Napoleon’s ‘in-betweens’

Robert Aldrich
University of California Press (Inbooks) $39.95 pb, 304 pp, 9780520260658

by Ian Coller

rab France’ will immediately suggest to some readers debates about the wearing of Muslim headscarves in public schools and, more generally, about the place of North African migrants in contemporary French life, as well as the riots that erupted in 2005 in suburbs with substantial Arabic populations. To others, it may evoke memories of trips to Paris, of sipping mint tea at the elegant mosque near the Jardin des Plantes, visiting an exhibition at the Institut du Monde Arabe, or strolling through the busy and dépaysant Barbès-Rochechouart neighbourhood. For still others, Arab France may bring to mind the history of French colonialism in the Maghreb and the Middle East, in particular, the troubled history of Algérie Française, and the bloody war that brought to an end the French imperium in North Africa in 1962. However, Ian Coller’s Arab France takes us back to an earlier period, and one of the great merits of this fine study is its focus on a little-known episode of French engagement with the Muslim world, and on a forgotten Arabic presence in France. In 1798 Napoleon, as an ambitious young general, led an army that occupied Egypt in the hope of securing France a beachhead in the eastern Mediterranean (and perhaps ultimately of challenging the British in India) and, not coincidentally, of propelling the Corsican to power in Paris. Napoleon carried with him a team of scholars, artists, and map-makers eager to discover the land of the pharaohs, and to make off with whatever booty
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they could transport. Within several years, the military campaign ended in failure, though Napoleon spin-doctored it into a success back at home. The intellectual expedition scored a greater triumph, however, by virtually creating the science of Egyptology and by ushering in an enduring fascination with pyramids and mummies. A number of Egyptians and Syrians, including Muslims and Coptic and Melkite Christians, worked with the French in Egypt. Napoleon’s defeat left them compromised and endangered, and several hundred men and women – the total is uncertain, but may have approached a thousand – fled to France (much as did many Muslim Algerians who had supported the French in 1962). The refugees called themselves the ‘Egyptian Legation’. This book is the story of their sojourn in France, until 1831. With admirable detective skill, and the use of petitions, police files, and other archival material, Coller, now a lecturer at Deakin University, has traced their itineraries, reconstructed their lives, and tried to understand what it meant, for the migrants and French, to be an Arab in France in the first decades of the nineteenth century. The life stories of the Egyptians are fascinating, though it is easy for the inattentive reader to become confused by the intertwined biographical details. (A brief ‘who’s who’ appendix would have been useful.) General Ya’qub, the leader of the migrants and a veteran of the French army, died at sea on the way to France, but his widow became a wealthy and influential member of the fledging community, helping to raise funds for more impoverished migrants. Many settled in the seaport of Marseille, where an ‘Egyptian village’ emerged. Soldiers were sent to the little provincial town of Melun where, authorities hoped, they would form an Arab legion in the French army. Still others heeded the call of Paris, moving to the capital to seek fame or fortune. Some found jobs as interpreters or teachers of Arabic – an Egyptian school was set up in Paris – while others found rewarding work in the world of business. In general, they appear to have done relatively well in their new home.

French Orientalism (in the old sense of the word: specialism in the cultures of the Levant) owed much to the Egyptians, their teaching, translation, and publications. The study of Arabic was countenanced by the French for both commercial and cultural purposes, and attempts to understand the Arab world went far beyond the ‘Egyptomania’ that saw streets in Paris named for Aboukir and the Pyramids, or the great vogue for things Egyptian that occurred when an elephant, the gift of the Egyptian ruler, arrived in Marseille in 1827 and traversed the country, to the great joy of spectators lining the route. Thanks to Napoleon’s expedition, and to the intermediary role played by the Egyptians in Europe, French ideas permeated the Muslim world, though Coller is careful to note that a reformist current of thought existed in Egypt before the arrival of the ideologies transported by Napoleon’s officers and scholars. One of the leading Muslim intellectuals of the nineteenth century, Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, came to France accompanying a group of students sent by the Ottoman government in 1826. His account of their stay forms an important record of how Arabs saw France. Coller perceptively examines the work and place of such Arab intellectuals in Paris. Divided by religion, class, and place of residence, and frequently bickering among themselves, the Egyptians, Coller argues, nevertheless formed a true community – he emphasises that a community can exist without denominators of a large population or geographical concentration. They thought of themselves as in-betweens, holding to their Arabic language and to their Christian or Muslim religion, often dressing (at least for the first generation) in traditional clothing. Yet they were also French, without the records evidencing a conflict between their North African and European identity. Often employed by the state, they proclaimed their loyalty to France. Notwithstanding such professions, the Egyptians occasionally aroused opposition, though as much from their


and Syria. There were (and are) French schools and newspapers in Egypt. In 1815. Accusations of peculiar habits. or a �ne gift for an admirer of the individual ORDER BY PHONE (03) 9429 6700 Place your order soon – these editions sell out fast! Orders can also be placed for the complete set. in the wake of Napoleon’s final downfall. Future subjects will include JULIAN ASSANGE. and the Egyptian village there was razed. the Egyptians and their descendants rebuilt their lives and became productive members of society. French interest and influence in Egypt continued after the era studied by Coller.H. Empress Eugénie. in 1869. Undefeated. Chong – a Patron and long-time supporter of the magazine – has generously waived any income from the series. Dozens were killed. Coller has shown the long genealogy of present-day ‘Arab France’. crime. with PAUL KELLY (SOLD OUT). That history has pertinence for societies on both sides of the Mediterranean. author of Vestiges of the Colonial Empire in France: Monuments. Throughout 2011. LIKE THE COVER? Buy an original Chong portrait print Australian Book Review – to celebrate our �ftieth year – is offering a series of portrait prints of distinguished Australian writers by the noted Australian artist-designer W. By writing this early chapter in France’s engagement with North Africa. consort of Napoleon III. Any pro�ts will go to ABR to assist it in its publishing and programs. The series began in February. The French Egyptians remained a small group – Coller perhaps slightly overstates his case by intimating the near omnipresence of Arabs in France in the early 1800s – but they provide a riveting case of largely peaceful and fertile cohabitation (despite the 1815 massacre) of European natives and incomers. countries of imperial dominion and continued migration. France’s links with Egypt were nevertheless overshadowed by ones with Algeria. built by French engineers. Their lives show the breadth. ORDER ONLINE http://www.australianbookreview. Museums and Colonial Memories (2005) and editor of The Age of Empires (2007).  Robert Aldrich is Professor of European History at the University of Sydney. they became the victims of mob attacks in Marseille (with the forces of law and order turning a blind eye). H I S TO RY 15 . presided over the inauguration of the Suez Canal. of what Coller calls ‘repressive cosmopolitanism’: the mixture of peoples and cultures in a city such as Paris. and prostitution were sounded.perceived allegiance to the Napoleonic régime as from cultural or social differences. and the limits. Each portrait is available exclusively from ABR. Morocco. The prints are priced at $150 FOR ABR SUBSCRIBERS – $195 FOR NON-SUBSCRIBERS. The unframed prints – presented in a limited edition – are signed and numbered by Chong. Postage and handling within Australia is an additional $10. CHONG. but the resolve of authorities that these different groups did nothing to challenge the ruling order. Some indeed served in the French military and bureaucracy during the conquest of Algiers in 1830. continued in March with DOROTHY HEWETT (see above) and this month’s subject is PATRICK WHITE (see above). ABR covers will feature superb original prints – the perfect adornment for a personal library.

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