Nerval in Cairo
By Gérard de Nerval
MONSIEUR JEAN: Monsieur Jean is a glorious leftover from our army in Egypt. He was one of the 33 Frenchmen who took service with the Mamluks after the withdrawal of the Expedition. For a few years, he had, like the others, a palace, women, horses and slaves. At the time of the destruction of this powerful militia, he was spared because he was French, but when he returned to civilian life his riches melted away in no time. He thought of selling wine to the public, then a novelty in Egypt where the Christians and the Jews inebriated themselves with brandy and arak and with a sort of beer called bouza. Since then, the wines of Malta, Syria and the Archipelago have been competing with these spirits, and the Muslims of Cairo do not seem to mind this innovation.
Monsieur Jean admired the resolution I had made to escape from life in the hotels. But, he told me, "you will have trouble setting up house. In Cairo, you must have as many servants as you have different needs. Each one of them prides himself on doing only one thing, and in any case they are so lazy that one doubts that this is a viable scheme. Every complicated detail tires them out, or escapes them, and most of them will even abandon you as soon as they have earned something that will allow them to spend a few days doing nothing.
"But what do the locals do?"
"Oh! They let them do as they please and hire two or three people for every job. Anyhow, an effendi always has his secretary with him ( khatibessir ), his treasurer ( khazindar), his pipe-carrier ( tchiboukji ), the selikdar to carry his arms, the seradjbachi to hold his horse, the kahwejibachi to make his coffee wherever he stops, without mentioning the yamaks to help all these people. Inside, you need many others because the doorman won't accept to take care of the apartment, nor the cook to make coffee. You must even have a particular water carrier in your service. It is true that by distributing a piaster or a piaster and a half, that is from twenty-five to thirty cents a day, one is considered a very magnificent master."
"Well!" I said, "all this is still far from the sixty piasters one must pay daily in the hotels."
"But it is a bother which no European can resist."
"I'll try. I will learn."
"They will serve you abominable food."
"I will get acquainted with the country's dishes."
"You will have to keep an account book and discuss the price of everything."
"That will teach me the language."
"You can try. I will send you the most honest among them, and you can choose."
"Are they great thieves?"
"Bilkers at most," the old soldier told me, remembering a word from military language. "Thieves! Egyptians...they don't have enough courage."
I find in general that these poor people of Egypt are despised too much by the Europeans. The Franks of Cairo who now share the privileges of the Turkish race have also acquired the same prejudices. They are poor people and undoubtedly ignorant, and the practice of slavery keeps them in a state of abjection. They are more dreamers than doers and more intelligent than industrious; but I think them kind with a character akin to that of the Hindus, which is also perhaps due to their eating habits which are almost entirely vegetarian. We carnivorous people have much respect for the Tartar and the Bedouin, our kind, and are led to expend our energy against easily led populations.
After leaving Monsieur Jean, I crossed Ezbekieh Square to go to the Hotel Domergue. This is, as we know, a large field situated between the city walls and the houses of the Coptic and Frankish quarter. There are many splendid palaces and hotels there. One especially notices the house where Kléber was assassinated, and that in which the meetings of the Institut d'Egypte took place. A small grove of sycamores and Pharaoh fig trees is linked to the memory of Bonaparte, who had them planted. At the time of the Nile inundation, the square is flooded allowing canges and djermes [boats] painted gold and belonging to the owners of the neighbouring houses to sail on the waters. The annual transformation of a public square into a pleasure lake is not a deterrent to designing gardens and digging canals in it in ordinary times.
I saw a large number of fellahs working in a ditch. The men were digging up the earth, while the women were carrying it away, filling baskets of rice straw with heavy loads. Among the latter there were several young girls, some in blue shirts and others, those of less than eight years old, stark naked, like one usually sees in the villages on the banks of the Nile. Inspectors carrying sticks were supervising the work, hitting the less diligent now and again. All this was under the direction of a sort of military man wearing a red tarbush, shod with strong boots with spurs, dragging a cavalry sword and holding in his hand a whip made of rolled hippopotamus skin. This was intended for the noble shoulders of the inspectors, their sticks in turn being destined for the backs of the fellahs.
The supervisor, seeing me stopping to watch the poor young girls straining under the bags of earth, spoke to me in French. He was yet another fellow countryman. I did not have any impulse to feel sorry for the men being thrashed, which was rather softly done anyway: Africa has different ideas from ours on this point.
"But why," I asked, "make these women and children work?"
"They are not forced to do so," said the inspector in French. "It is the fathers and the husbands who would rather have them work before their eyes than leave them behind in the city. We pay them from 20 paras to one piaster according to their strength. A piaster (25 cents) is generally the price of a man's day's work."
"But why are some of the men chained? Are they prisoners?"
"They are loafers. They prefer to spend their time sleeping or listening to stories in the coffee shops rather than making themselves useful."
"How do they live in that case?"
"People live with so little here. If need be, can't they always find fruit or vegetables to steal in the fields? The government has a lot of trouble getting the more urgent work done, but when it is absolutely necessary a quarter is surrounded, or a street blocked by troops, passers-by are arrested, tied up and led to us. That is all."
"What! Everyone without exception?"
"Oh, everybody. However, once they have been arrested, explanations follow. The Turks and the Franks identify themselves. From the others, those who have money pay up to avoid the corvée. Many give their masters or employers as references. The rest are enrolled and work for a few weeks or a few months according to the importance of the task to be carried out."
What can one say about all this? Egypt is still in the Middle Ages. These corvées were organised in the past by the Mamluk beys. The pasha is today the sole ruler. The fall of the Mamluks has ended individual bondage, that is all.
Extract from Le Caire by Gérard de Nerval, Paris: Magellan et Cie, 2005.
Translated by Fayza Hassan