Article Title

Moroccan Acrobats in Britain: Oriental Curiosity and Ethnic Exhibition


Bernard Lewis’ ultimate aim in the Muslim Discovery of Europe is to prove and demonstrate Muslims’ lack of curiosity towards the European Other. The Manichean mechanism of definition operating within Lewis’ Occidentalist vision is inspired by the association of the Oriental other with lack of mobility and stagnation, self-complacency and “apathy” as signifiers of cultural superiority. This is while Edward Said’s critical practice in Orientalism is based on the assumption that the Oriental other is almost silent, subjugated and submissive. Against the myths of lack of curiosity and silence associated with the Orient, I argue that early Moroccan acrobatic encounters with Britain are archival sites where the Oriental Other does not simply prove curiosity, but goes beyond that to show fascination with Europe. I also contend that such artistic encounters are cultural and discursive practices of ethnic exhibition where the Oriental other acquires the position of a “speaking subject” in history, and illustrates contradictory images of power and exclusion in British ethnic discourses of difference during the first half of the nineteenth century. The ultimate aim, however, is two-fold. It is, on the one hand, to spotlight the aesthetic and formal qualities of Moroccan acrobatics through exploring some British newspapers’ advertisements and articles on Moroccan performances like the Times, the Era, the Bristol Mercury, and the Illustrated London News .It is, on the other hand, to show that Moroccan professional performers, called either Bedouin Arabs or Morocco Arabs, celebrate the ethnic hierarchies and racial taxonomies of such disciplines as ethnography and ethnology on the stage. The raison d'être of this celebration is to stage images of the mysterious and exotic Oriental other constituting the iceberg of ethnic exhibition for British social consumption and cultural reproduction of difference. This rationale is complicated by the participation of women, an archival fact which epitomizes the rhetoric of emancipation beyond the mythical constructions of Orientalist legacy. Moroccan women are no longer objects of patriarchy and oppression associated with Oriental cultures. As acrobats, they turn out to be national voiceovers of cultural curiosity, “makers” of history and agency, and “catalyzers” of emancipation and liberation.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.