Senior Thesis on Domesticity in 19th-Century Middle Eastern “Travel Literature” About Western Europe

Katie Paul, Class of 2007

For one week during winter break, I conducted research at the Manchester Central Library in the UK to gather sources for my senior thesis on domesticity in 19th-century Middle Eastern “travel literature” about western Europe. My thesis explores how the constructed images of European domesticity and sexuality, primarily promulgated by travel accounts, served as a reference point for discussions of how Muslim Middle Eastern family structures ought to adopt, adapt, or reject notions of Western modernity.

As I started looking into the topic during the fall semester, I found that much scholarship on Muslims’ presence in western Europe assumes that the story begins with the immigration waves of the 20th century, when large numbers of colonial and post-colonial subjects began to settle permanently in Europe. Other scholarship has acknowledged the central role of 19th-century travelers in formulating ideas of the home, but focuses its attention solely on a select group of elites, such as official dignitaries and students on government-sponsored educational missions. While the writings of these elites were certainly crucial—indeed, they form the basis for the first three chapters of my thesis—I suspected that it was equally important to examine how another set of travelers navigated the murky interplay of domesticity, culture, and religion in the same era.

Thanks to the Clark Fellowship, I was able to follow my hunch to Manchester, England. This small city, part of the Lancaster region known as “Cottonopolis,” probably seems like an odd place to look for information about the Middle East in the 19th century. However, its canal link with the port city of Liverpool made it an essential point of commercial connection between the UK and various areas within the Ottoman Middle East. It was considered so important, in fact, that the Ottoman Sublime Porte stationed a permanent consul in Manchester beginning in the 1850s, and sons of the Egyptian khedive Mohammed ’Ali visited the Liverpool area in 1845 and 1862.

As the conduits of those commercial connections, thousands of Muslim seamen (10,000–12,000 annually, according to late 19th-century estimates) from North Africa, the Middle East, and southern Asia visited Manchester, Liverpool, London, Paris, and other European port cities in the same era, similarly becoming exposed to new definitions of proper family composition. They often remained in these cities for extended periods of time in between trips, leading many of them to intermarry with English women and convert some of their neighbors to Islam. Using the materials held in the Manchester archives and local studies collections—including periodicals, missionary reports, ledgers of foreign merchant activity, and general depictions of urban society—I was able to piece together a history of less well-known Middle Eastern travelers who confronted the same issues of religious and cultural negotiation that dominated the pages of published travel writing.

I can thus argue in my thesis that these “other travelers” managed to create domestic spaces for themselves that literally brought the European woman into their own homes, thereby utilizing in their own lives the models of adaptation established in elite Middle Eastern intellectual circles. In so doing, they managed to survive both culturally and religiously in a new, foreign, and often hostile environment without compromising the strong sense of identity that they brought with them from their points of origin.