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About what lies East of the dividing line



August 9, 1900

It is an exciting day for the members of the American Colony of Jerusalem. After several months of preparations, the colony's photography studio will be inaugurated today. Its founders, Horatio and Anna Spafford, await the opening with great anticipation.

Twenty years after its foundation in 1881, the colony has grown to count 150 members. Initially based near the Damascus Gate, in the old city of Jerusalem, it has now moved to a wealthy Arab landowner’s compound outside the city walls. Mirroring Christian socialist enterprises in Britain, artists’ colonies in northern Europe and the settlement house movement in the United States, the American Colony has become a mostly self-sufficient community, featuring its own agricultural fields and animal husbandry, blacksmith shop and smithery, kitchen, weaving room and woodworking area. It also has group dining and meeting areas as well as residential rooms and art studios. In line with their humanitarian and communitarian mission, the colony members have also become deeply involved in the welfare and education of their neighbours, both Arabs and Jews.

The colony's photography studio, which opens its doors today, will soon become a creative hub, not only for the Holy Land but for the Middle East as a whole. Over the first four decades of the 20th century, it will develop, print, hand-colour, sell and distribute prints, thematic photograph albums, stereographs, panoramic photos, postcards and custom sets of glass lantern-slides under the commercial label 'American Colony Photo Department.' In time, young American immigrants will provide the core photographic talent and leadership for the colony’s photography agency.

Between Jerusalem and Damascus,
August 10, 1900

The next day, a car is seen advancing precariously along the dusty road that links Jerusalem with Tripoli, via Damascus. The members of the American Colony Photographic Division want to arrive at the seaport city of Tripoli before night falls. A well-known antique collector and pseudo-archaeologist has commissioned detailed photographs of the monumental Lion Tower, the last remaining vestige of the 15th - century Mamluk defence system.

At the turn of the 20th century, travel and field photography were the colony members’ strongest assets. In the following decade, the young men set off on photo expeditions to Syria, Egypt and Sudan, as well as to Bedouin camps in Palestine. The photographs they produced were valuable to travel companies, colonial agents and antique collectors alike: some could be marketed as promotional material, while others provided valuable topographical information. The success of the American Colony Photographic Division is closely tied to the tourist industry of Jerusalem and to the greater archaeological and scholarly interest of the European and North American bourgeoisie traveling and living in the region. Through its expeditions, the American Colony marketed Palestine to those who wanted to take pieces of the region back home in the form of artifactual memory. Furthermore, tourists, pilgrims and artists wished to document their presence in Jerusalem, so as to have images to send back home to family or patrons.

The faiths of many European travellers and artists were severely tested and their expectations often shattered upon their initial encounter with 'sacred' Jerusalem. In 1889, the American Consul in Jerusalem, Frank De Hass, wrote in his travelogue: 'Beneath this accumulation of filth, covered with rubbish, lies the 'City of the Great King.''
Indeed, the Jerusalem they came to see had been 'profaned' and accordingly seemed 'unholy.' Just before he entered Jerusalem in 1841, Edward Robinson declared that 'The object of our visit was the city itself, concerning its ancient renown and religious associations; not as seen in its present state of decay and superstitions or fraudful degradation.'  To counterbalance this disillusion, pilgrims, travellers, archaeologists, diplomats and artists had to create a new imaginary, one that was based on a combination of fantasy, reality, documentation and desire. Well aware of this need, the American Colony Photographic Division offered two equally Orientalist escapes: cultural cross-dressing self-portraits, and the production of images of allegorical biblical scenes. The photographic records of cultural cross-dressing are evocative of a romanticised experience of the Middle East, one that was constructed more from European travel literature, folk tales, fiction and scripture readings than from the increasingly modern environment outside the studio doors. Participants essentially played make-believe as they donned exotic Orientalist costumes available for choosing from the studio wardrobes. Likewise, New Testament scenarios were produced in gorgeous hand-tinted sepia photographs and graphic prints, showing lush romantic Palestinian landscapes and local Bedouins dressed to play the parts of the Virgin Mary or the archangel Gabriel.

Deep, bright or painterly hand-colourations fed the sense of heightened reality. As Mona Kattaya has argued,  '[these] images of beautifully lighted landscapes — such as iconic photographs of camel trains silhouetted on the horizon at sunset in the desert, or the moonlit seashore near Jaffa — took their place among other tropes of Orientalist exoticism.' In fact, as travelers obsessively narrated Jesusalem’s past, Arab cultures and societies were systematically neglected, and in some cases completely erased.

Still, in addition to this Orientalist function, the American Colony Photographic Division also produced an extensive visual archive of daily life in Jerusalem and the lives of Jerusalemites, joining the novel field of social history photographs taken from an insider participant, or 'man-on-the-street' point of view. The group also ventured outside the city to document everyday life in remote villages and oasie in the Syrian and Egyptian deserts. They were often joined by tourists, archaeologists and cartographers. The sustained support they received via the Palestine Exploration Fund  greatly aided their activities. This fund was also a fundamental tool to the future colonisation of Palestine via the promotion of scientific knowledge. These extensive cartographical surveys of Western and Southern Palestine soon included members of the Royal Engineers, with future imperialist agents such as H. H. Kitchener and T. E. Lawrence among them. The British takeover of Palestine in 1917 would have been much less feasible had it not been for the one-inch-thick map of the country that had been produced by artists and cartographers in the late 19th - century.  

Grand tourists and the Other within

السياح الكبار والآخر في داخلنا

The al-rihla Siffariya, as practiced by Mohammed Ben Ali Abgali and Rifa'a al-Tahtawi, and the practice of the Grand Tour undertaken by David Roberts and the costumers of the American Colony Photographic Division, must be undertood in the context of a fundamental event that profoundly transformed the ways in which Sameness and Otherness were articulated between dar al-Islam and Chistiandom. Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1789 was unsuccessful, but its influence was immense and long-lasting. Indeed, the invasion — which doubled as a scientific expedition — can be seen as a key development in a process of Othering that had begun some decades earlier. As we can read in Imperial Eyes. Travel Writing and Transculturation by Mary Louise Pratt: 
'Europe’s first major international scientific expedition took place back in 1735. This event suggests important dimensions of change in European elites’ understanding of themselves and their relations to the rest of the globe. (...) In the second half of the eighteenth century, scientific exploration was to become a magnet for the energies and resources of intricate alliances of intellectual and commercial elites all over Europe.'

As they spread through expanded international audiences, these narratives 
'became a focus of intense public interest and a source of some of the most powerful ideational and ideological apparatuses through which European citizenries related themselves to other parts of the world.'
By the mid - 1700s, exploitation through state-protected monopolies based on slavery had allowed the British and French bourgeoisies to accumulate the necessary capital to launch the Industrial Revolution. Scientists, geographers and artists accompanying colonial expeditions had an essential contribution to play in justifying the colonial enterprise. The accumulation of capital allowed for a network of literate Northern Europeans — mainly men from the lower levels of the aristocracy and the middle and upper levels of the bourgeoisie — to travel to other parts of the world. They were the age’s explorers and grand tourists.

Contrary to popular belief, these other parts of the world existed not only outside Europe but also within its territories. Indeed, when 18th - century Northern Europe asserted itself as the centre of civilisation by claiming the legacy of classical Greece and Rome as its own, their stereotypical traveling narratives of the Mediterranean didn’t differ much from the ones used by travelers and explorers to the colonies. Furthermore, many of the conventions and writing strategies mobilised by Europeans to justify imperial expansionism can be found in travel writing about Europe as well. The discourses that legitimated bourgeois authority outside of Europe exorcised peasant societies and the working class within the continent too. Following Mary Louise Pratt's argument, 
'As differences between urban and rural life widened, European peasantry came to appear only somewhat less primitive than the inhabitants of the colonies. This narrative overwrote local and peasant ways of knowing within Europe just as it did to indigenous ones abroad.’

The story of the ‘Overcomers’ and the American Colony Photographic Division is an example of how staged innocence, and humanitarian, egalitarian and civilisational narratives cultivated the lure of the Oriental and the Originary to promote Otherness. And so, in our proto-history of the Arab art residency, we may consider that both explorers and grand tourists were responsible for the introduction of a new, and till then unknown way of understanding and practicing the journey in search for knowledge.

الحَرم المخفي

Hidden Sanctuary

First published in 1919, Ömer Seyfeddin's short story Gizli Mabed (‘The Hidden sanctuary’) is a further testament to the lure of the marvelous and the unfamiliar in certain European creative circles. It also shows how this obsession could be ⁠— and often was⁠ — met with disappointment. Gizli Mabed is a sarcastic exposé of European obsessions with the 'real' Orient. However, it is set not in the Holy Land but in Istanbul. The story goes as follows:

'To accommodate the desperate wishes of a young Frenchman who is disappointed with the modernity that he finds in Istanbul, his Turkish friend, the story's narrator, takes him to spend the night at the 'authentic' house of his old wetnurse in a remote neighbourhood. Titillated by the wooden lattice work on the windows at first sight, the Frenchman goes native, insists on eating his dinner while sitting on the floor, and admires the old books on the shelves without showing any curiosity about their contents. At night, when everybody else is asleep, he enters an empty room and discovers 'a hidden family sanctuary.'’

He writes in his journal:

‘White curtains allow a pale light in. Walnut sepulchres, held together by iron rings, are placed in the corners. Without any doubt, they contain the mummies of their beloved ancestors. Ropes at different heights crisscross the room (their meanings escaped me). Above them, relics are hanging, surely belonging to the deceased. On the floor, urns of different sizes contain sacred waters from Mecca, Medina, and other mysterious places. I tasted them and my heart began to beat hard. I sneaked out like an abuser, a traitor, an unbeliever, who had entered a hidden sanctuary. I felt as though the sepulchres would open and old Turks in turbans who had been buried for centuries would attack me with their swords. I felt the profound echoes of a dark and obscure dome in an inexplicable thrill’.

To his friend's great amusement, the hidden sanctuary is, in fact, the old lady's storage room.

He corrects the Frenchman's discoveries:

‘We don't use cupboards as you do in our houses. Instead, we use storage trunks. What you mistook as sepulchres are in reality our linen chests... The ropes are simply to dry the laundry. The relics are old garments, no longer worn. As to the sacred waters collected in urns, they are no other than rainwater leaking from the roof.’

‘Do not laugh,’ the Frenchman responds, 'even your storage rooms are mysterious, incomprehensible, and religious... You are blind. You do not see these meanings!