Cairo: cure for madness
Gérard de Nerval, Le Caire (Cairo), Paris: Magellan et Cie, Heureux qui comme Travel Collection, no. 13, n.d, 2005. pp205
agellan et Cie have begun publishing a new collection of extracts from the best travel accounts of famous French writers. The compositions are presented in a small, attractive format and feature discrete sections out of a complete oeuvre, accompanied by a short biographical note on the author. So far the collection includes descriptions of Egypt by Gustave Flaubert, Alexandre Dumas, Jean- Jacques Ampère, Théophile Gautier and lastly, Gérard de Nerval's Le Caire, consisting of one long chapter entitled Femmes du Caire (Women of Cairo). Included later in the famous Voyage en Orient, this segment was first serialised in La Revue des Deux Mondes in 1846 and then published as a separate volume in 1848. The Voyage en Orient was published in its final unabridged form in 1851.
Gérard de Nerval decided to travel to the Orient in 1842. Unlike many of his predecessors and his followers he was not attracted by exotic mysteries or ancient stones but was rather looking for a way of making himself scarce in Paris where his reputation had suffered considerable damage. In 1840 he had been the victim of several episodes of madness: convinced that a special star was controlling his destiny he had once undressed in one of Paris's most fashionable streets to obey its order. He then had been seen at the Palais Royal walking a live lobster tied to a blue ribbon.
These incidents and other similar ones landed him in the private clinic of Dr Blanche, a famous psychiatrist, where he was interned for a while. On his return to the Paris scene, Nerval pretended that these bouts of insanity were nothing but flights of excessive fantasy. The unforgiving Tout Paris however did not buy it, and he could hear his friends whispering behind his back "Gérard est fou..." (Gérard is mad). Fearing his reputation terminally ruined, the poet felt that to redeem his image he needed to perform an act so worthy of interest that his absurd behaviour would recede into an uncertain background and eventually be forgotten.
He was trying to dream up a scheme to that effect when, to add to his mental confusion, Jenny Colon, an actress for whom he had professed unrequited love, died
suddenly in 1842. Desperate, but intent on preserving his shaky sanity, Nerval decided to flee Paris and embarked on a long voyage which took him to Malta, Constantinople, Cairo, Syria, Cyprus, Rhodes and Smyrna. Of this extended vacation, the description of the two seasons he spent in Cairo has emerged as a masterpiece of travel literature.
In the few past decades, while works of fiction seem to be at a dead end, magic and travel books have regained great favour. Jaded by an over-sexed over-violent, drug-induced over-production of pseudo- literature, readers are turning to a milder kind of dépaysement. Hence the success of travel accounts to countries that are no longer far away but have changed enough to belong to the realm of the imaginary. Nerval's Cairo is so far removed from the one we can observe that it may have been the cavern of Ali Baba or the court of Haroun el-Rashid in eighth- century Baghdad.
This is not to say that Nerval's Le Caire is a particularly original description of what Cairo had on offer under Muhammad Ali. The same "exotic" scenes and portrayals of the inhabitants can be found in the works of many of his contemporaries, such as those of Flaubert and especially of E.W. Lane, whose study of the Egyptians remains a classic today. Nerval, however, colours his observations with his very special poetical gift. The costumes are a topic demanding great verbal accuracy; the women glimpsed behind the mashrabiya or the veil a pretext for controlled lyricism. A Coptic street marriage, the arrival of the Mahmal, the whirling dervishes, the Dozeh ceremony, are the occasion to display his extraordinary mastery of words. The scenes, described a hundred times by others are suddenly clothed in a new brilliance, as many jewelled miniatures on offer
for the first time.
Is he still insane? Hardly, if one considers the length to which he goes to ensure that he is not cheated out of the rent for a house in the Coptic quarter or the price for a "bride" (or slave, whichever comes cheaper). He is willing to acquire a female companion because his landowner will not have a bachelor in her house, and he likes his new accommodation (much less expensive than the Hotel Waghorn, popular with the British, or Domergue, the preserve of the French, where he was led at first). But, just as importantly, a woman will do the work of a cook and a servant, a thriftier proposition in the long run, compensating for his initial investment. To say that he is always careful with his money is an understatement: all along he displays a healthy French respect for parsimonious living and proves unusually gifted in the art of economizing, studying (and describing) the many ways by which he can make his money last longer.
He claims that he is forced to frugality by his desire to stay in Cairo for an extra season, but it is rather obvious that, far from making him uncomfortable, such a trend is consistent with his inner tendencies. Nerval is, moreover, abundantly endowed with the racism of his time, a reason why he favours buying a slave over marrying an "African" whether Christian or otherwise. There is never any question that he might consider keeping the "creature" beyond his stay in Cairo. Shopping for the woman is nevertheless a protracted affair.
His portrayals of Nubian, Abyssinian and black women in general would give hives to the least politically correct reader of our times: "To look at these misshapen forms that one has unfortunately to admit are human, one is philanthropically sorry to have sometimes lacked respect for the monkey, this unacknowledged relative of ours that our racial pride continues to discredit. The movements and attitudes [of the Nubian women] increased the resemblance and I noticed that even their foot, elongated and overdeveloped, undoubtedly by their habit of climbing trees, linked them visibly to the quadrumanous family."
During a visit to the Teatro del Cairo, which he incidentally finds quite shabby, not unlike a second-rate provincial theatre in France, he sighs: "...I was overjoyed after all the black faces that I had seen during the day to rest my eyes on beauties that were simply sallow. Had I felt less benevolent, I could have complained about their over-dyed lids, their cheeks painted red and decorated with beauty spots in last century's fashion, their unattractively hennaed palms." Instead, he admits that he is impressed by the abundance of expensive jewellery, shining silks and satins and the peacock plumes replacing the hair on the heads of the observing Jewesses.
Apart from skin colour, he is particularly concerned with the religion of the people he meets, placing the Muslims at the bottom of the scale, after the Greeks, the Armenians, the Jews and the Copts. Rich Muslims like Abdel-Kerim, the slave merchant, are however deserving of respect: a dash of envy creeps into the narrative as the poet witnesses the personality, authority and wealth this particular "musulman" commands. The grandeur of his house vouches for the importance of the person. On the whole, it is safe to assume that Nerval has more admiration for Cairo's Islamic architectural heritage than for its people, who inspire in him a nervous curiosity but no empathy. The discovery of the ruined mosque of Al-Hakim, near Bab el-Nasr, fires his fancy, and one detects a reluctant but tangible admiration in the pages he devotes to the mad third Caliph who proclaimed his own divinity.
If Nerval displays a reasonable knowledge of Islamic history, his interest in the county's Pharaonic past is less than informed: considering that he visited Egypt in the third decade following the publication of La Description de L'Egypte and a good twenty years after Champollion's work on hieroglyphics became known in France, his conversation with a "learned" sheikh over the origins of the Giza Pyramids or his beliefs about mummies (shared by the French consul) are at least surprising. Has he not heard? He probably has, but finds the bizarre legend of the antediluvian king who built the pyramids to protect his subjects from the shattering of the sky over their heads provoking a mighty flood more poetically stimulating.
And this is finally what Le Caire is all about. Nerval has nothing new to say, but he says it so beautifully that the reader, lulled by the music of the words and the richness of the imagery they conjure up, suspends critical judgment for a fleeting moment.
Reviewed by Fayza Hassan