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Criticism 46.3 (2004) 393-414

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Ethnomasquerade in Ottoman-European Encounters:

Reenacting Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

University of Michigan

The year 1718 marks a significant point in the history of the Ottoman Empire, demarcating the first spate of Westernization reforms—the so-called Tulip Period (1718–1730)—which sought to strengthen the Ottoman Empire after its defeat in Vienna at the end of the seventeenth century. In 1718, Ottoman-European encounters were cast in a new light from a European woman's point of view: this was the year Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and her husband, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, resided in Istanbul.

Montagu's journey constitutes the beginning of women's secular travel accounts about the Orient.1 Largely excluding any political commentary about Ottoman-European relations in her letters from Edirne (Adrianople) and Istanbul, Montagu immersed herself in the segregated world and everyday culture of Ottoman women. For the first time in Western travel writing about the Orient, exclusively female spaces became subject to the gaze of a European traveler. Montagu gained entrance not only to the courtly harem but also to the women's bath. In her Turkish Embassy Letters, published posthumously in 1763, she claimed that by learning Arabic she was able to form friendships with Turkish women and could now "boast of being the first foreigner ever to have had that pleasure."2 Along with her interest in Arabic, Mary Wortley Montagu developed a passion for Ottoman clothing. She wrote extensively about the beauty and advantages of veiling and wearing Ottoman dress, and she engaged in the practice known as ethnomasquerade.

This article deals with the question of ethnomasquerade in women's travel accounts, highlighting key moments in Ottoman-European encounters over the course of three centuries. Ethnomasquerade is defined here as the performance of an ethnic identity through the mimicking of clothes, gestures, appearance, language, cultural codes, or other components of identity formation.3 It is a phenomenon that can be observed in colonial as well as noncolonial contexts, [End Page 393] providing useful insights into the workings of hegemonic discourses. Edward Said, Marjorie Garber, and Kaja Silverman have dealt extensively with ethnomasquerading travelers, such as Richard Burton and T. E. Lawrence.4 Garber, for example, in her study of Western ethnomasquerading cross-dressers in the Orient, proposes that ethnomasquerade operates as a subversive form of mimicry.5

In this study, I suggest that it is misleading to ask whether ethnomasquerade is subversive per se. Instead, I am interested in the historically specific ways in which ethnomasquerade operates as a literary strategy in travel writing. Thus, my question concerns the extent to which ethnomasquerade is indicative of changing attitudes vis-à-vis the Other in Ottoman-European encounters. Whereas scholars have engaged with ethnomasquerading European women and the question of gender, ethnomasquerading Ottoman travelers to the West have attracted little attention. The study of Ottomans dressing in Western clothes, however, promises insights into the formation of subject positions in the history of Ottoman-European encounters and raises key questions about the function of ethnomasquerade itself. Hence, I explore the performative function of dress in Ottoman-European encounters from both sides—European and Ottoman—and focus on Istanbul as the site of arrival and departure for four travelers: the British Mary Wortley Montagu, Julia Sophia Pardoe, and Grace Ellison, and the Ottoman Zeyneb Hanım.

European Women Traveling to the Ottoman Empire

According to her letters, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu dressed in Ottoman attire for a number of reasons: to satisfy her curiosity, to claim authenticity through close experience, to travel incognito by passing as an Ottoman woman, and to serve as a corrective to men's travel writing on the Orient. Montagu clearly enjoyed the aesthetic pleasure of ethnomasquerade and even had herself painted in Turkish dress. Montagu's masquerade, however, is not a stage in the process of cultural conversion. I suggest that Montagu's example shows no more than a short-lived fantasy of embodying the Other and serves as a narrative strategy in her letters. Her...


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