VIP Richard Francis Burton

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Sir Richard Francis Burton (March 19, 1821 - October 20, 1890)

Richard Francis Burton was a soldier, explorer, writer, poet, linguist, archaelogist, swordsman, surveyor, translator, taxonomer, diplomat, ethnologist, amateur physican, geologist, and botanist. Considered one of the greatest linguists of all time, Burton mastered 29 languages, from Portuguese, German and French, to Arabic, Persian, Armenian, and Urdu. He wrote 43 volumes of literature, mostly based on his travels in regions as diverse as Mormon Utah, the Amazon, and India. One was the popular Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah (1855). Although Burton was not the first non-Muslim European to make the Hajj, his pilgrimage is the most famous and the best documented of the time.

Born in England to English parents in 1821, Burton was raised on the continent, mostly in France and Italy. Returning to school in England, he was unimpressed with his native lifestyle and took to cavorting with gypsies, smoking opium and studying the Kabalah, sending him on a lifelong quest for what he called "gnosis." Expelled by his own efforts from Oxford, he joined the army at 21 and left for service in India, where he mixed with the local people, learning of their attitudes towards the British (which did not endear him to those in power) and writing four books about the Indian race. With a grant from the Royal Geographical Society in 1853, Burton traveled to Egypt. Dyeing his skin with walnut juice and assuming the guise of an Afghan dervish, Burton entered both Mecca and Medina, completing the full obligations of a pilgrim, secretly keeping notes.

Burton translated popular editions of The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana (1883), The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (1885) (known as The Arabian Nights), The Perfumed Garden of the Shaykh Nefzawi (1886) and The Supplemental Nights to the Thousand Nights and a Night (six volumes 1886 - 1898). Published in this period, but composed on his return journey from Mecca, The Kasidah (1870) has been cited as evidence of Burton's status as a Sufi. The poem (and Burton's notes and commentary on it) contain layers of Sufic meaning, and seem to have been designed to project Sufi teaching in the West. (Source: The Sufis by Idries Shah (1964).

In Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah Burton writes, upon arriving in Alexandria in 1853 by ship from London (transcribed from tape; spelling uncertain):

"We then mounted a carriage, fought our way through the donkeys, and in a half an hour found ourselves, Chinook(sp?) in mouth and coffee cup in hand, seated on the divan of my friend Larking's hospitable home. Wonderful was the contrast between the steamer and that villa on the Mahoumiddia (?) canal. Startling the sudden change from presto to adagio life. In thirteen days we'd passed from the clammy gray fog--that atmosphere of industry which kept us at anchor off the Isle of Wight--through the loveliest air of the inland sea whose sparking blue and purple haze spread charms even of North Africa's Bedouin (?) features and now were sitting silent and still listening to the monotonous melody of the East: The soft night breeze wandering through starlit skies and tufted trees with a voice of melancholy meaning.

"And this is the Arab's--Kayf. The savouring of animal existence; the passive enjoyment of mere sense; the pleasant languor, the dreamy tranquility, the airy castle-building, which in Asia stands in lieu of the vigorous, intensive, passionate life in Europe. It is the result of a lively, impressible, excitable nature, and exquisite sensibility of nerve; it argues a facility for voluptuousness unknown to northern regions, where happiness is placed in the exertion of mental and physical powers; where Ernst ist das Leben [Life is Serious]; where niggard earth commands ceaseless sweat of face, and damp chill air demands perpetual excitement, exercise, or change, or adventure, or dissipation, for want of something better. In the East, man wants but rest and shade: upon the banks of a bubbling stream, or under the cool shelter of a perfumed tree, he is perfectly happy, smoking a pipe, or sipping a cup of coffee, or drinking a glass of sherbet, but above all things deranging body and mind as little as possible; the trouble of conversations, the displeasures of memory, and the vanity of thought being the most unpleasant interruptions to his Kayf. No wonder that 'Kayf' is a word unstranslatable in our mother-tongue!"

Smoking and consuming "religious refreshment" is mentioned elsewhere in the book, as in Chapter 10: "We sat smoking together with effusion ...After we'd eaten and drunk and smoked, we began to make merry…"

Elsewhere Burton writes: "By the Indians called Bhang, the Persians Bang, the Hottentots Dakha, and the natives of Barbary Fasukh. Even the Siberians, we are told, intoxicate themselves by the vapour of the seed thrown upon red-hot stones. Egypt, which surpasses all other nations in the variety of compounds into which this fascinating drug enters, and will probably supply the western world with 'Indian hemp,' when its solid merits are duly appreciated. At present in Eurpoe it is chiefly confined, as cognac and opium used to be, to the apothecary's shelves. Some adventurous individuals at Paris, after the perusal of Monte Christo, attempted an 'orgie' in one of the cafes, but with poor success."

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