With minarets, the play of orange suns across the Sinai desert, green palm trees and blue skies, ancient ruins and traces of the expedition to Egypt, the imaginary of Alexandre Dumas was saturated with Orientalism.
As a novelist with soles of wind, Alexandre Dumas was fascinated by this other world which fed into his pilgrim curiosity. Several travel narratives set in the Near and Middle East were born from this passion. In 1839, Dumas wrote Quinze jours au Sinaï; in 1856-1857, Pèlerinage de Hadji-Abd-El-Hamid. Médine et la Mecque; in 1860, L’Arabie heureuse. Souvenirs de voyages en Afrique et en Asie. But these travel memoires belonged to other people, with Dumas lending his pen and his name, satisfying his passion for an Orient more visited in dreams than in reality.
Dumas discovered North Africa at the end of 1846, after attending the marriage of the Duke of Montpensier in Madrid. This journey deeply marked him. Firstly, there was Andalusia, whence “a scent of Arabia” emanated. The region appealed to Dumas because it was already no longer really Spain; “still today, the traveller stops in amazement and hesitation, because he senses that he is entering the mysterious and unknown world of the Orient”, he added in El Salteador. Dumas crossed the gates of the Western world by sea, aboard Le Véloce. He reached the coast of Algeria, then cast anchor near Tangiers. He then navigated along the coast, occasionally stopping, participating in hunts, a Jewish wedding, and visiting Algiers in a carriage. He collected unusual objects, while soaking up the local customs at a headlong rate. After Algiers, Tunis. In Carthage, he contemplated “Saint Louis’s tomb” and described the phenomenon of acculturation: “Amidst the ruins of Roman Carthage, there is a monument that looks like an Arabic marabout; it is Saint Louis’s tomb. This form was no doubt given to it in a calculated way. The Arabs, who saw no difference between the tomb of a French and a Muslim saint, had to respect each of them equally.” From the French consulate to local ceremonies, from a ball to a pheasant hunt, Dumas’s activities and encounters multiplied. After a month of high-speed tourism, he returned to Toulon on 4th January. This journey was to give him Le Véloce ou Tanger, Alger et Tunis, published in 1848. The interest of this account, apart from its vigorous style, lies in Dumas’s anthropological analysis of the groups of individuals he encountered. But this traveller also depicted the ins and outs of the complex relationship between Algeria and France. For Dumas, the Orient was not just a space for poetic meditation, it was also a site for political reflexion about the future of civilisations and meetings between cultures.
The Orient is a mirror held up in front of the artistic condition, as suggested in the final lines of Le Véloce, which are tinged with melancholy: “France is full of contemporaries, or in other words ‘envy’. Foreignness means posterity, in other words ‘justice’. Why are things this way, when it would be so wonderful if they were different?”
Dumas projected onto the Orient a political and personal ideal, which was already present in the works of his youth. For, in his fictional writings, Dumas gave a large place to the Orient, seen as a land of freedom, and the cradle of civilisation. This opposition between France and the Orient fed into his plays and novels long before his actual or imaginary travel accounts. The most original creation in Charles VII chez ses grands vassaux, a play performed at the Odéon in October 1831, is Yaqoub, a young Arab taken back to France by a lord. Dumas gave him the decisive role: just on his own, he embodied all the violence and freedom that was attributed to the Orient. Yaqoub is the emblem of sincere passions. At the end Dumas, saves him: the untameable Yaqoub flees and returns to the desert.
Dumas’s Orient can be seen splendidly in the pages of The Count of Monte Cristo. This novel is struck through with memories of the Thousand and One Nights : several of its novelistic topoi, and the names of its characters, allude to those tales’ oriental imagery. Edmond Dantès himself was taught by Abbé Faria, thus giving him an “oriental” erudition. Dantès plays ironically with the clichés coming from alien customs. He starts out by passing himself off as an Oriental then, after returning to Paris, as an Orientalist, in other words a scholar in the mood of the times. The Orient thus allowed Dumas to legitimise the identities of his hero, while justifying his knowledge and huge fortune. For, exceptional wealth and occult wisdom are a part of Oriental myths. The oriental path of Edmond Dantès can be set alongside recent history and Dumas’s personal epic. Ever since the Egyptian campaigns, the Orient had been associated with the discovery of extraordinary treasures. Such is the driver of the novel. The memory of imperial conquest was also the weak point of Alexandre, the son of General Dumas, Commander-in-Chief of the cavalry of the Orient, and hero of the expedition to Egypt.
Image caption : Alexandre Dumas père