The Unofficial View: Muslim Intellectuals and Journalists at the Fairs
The Muslim intellectuals who reported on the fairs associated "progress" with the Western world. The willingness to adopt Western technology as a key to modernization dated back to the early nineteenth century. Napoleon himself had said that Egypt must be assimilated into Europe so that it could benefit from the "advantages of a perfect civilization." Similarly, the Arab scholar Rifa'a al-Tahtawi urged the lands of Islam "to pursue the foreign sciences, arts, and industries, whose perfection in Europe is a well-known and confirmed matter." For al-Tahtawi, modern Europe, under the leadership of France, was the epitome of civilization, and the key to its superiority was the development of sciences. Another scholar, Harayri, noted after visiting the 1867 fair that the "period of isolation and individuation is ended and everyone tries to learn from the others. Representatives of Muslim countries should attend [these fairs] so that they may examine the exhibits and learn what will benefit their countries."
Several years later the Egyptian Mahmud 'Umar al-Bajuri focused on the sophisticated European machinery at the 1878 exposition." In a poem occa-
sioned by the 1889 Paris exposition, another Egyptian, Muhammad Sharif Salim, mourned the past grandeur of the Arab world, celebrated the power of Europe, and voiced his love of progress and desire for a new Egypt.
While the Egyptians admired the technical achievements of the Western world, they had doubts and questions about Western culture. Muhammad al-Muwaylihi, one of the first Egyptian novelists, set his novel al-Rihla al-thaniya (The second journey) in Paris during the 1900 exposition. The novel's theme was the problem of introducing European traditions to the East in a rush and through bad imitations. Western civilization had accomplished much, the novel suggested, but had created serious social problems; therefore the East should import Western technology but at the same time should defend itself against the colonialists and maintain the "patrimony."
Muhammad Amin Fikri, a judge and scholar versed in both Arab classics and French legislation, analyzed the history of the theater section at the 1889 Paris exposition, wondering whether Western theater could respond to Egyptian social, moral, and aesthetic needs if women acted on the stage or were included in the audience. He decided that women's emancipation had already begun in Egypt and that Egypt should not be deprived of European-style theater. In 1900, Ahmad Zaki, the director of the Translation Bureau of the Council of Ministers in Cairo, also examined the French theater in Paris from a moral, and especially a sexual, point of view. He concluded that the Comédie Française would be a "bad school for women," giving them too many ideas on intrigue and immorality. In his critique of French society, then, he also expressed his desire to protect his own gender-based status.
Easterners responded enthusiastically to the unfamiliar sights at the European expositions. In 1878, Sadullah Efendi, a young Ottoman diplomat, admired the facades of the Trocadéro Palace with their beautiful columns; the museum and the concert hall; the "regular gardens," which separated the various sections of the exhibition; the viewing tower with its elevator (which he called makine, "machinery"); and especially the large fountain in front of the Trocadéro Palace. He described this fountain as "adorned with gilded sculptures of wild animals":
As one looks from the garden toward this high structure [the palace], one gets the impression that a blackbird with open wings is flying from the edge of the
pool to the exhibition Court. The bridge [Pont d'Iéna] is a paved "salon" decorated with garden benches. It is from there that one watches the life on the Seine River, which flows between the regular stone embankments as though through a marble channel.
In 1889, the Egyptian writer Muhammad Tawfiq al-Bakri evoked a similar dreamy feeling by comparing Parisian buildings to renowned Islamic monuments from various regions: the large residential buildings of Paris were like the palace of Ghumdan in Yemen; the "salons," like the throne room of Chosroes at Ctesiphon; Parisian parks, like the Shi'ib Bawwan in Persia; bridges, like those of Khurrazad in Samarqand or al-Baradan in Baghdad; and palaces, like Mshatta. Al-Bakri's readers knew these fabled places as the great achievements of Islamic civilization, not from firsthand experience but from legend and tradition. He and other writers were adding European accomplishments to this system of mythical references.
The most celebrated landmark of the 1889 Paris exposition, the Eiffel Tower, fascinated Muslim observers. Al-Muwaylihi dedicated an entire chapter to it, calling it the Eighth Wonder. Ahmad Zaki wrote enthusiastically in the guest book that the tower represented the intelligence of its engineer as well as the achievements of the French people. To him the tower, with the light on its top, looked like a big candle. Al-Bakri, a Sufi sheik, thought it hid a lantern, "the red star of Suhayl."
The fair in 1889 was memorable not only for such works of engineering but also for the extensive use of electricity. An anonymous editorial in the Ottoman newspaper Sabah described the major exhibition buildings at night, when the Trocadéro Palace appeared as if made of light, the fountain's waters flowed in a glowing cascade, and the illumination of the Eiffel Tower seemed the work of the skies:
The night view of the exhibition grounds is beyond one's capacity to describe. One stops in awe before a splendor seen nowhere in the world until now. There is no spot that is not flooded with light to dazzle the eye. As one sees these lights, which with marvelous mirror effects pour a gold dust on the exhibition buildings, one wants to believe that the world-illuminating sun is dispersing its power . . . [But] the honor of illuminating the nights of the Paris exhibition belongs to
the light of "electricity." If electric power did not exist, the exhibition grounds could not be illuminated as they are now. . . . It is estimated that the electricity illuminating the exhibition grounds could bring light to a city of 100,000 people.
Halid Ziya, a prominent Turkish novelist, also grew emotional in describing the power of technology and electricity:
The EifFel Tower was a wonder of the time. One night, in an unexpected moment, when this iron tower three hundred meters tall was suddenly painted in red flames by an electric current, the thousands of people gathered beneath it unconsciously cried from their hearts in a startled, fearful voice.
Other accounts of the 1889 exposition were more measured. The Ottoman writer Ahmed Mithat Efendi gave a comprehensive factual description, devoid of emotionalism. He first surveyed the fairgrounds and then guided the reader through various sections, focusing on the Eiffel Tower and the Galerie des Machines, both of which he described thoroughly. The parks, the gardens, and the overall planning of the exposition, "like an entire country . . . independent of the city of Paris," impressed him in their scale and their construction details and materials. The Ottoman presence here was limited to a small tobacco pavilion, which Ahmed Mithat referred to as a "lovely hut." He noted in passing the locations of other Islamic and foreign sections but did not discuss their architecture.
Ahmed Mithat's attitude typifies that of the Turks who wrote about their visits to the international fairs; they did not analyze the differences between their culture and the representation of that culture abroad. Turkish newspapers described the Ottoman pavilions and products in news items without much interpretation. The Egyptians, in contrast, were deeply concerned about the image of their country. In 1889, Muhammad Sharif Salim argued that encapsulating Egypt in a café, stables (with animal drivers), and almées (dancing girls) meant deforming it. In 1900 Ahmad Zaki criticized the absence of modern Egyptian industry, commerce, and intellectual life at the exposition, and he regretted the inclusion of the belly dancers. These also distressed 'Isa,
the hero of Muhammad al-Muwaylihi's novel: on arriving in the Egyptian quarter, he and his friends were pleased to find the atmosphere of their native land and at first thought that Egypt was well represented—but only until the spectacle in the theater began. Then, embarrassed by the performance of two female dancers, they left in shame, determined never to return. Their shame indicates the seriousness of their concern for the national image presented to the West. For them the eroticized and commercialized nature of the dance was a distortion of their culture.
The Ottoman and Egyptian visitors to the international fairs who wrote about their impressions were interested in Western civilization and what it could teach them about improving conditions at home. They shared with their governments the belief that European civilization meant progress and modernity. Nevertheless, their unofficial accounts differed from official publications, which treated the national displays as propaganda.
Back home a cynical third party disseminated its views on the fairs in local newspapers and magazines. The Istanbul-based satirical journal Diyojen published a social critique referring to the advertisements in Ottoman papers calling for products to be displayed at the 1873 exposition in Vienna: simple wooden toys, handcrafted in Eyüp, a humble quarter of Istanbul, would reveal the progress of industry; a liter of milk mixed with tap water would represent the high quality of services provided by the modernized municipal administration; and a veil would symbolize women's emancipation. The satire implicitly compared Europe and the Ottoman Empire and raised the key issues of industrial development, social services, and the status of women.
The cultural images projected to international audiences at the universal expositions were sometimes carefully constructed representations of self-images and aspirations, but their impact was rarely "corrective." On the contrary, European stereotypes of the East and the notion of a clear-cut world order, as sketched by European powers, remained dominant.