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The Colonial Harem

The Colonial Harem

Malek Alloula
Myrna Godzich
Wlad Godzich
Introduction by Barbara Harlow
Volume: 21
Copyright Date: 1986
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 160
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  • Book Info
    The Colonial Harem
    Book Description:

    A collection of picture postcards of Algerian women exploited by the French, this “album” illustrates a powerful analysis of the distorting, denigrating effects of their presence on Algerian Society.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8218-8
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Introduction
    (pp. ix-2)
    Barbara Harlow

    Djamila, a young Algerian woman, is a member of Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN). Her cosmetic bag, which she holds so awkwardly under the gaze of the French soldiers as she leaves the Arab quarter of Algiers (the Casbah, ormadina) to enter the French section (orville nouvelle) of the city, contains explosives destined for the milk bar in the rue d’Isly. It is 1956 and the Battle of Algiers is about to begin. Djamila, like many other Arab women in her country, has assumed a role in her social order, one which not only has brought her out...

  2. Chapter 1 The Orient as Stereotype and Phantasm
    (pp. 3-6)

    Arrayed in the brilliant colors of exoticism and exuding a full-blown yet uncertain sensuality, the Orient, where unfathomable mysteries dwell and cruel and barbaric scenes are staged, has fascinated and disturbed Europe for a long time. It has been its glittering imaginary but also its mirage.

    Orientalism, both pictorial and literary,¹ has made its contribution to the definition of the variegated elements of the sweet dream in which the West has been wallowing for more than four centuries. It has set the stage for the deployment of phantasms.²

    There is no phantasm, though, without sex, and in this Orientalism, a...

  3. Chapter 2 Women from the Outside: Obstacle and Transparency
    (pp. 7-16)

    The first thing the foreign eye catches about Algerian women is that they are concealed from sight.

    No doubt this very obstacle to sight is a powerful prod to the photographer operating in urban environments.⁹ It also determines the obstinacy of the camera operator to force that which disappoints him by its escape.

    The Algerian woman does not conceal herself, does not play at concealing herself. But the eye cannot catch hold of her. The opaque veil that covers her intimates clearly and simply to the photographer a refusal. Turned back upon himself, upon his own impotence in the situation,...

  4. Chapter 3 Women’s Prisons
    (pp. 17-26)

    The photographer will come up with more complacent counterparts to these inaccessible Algerian women. These counterparts will be paid models that he will recruit almost exclusively on the margins of a society in which loss of social position, in the wake of the conquest and the subsequent overturning of traditional structures, affects men as well as women (invariably propelling the latter toward prostitution).

    Dressed for the occasion in full regalia, down to the jewels that are the indispensable finishing touch of the production, the model will manage, thanks to the art of illusion that is photography, to impersonate, to the...

  5. Chapter 4 Women’s Quarters
    (pp. 27-36)

    How is this “secondary act of knowing or of reflection” that Barthes describes to be performed with respect to the colonial postcard if not by acknowledging, from the outset, that the latter is characterized by its extreme mobility as well as by its dubious and devious nature?

    Falsely naive, the postcard misleads in direct measure to the fact that it presents itself as having neither depth nor aesthetic pretensions.It is the “degree zero” of photography.14Common usage acknowledges this proclaimed “modesty”: to say of a photograph that it is like a postcard is, by contrast, to grant the good...

  6. Chapter 5 Couples
    (pp. 37-48)

    We know henceforth that the photographer has adequate means at his disposal to deal with any subject, in his own way of course. One such subject is couples, and it presents a compelling ethnographic interest. As the constitutive unit of society, the couple cannot be photographically avoided.

    However, in contrast to the series on “women’s quarters” in which the documentation is relatively large, the series on couples turns out to be quite lean. The nature of the subject as well as the difficulty of finding male models no doubt explains this shortcoming of photographic “inspiration,” this thematic gap.

    Moreover, if...

  7. Chapter 6 The Figures of the Harem: Dress and Jewelry
    (pp. 49-66)

    With respect to pleasure, the harem cannot be likened to the undifferentiated addition of interchangeable, and therefore perfectly equivalent and anonymous, elements. In this respect, it is the antithesis of repetition. It cannot be a sum of monogamies.

    The phantasmic value of the harem is a function of this presumed absence of limitation to a sexual pleasure lived in the mode of frenzy, and which is conceivable only if, in each instance, its object is different, unique, irreplaceable, and perfectly individualized.

    A series as abundant as that of the postcards taking dress and jewelry as their theme gives an idea...

  8. Chapter 7 Inside the Harem: The Rituals
    (pp. 67-84)

    By its very nature, photography constantly establishes and maintains a distance. It distances, and it inscribes this gap into its texture. As the imaginary accomplishment of a phantasm, it carries within itself aprinciple of deception. By virtue of this fact, it instigates its infinite return, and, in each instance, it weaves the phantasmic web all over again.

    Photography nourishes the voyeurism of the photographer but never satiates it because this voyeurism, as the structure of desire, has neither beginning nor end. It is unformed outside of the instinct that characterizes it. It is therefore an infinite undertaking, having this...

  9. Chapter 8 Song and Dance: Almehs and Bayaderes
    (pp. 85-94)

    The three complementary figures discussed in chapter 7 definethe essence of the haremmore than they describe its inner life. No doubt such a “stylization” was made necessary and imposed by a sort of principle of gradation of pleasure. But there are also, and they prove to be determinant, technical limitations inherent in the postcard, which come to further extend the incapacity of the photographer and his want of creativity.

    The odalisque, as the final ordaining figure, necessarily closes a series of which it is properly the end, and opens another one. This passage from one series to another...

  10. Chapter 9 Oriental Sapphism
    (pp. 95-104)

    The favorite theme of a certain French literature, the harem is an ancient obsession the origin of which goes back to the first accounts of travel to the Levant, to the empires of the Great Turk and the Great Moghul. The sixteenth and eighteenth centuries were inexhaustible on the subject of Turkish and Persian mores when it came to the world of the seraglio. More than a simple “scientific” interest was at stake here, as the rich posterity of the theme and its longevity make abundantly clear.

    In its association of a political notion (despotism) with a sensual vision (the...

  11. Chapter 10 The Colonial Harem: Images of a Suberoticism
    (pp. 105-124)

    The figures of the harem are not infinite, whereas the quest for the harem is: it belongs to obsession.

    Never has this feature, the obsessive in and of the postcard, been expressed as vehemently and as abundantly—bared so to speak—as in the present series, dedicated to the exhibition of breasts.

    We have here the equivalent of an anthology of breasts. And an anthology aims at exhaustive coverage, so the viewer gets to know a large variety of bosoms: first the Beduin, then the Kabyl, then the ’Uled-Nayl, and so on. There emerges from this anthology a sort of...