Everybody's Orient

Xxxx Xxxxx Xxxxxx xxxxxxxx at xxxxxxxxxxx.xxx
Mon Nov 13 20:07:01 MST 2000



http://www.ahram.org.eg/weekly/2000/503/books3.htm

Al-Ahram Weekly On-line 12 - 18 October 2000 Issue No. 503  Published in
Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

BOOKS: a monthly supplement of Al-Ahram Weekly

Everybody's Orient

Reviewed by Fayza Hassan

L'Egypte Illustrée par les peintres du XIX siècle, Azza Heikal ,Ed. Max
Group, 2000. pp 330

Author of a previous book on Alexandrian life in the pre-revolution
period, Azza Heikal has taught at the Sorbonne and the National
Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilisations in Paris. She has used
the works of Orientalist painters extensively to illustrate her
discussions on life in Egypt in the context of her lessons, as she
explains in the introduction. Having derived so much pleasure from her
academic presentations, she eventually decided to share her delight in
the Orientalists with a larger public, and thought of compiling a
selective anthology of the masters, accompanied by a précis of her
interpretations.

As an Egyptian living abroad and imbued with French culture and values,
however, Heikal may have lost some of her sensitivity to the current
Egyptian intellectual climate, as she waxes ecstatic about the
truth-value of the works she is presenting. Her position seems to differ
completely from that of mainstream Egyptian art critics, who are at odds
with Orientalist discourse and tend to be suspicious of what they
consider inaccurate representations of the Orient by foreigners who
either did not know better or had a hidden agenda. Especially since
Edward Said's Orientalism, it has become politically correct in
historically aware milieus ruthlessly to debunk any literary or artistic
oeuvre that draws in any way on the romantic or lustful impressions of
19th-century European travellers to the East. Heikal, on the other hand,
is content to take the paintings at face value. For her, these artistic
endeavours have only one side: a bright and delightful one.

While illustrating for her students Abdel-Rahman El-Gabarti's chronicles
of the French Occupation with paintings from Gérôme, (her favourite),
Michel Rigo or Willem de Famars Testas, she never mentions the fact that
most of  these works of art depict an Orient of fantasies, not the way
it ever was, but rather the way its artist-visitors wanted it to be. Nor
does she question the political message these images may have conveyed
at the time. "While the Western spectator admires the brightness of the
colours, the strength of the picture, the imagination or exoticism of
the decoration," she writes, "the Easterner is more sensitive to the
anecdotal value of the representation, the details of the production,
which each seem to be telling a story... In the end, both points of view
are complementary," she concludes happily.

 Based on travellers' accounts and well-known pseudo-historical tales,
the commentary flows pleasantly enough, with just a hint of doubt
expressed here and there by the writer as to the authenticity of the
scene or the legend; but even these mild misgivings are presented too
discreetly to alert the unsuspecting reader to a more complex aspect of
Egyptian historiography.

 Scrupulously honest as to the extent of her expertise, Heikal does
point out that she is not an art critic, and therefore does not presume
to appraise the artistic or technical aspects of each picture, but that
she has chosen these particular works only for the "Egyptian" quality
she perceives in their composition. In fact, the most interesting
feature of the book resides in the technical excellence and variety of
the beautifully printed reproductions of famous as well as less famous
tableaux. Heikal's extensive survey of 19th-century Orientalist painters
makes for a sumptuous coffee table book, luxuriously produced and richly
illustrated, which will give hours of enjoyment to any lay reader
unencumbered with a need for historical rigour.

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Xxxx Xxxxx Xxxxxx
PhD Student
Department of Political Science
SUNY at Albany
Nelson A. Rockefeller College
135 Western Ave.; Milne 102
Albany, NY 12222



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