Jeune Barbarine: sexual slavery and prostitution in Egypt circa 1914

Raden Dunbar

‘”Jeune Barbarine”: sexual slavery and prostitution in Egypt circa 1914′, Honest History, 9 June 2015

JeuneThis photograph, ‘Jeune Barbarine’, is of a Berber girl from the Barbary Coast of North Africa. It was made in Egypt shortly before World War I in a photography studio in Alexandria called ‘Atelier Reiser’. The German photographers who owned the studio were Lucien Reiser (whose famous father, Andreas Reiser, was the studio’s founder), and a partner, Anton Binder. ‘Reiser & Binder’ also owned another smaller studio in Cairo. They did general photography and portraiture and made photographic postcards of Egyptian antiquities and street scenes. After war broke out in 1914 Reiser and Binder left Egypt and their studios closed.

As a sideline, Atelier Reiser also produced high quality risqué photographs of semi-nude young women. For the photo sessions the women were quite beautifully dressed and bejeweled, and, in the then popular style, were often posed with an amphora. When the women were being photographed, the studio used a female photographer so the subject might be more relaxed. The risqué photos of Atelier Reiser were printed on postcards and cigarette cards and sold.

In Alexandria, Atelier Reiser was located on the corner of Rue de l’ancienne Bourse and Boulevard Ramleh, not far from Rue des Soeurs and its world famous brothels. During 1915 and 1916 visiting Rue des Soeurs was a popular pastime for Australian soldiers based in Alexandria. However, this was a time when venereal diseases abounded in brothel quarters; it was also when the Australian army had refused to issue prophylactic kits and condoms to soldiers. Thus, during sexual intercourse in Rue des Soeurs, VD-infected soldiers and women repeatedly transferred their bacteria to each other.

Most Egyptian women were respectable Moslems; this made it difficult for Atelier Reiser to find young women who were prepared to pose half naked. However, the women and girls in Rue des Soeurs had been trafficked from abroad to work in the brothels. Some of them were willing to pose or perhaps were offered for the work by their employers. They may have been reluctant participants in the photo sessions, like our Jeune Barbarine seems to be.

Why was trafficking of women and girls permitted? The British army had occupied Egypt from the 1880s and the country became a British protectorate. A local sex industry had then expanded to cater to the needs of 40 000 British soldiers. To ‘control’ venereal diseases, the British administration had introduced laws that, in effect, made prostitution tolerated. To supply the brothels of Egypt under British rule, non-Moslem women and girls from backgrounds of poverty or disadvantage were imported from countries around the Mediterranean Sea, especially from North Africa, but also from Italy, Greece, Albania, France, and sometimes South Asia.

What would later be called human trafficking was then known as ‘the white slave trade’ and small fortunes were made by the entrepreneurs who organised it. Egypt’s flamboyant ‘king of vice’ at the time was Ibrahim el-Gharbi, a corpulent Nubian transvestite and the son of a slave trader. He established his first brothel in 1896 and by 1915 owned fifteen of them, housing many women and girls. A British police officer, Thomas Russell, who worked as a Sub-Inspector in Cairo at the time, knew him well.

He could be seen every evening sitting cross-legged on a bench outside one of his houses. Dressed as a woman and veiled in white, this repulsive pervert sat like a silent, ebony idol, occasionally holding out a bejeweled hand to be kissed by some passing admirer, or giving a silent order to one of his attendant servants. This man had an amazing power in the country; his influence extended not only into the world of prostitution, but was also felt in the sphere of politics and high society. The buying and selling of women for the trade both in Cairo and the provinces was entirely in el-Gharbi’s hands and no decision of his as to price was ever questioned.[1]

MalverydownloadOlive Malvery (frontispiece to her earlier book, The Soul Market, published in 1907, on working class women in Britain)

It was hardly as if the British authorities did not know about the flourishing sex industry in Egypt, and that it involved human trafficking and venereal diseases. In England, vigorous public and parliamentary debates about this had long been in progress, inspired by prominent suffragettes and feminist activists. One of these reformers, Olive Malvery, in 1912 published a sensational exposé of the international trade in women, especially to Egypt. Her book, The White Slave Market, included accounts of trafficked women and girls in the brothels of Cairo, Alexandria and Port Said. The book contained appeals to military and parliamentary leaders in London to put an end to the tacit support of the trade by British military garrisons in those cities. It also provided an explanation for the slave trade’s success:

The British … dare not interfere with a highly lucrative traffic in women. Many of the most powerful men in Cairo and in Alexandria are directly or indirectly interested in the traffic; some of them finance the traders, others are actual partners with traders. To keep themselves “good” with influential and powerful men, the traders occasionally select a comely young girl as a present for an influential “friend”.[2]

We do not know the name of the Berber girl photographed in Atelier Reiser for Jeune Barbarine. We do not know if she was still in Alexandria during the Great War or anything more about her. We assume that she had been trafficked from Tunisia or Libya to work in Rue des Soeurs and possibly was helping to provide for her family at home with the income she earned from the photography sessions.


[1] Sir Thomas Russell, Egyptian Service 1902-1946, John Murray, London, 1949.

[2] Olive Malvery, The White Slave Market, Stanley Paul & Co., London, 1912. The book was published under the pseudonym ‘Mrs. Archibald Mackirdy’, her married name.

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