For over twenty years, the term "orientalist" has been an insult in the academy, signifying a person who makes biased assumptions about the non-Western world. When it comes to posters, however, judging by this collection amassed by a Moroccan businessman, there are few terms more delightful than "orientalist." The collection is almost entirely of French placards and starts with colored lithographs dating from the early 1890s, when French shipping companies began crossing the Mediterranean and looked for travelers to fill their berths. Promising to get their passengers across the sea in 24 hours, they depicted an irresistibly romantic North Africa, full of white-washed houses, buxom girls, tall palm trees, charming architecture, green golf courses, and ripe-looking foods. The last posters date from the early 1960s. All along, minarets and camels are the most common images. Then as now, the long gray northern European winters lead to much emphasis on the sunny-ness of North Africa. A few of Slaoui's posters range beyond North Africa to the Middle East. One of the few English-language advertisements, from 1931, beckons the British traveler to Baghdad in just eight days. Others in the collection do not advertise a vacation but sell tobacco, books, or (Palmolive) soap. Some, during World War II, even tell North Africans to "shut up" lest the Germans hear important secrets.
No doubt today's equivalent of these posters also portray their subjects to best advantage, making easy to forget the problems ranging from poverty to Islamism. But in an age of political correctness, no poster today can reach out to a Westerner and grab his sensibilities as do these.