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The Travelogues of Ahmad Fа̄ris Shidyа̄q

Ahmad Fа̄ris Shidyа̄q


Samuel Lee's rooms, Trinity College, Cambridge—Shidyа̄q worked with him on a translation of the Bible into Arabic.

The valley of qadisha in Lebanon, with a distant view of the Mediterranean Sea.

Istanbul, 1874

A page from Shidyа̄q's Grammatical Exercises and Familiar Dialogues; Istanbul by Edmondo de Amicis; and Valley of Qadisha by John Douglas Woodward (1846-1924) from the New York Public Library.

Fа̄ris Shidyа̄q was born in 1805, in the village of Ashqut in Mount Lebanon, at the time when the Levant was controlled by the Ottoman Empire and when European powers were competing to carve out spheres of influence around the world. He was born into a prominent liturgical and political family of Maronite Christians, whose roots traced back to the holy valley of Qadisha.

Shidyа̄q began his career as a scribe apprenticing with his father, and in his early twenties started out on an intellectual and nomadic journey that spanned continents. He studied in some of the most prominent institutions in Mount Lebanon, Egypt, and England, and with some of the most established scholars of his time. He lived in Alexandria, Cairo, Malta, London, Paris, Tunis, and Istanbul; studied numerous languages; and developed contacts among a diverse network of government officials and scholars. He changed religious loyalties twice, from Catholic to Protestant then to Muslim, not without enduring controversy.

His most memorable works were written and published in exile. In Egypt and Malta, he helped British missionaries translate into Arabic the Book of Common Prayer. Relocating with them to London and Cambridge, he worked for six years on a translation of the Bible. Due to his rowdy behavior, and after he quarreled with the missionaries, Shidyа̄q went to Paris to look for a job; yet was not successful. But in 1855—two years before the publication of his Bible translation—his libertine novel al-Sа̄q ‘ala al-Sа̄q (Leg over Leg) was published by a small press to some fame. Soon after, he converted to Islam, adding Ahmad to his name. In 1860, he relocated to Istanbul.

In Istanbul, Shidyа̄q established one of the most influential Arabic newspapers of the time, al-Jawа̄ib; wrote important treatises on Arabic grammar and lexicography; and published two travelogues, Al Wа̄sitah fī Ma'rifat ahwа̄l Malta and Kashf al-Mukhabba ’min funūn Urūbba. If al-Sа̄q is considered his magnum opus, his travelogues were his most widely read work. They offered a nuanced anthropological account of European cities on the eve of industrial modernity, combining his humor and erudition with attention to local detail and an interest in the lives of ordinary Europeans. He was interested in documenting family connections, religious rituals, and the economic, political, and cultural pursuits of the nineteenth century.

Unlike other writers from the region, who proposed travel to Europe as a way of catching up with progress, Shidyа̄q had a sense of parity with his surroundings. He used his own society as a mirror to critique European civilization, singling out class and racial discrimination and the environmental destruction wrought by industrialization. And, through the European lens, critiqued his own society as well—for their treatment of women and children; and for their superstition, sectarianism, and political injustice. He examined the fashionable notions of progress; and noticed the synchronicities and patterns created by imperial globalization—the similarities between peoples separated by language and geography.

Shidyа̄q died in Istanbul in 1887, and was buried southeast of Beirut, in a Christian cemetery for Ottoman government officials, but in a mausoleum that bore a crescent on its dome.


Clearly, tamaddun, the Arabic word for civilization, derives from madīna, the word for city; and madīna derives from madan, or having a settled lifestyle—which is the proper sense of the word. In his dictionary, al-Firuzabadi got mixed up and derived madīna from two different roots: once under dan (debt), and again under madan. The cognate for tamaddun in foreign languages is the city: expressing the amalgamation of the necessary mental and physical faculties city dwellers must possess, such as when they say, This man is civilized (mutamaddin), which is equivalent to our saying muta’addib.

The concept of civilization has acquired such popularity among Westerners—you hear it bandied about by tongues and pens alike—yet it remains shrouded in obscurity, and its clarity remains a rarity. The craftsman of each specialized vocation believes that the quintessence of his craft is the attainment of civilization. So convinced are they that if, say, a printer or photographer travels to a foreign land and cannot find his particular craft being practiced, he deems that land to be uncivilized. This applies to singers, dancers, and all such artisans.

For them, the opposite of civilization is barbarism, a state where orderliness and organization are lacking. The civilized state applies to the entire peoples of Europe, while the barbaric state is the description they generously bestow on others. It is shocking to think that coercing people to do what makes them uncomfortable—forcing them to dress a certain way or eat certain things—is considered part of being civilized. In my newspaper, al-Jawа̄ib, you can read about such bizarre things, like the repressive measures against the Muslims and Jews of Algeria that would otherwise be denounced by the French themselves (not to mention the English) as being contrary to civilization. Likewise, the dress restrictions placed on the people of Warsaw have been declared uncivilized excess by the English.

The plethora of sciences and inventions that have adorned this century has made it patently clear that civilized nations have a natural predisposition towards savagery, in the form of murder, assassination, theft, kidnapping, conflict, and intrigue. Stranger still is the dearth of such faults and abominations from the very lands they claim are parched of civilization. Some claim that the consequences of civilization are such ills and transgressions; while others hold the view that these ills are antithetical to civilization: In the first case, it would imply from their description of us that we the uncivilized are free of all such ills. While the second implies that we are the civilized ones yet are infiltrated by trolls who are waiting to pounce on any error, which they promptly publicize.

And even though the esteemed city of Istanbul encompasses all the nations of the Earth, it is not known for anything that can be blamed on the mismanagement or negligence of affairs. How then is it possible for the editor of al-Akhbar, the official mouthpiece of the colonial government, to publish stories about Istanbul’s Jews being forced to prostrate themselves in prayer, when this is antithetical to the moral standards that the Ottoman government cares to uphold? For if such a thing could take place right under the emperor’s nose, what could be occurring elsewhere?


I would go to Dr. Lee every day to translate the Bible and then go home and stay there. It did not take more than a few days for my patience to run out. Whereas God had destined for me to be there so as to make people happy by translating the Bible, I found it one of the most miserable of the English villages. Though none of their villages warms the visitor’s heart, as I will explain. All they eat is meat and buttered carrots, or bread mixed with potatoes, cheese and buttermilk, eggs, and cabbage. This list spares us from having to mention everything they lack. And whatever necessities are available are in fact the leftover scraps from what is found in the cities.

It is an English custom for every cluster of villages to have near it a hamlet that sells food, drink, clothing, and furniture, so the villagers go there once a week to procure whatever they need. Sometimes a man blowing a horn will walk through the village at night to alert the village-folk that he is going to the hamlet the following day, so that whoever wants something can hire him to deliver it. Salesmen sometimes also come on wagons to sell things like coffee, tea, or sugar, or bring samples of items that can be sent to customers from their stores. And in such diverse and extremely complex ways, people obtain what they need to live properly. For seafood (which is nearly impossible to find in the villages), they have oysters, crabs, eel, and something they call al-lubstra, which is the tastiest thing to eat there. It looks like a flea, but is bigger in size than the crab. As for fish, they only come into supply once every three months. All of their fish are deformed except for one species that they call sа̄mun, which is tasty—but not when compared to our fish. They often put it in an icebox at night and then display it for sale in the morning, meaning that the fish in question has been dead out of water for longer than it was alive in the sea (and this icebox is only available in the cities).

Those who come to London and see the grand stores, the stupendous architecture, and wealth everywhere, would think the English were all rich and content. But nothing could be further from the truth! The life of the village dweller here is exactly like that in the Levant countryside, if not more squalid. Indeed, one often reads remarkable stories of squalor that one would not encounter anywhere else. There is a story of a weaver who complained about his destitute condition to a lady of the upper classes. He told her: “My lady, I am a weaver and I have a wife and three surviving children out of ten. The rest death took from me. I toil day and night for an income of no more than seven shillings a week. Out of these seven, one shilling goes to the loom and four to the candles that I need to work at night.” She asked, “How do you manage to survive on the little that is left?” He said: “To whatever extent is possible. We have not been able to buy a pound of meat in six months. Even milk is a strain on us. When we are lucky, on some Sundays we can have some potato stew. The rest of the time we eat barley broth. It makes no difference to me, for I have become accustomed to a hard life of misery and scarcity for many years now, toiling away for my meager wages. It is the children and their frail mother I worry for.” For him to say that he is unable to buy milk, even though he lives in the countryside, where it is one of the cheapest things to buy, suffices to show what these people endure. We often read in the papers about parents who abandoned their children out of penury or who died of hunger or froze to death, or slept in damp places, or those who secluded themselves out of despair and were forgotten, choosing to die of hunger in silence. Yes, their philanthropists run shelters and hospitals for the poor and invalid, but they are often full to capacity and difficult to be admitted into for want of available beds.

Their poverty can be so stark that they leave their children without baptism, because they cannot afford to pay the priest his fee. I know many children in this village who are unbaptized even though they are part of the church parish, whose conventions require them to be baptized and forbid those who are unbaptized to be buried in its graveyards, treating them instead as suicides. The reason the farmers are so poor here is because it was God’s will for the land to be the sole property of princes and nobles, who lease it out to trusted individuals, who in turn hire farmers to plow and cultivate it. The class of landowners does not exceed sixty thousand families. Therefore, you will not find anyone in this village who shows any signs of prosperity or finery except the rentier and the village vicar, who by the way does nothing for his spiritual flock except deliver the sermon at Sunday mass. Everything else he delegates to a junior priest to whom he gives eighty pounds a year, and saddles with all the tasks of the church. This junior priest is responsible for baptizing the parish children, burying the dead, marrying their youth, tending to the sick, and so on. This sum is less than the salary of the cook to the Archbishop of the Church of England. These poor wretches rarely taste meat; their diet consists entirely of cheese and bread. The village butcher does not slaughter more than one lamb or cow in a week and does not sell more than one or two pounds of meat. If he slaughters a lamb, he skins and portions it only after one full day—or after two or three days for a cow. Some even breed a pig in their hovel that they slaughter and preserve in fat like we do with qawarma in the Levant countryside, which they eat on Sundays. Those who are slightly better off may buy a piece of meat on a Saturday, cook it and keep eating it cold for the rest of the week, for they are unfamiliar with the practice of reheating food. They would rather consume days-old food stale than reheat it. Once, when I asked my landlady to heat up the leftovers from my lunch, she could only comprehend my request after much detailed explanation, and each of us marveled at the incomprehensibility of the other.

Moreover, the villages have no places for amusement and entertainment. If people want amusement they go and clang the church bells, which are equivalent for them to musical instruments. For entertainment, a man will sit with his wife and they will watch the piglet they are raising or stare at the meager vegetables they are growing in their garden patch, for most of them have a few cubits of land in front of their homes on which they grow radishes, cabbage, and the like. If not for this, their lives would be worse than the lives of animals. And you may encounter in the village a shop that sells discarded candles, soap, sugar, coffee, and tea, and another decrepit shack that sells cheap sweets and half-rotten onions, potatoes, deformed apples that can be seen from the house’s window. It would cost you less than fifty piasters to buy out the entire contents of the shop.

In winter, you cannot leave the house to breathe some fresh air; because of the amount of mud on the roads, you could be stranded there for several days. And in the villages, there are no horses, asses, mules, or any other pack animals, so the only available vehicles are the soles of your shoes. Every time I needed to stock up on provisions I had to go into town on foot. Once, I was even forced to ride in a hearse, that coffin-like vehicle in which they transport human remains (it was empty). Those who are somewhat satiated may own a vehicle that is essentially a wheel that they peddle with their own feet, which will move with them without any horse or ass, if they want to go from one village to the next. Some have a small wagon that is pulled by a pony, and are exempt from paying tax to the municipality. But the regular carriages and horses must be declared, as I will explain later. Were a rich man to live in these villages, he would be unable to enjoy his wealth, for he would only find what the poor find, unless he stocks his house with provisions from London or another city.

And God knows that throughout my residency in that accursed village I had no other worry except how to obtain the basic needs of my upkeep. I used to buy some cottons from Cambridge, nuts from Royston, and ale from London, and bring them back with me by railway. The village ale is bad quality and mostly froth in the glass—no body, and tastes like medicine, minus the cure. But when I found something to be too expensive, I had to restrict myself from buying it. As a result, I was often overcome by a weak stomach and frail knees that I had never felt before. Once, I fainted in Dr. Lee’s house as I was translating, and he sent his servant to fetch me a piece of toast!

Their summers are on the milder side, but this is offset by the scarcity of fresh fruits and vegetables necessary to stay refreshed, as you soon discover. Moreover, most of the villagers’ drinking water comes from cisterns that collect rainwater, which are frequently covered with algae. When these run dry, they use the wells, which also collect rainwater but are few in number and saved for times of scarcity. In any case, the English hardly ever drink water, and subsist mainly on beer. We spent almost two months last summer rarely tasting any fresh fruit or vegetables. And in April, we ran out of the cream they drink with coffee here because they started feeding it to their pigs rather than selling it, so we had to beg one of the village women to intercede on our behalf with a cattle owner to supply us daily with just enough to mix with our coffee. She went off and came back to us with the good tidings that her lactose-based intercession had yielded cream, for the milkmaid had agreed to sell us half-penny’s worth daily out of the goodness of her heart. We duly knelt before her and bowed our heads as we showered her with thanks and gratitude for her generosity in this blessed month when the fields were lush fertile and green, yet there were no fruits or vegetables whatsoever (even a small onion cost a whole penny!), so that walking through them was akin to being parched with thirst while on a sea voyage.


We discussed on a previous occasion the effect of habit on people. Here we expand on this to look at how Westerners differ from us in grooming their beards and moustaches. This may be considered one of their most reprehensible habits, especially if the man is old and his face has become shriveled. Without his beard and moustache he resembles a monkey, especially if he is a person of stature, like a judge or a bishop. How bad it looks for a judge to preside clean shaven at a dispute between two parties who have come to him for arbitration, and they are all bearded! Likewise, were we to see a clean-shaven bishop on the dais giving his sermon to a group of bearded people, we would think ourselves attending a vaudeville act or a variety show and laugh at him. But were we to watch this man, who we now ridicule for looking like a plucked chicken, as he works his blade to remove the hair from his face, we would admire his skill and cleverness. Likewise if he were to relate news of kingdoms and nations, you might find him either intelligent and wise, or a buffoon and a cretin. It all comes from the force of habit by which his mind operates.

To come back to facial hair, it is unusual that many Europeans began to sense the ugliness of this custom of theirs only a few years ago, and grew out their beards and moustaches, thus reacquiring some of the handsome masculine features they had lost. And yet the ugly effeminateness continues among those of stature, such as senior government officers (both on land and in the navy), as well as among judges, barristers, and clergy of any rank. Even though government servants can observe their king with a beard and moustache (or sometimes just a moustache), they preserve their old custom and that too by order of their head of state! It is as if he wants to suggest that he himself does not need the honor of a barber, for whether he shaves or not, his Majesty shall be obeyed. As for the clean-shaven clergy, they are as much at odds with Jesus and his disciples as were the early church fathers, who were all adorned with manly beards. As for the judges and their like, who expound on rulings and laws, and rose to their positions because of the sharpness of their intellect and the breadth of their knowledge, we can ask them one question: What difference would it make for a man to shave his eyebrows instead of his moustache, since both sprout on the human face naturally? And if the Almighty Creator did not want moustaches to adorn men’s faces, why then do they grow? Here you are, a judge who uses his sharp mind to read the facts couched between the lines of printed and typeset words and extricate out legal minutiae. You remain captive to a habit denounced by every tongue. You either smooth your wrinkles and go back to being a nubile youth, or you act your age and grow yourself a beard. And what about you Western priests, who pontificate against slavery, proclaiming that it is abolished under Christian law, and yet you remain slaves to your countries’ customs. Compare yourselves to the priests in the East, whether of your sect or not, who sport beards and so inspire awe in people’s eyes.

What then is the use of reading history books, and knowing the affairs of kingdoms, if one’s intellect is dominated by one’s habits, like reading this Times that continues to overwhelm us with its shrill racket on civilization, wittiness, and grace. Its writers carry on about European civilization and how civilized Europe is, Western gracefulness and graceful Westerners, and yet it does not occur to them that a moustache and beard are the foremost signs of civilization. All these Westerners—whether old or young, the contemporary and their precursors, with their profound knowledge in languages and the arts, to the point that they even deciphered the language of the ancient Egyptians from their hieroglyphs—are unable to pronounce the letter ‘ayn correctly, something even a lamb is capable of. All this is nothing but force of habit. Look also at the customs of their women; they remain just as God created them, without whitening or reddening, plucking, threading, or waxing, kohl or henna, makeup or face-marking. The women of the East cannot live without all this, for they claim that natural beauty is not enough to charm men and must be enhanced by what is stocked in the shops; while Western women make jewelry from the hair of the dead, wear corsets, and mount bare teeth and bones on their rings and necklaces—their concern with this last one far greater than making their faces prettier.

Let us look at the difference in customs. Their women are used to baring their arms and chests in banquets and parties, and consider it to be a pillar of guest etiquette. As for men at parties, they wear something that resembles a tunic but is cleaved in the back into two tails that dance behind them like the tails of a bird. But we do not say that the women of the East are whores because of their lavish use of makeup and jewelry, nor do we say that the women of the West are sluts because they bare their chests, nor that their men are ignorant because they shave off their moustaches and beards and dance with tails on their behinds. What we can say is that habits and customs distinguish one people from another through accentuating certain states and features. When a person remains a dweller in his own homeland, following the customs of his people, he has difficulty changing his habits. But it becomes easier to change when he encounters other people and other lands. Only then can he separate good habits from bad. Of course, we know that none of what is said here will have any impact on Westerners or anyone else, and habits that people have become accustomed to since ages long past are difficult to weed out, especially if they are grounded in a religious narrative, like licking of one’s fingers after eating…

Yet we cannot just remain silent about such a state, because it is our belief that the job of those who publish newspapers and write articles is to decry immorality and laud virtuous behavior, especially since some habits are easy to abandon without much effort. For example, husbands can easily forbid their wives from whitening or reddening their skin (in fact it is their responsibility and we demand they do so). Similarly, forbidding children to use foul language, make obscene gestures or indulge in smoking and overeating, especially overripe fruit and the like is not the most difficult of reforms to implement. Other bad habits are common among both men and women—cleaning one’s nostrils with the fingers in the presence of people, burping after eating and drinking, expectorating mucus or yawning and stretching while speaking. All these can be reformed without trouble, and there is no excuse to not do so. There is also what we consider part of custom, such as scaring people with stories of djinn and malicious demons. Although there is barely a home in Istanbul where you cannot hear the Quran recited, why do the djinn haunt us day and night, and do not haunt the homes of Christians and Jews? Can any sane person be silent about this? Can one expect any good to come of children who are brought up on this kind of fear? Would a soldier be fit for battle if stories of ghouls rang in his ears from dawn till dusk?


Taste in speech is like taste in food; they both originate in familiarity and habit. It is a lack of aesthetic taste that no language has a specific word for it or its opposite. Rhetoricians and philologists mention aspects of it. They say, for example, This is a fine metaphor, or an inimitable simile, or, This is a mismated metaphor or an implausible simile. They do not say, This is tasteful or tasteless although they are orbiting around this. And no one else has material for it, for a poet can be tasteless even though he may be the most knowledgeable of his time in the language and speech of the Arabs. So if he comes up with something that the critics like, it arises from his knowledge and taste; and if he does not, then it is his tastelessness and not his ignorance.

So it is tasteless that poets today open their poems with an erotic prelude to a woman, and then reminisce about union, then abandonment, then the ravages of time and its vicissitudes, then how the wise are defeated while the ignorant triumph. Then he moves on to amorous descriptions of a male and his beauties, and finds them superior to the sun, the moon, and the stars, and then moves on to describe wine and its occasions, with its gaiety, song, illicit pleasures, and opportunities for leisure. Then he mentions parting ways with loved ones, choking on the bitter pill of separation, recalling the traces of abandoned campsites and their environs, then the thunder, the clouds, and the easterly breeze and its refreshing gusts, then the anticipation for the moment of reunion. And all this in erudite speech and eloquent expressions without necessity but also without deviating from the rules of Arabic grammar. For the poet who follows such a style sees in it no defects, but might go so far as to fault whoever writes in alternative forms. Look at the rhetoricians and philologists who dabble in poetry; do you not see how they wander in every valley, and harp on critiquing certain words and upbraiding their speaker. Just like when they criticize Imru’ al-Qais’s use of the word mustashzirа̄t in the line, “ghadа̄’iruhu mustashzirа̄tun ilа̄ al-‘ula” (her flowing locks grapneled to the sky), while they do not fault him for saying “itha mа̄ baka min khalfihа̄ insarafat lahu bi-shiqqin wa tati shiqquhа̄ lam yuhhawali” (and if her baby cried behind her, she attended to him with one part, while the other part beneath me remained unbudged), even though this is quite garish. For if he meant to say her face did not turn away this would have been more poetic because it would imply that she did not want to deprive him of looking at her face in that state. Just say that her face was so luminous and radiant that he could see it at night. No matter how garish Imru’al-Qays’s verse can be, taste is a natural propensity of the early Arabs. Look at al-Shanfara who became the companion of the wolf swift and sleek, the smooth, speckled snake, the long-maned hyena. You will not find anything tasteless here, likewise with the mu‘allaqа̄t and others. Although the Arabs may have lacked the sciences, but still they possessed them instinctively.

If we compare this to Western authors, with all the breakthroughs in knowledge and civilization they have made in this age, we hardly ever find among them someone with taste. Take the Times, for instance. For the English it is equivalent to what al-Zamakhshari’s Nawа̄bigh and al-Hariri’s Maqа̄mа̄t are to us, but ventures into intricate political matters and elegant international policy. It beats the drum of cotton and looms and factories or blows the horn of coal and shovels and chimneys and furnaces. See as well French newswriters. You will find them sleazy and piddly, blabbering and vapid; They take up a cliché and dress it up majestically with long-winded words. It is like hearing a clatter but minus the hooves. Every five lines of their writing can be reduced to one line in Arabic. This is so because the English are now used to talking of cotton, coal, and factories, whereas the French are used to vacuous sleaze. We do not say that this arises from ignorance, but rather from their lack of taste. If, for example, someone said in Arabic: “The good tidings of my morning, the happiness pouring, its fragrance fawning, its sun rising and its warmth totalizing, the larks of its gaiety whistling, the mast of its purity bristling,” and had the right to pen a sentence in every book and journal edited, I took a laxative and so stayed at home relaxative—what writing is this? Would this pass unnoticed by refined people of taste? Words must fit ideas. Vulgar and cliché ideas become only more adulterated when dressed up in florid-speak. And those Westerners despite their profound knowledge and their finely honed skills have not yet grasped this correlation.

I marvel at a people who can precisely measure the earth and the sky but whose expression lacks any measure of standard. And if someone were to say that the Arabs have developed rhetorical habits in poetry and oratory that are distasteful to others and at the same time shameful, such as when they commend eloquence by saying “he deflowered virgin ideas,” or because they praised a prince and began with mentioning the beauty of a woman or a boy, or longing for her or him. If this is found distasteful because there is no correlation between a prince and the beloved, I reply, that to say “he deflowered virgin ideas” in Arabic is not considered a fine expression by most, some perhaps, but most of our literati would consider it abominable—this is the main difference between us and the Westerners. For vacuity, vulgarity, repetition, and convolution amongst the French and English is a single homogenous style that they all admire. For their language is built thus. As for the Arab convention to start poems with an erotic prelude before praise, even if this is a generalized principle it has logic to it, for one of the main reasons for poetic drive is the distance from the beloved. Longing knowns only those who stoke it and craving those who suffer it. And since this happened a lot among the Arabs because of their constant travel and movement between places, they honed its mental image and began their poems with it then mixed it with singing of the beauty of the beloved. In this aspect they improved and fine-tuned it. If we supposed that the Arabs inhabited cities that they never left, then the mention of the traces of the campsites would have no meaning. Indeed, if the poet exaggerated in describing a woman who left him by saying that he wishes to be the ass underneath her, or that he pities the ass that carries her weight, or that she possesses haunches as high as a mountain or things that fold and ripple, or that her saliva fills the cups of a whole drinking party—what cheesiness!

It is no crime that a person’s taste changes according to what he experiences and is exposed to. The youth for example are comforted by exaggerated prattle and obscenity. While the aged prefer speech that is free of such blemishes. Therefore we say that we cannot clearly define the limits of taste, for it is built on habit and familiarity, and those two differ. But one can approximate it when one distinguishes good habits from bad ones through a sound nature and a clear intuition.


We have already spoken about how the city district has the most magnificent of London’s buildings. Here we can find the Bank of England, the stock exchange, the central post office, the Metropolitan Police headquarters and the house of the chief of police, the central train station, and St. Paul’s Cathedral. This is old London. Everything else was built recently. This district is a unique hub, where major affairs are conducted and astronomical bills of sale for London’s wealthiest merchants are signed. Every single one of its buildings is a frenzy of action and work. No one steps in except to work and to earn, and no tongue wags except for profit and utility. No sun rises, and no lamp is lit except in pursuit of a living. Hearts are moved only to earn and to acquire. So you see each and every person with their eyes and mouth gaping, wide open, to devour the world and everything in it. You stumble through its corridors, across associates soliloquizing to themselves as they go about their business. Here you meet youth already veterans in management, even supervisors; likewise you find seasoned veterans who possess the energy and eagerness of the young. Whichever way you turn you encounter voracious countenances—their internal and external senses steered completely by their ambition toward accumulation and hoarding. There is not a single corner of the globe that this district does not supply with merchandise and work. Even if it is devoid of the magnificent shops that can be seen in London’s other streets, the profits reaped here in one day exceed those made elsewhere in an entire month, for all the major contracts and high-level correspondences are issued out of this teeming complex. It is no secret that a merchant who engages in overseas correspondence, and exports and imports from merchants abroad makes more profit than one who sits in his shop waiting for someone to come in to buy a yard of silk or a brocaded dress. Some of these merchants earn nearly a million pounds a year, or so it is said. Some have many ships that sail the seas from land to land. Others have a hundred persons in their employ. We once mentioned that one of these merchants had a factory in Ireland with four thousand men and women working only to manufacture shirts. There was another one who died leaving behind an estate of seven million pounds. It is essential for them to have at least a secretary, an accountant, and a treasurer. Normally, a merchant would have an office with three chambers, one for his personal affairs, another for his secretaries, and a third that they share and use to store product samples, stock, and the like.

There is no question that merchants in London overall and in this region in particular are richer than all of Europe’s merchants. However, they rank below them in wit and grace, as well as diction, especially when compared to the merchants of France, whose level of knowledge puts them in the ranks of the learned. Even if their diction is still lower than that of the scholars, it is certainly better than that of the English merchants, and at the peak of eloquence when compared to our own. Here are some examples (that I swear are true) of how Arab merchants spell: they will use the abbreviation lq for signature, thinking that it starts with a q (qimda) and not with an alif (/imd). Or they write sree instead of three, wesay rather than we say, discard a thing rather than display it, it was waisted rather than wasted, “we begin with a new calculation out with good health,” or other gems such as dilayt (delight), consist us, and we boughts and with syntax that should make them ashamed of their profession. The ludicrous thing is that while a scholar may make a careless mistake from time to time, these merchants never waver from making the exact same mistake in their expressions every time. I read more than two thousand letters issued by them and I did not find one example that signals any thought or reflection put into what they wrote. For cases like this, the English have the adage: You ought to be ashamed of yourself. No one is asking the merchant to be a poet or a chief scribe, but it is shameful for him to spend his entire cognitive faculties to tell rough fabric apart from soft, and wear the dunce’s cap when it comes to the greatest honor by which God set apart man from beast: speech. If only they wrote as they speak, for I consider them less incapacitated in speech than in writing. Indeed, people of good taste can write with sound diction without being schooled in Sībawayh’s grammar or al-Tha’а̄libi’s dictionary. The grandiloquent among them pepper their Arabic with Turkish and Italian words, so when they want to say boat instead of using the word markab they will write yalkan or olmak moor or Bermek, or machina or primo (if only they spelled them correctly!). For heaven’s sake, why ignore one’s language for the language of foreigners? And whence their inability to express themselves with known words, or to craft their thoughts with proper and cogent speech? What would be said of a Frenchman who stuffs the letters he writes with ugly words and scandalous errors in syntax and orthography? What would his worth be among peers and acquaintances? He would likely provide material to the editors of satirical newspapers, but thankfully for them, our land is free of such publications or of any respect for the sanctity of knowledge, for that matter.

The competition among the English in the city district to earn, be they merchants or secretaries or anyone else, resembles that of the Copts in their fight for control over Cairo’s citadel. I already mentioned that all the trams have the name of a bank painted on their side because they are all owned by the banks, with few exceptions. Their number gives you a sense of the traffic and congestion. In truth, the din of ships in the canals of this district does away with one’s patience. I am sure that none of its inhabitants can engage their minds in anything beyond the immediate work they have at hand. It was in the midst of this profound mayhem that I was destined to write this book, not in the fertile orchards of Italy or the elegant gardens of Damascus. I can almost imagine smoke and a thick fog arising between any two words I write. And I developed a phobia of leaving my room because each time I feared something terrible would befall me either because of the congestion of people and animals, or because of the foulness of the food in the restaurants. And if I managed to reach home, I would feel like I had survived a fire or been rescued from drowning. Leaving this prison to go towards Regent Street was like leaving London for Paris. There I could find people walking slowly, and get the sense that people do in fact go out for a stroll simply for leisure. Some smoked tobacco as they walked, and others laughed while they were speaking, or had a smile on their lips. I could hear some musical instruments, which was heartwarming and a sign of joy to me, that there was something to help people unwind and time in life dedicated to relaxation and pleasure. Unlike the streets of the city district, which God the Almighty created for nothing but work and earning. Work and more work. Work as this people’s creed. They do not take time off from it unless it takes time off from them. A single building in this district can have five hundred offices, and its brokers can number almost a thousand. Despite the low standing of this district, with its narrow alleyways and rundown houses, it is exalted among the English and considered better and more majestic than others. So much so that if they are leaving it for a more upscale area, they will say “We are going down to X location.” In the whole of this district there is not a single theater, park, or anything else that pleases the soul. You will only find gloomy faces, the over-congestion of bicycles, trams, wagons, and carts scurrying back and forth through narrow, muddy streets past soot-covered walls and canals jam-packed with people.

Translated from the Arabic by Rana Issa and Suneela Mubayi

Rana Issa is an assistant professor in translation studies at the American University in Beirut. Her research interests include nineteenth-century Arab modernity, the Arabic Bible, and contemporary Levantine cultural practices.

Suneela Mubayi's translations from the Arabic and Urdue have appeared in
Banipal, Jadaliyya, and the anthology Beirut 39. She received a PhD in Arabic literature from New York University.


About the author

Ahmad Fа̄ris Shidyа̄q (1805-1887), a foundational figure in modern Arabic literature, was a pioneering publisher, poet, essayist, lexicographer, and translator. The first English translation of his best-known work, Leg over Leg—describing the life of the Fariyaq, his alter ego, offering commentary on intellectual and social issues—was published in a four-volume edition (along with the original 1855 Arabic text) by NYU Press in 2014.

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