This essay has been sitting in my documents, awaiting editing, for weeks now. So here it is, a bit belated, the first of my essays on colonialism in the romance novel.
Over at Dear Author there was an interesting conversation about romance and colonialism. I am indebted to everyone’s opinions about this subject (especially Maya’s) and it inspired me to plunge into my favorite romances set in Egypt. I begin with a close reading of Connie Brockway’s As You Desire focusing on anti-colonial and Orientalist tensions within the book.
As You Desire opens in 1890 with the heroine sitting in a camp of “slavers” out in the desert south of Cairo. As Dizzy (short for Desdemona) sits in the camp, more than a little drunk, she weaves for herself an Orientalist fantasy immediately recognizable to “connoisseurs” of the genre. She’s a young, pale yet plucky Englishwoman in captivity and the audience awaits with baited breath the entrance of the hero. There are a few red herrings- at one point Dizzy mutters about a fleeing group of traders, “Not a sheik in the lot, I’d wager” (5). When the hero does arrive he also appears at first glance to be a recognizable type:
A rider so much a part of his steed that he seemed more centaur than man crested the moon-silvered edge of a dune. His cape billowed in the wind like great black wings. Closer he sped, myth embodied, galloping across the midnight-shrouded sands, racing toward her. Her destiny (5).
Yet the audience soon finds out that Dizzy’s drunken romanticism, broadly drawn as a parody of Orientalist captivity romances, has nothing to do with reality. First Dizzy panics:
This was no romantic prince of the desert, this was a hard savage, a man who would use her body as casually as an Englishman would soil a napkin and just as casually discard her when he was done (7-8).
Then she realizes that her hero is Harry Braxton, a long-time friend and a romance version of the rougish Indiana Jones/Han Solo type. The slavers holding her are not slavers at all but instead business associates of Harry all too eager to get an accidental captive off their hands.
Thus opens As You Desire, a clever romance set in 1890 colonial Egypt. The three devices employed in the opening scene will be used repeatedly by Brockway throughout the book. Orientalist and romance novel tropes will be set up and elaborated upon at great length. These tropes will then be revealed as moments of intensely parodistic humor and dispelled by the actions or words of the “real” characters. Finally, Egypt is constructed as an exotic yet welcoming anti-England where European misfits like Dizzy and Harry can come into their own.
Throughout the book Dizzy reads romance novels on the sly and then attempts to script moments of her own life as lurid excerpts from a sensationalist text. Harry is less than impressed once he gets his hand on one of her books:
They had striking similarities. They all featured an insipid-looking, open-mouthed girl and a rock-jawed man with a constipated expression. On the last page of each book was an inevitable picture of the pair, their arms entwined as they strolled toward some moss-mantled manor on a distant hill (261).
As Dizzy is courted by Harry’s cousin Blake the failings of her favorite romantic hero, Bertie Cecil, become apparent. Bertie Cecil/Blake does not smile, does not enjoy Egyptian ruins or a smart woman, and does not kiss very well either. The scene where Dizzy is disappointed by Blake’s boorish sexuality is a particularly well done parody of what Deborah Lutz might call, “…the dangerous lover- the one whose eroticism lies in his dark past, his restless inquietude, his remorseful and rebellious exile from comfortable everyday living” (ix).
The character of Magi is a clever answer to the standard Orientalist construction of the Eastern woman. Magi says at one point, “Ignorant men. I thank God that I am an enlightened woman and that I live in enlightened times” (284). Magi uses a caricature of “native” identity as a shield and a weapon. She slips in and out of accented English as is useful for her as she moves through different social circles. When Magi is awakened one night by the idiotic Blake, Dizzy notes, “Drat Magi, anyway. Her accent was pronounced, her syntax a caricature, and her expression petulant. Magi did not appreciate being woken from a sound sleep” (288).
Magi appears to have received an education from an Egyptian state school or, more likely, a missionary school run by the British. When agitated, “The obsequious manner fell away, as did the soft, broken accent. It was replaced by a perfectly crisp English one” (101). Whether or not Magi as a character is historically possible is muddled- how could an educated woman of her charm and possibly elite background end up as a servant in a poor British household? Yet within the text she serves to constantly embody Orientalist constructions of native female identity and then to reveal such constructions as ridiculous and parodistic answers to the Europeans’ own ignorance (as embodied by Blake).
Dizzy’s romantic othering of Britain mirrors in a parodistic fashion the Orientalist gaze as it is normally turned upon Egypt. Dizzy is looking for a type of man- tall, dark, and brooding. She is also looking for a type of country upon which she has embroidered dreams of romance and social acceptance. She tends to get it wrong more often than not, as Harry knows all too well. Harry repeatedly reminds Dizzy that she has constructed a fantasy England populated by fantasy heroes and a fantasy society. Dizzy reveals the ignorance behind her constructions of English life as she talks with Blake:
‘What I miss most about England is its emerald green color, the wee crofter’s hut, the shaggy moorland ponies.’
‘Ah!’ Blake nodded understandingly. ‘You were raised in Scotland then.’
‘Oh, no. No. I was raised in London. Mostly’ (120).
Up to this point I am rather astounded by the subversive potential of this narrative. Brockway deftly takes up Orientalist stories and refashions them with parodistic humor into a world where Egypt is normalized, England is romanticized, and the entire process of constructing the other is laid bare as a foolish and ultimately immature process. Yet there are also elements of the book that did not ring true for me, moments where Orientalist themes were embraced as well as mocked.
From the beginning Brockway signals that we are in a colonial environment. On page 20 Harry takes a crack at the Consul-General of Egypt, “Our dear Sir Baring- You know, Over-Bearing?- may not be the titular head of Egypt, but he rules the country” (20). Dizzy and Harry belong to an elite European community comprised of, “…ex-patriots, obsessed archeologists and dilettantes, politicians and despots” (44). This mixed bag of foreigners meet at the Shepheard’s Hotel to discuss and debate their conception of Egypt- a pharaonic wonderland of Antiquity and, more importantly, antiques. These expatriates scoff at the middle-class tourists of Thomas Cook’s tours yet they, too, are often little more than extended tourists in Egyptian lands.
Dizzy and Harry’s social circle does have an awareness of the contemporary concerns of the day. Harry needles a British Egyptologist, “My country?…I was under the assumption we were in Egypt, sir” (65). This soon explodes into a quick but heated debate about Egypt’s colonial status. Dizzy’s grandfather argues, “The Egyptians can’t afford to look after their national treasures. They can’t even manage their own government-” and Dizzy interrupts, “If we gave them the opportunity, instead of allowing those Turkish-” (66). The group soon moves on to other topics and Dizzy ends with one last thought, “‘It is a point of shame, though,’ she said almost by rote. ‘All these governments, crawling all over Egypt, like ants on a felled animal, rending it apart’” (67). This is an intriguing moment that hides just as much as it reveals about colonialism in Egypt.
Harry and Dizzy are arrayed towards an end of an ideological spectrum that modern readers can feel comfortable with. Harry is clearly cynical about the paternalistic arguments that were mustered to justify British imperial rule in Egypt. At one point he jokes with Magi, “You know there’s a popular myth in England concerning modest, silent Eastern women-” (264). Dizzy sees viciousness in Europeans’ competition in the region and something almost pathetic in Egypt’s victim status (like a felled animal). These attitudes are made palatable through a contrast to Harry’s cousin Blake’s racism and sense of entitlement. Even more sympathetic characters like Marta say things like, “I’m sure we’d all be thrilled to have an insight into the mind of the Egyptian” (210).
Lost in this conversation, and throughout the book, is the direct and often violent presence of British rule in the country and the complexities of Egyptian nationalism. In 1881 an Egyptian army officer named Ahmed ‘Urabi began traveling through the countryside and pushing the idea, “Misr li-lmisriyyin,” or, “Egypt for the Egyptians.” This revolt was two-pronged. There was increasing resentment among urban professionals of Egyptian origin against the Turkish-Circassian elite of the country. A brief background: At the turn of the century the Ottoman sultan sent an expedition from what we would now call Albania to turn Napoleon out of Egypt. By 1805 Napoleon was gone but Mehmet Ali Pasha (Muhammad Ali) had seized control not only of the Ottoman expedition but also of the Egyptian provinces. Recognized by the sultan as wali, or governor, of Egypt, Muhammad Ali became de-facto ruler of an Egyptian state. The early governance of this state was centralized in and around Muhammad Ali’s household, where alliances among the Turkish-speaking elite were solidified through the granting of civil service positions in the new Egyptian state.
Fast forward to 1881: Egyptians of Arabic-speaking middle class and country-elite backgrounds have reaped the economic and educational benefits of Muhammad Ali’s modernization programs but are still held back by a glass ceiling that protects the prestige of the Turkish-Circassian ultra-elite associated with the khedival family (Muhammad Ali’s descendents). Above and beyond this, Egypt is in massive debt and an institution called the Caisee de la Dette Publique has been formed by European creditors to recoup interest payments directly from the Egyptian state’s revenue. Thus Egyptians have grievances not only against power hierarchies within the state but also against the encroaching power of European polities on Egyptian sovereignty. In 1882 the British invaded Egypt to put down the revolt. The bombardment of the city of Alexandria was particularly brutal and remained engrained in popular memory.
Brockway portrays an Egypt falling victim to competing European interests. There are some nationalist, anti-imperial sentiments expressed in the story by Egyptian characters. Abdul’s final appearance in the book ends with this thought, “Perhaps Rabi would soon be ready for the real family business: guarding Nefertiti’s tomb until such a day as Egypt belonged to Egyptians” (382), an echo of ‘Urabi’s early nationalist calls. Yet the recent violence at Alexandria and Tel al Kabir is absent from the text. Indeed, the incessant competition between the French, British, and German Egyptologists echoes real debates within Oriental scholarship of the time but masks the increasing imperial power of Britain in Egyptian politics. A subtlety to be sure, but an interesting one.
The increasingly urbanized, educated, and technologically proficient class of Egyptians and Turkish-Circassian elites who by 1890 were articulating powerful and complex desires for national sovereignty is largely absent from the text. The first woman’s periodical, al-Fatah, was published in Alexandria in 1892. Political journals had been printed and distributed within Egypt as early as the 1870s. These journals catered to the increasing portion of Egyptians who were literate, politically engaged, and self-consciously nationalist. Fierce debates over the social roles of religion, women, national identity, and modernization were unfolding in Cairo just as they were unfolding in other urban centers of the time: London, Paris, Berlin, Istanbul, New York, Chicago… Cairo’s struggle to constitute an Egyptian form of modernity was vibrant, complex, and contemporary with European debates over the same issues.
Brockway conveys only a hint of this complexity as Dizzy negotiates with Sid Hassam:
‘My children will starve if I continue to allow my good sense to be overruled by my silly sentimental nature.’
‘Your children probably go to school in Paris,’ Sitt [Dizzy] answered in a tone that made the desert sands seem moist.
‘You can starve in Paris as well as Cairo.’ Both broke into gales of laughter” (137).
Yet aside from this one conversation many of Brockway’s Egyptians seem as frozen in an earlier time as the fictional Egyptologists’ conception of Egypt. The contradictions and complexities of 1890 urban Cairo are obscured beneath a nostalgic patina that emphasizes old quarters of the city and exotic suqs.
This is largely an effect of the book’s main thrust. After all, Brockway is writing a European Historical romance in a colonial setting. We do not see realistic scenes of Egyptian nationalism or middle-class Egyptian life because these moments are irrelevant to this text. Brockway privileges Dizzy and Harry’s relationship with Egypt over the Egyptians’ relationships with Egypt. In doing so she cannot help but reproduce an Egypt that is bound in some way by notions of the exotic and the other.
It is clear that Egypt has been the making of both Dizzy and Harry. At one point Harry tells her:
Self-confident, competent, vivacious. Egypt has made a woman of you. Why ever would you want to go back to that mold manufacturing plant called England? Egypt reeks of romance and a good half of Her Majesty’s officers are madly in love with you- (38).
Harry himself knows that he will never leave Egypt. He is able to live as a respected and powerful man in Egypt despite his dyslexia; life in England would mean a return to an old and cramped existence delineated by the pity of friends and family. Egypt in this book has meaning as a place where Dizzy and Harry can reconstruct themselves as the best versions of their best selves. If England is stuffy, rigid, and barren then Egypt is full of life, vigor, and the possibilities of freedom. Note that this life, vigor, and freedom is constructed for Dizzy and Harry and not for the Egyptians around them.
When Harry gives Dizzy a mirror and asks if she really sees herself (271) it is significant that the mirror is an artifact of an early Egyptian civilization. It is through Egypt that Dizzy can reach her full potential as a woman and as a human being. Meanwhile Harry tells Dizzy:
And how can one single image describe you? You are a country, a country of unexplored sensation and whim, veiled in dawn, shining, shedding light…And your body… it is the Nile itself…Your are my country, Desdemona…My Egypt. My hot, harrowing desert and my cool, verdant Nile, infinitely lovely and unfathomable and sustaining (117).
This is not a particularly innovative theme (although, like Dizzy, I think I’d fall for it!) since Egypt has, from the dawn of the Egyptian popular press, been portrayed as a woman: “Egypt (Misr) or the Egyptian nation (al-umma al-Misriyya)- both the territory and the collective- came over time and with few exceptions to be depicted as a woman” (Woman, Baron, 57). As early as the 1870s Ya‘qub Sanu‘a was using a feminized Egypt in anti-imperial cartoons in his series Abu Naddara Zarqa’ (The Man with the Blue Glasses). Later nationalist painting, sculpture, and prints made use of this embodiment of the Egyptian nation in female form. Often this was a female Egypt that was to be protected from the sexual danger posed by invading British troops. After the Dinshaway affair in 1906 Egyptian nationalists made use of “Egypt as a Woman” to rouse popular furor over the “rape” of the nation and the violation of national honor.
What does it mean that Harry also feminizes and sexualizes Egypt? More importantly, what does it mean that Egypt in this text is a European woman? Dizzy is in some way signified as Egyptian/Eastern, “Veiled, with a long chadar covering her dark blond hair, her eyes alone would lead one to assume she was some exotic Ottoman hybrid” (61). Yet she is also undoubtedly European. Like Harry, she is presented as straddling the gap between white colonial society and the Egyptians. Harry has Egyptian business contacts and has been adopted into one group’s tribe while Dizzy runs a program for Cairo street children and mingles with Egyptians in public spaces. Yet both Harry and Dizzy exercise privilege in a way that is not closely examined by the text- they get to take Egypt and make of it what they will. Their lives, their destinies, are privileged by their inherent colonial power even when they resist actively participating in the colonial project. There is no greater sign of this privilege than the replacement of the Egypt-as-Pharonic Woman or Egypt-as-Arab Peasant imagery with that of Egypt-as-Desdemona.
Ultimately As You Desire is a fascinating and enjoyable text that makes wonderful use of parodistic humor to critique the romance genre and its engagement with Orientalist discourse. This self-conscious engagement with colonialism makes moments where imperial privilege is unexamined even more fascinating to dissect.
Baron, Beth. Egypt as a Woman: Nationalism, Gender, and Politics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.
Baron, Beth. The Women’s Awakening in Egypt: Culture, Society, and the Press. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.
Brockway, Connie. As You Desire. New York: Dell Publishing, 1997.
Lutz, Deborah. The Dangerous Lover: Gothic Villains, Byronism, and the Nineteenth-Century Seduction Narrative. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2006.