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Ragnhild J. Zorgati

An Unusual Encounter between the Polish-Danish Painter Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann and the Egyptian Princess Nazili Hanim


In Istanbul in the second part of the 19th century, an unusual encounter took place between the Polish-Danish painter Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann and the Egyptian Princess Nazili Hanim. Later, in her travelogue, which is infused with Orientalism, Jerichau-Baumann represents Nazili Hanim as a rare combination of Oriental sensuality and beauty, on the one hand, and European rationalism, on the other. Moreover, she underscores the confined existence of Nazili Hanim in comparison to her own life, characterized by the independence of a woman traveling on her own. What Jerichau-Baumann was unaware of was that some years after their encounter, Nazili Hanim made the journey from Cairo to Istanbul by herself, only accompanied by her maid. She also opened the first gender mixed literary salon in Cairo and later in the Marsa district of Tunis. Moreover, in Nazili Hanim’s salons some of the most important reform thinkers of the 19th century met. Here, Mohammed ‘Abdu, Qasim Amin, Mohammed Ferid and Bechir Sfar discussed questions related to education or women’s position in society.

Exploring the encounter between Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann and Nazili Hanim as an intersection where various discourses meet and interact, my paper will focus on the following points: first, the opposition between, but also interdependence of Orientalism, on the one hand, and discourses of 19th-century Islamic reform on the other; and, second, the rise of an international feminist discourse which crossed cultural and religious boundaries (but perhaps mainly engaged people belonging to similar echelons of society). Intellectuals and women activists in Istanbul, Beirut, Cairo, Tunis, Copenhagen and Oslo read the same thinkers (for example Legouvé and Spencer). They debated similar questions, and they sometimes met, face to face, as in the case of Nazili Hanim and Elisabeth-Jerichau Baumann.

Ask, September 2012

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