Flaubert wrote the following letter from Egypt to Dr. Jules Cloquet, a friend of his family. Flaubert was then twenty-eight years old.

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 the back of some kind of four-legged creature. The authorities are so remote from the people that the latter enjoy an unlimited (verbal) freedom. The wildest excesses (as they say in the press) would convey only a feeble notion of the buffoonery that is allowed in the public streets. The clown, in this country, can attain to the sublimest form of cynicism. If Boileau, who found Latin literature indecent, had known Arabic, what would he have said, dear God! Anyway such Arabic scarcely needs a translator to make itself understood; pantomime elucidates any difficult words. It’s not just animals who are used as performers in various obscene tableaux.

For all who observe with any attention, there are many more rediscoveries than there are discoveries. A thousand notions that one had only in an embryonic state grow larger and more distinct, like a memory resurrected. For instance, as soon as we disembarked at Alexandria, I saw before me a living illustration of the anatomy of Egyptian sculpture, high shoulders, long torso, slender legs, and so on. The dances that we have had performed for us are all too hieratic not to be derived from the dances of the old Orient, perpetually young because nothing ever changes there. In this country the Bible is a portrait of contemporary life. Did you know that until a few years ago the death penalty was still imposed on anyone who killed an ox? Exactly as it was in the days of Apis! As you can see it is all very beguiling and offers great opportunities for talking nonsense. As for us, we abstain from that as far as we possibly can. If we publish anything, it won’t be until we get back, nothing shall leak out until then. Lavollée asked me for a few articles or extracts from letters for La Revue Orientale. He will have to go without, in spite of my promises, it being my firm intention to publish nothing for many years yet, this for several reasons which I take very seriously and which I shall explain to you later on, my dear friend.


You can guess, from what I have already written, the manner of our life here. We spend all day rambling round the bazaars, the mosques, the tombs. We come back in the evening quite worn out and we sleep like a pair of humming-tops. Sometimes we pause for a meal in a Turkish restaurant. You tear up the meat with your fingers, you dip your bread in the sauce, you drink water from bowls, the vermin runs up the wall and everyone in the room belches fortissimo: it is delightful. You may find it difficult to believe that we have had some excellent meals there and that the coffee has an aroma that could lure you, I mean you, all the way from Paris to Cairo.

translated by Geoffrey Wall

This Issue

August 10, 1995