Wednesday,14 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1230, (22 - 28 January 2015)
Wednesday,14 November, 2018
Issue 1230, (22 - 28 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

In search of Arab France

A new book takes readers back to the early nineteenth-century origins of Arab France, writes David Tresilian

In search of Arab France
In search of Arab France
Al-Ahram Weekly

Une France arabe, the French translation of Australian historian Ian Coller’s Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, takes readers back to the French invasion of Egypt in 1798 when the young Napoleon Bonaparte attempted to rally the country, then a province of the Ottoman Empire, to the French Republic. The attempt failed, and French forces were expelled from the country three years later following defeat at the hands of the British.

The story of the French attempt to conquer Egypt, and, with it, much of the eastern Mediterranean, has been told many times. For those in search of grand strategy it is an intriguing episode in the French revolutionary wars and a staging post in their growing internationalisation. For those fascinated by the biography of Napoleon Bonaparte it shows the young general, soon to be French first consul, engaged in his only extra-European campaign. And for those seeking the beginnings of Egyptian nationalism it provides evidence of nationalist protest in the wake of foreign invasion and occupation.

Such themes are well-worn and in his book Coller touches on all of them. However, his focus is neither on grand strategy, nor on the lives of famous men, nor on the development of Egyptian nationalism. Instead, he looks at what happened to those who found themselves on the wrong side of the conflict, having collaborated with French forces during the three years of occupation and, when it ended, being in a delicate position vis-à-vis their countrymen. In what may well be a tour de force of painstaking research Coller has tracked down the details of such men and women, digging up details of their lives from archives in Paris and Cairo.

The result is a fascinating set of stories from below on the early 19th-century origins of Arab France. Coller has followed those evacuated from Egypt in the wake of the French defeat and put together an account of their lives and changing political and economic fortunes in Marseilles and Paris. Some of them were given the status of political refugees, perhaps the earliest instance of this occurring, while others joined the “Mamluke regiment” used by the French in their invasion of Spain. A few of the Egyptian refugees were eventually able to integrate themselves more fully into French society, in so doing significantly modifying their original Egyptian and Arab identities.

In Coller’s view the French occupation of Egypt, far from creating a nationalist cohesiveness in the conquered population, in fact “pushed the bulk of it back towards the Ottoman system” that had divided society on ethno-religious lines. Under the Mamlukes, some of the country’s Christian minorities, whether Coptic, Greek Orthodox or Syrian Catholic, had achieved important positions in the financial system, acting as secretaries, account keepers, customs officials or tax farmers. This they continued to do during the French occupation, leading the contemporary Egyptian historian al-Jabarti to complain of their “strutting around haughtily,” riding horses and “adorning themselves with swords because of their service to the French.”

Some of these men were among the “438 Copts, 221 Greeks and 93 Mamlukes” who left for France in the summer of 1801 with the retreating French forces under the ad hoc leadership of Ya’qub Hanna, an Egyptian Copt and the first non-French general in the French army. Though Hanna died during the voyage to Marseilles, he seems to have had a firm idea of what he wanted from his hosts. Styling himself the leader of an “Egyptian legation” in the hope of claiming diplomatic status, Hanna wrote to the leaders of both the British and the French forces, modifying his message in the light of what he perceived to be their priorities.

To the British, Hanna emphasised “utility and pragmatism in trade and administration.” But he told the French first consul that “the Egyptians, once so enlightened, are coming to France under your immortal consulship to be informed about the customs of a people they love… [and] to consolidate the military triumphs of the newly born Republic through new political triumphs.”

Unfortunately, the Egyptians received a disappointing welcome in Marseilles and later Paris. While Hanna and his followers had perhaps hoped to be involved in the diplomatic settlement in Egypt, they soon discovered that French priorities had changed and that Napoleon, soon to embark on an aggressive campaign of expansion in Europe, now wanted to rebuild relations with the Ottoman sultan, the nominal ruler of Egypt. The expatriate Egyptian presence in Marseilles became an embarrassment for the French government, which studiously avoided meeting members of Hanna’s supposed legation.

As a result, the Egyptians, some of them in receipt of French pensions, were obliged to find their way in France as best they could. While they were no longer politically useful they could at least find occupations for themselves in their adopted country, perhaps by moving to Paris. The archives of the French pensions bureau have provided Coller with valuable evidence regarding the movement and fortunes of these formerly Egyptian and now French Arabs. The stabilisation of the situation in Egypt after 1811 and the rise to power of the country’s new ruler, the Ottoman governor Mohammed Ali, meant that the surveillance of the French Egyptian population was at least temporarily lifted and some members of it began to develop careers in business.

As Coller points out, the early decades of the 19th century were important for the development of French orientalism and, perhaps particularly after 1815 and the progressive publication of the famous Description de l’Egypte, saw a vogue for all things Egyptian. However, this fashion did not extend to the Egyptian men and women resident in France at the time, and they were not helped by it any more than they were by the nascent discipline of orientalism. The Ecole spéciale des langues orientales, later the Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales, had been set up by the Convention government in 1795 to teach oriental languages, notably Arabic, but according to Coller its first professor, Antoine-Isaac Silvestre de Sacy, was not in favour of employing Arabic native speakers as he thought Arabic should be taught as a dead language.

This meant that there was little contact between the Paris orientalists and the city’s Arab population, Coller says, though at least one Syrian teacher of Arabic at the Ecole spéciale, Rufa’il Zakhur, benefitted from his experience and later became an important figure in the Arabic printing works at Bulaq in Cairo. Coller also amusingly quotes the Egyptian writer Rifaa al-Tahtawi, sent by Mohammed Ali to France on an educational mission in the 1820s, on de Sacy’s Arabic. “When he reads he has a foreign accent, and he cannot speak Arabic at all unless he has a book in his hands,” al-Tahtawi said. “If he wants to explain an expression he uses strange words that he is unable to pronounce properly.” De Sacy’s Arabic had been learned, as was often the case with the early orientalists, without his ever visiting an Arabic-speaking country.

However, even if the few hundred refugees who came to France after the failure of Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign were disappointed by the reception they received in France, by the 1820s they seem to have integrated themselves well enough within their new host country, even to the extent of shedding their original Arab and Egyptian identities. While Coller produces visual evidence from the 1820s suggesting that individuals wearing Arab dress were a fairly common sight in the Paris of the time, when al-Tahtawi arrived at the end of the decade he found that integration was already shading into assimilation.

“In the city of Marseilles there are many Christians from Egypt and Syria who accompanied the French during their retreat from Egypt,” al-Tahtawi noted. “All of them wear European clothes. It is rare to find a Muslim among those who left with the French: some of them have died, whereas others have converted to Christianity – may God preserve us from that.”

With integration came the development of Arab religious, cultural and educational institutions in France, and long before al-Tahtawi’s arrival in Paris “one might have heard mass celebrated in Arabic at Saint-Roch by Joseph Sabba, attended the Arabic courses at the Ecole des langues orientales taught by Ellious Bocthor, or encountered Joseph Agoub tete-à-tete with Tissot or Constant at the salon of Mme Dufrenoy or teaching at the interpreters’ school at the lycée Louis-le-Grand” in Paris, Coller says, naming some of the city’s more prominent Arabs.

“One could have passed Joanny Pharaon returning from his teaching duties at the Collège Sainte-Barbe or picked up a copy of Mikha’il Sabbagh’s Cantique de felicitations à Sa Majesté tres-chrestienne Louis le Désiré or Joseph Agoub’s recent and very popular Dithyrambe sur l’Egypte.”

Nevertheless, it seems that these early French Arabs were unable to feel fully at home in their new environment. The political discourse changed, with the result that the Arab world, apparently viewed by Napoleon as a potential partner in the fight against what the French were inclined to view as Ottoman despotism, gradually itself became identified as an area of barbarism and oppression, a viewpoint that helped legitimate the French invasion and occupation of Algeria in 1830. The Arab milieu in Paris, once “the space of sociability, experiment, conflict and exchange,” perhaps at least until the 1820s, gradually became “a colonial show… a play of mirrors in which French power and prestige were endlessly reflected, and peoples to be ‘civilised’ were brought in to provide a spectacle of their own inferiority for the edification of the ‘civilisers’.”

Coller’s book is about “a France that never quite existed,” its author says, “the entr’acte” between the French invasion of Egypt in 1798 and the invasion and occupation of Algeria in 1830. Whereas in 1798 there may have been a chance, pushed by the universalist pretentions of the French Revolution, of seeing the Arabs and the Arab world as partners in the quest for liberté, egalité and fraternité, the slogans of the Revolution, by 1830 an altogether more familiar picture had emerged of a European power, certain of its own superiority, bringing “civilisation” to the southern Mediterranean while carrying out that region’s political and economic colonisation.


Ian Coller, Une France arabe, 1798-1831, Paris: Alma, 2014, pp381

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