May 8, 2012

Onboard a River Steamer, 1863 | Walking Through Egypt

Onboard a River Steamer, 1863
Lucie Duff Gordon


After infinite delays and worries, we are at last on board, and shall sail tomorrow morning. After all was comfortably settled, Ismail Pasha sent for all the steamers up to Rhoda, near Minieh, and at the same time ordered a Turkish General to come up instantly somehow. So Latif Pasha, the head of the steamers, had to turn me out of the best cabin, and if I had not come myself, and taken rather forcible possession of the forecastle cabin, the servants of the Turkish General would not have allowed Omar to embark the baggage. He had been waiting all the morning in despair on the bank; but at four I arrived, and ordered the hammals to carry the goods into the fore-cabin, and walked on board myself, where the Arab captain pantomimically placed me in the right eye and on the top of his head.

Once installed, this became a harem, and I may defy the Turkish Effendi with success. I have got a good-sized cabin with good, clean divans round three sides for Sally [Lucie Duff Gordon’s English maid] and myself. Omar will sleep on deck and cook where he can. A poor Turkish lady is to inhabit a sort of dusthole by the side of my cabin; if she seems decent, I will entertain her hospitably. There is no furniture of any sort but the divan, and we cook our own food, bring our own candles, jugs, basins, beds and everything. If Sally and I were not such complete Arabs we should think it very miserable; but as things stand this year we say, Alhamdulillah it is no worse!

Luckily it is a very warm night, so we can make our arrangements unchilled. There is no door to the cabin, so we nail up an old plaid, and, as no one ever looks into a harem, it is quite enough. All on board are Arabs captain, engineer and men. An English Sitt [lady] is a novelty, and the captain is unhappy that things are not alia Franca for me. We are to tow three dahabiehs M. Mounier’s, one belonging to the envoy from the Sultan of Darfur, and another. Three steamers were to have done it, but the Pasha had a fancy for all the boats, and so our poor little craft must do her best. Only fancy the Queen ordering all the river steamers up to Windsor!

At Minieh the Turkish General leaves us, and we shall have the boat to ourselves, so the captain has just been down to tell me. I should like to go with the gentlemen from Darfur, as you may suppose. See what strange combinations of people float on old Nile. Two English women, one French (Mme Mounier), one Frenchman, Turks, Arabs, Negroes, Circassians, and men from Darfur, all in one party; perhaps the third boat contains some other strange element. The Turks are from Constantinople and can’t speak Arabic, and make faces at the muddy river water, which, indeed, I would rather have filtered. . . .

I am quite surprised to see how well these men manage their work. The boat is quite as clean as an English boat as crowded could be kept, and the engine in beautiful order. The head-engineer, Ahmed Effendi, and indeed all the crew and captain too, wear English clothes and use the universal, ‘All right, stop her -fooreh [full] speed, half speed turn her head,’ etc. I was delighted to hear, ‘All right go ahead el-Fathah’ in one breath. Here we always say the Fathah (first chapter of the Koran, nearly identical with the Lord’s Prayer) when starting on a journey, concluding a bargain, etc. The combination was very quaint.

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