|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
2 - 8 July 1998
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
The intolerable absence of Joséphine
Constant, Bonaparte's valet, recounts in his memoirs that Joséphine had been keen to participate in the French Expedition. She actually accompanied her husband up to the French port of Toulon, pleading to be taken along. Bonaparte refused at first, alleging the harshness of the Egyptian summer, but the lady argued that her Creole origins were an invaluable asset under the circumstances, and would exempt her from suffering heat strokes. Under the spell of a bout of nostalgia for more clement horizons, she insisted that she should follow her husband to Egypt on La Pomone, the very same ship that had brought her from her native Martinique in her youth. Finally relenting, Bonaparte promised to send La Pomone back as soon as he and his troops had safely landed in Alexandria. Meanwhile, he reminded Joséphine that she had wanted to take the waters in Plombières, which had the proven reputation of activating women's fertility. Why not spend a few days there, until the ship was ready to take her on her journey? The plan was agreed upon. Fate, however, proved to be contrary.
One sunny morning, a few days after Bonaparte's departure, Josephine was entertaining several society ladies in her salon in Plombières. Standing on the balcony, her friend, Madame de Cambis, urged the ladies to take a look at the antics of a little dog playing in the garden. They quickly gathered on the balcony which, unable to withstand their combined weight, collapsed with a formidable crash. Josephine was badly bruised. Monsieur Jacquet, who was nearby by chance, hastened to the rescue. He ordered a sheep slaughtered at once and Madame Bonaparte was wrapped in its skin in an attempt to minimised her injuries. The remedy must have been less than effective however, as Constant, the valet, reports that she remained several weeks at Plombières and had to be fed like a baby.
Meanwhile, La Pomone had been captured by the British, who moreover, destroyed the French fleet moored at Alexandria. Joséphine's Egyptian dream was thus shattered. She eventually went back to Paris, and rumours of her infidelities soon reached Bonaparte in Egypt, one more nagging aggravation to be added to the list of disappointments he had been experiencing since his arrival. Not all the women had stayed behind, however. It is estimated that three hundred wives, fiancées and lady friends had boarded the ships, some more "officially" than others. Among the women who had accompanied their husbands, writer Patrice Bret mentions "la générale Verdier, a lively and hot-headed Italian who will climb the great Pyramid."
She is said to have been brave, generous and very popular with the soldiers who loved and respected her; she did not fear to criticise Bonaparte and, when he forced surgeon Boyer to parade dressed in women's clothes for having failed to attend his plague-stricken patients, she expressed her indignation in no uncertain terms. She also distinguished herself during the Syrian campaign, extending help and encouragement to the disgruntled, defeated troops after the St Jean d'Acre fiasco.
Three French technicians employed as printers had also been allowed to take their wives along, since these ladies worked as their assistants. The Commission of Arts and Sciences paid a salary of 100 francs monthly to the wife of the director of the national printing works in Cairo, Madame Marcel. Meanwhile, those who had come alone -- more than thirty thousand men -- were complaining bitterly. Anxious to comfort them, Bonaparte requested from the Directoire the dispatch of his civil servants' legal wives, as well as a few hundred unmarried women for the troops. According to eminent historian André Raymond, however, "the desire of the French to obtain women developed into an obsession which absorbed a part of their energy and money," and went a long way toward damaging relations with the Egyptians. Nurtured on Orientalist dreams of lascivious dancing girls, the French had expected to meet Scheherazade at every street corner. Instead, though at first optimism had run high, "the resources afforded by the Mameluke's harems did not prove as abundant as the armies had imagined", writes Raymond.
The callous attitude of the army of occupation fanned the fires of hatred already burning in Egyptian hearts. "It is interesting to note," writes Raymond, "that Al-Jabarti and Nicolas Turc, a Muslim and a Christian respectively, reacted in a similar way: The Egyptians were scandalised by the loose behaviour of the French, of which the freedom accorded their women was a symbol."
Surprise and curiosity changed to rebellion, however, when the French attempted to treat Egyptian women as they did their own, encouraging them to wear European clothes and walk the streets barefaced. Before the French occupation, wrote an observer of the period, any Egyptian woman behaving in this way would have been lynched in public. As for Al-Jabarti, he made no secret of his contempt toward poor women and Nubians, who sought, in his view, to take advantage of the general disintegration of moral standards: "...when they realised that the general wish was [to give] women total freedom, married and unmarried women alike ran in droves after the men: they jumped over the walls and climbed up the windows."
Muslim women were not all being abused by drunk French soldiers or dancing the nights away with the high command, however. Bret notes that many of the women who favoured Western dress were participating in the administration of the quarters and were chiefly involved in ensuring compliance with the new rules of hygiene in private dwellings. Al-Jabarti mentions Muslim women dressed in French-style clothes accompanying government employees on their rounds of inspection, while others helped the inhabitants of their neighbourhoods in their dealings with the authorities. "The women walked alone or with other women. They were preceded by bailiffs or servants holding a stick. People would watch the spectacle as they did the passage of the police officer. One became accustomed to seeing women [taking it upon themselves to] decide, order and deny."
Jean-Joel Brégeon comments on what he identifies as Mameluke civilisation: "During the time of the sultanate, they [the women] participated in the affairs of the state, like the Sultana Shajarat Al-Durr, who died in 1257, or Princess Zaynab, who died in 1479. They managed proper finances and endowed numerous foundations -- mosques, madrasas and riba' -- attesting to their piety. When they died, they were buried in magnificent tombs. Their eminent position was not without disturbing the custodians of a strict Islam, however; and, in the 14th century, Ibn Taymiyya warned that 'obedience to women overturns affairs of state'."
A couple of centuries later, women's influence seemed to be waning. Women of Caucasian or Balkanic descent, who were invariably linked to the higher echelons of society, were exceptionally powerful, however; probably, their status was largely superior to that of the native Egyptians. Sitt Nafisa Khatun's reputation of might and political skill, for instance, had long preceded the arrival of the French Expedition. One of the wives of Ali Bey Al-Kabir, she had married Murad Bey after her first husband's death in 1773. She brought him wealth and gained his respect and consideration for her intelligence and wisdom. He trusted her and listened to her advice. Long before the arrival of the expedition, Sitt Nafisa often used her influence to gain protection for one French trader or another, whose case had been brought to her attention by her friend Madame Magallon, the French consul's wife, from whom she often bought imported fabrics and other knickknacks.
On the eve of the Imbaba debacle (baptised battle of the Pyramids by Bonaparte), Murad Bey went into hiding. Sitt Nafisa remained in Cairo to keep him informed of the situation and protect her property and that of the other Mamelukes' wives, who had also stayed behind. Keen on winning her over to his side before proceeding towards Cairo, Bonaparte dispatched Eugène de Beauharnais, Josephine's son, to reassure her and promise her his protection. She rewarded Eugène with a large diamond. Later, when Kleber tried to strike up an alliance with Murad Bey, she skillfully conducted the negotiations. It was also Sitt Nafisa who, in March 1800, after the Al-Arish Convention, which heralded the imminent departure of the French, bargained with the Sheikh El-Fayoumi for the safety of the numerous slaves who had fled the harems of Murad and Ibrahim Bey to become the concubines of generals and savants, and who were now going to be left behind.
In several cases, the French, tired of their unrewarding quest for an acceptable transient relationship, sought to take permanent concubines or to marry Egyptian women legally, even though they had a wife and children waiting for them in France. Geoffroy Saint Hilaire grew a "Turkish mustache" and, in a letter to his father, cited by Bret, confessed: "I live here very peacefully, busying myself in turn with natural history, my horses and my little black family, to whom I have transferred my affections, which are useless at the moment to my European family." Another successful relationship -- from the French point of view, at least -- was that of young engineer Dubois-Aymé, who had his "Ayyusha" to help him fend off the deadly boredom of his exile in Samannud. This Aisha, no doubt, would have been pleased to know she would be fondly remembered by his family back in France for the solace she gave their dear son in his time of need.
In most cases, however, the French were happy just acquiring a concubine; exceptionally, the relationship became more involved and required official sanction. Unions with Christian women, whether Western or Eastern, did not attract much attention, but mixed marriages deeply offended the native population and the notables in particular, whose daughters were most coveted. They considered the "conversion" of the prospective groom a farce, aimed generally at obtaining special privileges. The trend had been set by General Menou, who, on 2 March 1799, married Zubayda, daughter of the head of the bath keepers' guild of Rosetta, who could trace his lineage all the way back to the Prophet. Zubayda was married at the time to Selim Agha, who had fled the French and was in hiding. It is said that, in order to protect her fugitive husband, Zubayda divorced herself from him in his absence and married Menou, who dubbed himself Abdallah Jacques, following the shari'a requirement that a Christian man convert to Islam in order to marry a Muslim woman. According to various sources, Menou was never fooled by the charade, but his need for a woman led him to play along, regardless of his compatriots' mocking remarks. At the time of the expedition's departure, Zubayda Al-Rashidiya stayed behind with her son, Al-Sayed Sulaiman Murad Jacques Menou. She remained the object of great respect and consideration, and the ulama of Cairo staunchly defended her actions and protected her from the pasha's wrath.
Not all the women were so lucky, however: On 4 August 1801, five women were executed for having had sinful relationships with members of the army of occupation. Among them were Zaynab, the daughter of Sheikh Al-Bakri, who had a short-lived relationship with Bonaparte, and Hawa, the wife of Papas Oglou; she and her white slave were murdered by her first husband, Ismail Kashif Al-Shami.
Bonaparte himself had been spared his men's tribulations. Apart from his fleeting caper with Zaynab, Sheikh El-Bakri's daughter, whom he found too plump and perfumed for his liking, as he had told his associates, he appeared not to be an amateur of local talent.
Luckily for him, he met Pauline Fourès at the inauguration ball of the Tivoli, the amusement area which had been established in the quarter of Azbakiya. He is said to have set eyes on Pauline as the hot air balloon was being launched. Bonaparte, disturbed by the rumours of Josephine's infidelities, easily succumbed to her charms, writes Bret. Two weeks later, Pauline's husband was sent to France on an "urgent mission", in order to give the lovers complete freedom.
Heedless of Josephine's powers over Bonaparte, Pauline followed him to France. There, she artfully managed to obtain many favours from the First Consul, whose star was to keep rising for quite some time.