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Voyeurism and Aesthetics in the Turkish Bath: Lady Mary's School of Female Beauty

From: Comparative Literature Studies
Volume 39, Number 4, 2002
pp. 347-359 | 10.1353/cls.2002.0035

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Comparative Literature Studies 39.4 (2002) 347-359

The confrontation of Islam and Christianity, East and West, Ottoman and Europe, we have been recently told, is rooted in an "Orientalist" discourse or profession that developed in the late seventeenth century. Far from bridging culture, history, religion, politics and art, the orientalists even of this Enlightened period—the translators, Arabists, above all the travel writers—so Edward Said argues in his 1978 revisionist history, Orientalism,have sown the seeds of a colonialist mentality, which in turn led to the Imperialist project to come. Even military control came early, Said asserted in a rather wild generalization. He writes, "Britain and France dominated the Eastern Mediterranean from the end of the seventeenth century." In this immensely influential work, which now dominates discussion, he focused, however, not on military confrontations but rather on the intellectual, artistic and aesthetic hegemony exercised by the West through travelogues, natural histories, Arabic scholarship, imaginative writings, for example, the translation of the Arabian Nights, and art objects of Islamic origin. As he opined in an echo of Michel Foucault, "Orientalism [is] a Western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient" (3).

It has also become clear in the twenty years since the publication of this epoch-making book that a colonizing orientalism—not an orientalism of objectivity or fairness or value-free judgment—has expanded from a revisionist thesis to an orthodoxy that has put traditional orientalists themselves on the defensive. Said's followers have begun to fill in the gaps in his book, and a new orientalism has emerged that is rancorous and polemical, intent on debunking centuries of Arabic and Turkish study since the earliest attempts in late seventeenth-century France. One of these disciples, Rana Kabbani, whose work I would like to challenge in this paper, has topped off the spaces and explored the crevices unfilled by Said in her 1986 book Imperial Fictions, recently revised and published in 1994 in a paperback edition. Other postcolonialist spinoffs worth mentioning from the outset include Srinivas Aravamudan's focus on the Levantine background, and Jill Campbell's twentieth-century feminist approach, both of which will be discussed later.

Often contentious, Kabbani is particularly harsh with travelers to oriental destinations, one of whom, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu might be used to test the thesis of oriental stereotyping and the creation of myths that have poisoned East-West political relations. The subtitle of Kabbani's book is "Myths of Orient," by which she means the misunderstandings, misperceptions and downright falsehoods purveyed by, among others, Lady Mary—one of the earliest of European women to write an extensive account of her experiences in Turkey. Kabbani says condescendingly of Lady Mary, "she wrote with endearing naiveté." Lady Mary is lumped with all those who were beguiled by the stories of the Arabian Nights and who had confused the real East with the East of Scherehazade's seemingly endless cycle of stories intended to soften the murderous plan of her husband-sultan to marry a new woman at night and lop off her head in the morning. A similar condescension is observable in a recent censorious feminist perspective reflected in Cynthia Lowenthal's recent book. She also labels as naive Lady Mary's penchant for romance and covering up harsh realities of Turkish women.

Yet Lady Mary was not so naive that she confused literary convention with external reality. In her letter to her sister in 1718 (a year after the last volume of the English-French translation), she wrote about Turkish life, these "tales were writ by an author of this country [Ottoman Empire] and (excepting the enchantments) are a real representation of the manners here." To Lady Mary, an avid consumer of books about the empire she and her husband had visited, he as the ambassador, she as a shrewd and self-possessed wife of an English official, the Arabian Nights emanated from a people she wished to know more about. Kabbani devoted a chapter to this oriental literary tour de force that has entered the West's conscience itself as an example of colonialism as Said describes it, repeating the same tired cliché that it was an...

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