A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Sunday, September 17, 2017

It's Edward William Lane's Birthday Again

On September 17, 1801, in Hereford, England, Edward William Lane was born. 146 years later, I was born. I believe I have noted this annually since 2009, when this blog began. If I must share my birthday, I could do far worse.

Generations of English-speaking Arabists have used Lane's Arabic-English Lexicon, an immense dictionary of the classical language based on the classical Arabic Qamus. He died while working on the letter qaf (someone I knew once joked he might have been working on the word qadr: only the Arabic-speakers will get it), and his nephew finished the eight-volume work, but it's much weaker after the qafs. At one time his translation of the Arabian Nights was widely read; it is more readable than Sir Richard Burton's, but Burton's has generally superseded it in popularity. (Burton, unlike Lane, kept the dirty parts in, but he wrote in a style that at times verges on the unreadably pretentious, and, being a late Victorian, made up his own dirty words to translate the Arabic ones, since the standard English ones couldn't be printed. Off the top of my head, I remember "futter" if you want an example. It helps if you know French.) Lane's Nights notes are a fantastic treasure of Arab daily life, while Burton's notes have a whole lot of detail on less savory aspects of the culture. Read both. Or read both their notes, and a modern translation of the text.

But Lane's first work is the one that will always endear him to me, and I think, to anyone who loves Egypt, umm al-dunya. This is The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians.
Lane was an "orientalist" before Edward Said taught us that that was a bad word, but he was also one of the earliest, and one of the best and most scrupulous in his scholarship.

Manners and Customs
is a great book: dated to be sure, after a century and three quarters; quaint at times in its attitudes and curious in its transliterations of Arabic, but still a gem of description of another culture by a man who managed to learn a great deal by living within it. It was first published in 1836, after years of gestation. I still have, and often refer to, the Everyman's Library edition I picked up in Beirut in 1972; the paper dust cover is even still intact. An earlier version of the Everyman's edition is available in full text on Google Books, as are some other editions, so you don't need to rely on a paper copy as I did. (Though if you want a paper copy, it's still in print.)
It is one of those books that cannot be excerpted with any utility: it's the small joys that make it so interesting, and it may be a complete wash for those who've never been in Egypt. It's the flashes of recognition of continuities and the clear evidence of change and evolution that make it interesting. I have favorite sections and passages, but can't find one that would represent the whole. But there are few, if any, other works of the period by Western orientalists that so neatly encapsulate a country and its culture. There are, certainly, plenty of descriptions of Damascus and Istanbul and other cities by diplomats and historians and linguists, but Lane was more of an anthropologist than anything else, although I don't think the word had been coined then, except perhaps for physical anthropology: this is cultural anthropology before the words existed. He captured Egypt in the later years of Muhammad ‘Ali's reign, but also provided descriptions of practices and habits that long predated his era, and many of which survive today. But he also captured a great deal that does not survive today, and that is part of the book's charm and importance. Most Arabic authors of the time were recording the events and institutions of the ruling classes; Lane was out there with the folks in the coffeehouses and local gathering places and mosques. He captured Egypt at the human level better than any Arabic author of the 19th century that I know of: probably better than any author prior to Naguib Mahfouz, who finally gave an Egyptian voice to ordinary Egyptians.
Lane also was part of a dynasty of sorts. His sister, Sophia Lane Poole, wrote a work on women in Egypt (some at least of which was provided by her brother, apparently), and his nephew, Stanley Lane-Poole (he added a hyphen apparently), an Arabic scholar in his own right, finished the Arabic-English Lexicon and wrote many popular historical and cultural works on the Middle East, some of which still have value, but none of which equal his uncle's contribution.
So happy 216th birthday, Edward William Lane, and thanks for Manners and Customs, and the indispensable Lexicon of course, and your version of the Nights. But it's Manners and Customs that makes me happiest to share your birthday.