I’m reading a lousy Iraqi novel called Papa Sartre (a 2009 translation of the 2001 original); it’s only 178 pages long but feels like War and Peace, and I’m skimming more and more as I zip through its repetitive and heavy-handed mockery of schemers, ne’er-do-wells, and fake philosophers. Why do I keep reading, you ask? Because I’m fascinated with Baghdad, as I am with all ancient cities, and it’s rare to read fiction set there. Alas, although there are descriptions of Baghdad streets and neighborhoods, it’s impossible for me to add them to my mental map of the city because I’m unable to locate them on an actual map: where is al-Saadun Park, where is the Sadriya neighborhood? And why are there no decent maps of Baghdad? It’s the only great city I know of for which maps are (as far as I can determine) unavailable. Even my beloved Map Room at the NYPL came up nearly empty; I copied a 1951 Arabic map that is nearly useless even if you can read the Arabic, and have collected various tiny maps in newspapers and magazines over the years, but on the whole I might as well be reading about an imaginary city. (You’d think the publisher could have included at least a sketch map showing where the various settings of the novel are.)
Excuse me, I’m venting. What I came here to say is that I eventually ran across one of those nuggets that keep me reading, a reference to “the Orosdi Back department store.” That was such a, well, Levantine-sounding name that I had to investigate it; my preliminary guess was that “Back” was a mangled version of the common Ottoman honorific Beg. But no, it’s an Austrian Jewish surname; you can read about it here (scroll down to “A GREAT DEPARTMENT STORE”):
Three years after they opened their first European store in Vienna’s 1st district Leon Orosdi and Hermann Back opened their store in Egypt circa 1896. While the Vienna store disappeared the one in Cairo is still with us today albeit under a defunct state run ownership/management.
Some older Cairenes may still remember Orosdi-Back, that famous turn-of-the-century department store which early on added the Turkish-derived a.k.a “Omar Effendi” to its name. The six-story rococo department store designed in 1905-6 by Raoul Brandon (1878-1941) stands at the corner of (Sultan) Abdelaziz and Rushdi Pasha Streets, a powerful architectural testimonial to the Cairo that was. In its better days when it was still a private sector company the globe above the building was seen kilometers away as it shone its powerful beam each night beckoning wide-eyed patrons.
In 1909 Hermann’s son Philippe received a minor ennoblement from emperor Franz-Josef, a belated recognition for Back’s sponsorship of several archeological excavations in Egypt as late as 1907. By then the Frenchified Orosdis and Backs were more prone to be seen in Bagatelle, Paris then in Leopoldstadt, Vienna. Armed with their wealth eventually the Orosdi-Back descendants made into the old European aristocracy changing their religion in the process.
But the Cairo store was only one of their far-flung chain, as you can see from this summary of a monograph, European Department Stores and Middle Eastern Consumers: The Orosdi-Back Saga by Uri M. Kupferschmidt (İstanbul, 2007):
In “another age of globalization”, the Ets. [i.e., Etablissements] Orosdi-Back were a trading company which stepped into the new business opportunities of the Middle East from the mid-19th century on. The Ets. Orosdi-Back became best known for their department stores in Istanbul, Cairo, Beirut, Tunis and Baghdad.
Adolf Orosdi, a Hungarian army officer, who had found refuge in the Ottoman Empire, opened a first clothing store in Galata in 1855. With the Back family, equally of Jewish Austro-Hungarian descent, Orosdi and his sons began establishing similar stores elsewhere.
In 1888, when their siège social was registered in Paris, they already had outlets in Philippopoli , Bucharest, Salonica, Izmir, Cairo, Alexandria, Tanta, and Tunis, as well as purchasing missions in industrial and commercial centers in Europe.
Their business gradually evolved from wholesale to retailing, in particular through grands magasins, which differed from the bazaar.
What fascinated me when I unleashed Google Books on “orosdi back” was how omnipresent references to the stores were in descriptions of Near Eastern cities from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth. Books on Cairo, Baghdad, Beirut, Smyrna, Aleppo, and other cities often mention that you can get Western articles at Orosdi-Back, and the Salonica branch is mentioned in the wonderful Mazower history of that city (I wrote about it here and here, and the renamings I ranted about in the latter post still make my blood boil: “How I hate those modern names, the Street of the 37th of Octember, the Avenue of Marshal X, the Boulevard of Our Glorious National Uprising!”). Now it’s forgotten. Sic transit…