Journey to the Orient

More than just an account of his travels in Cairo, Beirut, and Constantinople in 1843, Gérard de Nerval’s Journey to the Orient is a quest for the unknown. If his narrator seems credulous in his retelling of legends of the origins of the pyramids and the mysteries of the Druzes, it is with this purpose in mind. While the Orientalists of his day were confident of having, in the words of Edward Said, “grasped, appropriated, reduced, and codified” the Orient, Nerval’s Orient remains elusive, impossible to grasp. Poignantly dramatized in the thematic centerpieces of the tales of the Queen of Sheba and the Caliph Hakim, what takes shape in this visionary travelogue, as the author’s hopes are alternately disappointed and rapturously renewed, is the story of the artist’s search for the ideal.

The Women of Cairo

  • Part 1: Coptic Marriages
    1. The Mask and the Veil
    2. A Wedding By Torchlight
    3. Abdullah the Dragoman
    4. The Inconveniences of Celibacy
    5. The Mousky
    6. An Adventure in the Besestain
    7. A Dangerous House
    8. The Wékil
    9. The Garden of Rosetta
  • Part 2: The Slaves
    1. Sunrise
    2. Monsieur Jean
    3. The Khowals
    4. The Khanoum
    5. My Visit to the French Consul
    6. The Dervishes
    7. Domestic Troubles
    8. The Okel of the Jellab
    9. The Cairo Theater
    10. The Barber’s Shop
    11. The Caravan From Mecca
    12. Abd-el-Kerim
    13. The Javanese
  • Part 3: The Harem
    1. The Past and the Future
    2. Life at the Time of the Khamsin
    3. Domestic Duties
    4. First Lessons in Arabic
    5. My Charming Interpreter
    6. The Island of Rhoda
    7. The Viceroy’s Harem
    8. The Mysteries of the Harem
    9. The French Lesson
    10. Choubrah
    11. The Affrits
  • Part 4: The Pyramid
    1. The Climb
    2. The Platform
    3. The Ordeals
    4. Departure
  • Part 5: The Cange
    1. Preparations for the Journey
    2. A Family Celebration
    3. The Mutahir
    4. The Sirafeh
    5. The Forest of Stone
    6. Breakfast in Quarantine
  • Part 6: The Santa-Barbara
    1. A Companion
    2. Lake Menzaleh
    3. The Ketch
    4. Andare sul Mare
    5. Idyll
    6. Diary of the Voyage
    7. Catastrophe
    8. The Menace
    9. The Coast of Palestine
    10. Quarantine
  • Part 7: The Mountain
    1. Father Planchet
    2. The Kief
    3. The Table d’Hôte
    4. The Palace of the Pasha
    5. The Bazaars — The Harbor
    6. The Santon’s Tomb


Druzes and Maronites

  • Part 1: A Prince of Lebanon
    1. The Mountain
    2. A Mixed Village
    3. The Manor
    4. Hunting
    5. Kesrouan
    6. A Battle
  • Part 2: The Prisoner
    1. Morning and Evening
    2. A Visit to the French School
    3. The Akkalé
    4. The Druze Sheik
  • Part 3: The Story of Caliph Hakim
    1. Hashish
    2. The Famine
    3. The Lady of the Kingdom
    4. The Moristan
    5. The Burning of Cairo
    6. The Two Caliphs
    7. The Departure
  • Part 4: The Anti-Lebanon
    1. The Packet
    2. The Pope and His Wife
    3. Lunch at Saint John of Acre
    4. The Adventure of a Man from Marseilles
    5. Dinner With the Pasha
    6. Correspondence (Fragments)
  • Part 5: Epilogue
    1. Constantinople
    2. Galata
    3. Pera


The Nights of Ramadan

  • Part 1: Stamboul and Pera
    1. Balik-Bazar
    2. The Sultan
    3. The Great Cemetery
    4. San-Dimitri
    5. An Adventure in the Seraglio
    6. A Greek Village
    7. Four Portraits
  • Part 2: Theaters and Festivals
    1. Ildiz-Khan
    2. A Visit to Pera
    3. Caragueuz
    4. The Water Drinkers
    5. The Pasha of Scutari
    6. The Dervishes
  • Part 3: The Storytellers
    1. Adoniram
    2. Balkis
    3. The Temple
    4. Mello
    5. The Sea of Bronze
    6. The Apparition
    7. The Underground World
    8. The Pool of Siloam
    9. The Three Companions
    10. The Interview
    11. The King’s Supper
    12. Macbenach
  • Part 4: The Baïram
    1. The Sweet Waters of Asia
    2. The Eve of the Great Baïram
    3. Feasts in the Seraglio
    4. The Atmeïdan


1. The Mask and the Veil

Throughout the length and breadth of the Levant, there is no town where women are more utterly and completely veiled than at Cairo. At Constantinople, at Smyrna, through a veil of white or black gauze, it is occasionally possible to catch a glimpse of the face of some Muslim beauty. No matter how severe the laws may be, they seldom succeed in rendering that delicate tissue any more opaque. The veiled beauties are like graceful and coquettish nuns who, though they have consecrated themselves to the service of a single spouse, yet do not think it amiss to spare an occasional thought for the world. Egypt, serious and devout, is still the land of enigmas and mysteries. There, beauty surrounds itself, as it has ever done, with veils and coverings, a depressing habit that soon discourages the frivolous European. After a week, he has had enough of Cairo, and hurries off to the cataracts of the Nile, where fresh disappointments are in store for him, though he will never admit it.

To the initiate of ancient days, patience was the greatest of all virtues. Why should we be in such a hurry? Rather let us stay and try to raise a corner of that austere veil which the goddess of Saïs wears. Besides, though we are in a land where women are supposed to be prisoners, we see thousands of them in the bazaars, streets, and gardens, strolling alone or in couples, or with a child. In actual fact, they enjoy more liberty than European women. It is true that women of position go out, perched up on donkeys, where nobody can get at them; but even in our own land, women of a corresponding rank hardly ever go out except in a carriage. There is certainly the veil, but possibly it is not such a ferocious obstacle as might be imagined.

Among the rich Arabic and Turkish costumes which the reform movement has spared, the mysterious dress of the women gives to the crowd which throngs the streets the lively appearance of a fancy dress ball, though the shade of the dominoes only varies between black and blue. Ladies of distinction veil their forms beneath a habbarah of light silk, and women of the people wear a simple tunic of wool or cotton (khamiss), with all the grace of an ancient statue. There is scope for the imagination in this disguise, and it does not extend to all their charms. Beautiful hands adorned with talismanic rings, and silver bracelets; sometimes alabasterlike arms escaping from the broad sleeves pulled back over the shoulder; bare feet, laden with rings, which leave their slippers at every step, while the heels clatter along with a silvery tinkle — all these we may admire, divine, surprise, without annoying the crowd, or causing any embarrassment to the woman herself. Sometimes, the folds of the veil, with its white and blue check, which covers the head, and shoulders, get slightly out of position, and the light, passing between it and the long mask which they call borghot, gives us a glimpse of a charming brow over which the brown hair falls in closely bound ringlets, like those we have seen in busts of Cleopatra; or a tiny, well-shaped ear, from which clusters of golden sequins, or a jewel of turquoise and silver filigree, dangle over cheeks and neck. It is then we feel impelled to ask a question of the veiled Egyptian’s eyes, and that is the moment of greatest danger. The mask is made of a narrow long piece of black horsehair, and it falls from head to feet, pierced by two holes, like the hooded cloak of a penitent. A few tiny bright rings are threaded in the space between the forehead and the long part of the mask, and from behind that rampart, ardent eyes await you, with all the seductions they can borrow from art. The eyebrow, the socket of the eye, even the inner side of the eyelid, are brightened by some coloring matter, and it would be impossible for a woman to make more of that small part of her person which she is permitted to show.

When I first came here, I did not quite understand what the attraction could be about the mystery with which the more interesting half of the people of the Orient enshrouds itself. But a few days sufficed to show me that a woman who knows herself to be the object of attention can usually find an opportunity to let herself be seen if she is beautiful. Those who are not beautiful are wiser to retain their veils, and we cannot be angry with them on that account. This is indeed the country of dreams and of illusions. Ugliness is hidden as if it were a crime, but there is always something to be seen of grace, of beauty, and of youth.

The town itself, like those who dwell in it, unveils its most shady retreats, its most delightful interiors, only by degrees. The evening I arrived at Cairo, I felt mortally discouraged and depressed. Wandering about on donkeyback with a dragoman for company, a few hours sufficed to make me sure that I was about to spend the most tedious six months of all my life, and matters had been arranged in such a way that I could not stay a single day less. “What!” said I to myself, “is this the city of the Thousand and One Nights, the capital of the Fatimite Caliphs and the Sultans?” . . . And I plunged into the inextricable rabbit warren of narrow, dusty streets, through the ragged crowd, the pestering dogs, camels, and donkeys, just at nightfall, which comes quickly here, because of the dust and the great height of the houses.

What could I hope from this confused labyrinth, perhaps as large as Paris or Rome; from these palaces and mosques which are to be numbered in thousands? Doubtless, once upon a time, it was all very splendid and marvelous, but thirty generations have passed, and now the stone is breaking into dust, and the wood is rotting, everywhere. It seems as though one were traveling in a dream through a city of the past where only phantoms dwell, populating it but giving it no life. Each quarter of the city with its battlemented walls, shut in by massive gates like those of the Middle Ages, still retains the appearance which it doubtless had in Saladin’s day; long vaulted passages lead from one street to another, and very often one finds oneself in a street from which there is no way out, and has to return again the way one came. Little by little, every place is shut up: only the cafés still show a light, where the smokers, seated on palm baskets, in the dim light given by tiny wicks floating upon oil, listen to some long story droned out in a nasal voice. But lights begin to appear behind the moucharabys which are wooden grills, curiously worked and carved, that come out over the street and serve as windows. The light which comes from them is not sufficient to guide the wayfarer. Moreover, the hour of curfew is early here, so everyone provides himself with a lantern, and few people are to be met out of doors except Europeans and soldiers going their rounds.

For my own part, I had no idea what I could do in the streets when the curfew hour was past — ten o’clock, to be precise — and I went to bed in a very melancholy frame of mind, telling myself that it would doubtless be the same every day, and giving up all hope of finding any amusement in this fallen capital. As I began to go to sleep, I seemed to hear in some strange way the vague sounds of a bagpipe and a scraping fiddle, sounds extremely irritating to the nerves. In different tones, this persistent music continually repeated the same melodic phrase which brought to my mind the memory of some old carol from Burgundy or Provence. Was I awake or dreaming? It was some time before my mind definitely decided to wake up. It seemed to me that I was being carried to the grave in a manner at once serious and comic, escorted by cantors from the parish church and topers wreathed in vine branches. There was a mixture of patriarchal gaiety and mythological melancholy in this strange concert, in which the solemn strains of the music of the Church formed the basis of a comic air which would have served as a suitable accompaniment to a dance of Corybants. The noise grew louder as it came nearer; I got out of bed still half asleep, and a bright light, coming through the outer trellis of my window, at last told me that the spectacle was of a purely material nature. Nevertheless, there was some degree of reality about my dream. Men, almost naked, wearing wreaths like the wrestlers of antiquity, were fighting with swords and shields in the middle of the crowd. They contented themselves with striking the copper with the steel in time with the music, and then, setting off again, began the same mock combat a little farther on. A number of torches and pyramids of candles carried by children brilliantly lighted up the street, showing the way to a long procession of men and women, the details of which I could not distinguish. Something like a red phantom, wearing a crown of precious stones, advanced slowly between two matrons of grave demeanor, and a group of women in blue dresses brought up the rear, at each stopping place uttering a strident clucking with the weirdest effect.

There was no longer any doubt. It was a marriage. At Paris, in the engravings of citizen Cassas, I had seen a complete picture of these ceremonies. But what I had just seen through my fretted window was not enough to satisfy my curiosity, and I determined that, at all costs, I would go after the procession and observe it more at my leisure. My dragoman Abdullah, when I told him my intention, pretended to be alarmed at my audacity, for he had not much desire to go through the streets in the middle of the night, and talked to me about the dangers of being murdered or beaten. Fortunately I had bought one of those camel hair cloaks which they call machlah, which cover a man from head to foot; with this, and with my long beard, and a handkerchief twisted round my head, the disguise was complete.

(End of Chapter 1, The Mask and the Veil)

Journey to the Orient

This Antipodes edition, first published in 2013, is a republication of The Women of Cairo: Scenes of Life in the Orient, published in two volumes by Harcourt, Brace and Company in 1930. The book was first published in French as Voyage en Orient in 1851.

ISBN: 978-0-9882026-0-3
482 pages

Antipodes books are distributed worldwide by Ingram Content Group

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