Thursday 4 November 2021




Luise Muehlbach’s account of her visit to the Sultan’s harem, continued:


There were twelve dancing girls, and I had never seen such rich and beautiful costumes in our theatres as these dancers were wearing. The lower part of their body was covered by long and voluminous dresses of purple velvet with wide gold-embroidered panels in front and down their thighs. One might call these garbs wide trousers, but they were not quite like trousers. They were open in front but tied to the closed back part, so that they gave the impression of trousers at first, while seen from the back they looked like wide, pleated dresses. They appeared trouser-like only from the front and were gathered at the ankles with golden bands. Gold-embroidered shoes of purple velvet were on the dancers’ feet, and the pleated dresses were tied around their waist with a golden belt. Their upper bodies were covered with a transparent silk garment. Above it they wore a short jacket with wide, open sleeves of purple velvet. Their hair was long and uncurled and tied together with a golden ribbon ending in a bow…

          The music began. Flutes and violins first, then the clashing of tambourines, then shrill tones of the fagot could be heard together with the murmur of the bass. The Egyptian music gladdened the hearts of the Egyptian ladies, while it was a somewhat strange pleasure for us.

          After the introductory music, the dancers stepped up. At first these beautiful women twirled slowly in a circle, then the music became louder and the dancers moved faster. They whirled in ever more turbulent and denser circles, they no longer held hands, but with wonderful vibrations bent forward, then thrust their head and whole upper body backward. It was precious to see the full, beatific smile playing on their lips, and the light in their fiery eyes was wonderful. Their faces became ever more enraptured, their movements more passionate. The movement of their arms and the vibrations of individual body parts became more vehement. The Egyptians do not dance with their whole body, as we do. It is not the whole figure that rises or whirls around dancing. Rather, it is sometimes the arms that dance while the rest of the body remains quiet, at other times the feet, occasionally only the upper body, resulting in a marvellous swaying and vibrating of the whole figure. At one point it looked as if they wanted to throw themselves on the floor in their rapture, then they jumped up again in a vehement movement, lifting up their whole body, then their upper body swayed forward blissfully, then backwards. Finally the whole figure seemed to rest after a tumultuous happiness and rapture. This is accompanied by music which whirls and intones and complains in a very strange manner, and the dancing is so passionate and rapturous that the singers and musicians exult and the princesses clap their hands enthusiastically and shout “Allah! Allah!”.

          At last, breathless and panting, not from exhaustion but from rapturous bliss, the dancers sank to the floor. They rested on their backs in picturesque poses, with their head leaning back, their mouths half open, and a blissful smile on their lips. While they rested, the musicians started a different strain…

 Then a human voice rose up, shrill and loud, in a strangely vibrating tone, which is regarded as beautiful among Egptian singers. They began to sing in this way, accompanied by soft musical chords.

          Of course I could not understand the words, but I saw from the expression on the faces of the princesses, from the sweet quivering and trembling of the dancers, who slowly rose from the floor and stretched out their arms high with yearning, that it must be a love song, and when the first stanza ended, the singers fell silent and the soft chords of the musicians trembled in the air…

          When that stanza ended as well, a loud jubilant cry issued from the lips of the princesses, and they gave loud praise and thanks to the singers…

          Since I could not understand the words, I was not as affected by the somewhat monotonous melody and the shrill singing. As far as the Egyptians are concerned, however, the melody is unimportant compared to the exact enunciation of the words and their declaiming, to which music is subordinated.

          All Egyptians greatly venerate poetry; music is only an accompaniment, going along with the verse. Our music and especially our operas seem to them completely unnatural. When I talked to the princesses about this, for they often attended the Italian opera sitting behind a golden screen, one of the ladies answered with a smile: “But no one could be emotionally touched by an opera, even if people pretend to be touched, for it is always clear that the pain is not real and it would be quite impossible that dying people sing on and act like that.”

(Translated from Reisebriefe aus Aegypten)

Thursday 28 October 2021




Luise Muehlbach’s account of her visit to the Sultan’s harem, continued: She is welcome by Princess Said, the mother of the heir apparent.


Princess Said addressed friendly words to us through the translator and welcomed us to Cairo. Then the conversation began, seemingly proceeding in phrases and forms much like ours. The translator explained back and forth, and every time the princesses received my reply, they nodded at me and waved their slim, white fingers, which sparkled with large diamonds.

          I took particular note of one ring on the hand of the heir’s mother – a ring consisting of a single diamond without setting, a diamond which had been hollowed out at the centre, it seemed, to form a ring. The princess wore it on the uppermost joint of her little finger, where it sparkled and gave off the most wonderful light.

          As soon as we were seated, the slaves came hurrying with chibouks which they offered to each of us. I have long ago learned to smoke using a chibouk in the Orient, and with great pleasure I drew clouds of smoke through a long pipe made of Linden wood, the top of which was ornamented with a fat knob of amber. But I had never seen a chibouk like this. The pipe was two ells long and covered with a net of gold threads and golden bands sparkling with rubies and diamonds. The top, which consisted of a single piece of amber, was encircled by a broad band of diamonds. The small headpiece made of gold and diamonds sat in a plate on the carpet, its opening was also encrusted with diamonds. Each of the princess received such a chibouk. We bent over the amber piece with a serious and philosophical mien, sucked in the fragrant smoke and allowed it to rise in blue clouds.

          When people smoke they don’t need much conversation; the little clouds of smoke take the place of words, yet the princesses directed to us through the translator friendly and affectionate questions concerning our home country and our family, and listened with attention to our answers. They often gave us friendly nods and were kind enough to tell me that they liked me very well and to tell my daughter that they found her blond hair marvellously beautiful.

And then – but no, that’s all for today’s letter. Tomorrow I tell you more about the harem, the dancers and singers. Bukra!

(Translated from Reisebriefe aus Aegypten)

Wednesday 27 October 2021




In 1870 Luise Mühlbach (1814-1873), best known as the author of historical novels, received an invitation from the Khedive (Sultan) Ismail Pascha of Egypt to visit Cairo. She published an account of her journey in the form of letters, Reisebriefe aus Aegypten. Here is her description of the Khedive’s harem:


…We got out of the carriage. Four large, ugly eunuchs stood by the door. They grasped [Mühlbach and her daughter] our upper arms and escorted us through the courtyard to the wing of the castle which housed the apartments of the princesses.

          We stopped at a large glass door which led directly into the castle. The door was opened from the inside; the eunuchs remained outside, and we entered a salon of great length and width. The floor was covered with carpets and there were divans all around the walls. A group of some twenty girls advanced from the back, all dressed in airy gowns, some with their heads covered with turbans, others with small gold-embroidered caps, and others again wearing silver ribbons which hung down in back looping around their hair. Four of these girls walked toward us smiling, took us, like the eunuchs, by the upper arms and led us through the salon to a wide carpeted staircase. We mounted the stairs led by them, and at the top encountered yet another giant salon furnished with carpets and divans.

          There the slave girls conducted us to three ladies resting on silk-covered divans. Then a young lady approached us. To my great surprise she addressed me in German and explained that she was our translator and had been asked to mediate the conversation between myself and the princesses. She was the governess of the young princesses, a woman of Swiss descent and able to speak French and German.

          The slave girls released our arms, and led by the translator, we approach the princesses. They rose from the divan and shook hands with us. Then one of the ladies indicated that we should take our seat beside her on the divan. She moved the cushion on which her arm was resting a little closer to me and indicated that I should make myself comfortable, which meant folding under one leg, sliding onto the divan and leaning on the cushion where her beautiful arm, adorned with bangles was resting. An easy chair was offered to my daughter, and after she had sat down, one of the slaves rolled the chair up to the princesses, so that she faced them.

          As we began our conversation, I gave some attention to the beautiful women, and indeed, the princesses were worth looking at. I sat beside the mother of Prince Mohamed Wawfik. Although the heir apparent was already 18 years old, his mother was still a beautiful and youthful-looking woman. In the Orient women marry young and the ladies of the harem knew how to cultivate and preserve their charms. I don’t want to be accused of indiscretion and therefore dare not say too much of the appearance of the princesses. They are young and beautiful, their black eyes have a fiery glow, as only oriental eyes do, their purple lips are always ready to smile and reveal two rows of excellent teeth. Their figures are not svelte, but of a fullness, which is popular in the Orient. The ladies greeted me by putting their hands first on their knees, then on their hearts and then against their forehead.


Tuesday 3 August 2021



Werner Kofler (1947-2011), who wrote collages in the style of Thomas Berhard, was a witty, sarcastic, uncompromising social critic. How best to describe his writings? They are, in his own words, “mad creations”, “acts of revenge”, “masterpieces of innuendo”, “master works of defamation.”  But not available in English. How can that be – why is a great writer like Kofler overlooked, why are English readers deprived of the prickly pleasure of reading Kofler? Because his works are hard to translate – too many local references, too many puns and wordplays lost in translation. Well, I’ll give it a shot. Here is a taste of MANKER. The setting: A radio play is being taped, and the author gives instructions to, or rather constantly interrupts, Manker’s reading of the play:
No, Manker, not like this. Not so fast, Manker, don’t say it as if you were in a hurry. More feeling, more attention to detail! It’s an inventory, Manker, an inventory of damages. Not “went in, kicked in the high double doors, flung open” – no, “went in, kicked in the high double doors, flung open the wings of the door with a loud crash,” not just the door, Manker, “the wings of the door,” it’s a door with wings, the door panels suddenly burst open – don’t drone on, Manker, “in fear and unsettled I,” what are you doing, Manker, more precision, “IN FEAR AND UNSETTLED – I…,” not so careless, “the green lamp thrust to the ground, its gentle light extinguished in a flash,” what are you doing? “Thrust to the ground, the green lamp, its gentle light extinguished in a flash,” why is it so difficult, so difficult to put emphasis on the gentle light of the green lamp, extinguished in a flash. The greener the lamp, the lamp on the table, the gentler the light, the more sudden the extinction, is that so difficult to convey, gentle light, green lamp, and suddenly – is that so difficult? Such difficulties already within the first sentences, at the beginning of the first sentence, the first bars! If we go on like that, it’s going to be a long story, a lengthy dialogue, we will entertain a one-sided talk, I like to talk, very much, and preferably at another person’s cost. But this hardly counts as entertainment, not yet; but soon: we are entertaining ourselves privately. But let’s go on, Manker – much noise, “where am I, to be murdered by him,” WHERE, WHERE – not bad, Manker, suddenly retracting WHERE, WHERE, yes, that sounds good, where, where, he, I – yes, excellent;  but now, that’s much too fast, “taken from the wall,” not enough involvement, taken from the wall, broken with a single destructive movement, more slowly, Manker, largo appassionato – “broke with a single destructive movement the heavy, cut-glass wall mirror” – more slowly and the voice a little fuller, emphasis on the heaviness of the wall mirror, the destructive movements, the heavy cut-glass mirror broken, in pieces –“THE MIRROR IN PIECES.” For God’s sake, not so loud, why are you roaring like that, control yourself, who told you to shout “the mirror in pieces,” the mirror is already in pieces, why destroy it a second time. No forte, Manker, nothing in fortissimo,  the-mirror-in-pieces, okay? Two-birds-at-swim, the-mirror-in-pieces, like that, very simple. It could have been very simple, but no, you had to shout and smash the mirror a second time! Seven years of bad luck, and that on top of it; adding insult to injury. I know, I know bad luck rarely happens only once, but a more respectful handling of the ruined mirror would have been desirable, Manker. Radio play or not. THE MIRROR IN PIECES! Have you ever heard anything like that, no one in the whole world has ever heard anything like that, such a – oh, I don’t know what to call it. I was really looking forward to the radio play and now this happens, already at the beginning, within the first sentences, at the first strike, so to speak.
To be continued…

Sunday 11 July 2021


Part V: 1942-44


1942 – July 21 – We have been travelling now for 24 hours and we don’t know where we are headed.  We often travel on secondary tracks in order to let transports to the front go ahead.  They have given me a bucket and a cup.  I am allowed to get out of the train at every stop and am supposed to try each time to obtain water for distribution to the “travellers”.  The sliding door [of the car] is [pulled back] to leave only a narrow opening, so that nobody can escape.

            Evening.  An SA man from the troop escorting us speaks to me when the train stops, asking whether I was nurse Anna from Bottrop?  And what was I doing in this train.  I explain the situation to him, and that 26 years ago, I was nurse Anna.  I have a glimpse of his eyes tearing up before he turns away and leaves. 

            At night we stop on an open stretch.  They have placed us in an unlocked section so that I can immediately proceed to look for water.  But there is no house far or near.

            The SA man comes back and says to me: “Nurse Anna, I want to help you.  I know that you saved my life that time in Bottrop”.  I answer him, that he can only help us, my husband and me.  We will not be separated at this time of need.

            He repeats that he can suggest a plan for me.  But the disappearance of two people would endanger his own life, he says, and goes away. 

            Of course I tell Maier about this strange encounter.  He is angry with me that I did not accept [the man’s proposal]: “If we are put into a concentration camp, you can more easily do something for us and for our release from the outside”.

            At the next stop I right away look for the SA man and declare that I am prepared to follow his plan.  He should tell me what I need to do.  The next station is Theresienstadt, our destination, [he says].  Everybody would be leaving the cars, only the dead would be left behind. They would be picked up a little later by a squad and piled up here next to the track.  “First you must hide somewhere and at the right moment lie down among the dead.  The train will be taken to the camp and the bright floodlights will be turned off.  As soon as it is dark, run away!”

            It is known, he explained further, that the Czech population there by the Eger was very hostile to the Germans.  “You will somehow be able to keep alive, [whereas] in the concentration camp you will soon die of hunger.”

            I was able to carry out the plan devised by the SA man.  I lay amongst the dead probably for an hour, but when they shut off the floodlights, I ran off right away.  I watched the guards walking around the high fence with fierce dogs, but they did not notice me at all.

            Finally, I came to a river and washed up.  It was a wonderful, clear summer night.  All the stars were shining.  I was afraid of encountering people.


1942 - July 22nd.  Of course, I had pangs of remorse, thought of Maier and how I could help him.  Then from far away, the bells rang.  I could see the steeple of the church.  I went there, thinking I would thank the Eternal One for my salvation and ask him to guide me further.

            I knelt in the church, communicated in my thoughts with the good Lord himself and asked him only to show me the right way.  There were only a few faithful in the church.  I just observed the preacher, who at the end of the mass came towards me and enquired about me.

            I immediately told him the whole truth, but not that I was a Jew: “I fled from the train and my husband is there in the concentration camp.  I don’t have anything to eat nor anywhere to sleep.”  The old man had a kind face and he thought immediately of how I could be helped.  He told me right away that aiding someone to flee the concentration camp was punishable by death.  So, we had to be very careful.

            In the concentration camp there weren’t only Jews. He could get in without any difficulty to offer the poor people at least some spiritual help.  He [said he] would inquire about my husband and also, if there was a chance, bring him some food.  I could rest every night on the sofa in the sacristy.  Officially, however, he did not want to know anything.

            The church itself was dirty, the floor had not been cleaned for weeks, so I tried to offer my thanks for the preliminary rescue by thoroughly cleaning the church.  The priest looked after my food and my clothing and through him I was also in constant communication with Maier.


1943 – I have now been living underground for half a year.  Last year it looked as if Germany was really going to win the war.  People talked to me now and then, I answered only yes or no.  Nobody dares to ask questions about me.  They often bring me something to eat.  They probably suspect why I am here.

            It is winter and it is very cold.  The preacher told me that Maier has a bad cold.  He is so kind to me, and I put him in grave danger.  I have taken the decision to go soon to the camp with him.  He too thinks that that is possible.  He will get a nurse’s outfit for me.  I will have the Red Cross pin on me, so nobody will think anything of it.  But once in the camp, I will quickly have to get a camp uniform.

            We have followed the plan exactly.  We took the camp uniform from a dead person.  Maier is happy that I am again close to him.  Unfortunately, he is very weak. Rumour has it that the Germans have had lots of losses on all fronts and have to retreat everywhere.  Will we live to see our liberation?

            My dear husband died in his sleep on October 21s .  He did not suffer, it was a collapse of all his vitals.   Alone I cannot and I will not continue living in this hell. “

Translated from the German by Susi Lessing. The original text is at