Friday, May 24, 2013

D'Antraigues's Voyage to Egypt

He [D'Antraigues] was asked to see that nobody presented himself at their door, and to allow the Pacha's flag to be flown from the mast. D'Antraigues agreed, and expressed his hope that in return for good conduct the ship's company would receive the Pacha's protection in Egypt. D'Antraigues was given the captain's cabin, next to the large cabin which had been divided by canvas sheets into four small compartments, each providing sleeping accommodation for two women.  D'Antraigues' thirst for empirical observation of human behaviour was not to be completely thwarted, however, for the captain revealed to him the existence of a spy-hole, three or four inches square, plugged with a piece of perfectly matching wood, and affording an excellent view of the compartment occupied by two women, one old and one young and pretty. The captain also warned that if he were caught peeping, he would turn the ship and go direct to Leghorn, as he did not intend either of them should go and get hanged in Egypt.

It was, therefore, with some trepidation that d'Antraigues removed the plug; the two women were asleep, so he merely took in the disposition of the room and its partitions. On the second occasion, just off Gallipoli, he made enough noise accidentally to attract the attention of the younger lady, who was alone, and who was startled to see an eye applied to the wall. He was transfixed, his mind already running ahead to the consequences of discovery. The girl went out... and came back with a cushion. To block the hole with? No — to stand on so that she could get a better view of her observer. D'Antraigues resisted the temptation to flee, and made her a bow a la turque, on his knees. She scrutinised him, his face, the room, very attentively, then put two fingers through the hole. She patiently allowed him to hold and kiss them, and his fears began to recede. Reassured of the good intentions of the female camp, however, he returned to the cabin to act as interpreter. This time, both women were there, each as inquisitive as the other and delighted to be able to converse.

A good deal of information about harem life was passed through the wall. So far as d'Antraigues could see, it closely resembled that of nuns, with the exception of the pacha, whose role, he comments, is sometimes fulfilled by the confessor! One detail that surprised him was the pacha's lack of interest in women. Then why keep so many women? Because a large harem was prestigious, like having numerous horses in one's stable, even if one does not ride. In the cramped conditions on board ship, relationships became close, with d'Antraigues and his dragoman greatly appreciating the female company and the daily striptease, and the women enjoying, for the one and only time of their lives no doubt, sympathetic and intelligent male attention.

When the time for them to separate came, at Alexandria, it was a sad occasion, since it was definitive; never could the women be exposed to the eyes of any man other than the Pacha's. The youngest began to weep in a display of unaffected emotion, and confessed she was annoyed about two things: first, that the young Frenchman was leaving them; and second, he was a Christian, and that meant they would not meet again. [Duckworth p. 115]

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Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
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