In my first post about the fascinating character known as Far Away Moses, whose face adorns the outside of the Jefferson Building where the AFC is located, I covered the basics of his life and mentioned some of the ways in which his story became part of the folklore of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A subsequent post looked at Moses’s participation in Yom Kippur observances among the Jewish performers at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. A third looked at legends about how he got his unusual name. In this post, we’ll take a look at stories about Moses’s family and what they tell us about Moses as a merchant, tour guide, and expert on traditional culture.
Far Away Moses was a dragoman and merchant who was active in Istanbul, Cairo, and several American cities during the 19th century. He was best known for having been Mark Twain’s guide in Istanbul, and thus mentioned in The Innocents Abroad, but he was also written about by many contemporary writers who traveled in the Ottoman Empire. Thus, the attempt to learn more about Far Away Moses often turns up stories that are by turns intriguing and hilarious.
As I’ve pointed out before, Moses’s real name and place and date of birth are unknown. A previous claim by John J. Wayne that Moses was really Harry Mandil has been proven most likely wrong, both by Julia Phillips Cohen, and by my own calculations. For that reason, we can’t say anything definitive about his family. However, from contemporary references, there is evidence that Moses had at least one son and one daughter, both of whom participated with Moses in his professions.
Having said that, one factor that complicates any attempt to find out about his real family is the existence of impostors who pretended either to be Moses, or to be related to him. John Franklin Swift, one of Twain’s traveling companions in 1867, claimed in his own book to have had many experiences with such impostors, alongside other members of the expedition, whom he calls “the General” and “Captain T”:
Between that point and the Stamboul bridge I was stopped five times by brothers of the real Moses, by eight claiming each to be his father, and by not less than twenty collateral relatives in a more or less remote degree. I told the General immediately, and we asked Moses the cause of this dispute. He said they were enemies, who desired to injure him in his business, because he was honest.[…] The General caught one or two of Moses’s fathers and shook them, I pitched into a little party of grandparents and hustled them about with my umbrella, Capt. T., more bold, seized whole shoals of cousins and half-brothers and put them to flight.
Thomas W. Knox, in his book Backsheesh!, suggests that pretending to be a brother of Far Away Moses really was a tactic employed by other guides, and one that the real Moses was aware of:
I think about seven dozen ‘brothers of Far-Away Moses’ were pointed out to me, and they resembled him, each other, and themselves, about as much as a cup of coffee resembles a row of mixed drinks in an American bar room. Moses admits that like the friend of Toodles ‘he had a brother’ but he denies fraternal relations with all the ‘brothers’ that hang about the bazaars and hotels.
According to Julia Phillips Cohen , an 1877 article in Harper’s Weekly reveals that being a “brother” of Far Away Moses even seems to have been a ruse used by merchants in European cities, far from Moses’s usual stomping grounds:
A young woman who went shopping for oriental curiosities in a market in Nice, France, reported an encounter with a man bearing a letter of recommendation from the “American minister at Constantinople” certifying the “remarkable integrity of ‘Far-away Moses.”‘ “Then you are ‘Far-away Moses’?” she asked him before receiving the cryptic reply, ‘Yes, and my big brother at Constantinople.”
Lee Meriwether’s low-budget travel guide A Tramp Trip: How to See Europe on Fifty Cents a Day provides insight into impostors as well as Moses’s family. As for impostors:
Walking through a narrow alley in Stamboul one day, I was overtaken by a Turk who addressed me in tolerable English.
“You want guide?” he asked.
I told him no, but he continued walking by my side.
“Maybe you not know me?”
“Certainly not. How should I?”
“Why,” he said, “you ought know me. Me in Mark Twain’s book. You remember Mark Twain’s book? Me Far-away-Moses.”
Did I know him? I should think I did. What American does not know, and has not laughed over, Far-away-Moses? Here was I in the very presence of that celebrated man. I gazed a moment in silent admiration, then squeezed his hand, and treated him to a Turkish pastry at the first booth we came to.
A day or two after this event, I was again walking in Stamboul, and again was I approached by an English-speaking guide.
“No I don’t need a guide,” I told him. “I can paddle my own canoe.”
“But me very good guide,” insisted the man. ‘You don’t know me, gentleman; I tell you who I am. You know Mark Twain’s book? Me Far-away-Moses!”
Had the great Far-away-Moses changed so in three days? It was impossible. The only solution to this remarkable incident was that there were two Far-away-Moseses. A day or two later still another Far-away-Moses turned up. Before I left Constantinople I began to think the woods full of them. That the guides should think the mere name Far-away-Moses a passport to your good graces is a great compliment to Mark Twain.
In this passage, it’s interesting that both putative Far Away Moseses speak a form of pidgin English, leaving out some verbs and failing to conjugate others. By all accounts, the real Moses’s English was very good, and by the 1880s he had lived in the U.S. for almost a decade before moving back to Turkey, so this is a good indication that the men encountered by Meriwether were fake.
The rest of Meriwether’s account tells us more about Moses’s family:
There was a sequel to this little adventure in Antwerp several months afterwards. I was visiting the Turkish bazaar at the Exposition then being held in that city. I spoke to the man in charge of my recent return from the East.
“Ah you were in Stamboul?” he said. “Perhaps you saw Far-away-Moses?”
I had seen several of them but I did not tell him so. I merely said “Yes.” His face lighted with a smile.
“Tell me,” he said, “how did he look? Far-away-Moses is my father!”
It is very possible the sons were as numerous as the father, but I saw only this one.”
It is, of course, possible that the “man in charge” in Antwerp was lying, but it seems more likely to have been Moses’s real son. First of all, he didn’t seem to try to trade on Moses’s name, but rather inquired after his health, suggesting he actually cared about Moses. Second, the Turkish Bazaar at the expo in Antwerp was run by Souhami, Sadullah & Co., the same company that employed Moses, as this contemporary book relates on page 226. Third, independent evidence suggests that Moses did indeed have a son who was employed by the same company as he was.
That evidence comes from a passage by Julia Langdon Barber in her book Mediterranean Mosaics: Or, The Cruise of the Yacht Sapphire, 1893-1894. Barber reports on her “Lunch With Far Away Moses,” which occurred in March 1894. Moses, she writes, “keeps a shop or is rather the figurehead in a shop where his son was principal salesman as far as we were concerned.”
Moses’s son might have aided him in his career as a merchant, but his daughter seems to have helped him more in his work as a creator of cultural heritage tourism experiences. Far Away Moses had quite a reputation as a guide who could provide authentic cultural experiences in Istanbul. For example, Jones Wister gives a lengthy account of a Persian Islamic ritual that he was only able to see thanks to Far Away Moses (whom he apparently believed erroneously to be Persian):
We were invited by Far Away Moses to witness that night in the Persian quarter the celebration of the Feast of Hassan and Hussein, supposed to be witnessed only by the faithful. […] This so-called feast is really a sacrifice in commemoration of the murder of these faithful followers of the Prophet who were falsely maligned as traitors and killed as such. Too late the plot was discovered, and although the event occurred over 1400 years ago, enthusiastic believers show their sorrow for the mistake by torturing themselves annually. […] At dusk we met our Persian friend at his shop in Stamboul and were duly escorted to the Persian quarter. This is an enclosure of some two hundred square feet, built around by shops, and entered under a low arch from one side. […] There were such crowds of excited men that had it not been for our pilot we should never have gained the entrance.
Although Wister and his companions found the ritual to be “most sickening,” and wanted to leave early, they trusted Far Away Moses’s advice, and remained to the end so as not to be conspicuous. While they left feeling “glad to get out of Turkey alive,” one can’t help get the feeling they appreciated Moses’s ability to provide both cultural experiences and practical advice that made their trip both memorable and safe.
Similarly, Harry Harewood Leech describes visits to Hagia Sophia, the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, and a performance of Dervishes in a tekke—all of which he believed would have been closed to him without the efforts of Far Away Moses.
It’s in Edward Hewitt’s account , however, that John J. Wayne found a reference to Moses’s daughter:
The merchant from whom we bought most in the Constantinople bazaar was called Faraway Moses. He was a delightful old scoundrel. When we were about through with our shopping, he said to my mother that it was fortunate she happened to be in Constantinople just at that time, as she could witness an Oriental wedding ceremony—he happened to have a daughter getting married the next day at Scutari. If we desired, said Faraway Moses, we could all come over and see the ceremony.
My mother and my three sisters went over to Scutari the next day. The dragoman at the hotel told me, after they had gone, that this girl was married as often as three times a week, when there were enough tourists and visitors to supply presents for the bride.
The other implicit reference to Moses’s daughter comes from 1877, when Moses was living in New York. In that year, he went to the New York City police, accompanied by a younger man, after having been harassed and assaulted by a gang of young boys. The pair was noticed by the press because of their attire, and the New York Times reported on November 6:
The elder of the two, who was tall and venerable-looking, wore extravagantly wide, baggy trowsers, a long, loose outer garment with wide sleeves and trimmed with yellow fur, a waist sash of variegated Persian stuff, white stockings displayed almost to the knees, and for head-gear a fiery-red fez. His companion was a rather good-looking, olive-complexioned young man, who also wore a fez, but was otherwise attired in American costume. The elder man introduced himself to the magistrate as Faraway Moses, the celebrated Turkish guide, described by ‘Mark Twain’ in his Innocents Abroad. He presented the young man as his son-in-law.
If nothing else, Moses traveling with his son-in-law suggests that at least one wedding of one daughter was real!
As Wayne noted in relation to Hewitt’s account, “Far-Away Moses skillfully sensed Western appetites for the exotic East and his chance of capitalizing on those desires.” Moses’s willingness to stage such events as weddings to create spectacles for tourists makes him a pioneer of cultural heritage tourism.
It’s interesting, then, that Moses was among the leaders of the community of Ottoman subjects who traveled to Chicago for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. In this context, rather than stage or gain access to cultural events in his home city for visiting tourists, he staged his own everyday life as a bazaar manager in a simulated, though fully functional, bazaar in America. The expo also featured two different reenactments of weddings from the Ottoman world, an outdoor wedding procession in a street representing Cairo (where Far Away Moses had lived and managed a shop in the bazaar), and a stage presentation of an “Oriental Wedding in Damascus”–but featuring a Turkish rather than Syrian bride.
Did Moses’s experience in staging an “Oriental wedding ceremony” with his daughter in Constantinople influence these presentations, also referred to as “Oriental weddings,” in Chicago? It’s hard to know, but it’s intriguing that many photos of Moses from the expo show him with young women who could be daughters.
In any case, it’s clear that, even before he met Mark Twain in 1867, Moses was valued not only as a shrewd merchant but as an expert on local culture. In fact, the first known mention of Far Away Moses is from 1863, in the context of an attempt to collect folklore and oral history; Moses was consulted as a local expert who might be able to locate informants for a medical doctor, J. N. Radcliffe. Radcliffe was attempting to find residents of Constantinople with memories of Florence Nightingale. Although no such informants could be located, Radcliffe considered Moses “that best of dragomen in the City of the Sultan.”
This in itself reveals that the years Far Away Moses spent in the tourism industry gave him special knowledge of the traditional cultures in his native city. This knowledge made him, if not a trained folklorist, certainly a local expert on folklore. This in turn makes it all the more appropriate that his face should be here on the Jefferson Building, so close to the folklore treasures we preserve at the American Folklife Center.
- Cohen, Julia Phillips. 2016. “The East as a Career: Far Away Moses & Company in the Marketplace of Empires.” Jewish Social Studies n.s. 21, no. 2 (Winter 2016) 35-77.
- Hewitt’s account appears in his book Those Were the Days, Tales of a Long Life. The book is not available online, but here is the catalog record.