Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
10 - 16 August 2000
Issue No. 494
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

BOOKS: a monthly supplement of Al-Ahram Weekly

Etiquette for breaching

Harim Mohamed Ali Pasha: Rasa'il Min Al-Qahira (1842-1846) (Mohamed Ali Pasha's Harem: Letters from Cairo [1842-1846]), Sophia Lane-Poole, original title: The Englishwoman in Egypt: Letters from Cairo, written during a Residence there in 1842, 3, & 4; second British edition including letters from the year 1846), introduced and translated by Azza Karrara. Cairo: Sotour Publications, 1999. pp335

H.Matisse, The Harem
Henri Matisse, The Harem
An episode from Mohamed El-Muwailihi's Hadith 'Issa Ibn Hisham, serialised in a Cairene newspaper between 1898 and 1902 before being published in book form in 1907 to eventually become a classic, might serve as a fitting introduction to the task English Orientalist Edward William Lane set his sister Sophia Lane-Poole some 60 years earlier. In El-Muwailihi's text, a pasha who lived in the earlier part of the 19th century returns from the dead several decades later, and is patiently guided through the massive political and socio-cultural changes that have overtaken the country by 'Issa Ibn Hisham, the narrator. Startled to see the Upper Egyptian host of a Cairene wedding scrambling to welcome a group of European tourists to the banquet, the pasha is told that indeed the host would have commissioned either a hotel owner or a turjuman (interpreter-cum-guide) to bring over a certain number of tourists to honour him with their presence. (The turjumans, the pasha's interlocutor adds, usually sell the invitations, leaving the tourists with the impression that in the East, you must pay to be admitted to a wedding.) While the European men take their place among the most distinguished notables, their womenfolk are led to the harem; and no, the pasha's interlocutor explains, the women tourists are not holding gifts but painting and photography equipment to sketch "harem scenes" that, back home, will either be given away as presents or "reproduced in the thousands to be sold in European markets, and published as the object of mockery and scorn."

The commodification of the harem for the purposes of the European consumer of Orientalism witnessed and critiqued in this episode is a late stage of a long-standing quest by Western travellers to penetrate and study the secluded women's quarters. Lane's contacts and his occasional disguise-like donning of "Turkish" costume afforded him access to spheres that would have otherwise been closed to him during his first two sojourns in Egypt (1825-1828 and 1833-1835) which resulted in the encyclopedic Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians. Nevertheless, his access to the harem remained restricted to hearsay, and it was this lacuna that his sister Sophia was to fill when she joined him during his third sojourn in Egypt, in the 1840s. As Sophia Lane-Poole explains in the prefatory note to The Englishwoman in Egypt, it was Lane who, to encourage her to put pen to paper, suggested that she adopt the epistolary genre, imagining that she is writing letters to a friend back home. Lane also allowed his sister to quarry information from his manuscript The Description of Egypt, which was to remain unpublished until a few months ago when the American University in Cairo Press brought it out. As for The Englishwoman in Egypt, this saw two publications after the first, 1844 edition, according to the translator's introduction: an American one, in 1845, and a second British edition in 1846, updated with a description of the wedding of Zeinab Hanem, Mohamed Ali's daughter.

Beyond bringing back into circulation a text that has long been confined to the rare books sections of libraries, when available at all, there is much to commend the Arabic translation. The Arabic rendition deftly combines an elegant, albeit mercifully not the nineteenth century mannered equivalent, fusha (classical) with inspired translations back into 'amiya (colloquial) of quoted direct speech, as in the words of farewell that a group of women ritualistically recite as they prepare the body of the lady of a Cairene Coptic household for burial. Undertaken by Azza Karrara, a professor of English Literature at Alexandria University, this belongs among a tradition of scholarly translation where no effort has been spared in consulting different editions, letters and manuscripts (in this case, in Cambridge and Oxford), tracking down lesser figures such as Sophia's estranged husband Edward Richard Poole, contextualising the work whether in terms of genre or period, and providing footnotes that cross-reference issues raised in the text to (near) contemporary works (like El-Gabarti's, whose quoted views often shed an ironic light on Sophia's).

E W Lane Esq.; Nafissa, Lane's wife
This being quite palpably a labour of love, Karrara is to be given all the more credit for avoiding hagiography in introducing Sophia. Instead, she contrasts the expectations brought to bear on an "ordinary" middle-class English woman such as Sophia against the eccentricity, independence and rebelliousness of other nineteenth century English women travellers who have written about Egypt, such as Harriet Martineau, Florence Nightingale and Emelia Edwards, whose lives and works are briefly delineated. Unlike these women writers, Karrara points out, Sophia did not put her name on the cover of the book, the title page of which announces that the text was written "with E. W. Lane Esq., author of 'the Modern Egyptians' by his sister." The difference in status between Sophia and Nafissa, Lane's wife, is also brought out. A Greek slave given to Lane, Nafissa subsequently travelled with him to England, where Lane tutored then married her, later bringing her back to Egypt. Karrara draws the reader's attention to the fact that Nafissa, being a former slave, never accompanies Sophia on her visits to the harems of the aristocracy. Likewise, Sophia's dogmatism and religious intolerance are neither glossed over nor loudly denounced in the introduction (although Karrara, perhaps under pressure from editors, admits to having occasionally omitted certain phrases that would have caused offense to Copts and Muslims, while retaining the majority of such instances). Designating Sophia as a "child of her time," Karrara elaborates on the Evangelical nature of the British response to the Jacobins in the first part of the nineteenth century and taps into the discourse of the civilising mission.

The choice of the Arabic title, "Mohamed Ali Pasha's Harem," is shrewd, in that Sophia's account of the royal harem is the "scoop" of the book. But the book includes other "subjects," most of which are "set pieces" -- rather than the prattling "varia" of a genuine letter -- inspired by, heavily indebted to or complementing Lane's Manners and Description of Egypt. Far more interesting, however, than the measurements of Pompey's Pillar and the topographical details about Cairo are the ephemera Sophia introduces into her narrative. In the letter of June 1843, mostly devoted to the plague, we learn that some Russian doctors in Mansura had decided to test the means of transmission by having a number of people don the galabiyas of those who had died of the disease in return for five piastres a day. Flooded by the poor of the city anxious to offer their services, the doctors doled out the galabiyas in vain -- even heating the garments resulted in not a single infection; instead, one of the doctors died of the plague. The letters offer lengthy descriptions of all kinds of processions -- the mahmal leaving for Mecca, funeral and wedding processions. More articulate than Sophia waxing indignant at the very young age at which girls are married is the sketch, in the letter of April 1843 given over harem traditions, of a child-bride who treated her own wedding procession as such a lark that she insisted on walking backwards and fanning two of her friends rather than being fanned herself.

As for the harem scenes, replete with descriptions of interiors, resplendent diamond-encrusted costumes and head-gear and exquisite coffee-cups, these are striking by the relative dearth of verbal exchange between Sophia and her hostesses. At least twice in the letters (pp. 64 and 133), Sophia mentions learning Arabic for the purposes of the visits to the harem where the women, even if Turkish is their mother tongue, are bilingual. It is true that Sophia several times explains that it would be a breach of etiquette for her to give close descriptions of the women of the royal family. On the other hand, one must also consider the kind of politics of representation at work in the harem episodes. As Karrara points out, it was probably the fact of Sophia being Lane's sister that guaranteed her such honours as being the only guest taken to survey the trousseau and wedding presents of Zeinab Hanem, Mohamed Ali's daughter. While she seems not to have divulged the fact that she is writing an account of the harem, there is evidence in the text that her hostesses are not unaware of the possibility. During Sophia's visit to the harem of Habib Effendi, former governor of Cairo, after putting questions to her about current affairs, the hostesses ply her for details of the account Mrs G L Damer gave of them in her Diary of a Tour in Greece, Turkey and Egypt (1841). Yet, the underpinnings of certain non-verbal and highly mimetic scenes seem to have escaped her. On her first visit to Mohamed Ali's daughter Nazla Hanem, which took place on the fourth day of the Eid (letter of January 1844), Sophia witnesses a group of women coming to pay their respect. She observes that they are all dressed very simply, with the exception of one who is gorgeously attired, and that, but for suffering the women to silently kiss the hem of her dress or her hand, Nazla Hanem totally ignores them. A translator's footnote suggests that Nazla Hanem's arrogance can be construed as a deliberate attempt to humiliate the visitors who may well be surviving Mameluke women. Quoting El-Gabarti on the exacting treatment of Mameluke women, the translator suggests that the modest dress of the women can be read as a silent protest, while their companion's finery may have been intended as a gesture of defiance.

The Arabic edition of the book gives "Sophia Lane-Poole" as the author's name. Having omitted two "extremely dry" letters taken verbatim from Lane's Description of Egypt which stood out as extrinsic, Karrara feels that her decision to drop "E. W. Lane Esq." while giving long overdue credit to Sophia is justifiable. The magnanimity of the decision is tempered by the fairness of mind whereby Lane re-emerges in "Mrs Poole's" now double-barreled name.

Reviewed by Hala Halim

   Top of page
Front Page