Erotic Pages from Flaubert's *Voyage en Egypte*

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Dedication and Introduction

The following selective translation from Flaubert's journals was made during a summer visit to Madison, Wisconsin. I've decided to dedicate the translation to my friend Hugh Hochman, in whose apartment I was staying when I made it. Hugh was good enough to let my wife and I stay there while he was away in Toronto, and it's only because I began browsing in his library of French books that I got myself into hours of translating from Flaubert when I should have been on vacation. Such are the dangers of friends with decent libraries. It was Hugh's volume of *Voyage en Egypte* I used and Hugh's dictionaries also (a *Petit Robert* and a Merriam-Webster unabridged). More importantly, however, I know from things he'd said to me before that Hugh himself was particularly taken by these pages. I'm only sorry I didn't finish translating all of the erotic entries in Flaubert's journals. I wasn't in town long enough to finish the task that I'd initially planned while sitting with my coffee and my jet lag in Hugh's apartment. I think, however, that I've translated the best of the entries.

It was in the Autumn of 1849 that Flaubert left for Egypt with his friend, the writer Maxime Ducamp. Flaubert was not quite twenty-eight, and although he hadn't yet gained the literary reputation that would come with the publication of *Madame Bovary*, he was decidedly already a literary man of some accomplishments. The most noteworthy of these was an early draft of that eminently "oriental" work *The Temptation of St. Antony*. Flaubert was going to Egypt with an already rather developed knowledge of the ancient Mediterranean and with that intense fascination with the exotic which would characterize various of his later works. It is evident that Flaubert's attraction to the exotic was as much a matter of the erotic as it was a matter of archeological or scholarly interests. And some of the most evocative pages of the notes he wrote on his travels in Egypt concern his visits to prostitutes or dancing girls.

Throughout his life Flaubert would be a devoted and almost unapologetic frequenter of prostitutes. He wrote in explanation of his fascination: "It may be a perverted taste, but I love prostitution, and for itself, too, quite apart from its carnal aspects. My heart begins to pound every time I see one of those women in low-cut dresses walking under the lamplight in the rain, just as monks in their corded robes have always excited some deep, ascetic corner of my soul. The idea of prostitution is a meeting place of so many elements--lust, bitterness, complete absence of human contact, muscular frenzy, the clink of gold--that to peer into it makes one reel. One learns so many things in a brothel, and feels such sadness, and dreams so longingly of love!"

Various figures are mentioned in the narrative other than Flaubert and Ducamp. There is "Joseph," a dragoman they hired in Genoa and whose real name is Giuseppe Brichetti. And there is the crew of the Nile boat they hired.

The text I used for my translation is that prepared by Pierre-Marc de Biasi and entitled *Voyage en Egypte* (Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1991). My quotations in the notes from Flaubert's letters to Louise Colet are also translated directlyl from quotations previously made in this French edition.

--Eric Mader-Lin
Madison, August, 1997


from *Voyage en Egypte*


While we were having breakfast, a thin almeh came to speak with Joseph. She had narrow temples, eyes painted with antinomy, and a long veil which she held down around her elbows. She was followed by a pet lamb the wool of which had been dyed in places with yellow henna and the nose of which was muzzled by a thin strip of black velour, a very fuzzy animal with feet that looked artificial, not leaving its mistress for an instant.

The House of Kuchiouk Hanem--

Bambeh led the way accompanied by the lamb. She pulled open a door, and we entered a house with a small courtyard and a stairway facing it. Atop the stairway facing us, surrounded by the light, standing out against the blue background of the sky, a woman standing, in pink trousers, around her torso wearing only a dark violet gauze.

She had just come from her bath. Her firm throat smelled fresh, something of the odor of sugared terebinth. She began by perfuming our hands with rosewater.

We entered on the second floor. At the top of the stairs, one turn to the left into a chalk-white square room with two divans and two windows, one looking out on the city. From the latter, Joseph pointed out to me the large house of the famous Saphiah.

Kuchiouk Hanem--

Kuchiouk Hanem is a tall, splendid creature, whiter than Arab women. She is from Damascus. Her skin, especially on her body, is a bit loose; when she sits on her side, brown folds form on her flank. Her eyes are very large and black, her eyebrows black, her nostrils fine and narrow. Broad shoulders, full breasts, apples. She wore a large tarabouk, decorated at the top with a convex gold disk, in the middle of the disk a small green stone imitating emerald. The blue tassel on her tarabouk was spread out in the form of a fan, falling down to and caressing her shoulders. Along the front border of the tarabouk and running from one ear to the other she wore a small branch of white artificial flowers. Her curly black hair, too thick to be brushed, was parted into two thick tresses that were joined again at the back of her neck. One of her upper incisors, on the right side, was partially blackened with decay. For a bracelet she had two thin bands of gold twisted one around the other. A triple collar made from large chunks of unworked gold. Her earrings: convex gold disks with small beads of gold running around the circumference.

A long line of blue writing was tattooed on her right arm.

She asked us if we wanted to enjoy ourselves. Maxime right away requested to enjoy himself alone with her, and they descended to a room on the first floor. After Monsieur Ducamp came Monsieur Flaubert.

The musicians arrived: a child and an old man with a patch on his left eye. Both of them began scraping and scratching on their rebabehs, which is a kind of small, roundish violin from the end of which extends an iron bar that is planted in the ground for support. The rebabeh has two strings of horsehair. Also the neck of the rebabeh is very long in relation to the body of the instrument. Nothing is more raucous or disagreeable, and the musicians go on forever with their playing. Finally one has to yell to get them to stop.

Kuchiouk Hanem and Bambeh start to dance--

Kuchiouk Hanem's dance is as brutal as a kick in the ass. She tightens her vest up around her throat in such a manner that her two uncovered breasts are pushed one against the other. For a belt she wraps around her a brown shawl with thin gold stripes, tied somewhat like a bowtie and having three tassels hanging from ribbons. She raises herself now on one foot, now on the other: an amazing spectacle. One foot resting on the ground, the other comes up in front of the tibia of the former, the move made with a swift, light leap. I saw this dance depicted on old Greek vases.

Bambeh prefers rather to perform the dance in a straight line: she progresses forward, lowering and raising one of her thighs with a sort of grandiose, rhythmical limping. Bambeh has henna on her hands. She served as a chambermaid in Cairo, in an Italian house, and she speaks a bit of Italian. She has trouble with her eyes. All in all their dance--except for Kuchiouk's step mentioned above--is far inferior to that of Hassan El Bilbesi. Joseph's opinion is that all beautiful women are bad dancers.

Kuchiouk has picked up a tarabouch. She has, when she plays it, a superb pose. The tarabouch is upon her lap, supported on her left thigh. The elbow of her left arm is lowered, the fist raised, and the fingers she plays with are spread out and falling in sequence on the tarabouch's skin. The right hand strikes and marks the rhythm. She leans her head back, her face takes on a serious expression, her torso is arched backward a bit.

These women, and even more so the old musician, absorb a considerable amount of raki.

Kuchiouk dances with my tarabouk on her head. She escorts us to the end of her quarter and climbs alternately upon our two backs, calling out charges like a true Catholic girl.

The Cafe frequented by these ladies is a hut with beams of sunlight coming in through the branches of the ceiling and making bright spots on the mat where we are seated. We have a cup. Kuchiouk's joy in glimpsing our two wicks and in hearing Max say: "La illah Allah Mohammed rassoun Allah."[N1]

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We go back to Kuchiouk's place. The room was illuminated by three wicks in glass lamps full of oil mounted in iron chandeliers attached to the wall. The musicians are at their post. Small cups drunk very precipitously. Our gift of drinks and our sabres have their effect.

Entrance of Saphiah-Zougairah, a small woman with a large nose, deep-set black eyes, bright, ferocious, and sensual. Her collar of coins jingles like a stagecoach. She enters and kisses our hands.

The four women seated in a row on the divan and singing. The lamps cast trembling patterns onto the walls. The light is yellow. Bambeh wore a pink robe with long sleeves (the whole made of see-through fabric), her hair covered by a black scarf in the manner of a fellah. All of them sang, the tarabouches sounded, and the monotone rebecs made a low, raucous bass, *piano*.

I go down with Saphiah-Zougairah, a very corrupted woman, a writhing and ecstatic little tigress. I stain the divan.

The second *coup* with Kuchiouk.[N2] Kissing her on the neck, I could feel her round, metal collar against my teeth. Her cunt stroked me like folds of velvet. I felt ferocious.

Kuchiouk danced the bee for us. As a preliminary, Fergelli and another sailor were sent out to close the door. Being until then witnesses to the dances, they had formed the grotesque part of the tableau, seated in the background. A small black veil was placed over the child's eyes, and a fold of the old musician's blue turban was brought down over his. Kuchiouk undressed as she danced. When the dancer is completely nude, she keeps only a scarf with which she pretends to try to hide herself, and then she finishes off by tossing away the scarf. This is basically all there is to the bee.

In general she danced very little and wasn't much in the mood to dance that dance. Joseph was very animated, red-faced and clapping and thumping with his hands: La, en, oh! En, nia, oh! In the end, when having hopped with her special step, her legs passing one before the other, she returned out of breath to flop onto the corner of her divan, where her body continued to move with the rhythm, she was tossed her large white trousers with pink stripes, which she pulled all the way up to her neck, and the eyes of the two musicians were uncovered.

When she was kneeling, the magnificent and entirely sculptural outline of her patellas.[N3]

Another dance: a cup of coffee is placed on the ground, she dances in front of it, then falls to her knees and continues dancing with her torso, playing her crotalas continuously,[N4] and moving her arms somewhat as one does when swimming the frog. As she continued with this, little by little her head was lowered, until she had come all the way to the edge of the cup which she then took up with her teeth. She raised herself up again with a leap.

She didn't much worry herself that we returned to her place to sleep, even though sometimes robbers would come when it was known there were foreigners staying there. The guards, or panderers (she pointed them out to us by saying, "Ruffian! Buono ruffian!" and by giving them a few swift kicks in the ass and slaps for effect) had gone to sleep in a room between the pleasure room and the kitchen.

That night, during the dances, I went out into the street. A very bright star shone in the North-west, above a house situated to the left of ours. Complete silence. No lights anywhere except in the window of Kuchiouk's house. And the sound of the musician and the voices of the women singing.

Her servant, who spends the night in the room off to the side with the guards and Joseph, is an Abyssinian slave, a Negro woman with a round scar upon each arm, like a mark (or a vesicatory but not so regular) from the bubonic plague. Her name was Zeeneb, and in the night when Kuchiouk called to her she dragged out the first syllable: "La, Zeeeneb! La, Zeeeneb!"

We went to sleep. She wanted to stay on the edge of the bed. Lamp: the wick rested in a small oval glass with a beak. Her body was covered with sweat from having danced: she was cold. After the most violent of frolics, *coup*. She fell asleep with her hand in mine, our fingers interlaced. She snored. The lamp, whose faint light barely reached us, cast upon her forehead the image of a pale metal triangle. Her little dog was sleeping on the divan upon my silk vest. She began to cough, and I put my cloak on top of the cover over her.

I could hear Joseph and the guards chatting in lowered voices in the room next door. I watched her sleeping. I thought back to all the other nights when I watched other women sleeping. And all the other nights I had spent, wide awake. I thought back over everything, I let myself sink into sadness and reveries. I found bedbugs moving about. I amused myself by squashing them on the wall, which eventually made upon that chalk-whitened wall long black and red arabesques.[N5]

I could feel her belly against my rear (I was lying on my side, in a kneeling position), and her muff, warmer than her belly, excited me like a white-hot iron. Another time I lay half asleep with my finger hooked through her collar, as if to keep her from escaping should she wake up. I thought of Judith and Holophern. How sweet it would be for one's pride if in leaving one could be sure to leave behind some memory: to know she would think of you more than others, that you would stay in her heart.[N6]

At 2:45 she awoke. Another *coup* full of tenderness. Our hands were locked together. We loved each other, or at least I believed we did. While asleep, her thighs or hands would jerk abruptly, as if by a sudden involuntary shiver. I smoked a chicheh, she went to talk with Joseph. I go out into the street, the stars are shining brightly, the sky is very high. Kuchiouk returns carrying a pot of burning coals. For an hour she warmed herself, kneeling next to it. Then she came back to the bed and fell asleep. The pot of coals was at the head of her bed (cafas made from palm branches), and she slept, her thick blanket folded into a point over her head.

In the morning, we quietly said our farewells.



1) Provided he is not making a joke of some kind, and provided Flaubert is not misquoting his friend, Ducamp is trying to utter the basic Muslim credo: "There is no God but God [Allah], and Mohammed is his prophet." But according to the line quoted, Ducamp butchers the Arabic, which in French transliteration should be *La ilah illallah, Mohamed raoul Allah.*

2) I have retained the French word *coup*, which is familiar to English speakers in *coup d'etat*. The word, which usually means *blow* or *strike*, could in this context be translated as *bout* or *round*. So I could have translated this line as: "The second bout with Kuchiouk." Or: "The second round with Kuchiouk." Or even, more tamely: "The second time with Kuchiouk." I think, however, that the French word retains something none of these have, and is usable in English.

3) The *patella* is the triangular, frontal bone of the knee.

4) The *crotalas* (or *crotallae*) are a form of castanets used in Mediterranean antiquity.

5) Flaubert lent his manuscript of this travel journal to Louise Colet, a married woman with whom he had recently broken off an affair of several years. Colet found the detail concerning the bedbugs repugnant. In a letter, Flaubert defended himself: "You tell me Kuchiouk Hanem's bedbugs degrade her in your eyes. As for me, it was just that that I found enchanting. Their sickening odor mingled with the perfume of her body dripping with sandalwood. I want there to be a bitterness in everything, an eternal slap in the face right in the midst of our triumphs, and even desolation itself accompanying our enthusiasm. This reminds me of Jaffa, where, in entering, I breathed in simultaneously the scent of the lemon trees and that of rotting cadavers: the torn-up cemetery allowed one to see skeletons with the flesh half rotted away, while at the same time the green bows of the trees balanced over our heads their golden fruits. Don't you sense how this poetry is complete, how it is the great synthesis?"

6) In the letter to Louise Colet quoted above, Flaubert writes: "I return to Kuchiouk. It is we who think of her, but she would hardly think of us. We are fabricating the aesthetic on her account, while at the same time that famous traveler, that interesting man who had the honors of her couch, he has completely departed from her memory, like so many others. Oh, how traveling makes one modest! One sees the tiny place one has in the world."




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