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Volume 40, Number 4July/August 1989

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Orientalist Travelers

Written by Michael Simpson
Photographed by Eldon C. Doty

For most Europeans 150 years ago, a simple coach ride to a neighboring town was an adventure. The idea of traveling to the ends of the globe, visiting unknown and exotic realms, was almost beyond imagining, and to the reading public, therefore, there was an irresistible lure in accounts of such travels.

Though good travel literature broadens everybody's horizons, and proverbs say that "travel teaches tolerance", when books written by enterprising European travelers shot into vogue in the 19th century, they brought with them a great potential for international misunderstanding. The genre attracted many untrustworthy scribes. Some were professional yarn-spinners boasting of adventures in which they got the better of strange or dangerous foreigners; others were prejudiced tourists with an eager eye for foreign scenes or customs that might shock their stay-at-home compatriots.

The Arab world in particular received what often seems to be more than its fair share of inaccurate reporting by Western visitors.

Like most travelers in the Middle East today, early 19th-century travelers usually had extremely limited contact with the societies they visited and wrote about. Their European clothes made them appear strange and unattractive, and set them apart from the Middle Easterners they moved among. They rarely lived with local families, which would have been one of the best ways of understanding their surroundings.

Rather, the people they were most likely to get to know were those whose business was to deal with travelers - coachmen, boatmen and hoteliers. Their most constant companions were the ever-present local interpreter-guides, the dragomans. As a result, what they saw and heard of the Middle East included a heavy dose of just those legends and tall stories that the local guides knew would fascinate Europeans, with real or imaginary tales of beautiful women and brutal rulers thrown in.

Compounding the narrowness of their experience, most 19th-century travelers shared the values of their countrymen and their time, including a robust patriotism and a certainty that home ways were best. Few agonized over the rights or wrongs of colonizing other countries, most saw rivalry with other nations as a sign of vitality, and prejudice against the foreigner was seen as a healthy expression of national character.

As a result, travelers often stuck to the stereotypes they carried in their baggage; it was natural for them to single out for emphasis the sights and scenes that confirmed their beliefs, and to overlook those that contradicted them. For travelers like these, to go back and generalize to their compatriots about "the Middle East" was no more likely to be accurate than foreigners making sweeping assertions about the English character on the basis of a tour of the Tower of London and tales of the dealings of King Henry VIII with his six wives.

Yet back in their home countries, travelers were presumed to be instant experts on the places they had visited. They risked acquiring reputations as dullards if they could display no strong opinions to speak of In particular, they were expected to confirm the image of the Middle East purveyed by the romantic literature and the art of the time - that of a sensual, dangerous and above all different place, where travelers were likely to encounter many adventures from which they could extricate themselves only through skill and daring.

The result of all this was a real distortion of non-Western societies in Western travel writing. With regard to the Middle East, the long tradition of European hostility to Islam helped to foster a condescending way of thought that is now commonly described as "Orientalism." This outlook emphasized how different Arabs and Muslims were from Europeans, and asserted or implied that Europeans had more enlightened ideals than the inhabitants of the Orient.

Four of the most famous accounts of the Middle East are those by the Frenchmen Alphonse de Lamartine and Gerard de Nerval, and the Englishmen Alexander Kinglake and William Thackeray. They were different kinds of people: a romantic poet, a Bohemian, a gentleman adventurer and a Victorian novelist.

The four accounts differ in style, yet all are highly readable, so that it is not surprising that they have endured the passage of time. Yet all of them may be more valuable for what they tell the reader about the personalities and ethnocentric leanings of their authors than for what they have to say about the people of the Middle East

The Romantic Poet:

When he visited the Middle East in 1832, Alphonse de Lamartine was already famous as a pioneer of a new kind of romantic and expressive poetry. Yet he was more than merely a literary figure. The son of an aristocrat who had narrowly escaped the guillotine in the French Revolution, he had served in the French diplomatic service and was well-connected to public figures.

His journey to the Levant, on which he was accompanied by his wife and young daughter, lasted for eight months. It was partly a pilgrimage undertaken out of religious devotion and partly a leisurely tour of an area of the world that was mysterious, unknown and potentially beautiful, and which excited Lamartine's poetic imagination for those reasons.

Lamartine traveled in style, with a large retinue, at a gentlemanly and leisurely pace and on carefully planned routes. He was often greeted with great hospitality by local officials and notables, as well as by French expatriates or Arabs with connections to French consulates.

Perhaps because he was less troubled by the isolation and travel worries of other voyagers, Lamartine seems to have enjoyed the trip more than most. The poet was particularly struck by the different kinds of natural beauty that a traveler could find in the Levant. On his arrival off Beirut, he admired the unique "blue and somber hue" of the eastern Mediterranean, and recorded his sense of awe as the Lebanon mountain range loomed in the distance, resembling a work of art by a painter with a consummate sense for pleasing the eye with lines and curves.

In Baalbek, at the Cedars of Lebanon, and in Damascus, Lamartine set eyes on some of the world's most spectacular sights. Of the life of the Bedouin of the desert, he proclaimed, "There is more poetry in one of their days than in the entire life of cities."

Lamartine traveled to Palestine, where he drank from the soft, agreeable waters of the Jordan and walked with wonder through places whose names he had often read in the Bible. On his trips to holy places and monasteries, he was highly impressed by the tolerance shown by the Muslim population and their Turkish rulers toward Christianity. "In this respect," he wrote, "we have greatly calumniated the Muslims. Religious toleration ...is profoundly imprinted in their manners." Monks, he found, were treated with great reverence by both Muslims and Christians, stimulating him to the conclusion that monks were "the happiest, the most respected and the most formidable inhabitants of these regions."

Despite his appreciative eye, however, Lamartine could also be condescending. Writing of a beautiful woman, he mentions that "beauty which exists only in the East: a form perfect as that of a Grecian statue; the soul revealed in a look,... and that sweet innocence of expression which is known only among a primitive people."

In his political comments about the region, Lamartine showed the difficulty that 19th-century travelers had in detaching themselves from the imperial ambitions of their own countries. He looked forward to the break-up of the Ottoman empire, and urged French support for the creation of states based on its religious and ethnic minorities. He also suggested the establishment of European colonies in the area.

And at times, Lamartine forgot the evidence of his own eyes. He had found and noted great religious tolerance among Muslims in the territories he visited, yet he reiterated the Orientalist theme that Islam was oppressive. He urged those who might oppose his ideas, "Do not become the allies of barbarism and Islamism against the more advanced stages of civilization, reason and religion, which they oppress."

Though he had found much of beauty in his trip, Lamartine yet was unable to shed his stereotyped views of the East and his sympathy for the expansion of European power. This was not untypical: Europeans of the period had great confidence that the national ambitions of their countries were inherently virtuous, and they trusted in the enlightenment and learning of their own societies. A visit to the East might cause a traveler to modify some of his impressions, but very few completely abandoned the habits of thought about the Orient with which they had been raised.

The Bohemian

A very different kind of Orientalism was visible in another famous piece of French travel literature, Journey to the East by Gerard de Nerval. He was a 34-year-old French symbolic poet who visited Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Lebanon in 1842. He left behind him a trail of quixotic and unsuccessful ventures in France, where he had run enthusiastically through a substantial inheritance from his grandparents. Much of it had been invested in a theater journal that miscarried. His lack of success in theater circles was compounded by the loss to another man of the actress who had won his heart.

Nerval was an incorrigible dreamer, and it is often difficult to disentangle fact from fantasy in his book.

With his friend Fanfrede, Nerval took in a grand tour of Europe before striking out for the Orient, arriving in Alexandria by boat from Cyprus. Hardly had the boat entered the harbor when it was boarded by an Egyptian guide, Abdallah, in search of European tourists - preferably English ones, who were believed to be wealthier than others. Though Nerval and his friend were not English and did not look particularly affluent, they were quickly spotted as the best alternative prospects by the guide. Abdallah occasionally dissociated himself from their frugality, refusing to visit them in their cheap hotel, and telling them that he would lose his reputation if he were spotted there—but he nonetheless became their regular and persistent companion.

Shortly after arriving in Cairo, Nerval rented a small house. After the neighbors found out that he was a bachelor, he alleges in Journey to the East, he was threatened with eviction unless he acquired either a wife or a slave girl.

This leads to one of the tallest tales of 19th-century travel literature: Nerval's alleged purchase of Zainab, a beautiful slave girl from Java. Letters that Nerval sent to friends in France during his trip show, in fact, that he made no such acquisition.

Nonetheless, Nerval's supposed difficulties with Zainab become a focal point of his book. Affecting the airs of a lady, Zainab refused to adopt the role expected of a slave. She declined to cook, and obliged Nerval to buy her expensive clothes and to take her on outings. When angry, she demanded to be sold to a better master.

After this exotic tale, Nerval aimed next at his reader's sense of mystery. He dwelt on the esoteric legends of the Druze, with which he acquainted himself in Lebanon - where he finally claimed to have divested himself of Zainab. In a practice common among travel writers of his own and earlier centuries, he also recounted colorful Middle Eastern stories and legends of the "Arabian Nights" variety.

This kind of writing reinforced the beliefs of Nerval's French readers that the Middle East was very different from the West. His tales overlooked the normal, everyday life and the moral austerity of the Middle East, and encouraged the impression that it was an exotic and mysterious region where people were free to deviate from the conventional moral standards of Europe.

The Gentleman Adventurer

Alexander Kinglake traveled through the Middle East only two years after Lamartine. He was a young Englishman of 25 whose trip was both an adventure and a personal test of endurance. To his readers he appeared the epitome of a brave, good-humored young man taking on the dangers of the desert and the local population.

After crossing the Austrian border with the Ottoman Empire, bidding adieu to everyone as if he would never see them again, Kinglake headed south through Ottoman lands to a tour of Syria, Palestine and Egypt. Its highlights included getting lost in the barren wasteland near the Dead Sea, crossing the Sinai desert, and, with the aid of a fellow traveler, bluffing his way into a Turkish port by having his ship fire warning shots to impress the local pasha.

The Sinai crossing was a lonely trip under a relentless sun. Carrying meager supplies of bread, water, meat, tea and sugar, with a small quantity of wine and Irish butter, Kinglake's party moved toward a horizon that never seemed to draw closer. There were only four camels: two for Kinglake's servants, one for his supplies and one on which Kinglake himself sat majestically. The four Arabs who had rented him the camels walked alongside on foot.

In the 10 days of traveling, Kinglake records only four meetings with other human beings. They came across an encampment of lean, sad and majestic Bedouin on the first day, but it took four more days before they encountered a large caravan of travelers from Cairo. Kinglake records that these travelers marveled at "the strong wilfulness of the English gentleman" who crossed the desert so nearly alone.

One day Kinglake's party crossed the path of another Englishman sitting upright on his camel, dressed in an English shooting jacket and a full set of European clothes. He was an officer serving in India, who was visiting Palestine on his way back to England. As their camels crossed paths, the two Englishmen formally doffed their caps and waved gravely to each other. Yet unintroduced, neither would take the first step of launching a conversation, and the camels marched on toward opposite horizons.

The travelers' more gregarious attendants would have none of this, and they halted their camels to launch a hearty discourse. Then the Englishmen's camels, seeing that they were getting separated from the other camels, also halted. In the middle of the desert, forced by circumstances, Kinglake and his compatriot finally broke the ice by talking about the plague in Cairo and then dwelling on more pleasant subjects.

Kinglake's return trip took him to Syria, where he visited the baths and cafes of Damascus and marveled at the beauty of "a city of hidden palaces, of copses and gardens, and fountains and bubbling streams ....As a man falls flat, face forward on the brook, that he may drink, and drink again, so Damascus, thirsting forever, lies down with her lips to the stream, and clings to its rushing waters."

Kinglake knew no Arabic, which seriously affected his ability to understand his surroundings. Some of his statements about the Arab and Muslim people he encountered are bizarre: After visiting Bedouins, for example, he makes the extraordinary statement that "the Bedouin ivomen have no religion."

Despite his unfamiliarity with the area, Kinglake's stories often place him in an important role, sometimes being asked through his interpreter to intervene in local disputes. He was aided by aggressive assistants, who were not above administering an occasional horsewhipping to impolite inhabitants. They were expert at browbeating traders, porters and local inhabitants into helping them on the journey. Kinglake was generally tolerant of such behavior, explaining that a person had to be assertive to get results in the Orient.

Kinglake's account of his voyage made him one of England's most celebrated 19th-century travel writers. Readers obtained a vicarious sense of excitement from his adventures. Yet the appeal of this kind of travel literature lay mainly in the behavior of the Englishman at its center. Most readers were unperturbed by the possibility that it might convey an inaccurate impression of the Middle East.

The Victorian Novelist

Another famous 19th-century English visitor to Palestine and Egypt was the Victorian novelist W.M. Thackeray. He was a new, less hardy breed of visitor than Kinglake, traveling in a British group on a P&O steamship that toured the Mediterranean between August and October 1844.

Even more than the traditional overland trek, steamship travel separated the tourist from the local population. For most of the time, Thackeray kept to the company of his fellow countrymen. During shore expeditions, they haggled with boatmen, warded off beggars and dealt warily with guides and shopkeepers.

The trips ashore took in most of the regular tourists haunts - markets, mosques and monuments. Sometimes Thackeray was impressed with local customs. He spoke admiringly of a storyteller in the market at Jaffa who enthralled a crowd of over 100 people, and "delivered his tale with excellent action, voice and volubility." He also cast a humorous eye upon some other Western travelers. The American consul-general in Jerusalem, Thackeray wrote, "expects to see the millennium in three years and has accepted the office of consul at Jerusalem, so as to be on the spot in readiness."

Because of the people around him, however, Thackeray never really left England behind. Even his tale of sighting the Pyramids is one of anticlimax. The Englishmen stood devouring their breakfast of ham, grapes and coffee as they stared nonchalantly at the famous sight. "The truth is that nobody was seriously moved. And why should they, because of an exaggeration of bricks ever so enormous? I confess, for my part, that the Pyramids are very big."

Left with very little eventful to write about, Thackeray filled his account with anecdotes, which often conjured up stereotypes of the local population as harsh or untrustworthy. This was common among travelers, whose accounts were often expanded by tales and summaries of local fiction. The travelers might have argued that this was all harmless entertainment, yet to combine fact and fiction in the same account often left the reader hazy about which was which.

Thackeray himself clearly took some stereotypes of the Middle East seriously. Despite the fact that he had been traveling in Muslim societies that were obviously austere, he could not rid his mind of the notion acquired in England that the Orient was a hotbed of sensuality. Although he witnessed no such behavior himself, he went so far as to state on the basis of hearsay that the Orient should be severely criticized for its deviation from moral standards.

The organized steamship tour that took Thackeray and his companions to the Middle East was an early instance of a new kind of travel. Organized tourism, far from reducing the gulf between travelers and the inhabitants of countries they visited, probably widened it. Europeans abroad may well have been more likely to show an opinionated ignorance of the Middle East when in the company of a dozen compatriots with a similar cast of mind than they would have done on their own among the local population.

In any age, it is not uncommon for people to rush to negative judgements about foreigners with different lifestyles, but 19th-century Europeans did so with a feeling of enormous assurance that they were correct. The publishers and writers of travel literature, like the reading public, wanted to believe in the greatness of their own countries and in their role as apostles of civilization to the world; their self-confidence and moral certainty made it difficult for them to realize their own limitations as observers of foreign peoples. It was rare for a 19th-century traveler to examine features of foreign societies that might compare favorably with their Western equivalents, such as the Middle Eastern extended family with its strong support system for family members.

In our own time, at the end of the 20th century, more Westerners than ever before accept as a matter of principle that stereotyping foreigners - or other "different" ones among us - is a mistake. But in practical terms, progress so far has been very mixed, particularly in overcoming stereotypes of Arabs that are rooted in Western attitudes to the Middle East. Many of these attitudes were shaped long ago by political, military and commercial conflicts that go back even beyond the Crusades.

Stereotypes of foreign peoples have a disturbingly long life span. For Westerners, there is still very little literature available about the Middle East that looks at Arab life as it appears to Arabs themselves. It is literature with that difficult and different viewpoint, unlike most accounts by travelers today or in the 19th century, that is most likely to contribute to greater understanding of the Arab world in the West.

Michael Simpson, a British scholar who holds degrees from Oxford, Princeton and the American University of Beirut, is director of publications at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University.

This article appeared on pages 16-18 of the July/August 1989 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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