Cairo, 15 January 1850
[…] Here we are then, in Egypt, the land of the Pharoahs, the land of the Ptolemies, the kingdom of Cleopatra (as they say in the grand style). Here we are, and here we abide, with our heads shaven as clean as your knee, smoking long pipes and drinking our coffee lying on divans. What can I say? How can I write to you about it? I have scarcely recovered from my initial astonishment.
It is as if you had been dropped fast asleep right into the middle of one of Beethoven’s symphonies, when the brass is deafening, the basses are rumbling away and the flutes are sighing. The detail gets hold of you, grips you tight, squeezes you, and the more engrossing it is the less are you able to take in the ensemble. Then, little by little, it begins to harmonize and fall into place according to the laws of perspective. But for the first few days, may the devil take me, it’s an astounding hubbub of color, and your poor old imagination, as if it were at a firework display, is perpetually dazzled.
As you go walking along with your mouth open gazing at the minarets covered in white storks, the terraces of the houses where weary slaves are stretching out in the sun, the sections of wall that have sycamores growing through them, the little bells on the dromedaries are tinkling in your ears, and great flocks of black goats are making their way along the street, bleating at the horses, the donkeys, and the merchants. As soon as it goes dark, everyone carries his little cloth-covered lantern, and the Pasha’s sais (= footman) run through the streets carrying great blazing torches in their left hands.
There is jostling, there is argument, there are blows, there is rolling about, there is swearing of all kinds, there is shouting in a dozen different languages. The raucous semitic syllables clatter in the air like the sound of a whiplash. You come across every costume in the Orient, you bump into all its peoples (I’m talking about here in Cairo). You see the Greek Orthodox priest with his long beard, going along on his mule, the Arnaute in an embroidered jacket, the Copt in a black turban, the Persian in his fur cloak, the desert Bedouin with his face the color of coffee, walking along solemnly swathed in his white robes. …
In Europe we picture the Arabs as very grave. Here they are very cheerful, very artistic in their gestures and their adornments. Circumcisions and marriages seem to be merely pretexts for rejoicing and music. On those days you hear in the streets the shrill giggling of the Arab women, on their donkeys, all bundled up in their veils, with their elbows out, looking like great black moons rolling along on …
Flaubert wrote this letter from Egypt to Dr. Jules Cloquet, a friend of his family. Flaubert was then twenty-eight years old. Text source: nybooks.com. Translation copyright © 1995 Geoffrey Wall