The Victorian Traveller and the Arabian Nights
[David Roberts , “Portico of the Temple of Bacchus at Baalbec”]
This description of a Middle Eastern slave-market comes from Richard F. Burton’s classic Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah, and, to all appearances, represents the worst sort of ‘Orientalising’ prejudice. The slaves appear unaware of the hideousness of their fate (they are ‘perfectly happy, laughing loudly, talking unknown tongues, and quizzing purchasers, even during the delicate operation of purchasing’) – and the strong implication is that this is through stupidity (or, at best, ignorance of the ignominy of such a position), rather than any kind of moral courage.
... on the way we passed through the principal slave-market [in Meccah]. It is a large street roofed with matting, and full of coffee-houses. The merchandise sat in rows, parallel with the walls. The prettiest girls occupied the highest benches, below them were the plainer sort, and lowest of all the boys. They were all gaily dressed in pink and other light-coloured muslins, with transparent veils over their heads; and, whether from the effect of such unusual splendour, or from the reaction succeeding to their terrible land-journey and sea-voyage, they appeared perfectly happy, laughing loudly, talking unknown tongues, and quizzing purchasers, even during the delicate operation of purchasing. There were some pretty Gallas, douce-looking Abyssinians, and Africans of various degrees of hideousness, from the half-Arab Somal to the baboon-like Sawahili. The highest price of which I could hear was 60l. (Burton, 1855-56, p. 469)
Burton admits that they may be reacting to the temporary cessation of their “terrible land-journey and sea-voyage,” but seems to think it more likely that it is the “unusual splendour” of being “gaily dressed in pink and other light-coloured muslins” which has cheered them up. This impression is aided by the emphasis he places on the incomprehensibility of their chatter. They are described only as talking ‘unknown tongues’ – and this from a narrator who loses few opportunities of convincing us of his linguistic virtuosity. He is also at pains to stress the “hideous” appearance of the black Africans among them – from the “half-Arab” Somalis to the “baboon-like” Swahilis.
In the first edition of Burton’s book – though not the third, from which I have been quoting – the passage continues:
And here I matured a resolve to strike, if favoured by fortune, a death-blow at a trade which is eating into the vitals of industry in Eastern Africa. The reflection was pleasant, – the idea that the humble Haji, contemplating the scene from his donkey, might become the instrument of the total abolition of this pernicious traffic. (Burton, 1893, 2: 252)Note how this alters the effect of Burton’s description. From the complacency of an Imperialist, it now seems tinged with the indignation of an Abolitionist. A footnote added to the second edition of the book makes it clear that the passage was pruned because “The slave trade has, since these remarks were penned, been suppressed with a high hand” (1893, 2: 252). Perhaps it seemed vainglorious to Burton in the 1870s to continue to claim credit for this initiative of the sixties.
Whichever edition we are using, however, we can observe: first, the structural use of this description of the slave-market to introduce certain major themes of his narrative: the racial characteristics of the people he encounters, as well as the terrible economic effects of this “pernicious traffic.” Secondly, the way in which it serves to characterise the speaker or narrator of the journey: a British officer and Oriental scholar masquerading as a “humble Haji.”
Before drawing any larger conclusions from this, though, let us look at some other descriptions of slave-markets by European travellers. Here’s Alexander Kinglake, in his bestselling travel book Eothen (1844):
In the open slave-market [of Cairo] I saw about fifty girls exposed for sale, but all of them black or “invisible” brown. A slave-agent took me to some rooms in the upper storey of the building, and also into several obscure houses in the neighbourhood, with a view to show me some white women. The owners raised various objections to the display of their ware, and well they might, for I had not the least notion of purchasing. (Kinglake, 1936, p. 166)Rather witty, that “I had not the least notion of purchasing” – like much of the book, it is designed to give a little frisson to his reader: here, at the thought that one could, indeed, purchase a slave-girl at such a market if one were not English. There’s something a bit cold about Kinglake’s investigative technique, though – just as when, a page before, seeing some prisoners in the citadel of Cairo, he is concerned principally to justify his choice of words in describing them – “I say yoke of men, for the poor fellows were working together in bonds” (1936, p. 166) – rather than deploring their fate.
Returning to the market, however:
I only succeeded in seeing one white slave who was for sale; but on this treasure the owner affected to set an immense value, and raised my expectations to a high pitch by saying the girl was Circassian, and was “fair as the full moon.” There was a good deal of delay, but at last I was led into a long dreary room, and there, after marching timidly for a few paces, I descried at the farther end that mass of white linen which indicates an Eastern woman. She was bid to uncover her face, and I presently saw that, though very far from being good-looking, according to my notion of beauty, she had not been inaptly described by the man who compared her to the full moon, for her large face was perfectly round and perfectly white. Though very young, she was nevertheless extremely fat. (Kinglake, 1936, pp. 166-67)This rather terrifyingly callous passage could, I suppose, be summed up under the title ‘the traveller as a suspicious soul,’ or ‘insouciance in the face of the bumptious tradesman.’ He goes on in a similar vein:
She gave me the idea of having been got up for sale – of having been fattened and whitened by medicines or by some peculiar diet. I was firmly determined not to see any more of her than the face. She was perhaps disgusted at this my virtuous resolve [my emphasis], as well as with my personal appearance – perhaps she saw my distaste and disappointment; perhaps she wished to gain with her owner by showing her attachment to his faith: at all events she holloaed out very lustily and very decidedly that “she would not be bought by the infidel.” (p. 167)
Truly, as Fatma Moussa-Mahmoud remarks, “No oriental ... can easily like Eothen,” though she attributes this to the fact that “the Englishman who had come to test his mettle against the hardships of Eastern travel proves his superiority to things Arabic and Islamic at every turn.” (1988, p. 104)
This is undoubtedly true, but I think we have to conclude that there’s more to it than that. Kinglake’s misogyny appears very clearly in the implication that the white female slave takes against him because of his “personal appearance” – at best, she abused him in order “to gain with her owner by showing her attachment to his faith” (not, you notice, her own faith).
Earlier in the book, while still in Constantinople, Kinglake described an encounter with “one of those coffin-shaped bundles of white linen that implies an Ottoman lady” (1936, p. 26) – and, in case the epithet were not explicit enough, tells us of the “piece of fun” indulged in by such ladies:
She turns, and turns again, and carefully glances around her on all sides to see that he is safe from the eyes of Mussulmans, and then suddenly withdrawing the yashmak, she shines upon your heart and soul with all the pomp and might of her beauty ...The association between the “coffin-shaped bundles of white linen” that imply an Ottoman lady, and the plague then ravaging Constantinople and Cairo, is made here with an Edgar Allan Poe-like insistence.
She sees, and exults in your giddiness – she sees and smiles; then, presently, with a sudden movement, she lays her blushing fingers upon your arm, and cries out “Yumourdjak!” (Plague! meaning, “There is a present of the plague for you!”) This is her notion of a witticism ... as though the bright idea of giving the plague to a Christian had newly lit upon the earth. (Kinglake, 1936, pp. 26-27)
My purpose here, though, is not so much to psychoanalyse Kinglake, as to attempt to discern the conscious literary intentions of his text.
If we take it as a truism that every traveller creates a fictional projection of himself in the course of shaping his travel narrative, then we could perhaps say that this fictional or projected Kinglake is presented as being a gruff misogynist, and an Englishman of the sort who scorns to condescend to his inferiors. Of course it is tempting to take this as real information about the author of Eothen, but what it does tell us unequivocally is that this is the kind of self which he found it expedient or amusing to construct for the purposes of his story.
Kinglake’s contemporary audience was, after all, saturated with images of what an Oriental journey should be and what it should contain – Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh (1817), Lord Byron’s early verse tales (The Giaour (1813), The Bride of Abydos (1813) and The Corsair (1814)), and even the legend of Lady Hester Stanhope had accustomed readers to an exotic East of Harems and beautiful slaves, and it is natural that a travel-writer should wish to satirise these expectations.
The female slave “fattened and whitened by medicines or by some peculiar diet,’ and the Ottoman women who make their admirers a gift of the plague are perhaps rather extreme contradictions of the cliché, but this certainly serves to make them memorable. What Kinglake is really doing (like Beckford in Vathek (1786)), is applying some aspects of the Gothic imagination to the Eastern travelogue.
With Burton, though, the structure of his narrative is complicated by the fact that he has been forced to design a new self in order to travel at all – the “Shaykh” Abdullah, wandering Dervish and Doctor, Afghan by birth – a Moslem alter-ego who can safely perform the Hajj. The elaboration of this disguise gives the dry-as-dust antiquarian detail of Burton’s text a dramatic suspense and interest which it would otherwise lack, and explains a good deal of the book’s contemporary success.
More to the point, though, it gives his off-the-cuff judgements the authority of one who can ‘pass as a native’ – that Holy Grail of the colonial officer (as a motif, the idea of travelling through the city in disguise also recalls the nightly promenades of Harun al-Rashid and his two companions in the Arabian Nights, but more of that later). Kinglake may be travelling in propria persona, but his book, too, is designed to give substance to an eponymous protagonist, as well as shape to his journeyings.
A third slant, both on the choice of the slave-market as a motif and the construction of a convenient persona for travelling, appears in the French symbolist Gérard de Nerval’s Voyage en Orient (1851). The book is based on a real journey which its author undertook in 1843-44, but it departs from his real itinerary almost as soon as it begins. His travelling companion, Joseph de Fonfrède, is never mentioned at all, and some of the most famous passages – including the description of the island of Cythera which inspired Baudelaire’s poem “Un Voyage à Cythère” – were cribbed from other travel books. Truly, as Mark Twain remarks in The Innocents Abroad:
… if all the pages that have been written about [this land] was spread upon its surface, they would flag it from horizon to horizon like a pavement. (Twain, 1869, p. 307)Nerval, or, at least, the ‘Gérard de Nerval’ of the text, ran into some unexpected problems when he arrived in Cairo. Unable to afford a long stay in a hotel, he rented a house, but the neighbours complained that he was “breaking Muslim laws of etiquette by refusing to live with a woman.” He was warned that he would be evicted “unless I took a wife or slave-girl into my household within a few days” (Nerval, 1973, p. 30). The second problem was his realisation that:
… en Orient les hôteliers, les drogmans, les valets et les cuisiniers s’entendaient de tout point contre le voyageur... M. de Chateaubriand avoue qu’il s’y est ruiné; M. de Lamartine y a fait des dépenses folles. (Nerval, 1980, 1: 215)The solution was simple: “J’achêterai une esclave ... et j’arriverai peu à peu à remplacer par elle le drogman, le barbarin peut-être, et à faire mes comptes clairement avec le cuisinier. En claculant les frais d’un long séjour au Caire et de celui que je puis faire encore dans d’autres villes, il est clair que j’atteins un but d’économie. En me mariant, j’eusse fait le contraire.” (Nerval, 1980, 1: 215) [I shall buy a slave-girl ... I shall then be able to settle accounts with Mustapha, and, in all, decrease my daily expenses. Moreover, I shall have a woman in the house, at last, and the sheikh will bother me no longer.]
[… in the Orient the hotel-keepers, the shop-keepers, the dragomen, the servants, and the cooks were all faithfully united against the traveller ... M. de Chateaubriand admits that he was ruined in the Orient; M. de Lamartine spent a quite extravagant amount of money here. (1973, p. 38)]
Nerval undoubtedly wants to shock his readers a little by choosing this method of economising. Nerval’s English translator, Norman Glass, even goes to the lengths of comparing his literary persona to Henry Miller’s (Nerval, 1973, p.19). He is, however, self-conscious enough to disarm our criticisms in advance:
Il faut vivre un peu en Orient pour s’apercevoir que l’esclave n’est là en principe qu’une sorte d’adoption. La condition de l’esclave y est certainement meilleure que celle du fellah ... car l’esclave mécontent d’un maître peut toujours le contraindre à le faire revendre au bazar. Ce détail est un de ceux qui expliquent le mieux la douceur de l’esclavage en Orient. (Nerval, 1980, 1: 209-10)In case we’ve missed the point, later on, in the slave dealer’s house, “la seule esclave qui pleurait là pleurait à la pensée de perdre son maître; les autres ne paraissaient s’inquiéter que de la crainte de rester trop longtemps sans en trouver. Voilà qui parle, certes, en faveur du caractère des musulmans. Comparez à cela le sort des esclaves dans les pays américains!” (Nerval, 1980, 1: 234) [the one really miserable slave was crying in the belief that she had lost her master, while the others appeared troubled only by the fear that they would stay here too long without finding one. Here indeed is something which speaks well in favour of the Muslims, especially when you compare such a situation to the fate of slaves in America. (1973, p. 55)].
[I had already lived long enough in the Orient to realize that slavery is basically nothing more than a kind of adoption. The condition of a slave is certainly better than that of a free fellah ... for she has the right, if she is unsatisfied with her master for one reason or another, to order him to resell her at the bazaar. This particular detail indicates better than any other the mildness of slavery in the Orient. (1973, p. 31)]
This is, after all, the 1840s – slavery is alive and flourishing in the Americas. Nerval’s point, however, is that the Western form is in fact far more violent and pitiless than that practised in the East. The slave he eventually purchases, Zetnaybia, a Javanese, proves a good deal less subservient than even this prescription would imply, but perhaps it is time to mention that this incident, which dominates a good third of Nerval’s book, is essentially fiction. That is to say, Nerval’s companion, Fonfrède, did purchase a slave in Cairo – and kept her for about a week (Nerval, 1980, 1: 402) – but the character in his book, Zetnaybia, was invented mainly to surprise and perturb his readers.
Slaves are meant to be subservient and industrious – Zetnaybia is rebellious and idle. Slave-markets are a Western pretext of reproaching Eastern barbarism – Nerval turns the tables by making reference to the Southern States of America.
Zetnaybia is a more interesting character than this analysis alone would suggest, but the point I am making is that she has been created with a literary end in mind, just as her creator, Nerval, has remade himself as an insouciant boulevardier in the interests of a better tale. The motif of the unworthy master served by the more cunning slave is, after all, a staple of Eastern romance.
The implications of these two points, once granted, are far-reaching, which is why I have already devoted so much time to illustrating them – but, if, in the next section of the chapter, you simply bear in mind that travel-writers (like novelists) are far more than mere mirrors of the prejudices and superstitions of their time – that their descriptions of places and people can be used structurally to introduce particular themes, but also to lend colour to the persona of their chosen, eponymous protagonist – then it will, I think, be time well-spent.
So far I’ve mentioned three well-known travel-writers, Kinglake, Nerval, and Burton, representing (respectively) the 30s, 40s, and 50s of the nineteenth century. Lest I should be suspected of attempting to draw too general conclusions from too small a sample of writers, I now propose to widen my net a little. You will have gathered that a visit to the slave-market is a sine qua non of the classic Eastern travel narrative (or Voyage en Orient, as the French put it). There are, however, many other descriptive necessities.
To put this in context, imagine yourself, for a moment, as a Western traveller in Cairo in the first half of the nineteenth century. What do you expect to see?
Well, first of all is the simple promenade through the city streets. “Once you enter Cairo,” asked the French soldier Major Detroye in 1798, “what do you find?”
Narrow, unpaved, and dirty streets, dark houses that are falling to pieces, public buildings that look like dungeons, shops that look like stables, an atmosphere redolent of dust and garbage, blind men, half-blind men, bearded men, people dressed in rags, pressed together in the streets or squatting, smoking their pipes, like monkeys at the entrance of their cave; a few women of the people ... hideous, disgusting, hiding their fleshless faces under stinking rags and displaying their pendulous breasts through their torn gowns; yellow, skinny children covered with suppuration, devoured by flies; an unbearable stench, due to the dirt in the houses, the dust in the air, and the smell of food being fried in bad oil in the unventilated bazaars. (Herold, 1962, pp. 136-37)Half a century later, W. M. Thackeray had a far more positive impression:
How to describe the beauty of the streets to you! – the fantastic splendour; the variety of the houses and archways, and hanging roofs, and balconies, and porches; the delightful accidents of light and shade which chequer them; the noise, the bustle, the brilliancy of the crowd; the interminable vast bazaars with their barbaric splendour! There is a fortune to be made for painters in Cairo, and materials for a whole Academy of them ... There is a picture in every street, and at every bazaar stall. (Thackeray, 1882, 7: 695)The motifs, however – archways, crowds, smells – remain fairly consistent.
After the slave-market, the next most important object of speculation to the traveller (male or female) is probably the Harem or Seraglio. Thackeray, the tourist, apologises to his readers for having “peered into no harems” (1882, 7: 686), while Kinglake, with his customary tact asnd sensitivity, informs us that:
The rooms of the hareem reminded me of an English nursery rather than a Mahometan paradise. One is apt to judge of a woman before one sees her by the air of elegance or coarseness with which she surrounds her home: I judged Osman’s wives by this test, and condemned them both. (1936, pp. 156-57)Mark Twain, in the 1860s, remarks guilelessly “They say the Sultan has eight hundred wives. This almost amounts to bigamy. it makes our cheeks burn with shame to see such a thing permitted here in Turkey. We do not mind it so much in Salt Lake, however.” He also registers disappointment that “The great slave marts we have all read so much about – where tender young girls were stripped for inspection, and criticised and discussed just as if they were horses at an agricultural fair – no longer exist” (1869, pp. 226-27).
Burton, the scholar, who (according to himself) visited a number of Harems in his capacity as doctor, complains that:
Miss Martineau, when travelling through Egypt, once visited a harem, and there found, among other things, especially in ignorance of books and book-making, materials for a heart-broken wail over the degradation of her sex. The learned lady indulges, too, in sundry strong and unsavory comparisons between the harem and certain haunts of vice in Europe.Once again, whatever particular view the various writers take of the Harem as an institution refers directly back to the intentions of their narrative as a whole. Kinglake sets out to shock, Twain to be ironic at his audience’s expense, Thackeray to mock their inflated expectations, and Burton to pontificate. It is, in short, a commonly accepted topos, and we are expected to make sense of it with the aid of various tropes.
On the other hand, male travellers generally speak lovingly of the harem. Sonnini, no admirer of Egypt, expatiates on “the generous virtues, the examples of magnanimity and affectionate attachment, the sentiments ardent, yet gentle, forming a delightful unison with personal charms in the harems of the Mamelukes.”
As usual, the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes. (Burton, 1855-56, p. 359)
One of these is:
1. The Reversal of Expectations:
Either – A/ the seemingly “barbaric” custom which can in fact be paralleled back home (Twain’s bigamy; Nerval’s slavery);
or – B/ the romantic or melodramatic expectation debunked (Kinglake’s moon-faced slave-girl, Thackeray’s “England in Egypt,” which is all he has to offer in place of harems, magicians and dancing-girls (1882, 7: 686)).
Another trope, not yet discussed, is:
2. The Unchanging East:
Either – A/ the sense of a life so old that it seems immutable;
or – B/ Nature imitating Art, rather than the reverse.
You are still, remember, wandering about in Cairo – so the next thing you might reasonably expect to see is a Rawi or storyteller. Edward Lane, author of The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1836), probably the most influential European account of nineteenth-century Cairo, informs us in his careful, measured way that “reciters of romances frequent the principal kahwehs (or coffee-shops) of Cairo and other towns, particularly on the evenings of religious festivals, and afford attractive and rational entertainments” (1963, p. 397). The reason you would expect to see it is because it is the same thing everyone else has already seen and commented on.
Here’s Thackeray in 1844:
In one place of the bazaar we found a hundred people at least listening to a story-teller, who delivered his tale with excellent action, voice, and volubility ... The devotion and energy with which all these pastimes were pursued, struck me as much as anything. These people have been playing thimblerig and casino; that story-teller has been shouting his tale of Antar for forty years; and they are just as happy with this amusement now as when first they tried it. Is there no ennui in the Eastern countries, and are blue-devils not allowed to go abroad there? (Thackeray, 1882, 7: 649)Note the motifs – energy but futility: “that story-teller has been shouting his tale of Antar for forty years,” and the Orientals are just as happy with it now as they were before.
Burton is more analytical about it, but his conclusions are similar:
What grand pictures these imaginative Arabs see! Conceive the majestic figures of the saints – for the soul with Mohammedans is like the old European spirit, a something immaterial in the shape of the body – with long grey beards, earnest faces, and solemn eyes, reposing beneath the palms, and discussing events now buried in the gloom of a thousand years. (Burton, 1855-56, p. 292)He goes on to explain that “Amongst Orientals the events of the last generation are usually speaking imperfectly remembered”; they are “well acquainted with the history of vicissitudes which took place twelve hundred years ago, when profoundly ignorant of what their grandfathers witnessed.” (1855-56, p. 252).
The same reflection comes to Mark Twain by the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem:
Oriental women, came down in their old Oriental way, and carried off jars of water on their heads, just as they did three thousand years ago, and just as they will do fifty thousand years hence if any of them are still left on earth. (1869, p. 341)Nerval sums up by reminding us that “Ces conteurs de profession ne sont pas des poètes, mais pour ainsi dire des rhapsodes; ils arrangent et développent un sujet traité déjà de diverses manières, ou fondé sur d’anciennes légendes.” (1980, 2: 234) [These professional storytellers are rhapsodists, as it were, rather than poets; they arrange and elaborate a subject which has already been handled in many fashions, or one which is based on ancient legends (1973, p. 160)].
They are not, in other words, at all creative – merely “lively” in a pointless sort of way.
All of which brings us to the second aspect of the “Unchanging East” trope – Nature imitating Art. Lane was somewhat perturbed when he found that one of the anecdotes of daily life he told in the first edition of the Modern Egyptians – about an illiterate schoolmaster being appointed to take care of reading and writing in a nearby school – was repeated word for word in the Arabic text of the Thousand and One Nights (1835). “Either my informant’s account is not strictly true, or the man alluded to by him was, in the main, an imitator”. He concludes that “the latter is not improbable, as I have been credibly informed of several similar imitations, and of one which I know to be a fact.” (1963, p. 63)
Lane is, as always, somewhat conservative in this respect – virtually all of our other travellers tell us, sometimes with frequent repetitions, that the only book which sums up the spirit of the East is the Arabian Nights:
Tangier is a foreign land if ever there was one; and the true spirit of it can never be found in any book save the Arabian Nights. (1869, p. 49)Thus Mark Twain, who also tells us that “I shall not tell anything of the strange, strange city of Cairo, because it is only a repetition, a good deal intensified and exaggerated, of the Oriental cities I have already spoken of” (Twain, 1869, p. 373).
Nerval, who calls Cairo “la ville des Mille et Une Nuits” (1980, 1: 151) [the city of the Thousand and One Nights], cannot leave it at that, but adds the embellishment that: “Depuis mon arrivée au Caire, toutes les histoires des Mille et Une Nuits me repassent par la tête, et je vois en rêve tous les dives et les géants déchaînés depuis Salomon.” (1980, 1: 164) [Since my arrival in Cairo, all the stories in the Thousand and One Nights have been running through my head, and I see in imagination all the genies and giants unleashed since the time of Solomon].
Lane relents sufficiently to tell us in his preface that “if the English reader had possessed a close translation of it [‘The Thousand and One Nights; or, Arabian Nights’ Entertainments’] with sufficient illustrative notes, I might almost have spared myself the labour of the present undertaking.” (1963, p. xxv)
While Thackeray exhorts all those who “loved the ‘Arabian Nights’ in their youth” to try a trip to the East:
It is wonderful ... how like it is; you may imagine you have been in the place before, you seem to know it so well! (Thackeray, 1882, 7: 603)Burton, in the preface to his 1885 translation, begins by remarking crushingly; “I can hardly imagine The Nights being read to any profit by men of the West without commentary”, but goes on to explain that “The student who adds the notes of Lane ... to mine will know as much of the Moslem East and more than many Europeans who have spent half their lives in Orient lands” (Burton, 1885, 1: xvi-xvii).
Just as a copy of the Bible is essential luggage when travelling to the Holy Land, so it aoppears that the Muslim East is incomprehensible without the Arabian Nights.
Nor is this a particularly novel idea. Galland’s translation of the Mille et une Nuit (1704-1717) first appeared in English with a title-page promising “a better Account of the Customs, Manners, and Religion of the Eastern Nations, viz. Tartars, Persians, and Indians, than is to be met with in any Author hitherto published” (Arabian Nights, 1781), and this has been a principal component of their attraction ever since.
Even Fatma Moussa-Mahmoud, concerned as she is to rebuke the prejudices of Western travellers, complains of the modern Middle East:
From Aladdin nightclubs to Harun al-Rashid restaurants, chartered groups are regaled with oriental experience packaged and ready-made. Only the perceptive traveller may suddenly light on an old house with latticed windows and a marble hall of which the fountain is dry, or a row of little shops in a side street in Cairo, Damascus or Baghdad, and see the scene come alive peopled with the familiar characters of the tales. (Caracciolo, 1988, p. 109)In other words, she is quite pleased to perpetuate the notion, just as long as it’s not done in too vulgar a way. Twain also refers to paintings and Thackeray to Eastern pantomimes, but by and large it’s the Nights alone which fulfill this role.
So, what conclusions can we draw from this? In the first section I hoped to demonstrate that there was something a little more complex than European racial prejudice and morbid repressed Victorian sexuality at work in the view various travellers presented of the Middle-Eastern slave-market. The largely fictional literary persona projected by each, and the structural role these descriptions fill in their narratives as a whole, I am suggesting, have as much part to play as any generalised “Western” ideas on race or history.
In the second section I went on to point out that there were various descriptive necessities or topoi in the standard “Journey to the East,” and that these had inspired internally consistent sets of tropes or literary reactions in each of our authors.
By inviting you to imagine yourselves as nineteenth-century travellers in Cairo, I hoped to suggest the vastness and amorphousness of a city which requires, in order to be reduced to sense – at any rate for a reading audience – a certain set of prearranged topics or focuses of interest.
Needless to say, this is not quite the usual way of reading these books. By now you should be reasonably familiar with the basic concepts of Said’s Orientalism, and one could add to this Rana Kabbani’s Europe’s Myths of Orient (1986) – reissued with the disappointing change of title Imperial Fictions (1994).
If not, a few quotations will give something of the line taken by these and other similar books on the material under discussion here.
After quoting some Western accounts of the Sultan’s seraglio in Constantinople, Rana Kabbani says:
This edifice became a metaphor for the whole East, fulfilling as it did a bulk of European fantasy needs. These descriptions were a self-perpetuating topos, repeated and copied again and again since they corresponded exactly to Western expectations. (Kabbani, 1994, p. 18)At first sight, Kabbani’s analysis of the seraglio seems to be making the same points as my quoted descriptions of the slave-market. They serve a larger thematic purpose (as “a metaphor for the whole East”), and are, accordingly, a “self-perpetuating topos.”
My problems with her formulation are, however, twofold: first, it pays no attention to the fact that there really was a “seraglio” in Constantinople, which must have prompted at least some of the details of the description (as with the markets and people of Cairo); secondly, the travellers whom we have been examining do not always take a consistent line on the topoi they describe.
The idea that the accounts of Mark Twain and Alexander Kinglake, for example, contribute to the same “definitive edifice of sexuality and despotism” of “European fantasy needs” (1994, p. 18) seems to me even more of a “self-perpetuating topos” than the attitudes she is summarising.
Their attitudes are internally consistent, I will admit, but they are surely not susceptible to such heady generalisations as this. The main advantage of this new edition of Kabbani’s book is the preface, where she remarks:
One of the reasons I wrote this book was to disprove the commonly-held and oppressive assumption that Western culture is superior to other cultures; that it is somehow more humane, civilised or tolerant, less violent and less misogynistic. (1994, p. viii)This is no doubt a laudable aim, but funnily enough it would not seem alien to some of the writers we have been examining, as it is (more or less) a restatement of the “Reversal of Expectations” motif detected earlier.
As Burton puts it in his Pilgrimage, comparing ‘savage’ and ‘civilised’ mores: “there is degradation, moral and physical, in handiwork compared with the freedom of the Desert. The loom and the file do not conserve courtesy like the sword and the spear; ... and those European nations who were most polished when every gentleman wore a rapier, have become the rudest since Civilisation disarmed them” (1855-56, p. 305).
I don’t claim that this is a particularly subtle distinction on his part but it is asserted with a similar lack of substantiating argument.
Edward Said, predictably, is far more alert to the consequences of his position than this:
… one must repeatedly ask oneself whether what matters in Orientalism is the general group of ideas overriding the mass of material – about which who could deny that they were shot through with doctrines of European superiority, various kinds of racism, imperialism, and the like, dogmatic views of ‘the Oriental’ as a kind of ideal and unchanging abstraction? – or the much more varied work produced by almost uncountable individual writers, whom one would take up as individual instances of authors dealing with the Orient. (Said, 1985, p. 8)
This is certainly the right question to ask, and one can understand his reasons for choosing the first of these approaches, and for the further distinction he makes between “pure and political knowledge” (1985, p. 9).
I’m a bit worried, though, that the pendulum has swung too far from the “detailed and atomistic analyses” (1985, p. 8) which he sees as typical of the second approach, towards the “coarse polemic” which is the great pitfall of the first.
At this point I think it would be interesting to return to the Arabian Nights. It is true, as we have seen, that our authors seem to agree that this text constitutes the master-key to an understanding of the Orient. Rana Kabbani suggests that this delusion may be due “to the numerous descriptions in the stories of real physical objects. Thus it produced in the European reader’s already susceptible imagination a strange ‘sense of reality in the midst of unreality.’“ (1994, p. 29). She goes on to stress that:
The collection of stories commonly referred to as the “Arabian Nights” was never a definitive text in Arabic literature as is generally supposed by a Western reader. (Kabbani, 1994, p. 23)But what if this very diversity were the point?
The English-speaking world in the nineteenth century was dominated by three great versions of the Nights: the various English translations of Galland’s French, Lane’s scholarly but heavily expurgated translation from the Arabic (1839-41), and Burton’s complete, unabridged and unexpurgated translation of 1885, closely modelled on that of his predecessor Payne (1882-84). As an Edinburgh Review critic, quoted by Burton in his “The Biography of the Book and Its Reviewers Reviewed” (Burton, 1886-88, 16: 309-58) remarked in 1886: “The different versions ... have each its proper destination – Galland for the nursery, Lane for the library, Payne for the study, and Burton for the sewers” (16: 348-49).
What all of these versions have in common is, of course, the structure given them by the frame-story. King Scharyar’s determination to marry a new wife every evening and have her executed the next morning, and Scheherazade’s cunning device to save herself and the rest of her sex provide a thread upon which any number of stories can be and have been strung, and – indeed – there is little consistency of choice even in the various translations into Western languages, let alone the manuscript traditions. There are, however, some stories which almost always appear – the body of ten or so inter-nested narratives at the beginning of the Nights which may date back as far as the Persian original.
What if we were to take this as an analogy to the statements of our travellers about the relevance of the Arabian Nights? Note that they are not speaking, for the most part, of individual stories – true, Aladdin is mentioned by Twain (there is a little of Sindbad in his bemused observations of alien customs, also), and Thackeray claims to have observed Ali Baba, Hassan, the Barber and his brothers and a whole series of others – but of the representativeness of the collection as a whole.
Nor is it precisely that they model their narratives on the Nights (though there is certainly something of this in Nerval’s use of ‘realistic’ frames to the two great narratives which dominate his text) – rather it is that in the coincidence of their choice of things to describe, and the various conclusions to be drawn from what is being described, we can see an analogy to the Nights – a book which does not depend on its contents, but its concept, to be recognised.
Nor is the perceived analogy with the Bible in error – just as the Bible represents a literature rather than a unified work, so the Arabian Nights is a compendium – a sort of encyclopaedia of Eastern narrative subject matter and manner.
The Bible is unified, of course, by divine inspiration – its author is God, or our perception of ‘God’ – as are the Nights by their creature and creator (simultaneously), Scheherazade. In conclusion, I ask you what other, more certain master-discourse is available to us in the presence of so disparate a set of individual creators?
Isn't it safer, in the final analysis, to take their statements seriously, and see the election of the Nights to master-discourse of the Orient as a self-fulfilling prophecy? If the Middle East – the Orient – Le Levant – Morgenland – has to be seen as a text requiring commentary (as it surely must by any conscientious travel-writer), the closest pragmatic equivalent to that text is the Thousand and One Nights.
1. “Before nightfall I was accosted, in Turkish, by a one-eyed old fellow ... When I shook my head, he addressed me in Persian. The same manoeuvre made him try Arabic: still he obtained no answer. He then grumbled out good Hindostani. That also failing, he tried successively Pushtu, Armenian, English, French, and Italian. At last I could ‘keep a stiff lip’ no longer ... I turned upon him in Persian ... We then chatted in English, which Haji Akif spoke well, but with all manner of courier’s phrases” (Burton, 1855-56, pp. 475-76).
2. In some cases described in terms of phrenology - as is seen in the illustration of “Bedawi and Wahhabi heads and head-dresses” (Burton, 1855-56, p. 351).
- Arabian Nights Entertainments: Consisting of One Thousand and One Stories, Told by the Sultaness of the Indies, to divert the Sultan from the Execution of a bloody Vow he had made to marry a Lady every day, and have her cut off next Morning, to avenge himself for the Disloyalty of his first Sultaness, &c. Containing a better Account of the Customs, Manners, and Religion of the Eastern Nations, viz. Tartars, Persians, and Indians, than is to be met with in any Author hitherto published. Translated into French from the Arabian Mss. by M. Galland of the Royal Academy, and now done into English from the last Paris Edition. (1781). 1706-17. 16th ed. 4 vols. London & Edinburgh: C. Elliot.
- Burton, Richard F. (1855-56). Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah. 1855-56. Ed. J. M. Scott. Geneva: Heron, n.d.
- Burton, Richard F. (1893). Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah & Meccah. Memorial Edition. Ed. Isabel Burton. 2 vols. London: Tylston and Edwards.
- Burton, Richard F, trans. (1885). A Plain and Literal Translation of The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, Now Entituled The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night: With Introduction, Explanatory Notes on the Manners and Customs of Moslem Men and a Terminal Essay upon the History of the Nights. 10 vols. Benares [= Stoke-Newington]: Kamashastra Society. N.p. [= Boston]: The Burton Club, n.d.
- Burton, Richard F., trans. (1886-88). Supplemental Nights to the Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night with Notes Anthropological and Explanatory. 6 vols. Benares [= Stoke-Newington]: Kamashastra Society. 7 vols . N.p. [= Boston]: The Burton Club, n.d.
- Herold, J. Christopher. (1962). Bonaparte in Egypt. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1962.
- Irwin, Robert. (1988). The Arabian Nightmare. 1983. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988.
- Kabbani, Rana. (1994). Imperial Fictions: Europe’s Myths of Orient. London: Pandora.
- Kinglake, A. W. (1936). Eothen, or Traces of Travel brought Home from the East. 1844. Everyman’s Library, 337. London: Dent, New York: Dutton.
- Lane, Edward William. (1963). Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians. Ed. E. Stanley Poole. 1860. Everyman’s Library, 315. London: Dent, New York: Dutton.
- Moussa-Mahmoud, Fatma (1988). English Travellers and the Arabian Nights. In The Arabian Nights in English Literature: Studies in the Reception of The Thousand and One Nights into British Culture. Ed. Peter Caracciolo. London: Macmillan. Pp. 95-110.
- Nerval, Gérard de. (1973). Journey to the Orient. Trans. Norman Glass. 1972. St Albans: Panther.
- Nerval, Gérard de. (1980). Voyage en Orient. 1851. Ed. Michel Jeanneret. 2 vols. Paris: Garnier-Flammarion.
- Said, Edward W. (1985). Orientalism. 1978. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
- Thackeray, W. M. (1882). Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo, by way of Lisbon, Athens, Constantinople, and Jerusalem: Performed in the Steamers of the Peninsular and Oriental Company. 1846. The Works of William Makepeace Thackeray. 12 vols. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 7: 559-706.
- Twain, Mark. (1869). The Innocents Abroad. London: Collins, n.d.
[This paper, under the title “Voyage en Orient – The Victorian Traveller and the Arabian Nights” was read at the 16th Australasian Victorian Studies Conference at La Trobe University on 7 February, 1995.]