Islam is a faith of abstraction, not realism. Not for Muslims the detailed portraits of holy heroes that abound in Christianity — and even, in the form of rabbi trading cards, within Orthodox Judaism. Instead, Islam expresses itself visually through architecture, calligraphy, the ornamentation of tile.
That reticence to reveal the faces of God and his prophets can be seen in these posters, created by Christian European artists in the first half of the 20th century. On one level, these images are strictly utilitarian, intended to entice European tourists to the “Orient” (which at that time included the Middle East and North Africa), preferably by way of a particular travel agency. At the same time, beneath their exhortations to ship yourself off to Egypt via Messageries Maritimes cruises, the posters murmur of a forgotten faith.
Many of the posters depict peasants working or relaxing in the shadow of a minaret, the tower from which mosques issue the five-times daily call to prayer. One poster even depicts the shadow of a minaret stretching impossibly over the ocean, a call to prayer directed to all of Europe.
Created by non-Muslim artists, the posters respect Islam even as they romanticize it. God is in the background, present by virtue of a veil, hinted at by the extreme contrast of desert and oasis. For the advertisers, fervent belief was the subject of their packaged tours; yet even they shied away from foregrounding a holiness that would mock Islam and make no sense to secular Europeans.
Most of the posters were painted in a bastardization of high modernist style. Their viewers, after all, were very modern people — rational, forward-looking, unbound by tradition. The European God no longer spoke aloud, much less sang through the voices of His servants from the top of a tower. As far as most of the elites who could afford the travel advertised in these posters were concerned, that was good news. He no longer had anything interesting to say.
But the silence left by His absence couldn’t be filled entirely with modernism and reasonable politics. Something was missing; something had been lost. The posters presented here suggest one source to which Europeans turned in search of their vanished faith. Few would even imagine converting to Islam, but a vacation was a whole different matter. It could even be considered a pilgrimage. A journey to lands where people still believed.
No matter that Europeans grossly misunderstood what those people believed in, or that their reverence for the apparently mystical truths of the “East” didn’t interfere with their economic and political devastation of its peoples. “Orientalism” is a self-contained belief system. It’s not a window but a mirror. These images, as beautiful as they are, have little to do with actual life in Muslim lands, much less Islam itself. Rather, they’re narcissistic reflections: of absence and of longing.
The images presented here are reproduced from the new book, The Orientalist Poster, by Abderrahman Slaoui (Malika Editions, published by I.B. Tauris, distributed by Palgrave), with texts and coordination by Abdelaiz Ghozzi. A Moroccan businessman, Mr. Slaoui is also a noted collector of Islamic art as well as depictions of Islam by non-Muslim artists. The posters presented here were part of a public exhibition organized by Mr. Slaoui in Casablanca, Morocco.