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March 13, 2013


Figure 1: Gustave Flaubert around the age of 30 years. He went to Egypt in 1849 when he was 29 years.

In the next articles on the subject of “The Convent of the Pulley”, I would like to present to my reader the various encounters and accounts of Western travellers to Egypt with the Coptic monks of Gabal al-Tayr, as they sailed up and down the Nile. I find these accounts fascinating, but I read them with some sadness and anger: sadness, because the Coptic situation in the 19th century was so bad so as to reduce the Coptic monks of Gabal al-Tayr to degrading poverty and expose them to such humiliation; and, angry, for the same reason, but also because the way Muslim sailors, and some Western tourists, treated them.  But as the reader will see for himself, not all Western travellers are the same: some saw in these monks more than what the unsympathetic eye would meet: they saw in them fine figures of a fine people which descended from a fine race that has been reduced by oppression to a pitiful state – and they lamented that.

But let us start that by the encounter of the French writer and great novelist, Gustave Flaubert (1821 – 1880), which one can find in his travel notes and letters.[1] Flaubert was not unfamiliar with the Copts: even before he travelled to Egypt in 1849-1850, he had written La Tentation de Saint Antoine (The Temptations of Saint Antony), and when he was in Cairo he visited the Coptic Patriarch Peter VII (1809 – 1852) who impressed him immensely.[2] But Flaubert was not a man of religion or human sympathies, and as his diaries in Egypt testify, he was more interested in pursuing his pleasures than anything else. His account of the Coptic monks of Gabal al-Tayr is lively and vivid, and though I deplore the words he used, I find it very interesting. I reproduce it below for my reader (the notes are mine):

… at a place called Gebel el-Teir we had an amusing sight. On the top of a hill overlooking the Nile there is a Coptic monastery, whose monks have the habit, as soon as they see a boatload of tourists, of running down, throwing themselves in the water, and swimming out to ask for alms. Everyone who passes is assailed by them. You see these fellows, totally naked, rushing down their perpendicular cliffs and swimming towards you as fast as they can, shouting: ‘Baksheesh, baksheesh, cawadja[3] christiani!’ And since there are many caves in the cliff at this particular spot, echo repeats ‘Cawadja, cawadja!’ loud as a cannon. Vultures and eagles were flying overhead, the boat was darting through the water, its two great sails very full. At that moment one of our sailors, the clown of the crew,[4] began to dance a naked, lascivious dance that consisted of an attempt to bugger himself. To drive off the Christians he showed them his prick and his arse pretending to piss and shit on their heads (they were clinging to the sides of the cange[5]). The other sailors shouted insults at them, repeating the names of Allah and Mohammed. Some hit them with sticks, others with ropes; Joseph[6] rapped their knuckles with his kitchen tongs. It was a tutti[7] of cudgelings[8], pricks, bare arses, yells and laughter. As soon as they were given money they put it in their mouths and returned home via the route they had come. If they weren’t greeted with a good beating, the boats would be assailed by such hordes of them that there would be danger of capsizing.[9]

[1] Flaubert in Egypt: a sensibility on tour: a narrative drawn from Gustave Flaubert’s travel notes & letters translated from the French and edited by Francis Steegmuller (The Bodley Head Ltd; London; 1972).

[2] Flaubert in Egypt; pp. 72-74. Also, see our article: The encounter of the French Novelist Gustave Flaubert with the Coptic Patriarch Peter VII (Boutros or Butrus el-Gawli) (20 September 2011).

[3] Cawadja or khawaja is a term used by Egyptians to indicate Europeans. Originally, it was used in the Middle Ages to mean ‘trader’. In Upper Egypt, the term has been used by Muslims to indicate Coptic Christians and Christian Europeans.

[4] Maxime du Camp, who was Flaubert’s friend and travelled with him to Egypt, identifies this crew member as Schimi. I cannot identify the original Arabic name. About Schimi, du Camp writes: “Schimi, who deserted at Assuit, at the very beginning of the trip. He was a very merry little man, an intrepid dancer, a great mimic and teller of jokes … Almost drowned every time he had to go in the water: he couldn’t swim. Showing his phallus to the Coptic monks who swam around us at Gebel et-Teir. Lazy; a bad sailor.” SeeAppendix: ‘The Crew of the Cange’ by Maxime du Camp, in Flaubert in Egypt; p. 226.

[5] Cange is a small sailing boat, smaller than a dahabiya. The word is derived from the Arabic boat called قنجة (Ganja).

[6] A cook of Mediterranean origin.

[7] Tutti is an Italian word which means ‘all’ or ‘together’. It is used to indicate a musical performance in which all the singers or players perform together.

[8] Beatings with a cudgel (a short, thick stick).

[9] Flaubert in Egypt; pp. 126-127.

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