An American Lawyer in Egypt, 1876

In 1874, President Grant appointed the North Carolina lawyer Victor Clay Barringer to be the American representative to the International Court of Alexandria, Egypt, one of the first modern international courts intended to be a permanent tribunal for claims arising from international commerce. Barringer had a colorful history. Scion of a respected southern family, Barringer had harbored the Confederate president Jefferson Davis on his attempted flight to Georgia in the waning days of the Civil War. In 1868, Barringer served on a state code commission with the northern radical Republican “carpetbagger” Albion Tourgee and the the southern convert to Republicanism William Rodman. Rodman and Barringer became close friends, and the letter below comes from the Rodman papers at the East Carolina University archives. Barringer presents a fascinating account of international litigation in Alexandria, the new court system, the clash with native Islamic law, and the irony that Barringer was now involved in a second effort (after postbellum North Carolina) to impose foreign laws on an unreceptive population.

North Carolina Code Commission, ca. 1868. Victor C. Barringer, William B. Rodman, Albion W. Tourgee.

North Carolina Code Commission, ca. 1868. Victor C. Barringer, William B. Rodman, Albion W. Tourgee. The original image can be found in the Albion Tourgee collection at the Chautauqua Historical Society, Westfield, NY.

March 31, 1876

Hon. W. B. Rodman:
Raleigh, N.C.

My dear friend: I received some time ago an intimation from my brother, that you would like to hear from me. Now I confess that I have thought of you often, and have many times wished to hear about you; but you know how it is in a strange land, with all sorts of engagements on hand, and little time to bestow on an extensive correspondence that is forced upon you. I acknowledge, too, to a bit of selfishness in this correspondence. I receive a good many letters from the U.S. and some from n.C., but often a few lines not particularly interesting, they conclude by saying that “no doubt I am fully [posted?] by the papers in regard to [?] and local affairs.” This is a great mistake. Even if I could afford to take many papers, which I cannot, they are very inadequate substitutes for letters. Mere politics or mere local politics lose their interest in coming this long distance; and the newspapers have little else in them; but a letter can touch piquantly and [?ly] on a thousand points which a public journal cannot allude to: and it is these things, which one can never see in a newspaper, that I want to hear about. Such a letter I hope to draw from you.

I wish, my dear friend, I know what you would like most to hear about in this country. Of that old buried Egypt, of which nothing remains but Pyramids and tombs, and monuments, you know or may know, if you choose, more than I do: for the world is full of the books that tell us what Egypt was. For myself, I own that much of the awe with which I approached these ancient shores nearly two years ago has passed away. I am sorry for it. These feelings should be kept fresh; but you know how daily life takes from the edge of fancy and actualizes things. So we had better dismiss all the past, and come sharply and briefly to what may interest us both more than those great events, which have centered more or less about this land.

The new  Court went into operation on the 1st of January. The system embraces three circuit courts (technically called “Tribunals of First Instance”), in which the principal litigation is begun. These Tribunals consist of seven judges–4 foreigners and 3 natives. One of these foreign judges is, alternately, assigned to hear small causes in a summary way, and to act as a kind of court of conciliation in such cases. This is an admirable feature, which we would do well to imitate especially in regard to our negro population–a population, taken in the mass, [?] above the working class here. These judges are intelligent and honest, and command respect. They hear causes far below the former jurisdiction of our county courts; yet their bearing in court and their decisions are as different as possible. I have observed the proceedings with much interest. As the cases rarely justify the costs of an attorney, this class of our brethren are as rarely seen there: yet a few shysters occasionally appear. The parties are called up immediately before the judge, who hears each one briefly state his case, and requires each one to show his papers, if he has any. In five or ten minutes, the judge has the whole case on its merits–and decides, at once.If the matter is so entangled by counter-statements, that he cannot tell head or tail about it, he proposes a compromise, which is generally accepted. He allows little time for consideration. The parties must accept or reject promptly. The costs are not much; and the parties usually go out very well-satisfied. I have seen these men dispose of from 40 to 60 cases in two or three hours; half of which were conciliated, and the money paid down before the judgement seat.

The Tribunals of First Instance, which as I have said consist of seven judges, sit three days in a week. It is a court very like our own substantially, and yet very unlike our own in its forms of procedure. It lacks the dramatic interest of our proceedings–the sharp cross-examination and the et ceteras of our courts. But it makes up in substantial justice, perhaps. Counsel usually represent the parties, though they may appear on their own behalf. The attorneys open their case by a brief statement of its nature, and exhibit any witness evidence that they may have. They ordinarily have their whole say at this stage of the proceedings; for they are never, or rarely ever, heard of afterwards. The parties are then called up, and each one states his case. If any written evidence has been exhibited by the attorneys, the parties are asked as to the mere fact of execution. The attorneys never ask a question. The whole examination is conducted by the Tribunal, any member putting a question either directly or through the President. If a witness is introduced at all, which is very rarely done, it is simply to prove the formal execution of a paper, or some local custom, or custom of trade, et. But usually the parties admit their own signatures; and there is no trouble on this score. The parties can demand a jury, but it has never been asked for in a single case so far, nor is it likely to be often asked for. That is a form of trial not suited to the genius of our diverse nationalities, either foreign or native, except the small English and American colonies. Doubtless, when any of these have a case, we shall have a trial by jury. It strikes me as singular that nobody is ever sworn in these Tribunals–neither party nor witness. An oath can be required, but it is never done. It is not unusual in the courts on the Continent, after which these are modelled, nor in the native courts of the Orient. Of course there is a great deal of lying, but it is easily detected, nor do the parties have much to say. Almost every transaction, great or small, when the money is not paid down, specially as between natives, is put in writing; and the judges will hear nothing to vary or contradict that. In this way it happens that business is disposed of with exceeding rapidity. During this month the Tribunal of First Instance of Alexandria, sitting as a full court, dispatched 623 cases. Those of Cairo and Ismailia have done equally well. This habit of putting everything in writing brings before you every where in Egypt the scribe exactly as he is pictured in Ezek. c. 9. v. 2–”a man clothed in linen, with a writer’s inkhorn by his side.” You meet him everywhere in the Arabic quarters of the City, or lounging about the squares, or hanging about the Palace of Justice (as they grandly call our Court-house), in his flowing robe, white turban, his loins girt about with a girdle from which dangles his inkhorn a foot long. He is ready for small sum to do you anything in Arabic–the only language which he can usually write.

The three languages which are allowed to be used in the courts are French, Italian, and Arabic. But as none of the judges understand the last-named tongue, except the native members of the courts, (and much the larger part of our suits are between Arabs or an Arab is a party on one side or the other,), we have a considerable corps of interpreters attached to each court. Alexandria, or Eastern Egypt is, indeed, a Babel. Along the streets, at every place of public resort, or in any company of a dozen persons, you may hear every tongue under heaven. Yet no speech is well-spoken here. It is almost impossible to get a good interpreter from one language into another–absolutely impossible to get any body who can translate in writing with ease or correctness. The reason is that while everybody has a smattering of all tongues, nobody knows any one well–hardly even his own. The average intelligence of the Alexandrians, even of the foreign population, is uncommonly low. They are wholly given to trade. The Second City of the Roman Empire, which for five or six centuries [?] Rome as a seat of learning and philosophy, cannot boast of a single public library and nor do I know of a private one that exceeds a hundred volumes of good reading. The Viceroy has promised to get us a Library in connection with the Court; but of course it will be mainly professional.

Our courts deal with the largest questions, and with cases of immense value in amount. This week a case was decided that involved $100,000 or $500,000. Suits have been brought that involve $2,000,000. The Suez Canal is under the jurisdiction of these courts; and the vast interests of that work may come before us. Alexandria has a large business with Europe and with India. We have seven great lines of steamships between here and parts of Europe; and three to India, besides irregular steamers and sailing ships, innumerable, doing business to all parts of the world. England especially has a heavy trade with Alexandria, though the English community here is comparatively small. Of the nationalities, the Greek is the largest, the Italians next, the French next, the English and German about the same (each 4000), then other nationalities follow in various degrees–Alexandria has a population not very accurately estimated at 300,000, of which about 80,000 are of European or foreign nationality. Nearly the same proportion of foreign to native element s prevail in Cairo, and over Egypt generally. Yet Alexandria is frequently put down as a Western City in the Orient–as more Western than Eastern. A few hours here will disabuse the [?est] of any such impression. But to come back to the point: you see that a city with such lines of travel and traffic must be the seat of much litigation.

Now I think I have told you briefly about all that you care to know of the Tribunals of First Instance, and the inferior tribunals. The system embraces, moreover, a Court of Appeals, for the whole of Egypt, of which I am a member. This Court–technically and par excellence called “The Court,” while others are called “Tribunals”–consists of 11 “Councillors”–never called “judges”–of whom 7 are foreigners and 4 are natives. THe foreign “Councillors” come from what are supposed to be the seven leading powers–viz. The United States, England, France, the German Empire, Austria, Russia and Italy. We have sat but once a week hitherto, and heard only three or four causes. This is creditable to the Tribunals; since considering that they have decided many hundred cases, it is rather astonishing that there should have been so few appeals. The rapid manner in which cases are urged forward bewilders these Easterns; and it is somewhat shocking even to our American senses–especially to a man familiar with “stay laws.” The case to which I have already alluded as involving a half million of dollars is an illustration. The contract was signed at Cairo, to be executed in Alexandria, [?] the 26. Feb. last. The breach occurred on the 4. March. On the 6th, demand was made, and suit immediately brought. On the 13th, the case was heard in the Tribunal of First Instance of Alexandria. OAn appeal was taken. The cause was heard in the Court of Appeal day before yesterday (29th) and judgment of the Tribunal was affirmed the same day. And this was the regular course of the Court–nothing being conceded to hasten matters–no case agreed, or appeal by consent.

All this is in marked contrast to the ancient Turkish Courts, which the present system supersedes, as well as to the Consular jurisdiction, which the various powers have long established in Mohammedan countries, but which now almost altogether disappears.

The Court of Appeals here, as with us, hears only questions of law. These must be argued only by attorneys, producing a diploma as Doctor of Laws from some European or American college, or as a practitioner for five years in some European or American court, or on examination by a committee of the court. This almost effectually excluded Egyptians, who [?] to do a considerable business in their native courts. They are no lawyers outside of the Koran and its traditions. The native members of the Court and the Tribunals are useless, except as understanding Arabic, and as being able to explain occasionally some  point arising under the Moslem law. In the Court of Appeals, attorneys are required to appear in an official costume–black robe, white bands, and black cap, which they may keep on their heads or not, as they please. This whole question of costume, which in our eyes is so trivial and ridiculous, assumes prime importance in the view of the Europeans, and especially the Eastern. These people seem incapable of appreciating a man in plain dress. Nor is it astonishing. From the time of Abraham, they have been accustomed to gaze on a glittering exterior as connected with merit and power. Is it any wonder that they cannot disassociate the ideas now? About a year ago we had much debate as to what costume the Councillors of the Court and the Judges of the Tribunals should wear. The Government wanted to put us all in a loose, flowing robe of green silk–the sacred color of the Prophet. This was promiscuously and indignantly objected to. For my own part, the whole question was and is now and ever shall be trivial. The Government finally decided on a costume for the members of the Court of Appeals as follows:

  1. Tarboosh–which is a red fez cap for the head.
  2. Constantinople or Stambouline coat, which is straight-breasted, standing collar, and comes to about the knees.
  3. Coat and pants black.
  4. A scarf of green silk, tipped with gold thread, passed over the right shoulder across the breast, and hangs down the left hip.
  5. A solid gold plate, 3 by 2 inches, embossed with the arms of Egypt, and inscribed with the Arabic proverb (in Arabic) “justice is power,” is pinned to this green scarf on the breast.

The scarf and gold plate are furnished by the Government. The judges of the Tribunals have the same costume, except that their scarf is red, and their plate is a metal mixture of gold and silver. Now what do you think of our judicial dress? More military than judicial, ain’t it? Still, it is better than to array us in a great green gown, as they talked of doing. A plain black silk gown would have been the exact thing; but that sombre colour, unrelieved by something gay and cheerful, is associated in the eastern mind with the evil eye. You never could get a Moslem to come into a court where the judges were clothed in all black. When I have my photograph taken in official costume, I believe I’ll send you a copy. Would you like it?

The law we administer is contained in a Code, which is a pretty good modification of “the Code Napoleon,” suited, as well as can be, to the wants of Egypt. This Code supersedes, in large part, the ancient Mohammedan law as contained in the Koran and in the commentaries on that incoherent rhapsody of legislation and religion. Yet some acquaintance with that law, especially in respect to real estate, the succession and distribution of personal property, so far as natives are concerned, and the system of irrigation (as old as the Nile), is still indispensable. But the Government has furnished us with a French and Italian translation of such parts of the Mohammedan law as are deemed useful for us.

I cannot predict what will be the end of this experiment the most novel ever undertaken–the experiment, I mean, of forcibly injecting the jurisprudence of the West among an Eastern people. There is danger of explosion from two causes. The system of course has no root in the habits, or affections of the people–the native people, I mean, who are chiefly concerned with it. It is, undoubtedly, far better than anything they have ever had; but this, abstractly considered, does not ensure its success: and you understand perfectly the reason why. In the next place, the machinery of the courts is so complicated; there are so many magistrates, who represent, in Europe, so many diverse and rival nationalities; that is would be a marvel if a child with so many foreign god-fathers and none at home, should ever come to any good; for the native element is not only subordinate in numbers. It is incalculably below in point of morals and intelligence. The jealousies of these European State are, also, [?ing] out continually in the person of the judges, more befitting diplomats than jurists. And there, too, Egypt is getting to be, amidst the threatened dissolution of the Turkish Empire, a sort of play-ground for European statecraft–a sort of normal condition of the country. I have merely hinted at what seem to me the dangers.

My whole professional life, I am afraid, is wasted in tentative efforts. Our attempt in N.C. to adjust the state of the law to the post bellum situation has, I fear, resulted in nothing or in very little; though I don’t know much about it, since I have not been in the States for six years. The opposition to the Revisions was political–a most unfortunate circumstance. Afterwards I was associated with others in a Revision of the U.S. Statutes. A former commission under Mr. Cushing had utterly failed. It hardly put pen to paper. Congress was irritated. We finished the work in two years and a half, and there was hardly an alteration afterwards, well as I can tell; since I have only lately received the work. But is was put through in such haste as utterly to exclude accuracy and scientific arrangement. By the way, we had on that commission one man the meanest and smallest I ever served with. I allude to Abbott of N.Y., who had some reputation for very inaccurate Digests–and for nothing else. He was always in collusion with the newspaper correspondents, but never finished a single chapter in the whole part of the work assigned to him. Yet he managed to become distributor of our funds, and was upheld in his scheming by Butler and Conkling. But there is a long distance and a long time between now and then, and here and there; and I forgive much, as becomes a [sinner?].

And now when I go into these courts, and look round upon the strange crowds of turbaned men and veiled women, and hear strange accents, in tongues that have to be interpreted, I seem to be in a dream–dreaming dreams and seeing visions; yet it is hard fact, and I have to prepare for it by harder study than I have ever done in my life. Will it be worth the while? I doubt it.

Now, my dear Rodman, I have written you, in haste, more than  you’ll have time or patience to read–and all about a matter somewhat personal: yet it is the newest thing in a very old land.

Will you write to me? I fear not–that is to say (as the expression is equivocal) I am afraid you won’t write. I want to know how you and Mrs. Rodman are! How the University gets on? I have asked this question of half a dozen persons–but when they come to answer, they forget the question entirely. Is it in operation at all? And who are professors there?

How is C.J. Pearson and the other members of the Supreme Court? I was sorry to miss Richmond Person when I was in Europe last summer. Judge Little[?], I hear, is [promised?] for the Governorship. I suppose the nomination will be made, at least, a month before I can hear of it. Godspeed the Republican candidate! So far as I can see the Democrats have nothing in common but a general sort of sympathy with the South, which means nothing after all. Of course there may be issues, and especially local issues, of which I am wholly ignorant, and which you should control. It is impossible at this distance to go into details. What amendments to the Constitution of ‘68 are to be submitted to the people? Some are necessary; but if any of them seriously change the system of townships, and restore the former county court jurisdiction, I should vote against them all, unless each amendment is separately submitted.

The case of Belknap startles most of people. It does not startle me. In ‘73 I heard some things which led me to believe that he was selling himself and his patronage. A tremendous cry comes up from Europe, and chiefly from England, against our country. How these things must be borne; but when everybody knows that nearly every monarch in Europe is kept on his throne by a system of bribery and bayonets, we can afford to laugh at their sneers. The simple difference is that our free Congress brings to light the hidden things of darkness; while the whole tendency here, or rather in Europe and in England, is towards repression. I am constantly disposed to write as if I were in Europe. If I have done anything here, it is to observe and hear, rarely to speak; and I am persuaded that, if we have one Belknap, Europe has a thousand.

I do not name this poor country whose corruption is openly sold and harboured. The real scent of Egyptian corruption lies, as with us, in the inadequate compensation to public services. I wish I had time or you had the patience to go into this subject. But I have neither time nor strength at the end of so long a letter.

My wife sends her warmest remembrances to Mrs. Rodman and joins me in expressions of regard for you. Remember 5 cts on each ½ oz. will bring a letter to me. I am, my dear Rodman,

Yours faithfully

Victor C. Barringer