Fenrimi The Afghanistan book whetted whet? Open Preview See a Problem? Publisher Harcourt, Barce And Company. Beautiful hands adorned with talismanic rings, and silver bracelets; sometimes alabasterlike arms escaping from the broad sleeves pulled back over the shoulder; bare feet, laden with rings, which leave their slippers at every step, while the heels clatter along with a silvery tinkle — all these we may admire, divine, surprise, without annoying the crowd, or causing any embarrassment to the woman herself. This is indeed the country of dreams and of illusions.
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The Mask and the Veil Throughout the length and breadth of the Levant, there is no town where women are more utterly and completely veiled than at Cairo. At Constantinople, at Smyrna, through a veil of white or black gauze, it is occasionally possible to catch a glimpse of the face of some Muslim beauty.
No matter how severe the laws may be, they seldom succeed in rendering that delicate tissue any more opaque. The veiled beauties are like graceful and coquettish nuns who, though they have consecrated themselves to the service of a single spouse, yet do not think it amiss to spare an occasional thought for the world. Egypt, serious and devout, is still the land of enigmas and mysteries.
There, beauty surrounds itself, as it has ever done, with veils and coverings, a depressing habit that soon discourages the frivolous European. To the initiate of ancient days, patience was the greatest of all virtues. Why should we be in such a hurry? Besides, though we are in a land where women are supposed to be prisoners, we see thousands of them in the bazaars, streets, and gardens, strolling alone or in couples, or with a child. In actual fact, they enjoy more liberty than European women.
It is true that women of position go out, perched up on donkeys, where nobody can get at them; but even in our own land, women of a corresponding rank hardly ever go out except in a carriage. Among the rich Arabic and Turkish costumes which the reform movement has spared, the mysterious dress of the women gives to the crowd which throngs the streets the lively appearance of a fancy dress ball, though the shade of the dominoes only varies between black and blue.
Ladies of distinction veil their forms beneath a habbarah of light silk, and women of the people wear a simple tunic of wool or cotton khamiss , with all the grace of an ancient statue. There is scope for the imagination in this disguise, and it does not extend to all their charms. Beautiful hands adorned with talismanic rings, and silver bracelets; sometimes alabasterlike arms escaping from the broad sleeves pulled back over the shoulder; bare feet, laden with rings, which leave their slippers at every step, while the heels clatter along with a silvery tinkle — all these we may admire, divine, surprise, without annoying the crowd, or causing any embarrassment to the woman herself.
Sometimes, the folds of the veil, with its white and blue check, which covers the head, and shoulders, get slightly out of position, and the light, passing between it and the long mask which they call borghot, gives us a glimpse of a charming brow over which the brown hair falls in closely bound ringlets, like those we have seen in busts of Cleopatra; or a tiny, well-shaped ear, from which clusters of golden sequins, or a jewel of turquoise and silver filigree, dangle over cheeks and neck.
The mask is made of a narrow long piece of black horsehair, and it falls from head to feet, pierced by two holes, like the hooded cloak of a penitent.
A few tiny bright rings are threaded in the space between the forehead and the long part of the mask, and from behind that rampart, ardent eyes await you, with all the seductions they can borrow from art. When I first came here, I did not quite understand what the attraction could be about the mystery with which the more interesting half of the people of the Orient enshrouds itself.
But a few days sufficed to show me that a woman who knows herself to be the object of attention can usually find an opportunity to let herself be seen if she is beautiful. Those who are not beautiful are wiser to retain their veils, and we cannot be angry with them on that account. This is indeed the country of dreams and of illusions. The town itself, like those who dwell in it, unveils its most shady retreats, its most delightful interiors, only by degrees. The evening I arrived at Cairo, I felt mortally discouraged and depressed.
Wandering about on donkeyback with a dragoman for company, a few hours sufficed to make me sure that I was about to spend the most tedious six months of all my life, and matters had been arranged in such a way that I could not stay a single day less.
What could I hope from this confused labyrinth, perhaps as large as Paris or Rome; from these palaces and mosques which are to be numbered in thousands? Doubtless, once upon a time, it was all very splendid and marvelous, but thirty generations have passed, and now the stone is breaking into dust, and the wood is rotting, everywhere. It seems as though one were traveling in a dream through a city of the past where only phantoms dwell, populating it but giving it no life.
But lights begin to appear behind the moucharabys which are wooden grills, curiously worked and carved, that come out over the street and serve as windows.
The light which comes from them is not sufficient to guide the wayfarer. As I began to go to sleep, I seemed to hear in some strange way the vague sounds of a bagpipe and a scraping fiddle, sounds extremely irritating to the nerves. In different tones, this persistent music continually repeated the same melodic phrase which brought to my mind the memory of some old carol from Burgundy or Provence. Was I awake or dreaming? It was some time before my mind definitely decided to wake up.
It seemed to me that I was being carried to the grave in a manner at once serious and comic, escorted by cantors from the parish church and topers wreathed in vine branches. There was a mixture of patriarchal gaiety and mythological melancholy in this strange concert, in which the solemn strains of the music of the Church formed the basis of a comic air which would have served as a suitable accompaniment to a dance of Corybants.
The noise grew louder as it came nearer; I got out of bed still half asleep, and a bright light, coming through the outer trellis of my window, at last told me that the spectacle was of a purely material nature. Nevertheless, there was some degree of reality about my dream.
Men, almost naked, wearing wreaths like the wrestlers of antiquity, were fighting with swords and shields in the middle of the crowd. They contented themselves with striking the copper with the steel in time with the music, and then, setting off again, began the same mock combat a little farther on. A number of torches and pyramids of candles carried by children brilliantly lighted up the street, showing the way to a long procession of men and women, the details of which I could not distinguish.
There was no longer any doubt. It was a marriage. At Paris, in the engravings of citizen Cassas, I had seen a complete picture of these ceremonies. But what I had just seen through my fretted window was not enough to satisfy my curiosity, and I determined that, at all costs, I would go after the procession and observe it more at my leisure.
My dragoman Abdullah, when I told him my intention, pretended to be alarmed at my audacity, for he had not much desire to go through the streets in the middle of the night, and talked to me about the dangers of being murdered or beaten.
Journey to the Orient
This was also where he began to take poetry more seriously. He was especially drawn to epic poetry. Despite its many flaws, the translation had many merits, and it did a great deal to establish his poetic reputation. That fall, he headed to southern France, then traveled to Florence, Rome and Naples.
Gérard de Nerval