RGSSA Library Catalogue

Saturday 24 May 2014

Edward William Lane

Edward William Lane, An Unprejudiced Man

I'm expecting an exciting contribution to the blog from Sandra, our "distance" cataloguer, but meantime, here is a note for you on what's currently cataloguing at RGSSA:

Lane, Edward William, 1801-1876.
An account of the manners and customs of the modern Egyptians: written in Egypt during the years 1833-1835.
The library holds 2 19th-century editions.
We come across all sorts of hidden gems as Sandra, David B. and I work our way (slowly and painfully!) through the uncatalogued book collection, and it seems a pity not to share some of them with you, So here goes.

"Interior of a Mosque"
Edward William Lane was one of Britain's greatest Arabic scholars of the 19th century. One of his accomplishments was a translation of the Thousand and One Nights (the "Arabian Nights.") If he was working today, we might consider him to be not just a linguist but a social anthropologist. He was also an artist, having worked as a young man under his older brother, Richard, a London lithographer.

His first trip to Egypt in 1825-1828 resulted in a written work and a portfolio of drawings about contemporary Egyptian society, which he failed to get published. However, he went back to Egypt in 1833-1835 in order to flesh out the work. His approach was to immerse himself in the local lifestyle, wearing the native costumes and speaking Arabic.

"Washing Before or After a Meal"
His illustrated account is "a perfect picture of what Lane saw in Egypt in 1833-5. Even twenty-five years later, the people and their habits had in many ways altered more than in several preceding centuries. We can never reconstruct Egypt as Lane saw it, except by reading Lane's description." (Biographical notice, 1890 ed.)
"A Tattooed Girl"
All aspects of the Egyptians' daily life, manners, habits, customs, and costume are described in meticulous detail. Here is his description of the ancient (and apparently already vanishing) custom of perfuming the departing guest:

In the houses of the rich, it used to be a common custom to sprinkle the guest, before he rose to take his leave, with rose-water or orange-flower-water; and to perfume him with the smoke of some odoriferous substance; but of late years this practice has become unfrequent. The scent-bottle, which is called "kumkum," is of plain or gilt silver, or fine brass, or china, or glass; and has a cover pierced with a small hole. The perfuming-vessel, or "mibkhar'ah," is generally of one or the other of the metals above mentioned: the receptacle for the burning charcoal is lined, or half filled, with gypsum-plaster; and its cover is pierced with apertures for the emission of the smoke.

The mibkhar'ah is used last: it is presented by a servant to the visitor or master, who wafts the smoke towards his face, beard, etc., with his right hand. Sometimes it is opened, to emit the smoke more freely. The substance most commonly used in the mibkhar'ah is aloes-wood, or benzoin, or cascarilla-bark. The wood is moistened before it is placed upon the burning coals. Ambergris is also used for the same purpose; but very rarely, and only in the houses of persons of great wealth, as it is extremely costly. As soon as the visitor has been perfumed, he takes his leave; but he should not depart without previously asking permission to do so, and then giving the selám, which is returned to him, and paying other set compliments, to which there are appropriate replies. If he be a person of much higher rank than the master of the house, the latter not only rises, but also accompanies him to the top of the stairs, or to the door of the room, and then commends him to the care of God.

An Ood? What is an Ood? Or is it an Oud?
You may know this, if you're into "world music" (foul expression) or happen to own a painting of an "Oud with Gourds." If you don't, William Lane can certainly enlighten you. It's one of the musical instruments of the Arab world that he describes in great detail and illustrates in the picture below. We'd spell it "oud" today. Look up Google Images if you want 5 million photographs of ouds in glorious or in some cases smudgy digital colour.

The "ood" is a lute, which is played with a plectrum. This has been for many centuries the instrument most commonly used by the best Arab musicians, and is celebrated by numerous poets. Its name (the original signification of which is "wood"), with the article el prefixed to it, is the source whence are derived the terms liuto in Italian, luth in French, lute in English, etc. The length of the ood, as represented in the middle of the accompanying engraving, measuring from the button, or angle of the neck, is twenty-five inches and a half. The body of it is composed of fine deal, with edges, etc., of ebony: the neck of ebony, faced with box and an ebony edge. On the face of the body of the instrument, in which are one large and two small shemsehs of ebony, is glued a piece of fishes' skin, under that part of the chords to which the plectrum is applied, to prevent the wood from being worn away by the plectrum.

The instrument has seven double strings; two to each note. They are of lamb's gut. The order of these double chords is singular: the double chord of the lowest note is that which corresponds to the chord of the highest note in our violins, etc.: next in the scale above this is the fifth (that is, counting the former as the first): then the seventh, second, fourth, sixth, and third. The plectrum is a slip of a vulture's feather.

"A damsel with a dulcimer, in a vision once I saw..."
I always imagined the dulcimer in the poem to be rather like an oud (well, okay, rather like a lute), but according to Lane it's very like a "kánoon" and in his picture that looks like a zither, to me:

So what does he say about it? I'll spare you the enormous detail, but yes, this sounds like a zither: "The 'kánoon' is a kind of dulcimer. ... The kánoon is sometimes made entirely of walnut-wood, with the exception of some ornamental parts. ... In the central part of the face of instrument is a circular piece of wood ... pierced with holes ... The instrument is played with two plectra; one plectrum attached to the fore-finger of each hand ... [and] placed on the knees of the performer." Yeah, okay: zither-like. The ancient zither that we had at home when I was little, passed on by some family friend who didn't want it, was nothing short of cacophonous when twanged by us ignoramuses, but I'm glad to know that Lane felt quite differently: "Under the hands of a skilful player, the kánoon pleases me more than any other Egyptian instrument without an accompaniment". Goodoh!

Many points that Lane describes would have been considered odd or even grotesque by his English contemporaries, but Lane, although sometimes pointing out these features as unusual, is completely unprejudiced, as his biographer recognised, writing that the book "bears the stamp of a character singularly open to the realisation of the genius of a different race from his own". (Biographical notice, 1890 ed.)

Here, in his observations on the wearing of nose rings, we see the typical Lane: not shutting his eyes to the fact that his European contemporaries may judge the phenomenon as grotesque, but nonetheless describing it in a merely factual way:

The "khizám," or nose-ring, commonly called "khuzám," is worn by a few of the women of the lower orders in Cairo, and by many of those in the country towns and villages both of Upper and Lower Egypt. It is most commonly made of brass; is from an inch to an inch and a half in diameter; and has usually three or more coloured glass beads, generally red and blue, attached to it. It is almost always passed through the right ala of the nose; and hangs partly before the mouth; so that the wearer is obliged to hold it up with one hand when she puts anything into her mouth. It is sometimes of gold. This ornament is as ancient as the time of the patriarch Abraham;[1] and is mentioned by Isaiah[2] and by Ezekiel.[3] To those who are unaccustomed to the sight of it, the nose-ring is certainly the reverse of an ornament.
1 See Genesis xxiv. 47, where in our common version, "ear-ring" is improperly put for "nose-ring."
2 Chap. iii. ver. 21.
3 Chap. xvi. ver. 12. Here, again, a mistake is made in our common version, but corrected in the margin.

Don't panic, the text is not spattered with footnotes! He includes them rarely, when he deems them necessary, but the work is itself a primary source. The illustrations, based on his own drawings, are also invaluable witnesses to the lifestyle of the people of Egypt (largely Muslim Arabs, but also Copts and Jews) in the first third of the 19th century.

Studies of ancient Egypt were already in favour and as the century progressed more and more European travellers visited Egypt's great tourist attractions, but Lane takes quite a different approach, seeing the people of modern Egypt in their own right, not merely as periphery to a tour of the ancient sites.

This post was researched and created by Kathy Boyes