Travels through Arabia with Niebuhr

Carsten Niebuhr, Travels through Arabia and Other Countries of the East.
Translated by Robert Heron. Reading: Garnet, 1994. 2 vols., 424, 437 pp.
ISBN 1-873938 43 8, 1 873938 54 3 [reprint of 1792 edition]

Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco

Little more than a decade before the American Revolution stole the international headlines, the King of Denmark sponsored an expedition to Arabia in order to search for clues about biblical history. A rather odd group of individuals came together for the adventure of a lifetime that would in fact claim the lives of all but a young surveyor and jack-of-all-miscellaneous-scientific-trades by the name of Carsten Niebuhr. What is most significant about this rather unusual voyage, made three decades before Napoleon dragged a virtual army of savants along with him to Egypt, is the brief but eventful stop in Yemen. Niebuhr, compiling an account from his own observations and notes of his colleagues, gave Western European scholars a firsthand glimpse of a part of the world that was virgin terra incognita at this time. The trials and accomplishments of the Danish expedition, wonderfully set forth in Hansen's Arabia Felix: The Danish Expedition of1761-1767 (London: St. James, 1964), have been known for some time. The article by Joseph Chelhod entitled "Notes d'ethnologieyéménites: l'Arabie du Sud vue par C. Niebuhr"(Revue de l'Occident Musulman et de laMéditeranée 18:19-45, 1974) should also be consulted.

Garnet Publishing has seemingly filled a gap in availability of Niebuhr's classic account of the journey by its recent publication in two volume of a facsimile of Robert Heron's1792 English translation of the French translation of Niebuhr’s original 1772 German text (reprinted in Graz in 1969). Apart from a brief (7 pages) but informative introduction by Robin Bidwell, the archaic orthography and quaint translation quality (Heron apparently did the translation while in a debtor's prison!) have not been improved upon. In principle, I am pleased to see publishing firms bring back to life valuable past resources for the study of Yemen. Apart from the edition printed in Beirut, one has to find a library with a rare book collection to locate this important travel account on American soil. I purposefully said "in principle" due to two major obstacles I see to getting the best value out of this old text. First, the high cost (fed in part, I know by the declining value of the dollar versus the British pound) of this two volume set ($100 per volume) renders it beyond the budget of most individuals. Libraries will appreciate the hard cover, but I fear the price will cause many librarians to think twice about ordering the set unless pressed and pressed again by a concerned faculty member. There is a second and more important obstacle that is more substantive: this English translation is simply not very good and a poor substitute for the German original. Given that American scholars appear to be less and less fluent with German and French (two rather important languages for reading through basic texts on the history and culture of Yemen),I fear that the value of Niebuhr's work will continue to be ignored. It would be far more valuable to have a decent translation of this seminal text. To the extent this facsimile delays that, I am saddened.

It would be quite easy to give a facile review of this publication of Niebuhr's text . After all, it has a wonderful plot with dead bodies and foreign intrigue, as well as the rare comments of an educated 18th century European in Yemen. I have decided to expand the typical short review such a publication might get in almost any other forum, and dedicate an extended discussion of three things: the trip itself (surely worth the effort), the adequacy(or should I rather be up front and say forthrightly 'inadequacy') of the Heron translation, and the reprint itself. I shall also append a few short selections from the text to give a taste for the type of information available in it.

1. The Expedition

There is a very readable account of the Danish expedition and the life of Niebuhr in Hansen's text cited above. The members of the expedition were Carsten Niebuhr (basically a graduate student), von Haven (the Arabist), Forskal (the botanist),Kramer (the physician), and Baurenfeind (the artist). I thought it might be interesting to give an account of the trip by giving the gist of the comments to be found in this abbreviated account. The team set out on January 4, 1761 from Copenhagen on a Danish military ship. Ill luck plagued them from the start. Heavy storms impeded their progress until mid-March. Things were so bad aboard ship that von Haven decided to go by land to Marseille, a port the ship was bound for and eventually arrived at on May 14. A month later the ship set anchor in Malta, finally reaching Istanbul (despite some flack from English ships prowling the Mediterranean) in late July.

Upon leaving Istanbul, the explorers decided to wear native "Turkish" dress rather than draw attention to themselves as Europeans (rather distant northerners at that). At Rhodes their appearance was sufficiently convincing that the Danish consul was afraid to let them in. Niebuhr was quick to show his ethnocentrism on the Turkish ship taking the team to Alexandria, Egypt. He "had foon an opportunity of remarking the ignorance of the Turks in everything relative to navigation" (vol 1, p. 27), assuming that the navigational instruments must have been stolen from a Christian ship! Even the "few rufty guns" were "not properly mounted." In a short while Niebuhr and Forskal made the acquaintance, surreptitiously, of a harem of young Turkish girls in the cabin next to theirs. "Thofe females became at laft of familiar with us, as to give us notice by knocking at the window, whenever they were alone"(pp. 30-31). Only later did Niebuhr realize that such "imprudent frolic" might have gotten them into serious trouble. Otherwise it was an uneventful voyage, apart from the eight crew members that died en route (and thus brought fears of the plague to the green eyes of the European savants).

Having at last landed in Egypt, Niebuhr wastes little time in commenting on the "ftupidity and ignorance of the native inhabitants" (p. 39), including the peasant who thought his house turned upside town after looking through Niebuhr's looking glass. The boat trip to Cairo occasioned more fear on the part of Niebuhr, who complained of pirates and strong swimmers who would attempt to steal from the boat. Later in Cairo he complained that the attendants in the public baths might dislocate a foreigner's limbs(p. 62). The account as a whole has wonderful details on Egyptian life, manners and trade. We are told, for example, that 1,800,000pounds of saffron were produced for export in Egypt annually (p. 96).Niebuhr was an apt observer of Egyptian culture, noting, for example, that Arabic "in the mouths of the Egyptians" "difplays little of its genune purity" (p. 110). But he was very much prone to interpret behavior in simplistic and deterministic ways: thus we are informed that the "climate, cuftoms, and government, confpire to give the manners of the orientals a melancholy caft" (p. 122). In their Oriental ignorance, even their diversions are defined as "infipid"(p. 122). These public diversions include dressing up baboons like people, although, as Niebuhr notes, "a monkey, with his tail, appears to them no unfit reprefentation of an European" (p. 146). And like the good tourist he was, Niebuhr even talks about the pyramids (pp.153-156).

After a year in Egypt, Niebuhr was able to visit the Sinai. True to his mission to address issues of concern to biblical scholars, Niebuhr visited Mount Sinai, remarking rather ahead of his time that he did not see how the multitude of Israelites could have camped at the narrow foot of the mount (p. 192). No doubt he was unaware that the North African Ibn Khald‚n had arrived ata similar conclusion a couple of centuries earlier. The team took ship to Jidda, describing the sites, and eventually landed in the harbor of Luhayya on December 29, 1763. At last they stepped foot on Yemeni soil.

Upon arriving in Yemen, Niebuhr had the same reaction that many of us who have lived in Yemen also have: he found the Arabs "more civilized" the farther he proceeded from Egypt. Those in Luhayya were deemed to be "curious, intelligent, and polifhed in their manners" (pp. 256-257). Later, the normally fearful Niebuhr remarked that he "found the inhabitants of Yemen in fuch a ftate of civilization, that we could travel among them with the fame fafety as in Europe" (pp. 273-274). No doubt Yemen was safer at the time. The local emir hosted the team and was quite delighted to look through Forskal’s microscope and see minute insects loom so large. But customs officials in Mocha reeked havoc with Forskal's faunal collections (pp. 320-321).

Niebuhr seems to have lightened up after reaching Yemen. He tells a number of anecdotes about the good-natured curiosity of the local people. At times a few of the team played their violins, though not in public given the low esteem held for common musicians. He tells of a certain aging merchant, who had “enjoyed" over a hundred female slaves in his day and now asked the foreigners for some herb that would restore the "vigour of youth" (p.261). Niebuhr claims that the women here would lift their veils to show their beauty off to the foreigners if they thought no Arab would see. In fact, on the subject of gender Niebuhr is quite modern. Hechides Europeans for assuming Muslim women are treated differently than Christian women. "The women of that country feem to be as free and happy as thofe of Europe can poffibly be," he says (vol. 2, p.212). Of course, we might inquire what the status of women was in Europe at the time!

From Luhayya Niebuhr and company set off for Mocha, as is stated quite quaintly in the translation "upon ouraffes" (p. 265). Riding assback was, he confided, "not the moft pleafant to the rider" (p. 264). There is much to be gleaned from Niebuhr’s rich description, notwithstanding the poor quality of the translation. Apart from place names and descriptions of various places visited, there is a never ending stream of stories and curious facts about life in Yemen at the time. I will note just a few of these: wheat bread was very rare in the coastal region (p. 267); termites were a great nuisance (p. 270); Banian merchants were allowed to practice their native religion but not to bring their wives (p. 273);only about half of the "ancient extent" of Zabid was occupied when Niebuhr saw it (p. 284); highland Yemenis use sleeping bags (p. 298);the streets of Jibla were paved (p. 304); Europeans could not ride donkeyback into Mocha (p. 316); the university at Dhamar was said to have 500 students (p. 362); the hills near Sanaa were deforested in Niebuhr’s time (p. 375); Yemeni girls marry as early as age 9 or 10(vol. 2, p. 57); drinking a tea of coffee husk (qishr) is more common than drinking coffee made from the bean (vol. 2, p. 229).

One of the points noted by Niebuhr that hit home with me was the inquisitive nature of highlanders. "The Arabs of Yemen, and efpecially the Highlanders, often ftop ftrangers, to afkwhence they come, and whether they are going" (p. 303). I can remember quite vividly how many times I would be hailed with a minwayn ji't on my walking treks near al-Ahjur. Another relates to his brief remarks on qat, which he found "unfavourable to fleep" (vol. 2, p. 225).

Niebuhr and Forskal seemed to have hit it off quite well on the trip, often traveling together in native disguise. At Jibla one Yemeni mistook Niebuhr for a certain Hajj Ahmad, an old acquaintance (p. 303). Just when things seemed to be going their way, the expedition members started dropping like proverbial flies. Von Haven caught a fever and died on May 24 in Mocha, where he was buried. Forskal succombed to fever on July 11 in Yarim, where he was buried but only by finding six pallbearers to do the job at midnight (p. 360). Niebuhr and Kramer reached Sanaa on July 16 and were housed in an empty villa in Bir al-'Azab. But they stayed only ten days, after which the imam supplied them with camels for the trip back to the coast. In August all three remaining members fell ill, but the English merchant resident in Mocha came to their rescue (p. 396). However, only Niebuhr was to recover and continue the journey. The artist Baurenfeind died on board an English ship on August 29, a Swedish servant the next day, and Kramer later at Bombay on February 10, 1764.

The second volume of the travels contains information on the geography and customs of the region, including more details on Yemen. There is much of value here on the politics of the late 18th century, especially the Zaydi imams. And anyone interested in religion, science and esoteric knowledge will not be disappointed. There are short accounts of the flora and fauna, although Niebuhr earlier edited Forskal's detailed yet uncompleted studies on these. Would there were an index to the rich description Niebuhr provides.

2. The Translation

"As to the translation; I cannot indeed say much for it." (vol. 1, p. xii)

I could not agree more with Robert Heron in his candid (perhaps more so than he intended) admission that his translation of Niebuhr's travel account was not that good. Part of the problem goes beyond his proficiency in French (which I am not that qualified to judge) to the obvious fact that he simply chose those parts he found interesting and left out "various things feemed to be addreffed of exclufively to men of erudition." In that I fancy myself to be a man of erudition, I find this Reader's Digestcondensation approach to translation a poor substitute for serious scholarship. To be blunt, Robert Heron did not have a clue about the Middle East and it appears that it was only the expedition woes that stimulated him to produce his none-to-literal translation.

3. The Reprint Edition

I must say up front that Garnet Publishing spared no lack of effort (please read the previous phrase carefully)in this venture. Let us start with the dustcover jacket for volume 1.The cover is attractive with an original , historical drawing by D.Lizars of a man in Yemeni dress. This is a variant of the illustration found on p. 382 of volume 1. This is of far better quality than the similar illustration (which is poorly reproduced) in the text itself. The drawing is interesting in its own right, and it deserves a short aside. The illustrator was not very well informed about Yemen. The pose of the main figure is more studio than realistic. His left foot is forward with his right foot raised on the toes. The left hand is semi-clenched in a fist at his side with the right hand brandishing a narrow standard (minus its flag). The dagger angle indicates a sayyid or qadi, but the rose designs on the robe strike me as more befitting French wallpaper of the time than a Yemeni’s best wardrobe. There appear to be two men in the background fighting each other with daggers. If I am not mistaken, one of the men is about to be scalped. I wonder if the illustrator had just finished a job for a book on the Iroquois? I think I detect a poor attempt at drawing aloe to the right of the main figure. The picture for the second volume cover is of a man on horseback near the pyramids, so I will pass on its merits.

Back to the cover... For some reason the designer (from op den Brouw Design and Illustration Consultancy, according to the jacket) copied the original title page information verbatim. Thus we find that the volumes are "performed by M. Niebuhr"(pro forma as per the original). Perhaps it may seem to be a quibble about maintaining an archaic "performed" here; I find it somewhat confusing as it implies this might be something other than a travel account (which I suppose it is). But surely this will only confuse almost everyone that Niebuhr had a name with the first initial of "M." His first name was in fact Carsten (even Karsten, if you want),and the "M" in the original is simply an obscure and wrong-headed(probably borrowing from M. for Monsieur) shortening (now not used in English) from Mr (see vol. 1, p. ix where Heron refers to "Mr Niebuhr"). On the bookshelf we are condemned to look at M. Niebuhr! It strikes me as sloppy and lazy to not provide accurate and less confusing information on the jacket.

The reprint itself was photographed from the1816 London edition, which contrary to the claim in the production note (vol 1, p. viii of preliminaries) was not the "original" edition of the translation. I point this out mainly because it is the title page of the original 1792 edition that is reproduced in the reprint. I am not sure the publisher needs to blame the quality of the type on the printing technology of the time (is this not obvious in any reprint?), except as a way of justifying the "slight distortion of the type" in the photographic process. I am somewhat curious what this refers to and why the details might not have been given if it was considered useful to mention distortion at all. There are indeed places where the type is indistinct, which is not surprising. To my mind here is yet another reason why a modern translation of the original is called for. The illustrations are very poorly reproduced; I have seen better results from my office xerox machine. These appear to be inferior reproductions from a well-thumbed 1816edition.

The introduction by Bidwell is short and rather pedestrian. I somehow expect more from a scholar of Bidwell’s stature and expertise. No effort was made to place the text in context apart from the basic details of the expedition and Niebuhr’s life. There are interesting archival materials that might have been consulted. It is rather unfortunate that no attempt was made to suggest references for the reader to follow up on the subject. Even Bidwell’s own travel book, also newly republished, should be cited for gaining a better grasp of the travel's context. To be honest, I fear there is little in this brief introduction that would differ from his earlier account of the expedition. The exact same introduction is provided in both volumes. Is this really necessary? Is there anyone who would just buy volume 2?

I must take issue with the rather flippant remark on p. v of the introduction that the 1772 German text (which is Beschreibung von Arabien and not Bescreibung ! as misspelled here)is "a dry factual book, without embellishment and without any attempt to attract the casual reader." This sentiment is quite illogical tome. Having looked at the original, I find great value in what Bidwell passes off as "dry." Such dry documentation may not be for the casual reader, but neither is this reprint! Once again, I see in such a remark the need for a thorough translation to restore the so-called “dry" material which is of paramount interest to scholars of Yemen. Given that Heron translated (or should I say embellished) from the French, already removed from the original, these remarks suggest that the original German was not consulted but simply ignored out of hand as Bidwell put together his haphazard introductory remarks.

While I am going deeper and deeper into the inadequacies of the reprint, I might also inquire why normal publishing guidelines were abandoned in printing the introduction. First, the print is much larger in the modern introduction than that in the original text. It reminds me of a book written specifically for older people with poor eyesight. Second, the margins are virtually obliterated. The right hand margin is a half-inch, far too close to the edge for this size print; the left hand margin is only a quarter inch due to the binding. Apart from being unattractive, it is inconsistent with the text as a whole. The "Note on Production" is not justified (in a printing sense), while all else is.

Picky, picky, you might say. I agree, but my main point is that the production as a whole is sloppy. When a publisher wants $200 for these two volumes without any color photographs and a poor quality of text that will turn off many readers (casual or not), I think more effort is called for on its part. For this amount I would like a major introductory essay, an annotated bibliography and a far more coherent justification for putting an inferior translation back into print. If you can afford it(were it not for the review copy, I would not spend this much of my own money for a text I would only occasionally consult), by all means add these volumes to your bookshelf. If you can still find the old Beirut pirate edition, by all means go for that. If your librarian is not too aghast at the cost, try to add it to the collection of your college or university despite the misgivings I have raised in this review. There is one hope that I have from this reprint publication -that someone who reads it might agree that the translation is bad and outdated to the point he or she decides to do a translation of the original German. And I might add a related hope that in the future the publisher, whose efforts at publishing these rare archival texts are to be commended, will expend at least a modicum of effort in giving the buyer something more for something less.

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