Indochic— Target’s New Home Line celebrates colonization or as they call it, “French-Vietnamese fusion.”

My husband and I started brainstorming our weekly household needs and while he worked on meal planning and a grocery list, I opened the Target app on my phone to see if they had any amazing deals on things we needed. We all know a trip to Target is dangerous and needs to be carefully and cautiously plotted.

Otherwise, the money can disappear.

I immediately found myself drawn to this luscious teal blue chair.

I mean, I seriously see this chair as part of the renovations to our master bedroom here.

But then I read the description: “Indochic: Think French-Vietnamese fusion, full of elegant shapes and sophisticated jewel tones.”

Now, this is my version of when people cry sexism when parents put little girls in clothes that focus on cuteness or certain traits our society sees as feminine. Like the t-shirts that say “I’m too pretty to do homework” or something like that.

“Indochic” is the exploitation and the ignorant perpetuation of the stereotypes that allowed colonialism and the “civilizing mission” to destroy cultures. If you understand my outrage… Well, may the sun shine upon you. We are kindred spirits. If not, let me see if I can calm down and rationally explain the root of my indignation.

First, let me start with the term “Indochic.” It’s a play off of the term “Indochina,” a strongly European word describing the region between India and China. The term became prevalently used in the 19th century and eventually referred strictly to the French colony of what is now Vietnam.

The French called its colony in the region “Indochine” so already Target has managed to make a playful pun, and a French pun at that by combining the French term “chic” with the prefix “Indo.” It’s Indo-great! Indo-cool!

Now, let me rant about the idea of “French-Vietnamese fusion.” The mix of French and Asian style occurred when the French colonized this region. I am no expert on French colonization in Asia, so I can’t address this in depth. But let me offer a few ideas.

Any fusion between the French and the Vietnamese was not voluntary. So should we celebrate it?

Is a pun like “Indochic” okay because the reference dates to the late nineteenth through mid-twentieth century? Is it a forgotten pain? Can it be compared to referring as certain styles as “urban” as opposed to African-American? Would people feel differently about this type of style if the ad featured an Asian woman and a French man?

What I also find interesting about the concept of Indochic, French-Vietnamese fusion connects to my interest in miscegenation. The French developed strict plans for breeding between the civilized French man and the indigenous woman. In French Indochina, French men in the colony were encouraged to make local women their concubines specifically to purify and civilize by producing children with Frenchness.

But remember, the women in these unions would come from poverty by French standards and would be servants or laundresses to their colonial master before they caught his eye. Young native women and older French men, the women unable to say no because of the power exchange.

In colonialism, native cultures lose their land and their resources to the more powerful nation. Their men lose the chance to earn their own living. People who had independent lives become dependent on a foreign system. Tradesmen become servants. Women become housekeepers and sex objects. Native traditions and languages bend, twist and often break or are forced broken by the more powerful, dominant presence.

So when we advertise a sophisticated, elegant French-Vietnamese fusion and give it a cutesy name, we are perpetuating the idea that the cultures on the peninsula between India and China did not have anything to contribute to the world before the French came along and subjugated them.

It’s not Indochic. It’s not cool. It’s contemporary Orientalism.

If anything it’s Asian-influenced French design. Influenced. Because fusion implies an intentional attempt to blend two strong styles.

Facing modern Orientalism in Lalla Essaydi photographs at Lafayette College

This is the final week to see Lalla Essaydi’s photographs at the Williams Center for the Arts gallery at Lafayette College.

This seven photograph exhibit takes a journey into contemporary Muslim women’s space while exploring traditional Orientalist beliefs, otherwise known as Western stereotypes of the Muslim/Arab experience.

Immediately, I recognized these themes in Essaydi’s photography. My previous exposure both academically (my interest in post colonial Francophone Africa, how it intersects with the Muslim world, and the impact these topics have on contemporary international politics) and via travel in Africa and the Middle East came rushing into my head like a lost dream you fight to remember upon waking.

This exhibit features five photographs that use white/beige colors, Arabic writing, henna and women in various levels of religious covering and two photographs more steeped in color.

The seven photographs come from three different series: Converging Territories, Harem and Bullets. Just reading those titles should leave a certain taste in the mouth. I have with me an exhibit guide but I haven’t referred to it yet as I prefer to digest the works on my own first.

The first piece one encounters in the exhibit is 2004’s Converging Territories #24, featuring a woman’s face, only eyes showing, with writing on her face and the cloth covering her. The chromogenic print mounted on aluminum divides the woman’s face into four panels, each an almost even display of skin, lettering, and beige fabric.

This one did not attract or impress me. That is not to say it does not present a strong harmonious image. It is certainly a lovely piece of artwork, but artwork often speaks to the viewer in unique ways and this one seemed what one would expect from an exhibit like this.

Next came Harem #2 (2009). Instantly, I noticed the use of the term harem and the mimicry of traditional Orientalist images prevalent in I believe it was 19th century Western paintings capturing a fantasy of what Western/European artists expected the Muslim/Arab lifestyle to be.

The Harem series uses more color, more texture, and repeats the Orientalist themes of a reclining woman in exotic dress. The repetition of these stereotypical themes used by a Muslim female photography made me bristle. But this woman is propped on one arm and seated rather proudly so I sense the challenge to the age-old idea of the Middle Eastern harem.

Next, I found Bullets #3 (2003). The woman  in this photograph has a sassy shoulder turned to the camera. She is covered, but showing more flesh than normally proper throughout the arm. The backdrop is all bullets as if they were tiles on the wall, bullets also adorn her clothes. Another stunning photograph, but frankly I grow tired of the constant obsession of the Muslim identity automatically connecting with terrorism. I’m sure that’s Essaydi’s point, too.

I’m going to skip my favorite piece and turn instead to Harem Revisited #34 (2012). Perhaps this is the most colorful piece presented at Lafayette. It is three years newer than the other, and the woman’s pose in this one is not only more docile and reclined but divided into three panels, an immediate detraction from her humanity. She is reduced to pieces.

But the focal point of the exhibit (and my favorite), if I can proclaim that based on not only the fact that it was in my opinion very prominently displayed, is Converging Territories #30 (2004). [Featured image for this post.] It depicts, with the same beige clothing on beige background covered with writing and people decorated with henna, four females standing side by side in various levels of garb.

The largest woman, whom appears to be the only adult in the group, is completely covered head to toe. I can’t even refer to it as burqa as she doesn’t even have a slit or a screen for her eyes. I see them as a family, and the next one is in more traditional burqa and appears to be an adolescent. The next girl, a sweet looking pre-teen, has her scarf tied under her chin, exposing her whole face but not her hair. The last little girl has no head covering.

What I adore about this photograph is the vivid use of the progression of covering as it follows a woman through various stages of life and suggests not only the typical message of how a woman’s identity is limited by strict forms of covering, but also attaches this idea to the act of mothering and potentially makes it more universal. To me, the suggestion is that all women lose a part of their identity as they transition into a maternal role. This has nothing to do with religion.

If you miss the exhibit at Lafayette, a similar exhibit runs through May at the Trout Gallery of Dickinson College.

About Lalla Essaydi: According to the exhibit guide, she grew up in Morocco, raised her family in Saudi Arabia, and lived in both France and the United States. She received her arts education from prestigious art programs in both France and the United States.

Road Trip, Djibouti style 

When we returned to Djibouti City from Mogadishu (last weekend), we booked a trip with Bambu Service Touristik to visit Lac Abbé on the Ethiopian border.

African road trips are precarious. You have the crazy drivers, lack of petrol stations, dessert roads and rocky roads and a general lack of, say, signs. 

A straight drive from Djibouti, Lac Abbé is probably a three or four hour drive depending on conditions. We had several stops booked into our day.

I was extremely excited about this trip, because Lac Abbé is traditionally Afar nomad territory. Djibouti, as a country and former colony of France (granted independence in June 1977), has two traditional ethnic groups (among a host of others): the Issa Somali, with connections to Somalia and Somaliland, and the Afar, who hail from/migrate to Ethiopia (and I believe Eritrea).

I had just returned from a three day visit to Mogadishu. Mogadishu had opened my eyes to the influence of Somali culture in Djibouti. As soon as I returned to the streets, I recognized the food for sale. And now I could go see the Afar region.

As a student historian, I was thrilled.

  
As you drive into the countryside, you need more improvised structures. Often small huts made from the volcanic rock, sticks, corrugated metal and other recycled objects. Tires are the fence of choice.

  
Homes often have tires fencing in little yards…

Along the route we saw a lot of cylinders and it turns out there’s a big water infrastructure project underway to bring water from Ethiopia to Djibouti. 

   
 
Again, big news for a small country with no natural resources. 

  
Our guide built a coffee stop into our trip and M and I do love coffee. I had forgotten how much I love tea in this area of the world. I think their secret is boiling the sugar into the water before adding the tea. Though I’m not sure. I don’t like sweetened tea other places.

 

making our coffee


  She poured our coffee from her thermos bottles and when people paid her, she tossed the coins in a basket under her little table.

coffee and tea

  

other patrons having coffee


Our next stop was the town of Ali Sabieh. That will be my next topic. 

The Beauty of Djibouti

Day Five.

The time passes by so quickly, with each day bringing some sort of adventure. It could be simple, like the juice bar at Cafeteria Sana’a not having the ginger juice tasted on the initial visit and trying first mango, then cantaloupe, and also lemon-mint on each subsequent stop. Some adventures are frustrating, like when several atm machines refuse to give you money and the tourism agency and official money brokers have different ranges of American dollar bills they will accept. Remember when the United States added all those colors to our boring green money? Well, Djiboutians don’t like old money. Some adventures are hysterical, somehow causing the hotel room chair to fail when sitting.

The environment remains fascinating. People are surprised to see American tourists here. Not surprised to see Americans as we have quite the military presence. French workers and military are here, in addition to a Japanese base, though I have seen only a few French families (late in the evening in the classy restaurants) and no Americans nor Japanese.

The heat (90 degrees F) and humidity (85%) have not bothered me, and I feared it would be unbearable. I have consumed 2-3 liters of water a day. The town shuts down from 1-4 every day to keep everyone from melting. So this is our quiet time where we have snacks from the grocery store, drink more water, sit on the patio (fans blazing), M smokes, and then we return to our hotel room to cool.

Breakfast is croissant or other bread with coffee. Mid-morning we typically stop for juice. Yesterday we had lunch, primarily because we did a tour excursion to Lac Assal and the guide handed it to us. For dinner, we tried the pizzeria in the hotel (where the staff works very artfully on the product though they should have cooked it longer). Then we visited an Indian restaurant recommended by another hotel guest. That place had a delightful ambiance from the moment we entered. Le Santal features Indian and Chinese cuisine and pizza, the international food. (We returned there a second time, prompting the owner to chat with us and give us baklava.) Next, we had Ethiopian, another wonderfully decorated place, but neither M nor I really favor Ethiopian cuisine. With the broken right hand, it presents a bit of a hand-eating challenge. That said, tonight we shall delve into Djiboutian.

I am positively stunned by the geography, especially after our trip to Lac Assal. We would both like to go to Lac Abbé but are reluctant due to the ten hour drive. Tomorrow we will trek to Ile Moucha. Yesterday we visited a variety of places along the way to Assal. I will hopefully break those down later. I would like to save that for the photos and after I pick up a Djibouti book I saw in the store. Except I needed about 6,000 Djiboutian Francs and I only have 4,000 and the ATM refuses to give me money. By the time we figured that out, the shops had closed for 1 p.m. break. The book will at least provide correct spellings.

The tour guide, driver and company did a fantastic job with our excursion. If you are every in Djibouti, call Daniel Jean at Bambu Service Touristik. What I enjoyed, in addition to breathtaking scenery and warm water pools and the salt lake, was seeing the breakdown of how people live. You can see areas of Djibouti-ville that seem like your average developing (“third world”) city, and then there are areas for industry (I passed the big Coca Cola plant, one of the main employers here) and I’d like to believe we drove by some lovely French villas walled off from the rest of the city. In that respect, colonial ideals may still be in full bloom.

The roads are primarily straight. Road signs point to major cities or even the next country. Nomad villages are everywhere, as people move to find water. In some places, the huts are made of wood and metal, others sticks and tarps, and yet in what I assume are the more stable villages, the nomads take the volcanic rock and build their shelters. Because of the severity of drought here (and even our hotel often has water shortages when you turn on the faucet and nothing comes out), some international aid agencies (I believe Japanese UNICEF is one) have started delivering 50 gallon drums of water to these villages.

We ate lunch near the Salt Investment Company at Restaurant Randa (though we packed, courtesy of the tour) which was in the middle of, if I remember correctly, an Afar nomad village. Cats dined with us and of course goats meandered by. Goats are a major cattle animal here. No agriculture and minimal greenery. Goats are perfect for meat and milk and as everyone knows, they eat everything. Camels also, and occasionally donkeys, but not among the families near Restaurant Randa. (I also assume that the men work at the salt operation.)

I had the opportunity to use the nomad toilet facility, which while primitive by Western standards, was quite nice and included a bucket of water and water bottle scoop for cleansing. I mention this because I think it’s very important to understand that nomadic people don’t have a lesser existence than we do. Sometimes I fear that Western ideas of international development focus too much on issues like infrastructure and unemployment and not enough on basics like clean water and education.

The Afar nomads may not have jobs, electricity or running water, but why do they need it? They follow the rain and the water to feed and care for their cattle. Disease and malnutrition are of course serious for any society, especially among people with so little modern resources. But I envy one element of their simple existence: they have survival skills that I can’t fathom. If suddenly my bank cards, car, refrigerator and two-story house disappeared, I would have no clue how to build my own shelter out of sticks and stones. I could probably care for a goat, but slaughter it? No clue. Who, in the end, will endure?

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The cat photo is from the restaurant, but the black stone structures in the background are homes.

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And the facilities…

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En route: Preparations for Djibouti

The preparations for a voyage are perhaps as much of the “experience” of a trip as the actual travel. Passport photos, visa applications, daydreams of what itinerary you might want and packing a suitcase frame the essence of what the trip will be.

My traveling companion, M, whom I’m sure you’ll hear more about later, he reads the tourism guides, speaks the languages and books the hotels and modes of travel. I do silly things like fuss over shoes, shop for a new journal, and read books.

Thank goodness I got my new 2×2 photos when I did. The same day I visited the local CVS (poor new employee couldn’t load the batteries in the camera, use a memory card or figure out the photo machine— the store manager had to do it himself) I fell walking the kids home from school and took a chunk out of my chin that probably should have received stitches. The last of that scab fell off last night.

When M and I started planning this trip, he originally considered Mauritania. I took Nina Sovich’s new book, To the Moon and Timbuktu, from the college library (on my husband’s card). In the book, Sobich follows her father’s use of Timbuktu as a reference during her childhood and her own appreciation of Mary Kingsley’s Travels in West Africa to embark on her own journey in the region. She travels alone, in part to soothe her own marital restless and as homage to her Swedish mother who loved the African continent.

I read Kingsley myself 20 years ago in college. I still have the book and may reread it before embarking on my adventure, though we are no longer visiting Mauritania. Many of our destinations are decided by the availability of seats on airplanes and Djibouti proved logistically more feasible. This greatly excites me as I have wanted to see Djibouti for almost four years.

M thinks I’m crazy. It’s beautiful country, with a shortage of water, a small piece of land (the size of Massachusetts) carved out by the French colonial empire. As I type this, it’s 10 p.m. and 90 degrees. The French have abandoned Camp Lemonnier and the majority of their FFDj presence to the Americans, who are there to fight terrorism in the Middle East. Between piracy, terrorism and even cyber security, Djibouti’s strategic location on the horn of Africa has made it a garrison town for Western Europe, the United States and even the Japanese.

I can list many reasons why visiting Djibouti appeals to me. It received its independence from France in 1977, which means this country is younger than I am. It’s an artificial/crossroads kind of country. It didn’t develop organically but due to western involvement. It once served as the largest overseas French military operation. After the loss of the Algerian colony, while France still conscripted its young men into national service, thousands of French men spent a year here. The geography is supposed to be some of the most unique and breathtaking terrain (and most inhospitable but yet inhabited) in the world.

My husband thinks I’m crazy. Like Sovich’s spouse he doesn’t share my enthusiasm for the bizarre. My daughter has started her own travel memoirs and says some day she will visit Africa. I hope she does.

One month from today, I will board a plane for Paris and thus will begin my travels in East Africa.

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Excerpt: Orphans and French Masculinity in the Interwar Era

This is an excerpt/introduction from a paper written for a seminar at Lafayette College, taught by Joshua Sanborn, inspired by a class taken at Moravian College, taught by Jean-Pierre Lalande.

EXAMINING FRENCH MASCULINITY & THE GREAT WAR:
DID LES PETITS POUSSINS OF THE INTERWAR PERIOD BECOME
LES COQS GAULOIS?

Angel Ackerman
History 353 Gender and Sexuality in Modern Europe
May 12, 2009

When researching French masculinity, it quickly becomes apparent that on some level every stereotype—the seducer, the adulterer, the drinker, the connoisseur, the philosopher, the artist, the swordsman, the braggart—bears truth.  (1) In fact, various scholars have agreed that Cyrano de Bergerac, “…swashbuckler, poet, unsophisticated lover and universal character; the most accomplished expression of gallantry for Frenchwomen,” serves as an icon of nineteenth century
French maleness on the cusp of modern martial masculinity. (2)

But manhood, and many social institutions, would undergo great change throughout Europe as science—beacon of hope at the end of the 1800s, a great force to improve the quality of life— created weapons that would decimate many parts of France and inflict upon all European nations a brutal loss of life previously unimaginable.  The devastation permanently altered the social, political and economic landscape in Europe.  The battles of World War I slaughtered nine million
men, with one-third of them leaving a widow and average of two children.  In France, the Great War robbed 700,000 children of their fathers and more than a million “wards of the state,” a term that could mean either orphan, child without father or child of a permanently disabled man.  With about 1.5 million men dead, an entire generation in France grew up without a father (3)(which would make them orphans as the French orphelin means simply “child without father” unlike its
English equivalent).

In the midst of this fatherless phenomenon, French masculinity shifted shying farther from traditional martial masculinity even as the country sought to restore its former paternalistic glory. Literary themes of the early twentieth century and interwar era discuss the societal struggles caused by absent father figures, floundering government and the threat posed by neighboring Germany, but how does the generation of fatherless boys contribute to France’s changing expectations for men?  Did French war orphans fit the traditional male gender roles or did they become “a pampered bunch of wimps” from single-parent households led by women? (4)

With this in mind, one potential answer to whether or not single mothers reared a generation of wimps is this:  It was neither the absence of paternal role models nor the actions of French mothers that created a generation of men who would not subscribe to martial masculinity of the previous age.  A societal backlash against the sufferings of the Great War caused this shift, potentially exaggerated in war orphans because of their familial loss.  The orphan’s experience
served as an allegory for France as a whole as it dealt with altered masculine roles; fatherless orphans did not cause the change.

To examine this idea, one must establish a selection of men who lost their fathers in World War I.  This seems simple enough.  Search some prominent historical figures and politicians, seeking those born between 1905 to 1910.  I skimmed hundreds of biographies in encyclopedias, academic databases and even, in quasi-desperation, Wikipédia (French Wikipedia).  Articles in French yielded the best results, as could be expected, especially when searching terms like
“pupilles de la nation” (wards of the state) and “mères de deuil” (mothers in mourning).  But, with a limited time frame for this particular project, I could only locate two orphans to use as my case studies:  author Albert Camus and playwright/ actor Jean-Louis Barrault.

For Camus and Barrault, their status as orphans altered their interior attitudes regarding masculinity, not the behaviors that would define them.  War orphans cannot be blamed for the wimpish state of French manhood after the Great War, because the war had changed French maleness for the entire nation.  War orphans were one voice among many reacting to the loss of traditional masculine honor codes.  Barrault and Camus, like their artistic peers, lamented this
lack of masculine definition.

Of course, the experiences of two men do not lead to firm conclusions.  But these two men, thanks to their creative sensibilities, have contemplated these questions of what it means to have a father and what makes someone a man.  Raised in different family environments on different continents, these two men came to many of the same conclusions.  If coupled with the observations of significant playwrights of the Interwar era, the experiences of Camus and Barrault verify the cultural context of the 1920s and 1930s.  Orphans articulated the dilemma of shifting masculinity which continued into World War II with the French surrender.

ENDNOTES
(1) My title plays tribute to one of the World War I postcards featured in Marie-Monique Huss’ book, Histoires de Famille 1914-1918. (Paris: Noesis, 2000) Le petit poussin is the little chick on one postcard expressing his hope that he will one day become a great rooster of Gaul. (213)  Why the rooster?  According to the French president’s official web site (www.elysee.fr) The rooster is one of the symbols of the French republic because of its appearance on the coins of the Gauls. It is often used by foreigners today to represent the French in sporting events.  “Le coq apparaît dès l’Antiquité sur des monnaies gauloises…Il est surtout utilisé à l’étranger pour évoquer la France, notamment comme emblème sportif.”

(2) The quotes comes from Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac (Paris: Bookking International, 1993). This quote comes from the back cover of an edition purchased in Paris in 1995: “Cyrano de Bergerac, héros au grand nez et coeur d’enfant, bretteur et poète, amoureux ingénu, est un personnage universel; c’est l’expression la plus accomplie du panache à la française.” Scholars who have cited him include Robert A. Nye, Masculinity and Male Codes of Honor in Modern France (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) labeling Cyrano de Bergerac as an example of French panache, modesty, and swordsmanship (226) and Huss in Histoires de Famille calls him moral, elegant and displaying the appropriate war scars to be a proper French male (117).

(3) Olivier Faron, Les enfants du deuil: orphelins et pupilles de la nation de la Première Guerre mondiale, 1914-1941 (Paris: Éditions la Découverte, 2001), 13.

(4) The idea for this paper came from Jean-Pierre Lalande’s Twentieth Century French Theatre class at Moravian College in fall 2008. From my notes on Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, 22 October 2008: “Hémon- represente les hommes pragmatiques… ‘je ne vive pas sans elle [sic]’ ‘that’s totally stupid.’ stereotype of a spoiled young man. a né [sic] après la première guerre. 1920- pampered bunch of wimps- Hémon. No 45-year-olds in 1942. lost generation, les jeunes ne sont pas capable.”