The invention of postcards in 1860 coincided with the rise of Western imperialism and European powers’ scramble to establish new colonies in Africa and Asia. Colonial postcards were used to promote and legitimize colonialism through the portrayal of native people as primitive people needing to be civilized. The cards abounded with ethnic and cultural stereotypes to reinforce the colonial assumption of the West’s superiority. Along with distorted textual representations in travelogues and literary accounts, pictorial misrepresentations of the natives played an important role in dehumanizing the indigenous people.
When European powers swept through Africa and Asia in search of resources, new markets, and labor, they did not rely solely on military strength. They also brought along anthropologists, historians, artists, and photographers to study and document indigenous culture and history. The Europeans were quite aware that knowledge was power, and that cultural penetration could be more powerful and lasting than military campaigns. The Napoleonic scientific expedition to Egypt in 1798, for instance, comprised a sizable body of intellectuals who were to conduct the first large-scale study of Egypt. Likewise, French colonialism in Morocco utilized the art of photography to document scenes and portraits from Morocco to appropriate them.
Photographs convey the photographer’s perspective on their subjects. When we look at an image, we should be aware that “the photographer is selecting that sight from an infinity of other possible sights,” as John Berger states in “Ways of Seeing.” The colonial photographer selected his subjects and their surroundings with great deliberation. The way they looked, the background, and the general atmosphere were all carefully chosen.
The postcards in this article focus on women, especially Moroccan and Maghrebi women, mostly because they are more available. For the colonizer, the modesty of Moroccan women, whether inside their harem or veiled in public, seemed mysterious and possibly unsettling too. As Algerian writer Malek Alloula (1937-2015) argues in “The Colonial Harem:” “thrust in the presence of a veiled woman, the photographer feels photographed; having himself become an object-to-be-seen, he loses initiative: he is dispossessed of his own gaze.”
The frustration felt by the colonial photographer in the presence of a veiled woman, Alloula posits, occurs when he realizes that the exoticism he thought he could easily capture resists his lens and desire to uncover the mystery. The veil represents a form of resistance and a symbol of cultural identity that refuses to yield to colonial intrusion.
The two postcards above feature the same woman, but there are variations in the captions. The black-and-white image identifies Fez as the city where the photo was taken, while the ostensibly retouched photo mentions “Tanger.” The barefooted woman looks exotic to the foreign eye in her traditional attire. However, this woman cannot be from Fez not only because Fez is not a coastal city, and the postcard features a cliff and seashore in the background, but also because her clothing is characteristic of people from the Jebala region in northern Morocco, near Tangier.
It seems that the colonial photographer simply wanted to meet the Western viewer’s fascination with exoticism. He was not concerned with the accurate depiction of Morocco. The inaccuracies of the postcard also speak to the nature of colonial discourse itself, which relies on false assumptions and made-up realities.
The expression of the model shows some discomfort, which could be attributed to the unfamiliar presence of the photographer and his camera. The women who were photographed for such postcards were either required to model or accepted the role in exchange for minimal compensation. It is therefore unsurprising that their features reveal some uneasiness.
The above postcard is captioned “Au Harem,” meaning “In the Harem,” and features two women sitting on a couch on the terrace of a house, which in fact is a studio. The furnishing is highly evocative of the Oriental interiors which captivated the Western imagination. The well-adorned table, the carpet, the slippers, as well as the minaret and palm tree in the background, appealed to the expectations of exoticism of the Western viewer, whose image of the Orient had largely been shaped by the tales in “One Thousand and One Nights.”
A postcard like this would, therefore, stir the Western viewer’s fantasies about the Orient and create gratification and wonder. Having been denied access to the secrecy of the harem, the photographer recreates the fruit of his imagination in a studio where the photographer’s desires find satisfaction.
According to Alloula, the photographer’s attempt to unveil the veiled harem women and possess them through his camera affirms a need to dominate and take control of Morocco itself. In this context, Alloula states: “The phantasm of the harem is only a transparent and convenient mask behind which is hidden an even more sordid meaning, the key to which is colonization.” This particular postcard also conveys a set of clichés about Oriental women. They are like the odalisques common in Orientalist 19th century art. The harem photo reinforces the fantasy of homebound women wistfully awaiting their Western savior.
Unlike the postcards discussed previously, the one above appears more authentic as it was taken in a real Moroccan street. It features three French soldiers in informal poses with four Moroccan women who may have been prostitutes in Bousbir, a neighborhood reserved for prostitution in Casablanca from the 1920s to the 1950s. This designated area had only one entrance and was not open to children, although some prostitutes were as young as 12 years old. There were cafes, tobacconists, a hammam (traditional bath), and a cinema, and it was not until 1953, three years before the independence of Morocco, that the area was shut down.
Colonial postcards of voluptuous native women posing naked, or half-naked, for the camera with soldiers were intended to lure European men into the colonies for work or to serve as soldiers. The physical space in this postcard is typically Moroccan, though the style is predominantly Western. The Moroccan prostitutes were dressed in European mini-skirts, posing as if they were in a street in France. The image implies that Morocco is not merely militarily conquered but also culturally and sexually dominated.
The French soldiers assert their power by discarding the women’s traditional attire to satisfy their curiosity and unravel the mysteries of what lies behind the veil. Victorious as they appear in this postcard, they represent a multi-layered form of colonization of Morocco.
Colonial photography was an integral part of European representation. Like guns and rifles, the camera was another equally prominent weapon, used for the perpetuation of racial discrimination and colonial governance. By distorting social ideas, promoting empire, justifying colonialism, and misrepresenting indigenous peoples and cultures, colonial photography nurtured the racist belief of European superiority.
Using the postcolonial critical approach, Alloula’s “The Colonial Harem” explores the intricacies of the encounter between the colonial photographer and his models. His book features 90 images of Algerian women, some of whom are scantily clad, or topless. It is ironic, critics of Alloula argue, that by reproducing the same colonial images in his book, he has re-victimized and resexualized the Algerian women he claims to defend.