15 - 21 July 1999
Issue No. 438
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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A Diwan of contemporary life (294)How best to travel abroad, where to stay, how to carry oneself socially in a European milieu, how to behave at the dinner table, what places to visit on sightseeing tours, where to go for entertainment and edification. These and many other questions are answered by a prominent Egyptian chief magistrate who travelled widely, observed closely and published his observations in a series of articles for Al-Ahram towards the end of 1920. The judge, Mahmoud Rashad, looked with an Egyptian eye at social life in Europe in the first two decades of the 20th century. He was effusively approving at times, critical at others and occasionally drew comparisons between things at home and in Europe. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk * perused Rashad's travel journals and summed them up in this Diwan instalment
The roving judge
"The venerable Sheikh and eminent scholar, Mahmoud Rashad Bek, former national court chief justice, has written a compelling account of his travels and observations in foreign lands and capitals, and has presented this work to his fellow countrymen who will derive from it much beneficial information and advice. Mahmoud Bek was kind enough to select Al-Ahram to feature accounts from what he called his 'Marseilles journals', since most of the chapters were written in that city. Nevertheless, we will also append his essays on his travels in the rest of France and Italy."
With this prelude, Al-Ahram introduces a new feature column, which appeared in the newspaper at the end of 1920. It would not be amiss to describe Rashad's work as the 20th century's version of Sheikh Rifa'a El-Tahtawi's Takhlis Al-Ibriz fi Talkhis Bariz (The golden quintessence of Paris), which appeared 90 years previously. Both works share the same spirit of discovery, the same sharpness, the same attention to detail with a critical Egyptian eye, as well as the unmistakable admiration for the West which exudes between the lines. One could well say that the former chief magistrate was an accomplished apprentice to the author of Takhlis Al-Ibriz. Mahmoud Rashad Bek offers a fresh Egyptian insight into European society in the first quarter of the 20th century and it is the well ordered mind of a chief justice that makes it so accessible.
Naturally, the early essays address what any tourist might first encounter in Europe: the hotels, the food, the cafés and, of course, the means of transportation. As the title of his essays, "The observations of a tourist and tips from a critic" suggests, his first travelogue took the form of a guide book. His first advice to prospective Egyptian followers in his footsteps is to book a hotel in advance: "Before departing from Egypt, select one of the reputed hotels and wire them to reserve a room, specifying the precise date of your arrival. Whether or not you receive an answer, when you arrive, go directly to that hotel. You will most likely find that your room is ready." Once having confirmed that the hotel has indeed made your reservation, the next step is to seek out the management and negotiate the price. "If you do not negotiate a price beforehand," he cautions, "they will charge you double or triple the regular rate and when your bill comes you will have no alternative but to pay."
He tells his readers to lock the door to their hotel room at night and "bolt it from the inside." Also, he writes, "Never leave the key in the door, even when leaving on the smallest errand. There are hotel thieves just as there are house burglars. Indeed, some thieves reside in the hotels posing as ordinary guests. Should an open door to a vacant room present itself, they will seize the opportunity to enter the room and steal everything they can lay their hands on, particularly suitcases. Then, they will mix the stolen items along with their own belongings, ask for the bill and leave instantly, carrying with them an assortment of luggage of their own and of others containing an easily acquired booty. In France they call such thieves 'hotel rats'."
The author of the Marseilles journals then offers his readers tips on etiquette abroad. The Egyptian tourist should not make excessive noise at night because hotel guests in Europe hate having their sleep disturbed. They should enter hotel lobbies and reception areas with composed, unpretentious dignity, and "take care to soften the tapping of the soles of your shoes on the floor so as not disturb those absorbed in their reading." If the tourist should want to ask someone a question, he should first excuse himself with a polite, "Pardonnez moi," and then thank his interlocutor by saying, "Merci." Rashad Bek adds, "One might hear people exchanging the words 'pardon' and 'merci' twenty times a day. However the sensible person will use them wisely and in good measure."
The second instalment of the Marseilles journals was devoted to proper table manners. When entering the dining room, he cautions, "do not stare at the other diners and, above all, do not look at their food!" When at table, he said, diners should take small mouthfuls and chew with their mouths closed. They should also eat with moderation so as not to invoke scorn for excess or waste. Do not, he enjoins, take the salt with your fingers, but rather with the small spoon allocated for that purpose. "Should such a spoon not be available, you may take the salt from the salt-cellar using the tip of your knife." Diners should also wipe their mouths with the serviette before drinking and from time to time during the meal. Also, he advises, "Do not watch others as they eat and leave other diners in peace. It is not polite at the dinner table to address people you do not know. If you are conversing with someone, then speak in a low voice and keep your conversation to a minimum." Rashad Bek even covers awkward inconveniences at the dinner table such as coughing or sneezing. When coughing, he says, a person should turn away from the dinner table and cover his mouth. "If you must blow your nose, then use a handkerchief, of course, without making excessive noise." Finally, he cautions, "If you have to yawn, cover your mouth with the back of your left hand." He concludes with the homily: "The dining area is a place for reverence and respect. When eating, remember God's grace and benevolence."
The café was, then as it is today, a cornerstone of French social life. In his third journal, Rashad Bek leaves the hotel and takes his readers on a tour of this institution. But, here, too, there are certain rules of etiquette the tourist must follow. Avoid getting up, sitting down and moving about too often, he cautions. "When the waiter arrives, give him all your orders at once, including drinking water, so as not to oblige him to keep coming back to your table. If you do not know the price of a particular item, ask before ordering, for there is no rule prohibiting this question!" He advises Egyptian travellers abroad not to shake hands with everyone they meet. "Good friends you can shake hands with, but not every day and not on every occasion. Also, do not be overly effusive in your greetings or farewells. Not every handshake is a token of affection. A person might shake your hands two, three or four times and kiss your cheeks, but God alone knows what malice for you he may harbour in his heart!"
Rashad Bek cautions against frequenting cafés that do not have a reputation for good management and honest service. "The best coffee houses are those which have a price list posted on their walls," he observes. He also warns of counterfeit currency that coffeehouse waiters sometimes try to pass off. Most waiters are of the lower classes, he notes. "If some impress you with their courtesy, it may well be affected."
In the fourth instalment of his work, Rashad Bek introduces readers to French rail transport, again with a list of do's and don'ts. Passengers, he wrote, should not attempt to occupy any seat that has a hat, shawl, small suitcase or newspaper on it, "for such seats have been clearly taken." As in other public places, "you should not speak to others before being spoken to, and then keep your responses confined to the demands of the question." It is interesting that the author cautioned his compatriots against the dining cars. He explains, "How frequent are the reports from passengers who have returned to their seats only to find all their bags stolen, some containing money or precious jewels worth over 100,000 francs." The alternative: confine yourself to the food trolley which the French call 'provisions de voyage'. These pass through the carriages as the train speeds. "Remember at all times to keep your luggage in view and inspect it from time to time, particularly at stops and as you board or disembark."
Even then, it was possible to reserve seats on the train in advance. Rashad Bek tells his readers that an extra fee was added to the basic cost of the ticket.
In his accounts of his travels, it appears that Mahmoud Rashad found it difficult to confine his observations and descriptions to what he saw, without drawing comparisons with his home country. He devotes his fifth instalment to the churches he visited in France and Italy. Words, he wrote, could not describe "the wonders of architecture, the elegance of the engravings and ornamentation, the beauty of the colours of the stained glass windows and the fine workmanship of the paintings and sculptures."
St. Peter's in Rome was accorded special prominence. This edifice, he wrote, "cost over 600 million gold francs to build, not to mention the thousands of francs that have been and continue to be spent on maintenance and renovations year after year." At St Paul's, he relates to his fellow countrymen, that he was able to see "the two grand columns that were presented to the church by the great Mohamed Ali Pasha." After revealing this little-known fact, he is quick to remind his readers that, in Egypt, too, "we have great mosques that also defy description and overwhelm the heart, such as the mosques of Sultan Hassan, the El-Ashraf, Sultan El-Ghouri, Qalaoun, Mohamed Ali and Al-Hakim Bi Amr Illah."
Nor did he pass up the occasion to discuss church visiting etiquette. When entering a church, one should remove all head covering and respect the religious rites and rituals. "Do not draw comparisons between your customs and theirs and do not raise your voice, particularly at times of prayer and services, for that is not a time for discussion, as worshippers are absorbed in their religious devotions." One can only admire the spirit of tolerance of the sheikh and court magistrate who counselled his co-religionists against making judgements during their visits to churches, telling them that "all religions have performed the greatest service for humanity, having tamed man's nature, refined his morals, instilled in him mercy and compassion and diminished the harm and evil he can wreak."
He would draw another comparison with Egypt in his ninth instalment, which he devoted to museums. On this occasion, however, the comparison was not favourable. He expressed his dismay that Egypt, "in its august glory", only has two museums, one in Cairo and the other in Alexandria, while every city in France has a museum of its own, "no less grand in stature and spaciousness and magnificent in design and ornamentation than the Egyptian museum." He takes the occasion to ask, "Why do we not do in Egypt as they do there? Although Egypt is the mother of civilisation, why should the towns in our provinces always be less fortunate than our two capitals, Cairo and Alexandria? Why are these towns deprived of some of the rights that are accorded to these two beautiful cities?"
At the same time, however, Rashad Bek revels at the many ancient Egyptian artifacts he saw in the museums of Europe. "The Louvres in Paris has many Egyptian artifacts on display, but in the British museum there is even a larger collection. Indeed they have allocated several adjacent rooms to these displays, which they call the Egyptian wing, thereby creating a museum within a museum." Nor were Egyptian artifacts confined to these two major museums. In the small museum of the small city of Aix-les-Bains, he writes, he came across "an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus whose fine craftsmanship and vivid colours made it appear as though it were made yesterday. The sarcophagus contains the mummy of the daughter of a pharaoh in such an excellent state of preservation that it seemed as though she had just been placed there that morning."
Before leaving the subject of museums, the writer has a final word of instruction on the benefits of these institutions. Museums, he writes, are not just for spectacle and amusement. They are schools for young and old in the lessons of life through the perspective of history. "Regardless of how staunch an opponent of the fine arts one might be, one visit to a museum is sufficient to inspire one to abandon opposition and to become an admirer of the arts and an advocate of the value of their beauty and splendour."
Churches and museums would not divert this tourist from the theatre, which is the subject of his sixth episode. This art, especially in Paris, "has reached the highest level possible of perfection and emotive effect on the spectator," he wrote. "What can I say about the performances of the finest actors in Paris, the elite of this art, for whatever praise I offer will not do them justice. I have never in my life seen such costumes and such scenery. That is the way acting should be. That is the way the theatre should be."
When going to the theatre in Europe, he tells his readers, he observed that all members of the audience, "young and old, rich and poor, maintain absolute silence as they concentrate with heart and mind on the performance." He continues, "Were one in France or any other European country to whisper to his neighbour during a performance, to utter a sound, to create any form of disturbance or to act in any way contrary to the proper norms of theatre conduct, he would find himself most promptly expelled, regardless of his social standing." He also warns his readers that some plays, particularly comedies and burlesque, can be quite obscene.
In one lengthy episode, he turns to the question of whether music and singing are to be sanctioned or condemned. Rashad was a fervent advocate of the religious acceptability of music. He begins this essay with the following argument: "Some, in their mulishness about religion and their ignorance of human passions and the aspirations of mankind, might assert that music and dance are prohibited. To them we respond with evidence that proves them wrong." Rashad turns for his evidence to Islamic history and relates, "It is written that Omar Ibn al-Khattab (the prophet Mohamed's second successor), on some of his journeys, would command Rabbah the singer to sing. When Rabbah finished singing the verses, Omar would say to him, 'You have performed well, Rabbah, God bless you.' Also, Othman Ibn Affan is said to have had two slave girls to sing for him."
The last sections of the Marseilles journals were devoted to that knowledge gained by day-to-day experience living abroad. He opened the seventh episode with an entreaty to his readers, "Do not be shocked and ask, 'What, do barbershops also need explaining?'" Egyptians touring Europe should take the opportunity to visit the major salons. "Do not let the elegant decor of these places deter you. Enter boldly and without fear. If they have prices posted, then you will be charged like others. If no prices are listed, ask the price before being shaved (for this question is not considered out of the ordinary). Every service, from shaving, to haircuts and massaging the scalp, has a set price, and all these prices are generally affordable."
He does, however, take care to distinguish between "the heir to fortunes who can squander his money left and right and have his hair cut and scalp massaged with cologne, lavender, or fragrant vinegar to his heart's content" and the wise spenders "who spend no more on themselves than necessary, even if they have millions at their disposal." The latter do not have their scalps massaged at all, or if they do, then no more than once a month. In this manner, those with more modest means can spare their money for other expenses and those that are wealthy can dedicate more "to charity, philanthropic deeds, the acquisition of knowledge and the enlightenment of minds." Before leaving the hair salons, he draws his readers' attention to a profession, "that is accorded the same respect as any other profession in Europe and which can only be practised after having received a certificate of training from a specialised institute." This was the practice of manicure and pedicure.
Rashad Bek was also impressed by the way the French treated animals. In the countryside, he relates, the farmers cover the oxen that pull their carts with a white blanket and a thick head covering to protect them from sunstroke. "The farmer is as solicitous of his ox as the miser is protective of his money," he comments. Indeed, "nowhere in France, or in the rest of Europe for that matter, did I see a person treat an animal poorly or stint in ensuring its comfort and well-being."
Turning to recreation, the author of the Marseilles journals expressed his surprise at how tourists could spend the summer in Paris when all its native inhabitants flee to the mountains, the sea, the spas or country homes. In the summer in particular, Parisian water becomes undrinkable and prostitution becomes rampant. "In Montmartre in particular, public morals are virtually dead, as prostitutes crowd the pavements, lurk on corners to solicit every passerby, virtually kidnap men off the streets and harass the clientele in the cafés, parks and places of entertainment."
The venerable Sheikh and former court magistrate probably imagined that all Egyptian tourists to Europe had his moral standards. In all events, as the preceding remarks on Paris in the summer suggest, not everything in Europe was admirable. Some French people were given to taking advantage of foreigners. If a foreigner visits a doctor, he relates, the doctor will attempt to learn as much as possible about his social and financial status. "He will ask him his name, his title, the name of the hotel he is staying at, and if the hotel is one of the prominent hotels and the foreigner is smartly dressed, and the underwear expensive, all these features will inevitably reflect on the bill." Paris, it would appear, was the site of the worst evils. Conditions of public safety were particularly poor. "Theft is rampant night and day. Murder and swindling are of a scale that send shivers up the spine. There are no fewer than 100,000 criminals in Paris alone who sew corruption on the earth." Of course, in expressing his shock, the former magistrate of the Egyptian national court had the contemporary statistics of crime in Cairo in mind. Had he lived today and glanced at the crime pages of the national press, he may have taken a different view.
* The author is a professor of history
and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.