Author: everydayorientalism

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

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

by Katherine Blouin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Girish Daswani

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


Aerial view of Marine Parade’s HDB flats

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


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

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

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

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


Poster for Singapore’s “Racial Harmony Day”

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

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

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


Indian coolies, Singapore, c.1900

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Aerial view of the Gardens by the Bay

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

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

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

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


Shop houses, Little India, Singapore

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


How to pimp your Classics & Ancient History syllabus: 10 back-to-school tips

How to pimp your Classics & Ancient History syllabus: 10 back-to-school tips

by Katherine Blouin

Over the summer, a Ph.D. student told me that she and her fellow graduate students in Classics here at the UofT would very much appreciate to get some tips on how they can better diversify and “decolonize” (and I use this term mindfully, being aware that it is not a metaphor) their teaching in a way that is all at once more reflective of the complexities of the ancient world, mindful of Classics’ and ancient history’s complicated and ongoing ties to imperialism, and engaging to our often (and in Toronto, incredibly) diverse student body. Since we’re all either in the midst of or about to start writing our Fall syllabi, I thought the time was ripe to put together a list of the 10 main cues I’ve been following these past years. In my experience, these can be applied in a variety of ways to both undergraduate and graduate courses at all levels. That being said, this is by no means meant to be a set list, and I am certainly aware that MUCH remains to be done, so please see this list as a start.  And should you have other tips to share, please do!

1. Diversify the voices featured in your syllabus

Are all the readings assigned in your syllabus written by white male scholars? From the anglo-saxon scholarly tradition? Who are senior? If the answer is yes, consider making your reading list more representative of the world around you (or, if you look around and only see white man, of the world beyond your bubble). Likewise, foster a critical approach to texts considered to be authoritative in the field. Some may say: That’s a great idea in theory, but the fact is, some fields are more “white”, “male”, and “Anglo-Saxons” than others. My answer to that would be: Really? Please try again. And for real, this time.

Image result for cat reading classics gif

2. Don’t fetishize narcissistic military leaders

I teach intro to Roman history and culture every year so I know this too well: It’s very hard when we teach a survey course to stray away from the chronological and geopolitical narrative path. Still, it’s not an excuse to spend the whole term focusing exclusively on a bunch of rich, in great part corrupt, and narcissistic ancient men who fought between each other, led civil wars, and committed genocides (yes, Julius Caesar, you did just that, and I’m looking at all of you too, politicians of the Late Republic!). First, let’s face it, it gets depressing, and heavy, after a while. Second, there is WAY more to the ancient world than that, and I’m sure you too hope that those students who study science and are about to take their first and only course of ancient history as an elective will end the term thinking the same.


So what I’ve been trying to do is to balance the mostly political narrative of my lectures with “case study” segments that feature “voices” or topics pertaining to other aspects of the ancient world. For instance, last year, I spent a bit more time discussing three foundational stories of early Rome that revolve around rape/abduction of female bodies and how they were interpreted by modern art: The rape of Rhea Silvia; the “rape” of the Sabines; the rape of Lucretia.


Image from the 1962 movie The Rape of the Sabines

Given the climate of the time (#MeToo), I found that it was both necessary and powerful to critically and mindfully (for we must also be aware that some of the most graphic and violent material we teach can me traumatic or painful for (some) students & adjust our teaching methods accordingly) discuss these myths more than I had in the past. Given the students’ responses both in and outside of class, it seems like it was a good idea pedagogically-speaking.

3. Don’t be a “Classical” literature monomaniac = diversify your pool of primary evidence

The ancient world was a multilingual (and multiscript) one. Unlike today, most people in Antiquity were illiterate. Just like today though, loads of them spoke more than one language, and they produced, read, or listened to all sorts of texts. Literary texts are thus only a small portion of what remains from Antiquity. Making a point to feature that diversity and complexity, be it in translation in the case of texts, does better justice to what the past was truly about than enclosing oneself in the old-school Greek and Latin lit. canon. Likewise, if teaching languages and literary material, be mindful of how representative of the full diversity of authors/genres/topics/periods your (or your department’s) curriculum is. Everyone loves their “Classics”, but there is fun to be had beyond the obvious as well (who doesn’t like to translate or discuss a sallacious monk story once in a while?). Be like Lonely Planet in the old days: Go off the beaten track.

4. Give voices – and due credits – to the “other”, the “conquered”, the “barbarians”, and the “enemies”

Ask yourself: Who do I present as the “Other” in my syllabus? Why? How? Can this be a problem for some students and colleagues? Similarly, who am I not teaching about? I’m still flabergasted by the fact that most of the new graduate students I’ve taught over the years have never been taught anything about the Persian Empire/world beyond the Helleno- (that is, essentially Atheno-) centric narrative. Likewise, I’ve taught groups of graduate students who had never been shown a Fayyum portrait, or who had no idea at all that the Carthaginians had a literature of their own (which is now, sadly, mostly lost; Google “Mago” just for fun).


Fayyum portrait, now at the ROM

It’s not the students’ fault, but that of the too-often myopic nature of many “Classics” programs. It’s a fact that our literary evidence on the Phoenicians, Persians, Carthaginians, Gauls, etc. is one-sided. But this is no legitimate reason to completely ignore all the other material that does come from outside of the traditional Greek and Latin canon. Likewise, if you teach a survey course on the “ancient world” and dedicate 2/3 of the term to the “Greco-Roman world” and the rest to everything spanning from Mesopotamia to early Islam, you might want to either balance your syllabus better or change the title and scope of your course altogether.

 5. Feature cases of cultural interactions and connectivity

“Greek”, “Roman”, “Greco-Roman”: From a cultural perspective, these words are often misnomers in that they don’t do justice to the fundamentally interconnected, diverse, and fluctuating socio-cultural fabric of the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern worlds. Peoples, goods, ideas have been moving since human beings exist and, accordingly, the “Greco-Roman” world owes a great, great deal to the peoples and cultures it interacted with over the course of its history. Ancient relationships to/constructs of “race”, “ethnicity”, and “identity” did exist, but in ways that ought to be defined and contextualized in the context of the time (Rebecca Futo Kennedy has put together a great list of pedagogical resources on those topics). This might seem like simple, obvious facts to many of us scholars, but given current attempts at reframing the “Classical” world as the root of white supremacy, there is still much education work to be done on that front.

Bonus tip: Try Anything that has to do with the Indian Ocean/Silk Route trade. It’s a guaranteed success.

6. Address the relationship between Classics/Ancient history & imperialism

Making students aware of the history of our disciplines and of their links to imperialism and (settler) colonialism can only benefit their critical investment in it, and their wider positionings in the world. Depending on the topic of the course and on its level/format, such discussions can take the shape of anything from a short segment to an entire class to a semester-long course.

Arthur Evans (left) and two members of his team in Knossos

7. Don’t normalize words like “barbarians”, “pagans”, “civilization“, “the West”, “the East”, “Fall” or “decline“. If you do use them, make a point to explain to students where they come from and what’s their ‘baggage’

Because, to paraphrase Justin Trudeau, it’s 2018.

8. Don’t assume that students all come to a topic with similar sets of general knowledge and from the same entry point

For instance, don’t teach as if everyone in the classroom comes from a Judaeo-Christian background and is fully aware of the connections and differences between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Cause I know from experience that they don’t. But it would be really handy if, thanks to you, they finally do. Likewise, don’t assume polytheism is less sophisticated or “evolved”. Or completely different from monotheism. Cause it’s not. At all. However, the Virgin breastfeeding Jesus IS a Christian version of Isis breastfeeding Horus. And that is some essential info to carry with oneself through life or to casually flash out at a cocktail party.

9. Love, and use, pop culture, reception, and the news

Don’t be a culture snob. Instead, use pop culture as a conversation opener in the classroom. Thus, whether you think Beyoncé is a narcissist is beyond the point: The way she and Jay-Z have recently been resorting to Pharaonic imagery and Greek sculptures at Coachella, in the Apeshit video, and on social media powerfully highlights how ancient and modern history are embedded.


Image from The Carters’ Apeshit video, with the Vénus de Milo in the brackground

And, as such, it is certainly worth a 10-min discussion at the start or at the end of class, whereby some historical records can also be set straight. Likewise, that vintage Pepsi ad set in a Roman coliseum that came out when most of your students’ entered JK is still a winner (yes, I’m an Associate Professor in Classics and a fan of Beyoncé all at once).


So are the news with their endless stream of Antiquity-related information: That petition for the Alexandrian “mummy juice” to be transformed into a beverage? Classroom gold.

10. Love public-facing scholarship too

I’m thinking podcasts, blog posts, magazine articles, Eidolon, and documentaries/videos. These offer accessible, timely complements to textbooks and traditional scholarly publications, and they often happen to be written/ feature a more diversified pool of scholars. Don’t deny yourself and your students this two-for-one pleasure.

Have fun!

Image result for ancient egyptian gif

Exhibiting Antiquity beyond the clichés: An ancient historian’s dos and don’ts

Exhibiting Antiquity beyond the clichés: An ancient historian’s dos and don’ts

By Katherine Blouin

As an ancient historian and, therefore, a kind of Antiquity nerd, I love to hang out in museums. Now as time goes by, I am increasingly self-aware of how I visit museum exhibitions. As it turns out, my visitor’s gaze is expanding. While the young me was in awe of the objects themselves, and prone to ingest whatever explanation panels there were with full trust in their “expert” nature – which I for instance did for 9-hours in a row the first time I visited the Louvre’s Egyptian collection in 1998; I mean how much more of an ancient Egypt-obsessed can you get? – the “mid-career” scholar I now am cannot help but feel like museum visits are work, and, as such, opportunities for critical reflections. More: Since I’ve become particularly interested in the relationship between imperialism and museums as institution of knowledge (re)production, I now find myself very much drawn to how exhibitions can shape visitors’ understanding of the past, and of its relationship to the present. This summer, I’ve had the chance to visit a few museums in Egypt, Greece, and Canada. I’ve found myself both exhilarated by some initiatives, and disappointed, if not annoyed by missed opportunities.

Since I couldn’t keep bottling up these thoughts any longer, I’ve made a little list of my main dos and don’ts, with examples from 4 museums: Athens’ Museum of Cycladic Art, Acropolis Museum, and Byzantine and Christian Museum, as well as Montréal’s Musée Pointe-à-Callière’s special exhibition Reines d’Égypte/Queens of Egypt (organized in collaboration with Turin’s Museo Egizio).


1. Address questions of provenance – including archaeological context and, when this applies, the implications of illegal excavations. This is a great way to make the general audience more aware of the ethical and political dimension of archaeology, the Antiquities market, and museums.

Arch. and illicit excavations

Panel from the Museum of Cycladic Art

2. Comment on the coloring of ancient human representations. In this particular day and age, to make such basic facts of ancient iconography known beyond academia is more crucial than ever. This is all more so the case that the inhabitants of the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern world had a profoundly different understanding of what skin colours meant (for instance, skin colour was commonly a gender marker in ancient Egyptian art, and thus had nothing to do with “race”), let alone of “ethnicity” (itself anachronistic a word). The Acropolis Museum has been doing great work on the colours of ancient statues, and this has led to several museographical displays in their main gallery (panels, replicas, online resources and even an online colouring game). It is forbidden to take pictures in the galleries, so I didn’t take any, but you are welcome to browse through their website. The topic is also addressed in the Museum of Cycladic Art.

Were figurines paintedPanel from the Museum of Cycladic Art

3. Acknowledge what we don’t know (for sure). I find it crucial to point out to my students how history and archaeology are fundamentally work-in-progress disciplines, and I think museums can also play a big role in making the general public aware of the importance of evidence-based (absence of) knowledge.

What do they represent.jpeg

Enigma of Keros

Panels from the Museum of Cycladic Art

4. Use digital technologies in a way that allows visitors to contextualize and visualize the “social life” of the artefacts they see. Displays of this type prove very efficient when it comes to highlighting the historical significance of ancient objects. I really enjoyed the animated projections and videos featured the Reines d’Égypte exhibit. These were conceived by Montréal’s Ubisoft, which is behind the video game series Assassin’s Creeds (itself a great example of how ancient history and archaeology can constructively enhance contemporary entertainment, and vice versa):

“A collaboration with Pointe-à-Callière Museum for this unique exhibition was natural for us. Like Assassin’s Creed Origins, Queens of Egypt proposes a highly immersive experience in the heart of Ancient Egypt. With the research data already collected for the game, we knew we had the content to accentuate the immersive experience of the visit. I think this partnership clearly demonstrates the many possibilities the medium of video games has to offer when applied to other spheres than entertainment,” declared M. Jean Guesdon, Creative Director of the Assassin’s Creed brand at Ubisoft Montréal. ” (from the exhibit’s website)

Capture d_écran 2018-07-30 à 11.53.26

Video shot conceived by Ubisoft for Reines d’Égypte (source: Musée Pointe-à-Callière)

Likewise, the Byzantine and Christian Museum’s temporary exhibition “Byzantium and the others in the first millennium: An Empire of stability in a turbulent era” featured compelling 3D video projections dedicated to the “past life” of a selection of artefacts (a short news clip available on the exhibition page shows these displays better).

Capture d_écran 2018-07-30 à 11.56.55

3D projection window from Athens’ Byzantine and Christian Museum

5. Acknowledge and discuss the relationships between colonialism, the acquisition of museum collections, and modern, “western” art.

Cycladic art and modernism

Panel from the Museum of Cycladic Art

6. Include a segment on reception. In other words, give visitors an opportunity to learn more about how the ancient world inspired modern art and politics. I wish I had seen inspiring displays/panels of this type seen this summer, but alas, it hasn’t been the case yet. However, should anyone at Pointe-à-Callière wish to add on be it only a tiny section on Egyptian queens in today’s pop culture, please drop me a line: I’ve got *many* ideas, including Katy Perry’s Black Horse, Kendrick Lamar and SZA’s  All the Stars and, of course, Beychella and Queen Bey + Jay Z’s recent, pharaonizing pics live from Berlin’s Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung!

7. Have a fun, funky gift shop, with nice, affordable replicas of ancient jewels, good-quality books, and some kitsch stuff. For, let’s face it, who doesn’t love a kitsch Rosetta stone memento in the office or a funky Moschophoros magnet on the fridge?


1. Miss the opportunity to make the public aware of what “unknown provenance” means by not saying anything about what such a label often means. This is all the more problematic when – as is the case with the Reines d’Égypte exhibition currently on in Montréal – most of the exhibited objects are of undocumented provenance.


2. Show archival pictures of excavations without addressing the particular geopolitical context in which these excavations took place nor the types of labor they showcase. Here too, Reines d’Égypte disappointed me a great deal. Towards the end of the exhibition, one finds 3 large archival pictures. While they could (and I dare say, should) have provided an opportunity to briefly contextualize the Italian excavations from which most of the artefacts came from and highlight the nature of labour relationships on Egyptian (and most other) digs at the time, including child labor, these important features of the history of the Museo Egizio’s collection are completely ignored. The result is, sadly, an Orientalist photographic display where Egyptian workers appear as “exotic”, anonymous bodies to be either put to work (by Schiaparelli, the Italian excavator in charge of the pictured fieldwork) or gazed at (by the visitors).


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Large size archival pictures (incl. 2 captions and 1 detail from a larger picture) exhibited toward the end of Reines d’Égypte

3. Systematically call early digs “excavations” when led by European or North American scholars and “looting/illegal digging” when performed by locals. This dichotomic conception of archeology is not only reductive and racist; it also completely ignores the deeply connected, and complicated, relationships between local and foreign interests, scholars/experts, as well as consumers and dealers of Antiquities (just watch the pictures above again and notice who is seen doing the physical work of digging, and for whom).


4. Exhibit/Discuss the finding of human bodies without addressing the ethical questions that increasingly stem from these practices and the methodological challenges faced by scholars who excavate/study this type of remains. These questions do pertain to a variety of important and interesting issues, from local beliefs regarding the afterlife of deceased bodies/individuals to dilemmas on their study, exhibition and ownership, to claims for repatriation. These are  highly debated topics among a growing number of scholars and local (notably aboriginal) communities. For this very reason, and also out of respect for the ancient individuals displayed and the communities they (are believed to) come from, museums have, in my view, an ethical duty of respect and self-awareness.


Archival picture from Reines d’Égypte: “Prince Khaemwaset’s tomb upon its discovery”. Neither the caption nor the surrounding exhibit of mummy cases from that cache address the ethical questions posed in #4

5. Be cheap on the info panels. If I, as an ancient historian, feel lost looking at a whole lineup of artefacts and works of art that only come with super brief captions and no context, can non-specialists possibly feel?



6. Confine exhibitions to a lineup of clichés for the sake of appealling to the “general public”. While I perfectly understand that museums need to fund themselves and thus attract visitors, I also believe the “general public” appreciates/benefits from being brought beyond of the usual, highly problematic “eternal Egypt” or “Greece craddle of democracy” tropes. So please please please, let’s all stop reproducing the age-old stereotypes regarding the erotic, mysterious, violent Orient or the civilized, democratic, sophisticated Greco-Roman world, let’s all stop focusing (quasi)-exclusively on the rich and famous, let’s stop saturating the soundscape with new age or Lawrence-of-Arabia-style music.


Don’t underestimate your audience.

Be bold. Be honest. Be humble. Be up-to-date. Be fun. Be relevant.

Let me now end this post with Charles Bigeast‘s ancient Greece-inspired gif entitled “Caryatide”. Cause, why not?


“Social status of women is changing in Islam”: My conversation with a 1955 issue of LIFE magazine

“Social status of women is changing in Islam”: My conversation with a 1955 issue of LIFE magazine

by Katherine Blouin

cover image: “A woman reading a magazine in the 1950s

The 1955 special issue of LIFE magazine dedicated to Islam includes a section entitled “CUSTOMS Social status of women is changing in Islam”. I recently had the pleasure of having a one-way conversation with the anonymously-written text, and I thought you, dear readers, might enjoy the ride. Here it goes:

LIFE: As Islam spread around the globe, the customs of conquered or converted people became entwined in the social fabric with practices laid down in the Koran. A notable instance is found in attitudes towards women of the Moslem world.

KB: Feel free to replace “Islam”/”Moslem” by any other religious term and “Koran” by any relevant sacred book/writing/foundational story and you’d have pretty much the same sentence. Check this out: “As Christianity spread around the globe, the customs of conquered or converted people became entwined in the social fabric with practices laid down in the Bible. A notable instance is found in attitudes towards women of the Christian world.” Makes sense, doens’t it?

Life May 1955 Cover

LIFE‘s May 9, 1955 cover

LIFE: A notable instance is found in the attitudes towards women of the Moslem world.

KB: You just said that. But since you insist: You mean your attitudes? As in you being the 1955 ghost-writer who is most probably white and male, as most of the staff listed in the first pages of the issue seems to be? Or those of your fellow Americans towards muslim women? No? Ah: You mean the attitudes of “muslim men” then (but which ones exactly?)!

LIFE: For many centuries and in many lands they were kept in seclusion and shrouded in heavy veils outside their homes.

KB: For a second I thought you had digressed and were talking about wealthy Athenian women from the time of Pericles. Sorry about that. Go on.

LIFE: Today, however, ancient practices are vanishing from Islam.

KB: Really? Like what? Reading the Quran? The Hajj? The Ramadan? Practicing charity towards the poor?

LIFE: The veil had disappeared almost entirely in Turkey, and to a great extent in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, and Palestine.

KB: THE veil disappeared? Which one? And where did it go? Did someone search for it? Sounds like you’re summing up the part of Flaubert’s Salammbô where Mathô and Spendius steal the Veil of Carthage’s tutelary goddess Tanit. Joke aside, it’s cliché yet interesting to see that by “ancient practices” that are “vanishing” you mean “the female veil”.  Can you expand on how you think this phenomenon fits within the broader, post-WWII geopolitical context of your time?

LIFE: It still persists in parts of Arabia, North Africa and, notably, in Pakistan, which remains among the most conservative of all Moslem nations in its attitude toward women. Half of urban Pakistani women – a small minority of the total population – are still in purdah (Persian for curtain or veil).

Life May 1955 Cover_Page_80

Life May 1955 Page 81

May 1955 LIFE, p.80-81 (= the whole section on the “social status of women”)

KB: Nice try at cleverly not answering my question. Now if I follow your reasoning, the veil has “disappeared almost entirely” from several countries, but remains in others, including Pakistan, which stands out as the “most conservative” country women-wise. Is it because Pakistan stands out by its conservatism that the editors of the magazine have decided to literally surround your text with three pictures of veiled Pakistani women, two of which featuring women wearing the purdah?

LIFE: Yet in some Moslem countries, including Pakistan, higher education is now open to them and a growing number have the right to vote.

KB: First, you need to stop with the “muslim country” thing. Cause most of them include a diversity of religious communities. You should know this. So stop pretending like you don’t. Second, may I ask whether you could expand on who “them” women are as far as socio-economic circumstances are concerned? Third, some handy facts: Pakistani women were officially granted the suffrage in 1947, that is the first year of the country’s independance from the British. Turkish women got it way earlier: In 1935, that is 6 years after that right was granted to American women (in some cases in theory only, since, to give an example you might well know already, many African-American women – as well as men – were not able to actually vote until way later) and 5 years before women in my native Québec could vote. As for the other countries where muslim communities exist, they allowed women to vote pretty much right after the departure of the colonial power that had been ruling ruling and occupying them. So I would like to suggest that the key word here is not so much Islam as decolonization.

LIFE: Though by Western standards some of the mores of Islam seem backward…

KB: You mean “backward” like the segregation you are enforcing in your country right now? And like lynching? I know what you think. I could have waited in order not to interrupt you, but I couldn’t help it. Go on.


“A Vespa advertisement from 1950 showing the Cairo Citadel”

LIFE: …Mohammed radically advanced the status of women.

KB: Wow: You are finally saying something positive. Though the first clause of your sentence kind of cancels your attempt at praising the Prophet.

LIFE: Condemning the practice of killing baby daughters…

KB:which ancient Greeks did indirectly through child exposure? I mean we even have a papyrus letter from Egypt in which a guy literally instructs his sister to “cast out” her baby if it’s a girl. I know: I’ve interrupted you again!

LIFE: Mohammed taught that girls as well as boys were gifts of God. As against the unlimited polygamy of the Bedouin, he preached, “Of women who seem good in your eyes, marry two, or three, or four; and if ye still fear ye shall not act equitably, then only one.” For economic reasons the vast majority of Moslems now have only one wife – or at most two.

KB: Wow: You actually did some research, did you? I’m almost impressed. What about Mohammed’s first wife – and former boss – Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, a savy businesswoman about fifteen years his senior who was substantially wealthier than him?

LIFE: In some regions individual customs have resisted the law of Koran. In Malaya, for example, the ancient traditions of a matriarchal society have preserved the independence of women. Elsewhere many of the rigorous restrictions on women derive not from the Koran but from later interpreters of Moslem law.

KB: You’re referring here to British Malaya, which included the Malaysian peninsula as well as Singapore, and which gained independence in 1957. I don’t know why but that makes me think of my mom’s upbringing in late 1950s, super-catholic Québec. She’s 1-year old right now (in 1955, that is), and she will soon have to deal with a whole set of conservative doctrine being shoved down her throat by the priests at church, and the nuns in school. And this is nothing new. As her mom often said regarding her own upbringing: “All the clergy did was to scare the shit out of us with a bunch of lies that, being children, we believed”. And let’s not even talk about the residential schools for indigenous children, which are in full-fledge activity in your days. Talk of “rigorous restrictions”.

LIFE: Everywhere in Islam today women are rebelling against the social fetters that warped their lives.

KB: I assume that what you call “social fetters” includes European colonial powers? And the American attempts at taking the lead over from them whenever and wherever they can?

LIFE: And among liberal Moslems it is widely recognized that the retardation of women is a prime reason for the long stagnancy of Islamic life.

KB: Whaaaat? Stop here, please. Can you define all these pompous tags you’re using: “liberal Moslems”, “retardation of women”, “long stagnancy of Islamic life”? I sense a very reductive positioning in what you’re saying here. If I understand correctly, you are arguing that “liberal”, that is “westernized” muslims consider that muslim women are “retarded” compared to “western” ones, and that this is why Islamic life is stagnating. I have so many questions I don’t even know where to start: Who are the “liberal muslims” referred to here exactly? What female voices have you properly listened to and processed in order to come up with such a grand statement? What evidence do we have for an actual “long stagnancy of Islamic life” compared to other types of lives (if all of these bogus categories even mean something, which I doubt they actually do beyond testifying to our tendency to box human experiences in simplistic, and thus fundamentally flawed, categories)? I’ll tell you: We have none. n.o.n.e. Why? Because there is no such a thing as an “Islamic life”, let alone one that “stagnates” (human history is the very antithesis of stagnation). And are you actually saying that the situation of women, all women in 1955 USA, is so amazing that you are a beacon of gender equality? Like haven’t you seen Mad Men? Oh. Right. You haven’t. CAUSE YOU LIVE IN THE TIME OF MAD MEN. Image result for Huda Sha’rawi

LIFE: Some other Moslem customs, acquired and prescribed, are shown on the next two pages.

KB: Nice deflection. I’ll read these two pages and come back to you shortly. In the meantime, I urge you to get some info on Muslim feminist pioneers (start with Huda Sha’rawi, whose pic is to the right), and to read Simone de Beauvoir’s Le deuxième sexe. It was published in 1949, so you can find it now. Oh, and since we’re at it, get Frantz Fanon’s 1952 Black Skin, White Mask. It’s not about women per se, but it is still definitely worth a read and will be so for decades to come. And please try to stay alive until 1978. That way you can read Edward Said’s Orientalism. You won’t regret it, I promise.

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

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

By Leilah Elmokadem

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

Hart 1867 cover

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

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

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

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

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

Capture d_écran 2018-06-12 à 15.48.18

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Leilah Elmokadem just graduated from UTSC

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Katherine Blouin

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

Life May 1955 Cover

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

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

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

So let’s get started, shall we?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Raiza other pic

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

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


Kim Kardashian in Vogue India, March 2018

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

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

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

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

IMG_1174IMG_1175Life May 1955 Cover

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

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

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

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

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

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