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Mr. Ibsen I presume?

a malibu by the Nile
A 1869 Travelogue

While Dr. Livingstone raved around in central Africa on an official commission to discover the sources of the Nile, the author Henrik Ibsen simultaneously found the flood a pleasant place in which to sail in uttermost luxury.

The sources of the Nile never was found by Dr. Livingstone - and Ibsen's unique travelogue never reached its readers. Reason? Ibsens travelogue were suddenly put away as the work he came to consider his life work - "Emperor and Galilee" - put the spell on him. A travelogue passed away on a Nile breeze and ended up in an untranslated, highly scientifical, hardly accessible & limited edition of his total writing...

I discovered his long lost writing after raving like a Livingstone around nooks and corners of the vast and dangerous jungle of the University Library in Oslo. Exhausted, with only prior rumors of the possibility of this text - I suddenly stood there with one of the huge books in my hand. Hands shivering in anxiety, the magic text appeared; in the same moment as a lonely phrase backflashed Stanley-like through my mind; "Mr. Ibsen I presume?"

Ibsen traveled to Egypt in 1869 through an invitation from the Swedish (& Norwegian) King to attend the opening of the Suez Canal, but in his mind he had been there before... The long poem "Peer Gynt" (yes poem!) takes the unfaithful Norwegian folksoul to Egypt as well. Here Peer meets first the Bedouin girl Anitra in the desert and later the representatives of the European political landscape - in a madhouse in Cairo.

The same poem was later dramatized for stage, with illustrations by Edvard Munch who was much enchanted by the poem "Peer Gynt", and music by Edvard Grieg - the first and last time the "three greats" co-operated. Grieg, in his famous "Peer Gynt Suite", wrote the three compositions "Anitra's dance", "Arabic Dance" and "Morning Mood" for the Egyptian scenes. So Peer Gynt was most likely the main reason Ibsen was invited as official guest to the opening of the Suez Canal.

Until now, it's been another work that has been known to the public from this journey, and that is another long poem with the somewhat strange title "Balloon-letter to a Swedish Lady". This poem express a negative attitude towards what Ibsen imagined had been an "anthill society" in Ancient Egypt. So dark is his impression that he only finds black birds here and no carrier pigeons & this is his reason for sending the poem as a "balloon letter".

In total contrast to the "balloon letter" is his unknown travelogue from Egypt. Black birds are replaced by a "lonely marabou on two stiff legs", herons, pelicans and Ibis birds that take "to the air like a flock of white pigeons". So much for the real need for balloons...

The paradox reminds me of a scorpion Ibsen had in a jam jar as a "companion" during his stay in Italy. This initially active and alert small friend, always became indifferent and lazy after a while. When this happened, Ibsen had to throw down a piece of lemon to the scorpion who at once stung the intruding piece of lemon. So done, the scorpion immediately became "happy" and active again. "Look," writes Ibsen - "look how much imbedded human psychology is to be found here..." Don't we humans also tend to blossom after we got out some of private poison? Ibsen's psychology then, also should be like the scorpion's deeply rooted habits - I suspect that the "balloon letter" was born first. When this "sting" was done through this poem - he could continue on his travelogue "happy and a going".

As mentioned, Ibsen came to Egypt as an official guest to the opening of the Suez canal. One of his narrations of the event was later to be written down and saved by his friend and author Nordal Rolfsen. And here is this story - (just be aware that apart from a previous article I had in the Egyptian newspaper AlAhram Weekly two years ago - this translated story and Ibsen's own text have never been published before in English);

9th of October 1869 - The Suez Canal, the new trade gate should be inaugurated. Khedive Ismail, Vice-King of Egypt, had invited guests from all European countries. I was among them and can verify a hospitality with riches from fairy tales.

First we should see his country, and on four Nile-boats with following lodging ships - we journeyed upstream the renowned wonderful river.

I remember the ruins of old Thebes when we rode through Karnak between the acacia gardens of the Arabs. It was the old temples with their tremendous columns. Obelisks at the entrance - all the sphinxes. All with the height of two story houses, columns that reach three meters on average (*note that the temples still was partly covered with sand, as the height today is much more - editors note), all are gigantic, supernatural. In two thousand years there was built on these temples - in thousands of years they have stood here.

Shortly after we had visited the tombs of the Egyptian Kings, we greeted one of Europe's Empresses whose authority still stood at it's zenith. It was the French empress.

At Quena our ships lay awaiting her - the time was towards sunset. Far away a column of smoke rose up over the bright river, then came closer as a huge magnificent Nile-boat glided towards us. There the Empress had to be onboard. It had to be her ship.

No - a new Nile-boat, pink colored and greater than the others. Here she is, dressed in white and as lovely as Cleopatra of Egypt while the setting sun threw its gold over the ship's banners, carpets and silk. Not lasting a year - and she was no more powerful than the kings we just had visited.

In the evening there was a ball in the Vice-King's grand palace. Here all nations met in dance and lively enjoyment because a partition wall between people had been removed."

So much for the journey as told to his friend Nordal Rolfsen. His own writing from this tour tells us also that he visited the Osiris temple in Abydos. Here they had to leave the Nile-bark to visit the temple and each were given the choice of getting to the temple either by riding a beautiful horse, a proud camel or an ordinary donkey. Yes, much alike Ibsen he did chose the donkey.

Ibsen riding the donkey had time to observe the surroundings on the way to the beautiful temple. He noticed among other things that the goats here differ from the goats he is used to, as they are narrow-shouldered, grey and with hanging twisted ears. Immediately he compared these goats with the young British girls he met all over in Egypt - as these also are grey-palish, narrow-shouldered and not with twisted ears but with long twisted charm-locks...

Later on Luxor West bank be buys a beautiful pharaonic ring that had belonged to a princess - or rather partly "did" as her finger still was was attached to the ring. In the evening he sat down beside the Memnon colossus in company with his Peer Gynt.

Note that in the following text, Ibsen who is renowned as an early fighter for women through his works, also has a different attitude to the culture he met in Egypt compared to the contemporary more imperial or "oriental looking down" attitude.

And then suddenly - a long lost voice is carried from Nile - through Time - on your screen...

"There is as a magic of soundless silence prevailing over the Nile Valley's landscape. Today there is no puff of air to feel apart from what our motion itself produces. The flood flowing wide and full between its double edges of palm groves. Behind them the land elevates up to distant mountain rows on both sides. All what the Nile is not able to reach - all the yellow, the boundlessness that glimmers and throws reflections in the air - that's the desert, towards west the Libyan and towards east the Arabic.

On dune banks which falling water let appear, stands here and there a lonely marabou on two stiff legs, lowering the beak and bald head towards the chest and looking so humanly sorrowful. Herons strut and pelicans grab in the mud, and from the fields the Ibis birds takes to the air like a flock of white pigeons.

The interesting part of travel in these highly strange surroundings is mainly in the understanding one little by little reaches - the fact that under all this seemingly meaninglessness in cries, gestures and acts, there is hidden underneath a certain order. That all these still are statements of the life of a community which has it's own law and rules. As time goes by and this recognition awakes, the people comes closer; the distance between the unknown and the home-like become less - and altogether, the one who has traveled a lot around - will in the end have made the experience that the nations in their inner core, not by far turn out so fundamentally different as one in advance tends to believe.

A European tends of course to arouse attention when he shows himself here; still decorum doesn't allow the Arab to let this show, least of all in any offensive way. He is measured and conducted, on occasion friendly, but without all the cringing. Importunity is surely to be found among some of the classes that come most in contact with the traveler, as donkey-drivers and others; but there is still the question, among whom the guilt is to be found. Anyway the importunity dresses in such an innocent form that it excites amusements rather than indignation. A couple of stark naked fellahin-children followed me faithfully on my wandering, never tired of repeating their "backschis". A "rue" or "mafish" drove them away for a moment, but around the next corner, they where there again.

I went further and further and came to corn fields behind the village - and through them all the way to the border of the desert. The sun was about to set behind a cluster of palm trees whose long shadows were tossed towards me on the yellow sandplain. Never have I felt the sunset's peace like here in Egypt. At home it always came over me with a force of uneasiness, that made the mind heavy and drove me to seek company. Here where the hermit idea had its cradle - one understands this idea, as one in Italy learns to understand how one can go into cloister and feel happy about it.

It was a wonderful night that followed; and its beauty just increased and increased. The stars leapt full and round forth on the transparent dark blue sky. A smooth fog placed itself over the Nile Valley and transformed the landscape into a huge ocean bay restricted from mighty mountain rows towards the south. To and from a Nile vessel drifted by with the stream. A paper-lantern shone large and red in the stem; the crews' monotonous rhythmical song was carried subdued over to us, only to die away further down. We Scandinavians have united in silence; I am sure that our thoughts went northwards. In such a time one only wishes reconciliation with all human beings and asks ones self; how is it that you deserved to see all this glory?"


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This article was first published in in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram Weekly in 1998, and later in the Best-of-Web Directory Suite101