“It was so pleasant to see a place where any man may go for a moment’s quiet, and there is none to find fault with him, nor make him afraid.”
At twenty-nine, already an outlier in being unmarried and having claimed for herself erudition comparable to what the best formal education offered men at the time, Florence Nightingale (May 12, 1820–August 13, 1910) did something completely radical for a woman in her era — in the winter of 1849, she traveled to a foreign country on another continent with a fundamentally different culture, accompanied only by a middle-aged childless couple she had befriended in Paris through her parents. Nightingale’s beautiful writings from her travels, posthumously published as Letters from Egypt: A Journey on the Nile, 1849–1850 (public library), emanate the same critical insight, humane curiosity, and reverence for basic human dignity that would lead her to revolutionize hospital care five years later — work that gained her the moniker “the Lady with the Lamp” and established her as the founder of modern nursing.
In a letter to her sister penned shortly after her arrival in Alexandria, Nightingale considers the key difference between Islam and Christianity as she perceived it:
The Mohametan religion takes man on the side of his passions; it gratifies all these; it offers him enjoyment as his reward. The Christian religion takes him on the side of penitence and self-denial. This seems the fundamental difference: otherwise there is much good in the Mohametan religion. Charity is unbounded; and it is not the charity of patronage, but the charity of fellowship. If any man says to another “Inshallah,” In the name of God, he may sit down at his table and partake of anything that he has, and no man will refuse. The beggar will do this with the greatest dignity. There is no greediness, no rapacity. Nothing of any value is ever stolen from you; there is no need to shut the door: they will take a trifle, but nothing else.
Decades before Mark Twain reflected on how religion is used to justify injustice, Nightingale was particularly struck by the position of women in Muslim society:
In the large harem there are 200 or 300 wives, and four or five children. But the woman is not a wife nor a mother: she cannot sit down in the presence of her son, her husband is her master, and her only occupation is that of beautifying herself and surpassing the others in his eyes. She becomes his real wife only at his caprice, by a paper given to her, which paper bears that for a certain sum, a few piastres, he may send her away. Then she is satisfied to believe that she will stay at the gate of Paradise, — she, the woman, who has more to suffer than the man, both in heart, and in spirit, and in body.
Still, she approached the foreign culture with a benevolent curiosity, seeking to understand rather than to judge:
I was so very anxious to see the inside of a mosque, to see where my fellow-creatures worshipped…. I am very glad to have done it, though I never felt so uncomfortable in all my life. We had to put on the Egyptian dress: first, an immense blue silk sheet (the head comes through a hole in the middle); then a white stripe of muslin which comes over your nose like a horse’s nose-bag, and is fastened by a stiff passementerie band, which passes between your eyes and over and behind your head like a halter; then a white veil; and lastly, the black silk balloon, which is pinned on the top of your head, has two loops at the two ends, through which you put your wrists, in order to keep the whole together. You only breathe through your eyes: half an hour more, and a brain fever would have been the consequence.
With strict injunctions not to show our hands, we set forth in this gear with the Consul’s janissary, who had been denuded of his robes of office that he might not be known. The Consul followed at a little distance, but would not let Mr. Bracebridge speak to us i the streets, and hovered round the mosque all the while we were there, for fear of a disturbance. Up the steep stairs we went, past the great stone pool of Bethesda, where all the Muslims were kneeling round, washing their arms and faces for prayer, for it was just midday; past a school, where the boys were learning the Koran (see-sawing backwards and forwards the whole tim), into the mosque… arcades, floors lined with matting; a niche towards Mecca, toward which the worshippers turn their faces; a pulpit beautifully carved in network, archway at the bottom of the pulpit, straight stairs to the top; a gallery out of sight, where women are allowed, but only on the evenings of the feasts, and only old women.
Among the dark-skinned local men, the fair Nightingale, visibly foreign and female, grew acutely aware of her otherness — otherness that marked her as an infidel, otherness pointed out to her not in the kindest of ways:
The mosque was full; the people crowded round us, laughing and pointing. I felt so degraded, knowing what they took us for, what they felt towards us. I felt like the hypocrite in Dante’s hell, with the leaden cap on — it was a hell to me. I began to be uncertain whether I was a Christian woman, and have never been so thankful for being so as since that moment. That quarter of an hour seemed to reveal to one what it is to be a woman in these countries…. God save them, for it is a hopeless life. I was so glad when it was over.
But pained as she was to witness and experience the bitter oppression of women in this culture, Nightingale took care to focus on its singular points of sweetness:
Still the mosque struck me with a pleasant feeling…. Some were at their prayers; but one was making baskets, another was telling Arabian Night stories to a whole group of listeners, sitting round him — others were asleep. I am much more struck with the irreverence of a London church.
It was so pleasant to see a place where any man may go for a moment’s quiet, and there is none to find fault with him, nor make him afraid. Here the homeless finds a home, the weary repose, the busy leisure, — if I could have said where any woman may go for an hour’s rest, to me the feeling would have been perfect.
Nightingale’s Letters from Egypt is an arresting read in its entirety. Complement this particular portion with pioneering nineteenth-century astronomer Maria Mitchell, who blazed the way for women in science, on religion and the conquest of truth and Nikola Tesla’s early-twentieth-century vision for how technology will unleash women’s full potential.
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