SURF AND TURF – An Egyptian Imam in Paris in 1830

14 Aug 2003

‘The meal begins with soup and ends with fruit. Wine is usually served as a drink. It is not normally the custom, especially for persons in the public eye, to get inebriated, since drunkenness is considered a vice. After the meal, diners may partake of a drop of arak. Even if they drink wine, the beverage is by no means cited in their poetry. In their language there are not as many names to describe it as in Arabic. They can appreciate the flavor of things without seeking in them an imaginary significance or metaphors or exaggerations. Of course they have specific books on drunkenness, but they are trivialities in praise of wine and cannot be regarded as literature.’

Paris 1826-1831. An Egyptian imam observes the Parisians and compares their way of life to that of the Arabs through comment and opinion. His observations about ‘the food of the Parisians and their table habits’ are amusing and not without interest. In his description of a Parisian meal, the imam shows absolute disdain for French cooking. In order to observe Islamic eating precepts— meat has to be halal, slaughtered according to special prescriptions, and pork and its by-products are banned—he may never have tasted a French dish at all. He thus moves directly from soup to dessert without citing any of the typical or fashionable dishes of the time. What he does speak about at length, though, is the one prohibited element in the meal—wine! Here we have an imam who takes an interest in wine without condemning its drinkers—or at least those who don’t drink until they are inebriated—a Muslim surprised or perhaps disappointed by the discovery that wine may be appreciated only for its flavor, which is far too banal. Even if the imam has certainly never tasted a drop of wine, he has had the pleasure of savoring it in poetry, in the bacchic verse of Abu Nawas, or the Sufi poems of Jalal al-Din al-Rumi and in the works of other masters of Sufism.

Sheikh Rifaa at-Tahtawi (1801-1873) was a young imam who accompanied 24 Egyptian students to France to complete their studies. A graduate of the University of Al-Azhar, where he was later to teach, on his arrival in Paris he spoke Arabic and Turkish, but not a single word of French. During his stay in Paris from 1826 to1831, Rifaa at-Tahtawi studied French and acquired in-depth knowledge of the local culture, translated and commented upon works, and entered into intense correspondence with the masters of Orientalism. The culture shock, the discovery of the virtuous side of western culture, the desire to convey to his fellow countrymen his knowledge and impressions of France—all these factors persuaded him to write a book about Paris

In those days there were no halal butchers’ shops in Paris. So Tahtawi decided to go to suburban Parisian abattoirs to buy the animals he needed and have them slaughtered according to the Muslim rite. His servant, who had the job of supervising the slaughtering, was so shocked by the way in which the French butchered animals, ‘by the horrible treatment, oxen were subjected to’, that he had to take refuge in prayer, thanking God for not letting him be born as an ox in the country of the ‘Franks’. ‘To kill the sheep, they stick a knife between its throat and its neck and cut in the opposite direction to what we do’. In the description he also recounts that oxen were hit with an iron club right at the center of their heads to stun them before cutting their throats with the same system used for sheep, whereas poultry was strangled.

Despite everything, Tahtawi was fascinated by the table habits of the Parisians, whom he praised wholeheartedy. ‘At the table they behave admirably,’ he writes. The imam appreciated crockery and tableware, which was ‘[…] Persian or Chinese, never made of copper…’, hence of porcelain, the silver cutlery, the crystal-glass carafes, the glass salt cellars and pepper and mustard pots. He also seems to have appreciated the fact that dishes and plates were changed from one course to the next, and that every diner had an individual glass to drink from. ‘The French consider the fact that they touch nothing with their hands as a sign of cleanliness or elegance.’ Everything strikes him as being perfect, but the taste of the food fails to excite him.‘Despite their extremely varied art of preparing foodstuffs and patisserie, their dishes, are generally insipid and, peaches apart, the fruit of this city is ordinary.’

Citations taken from Rifaa at-Tahtawi, “L’or de Paris”, translated from the Arabic by Anouar Louca, Sindbad, Paris 1988.

Lilia Zaouali is a lecturer in ‘Anthropology of the Islamic World’ at the University of Jussieu, Paris.

Adapted by John Irving

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