Thursday, April 14, 2011

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Fez Monkeys

I am, sad to say, fascinated with fez monkeys. Have been for decades. You know what I'm talking about. You've seen them. Chimps, spider monkeys, organ-grinding monkeys, monkeys dressed in human clothing or just behaving as humans do, but always with a red fez on their little heads. They've been used as pencil tops, calling card holders, windup toys, wall sconces, and countless other decorative arts.

C'est si bon!
The imagery is old and fabulous in the word's truest sense. Animals have since before Aesop been used to illustrate the best and worst of human behavior and monkeys, so human in their stance and demeanor, are no exception. With rare exceptions, monkeys wearing red fezzes are bad monkeys, indulging in alcohol, smoking, and other human vices.

I've found old French porcelain statuettes of simian gentlemen in finest 18th century garb, aping humanity. When the fez in particular came into play, I haven't been able to tell. My gut tells me that for the answer to that, we should look to French-occupied North Africa — Tunisia, Morocco, or Algeria — but I don't yet have the resources to track down earliest examples.

I do, however, collect images of these red-hatted monkeys behaving badly when I travel. About ten years ago, I wandered into a postcard shop in Paris. Cartophilia was jammed, floor to ceiling, with boxes of old postcards. They were organized by themes familiar to those who prowl such shops: hotels, railroads, clowns, butchers, etc. When I entered, the owner was engaged in low conversation with another old man. I smiled. "Bonjour." He looked me over and turned back to his conversation with a polite but dismissive "Bonjour, monsieur."

I had been weighed and measured — and apparently did not meet standards. The two continued to talk, paying no further attention. A younger woman in the shop glanced up and smiled at me, then went back to her box of old cards. My French is self-taught and far from perfect. But I hauled it into use.

"Excusez-moi, monsieur"

He looked up. "Oui?"

"Je suis à la recherche d'une carte postale."

He thrust out his chin, gave his shoulders a shrug, and indicated the hundreds of boxes around him like I was an idiot for not seeing them myself. "Oui?"

"Je suis à la recherche d'une carte postale," I continued, "avec une image de singes..."

"Les singes?!" he exclaimed ("Monkeys?!"). Whoever heard of such a thing?

"Oui." I plowed on. "Oui, mais...mais les singes avec des chapeaux rouges." Monkeys with red hats. He looked at me, a face filled with incredulity. An imbecile stood before him. Impossible to conceive that such a thing did or ever could exist.

"No." He turned back to his conversation.

At that point, the pretty young woman cleared her throat. In lightly accented English, she asked "Are you looking for monkeys wearing fezzes?" I admitted that I was.

She turned to the old man. "Papa. Un chapeau tunisien."

"Ahh!" His face lit up like fireworks. "Un chapeau tunisien!" Monkey with a red hat he'd never heard of, a conceptual impossibility, but a monkey with a Tunisian hat? Well, that's a different story entirely! One was located within 2 minutes.

I bought my postcard with its bad booze-drinking monkeys and learned that when I return to France on the trail of these fez monkeys so popular with the tiki crowd, I shall hunt for les singes avec des chapeaux tunisien.

But I'm sure something else will be wrong.


SeanMike said...

Rowley, that is just fantastic.

(PS I think your drinks links is missing a site.)


Unknown said...

Tunisian monkeys behaving 'badly': racism made adorable? pas vrai!


Matthew Rowley said...

SeanMike ~ Duly noted. When I come up for air, there will be an addition.

Mike ~ Racist francophones? I've never heard of such a thing. A conceptual impossibility.

llhall2 said...

As a clock maker, I've actually had a couple of clocks of just monkeys in fezzes hanging around the clock.. climbing on top of it, and I now have had like 5 of these fall into my lap.. all of them different. and I'm delightfully smitten.