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Extending deconstructive theory to historical and political analysis, Timothy Mitchell examines the peculiarity of Western conceptions of order and truth through a re-reading of Europe's colonial encounter with nineteenth-century Egypt.
The Egyptian delegation to the Eighth International Congress of Orientalists, held in Stockholm in the summer of 1889, travelled to Sweden via Paris and paused there to visit the World Exhibition. The four Egyptians spent several days in the French capital, climbing twice the height (as they reported) of the Great Pyramid in Alexandre Eiffel's new tower, and exploring the city laid out beneath. They visited the carefully planned parks and pavilions of the exhibition, and examined the merchandise and machinery on display. Amid this order and splendour there was only one thing that disturbed them. The Egyptian exhibit had been built by the French to represent a winding street of Cairo, made of houses with overhanging upper stories and a mosque like that of Qaitbay. 'It was intended', one of the Egyptians wrote, 'to resemble the old aspect of Cairo.' So carefully was this done, he noted, that 'even the paint on the buildings was made dirty'. The Egyptian exhibit had also been made carefully chaotic. In contrast to the geometric lines of the rest of the exhibition, the imitation street was laid out in the haphazard manner of the bazaar. The way was crowded with shops and stalls, where Frenchmen dressed as Orientals sold perfumes, pastries, and tarbushes. To complete the effect of the bazaar, the French organisers had imported from Cairo fifty Egyptian donkeys, together with their drivers and the requisite number of grooms, farriers, and saddle-makers. The donkeys gave rides for the price of one franc up and down the street, resulting in a clamour and confusion so life-like, the director of the exhibition was obliged to issue an order restricting the donkeys to a certain number at each hour of the day.
The Egyptian visitors were disgusted by all this and stayed away. Their final embarrassment had been to enter the door of the mosque and discover that, like the rest of the street, it had been erected as what the Europeans called a fagade. 'Its external form as a mosque was all that there was. As for the interior, it had been set up as a coffee house, where Egyptian girls per-formed dances with young males, and dervishes whirled.'
After eighteen days in Paris, the Egyptian delegation travelled on to Stockholm to attend the Congress of Orientalists. Together with other non-European delegates, the Egyptians were received with hospitality-and a great curiosity. As though they were still in Paris, they found themselves something of an exhibit. 'Bona fide Orientalists', wrote a European participant in the congress, 'were stared at as in a Barnum's all-world show: the good Scandinavian people seemed to think that it was a collection of Orientals, not of Orientalists.' Some of the Orientalists themselves seemed to delight in the role of showmen. At an earlier congress, in Berlin, we are told that 'the grotesque idea was started of producing natives of Oriental countries as illustrations of a paper: thus the Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford produced a real live Indian Pandit, and made him go through the ritual of Brahmanical prayer and worship before a hilarious assembly... Professor Max Müller of Oxford produced two rival Japanese priests, who exhibited their gifts; it had the appearance of two showmen exhibiting their monkeys.' At the Stockholm congress the Egyptians were invited to participate as scholars, but when they used their own language to do so they again found themselves treated as exhibits. 'I have heard nothing so unworthy of a sensible man', complained an Oxford scholar, 'as... the whistling howls emitted by an Arabic student of El-Azhar of Cairo. Such exhibitions at Congresses are mischievous and degrading.'
The exhibition and the congress were not the only examples of this European mischief. Throughout the nineteenth century non-European visitors found themselves being placed on exhibit or made the careful object of European curiosity. The degradation they often suffered, whether intended or not, seemed nevertheless inevitable, as necessary to these spectacles as the scaffolded façades or the curious crowds of onlookers. The façades, the onlookers and the degradation seemed all to belong to the organising of an exhibit, to a particularly European concern with rendering things up to be viewed. I will be taking up this question of the exhibition, examining it through non-European eyes as a practice that exemplifies the nature of the modern European state. But I want to reach it via a detour, which explores a little further the mischief to which the Oxford scholar referred. This mischief is a clue, for it runs right through the Middle Eastern experience of nineteenth-century Europe.
To begin with, Middle Eastern visitors found Europeans a curious people, with an uncontainable eagerness to stand and stare. 'One of the characteristics of the French is to stare and get excited at everything new', wrote an Egyptian scholar who spent five years in Paris in the 1820s. It was perhaps this staring he had in mind when he explained in another book, discussing the manners and customs of various nations, that 'one of the beliefs of the Europeans is that the gaze has no effect'. An Ottoman envoy who stopped at Köpenick on his way to Berlin in 1790 reported that 'the people of Berlin were unable to contain their impatience until our arrival in the city. Regardless of the winter and the snow, both men and women came in carriages, on horseback, and on foot, to look at us and contemplate us.' Where such spectacles were prevented, it seemed necessary to recreate them artificially. The members of an Egyptian student mission sent to Paris in the 1820s were confined to the college where they lived and allowed out onto the streets only every second Sunday. But during their stay in Paris they found themselves parodied in vaudeville on the Paris stage, for the entertainment of the French public. 'They construct the stage as the play demands', explained one of the students. 'For example, if they want to imitate a sultan and the things that happen to him, they set up the stage in the form of a palace and portray him in person. If for instance they want to play the Shah of Persia, they dress someone in the clothes of the Persian monarch and then put him there and sit him on a throne.' Even Middle Eastern monarchs who came in person to Europe were liable to be incorporated themselves into its theatrical events. When the Khedive of Egypt visited Paris to attend an earlier Exposition Universelle in 1867, he found that the Egyptian exhibit had been built to simulate medieval Cairo in the form of a royal palace. The Khedive stayed in the imitation palace during his visit and became a part of the exhibition, receiving visitors with medieval hospitality. His father, Crown Prince Ibrahim of Egypt, had been less fortunate. Visiting the manufactories and showrooms of Birmingham in June 1846, he insisted wearily to the press after his experiences elsewhere with the British public that 'he should be regarded merely as a private gentleman'. But he was unable to escape becoming something of an exhibit. He went out for a stroll incognito one evening and slipped into a showtent to see on display the carcass of an enormous whale. He was recognised immediately by the showman, who began announcing to the crowd outside that 'for the one price they could see on display the carcass of the whale, and the Great Warrior Ibrahim, Conqueror of the Turks, into the bargain'. The crowd rushed in, and the Crown Prince had to be rescued by the Birmingham police.
This sort of curiosity is encountered in almost every Middle Eastern description of nineteenth- century Europe. Towards the end of the century, when one or two Egyptian writers began to compose works of fiction in the realistic style of the novel, they made the journey to Europe their first topic. The stories would often evoke the peculiar experience of the West by describing an individual surrounded and stared at, like an object on exhibit. 'Whenever he paused outside a shop or showroom,' the protagonist in one such story found on his first day in Paris, 'a large number of people would surround him, both men and women, staring at his dress and appearance.' Such stories could be multiplied, but for the time being I want to indicate only this, that for the visitor from the Middle East, Europe was a place where one was liable to become an object on exhibit, at which people gathered and stared.
I should make clear my own interest in this mischief, because the tendency of Europeans to stand and stare has sometimes been noted before. In fact words such as those quoted from the Ottoman envoy on his way to Berlin have been offered as part of the evidence for an essential historical difference between Europeans and other people, the difference between the curiosity of the European concerning strange places and people, and the 'general lack of curiosity' of others. The difference is said to go back to, and to illustrate, the great blossoming of European intellectual curiosity at the beginning of the modern age. We are told that it is to be understood, essentially, as a 'difference of attitude'. Many people, myself included, would find it implausible that such staring could help to serve as evidence within a group for the presence or absence of intellectual curiosity. But there is also the implication that this 'attitude'-if that is how it should be understood - was in some sense natural. Such curiosity, it seems to be suggested, is simply the unfettered relation of a person to the world, emerging in Europe once the 'loosening of theological bonds' had brought about 'the freeing of human minds'. Fewer people would question this assumption. In fact I would argue that the notion of 'theological bonds' that loosen or become broken, leaving the individual confronted by the world, continues to govern our understanding of the historical encounter of the Middle East with the modern West, and even of political struggles in the Middle East today. The reason for my detour through this mischief is because I want to examine the way of addressing the world that Middle Eastern writers found in Europe as something not natural but mischievous - dependent, so to speak, on a certain theology of its own.
Accepting for the moment this curious attitude of the European subject, we can note first of all that the non-European visitor also encountered in Europe what might have seemed a corresponding 'objectness'. The curiosity of the subject was called forth by a diversity of mechanisms for rendering things up as its object. Ibrahim Pasha's encounter with the whale and the students' experience of being parodied on the Paris stage were only minor beginnings. The student from that group who published an account of their stay in Paris devoted several pages to the Parisian phenomenon of le spectacle, a word for which he knew of no Arabic equivalent. Besides the Opéra and the Opéra-Comique, among the different kinds of spectacle he described were 'places in which they represent for the person the view of a town or a country or the like', such as 'the Panorama, the Cosmorana, the Diorama, the Europorama and the Uranorama'. In a panorama of Cairo, he explained in illustration, 'it is as though you were looking from on top of the minaret of Sultan Hasan, for example, with al-Rumalia and the rest of the city beneath you'. The panoramas were the forerunners of the world exhibitions, which were organised on an ever increasing scale as Europe entered its imperial age. Along with other public and political spectacles, including the increasingly lavish international congresses of Orientalists, the first of which was held in Paris in 1873, these events became the major subject of Arabic accounts of the modern West. By the last decade of the nineteenth century, more than half the descriptions of journeys to Europe being published in Cairo were written to describe visits to a world exhibition or an international congress of Orientalists. These accounts devote hundreds of pages to describing the peculiar order and technique of such spectacles - the curious crowds of spectators, the device of the exhibit and the model, the organisation of panoramas and perspectives, the display of new discoveries and merchandise, the architecture of iron and glass, the systems of classification, the calculation of statistics, the lectures, the plans and the guide books - in short the entire machinery of what I am going to refer to as 'representation': everything collected and arranged to stand for something, to represent progress and history, human industry and empire; everything set up, and the whole set-up always evoking somehow some larger truth.
Spectacles like the world exhibition and the Orientalist congress set up the world as a picture. They ordered it up before an audience as an object on display, to be viewed, experienced and investigated. The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London claimed to present to its six million visitors 'a living picture' of the development of mankind. Orientalism, it was claimed in the same way at the inauguration of the Ninth International Congress in London in 1892, had 'displayed before us the historical development of the human race'. An earlier Orientalist, the great French scholar Sylvestre de Sacy, had envisioned this process of display in a manner very similar to the future world exhibitions. He had planned to establish a museum, which was to be 'a vast depot of objects of all kinds, of drawings, of original books, maps, accounts of voyages, all offered to those who wish to give themselves to the study of [the Orient]; in such a way that each of these students would be able to feel himself transported as if by enchantment into the midst of, say, a Mongolian tribe or of the Chinese race, whichever he might have made the object of his studies'. By the later decades of the century, almost everywhere that Middle Eastern visitors went they seemed to encounter this rendering up the world as a picture. They visited the museums, and saw the cultures of the world portrayed in objects arranged under glass, in the order of their evolution.
They were taken to the theatre, a place where Europeans portrayed to themselves their history, as several Egyptian writers explained. They spent afternoons in the public gardens, carefully organised 'to bring together the trees and plants of every part of the world', as another Arab writer put it. And inevitably they took trips to the zoo, a product of nineteenth-century colonial penetration of the Orient, as the critic Theodor Adorno wrote, 'which paid symbolic tribute in the form of animals'. These symbolic representations of the world's cultural and colonial order, continually encountered and described by visitors to Europe, were the mark of a great historical confidence.
Excerpted from Colonising Egypt by Timothy Mitchell Copyright © 1991 by Timothy Mitchell. Excerpted by permission.
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