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"El barrio turco": the cultural politics and textual effects of late Argentine modernismo.

What happens when a writer uses modernista stylistics -- including hyperbolic expression and Orientalism, mixed with the diagnosis of hereditary social ills typical of naturalism, to write about unwelcome "Orientals"? Hispanic modernismo's display of verbal virtuosity to the point of excess, as well as exoticism, and within that specifically Orientalism, led to the traditional characterization of this fin-de-siecle literary current as one that placed the writer in an ivory tower, far removed from socio-political concerns and dedicated to the inner realm and aesthetics. A few decades ago scholars of modernismo began establishing that, contrary to common conceptions of the movement, writers within it were indeed connected to the social and political issues of their day. These scholars point to modernista writers' engagement with the processes of modernization, in particular the changing socio-political status of aesthetics, and with international politics, primarily in the form of the rejection of U.S. imperialism. (1) While engagement in international politics is evident among figures linked to Central America and the Caribbean, the work of some modernistas from Argentina displays a different set of social concerns, one that reflects their local reality of a massive immigrant influx. (2) In this essay I examine the short Argentine narrative "El barrio turco" in order to point to an unexpected outcome of the pairing of late modernismo and the positivist rejection of "Oriental" immigrants: the potential dismantling of racialist essentialisms. (3)

Anibal Gonzalez has stated that Spanish American modernismo assumes that most knowledge has already been collected and codified and that its project is to appropriate and codify the figurative European Library (10). As the work of Edward Said and many others within postcolonial studies has shown us, part of the European Library consists of scholarly and literary works about a group of cultures imagined as a monolithic entity: the Orient. Images of the Orient and references to it have a notable presence in modernista writings, but they usually craft the Orient as a haven of beauty, a realm of aesthetic concerns. The virtually unknown short story "El barrio turco," written by Napoleon Taboada, a lawyer and journalist who was part of a prominent and powerful family in Santiago del Estero, a city and province in the Northwest of Argentina, presents a very different version of the Orient. (4) The story, published in a provincial newspaper in 1923, makes use of the Orientalist volumes of the European Library while responding to the local issue of immigration, and particularly Arab immigration. Within this context of intense socioeconomic change, the text uses a particular construction of the Orient in order to exclude "Oriental" immigrants from biologically determined constructions of Argentine identity. Furthermore, the confluence of modernismo's hyperbolic language and the 'scientific' racism within both Orientalism and Argentine nationalism produces a destabilizing parodic effect.

In most Latin American contexts, the definition of unique continental and national cultures was carried out through oppositions and affiliations with Spain, the rest of Europe, and the United States. In contrast, in Argentina the definition of group identity largely took place vis-a-vis Spain and the rest of Europe and also the millions of recent immigrants from Europe and West Asia. Thus, as opposed to the writings of Marti, Dario, and Rodo in which there are many examples of critical engagement with North American culture and politics, fin-de-siecle writers in Argentina were primarily embattled with immigration, which was feeding a working class culture and linguistic shifts that supported neither the cosmopolitan nor the national cultures that local intellectuals desired.

Between the mid 1800's and the early 1900's more than 6 million immigrants arrived in Argentina. While the vast majority of the immigrants were Italians and Spaniards, many Eastern Europeans and Arabs also arrived. Most of the Arabic-speaking immigrants came from what was then the province of Greater Syria under Ottoman rule (today mostly Lebanon and Syria). (5) Argentine statesmen had actively promoted immigration in order to bring Northern Europeans to work in agriculture and "improve" the national stock. But by the late 1800's the Argentine elite's disappointment in the outcome of their immigration project had turned into anti-immigrant sentiment. Immigrants had flocked to cities where they worked in industry, became involved in labor organizing, and created and consumed popular urban culture. Their association with the problems of urbanization and with class conflict, created among elites a climate of fear about foreignness. At the turn of the century, cultural nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment were strong and on the rise among the upper classes.

Not coincidentally, during this same period the "scientific" racism of positivism became a central force in Argentine politics and culture. The effort to delineate a national identity, which focused on the notion of defining the national "race" or soul of Argentina, embraced biological determinism and other forms of positivism. Positivist Argentine discourses typically understood the non-Northern European immigrant as an inferior, diseased, and contaminating presence. As Salessi and Molloy elucidate, one of the specific ills that the positivist thinker diagnosed in the immigrant body was so-called sexual "deviance." During the first decades of the 20th century, positivist discourses of disease and immorality had a particularly strong impact on the reception of Semitic immigrants. Semitic immigrants -- whether Christian Arabs, Eastern European Jews, Muslim Arabs, or Arab Jews -- were targeted as the most undesirable of immigrants. Within this hostile climate, the representations of Arabic-speaking immigrants that appeared in Argentine literary and popular culture generally represented them as not only culturally, but also biologically, different -- so different that they could not be assimilated into Argentine culture. (6)

During the 1910's and 20's, Arab Argentines produced texts ranging from Arabic poetry and narratives to Spanish-language novels and descriptions of the harem to bilingual Arabic-Spanish newspapers. Not surprisingly, Argentine modernistas demonstrated almost no awareness of Arab Argentines as writers, and very few of them directly referred to immigrants -- of any origin in their own writings. Among the writers linked to modernismo who directly treat immigration, only two that I know of address the presence of Arab immigrants. One of these is the little known provincial author Taboada who produced a short story that echoes and amplifies many of the representational issues found in other Argentine Orientalist texts. (7)

"El barrio turco" reiterates the image of the Syro-Lebanese immigrant that is found elsewhere in Argentine literature -- the Arab as radically different and unassimilatable -- and takes it to an extreme. The text presents a hairy, smelly, intoxicated, and hedonistic turco who is married to a criolla. This turco had become somewhat culturally assimilated until his daughters, affected by his own enduring "vaho de turco," encourage him to practice with them his turco customs, while his Argentine wife stands by, complicit in these activities. The couple lives with their seven daughters and two of their three sons in the "barrio turco" of their unnamed city.

One of the central themes of the story, which presents more of a convoluted portrait of this family than a plot, is the dissolution created by mixed marriages. The story is, in the words of the narrator, "Una caudalosa confluencia de turco obstinado y de criolla desbordante...." In the text, the language of naturalism and modernismo come together in an excess of unusual adjectives used to describe an unusual excess: "En aquella modesta familia se consumaba un empalme voluminoso, que no encausaba una tercera resultante en fuerza, multiplo [sic] de capacidades, sino infartaba los cursos en una especie de voluminacion incontinente, cuantiosa, tiroidea, un poco degenerativa y monstruosa pero profundamente definitriz [....] Se percibia ante todo el exceso desbordado [....]" In this work not only is the immigrant diseased and perverse, but the criolla reveals her 'weakened' constitution by not being able to block the turco's contagion. Indeed the biological determinism of this piece is so strong that even more hideous than the Syro-Lebanese immigrant himself is the union between such an immigrant and an Argentine woman. This mixing of bloodlines produces an 'aberration' in nine of their ten children: an interest in indulging in turco customs and tastes rather than in assimilating into Argentine culture. This turco-criollo fusion has weakened the bodies of the children, and in particular of the daughters; the narrator notes that the fusion has given them "[un] tejido esponjoso," "una infinita pastosidad," and souls that are predisposed to "todas las ambiguedades nostalgicas." In this text the immigrant body and mind are marked, very negatively, even into the next generation. Along with these inherited weaknesses, the daughters are shaped by the presence of their father.

Although the narrator describes the turco father as already culturally assimilated after thirty years in Latin America, we are also told that he has "un vaho" that is unmistakably turco and that, on the one hand, gives him a particular odor, and, on the other, has an inescapable, biological influence on his daughters. The narrator tells us that the effects of this miasma together with filial love are enough to make his daughters not smell the vapor and only succumb completely to his turco influence, which is described as "una especial imantacion racica, de que estaba recubierto todo el." The "vaho irradiado, de vago prestigio mil-y-una nochesco, ese vaho de turco" creates among the daughters a curiosity that is "casi religiosa al milenario nocturno de Sharazada, y al narguile mas [sic] espirituoso de la musica arabe, eso las acababa, las sumergia moribundas en un eter bochornoso y espeso." In line with the positivist concept of miscegenation, the turco father is not the only dangerous element, rather, his daughters also pose a threat. As a result of their biological make-up and the turco miasma, the daughters in turn put pressure on their assimilated father until he practices turco customs at home with his family. The daughters dream of going to Turkey, want to wear the veil, and at carnival time dress up as a harem. (8) At home in their isolated ethnic enclave, "la familia vivia como opificada de una especie de vanidad racica vergonzante." By making the 'racial pride' of this family a ridiculous and repulsive narcotic, "El barrio turco" makes fun of not only immigrant nostalgia but also any desire to maintain a non-Argentine cultural heritage.

The youngest son is the only one who has not entered into the sickly state of the rest of the family, although he does not escape satirizing. Upon returning home from Buenos Aires, where he is a medical student, he finds "los primeros sintomas del paludismo familiar" and makes some effort to pull the family back to the (Argentine) center -- literally and figuratively. For this reason, the narrator says that he represents "una obscura promesa mesianica" for the family. However, in other passages the youngest son is mocked, among other things, for not being able to do anything with "su presunta ciencia." By poking fun at him, the narrator criticizes his lack of initiative in intervening in the decline of his family and makes him into a somewhat ridiculous figure. In the same way that this story parodies immigrants' maintenance of home country ways, it mocks the youngest son's inability to see the seriousness of the situation. All this son does to counter his family's degeneration is to complain about the turco neighborhood and constantly suggest taking walks in the plaza in the center of the city, away from the barrio turco. He looks upon the Arab neighborhood with severe distaste, citing its thick, musty air, its foreign odor, and a tenement house atmosphere created by the way its inhabitants speak. At one point he even finds a house on the central plaza for the family to move into, but his exhortation "'Vamonos al centro'" does not induce anyone in his family to make any steps toward the town plaza or in the direction of assimilation into the Argentine mainstream.

Nonetheless, at the end of the story the youngest son, through the substitution of his cultural heritage with the trappings of science, breaks, at least momentarily, the 'spell' in which his sisters are held. It is important to note here another facet of the family's degeneration, since it comes into play in the final scene. Throughout "El barrio turco" there is the suggestion of incest between the father and his seven daughters. In the turco-criollo fusion "todo emergia con una abundancia vegetativa y glandular, con un rebasamiento espermatoso inmoderado y esparcido" (emphasis added). The overflowing excess "no habia acabado de cuajar en el objeto propio cuando en aquel preciso punto habia encontrado tambien el de menor resistencia, la membranita impalpable, de la esfericidad" (emphasis added). The daughters' souls languished "con una delicuescencia lotiana, enervadora, eyaculante." That is, spermatic excess enters, with a minimum of resistance, the 'membrane of sphericalness' -- or the hymen -- and the daughters are weakened in a Lotian decadence; like the daughters of Lot in the Bible, they seek sexual relations with their father. In this story, the immigrant family, even when mixed with a criolla, is portrayed as the most extreme version of a closed community: an incestuous community.

The not-so-subtle insinuation of incest resurfaces at the end of the story when the youngest son comes home late one night to find the light on in his father's room: "la luz fluia de las orgias desatadas, y revolcaba por el patio un enjambre rumoroso de conversaciones fervientes y cordiales." Intrigued, the son opens the door "con el brusco ademan del marido celoso" and finds his seven sisters in a state of abandon upon various luxurious, oversized pillows: "Entregadas en cuclillas a la acogida de hondura progresiva y suspicaz de los almohadones, a su seno cedente que bajo el peso del cuerpo tiene el aire de desfallecer como en una suprema introduccion, -- las siete hermanas, con la sangre y la mirada desvanecida en el ensueno, hacian el grupo de una arabia [sic] inefable, plenilunica, remota..." (emphasis added). These yielding, breast-like cushions take bodies in deeper and deeper and seem to faint in "a supreme insertion," that is, with sexual penetration. The sexually suggestive scene centered on these cushions entices the youngest son. All that stops the son from joining his sisters is the unexpected sight of his father, laid out similarly on fine pillows: "Su padre, el buen turco solido y estable [...] el buen turco humilde [...] exaltado en el bochorno de la intima tertulia, a una representacion de gran turco, presidia esta imposible sesion del desahogo pecaminoso y clandestino, blandamente recostado en el divan, en la actitud sultanica del que medita voluptuosidades mientras fuma, como el fumaba, al narguile..." A very sexually suggestive description of the hookah, or water pipe, as a dancer follows, thereby completing the scene of extreme Oriental debauchery.

We then find out that the son, though he wants to say something, has forgotten long ago the word "narguile." Trying to fill in this lexical gap, what he ends up saying is: "'Pero, padre... Hagame el favor! No faltaba mas, sino que, en esta locura de la casa, usted se pusiese a fumar 'en enteroclisio'!...'" The word that comes to mind for this medical student, and that he uses to stand in for narguile, is the name of a late 19th-century anti-malarial medical apparatus. This device, used for a procedure known as enteroclysis, gave patients a powerful enema of a highly toxic and corrosive disinfectant solution. (9) The Arab Argentine medical student, with his desire to assimilate into criollo society and embrace science and progress, associates the tubing of the water pipe with the tubing of the enteroclysis device and creates an incongruous, even grotesque, substitution. Upon hearing their youngest brother's words the seven sisters fall back, unconscious with their spell broken. Thus, through the bumbling figure of this medical student and his misplaced scientific term, the author of "El barrio turco" is able to have science, however ironically, save the day. The mere mention of this medical device is enough to put an end to the turco malady that had overcome the household -- but the reader can infer that the turco's miasma may continue to exert an influence on his daughters, and he or she knows that the turco-criollo fusion has left a biological mark on them.

"El barrio turco" at once ridicules immigrant nostalgia and the desire to maintain one's home culture, and presents a horrific picture of the aberrations that result from a turco-criollo union, including the inability for even the children of such a mixed marriage to assimilate into Argentine society. In this story, Taboada presents a vision of racial mixture that reflects Argentine intellectuals' espousal of positivist racial theories, complete with their notion of miscegenation as the degradation of races. Taboada's fears of the infection of the Argentine national body as a result of the infusion of Arab/exotic elements are so great, that all of the twelve members of this Arab-Argentine family are either contaminated with sexual aberration, or are inept and laughable.

To carry out this rejection of the turco, Taboada constructs and employs a vision of the Orient as aberrantly licentious. In contrast, however, with the Orientalism of earlier modernistas that depict faraway locales, in Taboada's text we find that the representation of a scorned sector of the local social context affects the tenor of the text. Rather than present Arab sensuality as part of an aesthetically pleasing world of luxurious delights, for Taboada it is smelly and messy, degenerate and 'degenerating' of those in contact with it. In "El barrio turco," rather than delight or enticement, the Orient only offers corruption and a challenge to the imagined national community. The licentiousness of the Arab Other is sickly, diseased and in need of a medical intervention, but one that is stronger than enteroclysis, one that could contain the spread of both turco miasma and turco genes. In short, in this text the modernista vision of the Orient is bracketed by the perspective of naturalism.

This bracketing or limitation of the aestheticized Orient by socio-biological concerns is evident in the role of the daughters in the story. The Orient that interests the daughters, in other words, the Orient that they create, is, like modernista Orientalism, an Orient closely linked to the realm of aesthetics. The narrator states that the daughters pushed their father to introduce in their domestic order the "costumbres del alla exotico y ensonado por ellas." This statement is noteworthy, first, because the only things presented as turco customs in which the family partakes are the narguile and licentiousness. The daughters never prepare or consume traditional foods and, with the exception of smoking the water pipe, they do not carry out any Arab or Middle Eastern customs or cultural practices. Likewise, references to West Asian religions are absent. Rather, the daughters' fascination with being "turco" is largely expressed through clothing, decor, and, of course, aberrant sexuality. Even their desire to wear the veil is not expressed through Arab or Muslim veiling practices, but rather they dress as a harem in their town's pre-Lenten carnival. In sum, the Orient that they construct is one that draws on broad literary references and elements of the decorative arts to create a fictionalized sultan (their father) and his harem.

Moreover, by using the word "ensonar" -- rather than simply "sonar" -- the narrator implies within the narrative itself that the daughters not only dream of their exotic homeland, but actually create the illusion or fantasy of this faraway place. The daughters create a vision of the Orient, use it to corrupt their father, and in that way turn the father and their home into a zone of escapism. Thus, the daughters in this story have a project parallel to that of the modernistas themselves: like the fin de siecle writers, the daughters create a separate sphere by both reacting against the barrio turco and drawing from these surroundings. The turco-criollo daughters create the proverbial modernista ivory tower, a realm of aesthetics, but it is firmly planted in Argentina. In the same way, Taboada's text uses modernista verbal ornamentation to address a pressing socio-political issue -- that of immigration -- and carries out its racist rejection of the turco by adapting the European Orientalist Library to the local context. By focusing on "un vaho de turco" -- the stink of the Oriental miasma, a hereditary Oriental trace -- Taboada responds to modernization through biologically determinist conceptions of the Arab world that reflect a desire to "cleanse" Argentina of particular segments of the immigrant population. Reflecting the particular human geography of early twentieth-century Argentina, Taboada responds to a period of social change by using Orientalist essentialisms to seek stability, to delineate, via contrast, an idealized national community.

At the same time, the intersection of exuberant, heavily ornamented modernista language, positivist Orientalism, and anti-immigrant sentiment in "El barrio turco" creates a noteworthy textual effect. The parodic tendency of modernismo, noted by Gwen Kirkpatrick (7, 20, 30), burgeons in this text on Arabs in Argentina with its focus on the sordid and the sickly. By highlighting verbal virtuosity while taking as object of representation that which he deems aesthetically displeasing and morally reprehensible, Taboada produces a text with a markedly ambiguous tone and a naturalism-infused style. The ornamented Orientalism can only become more extreme when a writer treats the manifestation of the Orient -- Syro-Lebanese immigrants -- that calls into question the Argentine nationalist identities being fashioned at the time. This convergence unwittingly creates a parodic quality that leaves the story open to the dismantling of its premises and aims, that is, quick to produce its own deconstruction. This narrative's Orientalism is so concentrated and its language so ornate and convoluted, that, at least to the late 20th- and early 21st-century reader it can be read as highly parodic, so over the top that it must be an exaggerated way of mocking racial/ethnic identity and the fears and desires of both majority and minority groups. Thus, the final irony of this text is that this intersection of consciously crafted, heavily ornamented language, positivist Orientalism, and anti-immigrant sentiment actually makes the whole text read like a parody. The story, most likely unintentionally, highlights the absurdity of biologically essentialist conceptions of identity that contribute to Orientalism and support the rejection of certain immigrant groups.

In this way Taboada's piece is part of Argentine cultural politics, understood broadly as the political elements and outcomes of cultural practices and products -- the ways in which the realms of cultural expression and political process are in fact palpably enmeshed. In addition, the parodic effect of the text is a form of cultural politics in the more specific sense of a contestation of common sense meaning as discussed by Don Mitchell (158-60). "El barrio turco" contests common sense meaning by pointing to the absurdity of that which is taken for granted.


Aching, Gerard. The Politics of Spanish American Modernismo: By Exquisite Design. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge UP, 1997.

Bestene, Jorge. "La inmigracion Sirio-Libanesa en la Argentina, una aproximacion." Estudios Migratorios Latinoamericanos 3.9 (1988): 239-68.

Civantos, Christina. Between Argentines and Arabs: Argentine Orientalism, Arab Immigrants, and the Writing of Identity. Albany: State U of New York P, 2006.

Gonzalez, Anibal. A Companion to Spanish American Modernismo. Woodbridge, UK; Rochester, NY: Tamesis, 2007.

Ikmir, 'Abd al-Wahid. al-'Arab fi al-Arjantin: al-Nushu' wal-Tatawwur. Beirut: Markaz Dirasat al-Wihda al-'Arabiyya, 2000.

Jrade, Cathy L. Modernismo, Modernity, and the Development of Spanish American Literature. Austin, TX: U of Texas P, 1998.

Kirkpatrick, Gwen. The Dissonant Legacy of Modernismo: Lugones, Herrera y Reis sig, and the Voices of Modern Spanish American Poetry. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Oxford: U of California P, 1989.

Klich, Ignacio. "Criollos and Arabic Speakers in Argentina: An Uneasy Pas de Deux, 1888-1914." The Lebanese in the World: A Century of Emigration. Eds. Albert Hourani and Nadim Shehadi. London: The Centre for Lebanese Studies, 1992. 243-84.

Klich, Ignacio. "Introduction to the Sources for the History of The Middle Easterners in Latin America." Temas de Africa y Asia 2 (1993): 205-33.

Mitchell, Don. Cultural Geography: A Critical Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000.

Molloy, Sylvia. "Too Wilde for Comfort: Desire and Ideology in Fin de Siecle Latin America." Negotiating Lesbian and Gay Subjects. Eds. Monica Dorenkamp and Richard Henke. New York and London: Routledge, 1995. 35-52.

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Taboada, Napoleon. "El barrio turco." El Liberal [Santiago del Estero, Argentina]. 3 November 1923: 60.

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by Christina Civantos

University of Miami


* My thanks to Elena Grau-Lleveria for her insightful comments on an earlier version of this essay.

(1) See the work of Rama, Ramos, Aching, and Jrade. In relation to Orientalism in particular, though with a focus on Japan and East Asia, see Tinajero.

(2) Another such Argentine text is Enrique Larreta's La Gloria de don Ramiro; see Between Argentines and Arabs (89-90).

(3) The complete text of "El barrio turco" can be found at:

(4) In print the author is noted only as "B.," however, according to Alberto Tasso the story was written by Napoleon Taboada (244-46).

(5) Precise statistics on how many Syro-Lebanese emigrated are difficult to establish because of illegal departures, non-standardized or inaccurate terms used to record origins at arrival points, and return migration. Estimates indicate that between 1887 and 1913 approximately 131,000 Arabs arrived. Both Arab and Jewish Argentines have claimed the place of third largest immigrant group in Argentina. On the history of the Syro-Lebanese migration to Argentina, see Klich, as well as Bestene and Ikmir.

(6) An example of this is the figure of the turco in the popular 1920's musical theater known as sainete. In the sainetes that have Arabic-speaking immigrants as their main protagonists, the Arab is a symbol of extreme difference and difficult assimilation. See Between Argentines and Arabs (91-92).

(7) The other of these two writers is Leopoldo Lugones. In addition to several stories and poems that take place in the Orient and/or emulate Oriental styles of writing, and the essay El payador that makes ample use of Orientalist imagery, Lugones dedicates one of his poems to an Arab Argentine, albeit one who arrived in Argentina as a diplomat and operated in elite circles, and in another poem he focuses at length on a turco peddler. See Between Argentines and Arabs (90-91).

(8) By referring to Turkey, in spite of the fact that the vast majority of so-called turco immigrants were from the Syrian and Lebanese provinces of the Ottoman Empire, the text conflates Turkey, the Ottoman Empire that had just dissolved in 1922, and the Arab world.

(9) Enteroclysis was a highly contested procedure developed in 1884 by the Italian doctor Arnaldo Cantani initially for the treatment of dysentery and later cholera. Frank Snowden describes it as "a drastic, experimental, and painful procedure [that] was also lethal" (136). In the procedure, the patient's ileum was flushed with warm carbolic acid and then starting in the 1890's with tannic acid (Snowden 133-34 and n. 133, 406-07). One of a few mystery-shrouded, rival procedures, comments about enteroclysis that seeped out of the hospitals helped to fuel the panic and distrust of the period. See Snowden (133-38).
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