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Head of an Arab Man by Jean-Horace Vernet (pen, brown ink, brown wash) (Stephen Ongpin Fine Art, London)



Entering the Mosque by Edwin Lord Weeks, 1885 (Photo credit: thephora.net)


  • Edward Said
  • Orientalism
  • Eurocentrism
  • the Migrant Crisis
  • Brexit
  • Palestine

“Orientalism is the exaggeration of difference, the presumption of Western superiority, and the application of clichéd analytical models for perceiving the Oriental world.”
(Edward Said, Orientalism, Wikipedia)

At first sight, the post that published itself on 1 September 2016 and was returned to the status of “draft,” seemed to indicate opposition to Edward Said’s Orientalism, which I took to be the art of Jean-Léon Gérôme (11 May 1824 – 10 January 1904), Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps (March 3, 1803 – August 22, 1860), Émile Jean-Horace Vernet (30 June 1789 – 17 January 1863), the Baron Antoine-Jean Gros (16 March 171- 25 June 1835), Eugène Delacroix  (26 April 1798 – 13 August 1863) and others. There is a difference between my view and his, but it is not opposition.

According to Dr Said, colonialism and imperialism rested on a sense of superiority on the part of colonialists. Edward Said studied “the cultural representations that are the bases of Orientalism, the West‘s patronizing perceptions and fictional depictions of ‘The East.’” Orientalism, Wikipedia.)

There can be no doubt that the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 epitomizes what is now referred to as Eurocentrism, the postulate governing both colonialism and imperialism. Colonialists viewed themselves as superior to the inhabitants of the countries they had discovered and/ or conquered.

It is within the nature of Empires to rise and fall. It could be therefore that, in 1916, the Ottoman Empire was about to collapse. However, it was not for Mark Sykes, from Britain, and for François Georges-Picot, from France, to partition the Ottoman Empire and to do so before it had fallen. The Sykes-Picot Agreement violated what we now consider a right: the right of nations to determine their future, a right which, in 1916, may not have been perceived as a right.

Nativism is also Eurocentric and, in 2016, Eurocentrism should be a thing of the past. However, it has resurfaced as a result of the European Migrant Crisis. Where will Marine Le Pen send the Muslim migrants who are now entering France? She could be elected to the presidency of France in 2017. More ominous is the possible election, three months from now, of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States. If Mr Trump is elected, there will be no asylum for migrant Muslims in the United States. It is Mr Trump’s view that Muslims are terrorists.

Who would have imagined, a year ago, that British Jews would exercise their right of return to Germany because of the degree of racism that seemed to underpin the unexpected Brexit leave vote? There are consequences to colonialism and to imperialism. If a nation has colonized a nation, the identity of the colonized people may reflect the identity of the citizens who rule it. During the period its territory is considered home to another nation, inhabitants of the colony are educated in the schools of the colonist. All a society needs to ask of its inhabitants, whatever their origin, is that they be law-abiding citizens. “Je suis Charlie”  and “Je suis Raïf.” 

For that matter, “I am Dr Said.” One does not partition a country to make room for a people who claim as theirs a land they have not inhabited for two thousand years or more. Notions such as the concepts of “promised land” and that of “chosen” people are not literal. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 supported the creation of a homeland for the Jewish people, but the Jewish homeland Britain supported was in Palestine. That is all Britain could promise. If it is the right of nations to determine their own future, the  matter should have been negotiated by the people concerned: the Jews and the Palestinians.

The Holocaust

  • Hitler’s persecution of the Jews
  • the United States and World War II
  • the partition of Palestine
  • the creation of Israel 1948
  • Orientalism

History took a wrong turn. Adolf Hitler and his Nazis rose to power in the 1930s and in 1939, they started invading European countries. They also built concentration camps and killed 6 million Jews, most of them in gas chambers. Intervention was needed, so Winston Churchill approached US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (30 January 1882 – 12 April 1945), a truly great American.

American intervention was required both to liberate occupied Europe and to save the Jews who had survived Hitler’s concentration camps. American help was also needed to rebuild Europe. Europe had been crushed. The United States is a powerful country, but seldom was it so powerful than after World War II. The State of Israel was created and the United States, under President Harry S Truman, was the first country to recognize it as a state. Israel would enlarge its borders in 1967, during the Six-Day War. In fact, nearly 50 years later, Israel has yet to return the occupied territories it conquered during the Six-Day War. We may still have autocrats, but colonialism is over.


In the meantime, Dr Said, a musician, and pianist Daniel Barenboim were promoting harmony and counterpoint. Dr Said and Mr Barenboim co-founded the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra, based in Seville, and whose members are Israeli, Arab and Jewish musicians. (See Edward Said, Wikipedia.)

I can understand why Mr Said finds fault with Orientalism. Although it has produced masterpieces, Orientalism conveys a view of the Orient that is conditioned by artists whose Orient is a borrowed Orient. It is not Islamic art and it may be purely of an ornamental value. By and large, the West does not learn the East. Lawrence of Arabia was an exception.

Jean-Horace Vernet’s Head of an Arab Man, featured at the top of this post, is quite an achievement, by artistic standards. However, it is not Islamic art. It is Orientalism, a movement that followed Napoleon Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt and Syria. Which takes us to Egyptology.


Napoleon at the Battle of the Pyramids, Baron Antoine-Jean Gros


Bonaparte visiting the Plague-Stricken at Jaffa by Antoine-Jean Gros, 1799  (Art Renewal Centre)

Visit the Louvre: http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/napoleon-bonaparte-visiting-plague-stricken-jaffa
The Battle of the Pyramids (Wikipedia.)


“An unusual aspect of the Egyptian expedition was the inclusion of an enormous contingent of scientists and scholars (“savants”) assigned to the invading French force, 167 in total. This deployment of intellectual resources is considered as an indication of Napoleon’s devotion to the principles of the Enlightenment, and by others as a masterstroke of propaganda obfuscating the true motives of the invasion; the increase of Bonaparte’s power. (See French campaign in Egypt and Syria, Wikipedia.)

  • L’Institut d’Égypte
  • the Rosetta Stone
  • Champollion

I realize fully that Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt and Syria was motivated by his wish to hinder British trade with a more distant Orient and that France, under Napoleon wanted to annex Egypt. It wanted to enlarge its Empire. Nevertheless, although the French campaign in Egypt was mostly self-serving, I rather admire Napoleon’ caveat to his troops as they approached Alexandria. They would meet Muslims and had to be tolerant of their culture. His caveat is quoted in my last post: A Mameluke & the Napoleonic Code.

Interestingly, Napoleon took 167 scientists and scholars to the Near East and even if the discovery of the Rosetta Stone were their only finding, it was an important discovery and the stone’s ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs were deciphered by Jean-François Champollion, who was a linguist whose research interest was ancient languages and whose linguistic research would lead to more research.[1]

L’Institut d’Égypte

Copies were made of the inscriptions of the Rosetta Stone were sent to various countries and a discipline was born: Egyptology. The scientists and scholars who travelled with Napoleon’s troops made several findings and, on 24 August 1798, 48 of Napoleon’s scholars met and founded l’Institut d’Égypte. As early as 22 November 1799, they decided to publish their Description de l’Égypte. The Institut d’Égypte was closed on 21 March 1801, when Napoleon returned to France.

At the time, an artefact such as the Rosetta Stone could be considered part of the spoils of wars. It was established that Napoleon had been defeated by Britain at the Battle of the Nile, fought from 1 to 3 August 1798. Therefore, under the terms of the Capitulation of Alexandria (1801), the Rosetta Stone was transported to England aboard l’Égyptienne, a frigate captured from the French. It was housed in the British Museum where it is still exhibited.

Ironically, General Jacques-François Menou, baron de Boussay, who had converted to Islam and married a Muslim, was the person who handed the Rosetta Stone over to Britain. The precious rock stele had been found under Menou’s command.

In Egypt, Napoleon had recruited an élite corps of soldiers whom he called the Mamelukes of the Imperial Guard. They joined his Armée d’Orient and followed Napoleon back to France. One Mamluk, Roustam Raza, a slave of Armenian descent, would be Napoleon’s bodyguard for 15 years. He had settled in France and would not follow Napoleon to Elba, where the Emperor was first exiled.

Taha Hussein

The Institut d’Égypte resumed its activities in 1836. Its scholars were English, French, German, Egyptians… Scholars from every nationality may choose Egyptology as a field of expertise. But l’Institut égyptien‘s major figure would be Egyptian scholar Taha Hussein (15 November 1889 – 28 October 1973) whose accomplishments include a book on Ibn Khaldūn (27 May 1332 – 19 March 1406). The Institut was severely damaged by a fire during the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 (The Arab Spring). It is being rebuilt but some, if not many, of the documents it housed are forever lost. There may not be another copy.


Orientalism in Art and Literature

  • Orientalism
  • Gérôme, Vernet, Gros, Ingres, etc.
  • in Literature: Flaubert’s Salammbô

As for Orientalism as subject matter or theme, the French campaign in Egypt and Syria  (Wikipedia) did inspire artists, such as Jean-Léon Gérôme (11 May 1824 – 10 January 1904) and Horace Vernet (MMA, NY). Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (29 August 1780 – 14 January 1867), painted the famous Grande Odalisque (Louvre). Earlier in history an oda (Turkish for room) had been a chambermaid, but Ingres’ Grande Odalisque was a concubine, almost a secret, but she was the first of many. She may be elongated, but that is poetic licence. Among Orientalists, most had travelled to the Near East, but Ingres had not. His Grande Odalisque was the product of the imagination or Orientalisme. It was not Islamic Art.

The French campaign in Egypt and Syria also inspired musical compositions and literature. However, neither Victor Hugo‘s “Les Djinns,” nor Gustave Flaubert (12 December 1821 – 8 May 1880) Salammbô, a 1862 historical novel, are Islamic literature. Gustave Flaubert, the author of Madame Bovary (1856), did visit Istanbul, in modern day Turkey, and Beirut, Lebanon, before he wrote Salammbô. At the time Salammbô was in progress, Flaubert also went to Carthage to research his historical novel. He needed information and couleur locale.

Like Ingres, Victor Hugo (26 February 1802 – 22 May 1885) did not travel to the Orient. “Les Djinns,” one of the poems included in Hugo’s Orientales (1829), is the product of a brilliant imagination. However, Hugo was inspired by the Greek War of Independence, 1821 – 1832, as was Eugène Delacroix. During the course of his career, Delacroix also illustrated William Shakespeare, the Scottish author Walter Scott and the German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. (See Eugène Delacroix, Wikipedia.)


Quebec has a policy of interculturalism. It is based on the work of Martha Nussbaum and emphasizes humanity. Interculturalism involves “the recognition of common human needs across cultures and of dissonance and critical dialogue within cultures” Cultivating Humanity).[2] Humanism is precisely what Dr Said believes should be emphasized. We are all the same and it is this sameness we should recognized. Palestinians are not second-class citizens no more than Muslims in Algeria.   


As works of art, musical compositions and literature, which is what I have shown, would not be criticized by Dr Said, not individually and not as paintings, musical compositions, and literature. All express an interest in the East. That interest can lead to a wish to understand and to accept what differs from the rest of us but only superficially. Works of art can be inspirational, including a depiction of the orient by an outsider. It may lead to an appreciation of Islamic art, which is where peace may begin.

What Dr Said bemoans is a human tragedy. Palestinians have been trivialized and they have been dispossessed. They are still, to this day, being relocated, like pawns. The exodus of Palestinians started in 1948 and, in 2003, United States President George W. Bush entered Iraq at British Prime Minister Tony Blair‘s instigation. Entering a sovereign nation is illegal, but it is also disrespectful, a human value.

Mr Said’s book, entitled Orientalism, has to do, first and foremost, with the humiliation Palestinians were subjected to when their country was partitioned and its citizens marginalized. But the more significant starting-point was the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire by Britain and France. Sykes and Georges-Picot divided the spoils of war so their “spheres of influence” were protected. Countries were like pawns and the promise of a Greater Syria, made to Arabs through Lawrence of Arabia, was not reflected in the new map. As for the Balfour Declaration of 1917, it went no further than a decision to support the creation of a Jewish homeland, in Palestine.

Whatever its starting-point, l’Institut égyptien would have survived in its pristine condition as an Egyptian establishment which it had become, had rioters not thrown a Molotov cocktail through a window during the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. We now have suicide bombers.

I have included two videos. One is difficult to understand and the other, too long for a post. They feature Dr Said. Dr Said may at first be difficult to understand. However he seems to be saying that ornaments, however beautiful, fall short of an understanding of the East.

I apologize for a lengthy absence. I’ve been unwell: anemia.

Love to everyone. 



[1] Jean Lacouture, Champollion, une Vie de lumières (Paris: Éditions Grasset & Fasquelle, 1988).
[2] Quoted in Beyond Bilingualism and Biculturalism (see RELATED ARTICLES)

napoleon-bonaparte-age-23-by-henri-fc3a9lix-emmanuel-philippoteaux (1)

Napoleon Bonaparte, aged 23, by Henri-Félix-Emmanuel Philippoteaux (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

© Micheline Walker
17 August 2016