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.

Olives at the market in Tunis

Olives at the market in Tunis

We spent days meandering the streets of Tunis. We hopped trains to Sousse and Carthage. We celebrated with the locals on the one year anniversary of the departure of Ben Ali. Olives factored into our lives there with every meal, served in a big bowl beside the olive oil, harissa and bread. A perfect complement to the spicy tomato-based, lamb sausage soup that I can still taste today.

We found the market the day before we left. We could see it from our balcony at the hotel, but we never quite realized what sat under that massive building always boisterous from the first light. That’s where I snapped this photo of olives, in all their rich varieties.


Every time I taste a good olive, a real olive, not one that’s been industrialized and reduced to life in a can, I return to Tunisia.

Travel: Olives

Travel Essay: Initial Impressions of Tunisia

Ruins of Carthage, Tunisia

My initial impressions of Tunisia

My traveling companion and I stood close together on an airport shuttle, him with his backpack slung over his shoulder and me with my massive red bag under my arm. More and more people shoved onto the vehicle at Charles de Gaulle, forcing me closer and closer to him.
“Does it feel strange yet?” he asked me quietly in English.
I peered up at him, as M is significantly taller than I am. “No.”
More bodies pressed against us. More green passports with gold Arabic on their covers.
“We’re the only white people here,” M asked. “Does that bother you?”
“No,” I said.
It didn’t bother me. It excited me and made my toes tingle. I wondered if maybe I should be scared, or if maybe I’d totally lost my mind, but I felt big and invincible. This was false confidence on my part, because I get nervous very easily and during a recent stressful patch of life had experienced some mild panic attacks. Yet, right now I was headed to a liberal Muslim country in North Africa. I was an American headed to Tunisia on a whim because of some visa complications.
M, on the other hand, has an American passport with extender pages full of stamps and visas from places that the average person would never go like Algeria, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and Djibouti. He jokes about using the Department of State’s travel advisories as a checklist for where he wants to go. If it’s not a good idea, according to the Department of State, he’s interested as long as his research shows there is minimal danger of kidnapping. He blames some of this on his brain tumor.
We had originally planned to spend twelve days in Algeria. I have an interest in post-colonial France, Algeria, and how the two may intersect in contemporary politics regarding Muslims in France. I wanted to see Algeria before I started my research. My visa arrived December 23, and I stalked the mailman three city blocks to claim it. We had plane tickets for January 10. M’s visa never arrived. On Monday morning mere hours before our planes would depart, M still had no visa.
He had so carefully planned our itinerary: Algiers, Constantine, Sétif, and a trek into the Sahara to visit Tlemcen and sleep in the desert. The embassy referred to my visa as a mistake and told M he would be lucky to see results in two more weeks.
So we canceled.
And rescheduled.
M asked me where I wanted to go.
“Somewhere that doesn’t require a visa,” was the only response my broken heart could give.
Later that day, I received an email offering a choice: Istanbul or Tunis?
“Tunis.” The choice came easily. I even had the logic why. “Normal people go to Istanbul. I can go to Istanbul later. The French whore in me has to pick Tunisia. It is a former colony, after all.”
My family and friends liked this choice better than Algeria. I don’t know why. Perhaps it sounds safer, or maybe it’s due to the general lack of geographical knowledge of the average American.
More than one person told me they felt I’d be safer in Tunisia.
“Why?” I would reply, “It’s right next door to Libya.”
My husband decided most people probably thought Tunis was a city in mainland France, especially since our trip would start in Paris (France) and end in Marseille (France). So when I said, “Paris, Tunis, Marseille,” of course they all sounded like perfectly mundane French destinations.
The air route to Tunis went over the Alps, over Corsica, down the Italian coast, across Sardinia, and to Africa. I may have the order of that mixed up. Every time one of the islands would pop out of the Mediterranean Sea, I’d say to M, “That’s land, maybe it’s Africa.”
So by the time I really saw the African coast, I was too confused to trust my judgement. When the plane landed, the window gave me glimpses of pale, nondescript buildings. The airport was small and white. The sky was cloudy and white. The air had a crisp dampness to it. I had hoped for sun and 60 degrees. Instead I wore my coat.
Baggage and a cigarette. That’s always M’s priority list when we disembark. He always has a plan to beeline through customs and then we stand by the baggage carousel, where we retrieve the carryons we checked. Mine has leopard spots, his is a Travelpro he got a deal on.
He always asks if I mind if we go out for a smoke. My answer is always no. Because I don’t. It gives me a chance to breathe, to feel the first few glimpses of a place. Sure, it’s only taxis and travelers but i liken it to dipping my toes in the pool before jumping in.
I remember thinking it looked like rain that afternoon in Tunisia and that the countryside looked empty and the buildings low. That’s partially because the airport is about 20 minutes away from the capital city. I use the phrase “about” because a funny thing happened on our way into town.
The streets were closed. It took more than an hour to get to downtown Tunis. We had arrived in the capital at about 4:30 pm on January 14, 2012, a Tunisian independence day of sorts, the exact one year anniversary of President Ben Ali’s “abdication” to Saudi Arabia.
“Did you do this on purpose?” I asked M.
He assured me he did not, but man, did it end up a serendipitous event.
The taxi ride that followed terrified me. I won’t lie. If I did it again tomorrow, I wouldn’t flinch. But then, I thought something awful would happen. I reminds me of my first roller coaster ride. I rode a small coaster when I was about eight-years-old. My mother rode with me. somehow, on the top of the highest hill, I stood up. I was scared and I wanted to get off. My mother pulled me down, and I avoided coasters until I was big enough to ride them without an adult companion. But, it turns out, I love roller coasters.
I had never been to Africa, or an Arab nation. This pleasant but slightly off his rocker cab driver was “doing a forbidden” and zooming down one way streets the wrong way or commandeering the lanes for oncoming traffic because there was no one there. Pedestrians would swarm the car and our driver would lock the doors and tell us “there might be one bad man.” he had two speeds, fast and dead stop. We had driven down the same one way street twice– both times the wrong way– as our cab driver proclaimed valiantly that he would get to the side street that could connect us to the hotel. A car approached. Honking ensued. Our cab driver left the car and started yelling at the driver of the car which was using the road in the correct fashion.
“And people think French drivers are bad,” I said.
“North African drivers make Europeans look like pussies,” M replied.
Later we discovered his guidebook tells French travelers not to rent a car and try to drive in Tunisia.
We looped around the city again and I watched an Arab young man pee on a wall. Cats darted along the sidewalks. A little girl my daughter’s age smiled at me from a passing car. Pedestrians marched up to cars in the streets and tapped on them as if telling them to get out of the way. In Tunisia, whoever can occupy a space can have it.
I can’t even tell you what M said to me after an hour in the cab, something like “isn’t this great?” I replied I might need a tranquilizer.
M processed this. You can tell when M is processing. As part of his testing for his brain tumor, someone determined he has Aspergers. This makes sense if you know M. It hadn’t occurred to him that driving in circles through a crowded city for an hour might be harrowing. He filed that away for future reference, I’m sure.
The chaos and celebration was great. Little red flags flying everywhere. People cheering, singing, dancing. “The people are happy,” the cab driver tells us. Everyone assumes we are French, especially since M speaks French “like the French,” as Tunisians would say when they tried to guess his nationality. I spoke only when necessary, between my American accent and the fact that I’m a women I thought it’d be best to let it look like M was in charge. He had already warned me not to speak English in public, just in case people here didn’t like Americans.
The hotel, Grand Hôtel de la France, gleamed with white tile, blue trim and lots of mosaic. The clerks took our passports, probably filed a report with local authorities, and kept our documents in a wooden file compartment with our room key and our room number.
“That way no one can steal our identification,” M said.
“That way someone notices if someone steals us,” I replied.
“That too,” he agreed.
The room had a white tile floor, a balcony, two twin beds, and a mantel where perhaps a fireplace used to be. The bathroom had a toilet, with a toilet seat. I soon learned in Tunisia that bathrooms either came with a toilet seat and soap. Seldom both. I experienced one bathroom, at the Antonin Springs in Carthage, that had both and was clean. In the hotel lobby, the ladies room did not have a toilet seat. I discovered this when my traveler’s diarrhea kicked in on our last day in Africa. This did not bother me as I was relieved to see they had soap.
Our room had no soap. M had teased me for “stealing” soap from our Paris hotel room. I took one travel-sized bar, because both he ad I had packed body wash and I thought to myself, we might need a small bar of soap at some point in our travels.
At about this point, as the sun had started to set. Someone had lit fireworks from the balcony a few buildings away. And I don’t mean firecrackers. I mean fireworks.
“Welcome to North Africa,” I said. “if you burn down your neighbor’s house, oh well.”
We headed into the crowds one block away near the Port de France and down the main drag. It was six-ish on a Saturday night and everything was closing. People were packed tightly in every crevice. Chanting, dancing, cheering, drumming. Our cab driver was right, people were happy. One Arab man leaned back and grabbed my ass as I walked by. Graffiti on a nearby wall read, in French, “Long Live Tunisia, free and democratic.” The French embassy and the Tunisian government offices were surrounded in barbed wire. Soldiers and police were everywhere.
We were celebrating the Jasmine Revolution with the Tunisians. The Tunisians had launched the Arab spring. This was history.

Long live Tunisia: Free and democratic, Rue Mubarak, Tunis

Long live Tunisia: Free and democratic, Rue Mubarak, Tunis