Rudolf Lehnert’s ‘Bahira’: One Picture, Two Stories

Muhammad Ahsan Kureshi in The Nation: I’m reading ‘The homoerotics of Orientalism’ by Joseph Boone these days and its cover photo has quite a story to tell once googled and cross-referenced/read.

The cover photo is that of a young boy, may be 10 or 15 years old, who seems to be from the Middle East and North African (MENA)region. He’s wearing a turban on his head and two flowers rest on his right ear. His kurta is unassuming: a soft round collar with frills on the chest portion. He also seems to be wearing a thin shawl over the kurta. The boy is looking straight into the camera, his gaze intense and focused. He isn’t smiling but there is a softness in his expressions. I hope you can imagine that it is a good picture.

The initial pages of the book tell that the picture was taken by Rudolf Lehnert and its title, ‘Young Keyble in Algeria’. Lehnert took this picture in 1914. These details introduce an interesting dimension to the picture. Lehnert is famous for capturing the ‘orient’. For those who don’t know, the category of ‘orient’ is a construction by the Europeans/‘west’ once they started their misadventures of colonizing the lands beyond their geography. Relatively recent scholarship has shown that the construction of this category had less to do with capturing the essence and details of those categorized as such. Instead, the category was made to justify projects such as colonialism, enlightenment, and imperialism.

Decolonial scholarship has tracked an interesting trend in the observation of the man from the global south in colonial/orientalist accounts. Men in Africa were feminized. They were shown as being too weak to protect their women. Indeed, these benchmarks of strength and femininity are problematic but let’s ignore that for now. Anyway, as the black men could not protect their black women, the white man had to step in and save them. To take care of them.

Interestingly, the representations of the orient and Asian states were different. Here, as we even hear today, whenever a brown man is discussed, men were hyper-sexual, violent, and tumultuous. Hence, the white man had to, as he does so now along with the white woman, step in and save the brown woman from the unruly brown man.

With that background in mind, the picture on the cover photo becomes even more interesting. We live in a relatively more accepting world today. A world where a man wearing a flower in their ear can be snubbed off and ignored. However, back in 1914, the act of carrying a flower on one’s ear offered symbolic signals. No one today knows if the flower was staged on the boy or not. However, given the feminized representations of the black man in orientalist art, such a conclusion is not far off. Hence, this was possibly another attempt by an orientalist to feminize a boy from Algeria.

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Moving on. The story of this picture becomes even more interesting. Interestingly, this picture was very popular in Iran before the Dutch cartoon controversy hit the world societies and engaged stakeholders on the issue of the depiction of the Prophet.

When Lehnert submitted this picture, he stated that the name of the boy was Muhammad. Hence, the original today still has Muhammad scribbled on its lower border. Through a process of events that are yet to be researched, somehow this picture and its painted variations became famous in Iran as the picture of Prophet Muhammad himself.

Famous stories were attached to it in order to explain its history. The most famous of these accounts was about Bahira. The readers might remember this tale from their younger years: when the Prophet was 9 or 10 years old, he accompanied his uncle, Abu Talib to Syria on one of his trading trips. A monk, Bahira, who lived in the city where the caravan rested, invited the traders to a feast. Abu Talib left the Prophet behind to take care of the camels as the whole caravan went to Bahira’s place. When the monk came to know that a boy had been left behind, he went out to bring him in. When he stepped outside, he was intrigued to see that trees seemed to bend toward where the boy stood. He also noticed that, in an otherwise clear sky, a lone cloud blocked the sun and ensured that the boy stood in shade.

Instead of calling the boy, Bahira decided to test if his observations were true. He observed the boy for some time and no matter where he went, the cloud followed. Similarly, the trees around him bent to offer coolness and shade.
As the lore goes, it was then that Bahira announced that this boy was the awaited future prophet. He then grabbed a canvas and some paint and painted the picture of this boy. The original work is stored today in ‘some’ museum, ‘somewhere’.

Anyway, in Iran, the orientalist background of this photo was replaced with this new story. Eventually, variations of this picture found their way into most Iranian households. It is fascinating to see a picture tell two different stories. The first one is a problematic construction of an othered populace. The latter, catering to some spiritual need. How the two managed to both coexist and evolve is anyone’s guess for now.

Maybe the brilliant scholarship coming out of MENA and South Asian academia can untangle this mystery someday. And maybe, someday in the future, we can know the actual story of this boy named Muhammad.