Orientalist Shit People Say – Part 2

Orientalist Shit People Say – Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

-Minhaz Merchant, The New Clash of Civilizations, Introduction

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

-Disney’s Aladdin, “Arabian Nights” song

“What type of Islam to you promote ?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Nicolai von Bismarck, on his time in Ethiopia

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

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

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

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

Classical Studies’ glass ceiling is white

Classical Studies’ glass ceiling is white

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine Blouin


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

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

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

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

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

Orientalist Shit People Say – Part 1


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

Sister : You bet. They’re so lazy!

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


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

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


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

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


I wanna walk where Jesus walked.

– Kim Kardashian on the balcony of her Jerusalem hotel


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

– A  waiter


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

– A University Professor who works on ancient Egypt


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

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


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

– A European scholar who lives in Cairo


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

– A senior, European academic who works on ancient Egypt


Do they have cows in Egypt ?

– A Ph.D. student in Classics


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nous savons
que nous ne sommes pas seuls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine Blouin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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