Friday, February 01, 2013

Richard Burton goes to Alexandria

Most people of my generation think that Richard Burton went to Alexandria disguised as a Roman consul to meet up with Liz Taylor who was disguised as an Egyptian queen.  The best part was hearing Burton speaking Latin while Liz answered in Greek with the occasional outburst in Coptic towards her slaves.  As we are all confused, half of Americans think Alexandria is a movie set in California while the other half think it is a suburb of Washington, D.C.

I now stand corrected having learned that Sir Richard Burton was a translator of the famous The Book of A Thousand Nights and a Night stories into English and traveled in 1853 to Alexandria, which is actually a town at the end of the Nile River in Egypt.  Rather than some aristocratic disguise, however, he chose that of a wandering Muslim Dervish practicing Islamic medicine.  Apparently his hair and complexion were of a sort that could hide his upper crust English upbringing.  He even got himself circumcised to make sure that he would not be mistaken as a European Christian.  His purpose in all this was to immerse himself into the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, being treated as much like a native born Muslim as possible so that he could perform his anthropological and geographical research where no white European was permitted to go ... and without his research specimens having any accurate suspicions.  Perfecting this disguise took some time, however, since it meant being proficient in the squat position while performing various functions, as well as knowing proper ways to eat, to drink, to smoke, to live in the most rustic conditions, and to grovel before those of superior rank.  Managing a slave Arab style was also an art form that wasn't mastered over night.  His proudest achievement was being treated rudely by the officialdom of Egypt as they would any other native rather than being given the due respect required of a Westerner.

The result is a snooty English account of Arab culture from the inside.  It is a bit more pompous than T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) but perhaps even more entertaining.  I suppose Lawrence may have been trying to emulate Burton.

In case anyone has a notion of using Burton's account to teach young-uns about the Middle East, beware:  Burton's account would cause modern educators to go into a hashish-like frenzy, followed by flaying and lynching of the culprit who dared to utter such impieties against the orthodoxy of cultural tolerance.

It is from Burton's Arabian Nights that modern textbooks derive the teaching that Islamic medicine all derived from Galen.  Burton's long winded description of his phony medical practice is undoubtedly the correct picture, as he prescribes one useless medicine after another, but by making the treatment sufficiently rude the victims become convinced that it is effective and willingly part with their money.  He then finds himself with too many clients, and he must turn many people down so that his mission isn't diverted.  Lest we consider him unscrupulous in taking their money, we should note that his attempts to cure people for free aroused a great deal of suspicion, so it proved quite necessary to extort a fee for the services, whether he wanted to or not.

From this lowly viewpoint he has a few grievances with his Father Land.  The most important is that he is able to purchase a legitimate English passport under a phony Arab name for just a few shillings from the British Consulate.  How dare the English sell one of their most precious commodities for so cheap!  An Arab scoundrel does the same and uses his new status to rob his fellow businessmen and abuse them further in the courts.  Burton would certainly have trouble with our modern era where we are willing to spend $250,000 to bribe an indigent foreigner to move to the US, while what can be done with modern lawyers is little improvement.

For a time he attaches himself to an Arab trader of black African slaves in order to learn the business, thinking this knowledge might prove of some future use.  I am just starting this book, and this book is only one of many he wrote, not all of which were published, so I am not in any position to say how this worked out.  One of the great puzzles in my mind, however, is that the trade of black Africans in the Arab countries went on for centuries, but I haven't seen much evidence of black communities in the Arab world.  What happened to all of them?

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