Thursday, January 31, 2013

Thackeray´s Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo

I recently finished reading ¨Orientalism¨ by the Palestinian scholar Edward Said. This book is an examination of European attitudes toward the East, from Arabia to China, but mostly centring on the Arab world. To summarize the work in a phrase is difficult but ¨Michel Foucault goes East¨ might be close enough to give an idea. Regardless of what you might think of Foucault´s ideas or Said´s wisdom in using them, Said knows his business. He seems to have read just about every book on the subject in existence. He treats many in detail and I´d like to focus here on one in particular, a travelogue that he mentions in passing along with more famous authors such as Mark Twain whose ¨Innocents Abroad¨ is often cited these days for a passage that mentions (pre-zionist) Palestine as an empty wasteland, and Richard Burton, the ¨1001 Nights¨ translator and adventurer who, disguised as a Pashtun, smuggled himself into Mecca. What struck my interest in Said´s list of titles however, was a travelogue by William Makepeace Thackeray. Said said it was ¨moderately amusing,¨ which is moderately high praise, coming from him.

The book in question is called ¨Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo¨ and was published in 1845 after Thackeray´s two month journey which touched off in several ports on the Iberian peninsula, some islands in the Mediterranean, Greece, Turkey, Palestine, finally ending at the summit of the great pyramid of Giza. It appeared not long after Thackeray´s novel about the rascally Barry Lyndon, and just a few years before his most famous work, ¨Vanity Fair,¨ about the even rascalier Becky Sharp.

I only got an idea about the contents of the book after I went to my computer and searched around a bit. There was no information on the book beyond a mention of its title, author and year of publication. I was a little surprised as Said´s book is well known, and with his reference to the book in a positive light, slight as it was, I would have thought it would have attracted more attention to itself. There was nothing in Wikipedia, an oversight I might try to correct, but fairly quickly my search led me to a remarkable page which allowed me with the click of a mouse to download the book in its entirety. In several different formats. The internet has such a marvelous potential to make so much available with such ease at so little cost. I was only the 80th person to avail myself of this work. The quality of the scan is not perfect. Little mistakes abound and there are one or two places where the thread of meaning is lost. Here´s an example of what must be the worst:

The terrace Wiore tlie palace was similarly en-dtvacheil U{H»n by these wi^tched habitations. A fii^w luilUons. Judiciously e:!cpended

I should stress this was the exception. Still, I wonder whether these errors spring from a rushed job at scanning, old and crusty source material, or perhaps modern rendering algorithms aren´t suited to archaic fonts and type faces. In any case, the book is there for the taking, and with a few exceptions, easy to read.

Is it worth the read? Yes and no. Thackeray is no expert on the areas he visits; he is a tourist, has more interest in the journey itself and praising the steam ship, the captain and crew, and above all the company which, and hats off to Thackeray´s frankness here, provided him with a free passage. The actual destinations are of secondary importance to him. He frames all that comes before him with the expectations of one who never leaves home, nor has any desire to. This is not to fault Thackeray. He plays the part of the tourist with honesty and wit. He gives us as good an illustration of the tourist´s mind as any. For example, he tells the story of his early morning visit to St. Roch cathedral in Lisbon to see the famous mosaics. (They still draw tourists today.) He arrives only to find the curator still in bed. Instead of waiting, he leaves, doubly pleased with himself. Pleased with his making the effort, and pleased that he is spared trouble of actually seeing and taking in the mosaics.

Thackeray reflects much of the prejudices of his times: the cheapness of the Jews, the horrid sensuality of the Arabs, the obsessing over the different shades of skin in each port, the happy black people, the immanent decline of Islam, and the low value placed on life in general. If Thackeray didn´t see anything directly to back these sorts of assertions, he has plenty of lurid second-hand stories to tell us. All this conforms to Said´s thesis in ¨Orientalism,¨ that the West thinks of the East as the embodiment of the ¨other,¨ derived from some kind of platonic counterpart to the West. It´s not at all difficult to see this same conception of the East in popular culture today. Thackeray still manages to surprise us. The difference between how he views Greece and Turkey couldn´t be more stark. Of Greece, he says ¨the shabbiness of this place actually beats Ireland, and that is a strong word.¨ With Turkey, despite his reservations over the despotic Pasha, he raves over the architecture, the food, the women, the navy, and what may bear the most significance, a detailed account of his visit to a Turkish bath.

Bathing and the importance of hygiene in the 1840s were not what they are today. In the previous century baths were taken maybe once a year, and the hygienic practices that were followed were dubious. Settlers from Europe amused native Americans by their habit of pulling a clean handkerchief from their pocket, blowing their nose into it and carefully refolding the hankie and replacing it as though it contained something precious. Bathing in Thackeray´s time was something relatively new, good not just for hygiene, but cure for illnesses, mental and physical, and even as a punishment for the wrong doer. It was Thackeray, by the way, who coined the term ´the great unwashed´ to refer to the common people. Wikipedia tell us that it was David Urquhart who introduced the Turkish bath to England in 1850, but Thackeray beat him by 5 years, at least on paper. The mystery and indulgence of the Turkish bath is clearly the highlight of his travels.

Perhaps another contribution Thackeray makes, this time to the world of literature, is a proto-type for the stock figure of the exert expat Englishman gone native. In this case, he appears late in the book, in Cairo. His name is ¨J,¨ an old school friend of Thackeray´s, and expert on all things Cairene. Though English to the core, he has adopted local dress, customs and mannerisms. He even enjoys the attentions of his own concubine whom Thackeray is delicate enough to refer to as an attractive and seemingly available ¨cook.¨ Such characters are with us today and can be found in exotically-localed works like the James Bond films. They tend to be dispensable and can be forgotten once they´ve made themselves useful by giving the hero some bit of information. The character Henderson in the Bond film, ¨You Only Live Twice¨ is a prefect example. He provides us with a little comic relief, a show case for comfortable exoticism, and to Bond he provides a name, enabling the plot to keep rolling along, and, this accomplished, he is promptly murdered by a gang of ninjas. Thackeray´s ¨J¨ is spared the fate of a murder at the hands of marauding ninjas but is nevertheless forgotten once he leaves Cairo.

Thackeray deserves praise for the laudable religious tolerance he shows. In his time, religious tolerance was not an Englishman´s strong suit. For example, the conversion novel was a popular genre of English fiction. A young spiritually starved Jewish girl escapes from the clutches of the grasping materialistic men who surround her. She meets a fine young Christian man, she converts, they marry and live happily ever after. Thackeray himself contributed to the genre, and as might be expected, he has not much good to say of non-Christian faiths or those who follow them. To be fair though, not much bad is said of them either, and Thackeray bears them no special animosity. He also has the ability to admire female beauty wherever and however it presents itself. His harshest words are reserved for the Christians who congregate in the holy land around Bethlehem. There´s the meddling religious crackpot of an American consul, the Armenians, the Catholics and the Greek Orthodox, all up to their necks in sectarian squabbles. Thackeray leaves the holy land in a disappointed and bitter mood. The trip between the port town of Jaffa (that´s Tel Aviv today) and Bethlehem is noteworthy. It´s the wildest part of the journey and because of the risk of attack from brigands, the party is obliged to travel on horseback in a convoy, escorted by an Arab bodyguard, armed to the teeth and dressed to the nines in flowing robes, whom Thackeray romanticizes shamelessly.

The book ends in Cairo with a remarkable scene on a Nile river boat where, he tells of his first sighting of the pyramids:

¨The distances, which had been grey, were now clothed in purple; and the broad stream was illuminated. As the sun rose higher, the morning blush faded away; the sky was cloudless and pale, and the river and the surrounding landscape were dazzlingly clear. Looking ahead in an hour or two, we saw the Pyramids. Fancy my sensations, dear M – two big ones and a little one!!! There they lay, rosy and solemn in the distance, - those old, majestical, mystical, familiar edifices. Several of us tried to be impressed; but breakfast supervening, a rush was made at the coffee and cold pies, and the sentiment of awe was lost in the scramble for victuals.¨

Thackeray notices his companions are similarly unimpressed and goes on to wonder how ´our organs of veneration have become so withered.´ It´s an odd note to end on, because surely, if the tourist ponders the health of these organs, then he should realize that it´s the traveller on a religious pilgrimage whose veneration is strongest. The only pilgrims he comes across in the journey, however, are some Jews bound for Jerusalem and nobody else in the book is treated to such a verbal drubbing as these fellow passengers. Perhaps there´s a happy medium between the coffee scrambler approaching the pyramids and the single minded pilgrim but Thackeray doesn´t pursue these questions.

Notes on a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo has its points of interest, especially for the Thackeray compleatist, the Orientalist, the historian, the traveller or the tourist. Thackeray makes an amusing and observant travel companion but thankfully, he leaves us at Cairo, not insisting we accompany him all the way back to Cornhill.

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