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Ethnic and Racial Studies

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The colour of Orientalism: race and narratives of discovery in Tunisia

Amy Aisen Elouafi

First published on: 27 July 2009

To cite this Article Elouafi, Amy Aisen(2010) 'The colour of Orientalism: race and narratives of discovery in Tunisia',
Ethnic and Racial Studies, 33: 2, 253 — 271, First published on: 27 July 2009 (iFirst)
To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/01419870903040177
URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01419870903040177


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Ethnic and Racial Studies Vol. 33 No. 2 February 2010 pp. 253271

The colour of Orientalism: race and

narratives of discovery in Tunisia

Amy Aisen Elouafi

(First submission July 2008; First published July 2009)

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Orientalism is regarded as the primary discursive mode of Othering
through which white, European identities were defined in the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries while in the twentieth exoticism was expressed
through negrophobia/negrophilia. Instead of presuming that one dis-
course replaced the other, this article examines their interaction by asking
how Orientalism was racialized. Travel writings on Tunisia show it as a
typical example of the Orient (it was an Ottoman province from 1534/
15741881), whose people had primitive and savage traits of the African.
Through a series of vignettes of the Moor, I suggest that the Orient could
be racially configured as black. Finally, by considering the role of race in
Arabic-language sources from Tunisia, I argue that a fuller understanding
of how race contributed to demarcating difference can be obtained only
by situating Tunisia in both its Ottoman and its African contexts.

Keywords: Orientalism; race; colonialism; representation; Ottoman Empire;


[T]he Egyptian is not an Asiatic, but a negro partially whitewashed.

(Richard Burton, in Kabbani 1986, p. 51)

This comment by the prominent Orientalist scholar Richard Burton

aptly illustrates the importance of race in Orientalism and the colonial
penchant for representing difference or inferiority as black. As far as
the interplay between negrophilia/negrophobia and Orientalism goes,
the two are rarely seen in conversation with each other in secondary
scholarship. In the same vein, while Orientalist ideologies influenced
the reform agendas of Ottoman bureaucrats and nationalist disciplin-
ary projects, reiterating, for example, the need to civilize subject

# 2010 Taylor & Francis

ISSN 0141-9870 print/1466-4356 online
DOI: 10.1080/01419870903040177
254 Amy Aisen Elouafi
populations (Makdisi 2002; Deringil 2003), the role of race in
Orientalist thought, and in the Ottoman Empire more generally, is
still only poorly understood.
Building upon Said (1978), the study of the European approach to
the Orient as a discourse about knowledge and power, has been
elaborated and developed in numerous directions (Lucas and Vatin
1975; Alloula 1981; Kabbani 1986; Graham-Brown 1988; Lowe 1991;
Melman 1992; Lewis 1996; Clancy-Smith and Gouda 1998). One of
these has emphasized that Orientals themselves were not silent objects
upon which these discourses were constructed, but actively engaged
with and participated in the elaboration of Orientalism’s canonical
texts (Tavakoli-Targhi 2001).
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Orientalism essentialized the religious identity of Muslims and

perpetuated late medieval beliefs in its biological and physical
manifestations (Heng 2003), evidenced in common parlance by
designating conversion to Islam as ‘turning Turk’. Yet the racial
position of the Ottoman Orient was ambiguous: Ottomans were the
‘sick man of Europe’ while Turks were considered an Asiatic people (in
reference to the Ottoman world and the region as the Near, or Middle,
as opposed to Far East). Despite this confusion, race and colour were
integral to European constructions of difference that permeated
Orientalism. The Ottoman Empire spanned the northern shore of
the African continent for four centuries, and an examination of
writings about racial identity in the province of Tunisia offers a
starting point for placing the empire’s location in Africa, in conversa-
tion with Orientalist scholarship and colonial theory.
Incorporated into the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century, at
roughly the same time as Egypt, Tripoli and Algiers, Tunisia served
primarily a geo-strategic purpose in the Ottoman-Hapsburg rivalry
(Hess 1978; Faroqhi 2004). The authority of the sultan was marked
symbolically in the presence of garrisons, the regular exchange of
envoys and military contributions to imperial campaigns. As the
empire went through a period of decentralization the provincial
governorship became hereditary, allowing the governors nearly
complete authority in administrative matters (similar to Tripoli and
Egypt). Nonetheless, in terms of economic connections, the structure
and organization of the military and the bureaucracy, architecture and
elite culture, Tunisia remained in many ways Ottoman (Saadaoui 2001;
Moalla 2004; Elouafi 2007).
After the French conquest of Algiers in 1830, colonial officials
jealously guarded the borders of their colony from potential threats
posed by the Ottoman sultan and by British and Italian imperial
interests, eventually incorporating Tunisia into the French empire in
1881. European rivalries were played out in competition for industrial
concessions, though the small province lacked major exploitable
The colour of Orientalism 255
resources, and its conquest was again largely a question of geo-strategic
concerns. Though European superiority and civilizational prerogatives
were evoked in diplomatic correspondence and popular publications,
there was considerably less interest in race and the racial division of the
population between Arabs and ‘Berbers’ than was the case for Algeria
and later Morocco (Lorcin 1995; Maghroui 2002; McDougall 2006).
In what follows, I illustrate the ways in which a variety of Europeans
located Tunisia in terms of dominant Orientalist tropes, though
French writers often set it beyond the political reach of the sultan.
Such racial musings stood in tension with African typologies that
‘blackened’ the Orient. Yet, while Tunisia was considered full of exotic
sexuality, a threateningly hot climate, and primitive characters, the
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Saharan divide made it only marginally African. As opposed to

reading these musings as an affirmation of a unique Tunisian identity
I argue that the overlap of Arab and African, the interaction between
negrophobia/negrophilia and Orientalism destabilize racial bound-
aries. A brief comparison with notions of difference in Tunisia
indicates that a better understanding of the social order is possible
only by questioning the parameters of area studies and framing
Tunisia in its Ottoman and African contexts.

Tunisia as Orient
A glimpse at travel writings on Tunisia from the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries reveals the preoccupations with ordering, classi-
fying and categorizing common to European writings about the Other
in the imperial era. Whether adventurists and dandies, administrators
or botanists, they shared an intellectual presupposition that inferred
coming from (and writing to) a common culture distinct from the
Oriental subjects they wrote about. Their writings combine pictur-
esque descriptions of society, scientific analysis and tales of adventure,
making Tunisia a typical site for the elaboration of Orientalist
discourses and for fantasizing about the benefits of colonial rule.
Whether emphasizing the land within landscapes, cartography or
panegyrics to Tunisia’s ancient past (as a European colony), travellers
were agents of racial revival, and the local inhabitants were merely
curious relics (Lorcin 1995; Bayly 2002). In one of the canonical works
on Tunisia, first published in English in 1738, translated into French
by 1743, going into numerous editions and becoming a staple reference
in later travelogues, Thomas Shaw adopts the quintessential vision of
timelessness to explain that, ‘[w]ith regard to the Manners and
Customs of the Bedoweens, it is to be observed that they retain a
great many of those we read of in sacred as well as profane History;
being, if we except their Religion, the same people they were two
or three thousand years ago’ (Shaw 1995 [1738], pp. 3001). By
256 Amy Aisen Elouafi
emphasizing the ancient past and biblical narratives, this image of a
stagnant society reinforced the link between immobility and decline
common to the perceptions of European travellers in Palestine, Mount
Lebanon or Greater Syria (Doumani 1992, 1995; Abu el-Haj 2001).
Travellers recognized the cosmopolitanism of urban centres of the
Ottoman Empire, though not necessarily their civilization. In Cairo, a
number of visitors pointed to dirt as metaphorically staining urban
spaces, as mark of disorder and poor government (Mitchell 1988;
Fahmy 1998; Pollard 2005). Similarly, in his wanderings in Tunis, the
Prussian prince turned litterateur Hermann von Puckler-Muskau
insists that ‘filth is general throughout the city’. As a yardstick for
measuring cultures, he observed ‘that with only a very small number of
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exceptions, cleanliness in different countries follows the degree of

moral civilization’, where predictably ‘[t]he Barbary coast is at the
lowest degree’ (Puckler-Muskau 1837, vol. 2, p. 122).
One of the hallmarks of Orientalist writings was the assessments of
women’s status, the discussion of richly decorated harems and
lounging odalisques, and the sexualized vision of political order
represented by the sultan’s palace in Istanbul (Kabbani 1986; Melman
1992; Lewis 2004). For some observers in Tunisia the insistence that
women ‘do not play as brilliant of a role as our [European] women’
was a standard explanation for men’s inability to rule (Frank and
Marcel 1979 [1816], p. 106). For others, Tunisia was a voyeuristic
paradise offering scenes of ‘two women, almost undressed down to
their waists, who were dancing barefoot’, though Puckler-Muskau
cautioned that these visual pleasures of tasting ‘forbidden fruit’ could
be experienced only in secrecy (1837, vol. 2, p. 158).
Women in Tunisia were emblematic of social ills for Lady Temple,
and remarkable mainly for their obesity. She insisted that ‘they are right
in covering themselves with this loose sort of robe; for the immense size
to which they all attain; from the constant use of the bath, wearing no
stays, and taking no exercise, would be quite disgusting, unless
concealed by their dress’ (Temple 1835, p. 197). Concentrating on the
tendency to over-indulgence (in gluttony and constant bathing which
was sensual as opposed to hygienic), this lack of moderation was seen to
imply excessive sexuality and the absence of moral restraint. This
fixation with the harem, with women’s physique, dress, diet and hygiene
reiterates major Victorian themes of travel writing about Istanbul or
Cairo (Melman 1992).
Writers in Tunisia reiterated Orientalist tropes both implicitly and
explicitly. As Lady Temple put it upon entering the governor’s palace,
‘nothing could look more truly oriental and carrying one in imagina-
tion completely into those enchanting scenes described in the Arabian
nights’ (1835, pp. 1967). Yet critiques of local culture and rampant
sexuality were not unique within colonial discourse, but in dialogue
The colour of Orientalism 257
with conceptualizations of Africa, emphasizing its supposedly primi-
tive nature and sexualized savagery.

Where the Orient and Africa meet

As mentioned above, one common Orientalist motif was to evoke
ancient ruins to imply stagnation or decline, to disavow contempor-
aneity and to distance this Orient from modern civilization. Such a
rhetorical position corresponded to the extreme Other of civilization 
the savage, an image which resonated more strongly with portrayals of
Africa. This relation between being ancient, without progress, and the
primitive, is made clear by the liberal Swiss Henry Dunant travelling in
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the 1850s. He noted that ‘with few exceptions, the Arab type is that
which comes the closest, whether in terms of morals, or physical
appearance, to the primitive type’ (1975 [1858], p. 188). Here ‘type’
coalesces morality with physical appearance.
Increasingly by the nineteenth century both the Oriental and the
primitive were exoticized with differences becoming symbols of desire.
The ‘sexualized savage’ was a predominant image in cultural, scientific
and literary representations of black femininity, best illustrated in
the figure of Sarah Bartmann (Gilman 1985; Sharpley-Whiting
1999; Berliner 2002). Also known as the Hottentot Venus, Bartmann
was an ethnographic spectacle of Africa and black female sexuality
whose genitalia were the subject of popular attention and scientific
study. While public preoccupation with her buttocks and her breasts
rendered them signs of over-developed female sexuality and a visible
marker of the excesses of African women, the French academy
measured and scrutinized her body in attempts to link physical
development to climate and prove inferiority through difference
(Schiebinger 1993a).
The scientific fixation with women’s bodies, and the eroticization of
difference, are present in Orientalist typologies in Tunisia. For
instance, women’s physical traits are evoked to flatter the voyeuristic
anticipations of the travellers and their reading audience. For Louis
Frank  a Frenchman serving as a doctor to the court in Tunis in the
1810s  the objectification of women meant reducing them to their
anatomy. Reminiscent of hygienic hierarchies, he considers women’s
breasts a way to compare cultures:

the breast, the most delicious charm with which nature decorated
the woman, is so neglected by the Moorish [women], that they allow
them to become shapeless and deformed in the most unpleasant and
repulsive manner; I think that one would certainly have to accuse the
immoderate abuse of hot baths for this degradation, that even young
girls are not exempt from. (Frank and Marcel 1979 [1816], p. 109)
258 Amy Aisen Elouafi
The breast stands for excess, immoderation and lack of discipline (all
with intentional sexual connotations). Frank’s tone mocks the
paradigm of former glory and present ruin, in characterizing breasts
as deformed and degraded. The faulting of hot baths reaffirms the
commonly held presumption that tropical heat was detrimental to
morals, work ethic and apparently breast shape, linking the baths to
the deterioration of social and sexual propriety. For Frank, the
unpleasant, and repulsive shape resulting from ‘neglecting’ nature’s
blessing, marks a loss of femininity. In the absence of such a ‘delicious
charm’ to distinguish clearly between two genders, gender roles could
not be demarcated.
Frank’s remarks corresponded with the idealization of women’s
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virginal breasts in European culture and the eighteenth-century

debates over breast-feeding (Schiebinger 1993b). The breast was seen
as a way of comparing women of different cultures in the ancient texts
of Pliny (one of Shaw’s sources), who considered the long-breasted
wild woman as one of the monstrous races. The form and shape of
women’s breasts marked deviant sexuality on women’s bodies and
justified the women’s slave labour in early modern European descrip-
tions of Africa and writings on the Americas. For instance, one
narration of a sixteenth-century visit to Guinea stated that the only
way to distinguish men and women was ‘by their breastes, which in the
most part be very foule, hanging downe low like the udder of a goate’
(Morgan 1997, p. 181). Paralleling colonial expansion in Africa and
the Americas, it was commonly reported that women had breasts large
enough to be able to suckle children carried on their backs, making
anatomy a sign of physical inferiority and a justification for domina-
tion (Loomba 2002, p. 43).
Women in the Orient and Africa were often reduced to objects of
male fantasies, exemplifying how imperialism tied up with construc-
tions of masculinity. Heterosexual desire was expressed alternately as
revulsion against and fixation with female sexuality, even when veering
towards the tantalizingly abnormal. In the context of discussing the
use of tobacco (or snuff), a recurring anecdote held that women in
Tunisia ’also are very fond of it, but many of them apply it in a very
different manner to what we do; taking up with the thumb and two
fingers as much as they can hold, and then placing it in a part of their
persons which certainly was never originally intended for that purpose’
(Temple 1835, vol. 2, pp. 21617; Puckler-Muskau 1837).
These comments create a sexualization of consumption (in the
phallic inference that women’s bodies were originally intended for
other purposes), where women’s use of luxury items is portrayed as
abusive, excessive and, finally, not what nature intended. As a luxury
good tobacco was associated with leisure, linked to sexual pleasure and
a mark of class differences. Its use in Tunisia is portrayed as disrupting
The colour of Orientalism 259
the natural (or colonial) order and, even worse, it threatens to allow
women to confiscate the strictly masculine prerogative of sexual
pleasure and to do so without men. Thus women’s phallic and erotic
use of tobacco reverses the proper gender order and eliminates the
reproductive role of men, posing a clear threat to colonial masculinity.
In fact, considering the titillating and voyeuristic role of the male
observer in relation to this scene, the woman’s masturbatory gesture is
scandalously recognized as a public one  again in deviation from
Victorian notions of propriety, morals and privacy (Laqueur 2003).
Clichés of abnormal sexuality are so over-determined in Tunisia as
to extend to plant life. Integral to the scientific approach of travel
accounts and the cataloguing of agricultural production, Pelissier de
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Reynaud (who served in the French expeditionary force in Algeria in

1830 and in the colonial government and its scientific commissions in
the 1830s and 1840s) offered insight on the process of date fertiliza-
tion. Though the stamen of the male date has a seed powerful enough
to ‘impregnate the female at a considerable distance’, most cultivators
have perfected a more reliable method of ‘coitus’. This involves
inserting the male among female flowers, whereby, a sort of ‘artificial
fertilization, one male is sufficient for twenty-five females’ (Pellissier
1980 [1858], p. 150). (His source on this may have been Frank, who
tells the same anecdote claiming that one male plant is sufficient to
fertilize four or five hundred females (Frank and Marcel 1979 [1816],
p. 53).) This tale itself offers a diversion of rote polygamous fantasies
taken to an extreme conclusion where even botany is sexualized and
erotic. Yet, in its ‘artificiality’, this coitus represents a deviant form of
sexuality, one that is not natural, but perverse.
In the Orient and Africa we see a similar fixation with women’s
sexuality, their sexual organs and genitalia, with the degenerative
effects of climate and with the uncivilized as savage (on how these were
incorporated into negrophilia, see Archer-Straw 2000; Ezra 2000).
These exchanges between Orientalism and discourses of negrophobia
and negrophilia are further prevalent in the discussion of race, in
description of the populations, their physical traits and in reference to

Colour, race and the black(a)moor

The relation between morals and physical appearance could render a
people (or their culture) primitive. In early modern Europe, religious
notions of the parity between fair and sombre or lightness and
darkness made blackness a mark of alterity or infidelity that was
not limited to Africa (Devisse and Mollat 1979, pp. 41, 75; Hall 1995).
In the era of colonial expansion racial categories  particularly
whiteness  continued to be unstable in a variety of colonial and
260 Amy Aisen Elouafi
European contexts (Fredrickson 1981; Roediger 1991, 2005; Ignatiev
1995; Stoler 1995, 2002; Peabody 1996; White 1999; Peabody and
Stovall 2003; Martinez 2004; Ghosh 2005). The notion of blackness
was equally fluid, and could include the Oriental or Muslim, when the
latter was defined in opposition to white Christian European (visual
and artistic representations of this can be seen in Grigsby (2002)).
Though Arabs or Orientals were alternately positioned as Asian, Semitic
or white, I want to explore the ways in which the Orient was seen as
black (the question of Arab-American racial identity continues to be
debated in contemporary scholarship; see Jamal and Naber (2008)).
No one better illustrates the intersection of Africanist and
Orientalist discourses, the struggle to define racial categories and
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their potentially porous boundaries than the figure of the Moor or, in
early modern parlance, the black(a)moor. Generally in the masculine
and singular, the Moor was a lingering reminder of eight centuries of
Muslim rule on the Iberian peninsula (a symbol of the ultimate
religious Other) though his religious identity, his racial classification or
even his geographic origins could not be pinned down. It was precisely
this slippery nature that accentuated the role of religion and race in
colouring Orientalism.
The Moor was a ubiquitous figure appearing in a variety of
locations including Tunisia. For instance, a Portuguese member of a
diplomatic mission at the court of Shah Ismael in Persia describes
evenings spent with ‘Moorish Persians’ (Antonio Baiao in Matthee
2005, p. 61). The two black characters appearing in Shakespeare’s
plays, Othello and Aaron the Moor from Titus Andronicus, are called
Moors, in an amalgam of religious and colour differences, meaning
both Muslim and black (Loomba 2002, pp. 456, 91111). While
Shakespeare referred to the ‘Moor of Venice’, by the time of Robinson
Crusoe, one encounters both ‘Spanish Moors’ and ‘African Moors’
(Pratt 1992, p. 71; Wheeler 2000, pp. 6689).
Though Moor could be synonymous with Muslim, one eighteenth-
century traveller falls for a ‘Christian Moor’ (Wheeler 2000, p. 148).
Moors could also be Jewish according to a seventeenth-century
English pamphlet on the conversion of a Moroccan Jewish rabbi to
Christianity called The Blessed Jew of Marocco or a Blackamoor Made
White (Calvert 1648; Loomba 2002, pp. 147, 180; Matar 2005, pp. 28
9). While much of the text is a stereotypical diatribe against Jewish
people, the title itself alludes to the relation between colour and
religion where conversion is a racial process that could make a Jew or
Moor white. This also shows the contradiction of the racial
categorization of the Moor, while the term ‘blackamoor’ current
from the sixteenth century onward provided a clear link to blackness;
in later periods the Moor is dark, tawny or even arguably white. The
perception of difference depended on religious, racial or national
The colour of Orientalism 261
markers, fluctuating in relation to commercial, economic and political
conditions (Loomba 1989, pp. 3864, 2002; Matar 2005).
Travellers in Tunisia had much to say about the Moor, his attitude,
character and colour. In racial typographies the Moor could be a
descendant of Muslims from Spain or the children of Arab conquerors
and local populations (Frank and Marcel 1979 [1816], p. 25). Others
emphasized only that ‘the blood of the Moors is very mixed’. As
explained by Louis Desfontaines, a French naturalist and academic
visiting Tunisia in the late eighteenth century, this was due to the
‘continuous alliances that the Turks and Christian renegades of
various nations have contacted with women of the country’ (1838,
p. 26). In a colonial era marked by the policing of racial boundaries,
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miscegenation meant impurity. Puckler-Muskau derided: ‘These are

no longer the Moors of Spain; it is nothing more than a bastard race,
offering occasionally here and there a few marks of its noble origins
and relation to the Arabs of the desert, but incapable of any zeal, any
new civilization of its own’ (1837, vol. 2, p. 290). Lacking in nobility,
Moors here are a bastardization of racial purity (where local woman
are implicitly responsible for degeneration).
Racial categories formed the backbone of the social order in the
1788 travel guide written by Antoine Nyssen. Serving as the Dutch
consul in Tunis (though he was from the Piedmont and wrote in
French), this text circulated in the European community and was later
used by Chateaubriand. The preoccupation with race is clear from his
opening question: ‘The Beys who govern Tunis, are they Turks, Moors
or Arabs?’ He responds with the caveat that Tunisians in general are
wary of Turks, that important positions in government go to natives
and Georgians and finally that, ‘[t]hough the ruling family should be
considered as Turkish, since Hassan ben Aly [sic] descends from a
Corsican renegade, the Government should be considered Moorish’
(in Monchicourt 1929, p. 13). While this rather muddled response
indicates that Corsicans are Turks, and that the Georgians and natives
who make up the government should be considered Moors, the exact
boundaries between Turk, Moor or Tunisian are relatively vague.
Throughout his text he reiterates the explanatory value of racial
denominations, asking ‘Are the Moors or Arabs more numerous?’ or
‘Are the Arabs or the Moors more insubordinate?’ before finally
establishing a connection between racial terms and socio-economic
categories where Moors are wealthier urban people, involved in
commerce and industry (in Monchicourt 1929, pp. 1617).
Racial categories and boundaries could also be represented by
colour. For Jean-Andre Peyssonel, an early eighteenth-century French
botanist, race depended on a three-estates model of French society (of
which only the first two are relevant here):
262 Amy Aisen Elouafi
The colour of their skin or the blood of the country is different
according to each of the three estates that I have established, the first
rank has a relatively nice and white skin such as the children born to
Turks and renegades, from Turkish women and Christian slave
women, their blood is rather good. The second rank is rather
brownish due to the mixing between natural Moors and Christian
slave women. (Peyssonel 1987, p. 82)

He associated each ‘rank’ with a particular colour, to posit the social

and political elites as white while darkening their inferiors. Peyssonel
valued whiteness, with the first rank having ‘nice’ white skin which
corresponded to ‘rather good’ blood, in an intertwining of race and
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class making blood synonymous with status.

For Frank whiteness linked urbanity and civility, so ‘that most of
Tunisian Moors who live in the cities are almost as white as
Europeans’, though the qualification ‘almost’ redraws the line
separating Moors from Europeans. Even this resemblance is the
dismissed as he informs his readers that ‘those who live in the
countryside especially those who cultivate the land, have a browner
tint’ (Frank and Marcel 1816, p. 99). Climate and distance from an
urban centre functioned to colour peasants and rural folk brown,
where colour extinguishes the possibility that civilized, urban society
could qualify the Moors as Europeans. All of his terms are relational;
a Moor is neither white nor brown, but ‘almost white’ and ‘browner’,
referring back to whiteness to stabilize it.
Climate and geography were part of Frank’s understanding of
scientific approaches to racial classifications. Offering an etymological
definition he explained that the term Moor designates ‘not only the
indigenous people in the regency of Tunis, but all of those along the
Barbary coast’, since it was a derivative of a Greek word meaning
‘sombre, tanned, or one who has brown skin’ (Frank and Marcel 1979
[1816], p. 99). If brown skin was the equivalent to being ‘tanned’, the
subject in question is white and the mark of the sun a deviation from
this norm. That a sombre complexion is understood to result from the
hot, African climate is evident in Frank’s combination of a geographic
term with its physical manifestation (and reference to Tunisia’s place
within Africa).
If racial identities were defined by manners and character, or
climate, and not just blood, then Europeans were at risk of losing
whiteness simply by living in Tunisia and interacting with locals,
especially exotic native women who taunted European men and
threatened degeneration. Frank warns that extensive interaction has
a regressive impact on Turks (functioning as a surrogate example).
Though they are ‘communally capable of positive sentiments and
respectable actions’ their ’natural goodness deteriorates by regular
The colour of Orientalism 263
contact with the Moors’ (Franks and Marcel 1979 [1816], p. 102).
Temple too instructed his readers that even in limited instances of
interaction Europeans should assert their masculinity to perform
The ambiguity of the Moor’s shifting identity became a way of
writing about Tunisia without specifically locating it. The uncertainties
and contradictions expressed in descriptions of the Moor of mixed
blood (Spanish, Arab, Muslim, renegades, the unnamed local women),
geography, colour, occupation, reflect contemporary debates about
human origin and shifts in the political and economic balance of
power in the age of empire. The tensions between conceptualizing the
province as part of a despotic Orient or as primitive Africa parallel
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political deference to the sultan’s sovereignty and the chaos of

autonomy, where racial inferiority (here marked by blackness) could
pave the way for colonial ventures.

Ottoman and local understandings of difference

A number of scholars agree that ‘Orientals’ actively influenced and
contributed to Orientalist scholarship (Fahmy 1997; Findley 1998;
Tavakoli-Targhi 2001; Lewis 2004). If Orientalism was one of the
primary tropes through which concepts such as civilization, nation,
modernity and progress were understood in the Ottoman Empire and
in Europe, we should consider how the racialization of these concepts
was imagined. This does not mean that the colonized were enthralled
with Westernization to the point of uncritically accepting its pre-
judices. But, if scientific racial ideologies were not blindly imported
any more than other aspects of civilizational discourses, but rather
engaged with and selectively built upon, then we need to probe how
local conceptions of difference (religious, linguistic, etc.) included or
referred to colour and may have proved amenable to hierarchical
constructions of race.
Ottoman society was hierarchically structured, and differences
(primarily religious and class) were recognized and accepted. As a
multi-racial and multi-religious empire, its ruling elite was neither
based on biological conceptions of identity nor did they attempt to
homogenize the population. Ottoman subjects had different rights and
responsibilities based on religion, though this did not impede a
number of Christians and Jews from holding prominent economic
and political roles. A general climate of coexistence prevailed until
about the second half of the nineteenth century, when the Tanzimat
reforms sought to redefine subjecthood, creating equality among
Muslims, Christians and Jews, giving religion an increasingly political
value (Makdisi 2000).
264 Amy Aisen Elouafi
Relatively less has been written about the relation between ethnic or
racial groups in this multi-ethnic empire. In a frequently cited 1974
article Metin Kunt considers whether mamluk slaves acted along
national lines as Georgians, Circassians or Albanians, instead of as a
composite group. This poses an important question (more than he
claims to offer a definitive response), but Kunt (1974, p. 234)
configures national identity as a ‘natural’ sentiment or phenomenon
equated with language and friendship. Similar arguments about the
national or racial divisions within the Tunisian slave elite have been
put forward (Brown 1974), though these should be reconsidered in
light of theoretical approaches to nationalism elaborated in the
following decades.
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Critical approaches to national identity have been applied to

question the role of race in twentieth-century nationalist movements.
For instance, Jordanian national identity was constructed through
legal apparatuses and participation in the military that appropriated
Bedouin culture and excluded Palestinians (Massad 2001). Egyptian
nationalism was more explicitly racialized, by internal colonization
projects that applied civilizational discourses to the denigration of the
Sudanese (Powell 2003). These racial ideologies were elaborated in
popular scientific journals and anthropological studies in the early
twentieth century, where Egyptian scholars engaged with European
scientific understandings of race and separated Egypt from its African
context (El Shakry 2007). Yet these are relatively few insights
compared to the breadth of critical scholarship on the implications
of national identity for the construction of gender roles, sexuality or
women’s rights.
A better understanding of slavery and an exploration of the complex
relations between the Ottoman Empire and African states may help to
explain local constructions of race and elaborate the interaction of
race and religion in identity formation. While nation-state borders
within the Middle East are considered the result of colonialism, the
separation between the Middle East and North Africa, or North and
sub-Saharan Africa, is rarely questioned. In fact, the Sahara was as
much a space of exchange as the Mediterranean, with numerous
economic and religious ties linking the Ottomans to West Africa and
the Sudan (Lydon 2005).
Islamic law condones the enslavement of non-Muslims and the
ruling elite was composed of male and female slaves, African and
European. Captives from military raids across the empire’s European
borders brought slaves into the military slave-recruitment system
known as devşirme, from the earliest period of Ottoman expansion
(Toledano 1998). Caravans regularly supplied the empire with African
slaves serving primarily domestic functions in the homes of the
wealthy, though occasionally in agricultural milieu. A few vignettes
The colour of Orientalism 265
of identity among the elite in Tunis might suggest why slaves from the
Balkans and the Caucuses were generally restricted to domestic service
in separate capacities than African slaves, and whether these distinc-
tions were hierarchical and a reflection of racialized geographies.
The palace at Tunis was typical of the Ottoman ruling class in its
reliance on slave recruitment, in basing elite identity on wealth,
cultural affinities and proximity to the governor, his family and their
households. Slaves were incorporated into life at the palace in ways
that underscore the importance of rank, and the possibility of social
mobility, as illustrated in the following case. Upon first entering the
archival records Rejeb al-Mamluk’s name indicates his official position
as a mamluk (literally meaning owned) and his origin as a slave
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brought from the eastern Ottoman borderlands. When he later became

treasurer, he is referred to by the title Rejeb Khaznadar, with the
prominent administrative position signifying a claim to status that
displaced the question of origins. After later marrying the sister of one
of the governors, he was called ‘our brother Rejeb Khaznadar’ where
kinship or affiliation further marked his belonging within the palace.
Women brought to the palace as slaves (known as jariya) could rise to
influential positions, and were similarly identified as belonging to a
particular household. The term jariya referred to their origins,
substituting for a family name, and, far from derogatory, was even
evoked to describe women of status such as the jariya Mahmoud Bey’s
mother  the mother of the ruling governor.1
While slave recruitment is a unique example of social mobility, other
sources indicate a similar flexibility of status and identity monikers. One
Jewish merchant regularly doing business with the palace was alternately
referred to as the Jewish man Barouch or Barouch the coppersmith,
where religion alternated with trade. Christians Europeans (nasara) were
identified as such when they worked in the palace with their name or
rank often mentioned alongside. In the rare case of Guiseppe Raffo, a
Sardinian born in Tunis who served for much of the mid-nineteenth
century as the primary liaison between the court and European consuls,
his name alone sufficed.
Terminology used in Tunisia to refer to African slaves brought
through the trans-Saharan trade and pilgrimage routes differed than
that for white slaves. The former were called wasif which designated
both servile status and African/black (similar to how the term ’abid
was used in Egypt to refer to slaves, with racial connotations that
signified black or Sudanese).2 In addition, African slaves were khedam
(meaning ‘maid’ for women or ‘worker’ for men), emphasizing a
correlation between domestic service or status and their specific origin.
While these suggest that African slaves filled specific roles within the
palace, it seems hazardous to presume that these vocabularies equated
266 Amy Aisen Elouafi
blackness, slavery and inferiority as was the case in English and
One indication of a hierarchy among the slaves is their cost; white
slaves from Istanbul were up to three times the price of African slaves.3
One study of slavery in Tunisia suggested that the lower prices for
African slaves are attributable to their lack of skills compared to the
superior capabilities of whites (Valensi 1967). Such an argument
ignores how slaves were recruited as children and trained by their
masters, and seems premised upon accepting the civilizational
hierarchies of the colonial era more than explaining their relevance.
For the nineteenth century this may be the result of a quantitative shift
in the African slave trade from the Atlantic and towards the Ottoman
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Empire, where an increase in supply meant a decrease in prices

(Toledano 1998).
Elite status was based on a complex social hierarchy where
individuals were located by a combination of factors including
religion, ethno-national origin, trade or descent from a prominent
family. This is particularly pronounced in the urban centres in oral
narratives collected from privileged women of the capital. One story of
a husband, whose four wives stereotype regional and socio-economic
differences, evokes such hierarchies. While one ‘was fair, with a radiant
face, of good breeding and with a touch of class’, the others included
Bedouin peasants and a ‘black wife’ who is clearly a servant. The
husband decides to divorce one based on their responses to four
questions about domestic sensibilities used to gauge their cultural
proclivities and praise the bourgeois woman from the capital. Yet the
story itself derides the tastes of peasant and Bedouin women, indicates
their superiority to an African slave, and blurs the boundaries between
race, servitude and slavery (Hejaiej 1996, pp. 2830, 18991).
Elite condescension towards the masses was not limited to mocking
slaves. In the eighteenth-century history of the wealthy landowner
Mohammed Seghir Ben Youssef, he generously distributes criticism
across the population. For Ben Youssef, Bedouins were so incompetent
that the women of one tribe ‘proved to be more intelligent and
enterprising than the men’, who were ‘quick to treachery’, and he
considers another tribe to be ‘corrupt people since the beginning of
time’ (Ben Youssef 1998, pp. 106, 148).
Following a series of domestic difficulties, and consular pressure, the
governor abolished the public slave trade in 1846, though the practice
continued in private (van der Haven 2006). By the mid-nineteenth
century there was an increasing population of Africans and manu-
mitted slaves in the capital, and one scholar views their concentration
in a few neighbourhoods as a form of communal segregation
perpetuated by their socio-economic status (Largèuche 1999). How-
ever, without explaining the reasons for their poverty or relating this to
The colour of Orientalism 267
the generally bleak urban living standards, Larguèche does not offer a
convincing explanation of their marginality. One of the few recent
works on slavery in Tunisia, his argument about discrimination is
intriguing, but presumed instead of demonstrated and therefore
Though African slaves were in positions of subordination, they were
a visible component of elite society. Slavery itself was not synonymous
with poverty or marginality; slaves were incorporated into the house-
holds of the wealthy, dressed to illustrate the status of their owners and
in rare cases influential and prosperous. Race and rank were two
components of social identity to which kinship, occupation and
religion all contributed. In a hierarchical society, these differences
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were recognized, though not politicized as they were in the nation-state

This discussion is not intended to subsume all notions of difference
or even colour difference into a black/white binary  and clearly a
longer discussion of the racialization of Orientalism would include the
ways in which it was viewed as Asiatic, Semitic or white. By indicating
a few ways in which the Orient was seen as black in eighteenth- and
nineteenth-century British and French texts, I want to problematize
the role of race in Orientalism and emphasize its interaction with
negrophobia/negrophilia. The shifting constructions of race and
colour meant that black could mean more than slave, or negro, and
possibly include Muslim, Arab or a general colonial Other.
These travelogues imply that blurred boundaries and ambiguities
challenged the fixed binary of race in determining the racial
categorization of Tunisians. While racial differences were similarly
recognized by Tunisians themselves, this was only one factor in
creating social identity where class, religion and familial relations
were often equally significant. It had a cosmopolitan population
similar to other urban centres of the empire and additional research on
slavery will further elaborate this picture of how race was understood
in different Ottoman contexts. Historicizing the division between
North Africa and the rest of the continent may help to explain the
construction of nationalist racial categories and offer more fruitful
paths of inquiry than would be achieved by isolating the province from
Ottoman and African contexts.

1. This discussion is based on an analysis of archival records of palace spending covering
the period from 1770 to 1840 from the Tunisian National Archives.
2. The term wasif is occasionally used in reference to the purchase or manumission of
slaves and in records that also refer to ‘abid and khedam; see Tunisian National Archives
registers 438 and 450.
268 Amy Aisen Elouafi
3. These are estimates based on partial documentation covering the period from 1781 to
1835. On khedam (African slaves) purchased in Tunis, see, for instance, Tunisian National
Archives registers 221, 286, 331, 385, 395, 403, 411, 427, 436, 437, 438, 443, 444, 449 and 450.
On the purchase of white slaves (mamluk and jariya from Istanbul), see TNA Register 286
and TNA History Series 1, dossier 10, documents 4 and 5.

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AMY AISEN ELOUAFI is Assistant Professor of History at Syracuse

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ADDRESS: Department of History, 145 Eggers Hall, Syracuse

University, Syracuse, NY 13244, USA.
Email: aelouafi@maxwell.syr.edu