Orientalism, the Classics, and Egypt II workshop: Program and abstracts

Orientalism, the Classics, and Egypt II workshop: Program and abstracts

Image: The Griffith Institute

Please join us in Cairo on April 10 at the Cairo branch of the EES for what promises to be a fun and stimulating workshop. A description of the event’s theme can be found here and you can rsvp here. Should you have any question, feel free to email us.

Katherine Blouin, Usama Ali Gad, and Rachel Mairs


Morning session (chair: Rachel Mairs, University of Reading, UK)

9:30-10:00     Arrival and Welcome note by Essam Nagy, EES)

10:00 – 11:00 Myrto Malouta (Ionian University, Greece): The materiality of papyri and the decolonization of papyrology 

11:00 – 11:30 Coffee break

11:30 – 12:30 Heba Hesham Abdel Gawad (Durham University, UK): Even when the Dean spoke no one listened! The muted 19th century Egyptian reflections on current classical failures

12:30 – 14:00 Lunch

Afternoon session (Chair: Katherine Blouin, University of Toronto, Canada)

14:00 – 15:00 Usama Ali Gad (Ain Shams University, Egypt): Classics, colonialism and the digital age: A view from contemporary Egypt

15:00 – 15:30 Coffee break

15:30 – 16:30 Open discussion and concluding remarks


Myrto Malouta: The materiality of papyri and the decolonization of papyrology 

The archaeological practices of the late 19th and early 20th century that led the search for papyri and the formation of the great collections of Europe and North America were majorly abetted by the treatment of papyri primarily as texts, rather than material objects. This approach also allowed papyrology to remain outside the scope of ensuing criticism regarding the orientalist principles and colonial ideology driving those practices. Historically, the emphasis on textuality was the result of the fact that in the early days of papyrology the interest of scholars was focused almost exclusively on literary texts. Interest in the history of Greco-Roman and early Islamic Egypt and the late acceptance of documentary papyri as mainstream sources for Roman history has brought about a change in this mentality, while the obvious importance of the context in which these sources were created has restored to papyri their dual quality as texts and objects. Acceptance of this fact leads to three parallel necessities: first of all the need to deal with every fragment as part of the material culture in which it was created; secondly the designation of our obligations as historians or textual scholars in dealing with fragments of disputed provenance; and thirdly the inclusion of papyri and papyrology in the discussion pertaining to the decolonization of the study of antiquity.

Heba Hesham Abdel Gawad: Even when the Dean spoke no one listened! The muted 19th century Egyptian reflections on current classical failures

Since 1920s, Taha Hussein, the dean of Arabic literature, has been actively raising the very same concerns that brought us here today. He even then criticised the characteristic disengagement of scholarly approaches to Egypt’s history from wider theoretical advances. He also argued against the singularity of pharaonic Egypt and called for an end to the excessive reliance on ancient written texts at the expense of material culture in understanding Egypt’s past. Yet, for a whole century no one at home or abroad has been listening. In this paper, based on research for the Artefacts of Excavations project, I seek to amplify Hussein’s voice, increase his visibility, and cast light on the validity of his arguments for this present moment in the hope that this time someone is listening.


Usama Ali Gad: Classics, colonialism and the digital age: A view from contemporary Egypt

In this paper, I will argue that while the digital age gave us in the field of Classics the tool to reach out a global audience, we are challenged by the fact that many of our print publications are still addressed to a European/Western audience (in English, French, Italian and German). The digital age provides us however with an unprecedented chance of opining up Classics to population and societies beyond Europe and/or the West. The Arab population of my home country and of the whole Arab world deserves a particular attention in the present moment in history. They need to be included, not to be excluded from our audience. They too need to know their debts to the Greeks and Romans. From my point of view, to achieve this goal in an international level, classicists should recognize the modern Arabic scholarship in the field, the Arab classicists who made these contributions and the medium by which these contributions has been communicated to the audience in this region i.e. Arabic. Classics should go beyond the grand narrative of the classical heritage as being exclusively European or Western in order that the modern Arabic/Islamic societies recognize the classical art and architecture not as foreign or European but as part of their own cultural heritage and modern identity. This talk builds upon and further develops the ideas expressed in my talk in the conference „Altertumswissenschaft in a Digital Age: Egyptology, Papyrology” held on the 5th of November 2015 in Leipzig (Germany). In this conference, my talk, which was part of Research Area 4: How to Impact Society? Citizen Science and Public Engagement, was focused only on the textual heritage and the case of papyri and papyrology in Egypt.  A first draft of this paper is published digitally in the proceeding of the conference, edited by Berti, Monica and Franziska Naether, and to be consulted through this URL: http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:bsz:15-qucosa-201593 .


Teaching the Intersection Between Classics, Anthropology, and Colonialism

Teaching the Intersection Between Classics, Anthropology, and Colonialism

By Katherine Blouin and Girish Daswani

It is no scoop for anyone that many academic disciplines were born in Europe during the Age of Empires. It is certainly the case of Classics and other Antiquity-related specialities. It is, also, the case of Anthropology. While the degree to which these disciplines have decolonized themselves varies greatly, they sometimes do so in relative isolation from each other, and the critical examination of the colonial baggage they carry – a reality which has deep implications in the ways knowledge is constructed and academia (re)produces itself – is still very unevenly integrated within undergraduate and graduate curricula. How can we further such conversations better in the classroom? And how can we do so in a way that fosters a constructive degree of transdisciplinary learning and reflection?

It is with these questions in mind that we have created a co-taught undergraduate course entitled “Constructing the Other: Orientalism through Time and Place”. The course is offered at the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC), where it is listed under three program codes: Anthropology (ANT), Classics (CLA), and History (HIS) and aimed for 3rd-year undergraduates. Enrollments are capped so that 50% of the group is from ANT, and the remaining 50% from CLA and HIS combined. It is a truly co-taught course, meaning that weekly readings include a balanced selection of CLA/HIS and ANT-related works, and that we actively prepare and teach each class together. We’re already halfway through term, and are enjoying our experience with our c.50 students tremendously. We hope to be able to reflect on the overall experience at the end of term, but in the meantime, online and offline conversations with colleagues and peers who share the same pedagogical preoccupations as us made us think that it would be a good idea to share our syllabus sooner than later (we’ve also included some extra readings we really like but weren’t able to include in this year’s version of the course). So feel free to browse through it, and to pump any of the readings we’ve put in there!

Course description

The concept of Orientalism was developed by the literary scholar Edward Said who, in his seminal work Orientalism (1978), defined it as “the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient – dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism [is] a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient”. Starting from a careful reading of Said’s work and of the scholarly and popular responses it led to, this seminar will reflect on the many ways in which Orientalism has shaped the fields of Classical Studies and Anthropology.

Course objectives

At the end of the semester, each student should be able to:

  1. Define the concept of Orientalism
  2. Critically engage with Edward Said’s monograph Orientalism
  3. Summarize the role played by Orientalism and imperialism in the development of Classical Studies and Anthropology
  4. Identify the different types of historical and ethnographic evidence related to ancient and modern Orientalism
  5. Explain the potential and limits of these evidence
  6. Understand the issues related to the ethnocentric nature of Orientalist evidence
  7. Analyze historical documents and contemporary ethnographic evidence in a critical and problem-solving oriented way.
  8. Position oneself in a critical way with regard to Orientalist historiography and ethnography
  9. Demonstrate good writing skills
  10. Demonstrate good oral expression skills

Weekly calendar

Week 1 – Course presentation

Related imageWeek 2 – Edward Said’s Orientalism Part 1

– Said, E. 1978. Orientalism. Vintage, Part 1, p. 1-110.

Week 3 – Edward Said’s Orientalism Part 2

– Said, E. 1978. Orientalism. Vintage, p. 201- 328.

Week 4  – The Age of Empires: Understanding ‘Us’ and the ‘Other’

Image result for the Classics and Colonial India– Vasunia, P 2013. The Classics and Colonial India. Oxford University Press, ch. 5.

Image result for civilizing Women: British Crusades in Colonial Sudan– Boddy, J. 2007. Civilizing Women: British Crusades in Colonial Sudan. Princeton University Press, ch. 3.

– Fabian, J. 2014 [1983]. Time and The Other: How Anthropology Makes The Other. Columbia University Press, ch.1, p. 25-35.

– McDougall, J. 2018. “The History of Empire isn’t about Pride – or Guilt”. The Guardian. January 3rd.

– Saha, J. 2018. “Safe Space for Colonial Apologists“, Colonizing Animals Blog, January 4th

Week 5   – (Post)-Colonialism’s Durability

– Blouin, K. 2017. “Classical Studies Glass Ceiling is White“, Everyday Orientalism Blog.

– Daswani, G. 2018. “Same but not the Same: White Fantasies and (In-)Difference the Age of Trump“, Everyday Orientalism Blog.

Image result for Duress: Imperial Durabilities In Our TimesImage result for he Past is a Foreign Country– Lowenthal, D. 2015. The Past is a Foreign Country – Revisited. Cambridge University Press, ch.8.

– Stoler, A. L. 2016. Duress: Imperial Durabilities In Our Times. Duke University Press, ch. 1.



Week 6 – Lost in Translation: Tourists, Guides, and the Land in Between

Bruner, E. M. 2004. Culture on Tour: Ethnographies of Travel. Chicago University Press, ch. 3 and 6.Image result for Culture on Tour: Ethnographies of Travel

Image result for Archaeologists, Tourists, Interpreters. Exploring Egypt and the Near East in the Late 19th-Early 20th Centuries

– Mairs, R. and M. Muratov 2015. Archaeologists, Tourists, Interpreters. Exploring Egypt and the Near East in the Late 19th-Early 20th Centuries. Bloomsbury, ch.2 and 4.

Week 7 – Reading week – no class



Week 8 – The Politics of Heritage I: The Case of Jerusalem’s City of David

***Guest lecture by Prof. Alejandro Paz

– Abu El-Haj’s, N. 2001. Facts on the Ground. Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society. University of Chicago Press, ch. 2 and 4.

Image result for Facts on the Ground. Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society-Paz, A. unpublished. ” Settling History in Silwan: State Emblems and Public Secrets in Occupied East Jerusalem”.

-Robinson, E. and E. Smith 1841. Biblical Research in Palestine, Mount Sinai and Arabia Petrae. John Murray, preface.

Week 9  – The Politics of Heritage II: The Case of EgyptImage result for Colonising Egypt

– Mitchell, T. 1988. Colonising Egypt. University of California Press, ch.1.Image result for Rule of Experts. Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity

– Mitchell, T. 2002. Rule of Experts. Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity. University of California Press, ch.6.


Week 10 – Museum visit (see below, ‘Evaluations’)


Week 11 – Environmental Orientalism

– Davis, D. 2007. Resurrecting the Granary of Rome. Environmental History and French Colonial Expansion in North Africa. Ohio University Press, ch.2.

Image result for Resurrecting the Granary of Rome. Environmental History and French Colonial Expansion in North Africa

Image result for The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics

– Li, T. 2007. The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics. Duke University Press, ch.4.

– Sawyer, S. and A. Agrawal 2000. “Environmental Orientalisms”, Cultural Critique 45, 71-108.

Week 12 – The religious ‘Other’

– Kumar, D. 2012. Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire. Haymarket Books, ch.2 and 3.

Image result for Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire– Melchiorri, V. 2016. “Child Cremation Sanctuaries (“Tophets”) and Early Phoenician Colonisation: Markers of Identity?”, in G.-J. Burgers – L. Donnelan – V. Nizzo (eds.), Contextualising Early Colonisation, articolo 13.10.

– Quinn, J. P. Xella, V. Melchiorri and P. van Dommelen 2013, “Phoenician Bones of Contention“, Antiquity 2013, 1199-1207.

– Primary text: Polybius, History book I, 65-72.

– Novel: Flaubert’s Salammbô, ch.3 (‘Salammbo’).

Week 13 – Orientalizing the Native

– Mackey, E. 2016. Unsettled Expectations : Uncertainty, Land and Settler Decolonization. Fernwood Publishing, ch.2.Image result for Unsettled Expectations : Uncertainty, Land and Settler Decolonization

– Mitchell, T. 2002. Rule of Experts. Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity. University of California Press, ch.4.

Image result for Indigenous Visions: Rediscovering the World of Franz Boas– Simpson, A. forthcoming. “Why White People Love Franz Boas or, The Grammar of Indigenous Dispossession”, Ned B. and I. Wilner, eds. Indigenous Visions: Rediscovering the World of Franz Boas.   Yale University press.


Here are other books we like but couldn’t fit in this time around (we’ve also subsequently added titles by Todorov and Clifford that were suggested by readers of this post; many thanks to them!). This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive list, and we’ve decided to be funky and put the cover pics in no particular order:

Image result for Talal Asad anthropology colonialismImage result for classics and colonialism

Image result for hanink the greek debtImage result for their secret language goffImage result for imagining xerxes

Image result for crossroads in black aegeanImage result for Indian given racial geographiesImage result for Whose Pharaohs? Archaeology, Museums, and Egyptian National Identity from Napoleon to World War I.Related imageImage result for the intimacies of four continents

Image result for culture and imperialismImage result for Ivan Kalmar early orientalismImage result for classics and national culturesImage result for pierre briant alexandre le grand exégèseImage result for Cultural Responses to the Persian Wars: Antiquity to the Third MillenniumImage result for classics fascist italyImage result for edward said adel iskandarImage result for From Khartoum to Jerusalem: The Dragoman Solomon Negima and His Clients (1885–1933)Image result for Quirke hands petrie

Image result for silencing the pastImage result for writing cultureImage result for The Empire of Love

Image result for in an antique landImage result for frantz fanon masque blancImage result for phiroze vasunia

Image result for Classics on Screen. Ancient Greece and Rome on FilmImage result for victorian anthropology

Image result for todorov the conquest of AmericaImage result for todorov fear of barbariansImage result for the nation and its ruins

Image result for james clifford RoutesImage result for the creation of modern athens



1. Participation and attendance 15%

We will conduct the course as a weekly seminar. Everyone’s preparation and participation is expected. All students are required to have closely read the assigned texts before the respective sessions and to be prepared to engage in class discussion. Please remember that effective participation also requires good listening skills.

2. Discussant’s team presentation 15%

Each week, a group of students will have the opportunity to lead the seminar discussions. This presentation is not simply about summarizing the readings. You should (1) situate the assigned readings within the broader theme of the seminar, (2) comment on the different ways in which the author(s) of the weekly readings conceptualize their data or abstracts from them, (3) integrate some of your colleagues’ reading responses into your presentation and end by posting two or three questions for the seminar discussion. This presentation should take no more than 25 minutes.


Week 6 discussants’ questions

3. Reading responses 30 % (6 X5%)

Students are required to post 6 short, critical reflections on the readings on Blackboard. Your response may take the form of questions, reflections, or responses to other students’ postings. The postings should be no longer than one page, single-spaced. You are strongly encouraged to read your colleagues’ postings before class.

4. Exhibition critical review 15%

Students shall prepare and submit a critical review of their visit to one of the following three exhibitions:

1. Aga Khan Museum, “Listening to Art, Seeing Music

2 and 3. Royal Ontario Museum: Either the “Daphne Cockwell Gallery of Canada: First Peoples” (permanent exhibition on level 1, ) or “Vikings – The Exhibition“.

Students shall write a 5-to-6 page (double-spaced, excluding bibliography) critical review of the exhibition as a whole from the perspective of the courses’ discussions on Orientalism and colonialism. They should also provide a critical analysis of the representations, aims, and limits of such an exhibition, and refer to at least 2 of the class readings.

5. Term essay 25%

Each student shall write a coherent 12 to 15-page essay based on a close analysis of the chosen primary evidence as well as on a review of the relevant historiography/ethnography. In addition to the edition of the chosen sources, each student shall use a bibliography of relevant titles.

Civilization: What’s up with that?

Civilization: What’s up with that?

by Katherine Blouin

“Civilized values”. Between quotation marks. Mary Beard’s use of this expression in a now infamous tweet about the Oxfam Haiti scandal has led to a torrent of criticisms, which have been best articulated in a response by her Cambridge colleague Priyamvada Gopal.

Whether historians like it or not, the thing is, just like the “history is a plant” model, “civilization” – especially when paired with “ancient”, “Greek”, “Roman”, and “Western” – remains an enrollment-bait in education settings. I’ve already written about the use of this term in Ontario’s high school curriculum. The same trend persists in numerous post-secondary institutions, notably in ancient history. How many Antiquity-related undergraduate programs still offer courses whose titles contain the word “civilization”? How many use it in their program description? And how many recent textbooks still include it in their title?

Beard’s use of the word “civilized” – a very loaded one – is all the more puzzling that she is, precisely, a historian and a teacher (one whose BBC documentaries I have on more than one occasion gladly showcased in my classrooms). Or is it that puzzling? While the colonial undertone of this word is unmistakable for many – including Beard herself, as her use of quotation marks implies -, its appeal to wider audiences is far from dying. For “civilization”, whether singular or plural, western or clashing, sells, both within and beyond classrooms.

How many of us have played the 1991 computer and video game (Sid Meier’s) Civilization, which is now in its sixth version? Three years before the release of Civilization, a brand new museum was inaugurated in my native Québec city. The museum was designed by the famous Canadian architect Moshe Safdie (who also conceived, among many other buildings, Montréal’s Habitat 67, as well as Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial). Québec’s museum includes two monumental staircases overlooking the Fleuve Saint-Laurent (aka Saint Lawrence river), and is both symbolically and literally embedded in the old part of the city (previous buildings Banque de Paris and Maison Estèbe were integrated in the museum’s structure), which was once the capital of Nouvelle-France. Its name? The Musée de la Civilisation, which translates literally as Museum of the civilization.

Image result for musée de la civilisation québec

A similar “civilization” museum also existed at the national, Canadian level. Indeed, from 1986 to 2012, the year Stephen Harper’s government decided to give it the more nationalist-oriented name of Museum of Canadian History, Gatineau-Ottawa’s main museum was called the Canadian Museum of Civilization (singular too).

Closer to us, on March 1st, 2018, the BBC will air a new version of a landmark art series called, guess what? Civilization! The original series, which aired in 1969, drew criticisms for its Eurocentric content. Civilization, its detractors then claimed, was the prerogative of “the West”, a blanket term conveniently used to refer to formally colonial powers and European settler countries in North America and Oceania.

Image result for BBC civilization 1969

This time around, the BBC has teamed up with the American public broadcaster PBS. The series’ title has been pluralized (Civilizations instead of Civilization), and in place of Lord Kenneth Clarke, the original host, we will be guided by a more diversified trio, who will cover a broader chronological and geographical spectrum (6 continents) of human history: Simon Shama, David Olugosa, and…wait for it…Mary Beard!

That Beard is very much aware of the loaded nature of the word “civilization” is made clear in a quote found on the BBC website dedicated to the show:

It has been a really exciting (and, I confess, humbling) experience to work as part of the Civilisations team. I hope that people will be dazzled by the wonderful works of art we have been able to show; but even more I hope that the programmes will prompt all kinds of discussions and debates about what we now think ‘civilisation’ is… and our stake in the very idea of it.

So what’s “our” stake in the very idea of it, exactly?

When a word bugs me, I generally tend to look at its etymology and history. Which language does it originally come from? When, and in what context did it appear? Let’s see what the etymologies of “civilized” and “civilization” tell us. For words we use are a bit like people we have relationships with: They all come with some baggage.

First things first, while both terms are based on the Latin civilis (“civil”), from the noun civis (“citizen”), neither of them existed in Antiquity. They are, in fact, creations of 16th-to-18th-century France. Sans blague!

Part 1: Civilized men live in temperate places, eat bread, and drink wine

The earliest attestation of “civilisé” is found in the commentary portion of Loys Le Roy’s 1568 French translation of Aristotle’s The Politics. Loys Le Roy (1510-1577), who also went by the fancy Latin name Ludovicus Regius, was a historian, translator, and philosopher who, from 1572 on, was also Professor of ancient Greek at the Collège Royal in Paris (the ancestor of today’s prestigious Collège de France).

Capture d’écran 2018-02-23 à 13.07.57.png

Le Roy (1568), title page

Le Roy’s first use of the word “civilisé” is set in a commentary to a portion of book 1.8 dedicated to human ways of living:

The laziest are shepherds, who lead an idle life, and get their subsistence without trouble from tame animals; their flock having to wander from place to place in search of pasture, they are compelled to follow them, cultivating a sort of living farm. Others support themselves by hunting, which is of different kind. Some, for example, are brigands, others, who dwell near lakes or marshes or rivers or a sea in which there are fish, are fishermen, and others live by the pursuit of birds or wild beasts. The greater number obtain a living from the cultivated fruits of the soil. Such are the modes of subsistence which prevail among those whose industry springs up of itlsef, and whose food is not acquired by exchange and retail trade. (Politics 1.8, transl. from S. Everson 1996. Aristotle. The Politics and The Constitution of Athens. Cambridge, p.20-21)

After his translation of the passage, Le Roy provides a diet-based summary of the history of mankind that draws from Hippocrates’ theory of climate (that is, the idea whereby local climates determines human character):

Similarly there is a great difference between lives.

At the beginning, men were very rough and simple in all things, not so different from beasts. They lived in caves, or under leaves using the same meat and drinks as oxes and horses, as Hippocrates writes in the book of Ancient medicine. Then, as if stronger, they fed themselves with stronger food: Thus they were living longer. But becoming weaker, they could not digest and were dying incontinent: So much so that they were forced to gradually search ways to soften their way of life, by accommodating it to their complexion, virtue and health, as are now doing more tempered and civilized countries: [those] who produce all things necessary for life, like France, Italy, Greece and Anatolia. [note how the trio Italy, Greece and Anatolia=Asia Minor corresponds to the centre of the “Classical” world]

Capture d’écran 2018-02-21 à 13.34.56.png

Le Roy (1568), p.75

Cause the extremities of the world, excessive in cold and heat, always retain the first truth and roughness, eating raw flesh, and drinking only milk. The others, by high and long mountains, lived of acorn and beechnuts. The others in very maritime places only eat fish, either fresh or dried, with which they make flour, then water down or cook. (p.75)

Uncivilized men, it seems, had an unfortunate tendency to suffer from lethal diarrhea. This no doubt is a retrojection into the past of digestive hurdles experienced by “civilized” contemporaries of Le Roy forced out of their “civilized” diet habits (because of war, colonial settlements, or other circumstances). Reminds me of people who complain that eating legumes makes them fart too much: The main issue is not eating legumes per se, but the fact that their digestive system is not used to eating them regularly.

Le Roy goes on to explain how the “first and most practical nourishment” is grain, all varieties of which can be transformed into flour, then turned into bread. Follows a lengthy enumeration of food: Legumes, “salt and herbs, to give taste and flavour, butters and oils”, vegetables, fruits; meat (first that of human “themselves” , i.e. cannibalism, which was eventually abandoned “out of horror” for cooked animal flesh); and fermented drinks (wine, cider, beer, etc.).

Capture d’écran 2018-02-21 à 13.35.16.png

Le Roy (1568), p.76

The passage concludes with the following statement: Here is what regards the way of life in use in here, and more common between civilized men, given what it says about the difference from others.

The “civilized” men, thus, live in “temperate” climates. Such places are by nature suited for the practice of agricultural activities that are conducive to sedentary-based food production activities, and thereby to large settlements, from villages to cities. These are to be contrasted with more extreme climatic zones, where food is picked or hunted in the wild, and eaten raw or uncooked.

Le Roy’s embrace of Hippocrates’ environmental determinism exemplifies the wide impact the theory of climate had on both ancient (Hippocrates, but also Aristotle) and modern intellectuals, all of whom resorted to it as a legitimization of the “Greek”, then “European” rights to hegemonic power. For, quite conveniently for all these men, the most temperate regions on earth just happened to be located where they, themselves, lived (“France“, says Le Roy, as well as “Italy, Greece and Anatolia [i.e. Asia Minor]”). By contrast, “the extremities of the world, excessive in cold and heat” were deprived by the very nature of their climatic and environmental predicament, of any indigenously-born possibility of civilization.

Le Roy lived at a time when European empires were expanding. When his translation of Aristotle’s The Politics came out, Spain and Portugal had been the centres of large empires for a while now, and France was actively trying to get its share of the cake. The year before, it had lost its colony of “France Antarctique” (1555-1567), which was located in today’s Rio de Janeiro, to the Portuguese. This loss had taken place two years after the Spanish destroyed their Florida-based settlement of Fort Caroline (1564-1565). Seen in this broader geopolitical context, Le Roy’s interest for Aristotle’s The Politics, and his embrace of the theory of the climate, can be seen as a form of scholarly support to French imperial rule over the “wild” territories and “savage” peoples that lived beyond Europe, notably the “Americas”. The same goes for the later thinkers we are about to discuss. But before doing so, a little bit of law-inspired semantics is in order.

Part 2: Civilization as in to civilize a process, aka the meaning that doesn’t stick

In the late 16th century, the verb “civiliser” (“to civilize”) and its derivatives appear in legal contexts, to designate a trial that is brought in front of a civil court (by opposition to a criminal one). Similarly, the neologism “civilization” is a legal creation. The word is documented for the first time in 18th-century French jurisprudence texts, to designate an “act of justice, a judgment that makes a criminal trial a civil one”[1].

This meaning doesn’t stick for good though, for it appears to be outmoded by the end of the 18th century[2]. Yet the word itself did persist, just as its predecessor “civilized”. Boosted by the Age of Enlightenment’s quest for self-aggrandizing definition in the midst of imperial race, the semantic duo gained popularity among French writers, and soon, too, among other European intellectuals, English speakers included.

Part 3: Civilized is me, says the European white man

We owe the modern concept of civilization to French economist and philosopher Victor Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau (1715-1789; not to be confused with his son, Honoré-Gabriel, who played an important role in the French Revolution). British historian Michael Sonenscher emphasizes how Riqueti articulated his thoughts on the matter in a very specific geopolitical context:

Mirabeau first made his name with a book entitled L’Ami des hommes, or “the friend  of mankind”, which he began to publish in 1756, shortly after  the beginning of the Seven  Years War between France and  Britain. The wartime context had a strong bearing on the initial meaning of the concept of civilization. As Mirabeau emphasised in a short essay entitled a Traité de la civilisation (or a treatise on civilization) that he drafted at the same time as he wrote the first two parts of L’Ami des hommes, there was  a big difference between civilization and civility. “If I was to ask most people of what civilization consists”, he began, “they would reply, the civilization of a people is a softening of its manners, an urbanity, politeness and a spreading of knowledge so that the observation of decencies takes the  place of laws of detail”. […] Mirabeau’s coinage referred to the way by which genuine morality might come to inform the otherwise shallow veneer of civility and politeness that, from  his perspective, was one of the hallmarks of modern life. (Sonenscher 2015, p.13)

The word civilization defined in this modern sense appears in the 1771 edition of the Jesuit Dictionnaire universel Trévoux (Universal Dictionary Trévoux).


Victor Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau

Mirabeau also claimed that “religion is the mainspring (premier ressort) of civilization”. The idea is that just as not all men are equally – if at all – “civilized”, so are religions. This religious conception of civilization, whereby animism, totemism and polytheism are at the bottom of the civilization pyramid and Christianity at the top – endured, and many intellectuals of the Enlightenment period embedded it within their broader understanding of human history.

Very shortly after “civilization” was coined by Mirabeau, it appeared in the English language. The first English speaker who is known to have used it is the Scottish philosopher Adam Ferguson (1723-1816). Ferguson resorts to “civilization” and “civilized” several times in his An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767). The first instance occurs in the following passage:

This progress in the case of man is continued to a greater extent than in that of any other animal. Not only the individual advances from infancy to manhood, but the species itself from rudeness to civilization. (p.2)


Adam Ferguson

Ferguson is also known as one of the thinkers who has articulated the theory according to which human societies can be grouped into four stadia of development:

  1. Savages (live off picking and hunting)
  2. Nomadic herdsmen
  3. Sedentarised farmers
  4. Industrial and commercial nations[3]

There is a clear lineage between these four stages and Aristotle’s passage of The Politics quoted earlier. For like most Enlightenment writers, Ferguson develops his argument by resorting regularly to Classical parallels that are infused with environmental determinism and Orientalist clichés. For instance:

For want of these advantages, rude nations in general, though they are patient of hardship and fatigue, though they are addicted to war, and are qualified by their stratagem and valour to throw terror into the armies of a more regular enemy; yet, in the course of a continued struggle, always yield to the superior arts, and the discipline of more civilized nations. Hence the Romans were able to over-run the provinces of Gaul, Germany, and Britain; and hence the Europeans have a growing ascendency over the nations of Africa and America. (p.139-140)

Anyone else spotted the word “terror” in there? How much have political discourses on the “Other” truly changed, I ask you?

To finish, let me bring us back to France. In his work The Ruins or Meditations on the Revolutions of Empires, French philosopher Constantin François de Chassebœuf, Comte de Volney (1757-1820) sets himself in the ruins of ancient Palmyra, where he meditates on the perishable faith of past empires. Contrary to the other men mentioned so far, Volney has actually spent a substantial amount of time abroad, including a trip to Egypt and Syria before Napoléon’s Expédition d’Égypte, and the United States.

Capture d’écran 2018-02-23 à 14.38.27.png

Illustration from Les ruines ou méditation sur les révolutions des empires (BnF)

In addition to his Classical training, he also qualifies as an “Orientalist”, one who learned Arabic not only in books, but also among native speakers, something which was not that common at the time (if ever at later periods). The Ruins, which was conceived during Volney’s trip to the USA, came out in 1791, that is, 2 years after the start of the French Revolution. Fun fact: Thomas Jefferson committed to translate it into English – a promise that was to be only partially fulfilled. This was partly due to a perceived clash between Volney’s religious stance and Jefferson’s Presidential campaign. For Volney was a strong critique of religious bigotry, and his Ruins are filled with a plea for religious tolerance, and the separation between Church and the State. Not the most selling platform for a wannabe American President at the time (as, some might say, today). In a passage that is not without reminding one of current world circumstances, the French intellectual dismantles nostalgic discourses that idealize the past:

He who is unhappy with the present imposes on the past has a lying perfection, which is nothing but the mask of his sorrow. He lauds the deaths by hating the living, and beats up the children with the bones of their fathers.

In order to show a so-called retrograde perfection, one would need to deny the testimonies of facts and reason; and should there remain anything equivocal to the fact of the past, one would need to deny the subsisting fact of human organization; one would need to prove that he is born with an enlighten use of his senses; that he knows, without experience, how to distinguish the poison from the food; that the child is wiser than the old man; the blind more confident in his walk than the clear-sighted; that the civilized man is more unhappy than the man-eater; in a word, that there is no progressive scale of experience and instruction.


Constantin François de Chassebœuf, Comte de Volney

Like Le Roy, Volney subscribes to the idea whereby cannibals both correspond to an earlier developmental stage of mankind, and are, therefore,  the opposite of “civilized”. Like him, too, and like Ferguson and most Enlightenment thinkers, he understands human history as a rocky, cyclical, teleological process that unfolds through space in an environmentally deterministic fashion. These conversations played a crucial role in forging how the French, and eventually other European colonial powers, conceived of their relationship with the territories and peoples that were part of their growing empires. To them, as to many people today still, civilization goes hand in hand with the notion of progress. There are, in other words, more civilized places, and times, than others, and modern Europe – which has now morphed into “the West” (or WENA, aka Western Europe and North America, as one witty Tweeter suggests) – stands, oh surprise, on the highest level of the civilizational staircase. That is to say, for those who believe(d) history is a plant, civilization – agrarian, then urban and industrial – is its blossoming flower.

One could easily dedicate a whole book to the study of the fluctuating nuances brought to the concept of civilization, and to the idea of being civilized, from the French Enlightenment to today. But this is not the time nor the place to do so, and I assume you get the general picture by now.

The truth is, despite some good-willed attempts to make “civilization” something universal, it was never stripped of its original, Eurocentric essence. On the contrary, it was very much at the forefront of Samuel B. Huntington’s 1996 Clash of Civilizations (which Edward Said, among many others, so vehemently criticized), and the same can be said of Niall Ferguson’s 2011 Civilization: The West and the Rest. And, though we should wait and see what BBC’s Civilizations has in store for us, the very idea of reviving this series, and its (pluralized) title, is a testimony to how enduring the attachment of “the West” to certain ideas it has of itself remains.

So, to paraphrase M.I.A.’s song Borders: Civilization, what’s up with that?

Well, just as history is definitely not a plant, so is civilization, be it in the singular or plural, not an actual thing. It is rather, a myth, nothing but the long-lasting fruit of long-dead white men’s imagination, a vintage mirror held to the face of the world by those who used to, and still want to, hold power.

A handy reading: Jean Starobinski 1983. “Le mot civilisation”, Le temps de la réflexion 1983. Paris, Gallimard, 13-22.

[1] Trévoux 1743 (Dictionnaire universel). See Starobinski 1983, 14.

[2] See Starobinski 1983, 14.

[3] Starobinski, p.17

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

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

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

Capture d’écran 2018-02-13 à 10.48.49.png

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

Capture d’écran 2018-02-13 à 10.49.14.png

Capture d_écran 2018-02-13 à 10.48.26

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

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

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


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

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

Katherine Blouin, @isisnaucratis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image credit: The Griffith Institute

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


-Professor Usama Ali Gad, Ain Shams University, Egypt

-Dr Heba Hesham Abdel Gawad, UK/Egypt

-Prof. Myrto Mallouta, University of Corfu, Greece

-Prof. Roberta Mazza, University of Manchester, UK

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

Event abstract

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

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

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

Facebook page event: https://www.facebook.com/events/1998941713455754/

@: katherine.blouin@utoronto.ca, usama_gad@art.asu.edu.eg, r.mairs@reading.ac.uk.


The Arabic Announcement:

كلاكيت تانى مرة 

 “الإستشراق والدراسات الكلاسيكية و مصر”

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

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

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

الأستاذة الدكتورة ميرتو مالاوتا من جامعة كورفو ( اليونان)

الأستاذة الدكتورة روبرتا ماتسا من جامعة مانشستير ( المملكة المتحدة)

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

للتسجيل نرجو :

أولاً :تأكيد الحضور هنا على صفحة الفيس بوك هذه :

(Facebook page event: https://www.facebook.com/events/1998941713455754/).

ثانياً : التواصل مع أحد المنظمين عبر بريده الإلكترونى :

( katherine.blouin@utoronto.ca, usama_gad@art.asu.edu.eg, r.mairs@reading.ac.uk :@).


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

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

by Girish Daswani

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Frantz Fanon speaking in Accra (1958)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Hannah Arendt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

White fantasy and racism

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

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


Pauline Hanson wearing a burqa in the Australian Senate in 2017

Take segments of her first speech in 1996:

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

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

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

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

Let’s put some things into perspective:

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

Sounds familiar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anthropological study of race / racism

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

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

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


Minik Wallace in New York

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where Have All the Cultures Gone?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some concluding thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Arendt, Hannah. 1964. Letter to Gershom Gerhad Scholem. In The Hannah Arendt Papers at the Library of Congress. http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=mharendt_pub&fileName=03/030170/030170page.db&recNum=32

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

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

Goodman, Z. 2016. “What’s the Point of the ‘Mauss haus’? The Gift and Anthropology Today.” FocaalBlog, June 16. http://www.focaalblog.com/2016/06/16/zoe-goodman-whats-the-point-of-the-mauss-haus-the-gift-and-anthropology-today.

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

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

Hage, Ghassan. 2017. ‘Anthropology is a white colonialist project’ can’t be the end of the conversation. Media Diversified, September 4. https://mediadiversified.org/2017/09/04/anthropology-is-a-white-colonialist-project-cant-be-the-end-of-the-conversation/

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

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

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

Pauline Hanson’s 1996 maiden speech: full transcript.  http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/pauline-hansons-1996-maiden-speech-to-parliament-full-transcript-20160914-grgjv3.html

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

The Egyptian Red Book.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old Gladdy.jpg

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

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

The Egyptian Puzzle Annotated.jpg

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

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

Sleeping Beauties.jpg

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

Egyptian Policy.jpg

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

Nile Picnic.jpg

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

Such Painted Puppets.jpg

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

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

Rachel Mairs