Beyond mystifying Orientalism
Beirut - Whirling dervishes, belly dancers, oriental music and mysticism are images that created fascination with the Orient in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. An insight into that period was offered at Beirut’s Sursock Museum in the Listening Through the Lens exhibition, displaying archival documents, including postcards, photographs and travellers’ accounts from the Fouad Debbas private collection.
The hobby of collecting is a casual accumulation of what piques interests, perhaps drawn to preserving objects that trigger sentiments and memories. It can also be a dedication aimed at producing archival databases and catalogues that reveal valuable historic insights.
Debbas, who died in 2001, belonged to the latter category. He had acquired an extensive collection of more than 30,000 images from Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Turkey.
At the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1975, Debbas fled to Paris and had a chance encounter with an album of 50 postcards featuring Lebanese landscapes from the 19th century that ignited an intense fascination. His ambitions and collection quickly grew to become an invaluable tool to navigating the collective memory and history of the region.
“It was really nostalgia I would say that made him want to remember Lebanon in a certain way. He became obsessed with it and wanted to collect more pictures and postcards,” said Muriel Kahwagi the museum’s head of communications.
“At the beginning, his collection was very much centred on Beirut, because that was what he missed the most and it was his home town, but soon after that it encompassed the whole region as well,” she added.
Faint echoes of oriental music emanating from a modest room towards the exhibition space greeted visitors. The walls brimmed with postcards and photographs of Middle Eastern musicians, singers and dancers along with manuscripts and original documents depicting late 19th-century Orient imaginary.
Although Debbas began as an amateur, his process was marked by a methodical rigour, Kahwagi said.
“He stumbled upon the practice of collecting by accident but then he became very strategic about it,” she said. “He wasn’t collecting simply because of a certain obsession with a time period or a certain kind of photography but I would imagine that he had bigger goals as well, possibly the idea of trying to bridge a certain historical gap.”
At first glance the images and postcards read as historical documents of cultural traditions and practices. Alma or awalim, a name that referred to female Egyptian singers and dancers, stand in full belly-dancer garb, their gaze averted from the lens, seemingly Bedouin men appear to play the rabab (oriental musical instrument) and whirling dervishes raise their arms as if caught in a trance.
Closer scrutiny suggests an element of deception. There is a heightened sense of the theatrical that permeates. This is partly because photographic technology at the time did not allow photographers to freeze the action, which meant that scenes had to be elaborately staged.
During that period, photographers helped fabricate the oriental dream by staging and photographing Egyptian singers, musicians and dancers in their studios.
“The idea from this collection was to see how studio practices were and remain very performative,” Kahwagi said.
Sourced mostly from the Bonfils Studio, one the first major photographic studios in the region at the time and which produced thousands of images of the Middle East, the pictures were designed to sell an idea of the Orient. Models were coaxed and provided with props to construct an exotic impression.
“It is very orchestrated,” Kahwagi said. “The main idea to note about this kind of orientalist collection was that it was really Western photographers who were taking very clichéd photographs of very typical kinds of occupations or types of people, like the dancers… they wanted to photograph an Orient that they wanted to project.
“At the time there were lots of agents of these studios who would take these pictures and distribute them in the West and produce postcards out of these pictures. It helped propagate the idea of a very specific kind of Orient that looked a certain way and felt a certain way but which wasn’t necessarily real.”
The exhibition is not only about the practice of studio photography, Kahwagi stressed, saying: “It’s also about the way the Orient was propagated in the Western world and the kind of domino effect it ends up having when it is distributed in a completely different context.”
By fabricating clichéd scenes of models dressed as archetypal Middle Eastern characters — Bedouins, belly dancers, whirling dervishes — photographers succeeded in disseminating an imagined Orient, one that would sell more postcards and bewitch Western audiences with the perception that the Orient was an exotic and mystical place.