Remote People by Evelyn Waugh (1931)

How wrong I was, as it turned out, in all my preconceived notions about this journey.
(Remote People, page 97)

After weeks of reading heavy factual and often horrifying history about Africa, it was like getting into a warm bubble bath to read some Evelyn Waugh. He is a wonderful writer, clear and smooth – admittedly with occasional old-fashioned locutions and sometimes antiquated word order which makes you realise he was closer to the Victorians than to us – but he is nonetheless a deep pleasure to read because of his calm, clear, quietly cynical, drily humorous attitude. For his sophistication and style. For his combination of super-civilised manners and bright heartlessness. For his permanent alertness to the absurdity of life.

We sat in the open under an orange-tree and drank chianti and gossiped about the coronation, while many hundreds of small red ants overran the table and fell onto our heads from above. (p.72)

We saw a bridge being built under the supervision, apparently, of a single small boy in gumboots. (p.153)

[Jinja golf course] is, I believe, the only course in the world which posts a special rule that the player may remove his ball by hand from hippopotamus footprints. (p.156)

Temporary correspondent

Waugh establishes his a) posh, country house party persona and b) all-important membership of the network of posh public schoolboys who ran everything in 1930s England, by telling us that he was travelling by train back to London from a splendid country house in Wales when he bumped into an old chum who worked for The Times and, by the time the train journey had ended, his chum had promised him a job as a temporary correspondent to cover the upcoming coronation of the new emperor of Ethiopia, scheduled for November 1930.

So that’s why the reader opens the book to discover Waugh aboard a steamship, the Azay le Rideau, which has sailed from Marseilles across the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal and is now docking at Djibouti on the coast of French Somalia. The ship is packed with dignitaries, royal guests, diplomats, journalists and cameramen, plus a unit from the Foreign Legion down in 4th class, and even military bands, all heading for the coronation.

There is ample Carry On comedy about the behaviour of guests on the ship, fuss about porters and baggage, and endless complications about who’s going to get priority places on the very occasional train service which runs from Djibouti up to the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa.

Haile Selassie

A few words about Haile Selassie. He didn’t inherit the ancient throne of Ethiopia in a straightforward manner, by being the eldest son of the previous emperor, it was much more complicated than that. His most notable forebear was the emperor Menelik II (ruled 1889 to 1913) who extended and consolidated Ethiopia’s imperial rule over its neighbouring territories and defeated the invading Italian forces at the Battle of Adowa in 1896. Menelik left no immediate male heir and was succeeded on his death in 1913 by young Lij Iyasu (Lej Yasu, in Waugh’s spelling), who was the son of Menelik’s eldest daughter.

However, Lij Iyasu quickly alienated the powerful Ethiopian aristocracy with his erratic behaviour and the last straw came when he abandoned the millenium-old Ethiopian Christianity for Islam. He was dethroned and replaced by his aunt, his mother’s half-sister, Zewditu (or Zauditu as Waugh spells it). (Waugh also mentions that many of Lij’s Muslim followers were massacred at the town of Harar, p.18.)

Zewditu is an interesting figure in her own right, the first female ruler of Ethiopia in its history, she ruled as empress till her death in 1930. However, long before that, she had appointed young Ras Tafari Makonnen her heir.

Ras is a traditional title in Ethiopia. It translates somewhere between ‘duke’ and ‘prince’, which explains why accounts of its history are full of people with ras in their names. Tafari is a personal name which means ‘one who is respected or feared’. Makonnen was his family name.

Tension arose between Empress Zewditu and Ras Tafari because she was a deeply conservative and devout Christian whereas the young Tafari though Ethiopia needed to modernise.  In 1928 conservative elements in the court tried to overthrow Tafari and have him exiled, but they were defeated by a majority of the more progressive aristocracy. Zewditu was forced to confer on him the title of Negus or king, confirming his position as regent and heir to the throne.

Renewing the feud, in 1930, Zewditu’s own husband Ras Gugsa Welle led a rebellion against Negus Tafari in Begemder, hoping to end the regency in spite of his wife’s repeated pleas and orders to desist. But Gugsa was defeated and killed in battle by the Ethiopian which Tafari had devoted the previous decade to modernising, at the Battle of Anchem in March 1930.

A few days later the empress died, whether as a result of long-term illness or from shock at the death of her husband remains a subject of speculation to this day. Either way the path was now clear for Ras Tafari to inherit the throne and he was officially recognised by his peers as Negusa Nagast which translates as ‘King of Kings’. It is this title which is usually translated into English as ‘Emperor’.

It took 6 months to arrange for the actual coronation to be organised. It took place on 2 November 1930. It was traditional that, upon his coronation, the emperor choose a regnal name and Tafari chose to retain the name given to him at his baptism, Selassie, and incorporate it into his full imperial name – Haile Selassie. In the ancient Ethiopian language of Ge’ez, Haile means ‘power of’ and ‘Selassie’ means Trinity – so Haile Selassie means ‘Power of the Trinity’.

So much for his names. They’re just one aspect of the way that, the more you study it, the more the history of Ethiopia and Selassie’s place in it, become complicated and flavoursome.

Waugh at the coronation

Ethiopia was, at the time, more or less Africa’s only independent country, untainted by colonial rule. Italy had tried to colonise it in the 1890s but the Italian army was massacred at the Battle of Adowa in 1896 and signed a peace treaty with Ethiopia recognising its borders and independence.

Once news of this grand imperial coronation became known, the European countries sent their own princes and dukes to attend the ceremony of a fellow royal. There were also ambassadors quietly jostling for position, and the Americans sent business representatives to try and do deals with the new ruler. Hence the presence of the Duke of Gloucester (King George V’s son), Marshal Louis Franchet d’Espèrey of France, Prince of Udine representing King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and representatives of the United States, Egypt, Turkey, Sweden, Belgium and Japan.

This all explains the atmosphere of colourful and confused diplomatic parties and Ethiopian  ceremonies which were held during the official week of celebrations leading up to the coronation and which Waugh reports with glee and satire.

He emphasises the surreal atmosphere of posh Westerners in top hats and monocles walking through streets full of white-robed locals riding mules and wearing bandoleers and antiquated rifles.

Every man in Abyssinia carries arms; that is to say, he wears a dagger and bandolier of cartridges around his waist and has a slave boy walking behind with a rifle.

The nearest thing he can compare the ‘galvanised and translated reality’ of Addis Ababa in coronation week to is Alice in Wonderland. In fact surreal details crop up throughout the narrative, making the reader gasp. I was particularly struck when, later in the story he goes for a stroll round the shabby town of Harar and discovers that a lion in a wooden cage is kept behind the courthouse (p.83).

The text continually teeters on the edge of fiction. I mean it is continually turning into a novel. Presumably most of what he reports actually happened but Waugh’s account dwells on characters and incidents which feel like they’re from a fiction. Thus (characteristically showing off his intimacy with the  aristocratic Bright Young Things of his generation) he falls in with ‘old friend’ Irene Ravensdale, the fantastically posh Mary Irene Curzon, 2nd Baroness Ravensdale, Baroness Ravensdale of Kedleston, and they go on trips together to local attractions. They spend an afternoon scrambling through the forest of Jemjem ‘in hopeless pursuit of black-and-white monkeys’ (p.71).

He also becomes friendly with an American professor – Professor W. – who is depicted as a comic character because he is supposedly an expert on Ethiopian history and culture yet doesn’t speak the language and consistently misunderstands what is going on – particularly at the coronation service itself where he gives a running commentary on proceedings which turns out to be wrong in every detail.

Despite this Waugh decides to go on a mini expedition with the professor, to Debra Lebanos, a remote monastery which has for four centuries been at the heart of Ethiopia’s spiritual life. The chapter describing this little jaunt exemplifies many of Waugh’s strengths as a traveller, observer, writer and, dare one say it, thinker.

First of all there are the colourful characters: the Armenian taxi driver they hire to take them on the long, gruelling desert journey, with his no-nonsense attitude and catchphrase, repeated at every crisis: ‘Ça n’a pas d’importance.’ The professor, who’s brought along a crate of empty Vichy water bottles to fill with holy water from the sacred spring but which keep rolling underfoot or falling out the car every time they stop. Then, once they get to the ‘monastery’ there are extended descriptions of the priests who turn out to be a pretty shabby lot, though not as shabby as many of the ‘monks’ who are, in reality, the sick and the halt and the lame who came on pilgrimages and stayed on to populate the place.

One aspect of these blunt descriptions is Waugh’s lack of pretence. About two things he has sentimental blind spots – the Catholic faith and a shamelessly sentimental, William Rees-Mogg-style fantasy about an Old England of enlightened paternalistic squires. But about everything else he is pitilessly, inexorably accurate.

Thus he doesn’t hesitate to describe the sacred monastery as a filthy dump, full of shabby undisciplined ‘monks. Even when they deign to take him and the professor up to the sacred stream, their guide gives a good indication of their general level of piety by pausing the walk to shuffle off into the nearby rocks and have a crap.

The chapter makes a more general point about travelling, or about the kind of travelling Waugh is doing, to very out of the way places – which is he doesn’t hesitate to show that a lot of these ‘legendary’ places turn out to be nothing like they’re cracked up to be. It is refreshingly not the tourist brochure or movie version, but a pitiless gaze at the impoverished, scrappy reality. Same goes for the various coronation scenes and religious ceremonies he witnesses which are often chaotic and shabby.

Then there’s broad comedy, epitomised by the honey scene. Waugh and the professor have brought with them a hamper full of choice Western delicacies (jars of olives, tins of foie gras, crackers), but when the priests offer them food they can’t, of course, refuse.

At first the priests insist that they sacrifice a beast, either a sheep or a goat, despite our heroes’ protestations. It takes the Armenian driver to make them understand that the priests exist on a very scanty diet and so killing a goat for visitors is a big treat for them, the priests. It is typical sly satire that, even when he knows this, Professor W.’s high-minded Boston principles – he is a vegetarian – make him refuse the gift, to the priest’s obvious disappointment.

But what happens next is brilliant. The priests offer to put them up in the only spare room they have, which they describe as a great honour, so Waugh and the professor are horrified to discover it is a filthy shack full of lumber and junk and pullulating with fleas.

Worse is to follow for the priest then returns with some traditional food, namely some rounds of disgusting local soggy grey ‘bread’ and, worse still, a jar of local ‘honey’. This is not the honey you buy at Harrods; it is authentic Ethiopian honey collected the traditional way, scraped off the trees where wild bees have their nests. And so the jar of translucent gloop visibly contains bits of bark, dead insects and bird poo.

Our heroes are horrified but the priest hunkers down and then looks on expectantly, evidently waiting for his honoured visitors to tuck into the monks’ bounty. Stymied and refusing to touch the poisonous viands, our heroes are at a pass, until the professor overcomes his scruples and feigns an attack of severe stomach upset, holding his tummy, pretending to be faint, mimicking throwing up.

Suddenly all attentive, the priest goes to fetch some water, then makes sure they are comfortable for the night, condoling with the poor professor. As soon as he’s left the squalid little hut, our starving heroes tear open their hamper, pull out tins of grouse and bottles of beer and have a feast – being very careful to tidy every scrap of evidence back into the suitcase before the priest returns a few hours later (pages 63 to 64).

And the last point to be drawn from this chapter, is that on occasion Waugh rises to the level of really serious insight. Not allowed into the inner sanctum of the monastery to watch the priests perform their hidden rituals, Waugh has an epiphany. He realises the enormous contrast between the obscure, secret and hidden rites of the pagan East and the bright, open, public ceremonies of Western Christianity. He spends a page explaining how Roman Christianity performs its rituals in the open, in the light, for all to see and participate in and, the corollary of this, how its liturgies and theology give clear, hard-edged verbal definition to the hazy, murky intuitions, the holy terrors and ecstasies of the East.

Obviously whether this is precisely true is debatable, but it’s a big, thought-provoking idea and it arises naturally from the bed of pitiless observation and dry comedy which he creates for it. The unflinching gaze, the comedy and satire, are all based on deeper ideas, which you may or may not agree with, but which provide a serious, substantial foundation for the comedy.

Gentlemen of the press

Waugh is well aware he is masquerading as a foreign correspondent aware that he has no experience of such a role and nothing to qualify him except the self confidence inculcated at a jolly good public school and Oxford. He is alert to the ridiculousness of his own position but also to the farcical aspects of the job. For example, the assembled press cohort realise that the coronation itself is going to take place too late for their copy to make the first editions. Waugh gives a comic survey of the way the entire press corps responds by deciding to make up descriptions of the coronation and gives us choice excerpts of detailed descriptions of the exotic ceremony which were published in various British newspapers and which were entirely fictional. There are also grace notes, as it were, describing the unruly pushing and jostling of the cameramen, especially the one and only film crew in attendance (from America, of course).

The point for Waugh fans is this sets the tone for the even more farcical description of the press and foreign correspondents which he gives in the book’s sequel, Waugh in Abyssinia (1936) and which formed the basis for what is often described as the funniest satire ever written about the British press, the magnificent comic novel Scoop (1938).

Harar

The assignment to cover Selassie’s coronation forms the first part of the book but it is only the start of an odyssey in which Waugh takes the opportunity to visit a number of British colonies in East Africa. All in all, the trip was to take 6 months (p.84) and take in an impressive list of countries, namely Aden, Kenya, Zanzibar, the Belgian Congo and South Africa.

He explains how, once he had filed the requisite number of reports via telegraph back to The Times his contract came to an end and he was a free man. In London he had booked passage by boat from Djibouti to Zanzibar, but now finds he has ten days to kill and is uncertain what to do. Until, that is, the British Consul in Harar, Mr Plowman, kindly invites him to come and stay.

In fact the consul has to remain a few more days in Addis, so Waugh decides to make his own way overland to Harar, travelling by train and taxi. Harar was the first Ethiopian town visited by the famous Victorian explorer Sir Richard Burton and one of the first territories conquered by the warrior emperor Menelik II. It was the town where the caravans met between highlands and coastal lowlands; where Galla, Somali and Arab interbred to produce women of outstanding beauty.

Or so Waugh fantasised. In reality, he finds it to be a dingy medieval town. He is visited by the bishop of Harar and quizzes him about the French poet, the boy wonder Arthur Rimbaud, who lived here after he fled France and became a gun runner to the emperor Menelik II. He is disappointed to learn that the bishop remembers him only as a solemnly serious man, who took a native wife and had a gammy leg (p.79).

The owner of the hotel where he stays, the Leon d’Or, is ‘an Armenian of rare character’, Mr Bergebedgian, who has a wonderfully relaxed attitude to life. The Armenian takes him to all the shops in the town, where he incites himself in, has a coffee and chat with the owner, moves on, telling Waugh all the gossip of the town, shows him the town prison and courthouse (the one with a lion in a wooden cage behind it).

In an aside Waugh says he grew to really admire this man’s character: he thinks he is the most tolerant man he has ever met. Bergebedgian takes him to a hilarious local party at the governor’s house, and then on to a wedding party, which he only dares visit when fully armed and accompanied by two armed police.

Slavery

Last point about Ethiopia. When Haile Selassie ascended the throne, slavery was still legal and common in Ethiopia. An estimated 2 million of the population were slaves. As a modernising ruler the King of Kings moved quickly to abolish it but, inevitably, it lingered on in remote rural areas for decades.

First nightmare

This is the name Waugh gives a short 6-page section describing his unbearable tedium at missing a train connection and so being marooned in the dull dusty town of Dirre-Dowa and then, when he did manage to get a train to the coast, just missing the steamship to Zanzibar and so being marooned in Djibouti.

It is a dithyramb on the excruciating dullness of being stuck in a tropical town with nothing to do and no-one to visit. His attempts to alleviate the boredom are accurate and funny, including a painstaking  attempt at reading the complete works of Alexander Pope which he has (for some reason) brought with him. When he gives up Pope, he is reduced to reading through a small French dictionary in alphabetical order. Then he sits staring out the window in a state of stupefaction. As he accurately notes, most travel books don’t honestly recount the amount of time that is spent in boredom and inanition and frustration and, occasional, depression.

This short chapter certainly rang a bell with me, reminding me of many moments of boredom and loneliness on my various foreign travels. It’s another aspect of Waugh’s unflinching truthfulness.

Aden

It is very surprising to discover the importance which politics assume the moment one begins to travel. (p.120)

His description of Aden as a shabby rundown dump is a masterpiece with many laugh-out-loud moments. He meets the usual cast of eccentrics, or people who, in his novelist’s hands, become eccentrics, such as the two enterprising young German engineers who are working their way round the world. He finds the bachelor world of chaps dining at their clubs very congenial. After all, he says, it’s the womenfolk who ruin colonies, insisting their menfolk stay at home in the evenings, indulging in ferocious snobbery and pooh-poohing the natives.

Waugh describes going to the open air cinema where, a few minutes into the black and white comedy he realises almost everyone around him has fallen fast asleep. He attends a scout meeting where the patient British scoutmaster hopelessly tries to teach Arab youths how to build a fire or the ten rules of scout law.

He attends a council of local Arab chiefs and goes into great detail about the social and political situation of Yemen and southern Arabia. It was barely ten years since the entire area was taken over by the British after the fall of the Ottoman Empire which had run it for centuries. There is a detailed analysis of the complicated rivalries among the tribes, exacerbated by Ottoman rule and now complicated by British attempts to bring peace between internecine feuds. The council is a jurga hosted by the Sultan of Lahej and attended by Sir Stewart Symes, Resident at Aden from 1928 to 1931. He gives detailed insight into the challenges of trying to manage such a fissiparous people.

The tendency of Arab communities is always towards the multiplication of political units.

Disintegration, tribalism, feuding, rivalry, enmity and war. Britain withdrew from South Yemen in 1967. Since September 2014 (seven years and 2 months) Yemen has been torn apart by a brutal civil war in which about 380,000 people have died, including some 85,000 children who have died of starvation. Still. Independent of the ghastly British.

Zanzibar

Zanzibar turns out to be an ordeal. Sweltering oppressive heat and the subterranean prevalence of black magic. December is the worst time of year to visit. He spends all day sweating, only achieving peace a few times a day for a few minutes under a cold shower.

The general point he makes about Zanzibar is that it was taken over by the British with the express aim of abolishing the long-standing East African slave trade run by Arabs, which had increased in volume after the Sultan of Oman relocated his court to Zanzibar in 1840.

Now, in 1930, Waugh sees all around him evidence of the decay of Arab rule and ownership and the steady buying up of everything by merchants and businessmen from India. Waugh overtly likes the old aristocratic Arab culture and deprecates the ascension of what he sees as the ‘mean and dirty’, lower middle class merchant culture of the Indians (p.128) (but then he dislikes the sharp-elbowed middle classes of every race).

Kenya

He has an unpleasant experience with two officious British passport control officials at Mombasa on arriving at the Kenya coast, but once he gets to Nairobi he starts to have a wonderful time. It is Race Week and he has letters of introduction to top chaps, such as the Governor’s aide-de-camp, and spots various chaps and chapesses he knows from school and London (the benefits of being part of that network of public schoolboys and their sisters, wives and girlfriends), and so is swept away in a whirl of race meetings, parties, gambling, cocktails and nightclubs. It is London’s Bright Young Things nightclub society recreated on the equator.

This chapter contains a long serious section about the race issue in Kenya, about race and imperialism and the problems of the white settlers. It is fascinating to read an account from the period, as he grapples with what, to him, are recent developments, such as the government White Paper on the future of Kenya published in 1923.

Basically, Waugh comes out strongly in favour of the colonial settlers. He thinks they acquired the land legitimately, by buying it at fair auction. He thinks most of the land was waste and uncultivated before white farmers invested their life savings to buy it, then reinvested their profits to develop it. He accepts at face value the idea that the whites have a special ‘love’ for the country and its people.

He brings in the broader argument that all of human history has been a record of mass migrations and so the white settlement of the best parts of Africa is just another form of migration and time will tell whether it works out or not.

And finally, he makes the case that many of the white settlers represent a model of the traditional English squirearchy which has died out in the motherland, that they represent something fine and noble, with a patriarchal concern for the natives who they are slowly lifting out of savagery and into civilisation.

More than that, he thinks the way the mindset of the white settlers is so at odds with the socialising ideology of the modern they live in that they have a sort of special connection with the figure of The Writer, who is also at odds with his time.

Hmm. He’s wrong and the settlers were wrong. They might have had legal right on their side, but it was a system of law imposed by the conquering empire, a system which, notoriously, took no account of the African natives.

Waugh’s account is valuable and interesting because it isn’t an out-and-out racist, white supremacist argument, it’s much more mixed and nuanced than that. He happily criticises the whites, saying Anglo-Saxons are peculiarly prone to paranoid fears of other races. He says the appropriation of Masai land was a great injustice. He dislikes incidents of overt anti-black racism when he sees them. But, at the same time, his depiction of the white settlers as country-loving squirearchy is laughably sentimental and rose-tinted.

His account is valuable because it takes you into the complex dynamic of the situation circa 1930. There are:

  • the hard-working white settlers and farmers
  • the white professionals living in Nairobi and the towns who have made a killing out of property speculation
  • the distant government and civil service in Whitehall who all the settlers think don’t understand them and are gagging to sell them out
  • the colonial government on the ground in Nairobi which tries to mediate between London and the settlers, while also taking into account the interests of the natives
  • the native Africans who remain almost completely invisible and silent in Waugh’s account
  • much more visible and vocal are the Indians, successful businessmen who outnumber the whites, are often richer and more successful than them, but are infuriated at the way they are excluded from all aspects of white colonial life by a solid colour bar

In this account it is the Indians who are subject to pronounced racist attitudes. Waugh gives a tendentious account of three Indians he has a conversation with in Mombassa who get very heated. They are angry that they have no rights in Kenya, no legal or political rights and are discriminated against. Then they get angry about Indian independence. Waugh clearly dislikes them.

But they’re in the right. And he acknowledges the fact when he spends half a page dwelling on the hysteria which perfectly ordinary Anglo-Saxon people are driven into when abroad, when part of this absurd empire and their white privilege is threatened. He finds it incredible that the merest speculation that the governor might amend the law to allow Indians a vote in the Kenyan government has hot-headed whites muttering in their clubs about kidnapping the Governor and staging an anti-London protest similar to the Boston Tea Party.

He concludes the 4 or 5 pages he devotes to the subject by saying the entire colonial thing is an experiment. It’s perfectly possible that in the next 25 years the whole thing will be swept away. And, of course, eerily enough, that is just what happened. The entire ants nest of squabbling interest groups was swept away in the great tide of African independence which reached Kenya just 30 years later in 1963, to be replaced by an entirely new dynamic of tribally based political parties and much more severe problems.

Race and class

It comes as no surprise that a public schoolboy travelling the British Empire in 1930 occasionally betrays a condescending and patronising tone towards the ‘natives’. The two obvious things to go on to say are:

1. That he regularly expresses more or less the same condescending criticism towards Europeans, royalty, the English middle classes, colonists and so on, in fact about the entire enterprise of Empire which, like so many of his generation, he finds endlessly ridiculous. When he has dinner with a Quaker doctor and his wife there was ‘no nonsense about stiff shirts and mess jackets’; they eat dinner outside in their pyjamas.

2. For every negative comment about this or that group or tribe, there are plenty of positive remarks about other groups or nations or races or tribes.

For example, he goes out of his way to remark that the two most impressive and congenial people he met in his entire 6-month trip were Armenians and gives extended descriptions of their characters.

When I came to consider the question I was surprised to realise that the two most accomplished men I met during this six months I was abroad, the chauffeur who took us to Debra Labanos and Mr Bergebedgian, should both have been Armenians. A race of rare competence and the most delicate sensibility. (p.84)

No white supremacy there. He is full of admiration for the beauty of the women of Harar. And what prompted me to write this little section was a remark he makes à propos of his time in Zanzibar.

The Arabs are by nature a hospitable and generous race… (p.128)

He very much enjoys the company of a Turk he met on the boat to Zanzibar, enjoys discussing history and hearing history from an intelligent man born and bred entirely from the Mohammedan point of view (p.124).

The dividing line for Waugh isn’t race, as such: it is the line between civilisation and barbarism. Black men who can read and write, are educated, or maybe neither but still have manners and decorum are, for him, civilised. The Arabs demonstrate tremendous courtesy and hospitality. His two favourites among the hundreds of people he met were Armenians for their tolerance and capability. So it’s not to do with race, it’s to do with culture and civilisation.

On the other side of the line are what he calls the savages, the uneducated, illiterate, filthy and threatening natives, the ‘savages with filed teeth’ with long hair glued together by rancid butter dressed in rags. And then the homicidal behaviour of natives remote from all townships, who murder strangers on sight, sometimes eating them. For Waugh it’s not about skin colour as such, but behaviour and values, and these can be shared by anyone regardless of skin colour or ethnicity.

There is a third category which is the pushy, angry, Indian merchants and the occasional Jewish entrepreneur he encounters, and who he takes an instinctive dislike to. But again this isn’t necessarily about race. He just dislikes money-minded merchants of any culture: he is reliably contemptuous of British businessmen, especially lower-middle-class shopkeepers, and deprecates the commercially minded Yanks who hang round the emperor’s coronation. It’s not racism, it’s snobbery.

Alert and malicious

One contemporary described the young Waugh as having the appearance of ‘an alert and malicious faun’. Exactly. He is always alert. He notices (or invents) details which give his descriptions and accounts a tremendous specificity.

But this alertness of observation only ‘exists’ because of the way it is embodied within the text by the preciseness of his vocabulary and the timing of his phrasing, which themselves enact the aloof, scrupulous, alertness of attitude.

After a profoundly indigestible dinner, Mr Bergebedgian joined us – the unsmiling clerk and myself – in a glass of a disturbing liqueur labelled ‘Koniak’. (p.80)

I’m not claiming Shakespearian mastery of the language for Waugh, but pointing out the accuracy of observation and description. The way he casually mentions that the dinner was ‘profoundly indigestible’ is funny, continuing a theme about the general poverty and dirtiness of most of the places he stayed in, indeed the hotel kept by the affable Armenian Mr Bergebedgian is described in the only travel book of the region as one to be avoided at all costs.

But it’s the placement of the adjective ‘disturbing’ which made me burst out laughing. The unexpectedness but preciseness of the word. And then it is also part of the stylised vocabulary of the public school Bright Young Things. It is part of the pose they are trained in to underplay disasters and setbacks. ‘Oh I say, how unfortunate / how regrettable / how simply ghastly’ they say as their plane falls out of the sky, canoe goes over the falls, or the roast beef is a trifle overdone. ‘Disturbing’ is typical of that public school understatement: why say something as crudely explicit as ‘disgusting’ or ‘unpalatable’ when you can achieve humour and mastery of the situation with English understatement? So this one word raises a host of connotations. It is a complex effect delivered with immaculate timing, and it is the combination of a) surreal detail described with b) English understatement c) with perfect timing, which are a key part of Waugh’s reliably entertaining style.

On other occasions it is just the sheer beauty of his descriptions. On the ferry across Lake Tanganyika he is forced to make a rough bed on the deck, all the cabins having gone to the savvy passengers who had bribed the captain:

As we got up steam, brilliant showers of wood sparks rose from the funnel; soon after midnight we sailed into the lake; a gentle murmur of singing came from the bows. In a few minutes I was asleep. (p.170)

It’s not the most dramatic scene, but he describes it with such smoothness and style, having taken a few overnight ferries I recognise the mood, I felt I was there. When it is appropriate to be simple and descriptive, he is.

At the other end of the spectrum, sometimes it is the extended caricatures of the people he meets.

Soon after five the captain appeared. No one looking at him would have connected him in any way with a ship; a very fat, very dirty man, a stained tunic open to his throat, unshaven, with a straggling moustache, crimson-faced, gummy-eyed, flat-footed. He would have seemed more at home as the proprietor of an estaminet. (p.168)

Variety and innocence

This leads into my last point which is that the book contains a great diversity of characters. Alright, there aren’t any speaking parts for Africans once he’s left Ethiopia; but this large caveat aside, I found it wonderful that wherever he went, there was this diversity of races and nationalities: the two Armenians stick out, but plenty of Italians, French, Belgians, Germans, the Indians in Zanzibar, the Arabs and Jews in Aden.

And it’s not just nationalities, but a florid variety of characters and types, ranging from the shabby ship’s captain mentioned above to the most correctly dressed Governors and ambassadors, via Quaker missionaries in pyjamas, the monks of Debra Labanos in their filthy tunics, Kikuyu serving ‘boys’, Abyssinian bandits dressed in white gowns and riding donkeys, the historically-minded Turk, any number of demoralised Greek hotel keepers.

It has the same abundant mix of nationalities and types all rubbing along together which you get in the Tintin books of the 1930s and 40s. One of the things I loved about Tintin when I was a boy was the way all the characters are so colourful, come from different countries, speak different languages, cook different cuisines, are so wonderfully varied. The argumentative sea captain, the dotty professor, the dignified butler, the unstoppable opera singer, her timid assistant, the piratical South American dictator, the nitwit detectives – how unlike the very boring, samey suburban English people I grew up among, what a wonderful escape into a realm where everyone is a vivid and distinct character.

The same variety is evident right from the opening scenes of this book on the cruise ship bringing Waugh to Djibouti with its colourful cast of passengers, from princes to Foreign Legionaries.

I’ve just read half a dozen books about African countries where, at independence, almost the entire European population fled (Congo, Angola) or, soon afterwards, was expelled and all their businesses nationalised (Zaire, Uganda).

Buried in the chaos of the Second World War were huge ethnic cleansings and attempted genocides. The Cold War saw ideological differences stop being entertaining and become murderous. In Africa (and South America and South-East Asia) communist guerrillas kidnapped and murdered foreigners, dictatorships ran death squads, the world became a much more dangerous place. In Africa, specifically, successive nationalist regimes nationalised all foreign businesses and expelled their owners. The Greek hotel owners, the Armenian taxi drivers, the Russian who runs a hide company in Addis Ababa, the other European oddballs who’d fetched up in remote corners and, of course, the large Indian business communities in many African countries – all expelled, all banished, all swept away. Replaced by much more homogeneous societies, 100% black, 100% African.

I think that’s what happened. By the time I went a-travelling in the late 1970s it felt like the colourful bricolage or personalities you regularly encounter in Tintin or pre-war travel books had vanished: in Egypt I met only Egyptians, in Thailand only Thais, in Turkey only Turks, in Greece only Greeks.

The colourful world in which you pulled into an Ethiopian or Ugandan town to find the only hotel run by a morose Greek and the only taxi in town driven by a cheerful Armenian taxi driver and got chatting with a jolly Turk happy to explain the Mohammedan view of history – that colourful world of real variety and diversity had gone for good.


Credit

Remote People by Evelyn Waugh was published in 1931. All references are to the 1985 Penguin paperback edition.

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Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art @ the British Museum

European explorers

As John Darwin’s brilliant history of Eurasian empires, After Tamerlane, makes clear, quite a few things distinguished European culture from the culture of the other Eurasian empires (i.e. the Ottoman Empire, the Safavid Empire in Persia, the Moghul Empire in northern India, the Chinese Empire and the Japanese Empire) in the centuries after the death of Tamerlane the Great in 1405.

Just two of them were a readiness, on the part of the Europeans, to travel and explore, and an endless curiosity which led to almost obsessive collecting and categorising and curating and exhibiting.

No Chinese explorers visited Europe during the 19th century and were so dazzled by its history and architecture and art that they made copious sketches and drawings, took photographs, bought up every quaint European curio they could get their hands on, and carried them all back to China to catalogue and categorise and trigger an artistic renaissance.

That kind of thing just didn’t happen because few Chinese travelled abroad. Very few wanted to, or had the means to, and anyway it was frowned upon because every educated Chinese knew that the Celestial Empire was the centre of the universe, the possessor of a perfect culture, which didn’t need or want to know anything at all about the outside world, overrun as it was by cultureless barbarians.

And Darwin shows how this complacent and self-centred attitude was echoed by the cultural and political elites of Japan, Moghul India, the Safavid Empire and the sprawling Ottoman Empire, for centuries.

No, the wandering, exploring, collecting bug seems to have affected Europeans on a completely different scale from any of the world’s other civilisations.

Thus it was that from the 1500s onwards a steadily increasing stream of travellers, explorers, soldiers and sailors, archaeologists and artists travelled all over the Muslim lands lining the North African coast and the Middle East – territory nominally under the control of the extensive Ottoman Empire – to explore and describe and paint and buy and plunder.

Inspired by the East

This ambitious exhibition delves into one aspect of this huge European enterprise by looking at the long and complex history of cultural interchanges between the Islamic Middle East and Europe from about 1500 onwards.

Not surprisingly several of the earliest objects are swords and helmets since the single most important fact about Islam is that it was a conqueror’s religion, spread by highly organised and zealous Arabs as they exploded out of Arabia in the 7th and 8th centuries to seize the Christian Middle East and North African coastline.

Gilt-Copper helmet, Turkey (about 1650) © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

The Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman dynasty which began its rise to prominence in the 1200s was itself just the last in a line of dynasties which had vied for leadership of the Muslim world since the birth of Islam in the 630s.

The Ottoman Turks rose to dominate the area we call the Middle East during the period 1300 to 1453 (the year when the Ottomans seized Christian Constantinople and made it into their capital, Istanbul). I’ve reviewed several books about the decline of the Byzantine Empire as it came under relentless pressure from successive Muslim rulers, until its eventual fall to the Ottomans.

The Ottoman heyday is usually dated from the year of the fall of Byzantium – 1453 – to around 1600, during which they extended their power across all of North Africa and deep into Europe. It’s salutary to remember that twice the Ottoman army besieged Vienna, in 1526 and 1683, and was only just defeated both times i.e. they could have penetrated even further into Christian Europe.

As it was, throughout this period the Ottomans ruled the extensive territory of former Christian Europe which we call the Balkans, as well as Christian Greece and Christian subjects in numerous Mediterranean islands.

Mainly Victorian

A handful of pieces and a few wall labels in the exhibition gesture towards this long and complex early history of Ottoman rise and conquest and domination, including the striking portrait of Sultan Bayezid I by a painter from the school of Veronese, which has been used as the poster for the show.

A Portrait of Sultan Bayezid I by a member of the School of Veronese (c. 1580) © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

But the exhibition really focuses on works from the much later period of the 19th and early 20th centuries, partly for the simple reason that the period 1800 to the outbreak of the Second World War saw a steadily increasing number of European travellers to North Africa and the Middle East.

Some of this was simply a function of continually improving transport, sailing ships giving way to steamships, the steady spread of railways, the industrial revolution creating a new leisured class, especially in Britain and France, who wanted to see the world, helped along by firms like Thomas Cook which launched its first cruises in the 1870s.

Many devout Victorians, such as the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt, wanted to tour the Holy Land and see for themselves the places where Our Lord had stood. Flocks of visitors drew and sketched and painted watercolours and oils and bought all manner of souvenirs, carpets and clothes, tiles and glasswork. By the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851 the British public was highly aware of the extremely diverse and colourful cultures of the peoples it ruled over.

But the thesis of this exhibition is that the Islamic culture of the Ottoman Empire bore a uniquely close and fractious relationship with Europe, was the predominant colonial and foreign cultural ‘Other’ for Europe throughout the period – a kind of backward cousin, a slothful and declining ‘Orient’ against which we could measure our ever-growing knowledge, technology and power. And that a huge number of craftsmen and artists and metalworkers and glassblowers and designers and artists and architects were particularly dazzled and influenced and inspired by Islamic and Middle Eastern art and culture.

So this exhibition, Inspired by the East, aims to bring together a wealth of artifacts to show a) some of the original Islamic arts and crafts from the era and b) the impact Islamic architecture, designs and patterns had on European craftsmen, artists and designers through a large selection of European objects.

Enamelled glass lamp made by Philippe-Joseph Brocard, France (about 1877)

Thus the exhibition includes wonderful, ornate and beautiful examples from a whole range of media and crafts such as:

  • tiles
  • glasswork
  • ceramics
  • metalwork
  • jewellery
  • clothing
  • architecture
  • design

I was interested to learn there was a genre called ‘costume books’ which simply showed the costumes of all the new races and peoples Europeans had discovered as they expanded and explored from the 1500s onwards and which, of course, featured books devoted to the clothes and garments of the Middle East.

I learned that all kinds of products by Islamic artisans were prized in the West from early on, such as Egyptian metalwork and Persian ceramics. During the 19th century Western craftsmen could use developing technology to reproduce much of this work. The exhibition includes Arab-inspired ceramics by Théodore Deck, a leading French ceramicist who in the late nineteenth century created a range of pieces directly inspired by Islamic originals.

Nearby is a section devoted to Owen Jones, one of the most influential tastemakers of the Victorian era. His pioneering studies on colour theory, geometry and form still inspire designers to this day. Jones was an architect, designer and design theorist and was Superintendent of Works for the 1851 Great Exhibition. His masterpiece was Grammar of Ornament, a huge and lavish folio displaying stunning patterns, motifs and ornaments in 112 illustrated plates, many of which featured Islamic decorations and motifs. Some of the Islamic plates from the book are on display here.

But but but… I was struck by several obvious problems.

Number one was that most of the works on display are by Europeans. They are not original works by the Islamic craftsmen and artists who are so praised. They are European copies, displayed with the intention of showing how widespread the impact of Islamic styles and motifs was on the European arts. If you’re looking for a world of authentically Islamic arts and crafts you’d do better to go the V&A.

Number two was that, despite the beauty of individual works, it became difficult to avoid a sense of scrappiness, a sense that the curators are trying to cover a lot of ground, in fact an enormous subject – the impact of the Muslim world on the art and culture of the West – with a surprisingly small range of exhibits.

Take my home area, history: A few helmets and a sword are accompanied by a paragraph or two about the extent of the Ottoman Empire – but this, the military rise and dominance of the Ottoman Empire, is a huge, a vast subject, which I felt was barely scratched and whose omission made the entire show feel one-sided i.e. presented only the Europeans as aggressive colonialists whereas, as I’ve explained, it was the Muslims who originally conquered half the Christian Mediterranean.

Similarly, the friend I went with is mad about Islamic tiles so was pleased to see a display of half a dozen beautiful and ornate tiles – but disappointed that they turned out to be made by a Victorian British manufacturer using Islamic motifs – and that that was it when it came to tiles.

Islamic architecture is distinctive and beautiful and exists over half the world, but it was dealt with via just a few British buildings which used Islamic motifs, such as the well-known artist Lord Leighton’s famous house in West London which he had modelled inside to recreate some of the rooms from the Alhambra in Spain, namely ‘the Arab Hall’. Leighton had the place covered in Islamic tiles designed by William de Morgan. There are photos of the interior and a lovely wooden model but… is that it?

The single most dominant impression was made by the paintings, a few scattered in the early sections but then leading up to a huge wall displaying about 20 classic, late-Victorian, Orientalist paintings.

In the Madrasa by Ludwig Deutsch (1890) © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Orientalism

This brings us to the several meanings of ‘Orientalism’, a word and idea which are raised early in the exhibition and then referenced throughout.

1. The word Orientalism was originally, during the 19th century and first half of the 20th, a value-neutral term applied to all or any scholars, linguists, archaeologists or artists who specialised in ‘the Orient’, a vague expression generally taken to be Islamic North Africa and Middle East but sometimes stretching to include India. It survives in this neutral sense in many places to this day, for example in the name of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

2. However, the term underwent a revolutionary change in 1978 when the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said published his academic study Orientalism. In this book Said subjected the so-called ‘scholarly’ works of 19th century Orientalist academics to in-depth analysis in order to support one big radical idea: that almost all the supposedly scholarly and academic books and ideas produced by European scholars about the Orient were the witting or unwitting handmaids of Western Imperialism.

Almost all the nineteenth-century Orientalists declared the Ottoman Empire corrupt and stagnant, Islam itself incapable of change. The people living there were stereotyped as somehow more primitive, dressing in loose but colourful clothing, slothful and lazy and corrupt.

Probably the most notable idea was the fascination the institution of the harem had for repressed Westerners who projected all kinds of sexual fantasies onto Oriental woman and painted no end of soft porn depictions of the sultan and his slaves and concubines and slave auctions and so on.

So powerful was Said’s critique that it spread and prospered in the academy, becoming the new orthodoxy and casting a critical shadow back over everything written or painted about the Middle East in the previous 200 years or more. Since its publication almost everything any European said, wrote or painted about the Ottoman Empire has been reappraised to appear in a much more sinister light, either furthering malicious racist stereotypes, aiding in imperial exploitation, or the shameless appropriation of a weaker culture’s art and designs.

Schizophrenia

Now the woke young curators of this exhibition are fully paid-up subscribers to Said’s unforgiving views about Western exploitation of the Middle East. This isn’t a guess on my part. They quote page one of Orientalism in the very opening wall label which introduces the exhibition:

The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant… The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture.

And every other wall label takes pains to remind us that the plate or vase or tile or translation of The 1001 Nights or any other cultural product which we’re looking at and which references Islam may well seem beautiful to us but, tut tut, we should be aware that it was part of the wicked European fashion to appropriate Islamic patterns for vases or the exploitative trend for mock Moorish architecture, or the thieving use of Arabic script in picture frames and so on.

And that behind all of this detail, all of these individual examples of cultural appropriation, lies the huge looming shadow of Western Imperialism!

Four tiles by William De Morgan & Co, Britain (1888-1897)

Cumulatively, these hectoring labels and panels created, for me at any rate, a strange sense of schizophrenia. In one and the same wall label the curators might both praise the craftmanship of a western tile maker or architect – and yet accuse them of being part of the general movement of cultural appropriation. Praise and damn almost in the same breath.

As so often in modern exhibitions, I began to feel that I got more visual and aesthetic enjoyment if I just stopped reading the hectoring labels – felt less harangued and nagged to feel guilty about things which happened 150 years before I was even born.

Orientalist painting

It’s probably in painting that the Orientalist issue is most obvious, or most familiar to most of us because the antique shops of the West are awash with third-rate late-Victorian depictions of the Arab world, of mosques, old men in long gowns with even longer beards, camels crossing the desert, Oriental markets, scantily dressed concubines and so on.

Said’s idea is that, although these images are fairly harmless looked at individually, taken together they become condescending, sexist and racist, depicting a fantasy world of harems and sultans, long-gowned scholars in picturesque mosques, colourful markets or the desert at dawn – all of which, taken together, creates a patronising distortion of the complex realities of the many peoples and tribes and ethnic groups and nations scattered across North Africa and the Middle East.

Moreover, taken together, they all tend in the same direction, promoting an ideology claiming that all these cultures and peoples might well be noble and beautiful, but were also backward and in decline, and therefore needed to be taken in hand, taken over, guided and ruled by us, the enlightened West.

At Prayer by Ludwig Deutsch (1923)

The big wall hanging of twenty or so massive Orientalist paintings which I mentioned earlier are obviously meant to represent a kind of ‘Wall of Shame’. Tut tut, we are encouraged to think: look at all these stereotypical markets and mosques and rugs and carpets. Look how oppressive they are.

However, I just didn’t feel the moral outrage I think the curators intend us to feel. The real impact of hanging so many Orientalist paintings next to each other was, in my opinion, to make you feel a bit sick, as if you’d been let loose in a sweetshop and eaten everything in sight. They are self-consciously opulent and gorgeous to the point of absurdity.

Another, more objective result of examining so many of these over-ripe productions was that, pace Said, most of them are not from the imperial nineteenth century, nor, surprisingly, were many of them produced by the classic imperialist powers who carved up the Middle East between them, France and Britain.

At least half of them were from the twentieth century, many from after the Great War (the two above are from 1913 and 1923). And quite a few were by either German or American painters, not by the cultural Anglo-French cultural appropriators. Neither the Germans nor the Americans had any colonial presence in the Middle East till well after the Great War and even then, not very much.

Orientalism or Romanticism?

As I read yet another wall label pointing out how the Orientalist painters fantasised and romanticised and embellished lots of the subjects they painted, as if this was a shockingly immoral and exploitative thing to do, a simple thought occurred to me: Didn’t all 19th century artists?

There are thousands and thousands of Victorian genre paintings which romanticise and glamorise all kinds of subjects, from their own working classes (cf the exhibition of cheesy paintings of Victorian children I saw earlier this year at the Guildhall) to windswept Hebridean crofters.

In other words, wasn’t the entire artistic movement of Romanticism about, well, stereotypically romantic subject matter – about mountains and storms at sea and heroic adventures and tormented heroes and shy maidens with heaving bosoms who needed rescuing from dragons (I’m thinking of the amazing late-Victorian fantasies of Edward Burne-Jones as recently displayed at Tate Britain).

The same exaggerated depiction of popular conceptions of subjects was applied to everything – I bet medieval knights weren’t as manly and knightly as they appear in Victorian paintings, that Highland crofters weren’t as proud and noble, or our brave soldiers quite as manly and beautifully kitted out, as they appear in those big hearty late-Victorian paintings.

Don’t all Victorian paintings depict extravagant stereotypes in lush and glamorous colours? In other words, there is nothing particular or exceptional about this hyper-romantic style being applied to ‘Oriental’ subjects: it was applied to countless other subjects as well.

The Guard by Antonio María Fabrés y Costa (1889)

The harem

I was especially looking forward to the section about the harem, not because I was expecting to be particularly titillated but because I was anticipating the orgy of outraged feminism it would prompt in the commentary.

After all, one of the most obvious and much-repeated claims of anti-orientalist, politically correct literary critics, feminists and curators is that Western white men used the Ottoman institution of the harem to concoct a vast number of soft porn, erotic fantasies which bore no relation to reality at all, but merely satisfied the gloating gaze of fat, rich, white, male collectors.

So the most astonishing single thing about this exhibition about Western depictions of the Orient is the complete absence of even one decent painting showing a classic, late-Victorian harem scene. Not one.

I thought I must have missed a room somewhere and went back through the exhibition to check, but eventually realised that the little collection of five or so chaste drawings and one painting – none of which show a nude woman, all of them very restrained – is all they have! 

There’s a tiny photo of one of the classic nude-in-a-Turkish-bath paintings by Ingres, but any actual huge, beautiful and sexy harem scenes by him or Eugène Delacroix or John Frederick Lewis or any number of their followers and copyers… nothing! None!

I think I could go to my nearest antiques shop and find more cheesy old Victorian paintings of scantily-clad maidens in a supposed harem than there were in this exhibition. It is an astonishing gap. The big oil painting I mentioned is of a fully-clothed woman who could be more or less anywhere.

Off to one side there is one little drawing of a woman playing a musical instrument by a French artist we are assured, by the conscientious curators, was a notorious Orientalist – though it could hardly be less offensive. Does this image strike you as being offensively racist and sexist, stereotyping the Orient and providing visual underpinning for Western imperialism? It doesn’t, to me.

Study of a girl playing a stringed instrument by Jean Léon Gérôme (1886)

In fact it raises a related politico-aesthetic question, because the curators point out that the artists, Jean Léon Gérôme, was well known for his meticulous sketches and drawings he made preparatory to making an oil painting. Which made me reflect: I n what way can these artists be accused of peddling lazy stereotypes if they were carefully and meticulously depicting what they saw, what was actually in front of them?

The sex object bites back (or photographs itself wearing clothes)

The absolute of real killer harem scenes is all the more puzzling because it is meant to set up the final part of the exhibition, which is devoted to contemporary works by modern Muslim women artists.

The curators have chosen to interpret these contemporary Muslim women artists as responding to the despicable tradition of Western Orientalism. They are ‘speaking back to Orientalist representations of the east’. They are ‘subverting and undermining works by earlier European and North American artists’.

But alas the curators’ plan doesn’t really work because we have not seen any of the sexy, sexist Orientalist representations of the east which these contemporary artists are kicking back against. We pretty much have to imagine them, or remember them from other exhibitions or books.

In fact I thought all four of the women artists on display here were very good, very very good, in their way better than the rest of the exhibition. Best of the four was a triptych of images by Lalla Essaydi, part of a large series of works titled Women of Morocco.

In them Essaydi or her models adopt the poses of the scantily-clad women draped around in famous Orientalist paintings, only here the women are chastely and Islamically dressed and – and this is the distinctive thing from a visual point of view – both they, their clothes and the studio backcloths are covered in Islamic script. I thought it was a brilliant idea, brilliantly executed, to produce really vibrant and exciting images.

Les Femmes du Maroc by Lalla Essaydi (2005) © Lalla Esaydi

Conclusion

Inspired by the East feels, in the end, like a rather thin exhibition.

Firstly, it claims to be a look at the interaction between East and West, so you’d expect it to be divided into two parts; How East affected West and how West affected East.

As noted, there’s plenty of examples of the way Westerners appropriated Eastern designs and motifs and patterns, architecture and design (although this felt like a much larger subject which really deserved to be investigated in much greater depth – All over London are buildings which incorporate Islamic motifs; if you add in tiling and ceramics and metalwork you have a huge subject).

But as to West affecting East, this section felt very skimpy indeed, with just one small room showing a couple of photo albums by pioneering photographers in Istanbul and a map or two. Is that it?

Secondly, there is the big shadow of Edward Said and his embittering theory of Orientalism threaded throughout the show, the premise that all depictions of the Middle East and all forms of appropriation of its culture were handmaidens to the wicked, Western imperial exploitation of the area.

But this rather harsh and inflexible approach militates against the more nuanced vibe of the ‘cultural interactions’ parts of the show. One minute the curators are praising Western craftsmen; the next they are berating the subtle cultural imperialism of copying Islamic designs.

Hence my comment about the unsettling schizophrenia I thought the show suffered from.

3. And when I got to the section on the harem and realised how tragically thin it was, it suddenly crystallised for me how skimpy the rest of the exhibition feels. It feels like it’s trying to address two or three really big issues and not quite doing any of them quite properly.

Alhambra vase, Spain 1800–1899 © Islamic Arts Museum, Malaysia

Writing versus art

I read Orientalism at university four or five years after it was published, when it still had ‘the shock of the new’, before it settled down to become the new orthodoxy taught to each new generation of humanities and art students.

And Said’s book is almost entirely concerned with Orientalist writing – with the supposedly factual works of Orientalist ‘scholars’ (who he systematically debunks) and with the Western literary writers who perpetuated stereotypes about the Exotic East (Byron, Nerval, Flaubert just for starters).

A lot of this kind of writing was produced in the nineteenth century and so Said had a rich vein to draw on, and was able to show how the supposedly ‘scholarly’ writing, and the literary works, easily morphed into official, governing and imperial writing, could be co-opted into government reports and assessments, how anthropological studies could be quoted in business cases for invading Egypt, say, or Iraq.

But it is much harder to divine a particularly patronising, racist or imperialist motive behind a set of porcelain which just happens to use an Islamic motif, or in picture frames which use Arabic script as decoration, or in glassware which incorporates Islamic patterns.

It’s easier to imagine that they were just one among the millions of other ranges of pottery and ceramics and frames produced during the consumer boom of the nineteenth century, which cannibalised motifs and patterns from all available sources – from India and China and Japan to name just a few – if it produced something which would sell.

To see most of the objects in this exhibition as part of an enormous explosion of art and crafts products which catered for the burgeoning middles classes as, to some extent, they still do today.

So my last thought is that maybe the bittiness and thinness of the exhibition is owing to the fact that the curators are trying to illustrate a basically literary theory with works of art and museum objects. And not nearly enough of them to really round out the argument.

Whatever the reason, for me this exhibition contained an entertaining pot-pourri of lovely objects, but didn’t really hang together either as history, or as a sustained exploration of the themes it purports to address.

Promotional video

Curators

  • Julia Tugwell
  • Olivia Threlkeld

Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

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