A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, September 17, 2010

It's Edward William Lane's Birthday Again

It is, once again, Edward William Lane's birthday. For those who weren't reading this blog a year ago, you should first read my post of last year on the great Orikentalist, author of Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, Lane's Arabic-English Lexicon, and a once famous translation of the 1,001 Nights. Lane, shown at right, is a sprightly 209 today.

Since we share a birthday, I mark his in a futile hope of ever producing anhything comparable to his body of work. Though he'd have probably been a great blogger.

Probably the best way to observe Lane's birthday is to dip randomly into Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, a superb description of the Muhammad &lsuo;Ali era which should be resd by anyone with an interest in Egypt, anyone who has drunk from the Nile. Fortunately, these days, thanks to Google Books, you can do that from the comfort of your keyboard.

Since I covered most of the basics in the previous post, I though I'd talk a bit more about Manners and Customs. A work of cultural anthropology before the field existed, it was an elaborate description of Egyptian society from the inside, by an Englishman who lived as a merchant-class Egyptian and seems to have been privy to a great deal of detail about everyday life. As a portrait of Egypt on the eve of Westernization, when Muhammad &lsuo;Ali was modernizing but before Europeans arrived en masse, it captures a transitional moment. Some of the things it described are still practiced today — the shaduf for raising water appears on Pharaonic toms and is still in use among the fellahin even today (left).

Other practices are long gone, and bear little resemblance to current practices; still others have clearly evolved from the Lane era, but are still recoghizable.

I would caution anyone about to go to Egypt not to read Manners and Customs before leaving; unless you have a time machine set for 1830, you'll never recognize the place. But once you're there, and know your way around a bit, you'll start to recognize the continuities. They don't say Misr Umm al-Dunya (Egypt is the mother of the world) for no reason.

It's a big book, very detailed, illustrated with the woodcuts you see a few of here. Like the country itself, it's worth the voyage.

As I've already noted, Lane also gave us two other classics, his eight-volume Arabic-English Lexicon, which he died before completing, and his translation of the 1,001 Nights, with profuse notes. But it's still Manners and Customs that endears this long-dead chap whose birthday I share to me.

For one thing, where else can you possibly find a drawing of an Egyptian parade in honor of a circumcision, shown below?


aron said...

Well if you share birthdays, happy birthday!

Abu 'Arqala said...

Happy Birthday!