EID, CALCUTTA, 1900 (THROUGH ARAB EYES)



Little is known about Athanasios Ignatius Nouri. We know he was baptized in 1857 and raised in the area between Aleppo,  Deir al-Zor and Mosul. We also know that on the 16th of April 1881, the Patriarch Jurjis al-Shalhat in Aleppo made Nouri a priest and sent him off to Baghdad. By 1899, he was the Bishop of madinat al-salam. And in September of that year he embarked on a seven-month journey to India. Traveling through Basra and Bahrain, Nouri made his way to Bombay and then across India, to Pune, Hyderabad, Nagpur and Calcutta. With him was an Englishman by the name of George Bleeny, who knew English, Arabic and Hindustani and would serve as his guide.  

In 1934, his account of the trip was published in Harissa. The travelogue is a vivid account of India through Arab eyes. Much is learned about Indian religion, urban life in the fin de siècle Raj, and the transformations gripping the late Ottoman Empire. Libraries and schools are investigated, as are churches, mosques and museums. While traveling, Nouri met with a number of important figures, including Rabindranath Tagore, the Nizam of Hyderabad and Lord Curzon. For more, see my dissertation (forthcoming). Below an excerpt for Eid from when Nouri was in Calcutta.

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Eid, February 2, 1900: Mosques without Minarets!

I forgot to tell you what I saw on the morning of Eid al-fitr on February 2nd, 1900. We were leaving the hotel—in our usual daily manner—to go to mass at the Church of Sacred Heart of Jesus. We had not walked a few steps before we witnessed a great crowd of some 30,000 souls, all of them Muslims, gathered in the public square. A mosque cannot hold a mass of this size, so they had gathered in the square for the morning Eid prayer. They filled the alleyways to complete their religious duty. The police did what was necessary to prevent any tumult, they stopped all the carriages, trams, and horses and even those just passing through on foot, until the prayer was over. The police were unarmed except for big sticks. They spread across all the streets and alleys, an officer on each street. The public feared them greatly and the slightest gesture from a police officer could clear a huge crowd.

But if you saw those celebrating Eid you would think they were in the Ottoman lands. They were dressed in their finest clothes, with their heads held high like giraffes walking tall at midday. They rented all the best carriages. In fact we could not find one for ourselves. We finally rented one for sixteen rupees for half an hour, even though usually it would cost only two rupees for such a trip.

Between the Sunnites and the Shiites, the population of Muslims in Calcutta number about 160,000 souls, though the majority of them do not know anything beyond the shahada. They have many mosques, but they do not have minarets on their mosques like in our lands. The muezzins call the prayer in the courtyards or on the roofs of the mosques. We may never know why the English have banned the construction of minarets.  

Athanasios Ignatius Nouri, Rihla il al-hind, 1899-1900 (Harissa: Matba’it al-Qasis Bolis, 1934). Translated by Esmat Elhalaby.


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