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American travel writing about the Middle East

Sep 27,2018 - Last updated at Sep 27,2018

From the 1850s through the 1950s, nothing was more vital for the interpretation of the Arab-Muslim Middle East than the traveller was in the United States. The quest for trade and empire, the rise of the missionary movement and curiosity about the unusual, all induced a growing number of venturesome spirits to seek out acquaintance with the countries and the peoples of the region, resulting in many popular books, articles, public lectures and even serialised travel letters. 

The literate American had few fact-based accounts of the region, only ideas that were largely romantic in allure: a deep azure sky, tents, camels and Bedouins, the luxurious ease of coffee houses and Turkish baths, turbaned Turks sitting on Persian carpets while smoking hubble-bubble and mysterious women in harems. Such images offered a sort of Arabian Night spell, creating an irresistible tourist attraction when the area became accessible to American travellers.

As a group, these travel publications covered almost every aspect of life in our part of the world: climate, history, religion, manners, customs, dress, architecture, government and justice system. This wide range of information, and the element of authenticity from the personal eye-witness approach employed by many travellers, made these books popular. 

Yet often enough, these experiences were exaggerated to satisfy the reader's taste for the romantic and the adventurous. An excerpt from one of the most popular, Pencillings by the Way (1836), by poet and journalist Nathaniel Parker Willis, provides a representative sample:

“The world contains nothing like Constantinople. If we could compel all our senses into one, and live by the pleasures of the eye, it were a paradise transcended. The Bosphorus — the superb, peculiar incomparable Bosphorus! The dream-like, fairy built Seraglio! The sights within the city so richly strange, and the valleys and streams around it so exquisitely fair, the voluptuous softness of the dark eyes haunting every step on shore, and the spirit-like swiftness and elegance of your darting caique upon the waters! In what land is the priceless sight such a treasure?  Where is the fancy so delicately and divinely pampered?” 

The material in travel books not only captured the imagination of the reading public but also led to a large body of fiction set in the Middle East. The travellers emphasised in such accounts many of the enchanting images of the Orient which were current at home, authenticating and reinforcing them through firsthand narration of observations and impressions. When American travellers went to the region, they evidently selected what they saw and ignored what did not fit in with their preconceived picture of it. Thomas Halloran remarks, “When Americans arrive looking for what they have read about, the stereotypes, prototypes and the relics of the host culture, their work misguidedly adds to the body of Orientalist thinking.” The peril lying in these stereotypes is that they represent, as Edward Said famously argues in Orientalism (1978), the knowledge created about colonised, mysterious, outlandish, different and strange, if not bizarre, cultures.

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