The balconied rooftop apartment in Zamalek on the island of Gezira which my father rented when we arrived in Cairo in 1947 looked over the Nile to the east and Gezira Sporting Club to the west. I learned to count to ten by timing the sunset each night, the sand in the air making the sun a scumbled, smouldering ball, dropping fast and heavily, as if overcome by its own heat. My father had gone ahead of us and been to the Mouski to buy Persian and Turkish rugs, mirrors with gilded and curly frames; brass trays engraved with paisley butis and edged in scallops; a brass coffeepot with a toucan bill for a spout; little ruby glasses, also gilded and flowery, for drinking tea; a bronze sculpture of a crane eating a snake twined round its legs. A dressing table for my mother had bulky, rounded drawers, made of some kind of heavy yellow wood the colour of camel hide; she draped it in pink spotted tulle over a heavier satin underskirt, with braiding and a frill to define the kidney-shaped contour of the tabletop. It was a piece made by hand to look machine-tooled and modern; each of the drawers was slightly different so that you had to put them back in the right order. But Esmond – my father – also shipped a drinks cabinet in walnut veneer from London, as well as decanters for port and sherry and a cunning device called a ‘tantalus’ for locking up bottles so ‘the staff can’t tipple,’ some carver chairs, and lots of bits of silver (cigarette boxes, ashtrays, candelabra, pepperpots, decanter labels): tribal stuff, to keep him moored to home ground, which figured in all the colonial residences of the British, as can be seen in photographs in memoirs like Priscilla Napier’s A Late Beginner, published in 1966, about living in Cairo as a child between the wars: her father, Sir William Goodenough Hayter, was a judge with the Anglo-Egyptian Service, a vital arm of the British Protectorate running the country from the wings.
There were many prints of Egypt in our Zamalek flat – picturesque views of the ruins and the pyramids and Old Cairo, from series that had been published in the previous century – and they fascinated me: drowned temples, dhows like drawn bows on the Nile, colossal fallen gods of stone, camel trains, the desert dotted with tiny figures of herdsmen in the shade with their animals. The picture I loved best showed a little Mameluke girl swathed from head to foot in bulky robes, gold-embroidered on pale crimson, over a blue tunic, her hands neatly clasped together, with the decorum of an adult. The towering scale of her enveloping coif, a wimple-like structure trailing behind her like a cloak, and her imperturbable look filled me with longing.
The little girl in the picture became my secret sister, my other self, the pretty child I was – inside – in spite of my stout and clumsy outside and, at times, my ugly convict skull (the remedy for lice was shaving the head). Like many children, I was a changeling – not the right shape or temperament to belong to my beautiful mother – and I wanted to be changed once more and become like the girl in the picture, a beautiful exotic doll, as if just unwrapped from tissue paper, but also a tiny person alone in her own portrait, not on anyone’s knee, or surrounded by siblings, but on her own. How old is she? Three? Four?
All my life I have thought of this little girl as Egyptian; she merged in my memory with my playmate from next door, who showed me her dolls on the fire escape outside the kitchen. But looking now, more carefully, at that adored image of my childhood, I see an insipid face, baby pink with pale blue eyes set wide apart, slightly tense in expression, in which one might read forbearance of the kind Victorian women were trained to show. She gazes out of the elaborate veiling and embroidered panels of her costume like a plump English rose trying to play the innkeeper’s wife who turns Joseph and Mary away in a school nativity play. Her role as a dream creature indifferent to the ladylike prescriptions of my upbringing, tilts into something quite other. Is that quality I took to be heroic self-possession a far more conventional, ladylike demureness, even complacency? Is there something smug and placid in those hands clasped at her waist?
What I had thought was a watercolour turns out to be a lithograph from a chalk drawing with wash, and along the bottom there’s an inscription in a delicate copperplate hand, ‘The daughter of Admiral Walker’, followed by a signature: ‘David Wilkie f-t 1840’. Near her there used to hang another portrait, of a fantastical fellow in a high tarbush with a long, dangling plume, his chest puffed out in his dress uniform, with prominent epaulettes, medals at his throat and a long scimitar cradled along his left arm above his sword belt, and all of this liberally highlit with gold. I hadn’t connected him with the little girl, but the picture is inscribed ‘Constantinople 1840’, and it isn’t after all a portrait of an Ottoman officer – not exactly – but of the child’s father. So the little girl who beckoned to me has turned into someone else: an English child in Orientalist fancy dress.
Fancy dress was a craze in Victorian times. A glance at British portraits will reveal one landowner after another taking part in cosplay, as peasants, goddesses, heroes and heroines from Shakespeare, Pope, balladry and folklore. The queen and Prince Albert held a bal costumé at Windsor in 1842, soon after they were married, and appeared as Edward III and his consort, Philippa of Hainault. They were painted in full medieval splendour by Edwin Landseer. The tradition later influenced society photographers – Madame Yevonde, Cecil Beaton – who encouraged fantasy play-acting in their subjects. Christmas cards sent from posts in the empire assemble the British colony in fancy dress – sometimes cross-dressed and sometimes dressed up as the locals. All over the pink map in the 19th and early 20th centuries, second secretaries and civil servants, army officers and other representatives of British authority guised as exotic strangers in photographs sent to loved ones back home – Aladdin, Lady Precious Stream, or the Black King at Christ’s nativity, among other Orientals. The sequence of inversions and impersonations in the scene where Mr Rochester disguises himself as a Gypsy woman and tells Jane’s fortune is dizzy-making: insider playing outsider, master subordinate, male female. But it’s one of Mr Rochester’s prerogatives to play whatever part he likes. As with labelling, as with jokes, so with costumes: it matters who is calling the names, who is putting on the pretence.
When I was a little girl, one of my mother’s many wooers – she was in her twenties and later reminisced that ‘everyone’ in Cairo ‘was always trying to go to bed with us’ – was called Saddiq Pasha; he made a pen and ink portrait of her arrayed as an odalisque, fanned by attendants with peacock feathers. (The Orient has its own Orient, as Amit Chaudhuri once remarked.) I used to wear a sari my father bought me; it was sprigged with tiny flowers in pale pink on a lighter shade of primrose; he also gave me a Chinese mandarin’s robe with writhing dragons embroidered in golden gimp. They were for best, but we also had a dressing-up trunk and my favourite thing was to put on Turkish trousers below my belly button and a swathe of cloth over my mouth and nose – what I then called a ‘yashmak’ – and jiggle my hips while making eyes over it like an irresistible ‘sloe-eyed’ dancing girl in the posters I saw in the streets. Veils were glamorous in that epoch – a tease, a lure, the equivalent of a skirt slashed to the thigh – and elegant women, like my mother, also veiled their faces with a spotted net fluttering from their hat. I remember quite clearly that I didn’t feel different from my Egyptian friends in the playground – until my mother or father hinted that things were not quite so simple.
When Englishmen and women abroad weren’t play-acting, they were often dressed up in earnest, furled in splendid brocades and velvets – and festooned in braid, galloons, decorations, orders, medals and jewels. The same might well be said of the French or Austro-Hungarian courts, but, as David Cannadine put it in Ornamentalism, the British servants and rulers of empire were enraptured by the spectacle, the colour and sparkle they encountered among the cultures they were contending with – the diamonds of the rajahs and the silks, feathers, damasks and gems of the Ottoman rulers, as well as the bright colours and flowing shapes of the dress of lesser ranks. Cannadine’s title gives an ironic nod to Edward Said’s far more famous Orientalism, and in some senses makes light of Said’s arguments while adding to their force: fancy dress as a frivolous performance of culture, saturated in the perfume of seduction emanating from the peoples they had subjugated, or were attempting to subjugate, militarily and commercially. Viceroys and high commissioners were not to be outdone by local maharajahs or tribal chieftains in their panoply and splendour, and British court dress and military uniforms sprouted feathers and furs, and gleamed with gold and jewels, festoons and sashes and galloons. And yet, while no less a figure of grand respectability than Lord Mountbatten arrayed himself in gems and plumes, a whiff of the ridiculous still clings to these bedizened figures, however powerful. In 1938, in her furious essay Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf denounced peacockery as a display of unearned prerogatives and male authority, but her shafts also tilt at the indecency of such self-pleased exhibitionism. There is something off-key about all these jewels and feathers, braid and enamel and gold. When John Singer Sargent’s tremendous portrait of the colonial administrator Sir Frank Swettenham inspired Rebecca West to comment that ‘he looked as if he wasn’t quite a gentleman,’ was she showing her sensitivity to the excess of his display? To the unfurling, regal drapery behind him (from his collection of Malayan fabrics), to the swagger of his hand on his swivelling hip, the sheen of his white uniform and the hauteur of his mien?
Did Admiral Walker’s daughter know she was in costume, I wonder. Or did she, at that early age, living in Constantinople, feel herself to be the Ottoman girl child I took her for?
On investigation, the story of Admiral Walker led me into the labyrinthine coils of British and Ottoman imperial diplomacy, and identified the debonair Turk in his tarbush as a Victorian adventurer, a Hornblower, a Scarlet Pimpernel, that favourite reading matter of mine as a child. Baldwin Wake Walker was his full name, and he had entered the British navy in 1812, when he was ten, was posted to the West Indies, and made a lieutenant by the age of 18. He was destined thereafter to spend far more time travelling and fighting in the British seaborne empire and beyond – in the West Indies and South America, the Middle East and Southern Africa – than he would ever spend on land at home in England. In 1838 he became, with the full approval of his masters at the Admiralty, a commander of the Ottoman navy, and would be known to all as Walker Bey and, later, as Yavir Pasha. In 1839, the year before the portrait, the sultan, Mahmud II, died, causing widespread fear that the Russians would seize the chance to move on Constantinople, but rather than stand against them, Admiral Walker unpredictably decided to sail the Turkish fleet to Alexandria and leave it in the control of Muhammad Ali. When Egypt’s ruler, delighted with the ships so suddenly given over to his care, refused to relinquish them, Walker dreamed up a scheme to kidnap him and carry him off a prisoner to the Sublime Porte.
This plan was forestalled by the British naval commander in Egypt who packed Walker off to Constantinople on a steamer – the kind of modern vessel he opposed till the day of his death several decades later.
The painter, David Wilkie, had been prescribed foreign travel by his doctor, as a remedy for what sounds like depression. He was a Scotsman who’d risen from poverty and, in the early part of the century, became a great favourite of the establishment (George IV bought several of his pictures); but his relation with the ruling English did not give him peace of mind, however much it filled his pockets and gained him honours. He wanted to be true to his origins and remained uneasy with the client relationship of artist and patron, sitter and portraitist. Then, with the advent of the domestically inclined Victorians, his grand style was too much associated with the superannuated Georgians. He seems to have been a fragile and singular man, who had lived all his life with his mother and went to pieces at her death. But after his first medicinal travels, he developed a taste for abroad and, like the admiral whose portrait he made in the Ottoman capital, was never again to spend much time in the British Isles.
By the summer of 1840, around the time the portrait of his daughter was painted, the Pasha Capitan was fighting alongside the Turks in sorties against the French in Syria. The DNB entry commends him in the language of unreflecting imperialism: ‘In September and November he co-operated with Turkey’s allies in the reduction of Beirut, Sidon and Acre, showing great gallantry, both in organising naval operations and in landing and leading detachments of Turkish troops to seize the towns in the name of the sultan.’ Early in 1841, he was back in Egypt. So was Wilkie, whose magisterial portrait of Muhammad Ali was painted that year, when Egypt’s ruler was nearing the end of his long reign.
The trip was to be Wilkie’s last. He’d taken the overland route down the Danube, then spent a few months painting in Syria and Palestine, staying five weeks in Jerusalem, where in the Orientalist style of the period he recorded the pursuits and clothes and trades he observed around him. The taste for costume and fancy dress wasn’t just the product of a traveller’s fondness for exotic scenes and figures; it also had to do with a painterly sensitivity to texture and colour. Rembrandt, whom Wilkie admired, had kept a trunk full of dressing-up clothes in his studio, and liked to wear dramatic headgear or drape an encrusted tapestry on a model. Wilkie had a gift for remarking character and captured the individuals he met and observed. He died aged 55 in June 1841 soon after he sailed from Egypt for home; he was buried at sea off Gibraltar.
Admiral Walker was knighted by Queen Victoria for his exploits and awarded the Iron Crown of Austria (second class), the orders of St Anne of Russia and of the Red Eagle of Prussia, as well as being a hereditary pasha of the Turkish Empire. These honours were added to those he’d already received, the Redeemer of Greece, the cross of the Légion d’honneur – he is wearing several of them in the portrait. He had five sons and four daughters, and I can’t tell which of his little girls figures in the picture. Later, he turns up in South Africa, somehow involved in David Livingstone’s expedition and, as a recent widower with three daughters still living with him, fending off importunate naval officers pressing their suit. Was one of these girls the child in the picture?
‘Am I a snob ?’ Virginia Woolf asked in a piece she wrote for the Memoir Club in December 1936. She answers in the affirmative, but so glancingly and allusively, with so many vignettes and sallies about hostesses and their pretensions that the wit at others’ expense dissolves her self-inculpation, and another dazzling performance as satirist and social chronicler of mores remains.
I have always feared that I inherited my father’s anxious snobbery, which went with a quick touchiness over social slights, imagined and other. I worry that I’m deformed to the shape of colonial ambivalence, the creep and cringe of those exiled from the metropole, combined with the brutal superiority of the official class, so painfully observed in memoirs of that era, in the journals of George Seferis for example, and the novel The Levantines, by Fausta Cialente, a Triestina who lived in Egypt for nearly thirty years. Something I do or say will betray that early imprint of adventure and empire yarns by G.A. Henty and C.S. Forester, John Buchan and Rudyard Kipling and Rider Haggard, literature in which the world is ‘British’.
I don’t remember what I read, just a mood, a pace. But I know writers don’t conceal their attitudes. And their glorying in the derring-do and brigandry are part and parcel of Admiral Walker’s much decorated ‘gallantry’ in battle. But when Edward Said read Conrad and Austen, he discerned the figure in the carpet and fingered the latent significance in the gaps between the stitches. Said noticed that slave plantations in the British West Indies are the source of the Bertrams’ wealth in Mansfield Park. The final words of Persuasion stir even more now.
Anne was tenderness itself, and she had the full worth of it in Captain Wentworth’s affection. His profession was all that could ever make her friends wish that tenderness less, the dread of a future war all that could dim her sunshine. She gloried in being a sailor’s wife, but she must pay the tax of quick alarm for belonging to that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance.
This last novel of Austen’s was finished in 1817: Baldwin Wake Walker was then 15 years old and already a naval officer ‘on the Jamaica station’.
In 1938, Virginia Woolf savages the heedless assumption of legitimacy in historic institutions: the army, the law, the academy. She vituperates the ruling class, the culprits, the bewigged and bedizened men responsible, and introduces photographs of the establishment on display. What connection is there, she asks, ‘between the sartorial splendours of the educated man and the photograph of ruined houses and dead bodies? Obviously the connection between dress and war is not far to seek; your finest clothes are those that you wear as soldiers.’ The argument then opens out, to connect those gleaming festoons on the veteran’s chest to the restrictions on women’s education and public presence, on our access to influence and positions of responsibility.
While Woolf’s partisanship spoke to me powerfully in the 1960s when I began reading her, it was her personal writings that struck home: ‘and it was the tyrant father,’ she writes at the very end of her life in A Sketch of the Past, ‘– the exacting, the violent, the histrionic, the demonstrative, the self-centred, the self-pitying, the deaf, the appealing, the alternately loved and hated father – that dominated me then.’ I recognised this, horribly, and I recognise, too, the underlying current that flows between Leslie Stephen and male authority, even though he was individually an unusual Victorian gentleman, not at all the more routine upholder of establishment rules, as my father was. I recognise the next part of her memories of him, too:
It was like being shut up in the same cage with a wild beast. Suppose I, at 15, was a nervous, gibbering, little monkey, always spitting or cracking a nut and shying the shells about, and mopping and mowing, and leaping into dark corners and then swinging in rapture across the cage, he was the pacing, dangerous, morose lion; a lion who was sulky and angry and injured; and suddenly ferocious, and then very humble, and then majestic; and then lying dusty and fly pestered in a corner of the cage.
Unease, constraint, suffocation, these almost capture the sense of oppression I felt too, with a father also given to rage and then to bouts of abject remorse, who also kept everyone around him, most particularly my mother, in a fever of anxiety that a spark might fly at random and his ready fury catch alight. And then, in a blaze of righteousness, he would rail that things should be done this way, that only ignorant fool women could fail to understand how matters stood in the world and what the done thing was. He would explode and as quickly subside, and everything about to be undertaken around him – the walk, the meal, the ride in the car, the visit to a friend, the visit from a friend, the proposed new dress – lay about us as wreckage.
The Moroccan writer Abdelfattah Kilito points out in his witty and thoughtful book Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language that, while it is pretty much accepted that being able to communicate and be understood adds to the authority of the colonist, the way unintelligibility plays in the colonial struggle for power is often overlooked, by both sides. Ever since Malinche interpreted for Cortés and the Jesuits became proficient in local tongues, empires temporal and spiritual have tried to take hold through interpreters and dragomen and linguistic expertise. But Kilito notices the flipside in this struggle for domination: remaining unintelligible can also be a weapon. Historically, Arabic and Maghrebin languages have played a crucial part in the quest for political autonomy in the region; but at a more personal level, there’s pleasure in marking out a private, inaccessible safe place by speaking your own language with a friend when no one around you can understand a word of what you are saying.
With Arabic so grossly overlooked by many if not most of the educated class, the secret language of prestige in Egypt was French. Pas devant les enfants: this was the catchphrase as I was growing up. Forbidden subjects came cloaked in French, the idiom of the elite, of the international community, the Copts, the wealthy. This was another way that colonials adopted a role and put on the Ritz. At home, my parents spoke to each other in English and my mother would use Italian with my sister Laura and me, but their conversation together and with friends was liberally sprinkled with Gallicisms, intended to add class and indicate social nuance; it included words for social structures and types (bourgeois, le gratin, le beau monde and élite itself), for shades of acceptability (voyou, soubrette, aventurier, cocotte, femme fatale); it made snobbishness sound sophisticated, and naturalised it by setting its dictates in the language of urban Enlightenment culture, gilded by association with Paris, that metropole of savoir faire. In this dandyish macaronic that my parents adopted – until my mother’s death, she would say, disapprovingly, ‘Oh, she suffers from such nostalgie de la boue,’ or, more enviously: ‘She’s a jolie-laide, but still, she has a je ne sais quoi’ – I can now read, as if in a faded and stained etiquette manual (étiquette itself being one of these French terms), a whole world of relations and values (comme il faut, noblesse oblige, de rigueur, convenances, goût). Certain characters who possessed allure also attracted French expressions: à la mode, chic, soignée, distingué/e, raffiné/e, correcte, bien dans sa peau, en beauté, haut ton, bon ton, mignon/ne, gamin/e; this gave them permission to behave in certain ways, ways that were fervently envied, while others were to be mocked at best, shunned at worst (louche, arriviste, parvenu, outré, richissime, nouveau riche, déclassé, dépassé, or simply, with a look down the nose, nouveau). My father loved Proust, but chiefly as a guide to social niceties and the rich comic contretemps they brought about – in the book and in the world.
Yet, at the same time, the structure built by the vocabulary was subject to a subtle distancing, as if the pageant were always a little absurd, the foreign lingo serving to italicise the concepts, to deliver them with an ironic shrug, as if the speaker was only playing. French wasn’t a brogue, but a code between initiates. She has such élan vital! He’s awfully rastaquouère.
That odd-sounding word was one of my father and mother’s favourites, used on and off to brand an acquaintance or a friend, uttered with relish at the scandalous nature of the individual in question. Rastaquouère belonged on the same spectrum of meaning as other derogatory but somehow seductive terms – poète maudit, raté, négligé, enfant terrible, monstre sacré. It evoked piratical, scapegrace, much travelled men, steeped in self-delusion, living on the edge of respectability, often only just this side of the law, unpredictable, morally dangerous, and with an unreliable relationship to credit. Scoundrels. Women couldn’t be rastaquouères, though there were exceptions. Sarah Bernhardt, for example, and Rachel, probably because both were actresses and Jewish. A rastaquouère was dashing, with a tendency towards sexual unscrupulousness. A fancy man, on occasion.
Current French-English dictionaries give ‘flashy foreigner’ as the definition. The Petit Larousse offers ‘a stranger living in grand style whose means of existence are not known’. Francis Picabia, who in 1920 published an exuberantly outrageous Dada rant called Jésus-Christ Rastaquouère, thought God qualified. Today Wikipédia glosses ‘rastaquouère’ as ‘un personnage exotique étalant un luxe suspect et de mauvais goût’ (an exotic character displaying suspect luxury, with poor taste), and goes on to state that in the 1880s it was used to stigmatise a parvenu, and has come to be synonymous with a gigolo. The word is derived, it’s thought, from the Spanish/Portuguese for rastrar (‘scrape’) and cueros (‘hides’), and was used contemptuously of the super-rich Argentinians and Brazilians who’d made their money in fur and leather and arrived in Paris for the Exposition Universelle of 1889 arrayed in splendiferous jewels and clothes, spending freely. In Portuguese, by contrast, rastaqueras are closer to ‘good-for-nothings’.
After Cairo, we went to live in Brussels, and there I began reading Tintin – Hergé was a kind of national treasure in Belgium. I can’t recall if my parents ever discussed him or expressed a view on my enthusiasm for his adventures. Tintin himself, Milou his little dog, the endearingly vague Professor Calculus, the explosive Captain Haddock with his wild torrents of expletives, the Tweedledum and Tweedledee detectives Thomson and Thompson and above all the locales (Caribbean piracy, the pyramids, Aztec human sacrifice, Andean sun worship) gripped me, made me laugh and gasp and keep reading. When I’ve worried that my colonial background and the adventure yarns of the empire have corrupted my mind, when I’ve looked at my appetite for exotic places and highly coloured language, I’ve tended to forget how crucial Tintin was in this story. Tintin doesn’t fit the profile of the colonial oppressor, with his youth, his cheeky quiff and that scrap of a sweet dog. But he does embody a heroic ideal by contrast to his arch-enemy, whom I had completely deleted from memory, Roberto Rastapopoulos, who makes an appearance as a principal character in Cigars of the Pharaoh and expands into full-blooded villainy in another Orientalist adventure, The Blue Lotus. Cigars of the Pharaoh opens on a cruise ship called MS Isis which has docked in Egypt, and where Tintin comes upon Rastapopoulos as he is beating up the Egyptologist Sophocles Sarcophagus. Rastapopoulos, ‘the millionaire film tycoon, king of Cosmos Pictures’, has a private yacht called the Scheherazade.
Rastapopoulos’s appearance accords with many cartoon images of Jews, the stuff of Nazi propaganda. Hergé protested that the character wasn’t Jewish and that he himself wasn’t anti-Semitic, but we have our doubts. Hergé reworked his own opinions and writings over and over, as his interpreters have carefully tracked, but ‘despite these clever rejiggings, Hergé’s sense of guilt keeps pulsing through’, as Tom McCarthy has written. Trying to sidestep openly racist or anti-Semitic feelings, Roberto Rastapopoulos, Marquis di Gorgonzola, is strongly coloured Italian and Greek, but these handles of the comic villain serve as a form of disguise, adopted by a personality suspected of infinite deceptions, a figure of many wiles, polytropos, and many faces.
In French today, rastaquouère is usually shortened to rasta, as Picabia shortened it when he coined rastadada in the titles of paintings he made in 1920.But as rasta it overlaps – on no etymological grounds– with a wholly distinct cultural milieu, Rastafarians, which may have given it a further racist tinge. My father and his friends adopted the term, and the rastaquouères my father knew – and who always provoked him to chuckle with delight at their delinquencies – were English-born; unlike himself, however, they were glamorous, often subtly ‘Oriental’. One such was an old schoolfriend, always called the Burglar behind his back because, a penniless descendant of fallen gentry, he had sailed for America to make his fortune, and on board the liner met an heiress and was mysteriously able to present her with a magnificent engagement ring. His exploits provided my father and his friends with endless entertainment – they speculated that since Ian Fleming, another school chum, remained a close friend of the Burglar’s, his hero James Bond had assumed some of the Burglar’s charms – and his methods.
A desire to be foreign, so marked in the passion for costume and for pretending to be French, struggles in the colonial past with a loathing of the foreigner; and the word rastaquouère is packed with that ambivalence. In the past, it conveyed a tight knot of tension, in which the seduction of the strange and a flight from tradition remain tangled up and streaked through with repulsion and anxiety about newfangledness. In a recent and fascinating study, Rastaquarium: Marcel Proust et le ‘modern style’, Sophie Basch applies rastaquouère characteristics to a crucial, distinctive sphere of the Fin de Siècle; her play on words takes a leap, however, and attaches the term to the bizarre, aquatic obsessions of late 19th and early 20th-century decorative arts. While Art Nouveau burgeoned into luscious fruit and flowers, leaves and grasses, its offshoot, le modern style transformed interiors into mysterious sea-caves, covering wallpapers and fabrics, street furnishings and theatre sets, book bindings and fashionable apparel with marine wonders – seaweed, jellyfish, polyps and octopus, crustaceans, shells, sea anemones et al. Rastaquouère, as evoked by Basch, gives this modern style a distinctive, even grotesque strangeness: it was intended to be mixed, impure, monstrous, and was received as such by admirers and detractors.
English was the idiom used in the phrase ‘modern style’ because Maple’s was one of the innovatory suppliers. But the use in French of the foreign expression does something more: it again helps to exoticise the idiom of the design – to estrange it. After the invention of bathyspheres and underwater photography, the world beneath the sea beckoned as a zone of supreme, undiscovered mystery – twilit, surprising, inhabited by rare, monstrous creatures, irreducibly alien and fascinating. The aquarium was a prime Surrealist realm of le merveilleux, explored by the film-maker Jean Painlevé, who turned underwater documentary into a artistic genre.
It seems to me that Basch’s view of the rastaquarium intersects uncomfortably with my parents’ usage of the category rastaquouère, and the combination of deep prejudice and envious emulation which she diagnoses reflects their attitudes. They would absolutely recognise the elements of exoticism, luxury, aesthetics and fantasy (it’s a coincidence that the Burglar built a beach house in the Bahamas; it was a crescent-shaped pavilion made of coral and mother-of-pearl, and the bed was a four-poster of narwhal tusks). Just as giving up English in favour of French added tone to conversation, sparkle to wit, so le style rastaquouère, usually combined with a dash of performative fancy dress, offered a way of self-fashioning that singled someone out from the crowd.
In Paris, as reflected in Proust’s novel, upholders of tradition who loathed the new aesthetic also deplored the defence of Dreyfus. Basch presses more deeply into the politics of strangeness: ‘the condemnation of “modern style” by the Duke and Duchess of Guermantes and likewise by Charlus,’ she writes, ‘is a facet of their anti-Dreyfus sentiments … Art Nouveau, an agent of socialism, of Belgian-Jewish cosmopolitanism, and of the Ballets Russes … betrays tradition in the same way as Captain Dreyfus betrays the Nation.’
In the British Empire, the rastaquouère aesthetic also set conflicting emotions rippling, and curiosity – and repressed identification – necessarily grew differently from unquestioning xenophobia and anti-Semitism at home. And yet, in the social context of Egypt in the 1950s, much as I would like to discern a progressive dynamic in the cult of the exotic, it eludes.
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