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Oriental Disguise and the Thousand and One Nights in Nerval

From: French Forum
Volume 37, Number 3, Fall 2012
pp. 31-48 | 10.1353/frf.2012.0030

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Il me semble que j'ai vécu en Orient; et lorsque pendant le carnaval je me déguise en quelque caftan et quelque tarbouch authentique, je crois reprendre mes vrais habits. J'ai toujours été surpris de ne pas entendre l'Arabe couramment; il faut que je l'aie oublié.

"Me voici en pleines Mille et une nuits!" exclaimed Gérard de Nerval, as he wandered around Cairo impersonating Caliph Harun Al-Rashid incognito in the streets of Bagdad. The legendary caliph of 9th-century Bagdad is the hero of a number of stories in the Arabian Nights, in which he sets out, disguised as an ordinary merchant, in search of adventures in the streets of his city. For 19th-century artists on their Grand Oriental tour, the Nights— extraordinarily popular and familiar to most Europeans, not just as children's stories, but also through numerous stage adaptations— often served as a tourist guide, filtering their perceptions of the foreign reality, both an interpretative lens that colored travel experiences and a literary model that shaped travelogues. Arthur de Gobineau, in the introduction to his Nouvelles asiatiques, hailed the tales as the most accurate portrayal of the Orient: "C'est la vérité même" (III, 305). Travelers anticipated scenes and characters from the Nights and acted out the tales themselves. This included adopting the local costume, as Nerval, together with numerous other European visitors, would do in the course of his Oriental journey. These two paradigms— referring the oriental reality to the Nights and dressing as a local— coalesce into a recurring pattern, almost a cliché of 19th-century Oriental travelogues.

Nerval enthusiastically adopted these practices common to the Orientalism of his generation. However, as this study argues, while all the elements found in other Oriental travelogues are also present in Nerval's Voyage en Orient, there they compose a less controlled, more disturbing picture, one that goes to the heart of Nerval's identity crisis. By adopting the local costume, and by overlaying the tales over the 19th-century Oriental reality, Nerval was apparently conforming to what so many other Europeans before and after him would do. But, as we shall see, Nerval's use of these topoi was more complex than it would seem at first; for him it would lead to a more problematic engagement with the cultural Other and even more so with the other within himself.

Oriental transvestism

Donning the local costume, as Nerval did in Cairo, was hardly original. Oriental transvestism prevails from the earliest accounts of Western travelers to the East. We have portraits of Jean-Baptiste Chardin and Lady Mary Montagu (who described her Turkish attire in loving detail in her letters) in Oriental costume. Later, in Pierre Loti's Aziyadé, the protagonist dons local dress and settles in the Muslim quarter of Constantinople. Of course, transvestism initially served a simple pragmatic purpose: J. J. Rifaud's Tableau de l'Egypte, one of the first guidebooks, published in 1830, recommended adopting the local costume as a safety measure. Beyond being a precautionary measure, however, transvestism typically signaled the Western traveler's openness to the Oriental culture, a feeling that sometimes went far deeper than the dress (conversely, Chateaubriand's insistence on dressing as a Frenchman during his Oriental journey goes hand in hand with his rejection of Turkish culture). Indeed, in some cases travelers also embraced the lifestyle, customs, even the beliefs of their adopted country. Lady Hester Stanhope, mentioned by Nerval for her conversion to Druze beliefs (II, 522), was admiringly described by Lamartine in her "beau costume oriental" complete with turban, cashmere shawl, immense turkish robe and yellow boots. Isabelle Eberhardt, an ardent convert to Islam, dressed, not only as an Arab, but also as a man (calling herself Mahmoud Saadi), a gender-crossing disguise with obvious practical value (allowing her freedom of movement and protection from men during her adventurous travels) but which also manifested her Oriental persona, the itinerant scholar of Islam that she became in Algeria. Edward Lane, in his less flamboyant manner, spent years in Cairo as Mansur Effendi, lived as an Oriental and married an Oriental woman, Nafeesah. Nerval's character would follow in...


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