rome, whose trajectory leads to the “fading” or “decline” of Late Antiquity and early Islam (speaking of which, can we just stop with the whole “Fall of the Roman Empire” thing, please?).

Things are not better at the secondary level, on the contrary. Let me provide you with a Canadian example. The 2015 version of Ontario Curriculum, Grades 11 and 12 (thereby OC11-12) articulates the importance of history as a topic to be studied in very Canado- (and Euro-)centric terms:

“The study of history enables students to more fully appreciate heritage and identity, both in Canada and around the globe, the diversity and complexity of different societies, and the challenges and responsibilities associated with participation in the international community. It also enhances students’ understanding of the historical roots of many current issues around the world. In doing so, it helps prepare students to fulfil their role as informed and responsible Canadian and global citizens.” (OC11-12, 15)

Now the province of Ontario’s secondary school program offers four history courses in grades 7, 8, 10 and 11. The three first ones focus exclusively on Canadian history (Grade 7: New France and British North America, 1713–1800, Canada, 1800–1850: Conflict and Challenges; Grade 8: Creating Canada, 1850–1890, Canada, 1890–1914: entitled “Changing Society; Grade 10: Canadian History)[2]. While the heavy focus on Canadian history makes sense from a nation-building perspective, the disproportionate weight allocated to Canadian history in the history curriculum can only lead to a myopic conception of history and, as stated in the quote above, of “heritage and identity”. Only in grade 11 are students offered a course that goes beyond the chronological and geographical realms of Canadian history. The course in question is entitled “World History to the End of the Fifteenth Century”. In other words, let’s cram c.6,000 years of world history in teenagers’ heads in the course of one year!

Beyond the gigantic scope of the course, which makes the 3 Canadian history courses look like super-specialized ones, its very structure is surprisingly outdated. Indeed, according to OC11-12 (p.318-319), it ought to be divided into 4 chronological and civilizational “strands” that seem to come straight out of Edward Gibbon:

  • Early Societies and Rising Civilizations
  • Flourishing Societies and Civilizations
  • Civilizations in Decline
  • The Legacy of Civilizations

If one excludes a grade 4 course entitled “Early Societies, 3,000 BCE – 1500 CE” that belongs to a strand called “Identity and heritage” (p.21), Discovery Channel-style documentaries and, for the curious and nerdy bunch, personal readings, this course represents the only introduction to ancient and medieval history most Ontarians will ever get in their lifetime. No doubt similar conclusions apply to many other Canadian provinces, American States, and other countries worldwide. Students enrolled in History, Classics, Medieval Studies or other related programs, or the many who take ancient/medieval history courses as electives at the university level, will acquire a more thorough knowledge of history. But, as seen above regarding Antiquity, survey courses often remain formatted according to a traditional conception of ancient history, and current textbooks are far from satisfying.

Another issue has to do with the fact that, for all sorts of institutional and systemic reasons, undergraduate curricula also tend to marginalize pre-1500 history (or, in the case of Classics, non Graeco-Roman history) altogether. Indeed, the extremely wide chronological breadth of Ontario’s “World History to the End of the Fifteenth Century” course mirrors many North American undergraduate history programs’ chronological requirements. Depending on the degree they are enrolled in, students need to take a certain (generally reduced) number of pre-1500 credits. In the case of the University of Toronto for example, since all ancient historians are appointed outside the History department, no ancient history course is compulsory for students enrolled in a history degree. Students can – and some do – of course take courses offered in the Classics or Near and Middle Eastern Studies Departments, but they don’t have to. This is not the case at the Scarborough and Mississauga campuses, where ancient historians are also integrated in the History program faculty. Departmental boundaries of the sort should not be taken lightly, as they directly impact not only the students’ breadth and depth of learning, but also, ultimately, on how they view the world. They are also, I suspect, behind the tendency of many historians of later periods to see “novelties” or “innovations” where, in fact, many ancient parallels are known (I’m looking at you, British Empire!).

Compressing most of human history into a very limited and stereotypical narrative whose subtext still reproduces colonial-era identity politics, whether in the name of nation-building or of “identity and heritage” appreciation, has serious, long-term repercussions on the ways in which citizens understand the world. As Pierre Briant has argued in this blog, teachers and academics have a responsibility when it comes to curriculum building, in-class teaching and textbook writing. How we can better meet this challenge is an urgent question, which can have critical repercussions in the way general audiences understand and conceive the past, and its intricate webs of relationships to the present. The time seems ripe to seriously revamp and update the way pre-Renaissance history is taught in high schools and undergraduate survey courses and textbooks.

Katherine Blouin

[1] My review of this textbook is currently beind peer-reviewed by Bryn Mawr Classical Review.

[2] The articulation of the course titles according to French and British Empires on the one hand, and to the history of the Canadian State on the other, would be worth a post in itself. The same goes for the space dedicated to/treatment of native American history.

Indiana Jones must retire: Archaeology, imperialism and fashion in the digital age

Indiana Jones must retire: Archaeology, imperialism and fashion in the digital age

As Eminem would say: “Guess who’s back? Back again? Indy’s back! Tell a friend!” Indeed, Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford have announced that a fifth film will soon be added to the Indiana Jones franchise. Details of the plot have not been released yet, but we know that Ford will then be a 77-years old white, male, American “Professor of Archaeology, expert on the occult, and how does one say it… obtainer of rare antiquities” in charge of saving the world from yet another “exotic” evil. According to Disney Chairman Alan Horn, “Indiana Jones is one of the greatest heroes in cinematic history, and we can’t wait to bring him back to the screen in 2019”. If you say so.

Indiana Jones has been – and still is – both a blessing and a curse for the fields of archaeology and ancient history. A blessing because it has served for more than a generation as a misleading yet efficient passion-trigger for all things related to Antiquity. I was 3 years old when the first installment of the Indiana Jones franchise came out. I still remember vividly the feeling of utter amazement I experienced when, a few years later, I watched on tv Harrison Ford’s tanned, beige-dressed character “find” the “Lost Ark”. There was something about the ancientness and mystical sacredness of Steven Spielberg’s sandy Middle East – that is, his totally Orientalist depiction of the region, but the child version of myself could not grasp that just yet – that bemused me. Fifteen years after The Raiders of the Lost Ark came out, I saw a dubbed version of The English Patient at a movie theater in Québec city. The experience led to my only true actor crush (apart from Idris Elba, but he doesn’t really count for he is kind of a universal crush). I thought that Count Almásy (aka Ralph Fiennes with a tan and Enrique Iglesias’ sad dog eyes) was so sexy, all the more so since he seemed to have survived all his adventures, desert “explorations” and love tragedies by holding on to a worn-out copy of Herodotus’ Histories, which he made a point of casually reading and quoting pretty much any time he had a chance to. Indiana Jones and Count Almásy.


Figure 1: The English Patient’s Count Almásy with his copy of Herodotus’ Book II

Two white, male explorers in the 1930s and 40s “Orient”. One American boosted with testosterone-fuelled heroism and on the “right” (that is, American) side of history. The other, a European forced to work with the evil Nazis in order to save the love of his life. The latter’s fate, and therefore the more dramatic nature of the story on which Michael Oondatje’s novel then Anthony Minghella’s movie are based, must explain why he, contrary to Indiana Jones, never made it in the mainstream as the archetype archaeologist.

How many times have I heard questions like “You work on Egypt? So you do like Indiana Jones?” It can be hard for scholars working in the field to not meet these topoi with an eye-roll. In general, the view is that they show how the “masses” don’t understand nor appreciate what we, highly educated and overworked nerds, do. But don’t they, really? Or to put the question differently: To what extent have archaeology at large, and Egyptology and the Classics more specifically, themselves contributed to the creation and ongoing popularity of the Indiana Jones archetype?

Whether we like it or not, Egyptology, Classics, and archaeology are products of the colonial context that characterized late 19th and early 20th centuries European and North American scholarship. As such, they were put to the service of European and American empires, whose élites have been legitimizing their dominion and “civilizing” mission through a complex array of historicized identity constructs, starting from the still conspicuous Us/West/Graeco-Roman vs Them/East/Orient paradigm[2]. As a result, most high school and university curricula are still comfortably reproducing colonial ways of conceiving and performing historical, philological, and archaeological work. To paint the situation with bold strokes: Generally speaking (I exaggerate, but just a little), the “Greeks” and the “Romans” are still portrayed as the ancestors of the “West”; philological knowledge (and the mastery of Greek and Latin in the case of Classics) is deemed essential, followed (in decreasing order) by literature-based historical knowledge and the mastery of material – that is unwritten – evidence; despite the increasing anglicization of the field, scholars are expected to master the four European languages that dominated 19th and 20th geopolitics and academia (English, German, French and Italian); in formerly colonized countries, power dynamics and the division of labour/living conditions between foreign “researchers” and native “workers” have not evolved much since the late 19th century[3]. In the classroom, besides ancient Greece and Rome, Mesopotamia pops up in some survey courses because this is where agriculture and writing were invented, so it’s kind of a must. Mesopotamia’s close contender, “eternal” Egypt, remains the utmost exotic of all ancient civilizations, and a temporary source of obsession for almost every child (in some cases, this phase never dies out and some of the children in question go on to study Egyptology or, for lack of it, Classics). As for the many other peoples and cultures that made up the ancient Mediterranean world, they tend to be, depending on the level and institution, superficially brushed over, confined to the “enemy” (the Persians, Carthaginians, Gauls, Parthians/Sassanians) role, or simply ignored. Such dynamics surely explain, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, why, beyond the 1st year survey classroom, Classics remain overwhelmingly white.

Another issue, which partly stems from the previous one, is the quasi-absence of compulsory training in post-colonial theory at the undergraduate and graduate levels. As a result, apart from a few exceptions that tend not to make it to the mainstream, scholarship on the ancient Mediterranean and Near East is most often conservative-to-belatedly-trendy in its theoretical and methodological approaches. This is especially true of Egyptology and Classics. When scholars venture out of the beaten tracks and produce what is, within their specific field, an innovative work, they most often capitalize on what has been done many years before in other disciplines within the Humanities and Social Sciences[5]. There are, of course, exceptions (for instance, the digital work done by papyrologists, which started over 3 decades before the “digital Humanities” became a thing). But more often than not, full-on innovation and transdisciplinary conversations that venture beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries still tend to be met with resistance.

The same can be said when it comes to real, thorough, self-critical engagement with the roots, history, and current ethical challenges faced by the disciplines that focus on the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern world. Instead, there is a tendency to worship the “good old days”, those when a small group of mostly white, male scholars trained in the most exclusive academic institutions of their time, could chat in Latin, recite all of Homer by heart while sipping whiskey at the faculty club, and confidently review the last opera they attended in a plethora of modern languages. While several of these early scholars were truly inspiring minds who did absorb and produce a formidable amount of knowledge (and while there is absolutely nothing wrong per se with sipping whiskey and enjoying good opera!), the time might be ripe to balance these heroic portraits by properly assessing and analyzing their often racist, imperialist, elitist, and therefore Orientalist conception of scholarship. Otherwise, we run the risk to fossilize ourselves in an outdated, Indiana Jonesque bubble, further and further away from the realities of the rest of academia, of our classrooms, and of today’s world.

The problem is, the Indiana Jones archetype sells very well and, accordingly, seasoning one’s public persona with a bit – or a hell of a lot – of Indy magic is a tempting self-promotional strategy for archaeologists in need of funding, attention, or both. It is also one that, alas, contributes to perpetuate the imperialist stereotypes associated with the “explorer” and the places/periods that are subject to his/her “exploration”.

The open affection of many American archaeologists for Indiana Jones’ characters is such that in 2008, the AIA awarded Harrison Ford the Bandelier Award for Public Service in Archaeology. The announcement was made a few days before the première of the 4th installment of the franchise:

“”Harrison Ford has played a significant role in stimulating the public’s interest in archaeological exploration,” said Brian Rose, President of the AIA. “We are all delighted that he has agreed to join the AIA’s Governing Board.””

In the video issued by the AIA, a few archaeologists go on to emphasize how Indiana Jones contributed to initiate young people to archaeology and, in many cases, encourage them to turn their newly found passion into a subject of study, if not a career. The video mixes shots of scholars with scenes from the Indiana Jones movies. We notably see Indy walking in a thick jungle, Indy facing an Arab mob (clearly recognizable because they wear gallabeyas and turbans; the badest of the bad guys is dressed in black and holds a spear); a turban-clad, alla Lawrence of Arabia Indy doing some magic on the replica of an Egyptian temple. In his pre-recorded thank-you speech, Ford confesses that “it is quite disarming to see that the Indiana Jones films have been an inspiration to archaeologists”. Judging from his facial expression, he seems honored, yes, but perhaps also slightly amused, if not uncomfortable to see the character he played lauded by the USA’s main archaeological association. In her book Lives in Ruins, Marilyn Johnson sums up the relationship she’s observed between American archaeologists and Indiana Jones in those words:

“Every archaeologist I interviewed worked Indiana Jones into the conversation, usually with affection, as if mentioning a daredevil older brother. Wherever they happened to stride, archaeologists absorbed his swagger. Grant Gilmore told me, “It’s tongue-in-cheek, but if you scratch any archaeologist, deep down inside they want to be him, one way or another”. Battered Indy-style hats bobs across the archaeological landscape, among the bandannas and keffiyehs (Arab head wraps) and baseball caps. Archaeology departments costume parties double as Indiana Jones conventions. “For whatever reason”, one female grad student confided, “the guys all own fedoras and whips”.” (Johnson 2014, 129)

Nowhere on the AIA site or in the video do we find an acknowledgement of – or distancing from – the utterly Orientalist and at times racist and sexist tone of the Indiana Jones movies. Nowhere does the AIA fully reconcile its decision to celebrate that Indy did indeed make 1930s-style archaeology more widely known and popular with the fact that it also helped spread an utterly inaccurate and highly colonial image of the discipline as well as of several non-white communities (including some that have been increasingly marginalized and stigmatized in the USA since 2001– Indigenous, Arabs, South Asians, Muslims). As much as one could argue that I lack humor and that this award should be taken with a witty detachment, it is hard not to also see it as a vivid testimony of the still highly white, male, and, whether we like it or not, colonial nature of American archaeology.

What about Indy’s fate beyond the USA?

The most famous case is no doubt Dr Zahi Hawass. The former Egyptian Minister of Antiquities has been astutely portraying himself as the Egyptian Indiana Jones for years, to the delight of all the Discovery Channels of the world and of his fan base worldwide. Given the unmistakably colonial nature of Indiana Jones’ outfit, one can but marvel at the ironic genius through which it was appropriated by an (US-trained) Egyptian Egyptologist, all the more so one as powerful as Dr Hawass. An article published in a 2009 issue of the New Yorker describes his public persona in those terms:

“Hawass’s brusque manner does not make him a natural television personality, but he has the keys to the country, and has no objection to seeing himself—an Egyptian politician with a formidable management style—reflected in the Western media as Indiana Jones. He makes an astute trade: access for attention. He can make the red tape fall away, and, in return, television tells a story of Egyptian Egyptology.”

Dr Hawass has, indeed, a true understanding of what western – and especially American – audiences want to hear and see about ancient Egypt, and he is excellent at using his position of authority and personal charisma to both educate them and comfort them in their fantasies whenever he is on outreach duty (which is, still today, very often). His regular interventions in western media have no doubt contributed, at least until the 2011 Revolution, to swell the already large number of western tourists travelling to (and spending money in) Egypt. Given that the Ministry of Antiquities’ budget comes in large part from the entrance fees paid by visitors to Egypt’s museums and archaeological sites, his strategy, which has been decried openly or behind closed doors as too mercantile, makes sense financially speaking.


Figure 2: Dr Zahi Hawass at Giza

Dr Hawass also used his iconic Stetson hat and Indiana Jonesque look for philanthropic purposes. While exiting the Toronto leg of the touring The Discovery of King Tut exhibit in 2009, I was stunned to see Zahi Hawass-style hats sold in the gift shop. The success of the initiative was such that a new series of hats have been produced recently, as this witty post from Dr Hawass’ website reveals:

“People ask me all the time, Why is your hat more famous than Indiana Jones’s hat? I always answer them that the Indiana Jones hat is a fake one, mine is the real Egyptologist’s hat!

Replicas of my hat were sold by a company before, and all the profits from selling the hat went into the construction of the Children’s Museum in Cairo. Now, King Tut Tours are making a new replica of the hat, the profits from its sale will go directly as donations for Al-Orman Cancer Hospital in Luxor, the first hospital for treating cancer patients in Upper Egypt.”

Sold 75 US $ each, the USA-made hats can be bought online via the website of King Tut Tours – a California-based travel agency specializing, as its name indicates, on Egypt. Dr Hawass’ fashion venture did not stop with his hat. Indeed, in the spring 2011, an article from The New York Times detailed how Dr Hawass had lent his name to a man’s wear brand that was scheduled to go on sale at Harrods’, in London:

“[A] line of rugged khakis, denim shirts and carefully worn leather jackets that are meant, according to the catalog copy, to hark “back to Egypt’s golden age of discovery in the early 20th century.”

“Zahi Hawass is a novel fashion line, not just for the traveling man, but the man who values self-discovery, historicism and adventure,” says the Web site for the company that designed the line.”

In this case too, the profits are said to have gone to charity[14]. According to James Weber, who shot the line’s glossy ad campaign, the photo shoot took place in the Fall 2010 on the NYC site of the King Tut exhibit. Weber published the ad’s pictures on his blog – including one featuring a young, white, Indiana Jones-looking male model seated on what looks like one of the gilded chairs that belong to the royal treasure of Tutankhamun. The translation of the blog’s content and its publication, along with the pictures, on several Egyptian websites, led to a wave of critics in Egypt. A group of activists and journalists also sought to have Dr Hawass prosecuted for “endangering Egyptian artifacts”. Dr Hawass refuted these accusations in a statement published on his blog, and stated that the chair was a replica[17]. This controversy happened shortly after the Egyptian Revolution, that is at a time when many of the high officials in position under Mubarak’s rule were under intense scrutiny, if not accused of abuse of power. The time also corresponds to the short period during which there was a relatively open freedom of press in the country. Given that, the negative reaction to Dr Hawass’ clothing line ad in Egypt might also be symptomatic of a local discomfort with, if not resistance to, Dr Hawass’ flamboyant strategy for the promotion and the financing of ancient Egypt’s heritage abroad. In mid-2011, that is a few months after the clothing line scandal, Zahi Hawass left the Ministry of Antiquities. He nevertheless remains very active as a public speaker and ambassador of Egypt’s ancient history, as his personal website and presence of most social media platforms show.

To come back to Zahi Hawass’ short-lived fashion venture: Who is the target audience for these clothes? The two passages from the catalogue quoted above are telling. The line is, it is said, meant to reference Egypt’s “golden age of discovery in the early 20th century”[18] and should therefore appeal to the “traveling man who values self-discovery, historicism and adventure” is. Who could such a man be?

What about those who, among the western archaeologists working in Egypt, have a particular taste for early 20th century, colonial-style attires, both on and off the field? You thought pith helmets – one of the most easily recognizable symbols of British colonial might – 1930s gaits, and Crocodile Dundee-esque outfits were a thing of the pre-Nasser past? Well, you’re wrong. Not only are such outfits still deemed acceptable by many western archaeologists, but some of them also willingly advertise their “vintage” tastes on social media. One such Instagram account, which is managed by an academic, transports us in the realm of The Great Gatsby meets The English Patient. The numerous hashtags added to the images’ captions include #archaeology, #history, #egyptology, #explorers, #explorersclub, and #indianajones. Less than a handful of Egyptian workers (three of whom are referred to as “our Egyptian family” in one instance) appear in the pictures; when they do, they are mentioned by name and appear to be members of the mission the main protagonists of the account are part of. Apart from a couple of early 20th-c. hotels (whose presence seems to result from the fact that they are remnants of a “glamorous past”[19]), no modern settlement is represented. What is shown of Egypt is reminiscent of the frontispiece of the Description de l’Égypte: A deserted landscape cut through by the Nile river and dotted with impressive Pharaonic monuments covered in hieroglyphics, ready to be “explored” by white “experts”, whose lavish and civilized lifestyle matches the long-gone sophistication of ancient Egypt’s mystical grandeur. In that regard, the Classical-style frieze (which shows an Apollo-looking, Muses-leading Napoléon driving the Mamluks out) surrounding the Description’s frontispiece’s rendition of Egypt serves as a powerful statement of the power relationship at stake: Egypt is defined by and for the male, European conquerer’s ability to penetrate, occupy, and, to paraphrase a now famous political slogan, “make her great again”.

DE Frontispice bordure

Figure 3: Frontispiece of the Description de l’Egypte

The erasure of post-642 AD Egypt and of the Egyptians themselves from the frontispiece of the Description de l’Égypte is a stunning Freudian slip, a powerful window into the enduring (sub)conscious relationship that links a large proportion of western scholars to Egypt. Let’s be real, here: In general, what matters to a substantial number of such scholars is only ancient Egypt and the ancient Egyptians. Accordingly, unless you’re an archaeologist, to specialize on aspects of ancient Egypt’s history and culture without ever having visited the country is not deemed a problem within the field. Based on my experience, the overall proportion of scholars specializing on Predynastic-to-early-Arab Egypt who also genuinely love and respect the country as it is today is relatively small. Instead, it is common to hear western scholars specializing on ancient Egypt complain about its contemporary state, including its population, which is described using the whole array of usual Orientalist topoi. I once had a world-renowned Coptic scholar confess to me that he didn’t like going to Egypt because of “the Egyptians”, while a senior white archaeologist who has been excavating there for decades told me that he “deeply hates the country and detests its people” (when I asked him why, then, he kept working in Egypt, he answered that it was “because this is where the work has to be done”). The subtext of such assessments seems to be that as far as Egypt is concerned, ancient=greatness and modern=backward. Therefore, ancient Egypt’s presumed greatness legitimizes the time and efforts western scholars dedicate to it, while encounters with its modern equivalent appear to be an optional-to-irritating distraction. This logic is similar to the one underlying Egypt’s touristic appeal among the “masses”. Finally, since we’re at it, shall we also talk about Arabic, which is still not commonly accepted as one of the main languages in the field? In that regard, the situation is comparable to other “colonized” languages within the broader field of ancient history and archaeology, such as modern Greek and Turkish. When the suggestion of adding modern Arabic to the official languages of the International Association of Papyrologist (IAP) – i.e. French, English, Italian, and German – was made by Usama Ali Gad, Rachel Mairs, and myself last summer at the IAP’s conference in Barcelona, one of the responses we got from a white scholar during the Q&A was: “I want to attend conferences where papers are in languages I understand”.

How can one be so passionate about the remote, highly abstract past of a place, yet not care the slightest about – or even, in some cases, despise – the diachronic trajectory of these environments and of the peoples that have, later on and to this very day, called it home? My intention is not to point fingers nor to judge individual colleagues here. Rather, I want to pose the question of the overarching sets of representations whereby such positionings have come to be deemed viable.

Such a zoomed-in, myopic image of Egypt belongs to a Eurocentric set of representations of colonized lands by colonial powers that is, alas, still very much kept alive both within and outside of academia. Take the case of the Explorers Club. On March 31 2017, the “Explorers Club Annual Dinner 2017 took place on Ellis Island. The Club, which was founded in the early 20th century, defines itself in these words:

“The Explorers Club is an international multidisciplinary professional society dedicated to the advancement of field research and the ideal that it is vital to preserve the instinct to explore. Since its inception in 1904, the Club has served as a meeting point and unifying force for explorers and scientists worldwide. Our headquarters is located […] in New York City. Founded in New York City in 1904, The Explorers Club promotes the scientific exploration of land, sea, air, and space by supporting research and education in the physical, natural and biological sciences. The Club’s members have been responsible for an illustrious series of famous firsts: First to the North Pole, first to the South Pole, first to the summit of Mount Everest, first to the deepest point in the ocean, first to the surface of the moon—all accomplished by our members.”

The Explorers Club is a colonial-era club that managed to remain in activity despite (or thanks to) the evolution of post-WWII geopolitics, and whose elitist nature is protected by a strict co-sponsorship policy[21]. More generally speaking, the idea of “exploration” is, in itself, a colonial construct, which stems from the idea whereby the world outside of white, European dominion remained to be “explored”, “conquered”, and “civilized” (or enframed, to paraphrase Timothy Mitchell[22]) by the superior rationality of white men. It is, as a matter of fact, an environment where Indiana Jones and Count Almásy would not have felt out of place. Unsurprisingly, Zahi Hawass was a distinguished guest of the club’s Northern California chapter in 2013[23].

The aesthetic and timing of the Instagram account mentioned above coincide with a recent interest for the history of tourism and archaeology in Egypt and the Near East. Yet while several recent publications[24] provide critical and politically-informed perspectives on various sets of primary evidences, including archival pictures, the account doesn’t offer any acknowledgement of the potential issues raised by the colonial nature of the outfits and social scenes it promotes. Wearing vintage clothes from the 1920s is certainly not a problem per se. But having white scholars appointed as faculty in western universities set up a photo shoot in Egypt, on the archaeological concession they direct, wear for that occasion a full-on Lord Carnarvon-style outfit, including pith helmets and genuine WWII-era gaiters, and complete the scene with a darker-skinned Egyptian worker dressed in a gallabeyah and positioned from behind is a problem (or if one thinks it isn’t, then a justification note would be more than in order). In the absence of any self-critical assessment from its author and actors, the account appears to be showcasing, in the name of academic and artistic self-promotion, insensitive, white-privileged gazes onto Egypt’s (and more generally, Near Eastern and Asian) ancient and modern history. The account’s curatorial anchoring resides in the realm of the Orientalist fantasy, far, far away from anything written since Edward Said, and in disjunction with the historical experience and sensibilities of most inhabitants of modern and contemporary Egypt.

This makes me think of Beyoncé. Despite all the narcissism that shows in the pop icon’s latest work, she has been able to brilliantly subvert artistic references and aesthetic codes traditionally associated with American whiteness (Secession war era fashion and architecture, Renaissance Art, Catholic iconography) in order to propose a complex, politically-engaged reflection on contemporary America, its history, and the plight of its Black communities. Whoever has watched Formation or Lemonade cannot not see that.

Bey plantation

Figure 4: Caption from Beyoncé’s Formation video

Zahi Hawass’ appropriation of Indiana Jones’ looks offers another example of a colonizer’s outfit being recuperated by a member of a historically colonized community for self-assertive purposes (in this case, the “self” can potentially be all at once Dr Hawass himself, Egypt’s heritage, and Egypt as a whole). To see, in contrast, white scholars trained in prestigious institutions display utter disregard for the complex, historical and sociological references their outfits, photographic work, and attitudes allude to is baffling. Or is it? What if such cases are symptomatic of more complex, pervasive issues within the fields of Egyptology, archaeology and ancient history?

It is too easy to mock the examples provided so far without questioning the mechanisms that allowed such public personae to fully manifest themselves in the first place. The AIA’s tribute to Harrison Ford, the long-lasting popularity of Zahi Hawass and the following of Indiana Jonesque pages on social media are testimonies to the ongoing popularity of and nostalgia for colonial imageries/memorabilia/fashion among large segments of western (especially North American in the cases mentioned here) populations. As written above, this phenomenon is not disconnected from more open forms of apology of colonialism and imperialism [25]. Moreover, the image of Egyptology and ancient Mediterranean history in general (Classics included) among the “general public” (whatever that means) is remains largely Orientalist. While scholars are very prone to laugh at the many clichés and stereotypes that shape the way ancient civilizations are portrayed in mass media and seen by non-specialists, we should not forget that these very stereotypes have been, for most of us, the starting point, the spark that ignited our passions, fueled our initial interest for Antiquity. They are also an important getaway to private funding, something which many archaeologists understand perfectly.

Addressing the issue of the colonial roots and structure of these disciplines is a scary can of worms because it poses the difficult question of their very legitimacy and raison d’être. If “the West” is not the solely the “heir” of “the Greeks and Romans”, then why should “Classical” history and literature be compulsory in high school? And why should the Greeks and the Romans matter more in western school curricula than ancient, Native American cultures and peoples, or than the Phoenicians, the Persians, or ancient China and India? If “the Egyptians” were not a “spiritual”, “mysterious”, and “millennial” civilization, then what’s the point in studying them, financing digs, and preserving Egypt’s Pharaonic heritage?

The past year has seen an increase in the hijacking of ancient history and the uncritical rerouting of the aesthetic codes associated with early 20th century archaeology by ideologically-minded individuals and groups. One can think of the selective and tendentious recuperation of Greek and Roman imagery by “alt”, i.e. extreme right, white supremacist groups; of the apology of western-style looting (including the defense of the British right to own the Elgin Marbles and the coverage of “findings” done in the UK by local “treasure hunters”); of religiously-motivated acquisitions of undocumented or poorly documented artifacts from Egypt and the Middle East; of death threats against Sarah Bond, who published a work on the coloring of ancient marble statues; of the surreal online bullying Mary Beard was subject to after she defended the documented reality of ancient Britain’s diversity. It is as irresponsible from scholars working on the ancient world to deflect the question of the decolonization of the field by appealing to a white-privileged nostalgia for the “good old days” as it is to contemptuously ridicule the proponents of such nostalgic discourses. In the era of Trump, Brexit, white supremacy, neo-fascism, and globalized forms of terrorisms, in an age, in other words, where the Humanities are at the most relevant yet most threatening crossroad they’ve faced in decades, we cannot afford to sweep our existential issues under the rug anymore. Lest we see the Indiana Jones franchise never come to an end, it is up to us, through a more widespread and enduring array of small-to-large scale initiatives, to decolonize Antiquity-related learning, teaching, and research, within and well beyond academia. Who’s in?

Katherine Blouin

[1] Works by Barbara Goff, Timothy Mitchell, Malcolm Reid, and Phiroze Vasunia are a great start.

[2] See, regarding Egypt, Stephen Quirke’s excellent Hidden Hands (2010).

[3] A few years ago, I attended a keynote speech by a world-renowned ancient historian. Two friends who are socio-cultural anthropologists came with me. I myself enjoyed the talk, and thought that it proposed an innovative argument. Yet my two friends both shared the same puzzling feeling: This conversation took place among anthropologists over 30 years ago, so why are ancient historians only jumping in now?

[4] “Any profits he makes, Mr. Hawass said, will go to the Children’s Cancer Hospital in Cairo, which offers free care to children with cancer. The director of the hospital, Dr. Sharif Abul Naga, confirmed that in an interview, although he said that there was not yet a written agreement. He said that Mr. Hawass had contacted him about the possible donation this month.”

[5] Neither the company’s website nor Zahi Hawass’ blog post responding to his critics are accessible anymore.

[6] This period might as well be called “the height of the British Empire” or “the time when Egypt was under British occupation”, but that would not sell as well, so fair enough.

[7] I’m referring to a quote from a high-profile archaeologist regarding “old legendary hotels” that appears in Johnson 2014, 133.

[8] Marilyn Johnson’s Lives in Ruins dedicates pp.130-133 to the Club (which she visited with long-time member Greek archaeologist Joan B. Connelly).

[9] See on the matter Timothy Mitchell’s seminal Colonising Egypt (1988).

[10] A “Grand celebration” in honour of Lawrence of Arabia and Lowell Thomas is also taking place at the NYC branch of the Club in September 2017 .

[11] See notably:; ; ; ; ; ; Malcom Reid’s two most recent monographs are also relevant here.

[12] Let’s just, also think of Boris Johnston’s, Nicolas Sarkozy’s and, more recently, Emmanuel Macron’s remarks regarding colonial and post-colonial subsaharian Africa.