The Imam and the Giraffe

Iman Mersal

Ali Cherri, from the "Dead Inside" series, watercolor. 2021

Marseille was by no means the ultimate destination in Rifa’a al-Tahtawi’s book Takhlis al-ibriz fi talkhis Paris (“The Extraction of Gold from the Review of Paris”) but rather a station of transit to the French capital. Like the other waystations, it is a place of harbingers, presaging the moments and encounters that he will explicate later in the book. He concludes the first part of the second passage, “On Our Residency in Marseille,” thusly: “Among the things I saw in Marseille, there was a place of recreation, called the spectacles (al-sbiktākil). It is a truly remarkable thing but one that must be seen with one’s own eyes since it is impossible to grasp by means of a description.”[1]

The Marseille press paid no heed to al-Tahtawi’s passage through the city, nor did it make mention of the forty-four-student mission sent by Muhammad Ali Pasha to France in 1826.[2] At that time, it was a city whose harbor was a major point of entry to France, a city that had lost half its residents to the plague of 1720, a city where throngs of people were arriving every day. Marseille was, in other words, a portal to regimes of inspection, examination, isolation, care under custody, and public health protection – regimes upheld by three, gargantuan quarantine institutions. The Marseille press and inhabitants did, however, work up an obsession of sorts from October 1826 through mid-1827 around the passage of a giraffe through the city, also en route to Paris. After twenty-five days at sea, this giraffe passed through the same ports and cities as imam al-Tahtawi, and it was known by numerous monikers: Egyptian Beauty, The Pasha’s Giraffe, African Beauty, Africa’s Giraffe, Daughter of the Tropics, Charles X’s Giraffe, and Geoffroy’s Giraffe.

It is a story that comes up in many sources: Muhammad Ali once gifted a giraffe to King Charles X. Arriving in Marseille on October 23, 1826, it was the first living giraffe to make it to France. All that the French knew about giraffes was based on two taxidermied specimens exhibited at a Paris research center since 1764. The giraffe that arrived in Marseille was kidnapped, along with her sister whom Muhammad Ali sent to George IV in England, from their mother in the mountainous region of Sennar in Nuba. The giraffe of George IV was put on display behind a viewing window at Windsor Park and died shortly thereafter. The giraffe in our story departed from Alexandria for Marseille with two caretakers, Hassan and ‘Ateer, and three cows. The bovines provided sustenance for the still-nursing giraffe calf. The quarantine official drafted a report about her every day during her period of isolation. The giraffe spent the entire winter in Marseille, where it was relatively warm, and was put on daily display as a sight to behold for the city’s residents and itinerants throughout her residency. On April 3, 1828, there was a meeting among the scientists of a Paris museum to elect who among them would go to Marseille to escort the giraffe to the capital. Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772–1844) was chosen for the task; he had participated as an expert in Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign to Egypt in 1798 and became a member of the French Académie des Sciences in 1807 – two decades later, he would end up teaching Charles Darwin. In addition to bringing the giraffe to the King, alive, his mission entailed an anatomical study of her joints and bones so that, in the event of her death, God forbid, she could be embalmed for the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle. Walking behind the cow and in front of the giraffe en route from Marseille to Paris, Geoffroy would tend to her health and tell ‘Ateer and Hassan what to do at every turn. Sometimes, he would precede the arrival of the procession to the next town in order to set up her sleeping quarters in a stable. Once, he had to conduct an operation on her hoof, surgically removing a nail. In every town, the giraffe was like a touring show in the public sphere … until her biggest performance on July 9, 1827, when she was presented to King Charles X. From then on, she lived in the Jardin des Plantes where, for four hours a day, four days a week, she was put on display. More than 600,000 people paid her a visit in a six-month period.[3]

So Marseille witnessed two crucial events in the year 1826: the passage of al-Tahtawi with the student mission to which the city’s residents paid little if any heed, and the passage of a giraffe, which aroused the passions of these same denizens, who documented and discussed her every move. Looking back in retrospect, two centuries later, we know that the imam’s travel writing became – at least in modern Arab culture – a foundational text, pivotal in the discovery of Western modernity and in the concept and defects of modernism. We also know that the imam played a vital role in establishing what we refer to today as the discourses of the Nahda, Arab enlightenment, and East-West relations. Furthermore, as evidenced by her representation in paintings, inspiration of theatre performances, and influence in furniture design and women’s hairstyles, we also know that the giraffe made quite an impression on people in her lifetime – so much so that the profits reaped from her spectators’ tickets were invested in building projects to expand the Paris zoo.[4] Even post-mortem, her corpse became significant given that French zoologists were more inclined to anatomy and physiology than to ethology, or the study of animal behavior.[5]

Egypt’s wali, Muhammad Ali himself, sent the students on this mission so that, upon their return, they could teach and contribute to the foundations of the modern state. He also sent the giraffe to build his relationship with the monarch and press of France while, at the same time, paving the way for the prospect of future student missions. There was actually, starting in February 1825, a growing enmity in the French press against the wali because he had sent his son Ibrahim Pasha at the head of an army to Greece in order to suppress a rebellion against the Ottomans. As al-Tahtawi and his peers were departing from Cairo to Alexandria on that Friday 8 Shaaban 1241 (March 17, 1826), the newspapers of Lyon and Marseille were inveighing against the victories of Ibrahim Pasha and expressing their sympathies with their Peloponnese brethren, suffering under Egyptian domination. The historical chronicle indicates that the Egyptian army did not withdraw until European forces, including those of France, defeated them in 1828, the same year that Muhammad Ali decided to send an Egyptian obelisk as another gift to Charles X. In fact, the obelisk would safely arrive in Paris in 1833.

Even though al-Tahtawi spent no more than fifty days in Marseille, eighteen of which were in quarantine, and even though he dedicates no more than a handful of pages to the city in his book, it is through Marseille that he establishes a dramaturgy, or a rubric to determine which scenes become milestones of his journey. In that same vein, it is through Marseille that he formulates the sinews of narrative, or the paths to follow in his storytelling, going so far as to describe for his readers that which cannot be “seen with your own eyes.” For example, he introduces the digression as a rhetorical device, which enables him to step outside the spectacle of a moment in order to describe it, as follows: In his discussion of the quarantine, he draws in the opinions of two faqihs, or religious scholars, from Morocco and does not hesitate to underline their divergent perspectives on the matter of the Earth’s rotation and its revolution around the sun. Afterward, he presents the quarantine residence – mapping out the place, its dining etiquette, and rituals of sleep.

Starting in Marseille, al-Tahtawi goes back and forth between language choices in order to describe the indescribable, constantly negotiating with two languages. Sometimes, he endows an Arabic word with the capacity to expand and accommodate meaning beyond its confines or constricts the interpretative range of a French word to draw an equivalence with an Arabic counterpart. And in some instances, it becomes inevitable to transliterate a French word, like spectacle, thereby midwifing a hermeneutic terrain of imaginative ambiguity.

And it is also starting in Marseille that Rifa’a’s singularity emerges with the use of the first-person pronoun, or I. Starting with his introduction to the story of his selection for the student mission (“When my name was entered among those of the travellers…”[6]), the first-person, plural subject we dominates the narrative. With phrases like “we stepped aboard,” “we kept walking,” “we passed by,” “let us recollect,” “we replenished,” “we heard,” “we saw,” and “we set anchor,” the we refers to the students of the mission, from the moment of their departure from Egypt to that of their landing in Marseille. After Marseille, the meaning of we expands to refer sometimes to the subjects of the wali or to Arabs, Muslims, or Egyptians among others. After stepping out of the huge quarantine facility to which al-Tahtawi always refers as “home” and going out into the urban space of Marseille, the first thing that Rifa’a describes are the cafés as well as the streets, carriages, women, and dazzling shops clad in mirrors. Returning to one café in particular, he goes into a detailed description and finds himself standing in front of a mirror, where the singular pronoun as narrator arises, separate from the collective we:

When I entered this coffee house and sat down there, it felt like being in a huge bazaar because of the huge numbers of people there. When a group of people appeared both inside and outside, their faces appeared on all sides in the mirrors, and one could see the multiplicity of people walking around, sitting and standing. One thus got the impression that this coffee house was a street, and I realized that it was an enclosed coffee house only because I saw our multiple images [reflected] in the mirrors.[7]

Now, we may bring the work of Derek Gregory and his article “Cultures of Travel and Spatial Formations of Knowledge” into this discussion and consider the traveler in this instance not as a student drawn to a teacher but rather as the very bearer of pedagogy.[8] Being drawn in and captivated as if by gravity is a collective action, wherein individuals in assembly participate. In contrast, to bear or to bring into being – to create, to engender – is a phenomenon of the singular, an action which transpires only upon the moment of estrangement that strips personhood from the collective reflected in the mirror. Al-Tahtawi’s language is indicative of this, as in the phrases “When I entered,” “I passed a moment there,” “I gave it all a good think,” “so it was thought,” and “I came to know all that I knew I didn’t know.” Moreover, in the scene, al-Tahtawi does not deploy the mirror as a symbol or a symptom of his ignorance; instead, he underlines his familiarity with mirrors: “The special glass of these mirrors was the reason for all this – in our mirrors back home, the images of people are usually consolidated.”[9] Neither does the grandiosity of the mirrors strike him. Before departing Egypt, he along with his peers of the mission spent twenty-three days in the Alexandria seraglio of the wali Muhammad Ali, a period in which they rarely ventured out into the city.[10] But he nevertheless makes no mention of the palace mirrors given they do not muddle anyone’s mind; grand as they may be, they are in a private residence. No doubt the wali’s seraglio like the quarantine facility was also a “home” for Rifa’a. It is in a moment of fragility, of personhood’s vulnerability, that Rifa’a creates a spectacle, wherein the mirrors turn the café into a bazaar or passageway before he realizes that it is an enclosed space. It is neither home nor palace, neither street nor bazaar – it is a crowded, public space in which this moment of interiority, of looking inward, transpires.

The short, descriptive accounts of urban landscapes written by Muhammad Mazhar Effendi are the only other extant texts we have from the group of students traveling with al-Tahtawi on that first journey to France. These accounts are organized around the following topics: height of the buildings, cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carriages, and traveling ladies in Marseille. As for Paris, they cover the gardens and public parks and broach indescribable matters: “What I saw was the pinnacle of creativity, of artistry and craftsmanship. I would go often to the malls (theatres), which you would not understand unless you were there to see it with your own eyes.”[11] Unfortunately, Mazhar effendi authored his text in French and composed it as if it were a letter to a relative; it garnered a French Composition and Grammar Award and was referenced by Mssr Jomard in his 1828 report on the achievements of the student mission. So we do not actually know whether Mazhar effendi used the word théâtre or spectacle because Mssr Jomard translated it as “malls (theatres),” which leaves us with only al-Tahtawi’s spectacle.

The young Rifa’a left Cairo during the period of its so-called “urbanization” and passed through Alexandria, which he has likened to Marseille on a number of occasions, but not once did he narrate a similar moment of vulnerability before leaving Egypt. Al-Tahtawi’s fragility in that Marseille café is his most brazen, most refined, expression of melancholy; its quality is not of the loneliness of a desolate wasteland, nor of a cry in the wilderness, nor of recognizing one’s face in a mirror, nor of nostalgia for the homeland.[12] Rather, it is the melancholy of coming to terms with that which is the city – that is, with the public sphere, as defined by Jürgen Habermas, in the first half of the nineteenth century. In his definition, there is a certain temporality that frames this public sphere, rendering it an open space mainly for citizens; it enables the emergence of sundry new social practices, in the wake of a dwindling connection to the church and the elite, aristocratic salons, a connection on the wane since the late eighteenth century. In the Habermasian public sphere, it is the café, the newsprint press, and the culture of criticism in particular that form the contours of this space.[13] The scene proffers the lexicon for al-Tahtawi’s first encounter with the public sphere; the café is by no means host to a gaggle of urban riffraff but rather gathers the patrons of etiquette. It is furthermore distinguished most notably by the presence of women who frequent the café as well as by the schema regulating where people sit, the way in which they order drinks, the size of the coffee cup, and also the newspapers, or “the made-to-be-read papers of day-to-day events.”[14] It is almost as if al-Tahtawi was an early ethnographer of modernity as represented in the public sphere at a time when ethnography was restricted to white researchers doing their field work around the headwaters of rivers, lakes, and jungles – seemingly undiscovered sites. The subjects of these ethnographies were tribes, the inhabitants of the wild, the impoverished, and herds of exotic animals – all that which fell outside the constitutive parameters of so-called “civilization.”

As for the giraffe, had she been able to speak, we might have had a glimpse into the melancholy that clouded each step of her journey, far from the forest, family, and natural world, but alas she is not a creature of many words. The historical archive, however, holds the published testimonies of other people who documented her every move – people like the quarantine official, her doctor Geoffroy, eyewitnesses, painters, storytellers, poets, and zoological experts. Although the giraffe could not bring into being, create, or engender scenes alone, she herself was the spectacle, stirring the spirit of curiosity much more so than did the students on an educational mission. From the wonders of the jungle unknown to the alleys, squares, streets, royal palaces, botanical gardens, and zoos – she finally ended up as an autopsied and taxidermied corpse on exhibit for some time in Paris’s museum of natural history. The giraffe as spectacle, dead and alive, made her mark in the early stages of the domestication of public space – the same public space which al-Tahtawi in his travelogue tried to define and to describe and which ultimately ended up taming him, rendering him fit for domestic society, despite his strangeness. To consider the legacies of the giraffe and al-Tahtawi in tandem is to venture into a labyrinth of spectacles: we watch Rifa’a peering into the mirror as we watch the spectators beholding the sight of the giraffe walking through the city.

In Takhlis al-ibriz (“Extraction of Gold”), al-Tahtawi dedicates the seventh part of his second passage to the public gardens of Paris, returning to the postponed discussion on theatre, or spectacle:

These theatres resemble large houses surmounted by a huge dome. Inside, there are several floors, each of which has rooms [boxes] arranged around the inside of the dome. At one side of the building, there is a large stage, on which all these rooms give out, so that everything that goes on there is visible to the people that are inside the building.[15]

Spectacle is indescribable, not because of the Arabic language’s lexical incapacity or inability of a single word to accommodate a meaning otherwise not within its breadth; instead, spectacle as a public space was a bizarre wonder, and without reference to terminology of the private space – “house,” “home,” and “rooms,” it is impossible to domesticate through translation … which came to the attention of the scientist Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. As he prodded the three cows to walk in front of the giraffe, in a bid to give her a sense of security, she once refused to budge for fear of the crowds of spectators. So he got her a horse, to walk in front of her, and thus she resumed her march to Paris.

Translation: Eyad Houssami

[1]. Daniel L. Newman, An Imam In Paris: Al-Tahtawi’s Visit to France (1826–31) (London: Saqi Books, 2004), Kindle Edition, 5104. Original Arabic in Rifa’a Rafi’ al-Tahtawi, Takhlis al-ibriz fi talkhis Paris (Cairo: Al-hay’a al-masriyyah al-‘amah lil kitab, 1993), 122.

[2]. For insights into the qualities of the discourse around the 1826 mission to France, see Alain Silvera, “The First Egyptian Student Mission to France under Muhammad Ali,” Middle Eastern Studies 16, no. 2 (1980): 1–22. In his article, Silvera conveys how the academic discourse was comprised of official reports by a certain Mssr Jomard and his press releases, which pertained to the pedagogical progress of the students, whom he describes as vanguards. In contrast, the popular Parisian press ridiculed the students in 1827–1828 as demonstrated by Silvera on pp. 12–13 of his article.

[3]. For more details on the giraffe’s story and for more bibliographical references, see Olivier Lagueux, “Geoffroy’s Giraffe: The Hagiography of a Charismatic Mammal,” Journal of the History of Biology 36, no. 2 (2003): 225–247.

[4]. Ibid., 240.

[5]. Ibid., 241.

[6]. Newman, 32. Original in al-Tahtawi, 20.

[7]. Ibid., 5027. Original in al-Tahtawi, 119.

[8]. Derek Gregory, “Culture of Travel and Spatial Formations of Knowledge,” Erdkunde 54, no. 4 (2000): 297–319.

[9] Al-Tahtawi uses the term thuthni (doubles, consolidates):

فعرفت أن هذا كله بسبب خاصية الزجاج؛ فعادة المرآة عندنا أن تثني صورة الإنسان.

See al-Tahtawi, Takhlis, 119.

[10]. Al-Tahtawi, 96.

[11]. See Mssr Jomard’s 1828 report on the student mission in Al-Emir ‘Amr Tawsoon, Al-ba’athat al-‘almiyyah fi ‘ahd Muhammad Ali thumma fi ‘ahdei Abbas al-Awal wa Sa’id (Alexandria: Matba’at Salah al-Din, 1934), 20.

[12]. Tarek El-Ariss, “On Pain and Untranslatability in the Literary World of Rifa’a al-Tahtawi,” in Wiley Blackwell Companion to World Literature, ed. Ken Seigneurie (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2019), 169–12. In El-Ariss’s reading, this scene is interpreted through a framework of pain and internal collapse endured by al-Tahtawi. This collapse is likened to that of Jacques Lacan, which he terms the embodiment of otherness – as epitomized by the “mirror stage” in which a unified reflection of self correlates with the singularity of image and identity. Al-Tahtawi’s encounter with the mirror in Marseille is, for El-Ariss, a moment of confusion, which unsettles al-Tahtawi and his nostalgia for the homeland. Indeed, it is the notion of “identity” that underpins El-Ariss’s reading and that furnishes the lexical field churning in al-Tahtawi’s consciousness upon his confrontation with the self in the mirror. My reading of the scene engages, no doubt, in a conversation with that of El-Ariss.

[13]. Jürgen Habermas, “The Public Sphere,” in Rethinking Popular Culture: Contemporary Perspectives in Cultural Studies, eds. Chandra Mukerji and Michael Schudson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 398–404.

[14]. Al-Tahtawi, 118.

[15]. Newman, 6453. Original text in al-Tahtawi, 204–205.