A Peep inside the Harem

In his book "The Colonial Harem", author Malek Alloula takes a closer look at some of the clichés and prejudices of the colonial era. Amin Farzanefar examined this collection of old harem postcards in relation to colonial history.

Cover of Malek Alloula's "The Colonial Harem"
Cover of Malek Alloula's "The Colonial Harem"

​​Whenever Malek Alloula is mentioned in Germany, it is usually only in brief biographies of the Algerian author Assia Djebar, his ex-wife. In France, however, Alloula has long been a well-known personality in his own right.

The Colonial Harem, which focuses on the classical image of the Orient – those closed-off areas for women that were designed to offer them seclusion and protection from the outside world, but always managed to arouse curiosity in exactly that quarter – is his most influential work to date.

Cultural theoreticians like Edward Said, Homi Babha, Gayatri Spivak, and Helen Cixous have all dealt intensely, albeit not exhaustively, with the Western view of the Orient. More than anything else, the Western man's image of the Oriental woman is a complex symbol of this unequal relationship.

It is a continuation of the old power structures between the ruler and the ruled, the Empire and the colony. When it came to Oriental seduction, Western conquerors often hypocritically stylised themselves as resolute moralists.

Bogus harem postcards

Alloula uses so-called 'harem postcards' to highlight all of these issues. Large numbers of photos of scantily clad or naked Maghreb women were brought onto the European market by photographers like the Swiss Jean Geyser between 1900 and 1930.

The women in the photos have no names. The postcards have impersonal captions like 'Woman from the Maghreb', 'Woman from the South', 'Woman from Algiers'. A dozen of them at most have names like 'The beautiful Fatma'. The Oriental women remain general; a surface on which an image is projected.

The models and the backdrop against which they were photographed (often an image of nature) appear typified and simplified in these studio photographs. Alloula provides evidence that the models used in these photographs are not actually real harem women. Most of them are in fact victims of war, orphans, and prostitutes who were required to pose for the photographers' lens.

The author does not focus on the biographies of the models or their reasons for posing for the camera; instead he directs his criticism against the West. He analyses the view of the voyeur, who is not moved by ethnographic considerations, but by a passion for money and power.

The postcards were sent as evidence of the exotic; they were trophies, the spoils of war. In terms of morals, a system of double standards was prevalent: it was acceptable for the women of the 'départements' (in other words, the colonies) to strip off, while photos of naked French women from the mother country were strictly forbidden.

An ambivalent attitude to the Orient

The only photographer who claims to have actually been inside a harem is Eugene Delacroix. He created some of the best-known, most bombastic, and effective Orient paintings in existence, including The Death of Sardanapalus.

When analysing such portrayals of the Orient, Alloula noted a tortuous, ambivalent attitude to the Orient: a desire for its image and at the same time disgust at the reality. Anyone who compares Hollywood fantasies and kitsch novels with news bulletins will easily comprehend this point.

The erotic female connotations described in the book are relatively recent and replaced an older image of Algeria: from the Middle Ages until recent times, the West viewed Algerians as pirates from a barbarous state.

The Oriental was the fearful beast of the seas who burned, raped, and pillaged while constantly changing alliances with Europe's most powerful rulers, or monsters who went privateering on behalf of the Ottoman Empire.

Memories of an Algerian childhood

While tackling the issue of harems, Alloula avoids using the abstract jargon of cultural science and instead employs a personal, poetically associative style of language. He frequently relates memories from his childhood and uses them to provide impressions for his analyses.

Photos of Malek Alloula as a child reproduce and perpetuate the clichés from the turn of the century. These photos inspired him to write The Colonial Harem.

As a French man of letters with a Maghreb background, Alloula offers a unique perspective; he always uses a two-pronged approach in his work: he sees the clichés and prejudices of the colonial era with Arab eyes and writes about them using French words. Unfortunately, The Colonial Harem has not yet been translated into German.

Algeria is still a painful subject for Alloula: at the height of the Islamist terror, his brother Abdelkader, a leading Algerian intellectual, was murdered in 1994.

Amin Farzanefar

© Qantara.de

Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan

Click here, to see excerpts from the book (Amazon.com).