I am currently reading a magnificent book by French writer Louis Blin on the Saudi city of Jeddah called La découverte de l’Arabie par les Français (The French Discovery of Arabia).
This is an anthology of texts written by the French diplomats, voyagers, adventurers and novelists who have discovered Jeddah and been fascinated by it. For a largely ignorant reader like me, the cultural shock is refreshing and also encourages some soul-searching.
If the author had opted to use a pseudonym, those who know him would quickly have identified him as the author anyway without the slightest hesitation.
A scholar and a diplomat, a strategist and an economist, a historian and a political scientist, Louis Blin currently serves at the French Foreign Ministry’s centre for strategic studies.
He has written many books, of which my favourite is Tintin and the Arabs, which describes what the four Tintin comic books whose plots unfold in Arab lands, chiefly Saudi Arabia, have to say about the shaping of French (and maybe also French-speaking) attitudes to the Arab world.
The Tintin books do not portray the Arab world in a favourable way, but their creator, Hergé, a great artist, avoids any crude systematisation. Tintin also has many Arab friends in the books, and some of them are real heroes.
Blin’s book on Jeddah is a formidable work and an intriguing one. It should also challenge Egyptian stereotypes about the Arabian Peninsula.
Arabia was never a forgotten land in which nothing ever happened. Jeddah, Blin writes, was always a cosmopolitan, though mainly Muslim, city and a key commercial centre.It was the home to Indians, to the sons of Arab tribes, to Circassians, to Central Asians, to North Africans and to Africans.
We can measure how much and how deeply the building of the Suez Canal towards the end of the 19th century changed the world and our views by looking at the history of Jeddah.
Before the building of the canal, people living on the two sides of the Mediterranean tended to dismiss the Arabian Peninsula as irrelevant except for religious reasons.
However, Jeddah was a key component of an Asian “international system” linking India, Iran and other Asian countries to the Arab world. It was the gateway to Mecca and Medina and therefore a magnet for Muslims from all over the world.
It did not have economic or political links to Europe, though this changed after the opening of the Suez Canal. Even so, before the discovery of oil in the Middle East early in the last century, most Westerners considered Jeddah to be simply a stop on the route to India.
However, being irrelevant to European trade and the economy did not mean being unknown. Over the 18th and 19th centuries, many travellers, adventurers, novelists, diplomats and others wrote accounts of Jeddah for French readers.
Blin even plausibly claims that French people at that time could have had a better knowledge of the city than our own contemporaries. Jeddah was the quintessence of the East and one of its key cities.
The French had developed an appetite for exotic and oriental objects and for mysterious oriental cities at the time, and Jeddah ranked high in this category.
Many features of the city were indeed fascinating. Access was extremely difficult, even dangerous.
The port was protected by walls of coral, and it was impossible for ships to find their way through at night since they needed to have the sun behind them to be able to see. Larger ships could not do so and had to stop miles away from the port. From inland, mountains more or less protected the city.
Jeddah was amazingly beautiful, and the design of its white buildings was exquisite. The people were usually friendly and had developed hospitality as a form of art. They were much more generous and welcoming than Europeans.
Even the few visitors who complained about their insistent curiosity admitted that the people were not hostile. The food was delicious, and the local people had wit, a refined sense of humour and a gift for conversation.
However, those Europeans who stayed for a while in the city also quickly discovered that life there could be difficult. The climate was awful, for example.
There was a saying that went “Pondichéry is a hot bath, Aden is a furnace and Jeddah is hell.” The humidity was terrible, and sweat did not evaporate, so people developed skin conditions and various illnesses.
The buildings, attacked by humidity and the wind, could collapse, burying dozens of people. Jeddah was also a kingdom of flies. Stray dogs and goats invaded the streets, but nobody complained as they ate the rubbish. Once in a while, Christians were attacked or even slaughtered.
Jeddah and Arabia were the centre of the Muslim world, but for Europeans they were the periphery. The latter never showed an inclination to conquer the Arabian Peninsula even though from the dawn of ancient Greek civilisation to our own times they tended to consider that they had a right to go anywhere at any time.
Yet, they readily accepted the inviolability and sacredness of Mecca and Medina in the Arabian Peninsula.
France and the United Kingdom opened consulates in Jeddah in the 1830s, and their diplomatic correspondence quickly destroyed the myth of a Peninsula that had somehow been left out of history. Commercial links and Muslim pilgrims from their colonies were their main concern, and after 1865 cholera carried by Indian pilgrims could be transmitted to other pilgrims and even reach Africa, the Ottoman Empire and Europe.
The European consuls also kept an eye on the possible political exploitation of the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. With the benefit of hindsight, their concern seems to be an irrational and unjustified fear.
They tried to gather information about many issues, but since they were geographically confined to the Hijaz where Jeddah is located, they had no way to influence the events in Najd in the east of what is now Saudi Arabia.
Another main source of European reports on Arabia at the time was travel stories. Blin says in his book that such stories are often underestimated in academic studies.
He has unearthed an incredible number of texts still unknown to the general public. An earlier scholar, Benjamin Reilly, named four French travellers that published texts on Jeddah between 1800 and 1950. Blin has found 77.
Most of these French authors entered Arabia from Egypt, and many indulged in comparisons between the two countries. Their interest in the Arabian Peninsula thus stemmed from their interest in Egypt, the subject of following articles.
*The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: All about Jeddah — I