I’ve found amusement in the psychedelic business cards of Mohamed Ali Street for several years—it’s always nice to establish credentials as a Libra, Mercenary, Horse Whisperer, etc. But visitors making weird jokes with business cards in Egypt is hardly novel.
When Flaubert travelled to Egypt in 1849 in the guise of an oriental adventurer, the famous novelist accompanied his friend Maxime du Camp to the summit of great pyramid. Precluding any sense of a pioneering accomplishment, Flaubert reached the summit at dawn only to find pinned to the capstone… a business card.
The light increases. There are two things: the dry desert behind us, and before us an immense, delightful expanse of green, furrowed by endless canals, dotted here and there with tufts of palms; then, in the background, a little to the left, the minarets of Cairo and especially the mosque of Mohamed Ali (imitating Santa Sophia), towering above the others. On the side of the Pyramid lit by the raising sun I see a business card: ‘Humbert, Frotteur’ fastened to the stone.
The card gave a Rouen address, Flaubert’s hometown. It had been placed there as a gag by Maxime.
And lest you ever accuse Egyptians of being odd—as Flaubert often did—consider this extra detail. Recounting the Humbert episode in a letter to his mother, Flaubert admitted that the uncanny card was actually his—he had brought the card from France for the purpose of the gag. Double weird?: The morning of his ascent, Flaubert had misplaced the gag prop. But the card was discovered by Maxime, who, surmising Flaubert’s prank, scurried ahead to the top of the pyramid and positioned the card. Thus when Flaubert arrived at the summit, he was surprised to find the business card that he was supposed to be “surprised to find”.
In Flaubert’s Parrot, Julian Barnes tells us that a frotteur is “Literally, a French polisher; but also the sort of sexual deviant who loves the rub of the crowd”. Oh my. Barnes suggests that if we are feeling interpretative, we might ask: “Isn’t it, perhaps, a notable historical coincidence that the greatest European novelist of the nineteenth century should be introduced at the pyramids to one of the twentieth centuries most notorious fictional characters?” Humbert Humbert. For Flaubert getting weird at the rids, see also Derek Gregory’s “Between the Book and the Lamp: Imaginative Geographies of Egypt, 1849-50”. To set the scene properly in your mind, remember that Flaubert did not climb the pyramids under his own power, but was strapped to a sled and tugged to the top by four Arab guides. C’mon, people, SRSLY