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Revisiting the Myth of the Suez Canal: French Writers and Travelers in Egypt around 1869 Featuring Sarga Moussa

  • Knox Hall, Room 208 606 West 122nd Street New York, NY, 10027 United States (map)

Join the Middle East Institute for a guest lecture with Sarga Moussa. The opening of the Suez Canal (1869) was celebrated as a world event (thousands of personalities from both ‘West’ and ‘East’ were invited by the Khedive Ismaïl), but the meaning of this event remains a subject of debate. Surprisingly, little attention has been paid to literary and cultural representations. This talk examines a range of representations and observations, including ‘poèmes de circonstance’ [poems written specially for the occasion] glorifying the progress of « civilization » and its « hero », Ferdinand de Lesseps and a series of texts (speeches, articles, travel books…) that construct Suez as a ‘contact zone’ resulting from the (ephemeral) concentration of East and West on a narrow band between two seas. It considers at greater length a case study, Edmond About’s Le Fellah [The Peasant] (1869), a novel based on a real stay in Egypt. The novel explores the encounter of French and English travelers with each other and with a rich Egyptian land owner (the so called fellah Ahmed, whose father died digging the Suez Canal. A central aspect is the complex position of the Egyptian hero, whose final recognition of the Suez Canal as a positive historical development doesn’t prevent him from criticizing Europe. In these readings, orientalist literature, as delineated by Edward Said, is explored as a field of dialogical viewpoints and ideological instabilities.


Trained at the University of Geneva and the University of Paris 3, Sarga Moussa has been director of research at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) since 2002.  He is a member of the CNRS mixed research unit THALIM (University Paris 3) where he specializes in literary Orientalism and travel literature.  He has taught at various universities in Europe.  He co-edits the collection Vers l’Orient (ELLUG, Grenoble) and has published Le Voyage en Égypte:  Anthologie de voyageurs européens de Bonaparte a l’occupation anglaise (Paris, Laffont, “Bouquins”, 2004) as well as a critical edition of Théophile Gautier’s Voyage en Égypte (Paris, Champion, 2016).  He edited the collection Littérature et Esclavage, XVIIIe-XIXe siècles (Paris, Desjonquères, 2010) and co-edited Voyageuses européennes au XIXe siècle:  identités, genres, codes with Frank Estelmann and Friedrich Wolfzettel (Paris, Presses Universitaires de Paris-Sorbonne, 2012).  His most recent works are Poésie et orientalisme (with Michel Murat, Paris, Classiques Garnier, 2015), and  Le Mythe bédouin chez les voyageurs aux XVIIIe et XIXe siècles, Paris, Presses Universitaires de Paris Sorbonne, 2016.