Letters of the English writer Lucie Duff Gordon –also known in Arabic as el-Sitt el-Ingiliziya – to her husband represent a unique Muslim-Christian coexistence case .. read how she adopted “Fellaheen” lifestyle until her last breath in Cairo to be buried as “Daughter of the Arab”.
Lucie Duff Gordon (1821 – 1869) was one of those Westerners; she was an English writer who fell in love with Egypt in the 19th century where she has lived for 7 years in search of a hot and dry climate to speed her recovery from tuberculosis, casting away from her life back in England with her beloved husband, Alexander Duff Gordon, and 3 children to finally find her inner peace in the simplicity of lives of Fellaheen (peasants in Arabic language and country side in Egyptian dialect) which she embraced, documenting it in her letters to her husband, mother, daughter and friends, to be later published as a whole in a book of 420 pages with the name “Letters from Egypt” in 1902 after her death, since for Lady Gordon, to voyage out and explore a new world was to journey within oneself.
Letters from Egypt was first published by Macmillan & Co. in May 1865 with a preface by Sarah Austin who edited the letters avoiding anything published in a second edition forwarded by Janet Ross (1842 – 1927), Lucie’s daughter, in 1902 which can be downloaded in old yellowish papers from Project Gutenberg e-books website for free.
A journey through time
To journey back through space and time recovering and recording Lucie Gordon’s life in England before moving to Egypt where she spent the rest of her life, wasn’t an easy task, but for Katherine Frank, English Biographer, it resulted in a magnificent biography of Lucie Duff Gordon that took 4 years of work to be published in 1994, in which she resorted to manuscript papers kept by Lucie’s Great granddaughter Kinta Beevor. Frank breathed life into the scattered fragments collecting Lucie’s ashes at different parts of Egypt tracing mid-19th century footsteps in Egypt where Lucie used to be the only European among the locals whom she mingled with and was well liked for her tolerant heart, humor and helping hand overcoming the colonial attitudes Europeans endured at the time which deepened the Egyptian rage against the French in particular.
Frank begins Lucie’s biography saying that she was a world apart from her Victorian counterparts being an intellectual, traveler, writer and progressive social commentator.
Lucie and her husband led a bohemian, eccentric and highly unconventional life in London socializing with other couples, yet their life came to a turning point when Lucie was diagnosed with TB in 1862 heading to Egypt, at her doctor’s recommendation, reaching out for natural healing.. searching for a life and a health she lacked and didn’t get.
Through her letters to the family, Frank closely followed the dramatic transformation that Lucie underwent in Egypt as she discarded the restrictions of Victorian England, shunned the English community in Cairo and immersed herself In the Egyptian way of life to experience “the real, true Arabian nights”.
Frank started the biography from Lucie’s grave, believed to be in City of the Dead in Muqattam, which is the highest hill area in Cairo, moving backwards through Lucie’s life. She mentioned a photograph taken years after Lucie’s death that shows her Christian cemetery rounded by an oasis of trees, granite and marble tombs in which her grave lies on a large rectangular platform. Across one side of the grave, Lucie’s cousin, Henry Reeve, wrote a carved epitaph that read:
In this spot is laid Lucie, wife of Alexander duff Gordon, Bart., only child of John and Sarah Austin. Drawn by illness from the home she loved and the society she adorned, she dwelt for seven years on the banks of the Nile, where her energy and benevolence drew to her the hearts of the people. And here, trusting in the mercy of god the father of all races of men, she dies on the 14th of July 1869, aged 48 years.
Born in 1821 to John and Sarah Austin, Lucie passed a troubled childhood as an only child in London, Bonn, Boulogne raised to become a wild independent English woman like her mother Sarah who was the principal wage-earner in Austin household doing translation work since her husband was often mentally or physically ill and so they were short of money most of the times.
At the age of 10, Lucie was sent to an advanced boy’s school in Hampstead where she was the only female student. She learned classics, mathematics, philosophy and ancient history with no girly classes of music, drawing or needlework.
Yet, this tough upbringing of Lucie and her mother Sarah never turned them to radical feminists; Sarah never questioned women’s secondary position as wives and mothers at that time in England, but within this limited feminist framework, she could widen female practices, exercise her intelligence and provide financial contributions to her household or even support herself to live independently if needed.
Sarah, for example, despite being married, she was widely admired by men who would visit her for tea or supper while her husband, John, wouldn’t be able to make an appearance for health reasons.
These gatherings contributed to Lucie’s perception of unconventional relationships between men and women; however, it didn’t hinder her anger when she learned that her maid had an affair with an Egyptian guy when they moved to Egypt later. Lucie got furious and demanded that Sally, the maid, returns back to England putting an end to the uncommon levels of freedom Lady Gordon gave to her servants.
Alick… her love life
Lucie, herself, had an early marriage in 1840 before turning 19 to Sir Alexander Duff Gordon, a young baronet in his late 20s who worked at the Treasury, in Kensington old Church. Lucie and Alick, as she used to call him, met at Lansdowne House and were thrown into each other talking and walking together.
One day, as their daughter narrates, Sir Gordon said to Lucie “Miss Austin, do you know people say we are going to be married ?’ Annoyed at being talked of, and hurt at his brusque way of mentioning it, Lucie was just going to give a sharp answer, when he added:” Shall we make it true ?’ With characteristic straightforwardness she replied by the monosyllable, ‘ Yes,’and so they were engaged.
Attracted to his charm, intelligence and handsomeness, Lucie was happy to marry Alick who had a title but was not wealthy while Lucie devoted herself to translation work, becoming one of the most popular and glamorous couples in London in 1840s and 1850s to be soon blessed with 3 children.
However, this happy life did not last long as Lucie was hastened by tuberculosis.
Driven by lack of money and bad health, Lucie’s marriage life didn’t last as she planned as she had to move to her parents’ house in Weybridge few miles away from central modern London then to Esher disintegrating from her social life.
At the very beginning of her health exile in 1851 and as a first note of alarm to her health, Lady Gordon wrote from her parents’ house in Esher saying “I look thin, ill, and old, and my hair is growing gray. This I consider hard upon a woman just over her thirtieth birthday”.
Finding herself forced to be exiled from home, Lucie went on convalescent trips to South Africa where she wrote letters from Cape Town to her husband, then residing in Egypt on a permanent exile until death.
In Egypt, Lucie had a different taste of life than the aristocratic one she led back at home; she’d arrived in Egypt in 1861 with her maid, Sally Naldrett, to mingle with locals of Luxor, Upper Egypt known as “el-Sae’ed” and inhabit a big house built on the ruins of Luxor temple dressed in Arab male dress with no stockings or stays.
Lucie quickly fell in love with Egypt which she strolled from south to north visiting Nubia, Qena, Edfu, Kom Ombo, Aswan, Minya, Sohag, Assiut, Girga, Tanta, Alexandria and of course Cairo becoming the English Lady or “Sitt Ingiliziya” in Egypt.
Lucie took another servant named Omar, from Alexandria, who became like her shadow accompanying her everywhere she went.
Describing Cairo to her husband, Lucie wrote “I write to you out of the real Arabian nights. Well may Prophet (whose name be exalted) smile when he looks on Cairo. It is a golden existence, all sunshine and poetry, and must add, kindness and civility”.
Lucie wandered in Egypt between different governorates; staying for some time at Shepherd hotel, visiting Boulaq, travelling by boat watching the peasants, going on Dahabiyat and using Prince and Princess of Wales’ Nile boat, exploring the Hareem of Egypt under the Ottomans rule and the tarboosh (red hat-like head cover), eating Fettah, attending festivals like el-Sayed el-Badawy in Tanta, watching a Zar ceremony (practiced in southern Egypt and believed to cure illness), listening to Zaghareet, exploring the spiritual life of Ramadan.. becoming the English Sitt (Lady) who came to believe that “he who has drunk Nile water will ever long to drink it again”.
Many letters were written from Lucie’s window overlooking the Nile describing the peasant’s life in Sa’eed Masr (Upper Egypt) in detail. In one letter, she wrote:
Nothing seemed to have changed in the past 500, 1,000, 6,000 years. There was the life-giving river, its banks lined with papyrus and reeds and the bullrushes where Moses had been secreted. Just beyond the river banks lay intensely green fields of beans, clover, maize and sugar-cane. In the distance, farmers followed the tracks of their ploughs; closer at hand, stolid brown oxen trudged round and round, turning the wheels which carried the Nile’s water to the fields. Tall, barefoot women in black walked to the river banks, with huge clay water-jars gracefully balanced on their heads. Broad-winged egrets – so large that they looked like children’s parchment kites – swooped and flew off, or stood poised, absolutely still, like birds on a Chinese screen, amidst the water reeds on the river’s edge.
Coexistence not fanaticism
One review of Lady Gordon’s Letters from Egypt read: “She brings the Arab and Copt home to us as none other has done”. Indeed, Lucie appeared interested in the Muslim Coptic peaceful coexistence which she often reflected upon in her book, saying “Muslims and Christians appear perfectly good friends.. I have yet to see the much-talked-of fanaticism, at present I have not met with a symptom of it…” reporting thoroughly about how tolerant Muslims were loving Copts and sometimes electing them.
Lucie once said of Egypt that it was a palimpsest with the Bible written over Herodotus and the Qur’an over the Qur’an over the Bible.
In another letter, Lucie wrote “I wonder when Europe will drop the absurd delusion about Christians being persecuted by Muslims. It is absolutely the other way,—here at all events. The Christians know that they will always get backed by some Consul or other, and it is the Muslims who go to the wall invariably.The brute of a Patriarch is resolved to continue his persecution of the converts, and I was urged the other day by a Sheikh to go to the Sheikh al-Islam himself and ask him to demand equal rights for all religions, which is the law, on behalf of these Coptic Protestants. Everywhere the Ulama’a have done what they could to protect them, even at Assiut, where the American missionaries had caused them (the Ulama’as) a good deal of annoyance on a former occasion.No one in Europe can conceive how much the Copts have the upper hand in the villages. They are backed by the Government, and they know that the Europeans will always side with them”.
Even if Europeans side by the Copts, The Orthodox Copts Patriarch didn’t welcome Lady Gordon because he was furious at the American Protestant missionaries who not only target Muslims in Egypt but also Copts.
Being a Christian herself, Lucie praised the educational level of Muslims compared to Copts whom she described as kind but nasty, backward and more close. Lucie found it “curious” seeing Muslims praying at the tomb of Mar Girgis (St. George) and the resting places of Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ expressing her fondness of Muslim prayers which led her to buy oil in Ramadan to keep the nearby Mosque lighted all night getting a promise of full justice on the day of judgment from the Mosque’s old servant for wishing well to Muslims.
Muslims’ love to Lucie was undoubted; one man once told her that she would ‘assuredly lie in a Muslim grave’, she was also promised that when she dies, she’d be buried as “a daughter of the Arabs” or Bint el-Balad.
Lady Gordon wasn’t only fascinated by Muslims but by the Arabian lifestyle; she wrote in 1863 saying “I am in love with the Arabs’ ways and I have contrived to see and know more of family life than many Europeans who have lived here for years. When the Arabs feel that one really cares for them, they heartily return it”.
Describing Arabs as kind, polite and hospitable, Lucie spoke of them as pleasant writing back to England “If you smile at anything that amuses you, you get the kindest, brightest smiles in return”.
In this friendly atmosphere, no wonder that Lucie sought to speak and write in Arabic. For her, it was very easy to learn colloquial Arabic, as she wrote after only one year of living in Egypt, since the words are distinct and can be easily caught if repeated. Throughout her letters, Lucie used Arabic words like “Alhamdulillah”, “Ma’a Assalama”, “Baksheesh”, “Mashallah”and “Ma’alesh”.
Arab Women were undoubtedly an area of interest to the English lady who admired the Arab respect for women considering it incomparable with others’ in Egypt . ” Of all the falsehoods I have heard about the East, that about women being old hags at thirty is the biggest. Among the poor fellah women it may be true enough, but not nearly as much as in Germany; and I have now seen a considerable number of Levantine ladies looking very handsome, or at least comely, till fifty”, she wrote in the early beginning of her Arabian life.
Lucie recalls her experience with polygamy in Islam in an 1863 letter narrating the story of Hassan, an employee at the American Consulate who was married to two wives. Lucie, who didn’t look convinced, said Hassan was defending his decision to marry his brother’s widow in order to take care of her children.. an argument which Lucie commented upon saying “So you see that polygamy isn’t always sensual indulgence”.
Portraits of Fellaheen
Fellaheen or peasants’ life was Lucie’s favourite, yet, she complained of the miserable taxes they have to pay which leave them penniless. In 1867, she wrote ” I cannot describe to you the misery here now, indeed it is wearisome even to think of : every day some new tax. Now every beast ; camel, cow, sheep, donkey, horse, is made to pay. The fellaheen can no longer eat bread, they are living on barley meal, mixed with water and new green stuff, vetches etc., which to people used to good food is terrible, and I see all my acquaintances growing seedy and ragged and anxious. Yussuf is clear of debt, his religion having kept him from borrowing, but he wants to sell his little slave girl, and has sold his donkey, and he is the best off. The taxation makes life almost impossible—100 piastres per feddan, a tax on every crop, on every annual fruit, and again when it is sold in the market ; on every man, on charcoal, on butter, on salt, on the dancing girls. I wonder I am not tormented for money—not above three people have tried to beg or borrow”.
those were the last words Lucie said to her beloved Alick only 5 days before her death on July 14th 1869.
Lucie spending her last days in Cairo, preferred to die in Thebes, Luxor.. in the Sa’eed.. instead of the capital but the scenes of Cairo were the last things her eyes saw.
A few years before leaving, Lucie wrote a touching poem to her husband as if she felt her moment was coming, it said:
O ye who go down in the boats to Dumyat,
Cross, I beseech ye, the stream to Budallah;
Seek my beloved, and beg that she will not
Forget me, I pray and implore her by Allah.
Fair as two moons is the face of my sweetheart,
And as to her neck and her bosom—Mashallah.
And unless to my love I am soon reunited
Death is my portion—I swear it by Allah.’