Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
By Harriet Martineau (1802–1876)
From Eastern Life, Past and Present

AFTER an early cup of coffee, we usually mounted our donkeys for a ride of two hours before the table-d’hôte breakfast. I like donkey-riding in Cairo. I never tried it out of Egypt, except for a few miles in Palestine; but I do not suppose it is the same thing anywhere else. The creatures are full of activity; and their amble is a pleasant pace in the streets. Side saddles, more or less tattered, may be hired with Cairo donkeys now. Mrs. Y. took her saddle from England; and I was fortunate enough to buy one, in good repair, on my arrival at Cairo, which would serve for either horse or donkey. The little rogues of donkey-boys were always ready and eager, close by the hotel,—hustling each other to get the preference,—one displaying his English with “God save the Queen ros bif”; another smiling amiably in one’s face; and others kicking and cuffing, as people who had a prior right, and must relieve us of encroachers. Then off we went briskly through the Ezbekeeyeh, under the acacias, past the water-carriers, with their full skins on their left shoulder, and the left hand holding the orifice of the neck, from which they could squirt water into the road, or quietly fill a jar at pleasure;—past the silent smoking party, with their long chibouques or serpentine nargeelehs;—past the barber, shaving the head of a man kneeling and resting his crown on the barber’s lap;—past the veiled woman with her tray of bread,—thin, round cakes;—past the red and white striped mosque, where we looked up to the gallery of the minaret, in the hope of the muezzin coming out to call the men to prayer;—past a handsome house or two, with its rich lattices, its elaborate gateway, and its shade of trees in front, or of shrubs within the court, of which we might obtain a tempting glimpse;—past Shepherd’s hotel, where English gentlemen might be seen going in and out, or chatting before the door;—past a row of artisan dwellings, where the joiner, the weaver, and the maker of slippers were at work, with their oriental tools, and in their graceful oriental postures;—and then into the bazaars. But before I had reached the bazaars, I was generally in a state of vexation with myself for my carelessness about surrounding objects. I hardly know what it is in these Eastern countries which disposes one to reverie; but I verily thought, the whole journey through, and especially at Cairo, that I was losing my observing faculties,—so often had I to rouse myself, or to be roused by others, to heed what was before my eyes. I did not find it so on our route to Egypt, nor in crossing France on our return; so my own experience would lead me to suppose that there is something in the aspect of Oriental life and scenery which meets and stimulates some of one’s earliest and deepest associations, and engages some of one’s higher mental faculties too much to leave the lower free. The conflict was not agreeable, however;—the longing to have for one’s own for ever every exquisite feature of the scene; and presently, the discovery that one had passed through half a dozen alleys without seeing anything at all;—and all for pondering something which might be as well thought over at home! By dint of incessant self-flapping and endless rides, however, I arrived at last at knowing and remembering almost every peculiar object at Cairo;—of such, I mean, as offer themselves to the eye in the streets. I really do not know how I can convey my own impression of what I saw so well as in the words of my memoranda put down at the time. “Cairo streets are wholly indescribable; their narrowness, antiquity, sharp lights, and arcades of gloom, carved lattices, mat awnings, mixture of hubbub and fatalist quietude in the people, to whom loss of sight appears a matter of course; the modes of buying and selling—all are in my mind, but cannot be set down.” Again: “Went with my party to shop: a most amusing affair. I bought a Tuscan straw hat for 4s. 6d., while a common and not large saucepan, copper tinned, was priced 12s. It was awkward waiting while Mr. E. bought brown shoes,—the way was so narrow, and our donkeys were five, and horses and laden camels were continually passing, thrusting us among the very merchandise: and then there was the smart and repeated crack of the courbash, which gives warning that a carriage is coming, and that we must plunge into the nearest alley: and then there was a cart or two; and all the while there was some staring, though not much, and clouds of flies from a fruiterer’s shop.” The tranquil slowness with which the tradespeople (who all looked, to my eyes, like kings and princes in fairy tales) served any of us gave all the rest many such opportunities of observation. One of the drollest incidents of this kind befel when the gentlemen were in search of some eastern garments for their desert ride. We ladies, with the aid of our dragoman, made our purchases, and returned to the tailor’s,—stood, sat, inquired into the meaning of everything within sight, and wondered at the long delay. It ended in the amusement of finding that the gentlemen had obtained nothing but a lesson, and some practice in trying on eastern garments. After a world of effort, and of tying and hooking, and inquiring of prices, it came out that the clothes were second-hand; and they were pulled off much more quickly than they were put on.
  Carriages are quite alarming in Cairo, which was not built for the passage of anything so large. They are very peremptory, having no idea of stopping for anybody. Notice of their approach is given by the crack of the courbash of the outrider who precedes them; any one who does not get out of the way on that signal must take the consequences. On comes the vehicle, jolting and rocking, and filling the narrow way; and young and old, blind and seeing, must squeeze themselves up against the bazaar front; and a loaded camel must meet the shock as it may. It is worse, however, to ride in one than to meet it. In our drive to the hareem which we visited, we were kept in a continual agony, so many were the people we drove against. The keeping of carriages was much on the increase before there was any provision for them. A friend of mine found one in his street when he went to live there, four years and a half before my visit; and now there are twenty-four or twenty-five, making the passage of the street very hazardous. Since I left Cairo, a wide street has been begun, extending from the Ezbekeeyeh to the Citadel: a great convenience to the Pasha and the Franks, but a ruinous innovation upon the oriental appearance of the city. The Frank residents, however, now give up the orientalism of Cairo, and I was perpetually told by them that I was looking at a half-European city; but my own impression is that it is as like as possible to the pictures in the Arabian Nights: so that, of all the cities that I have seen, Cairo is the one which may be the most easily imagined at a distance, in a superficial way,—provided the notions of a mosque, a bazaar, and an eastern house are once obtained from pictures. The one unimaginable circumstance is the atmosphere. No conception of the light, shade, and colour can be conveyed; and they are an hourly surprise to the stranger in Cairo, to the last.  2

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