Postcards as History

In classes on Islamic art and history of the Mediterranean region taught by Aliaa El Sandouby, postcards are a primary learning tool.

El Sandouby, a lecturer in the College of Communication and Fine Arts, introduces students to architecture, paintings and photographs from Egypt and neighboring countries. But Europe’s colonial role is central to the region’s history. And postcards from the 19th and 20th centuries — found in the Werner von Boltenstern Postcard Collection of the William H. Hannon Library Special Collections — tell part of that story.

More than travel souvenirs, postcards reveal a society’s perceptions. Postcards of the Middle East, for example, often depict “images of backwardness: peasants, farm animals, people dressed in indigenous clothing,” El Sandouby explains. Others are seductive, suggesting a heightened sexuality of supposedly backward peoples.

“Many images are geared toward nurturing the idea that the East, as Northern Africa was sometimes called, is primitive or lazy, thereby justifying colonialism as an effort to bring these peoples into the modern world,” she says.

The postcards are important, El Sandouby says, because as “primary materials, they force students to consider the role of imagery in disseminating the colonial ideology.”
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