The Salon Heritage and Its Transformation


The two lessons in this unit engage students in a study of the literary salon and its impact across the Mediterranean in the age of print journalism. While the salon tradition was firmly in place in France by the seventeenth century, it also has antecedents in the Arab world (the mujalasat). The nineteenth and early twentieth century salons investigated in this lesson were hosted by women in Cairo, Aleppo, Damascus, Jerusalem and Beirut, as well as in Paris and Milan. While they met in the privacy of a woman’s home they were not sex-segregated; prominent men also attended the sessions. The women, as well as their male allies, also wrote, or were encouraged to write, for public consumption. The dialogues held in the home thus had ramifications for public discourse and led to changes in society, especially concerning the role of women. Thus salons can be seen as thresholds between the private and public spheres.

While the French model of the salon was the inspiration for Arab women, it was adapted to further nationalist goals. For example, the preferred language of the Egyptian salons was Classical Arabic (not French). Thus the movement is a good example of the cross–pollination of social institutions across the Mediterranean.

The salonnières for the most part came from well-to-do families who subscribed to reform efforts, including the education of women. Their invited guests represented a variety of faiths. While the salonnières advocated a greater role for women in society, as did their male and female guests, they differed as to their ultimate goals and the best means to attain them.