8 - 14 July 1999
Issue No. 437
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
July was always a month rich in revolution. Two recent books shed new light on key actors in the making of modern Egypt
The missing bust
Awraq Youssef Seddiq (The Papers of Youssef Seddiq), ed. Abdel-Azim Ramadan, Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organisation, 1999. pp308
The limits of allegiance
Shahadati lil-Ajyal (My Testimony to the Coming Generations), Helmi El-Said, Cairo: Dar Al-Mustaqbal Al-Arabi, 1999. pp271
Playing the British at their own game
Fayed -- The Unauthorised Biography, Tom Bower. Macmillan, 1998. pp496
Discrepancies of doctrine
Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity, Otto F A Meinardus, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1999. pp344 + 24 b/w photographs
From Ottomans to Officers
The Cambridge History of Egypt (2 vols.), volume 2, Modern Egypt from 1517 to the End of the Twentieth Century, ed. M W Daly, Cambridge University Press, 1998. pp464
Putting Islam to Work: Education, Politics and Religious Transformation in Egypt, Gregory Starrett, Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1998. pp308
Zaman al-nisaa wal zhakira al-badila (Women's Time and Alternative Memory), eds. Hoda El-Sadda, Somaya Ramadan and Omayma Abu Bakr, Cairo: Dar Al-Kutub, 1998. pp382
The illusion of the journey
Travellers in Egypt, eds. Paul Starkey and Janet Starkey, I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 1998. pp318
Soon to appear, Stokely Carmichael's memoirs are themselves a part of history. Al-Ahram Weekly previews the manuscript and talks to the co-author
Rendezvous with history
Michael Thelwell helped Stokely Carmichael write his death-bed memoirs. Visiting Cairo recently, Gamal Nkrumah sounded him out on the political legacy of the Black Power movement
At a glance:
Illustrations courtesy of International Commitee of the Red Cross
"Folk drawings and tales", Cairo, 1996
Playing the British at their own gameReviewed by Mamdouh El-Dakhakhni
Fayed -- The Unauthorised Biography, Tom Bower. Macmillan, 1998. pp496
First of all, let me begin by apologising to those of you who read my recent letter in the Weekly, in which I stated firmly that I had no intention whatsoever of reading Tom Bower's book on Mohamed El-Fayed. Famous last words! Shortly afterwards, I bought the book, intending to give it as a gift to a talented Egyptian businessman of my relatives. At the time, he was out of town, and so the book ended up sitting on my shelf in Alexandria, as if to taunt me. Then one night the Devil -- he of the goat's horns, woman's breasts, protruding sex and swishing tail -- whispered in my ear that surely just a tiny peek would do no harm. I succumbed, and once I began reading, I found myself unable to put the book down. Reader, be warned: the same fate may well await you, too!
Bower's book offers a meticulously-researched, no-holds-barred close-up portrait of the man who fought his way from the backstreets of Alexandria to the splendours of Knightsbridge and ownership of such icons of Englishness as the Harrods department store and Fulham Football Club. In tracing his path, Bower shows how El-Fayed's desperate search to integrate himself into the establishment of Egypt's former colonial masters has been an exercise not only in ruthless manoeuvring, but also in moral self-destruction. There is a lesson here, though it is not one that all of us may wish to hear.
The book aspires to the density and detail of a novel. How Bower managed to obtain so much information on his still-living and singly uncooperative subject is not always clear, though the authenticity of the account, at least in its broad lines, is not in doubt.
El-Fayed with the Queen at the Windsor Horse Show
In Bower's version, El-Fayed is a kind of hero, albeit not one of an especially appealing kind. An Egyptian of no particular education or background, he brought all his cunning to bear against the established order in England and defeated it hands down, yet without ever finally winning the match himself. He combined the cold contempt for others of the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland with the mindless rage and brutality of Godzilla. This is a man who, before he could even crawl, convinced himself he was the best runner in the world, and then set about to prove it.
Long before he could afford such "luxuries", he dressed only in Savile Row suits and was driven everywhere in chauffered Rolls-Royces. In England, as in a number of other unfortunate countries, this is the kind of rubbish which creates the right impression. Bower makes clear that the money El-Fayed required for this stage of his game was obtained from some fairly dubious sources. Papa Doc's Haiti and the Sultan of Borneo's millions both played an important part.
El-Fayed's masterstroke was to decide early on that he would play the British at their own game, observing their rules (at least in appearance), and setting them against the other. Divide and rule, as they used to say... He also quickly discovered that the English were just as open to the lure of bribery as the people of any other nation. MPs, politicians, businessmen, police chiefs -- they all succumbed to the magic of the brown paper envelope. El-Fayed even attempted to blackmail John Major, if Bower is to be believed, and it would appear to have been this error of judgement which was at the origin of the now seemingly irreversible ban on his being granted British nationality.
Even when conducting more conventional forms of business, El-Fayed tended to proceed in an extraordinary, not to say fantastic fashion. He would often open his conversations with British businessman by asking them about the condition of their genitalia, and then proceed to speak unflatteringly of his own. He was fond of expletives, especially a certain four-letter word which he pronounced, through his heavy accent, with a double "g" instead of a "ck". Visitors to his office would often find themselves walking away with an impromptu gift, which might be either a teddy bear or a wad of 50 pound notes, depending on the occasion.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Bower reports that El-Fayed also had an eye for the ladies, and even retained one member of staff whose sole duty was to recruit attractive young Scandinavian girls to enhance the owner's work environment. Those who refused to enhance it in the required way would be unceremoniously sacked. Despite his personal weaknesses, however, he was a strict moralist when it came to his employees, and would fire on sight any of his staff, no matter how senior they might be, who were caught dating -- or even just having lunch -- with a desirable colleague.
This puritanical mania was part of a larger system of paranoia, which Bower details at great, and repulsive, length. El-Fayed had an intricate surveillance system set up inside Harrods, which he used to collect video and other evidence to use against employees. Not all the cases seem to justify the economic value of such precautions. One man was fired for turning up in a crumpled suit, another because his smile was not quite right.
After his row with Tiny Rowland, the owner of the ailing Lonrho conglomerate and his rival in the battle for the House of Fraser, El-Fayed employed a squad of no less than 16 crack former SAS officers to act as his bodyguard. Not only were they to be armed, but they were ordered to "shoot to kill" anyone who might pose the slightest threat to him. When the senior officer pointed out that it was illegal to carry arms in Britain and that it was unthinkable that his men would follow the "shoot to kill" instruction, he was told to shut up and execute his orders -- or else. Later, one SAS bodyguard was almost fired for forgetting to load a plate of shrimp and crab salad on to El-Fayed's private jet. When his cameras discovered Rowland placing a number of "documents" in a safe deposit box in Harrods, he had his guards crack open the box and purloin the contents. Rowland subsequently took him to court for theft, and won.
Though not always successful in the courts, El-Fayed knew how to use the British press to establish his image as a champion of the national economy and a generous contributor to good causes. He also knew how to use it to take revenge on his enemies and plague them with allegations of all sorts. For several decades, he rampaged through British society, opportunistically exposing its hypocrisies and flaws, without ever satisfactorily managing to camouflage his own. Perhaps it would only have taken a few more men like El-Fayed, driven by an ambition that ultimately preferred self-destruction to failure, to bring that once-great nation to its knees.
Although his more ambitious plans often came to naught, the one person whom Al-Fayed does seem to have managed to completely crush was his son, Dodi. The picture Bower paints is appalling. Dodi emerges as a total non-entity, an egregious failure, who could not even speak the most rudimentary English, and who spent his time in expensive discotheques buying not only drinks, but women as well, with wads of his father's 50 pound notes. How such a person could have won the love of Princess Diana of Wales is one of the great mysteries of the late 20th century. It is true that a variety of ex-colonials, who may be anything from anonymous dustmen to stars of the international cricket scene, have at times been allowed to play a walk-on part on the debutante circuit. But there is a difference between outsourcing the fertility rites of the county set, and the search for real emotion. To fall in love with someone like Dodi, as Diana seems to have done, suggests she was either far more vulnerable, or far more manipulative -- or both -- than I for one have ever wanted to believe. Yet after reading Bower's account of their relationship, I had no choice but to tear up all the photographs of her which I had kept and cancel my order for the commemorative coin to be issued by the British Mint.
Although not all the revelations it contains are happy ones, this is not a book at which an Egyptian should turn up his nose. Indeed, I would say it is essential reading for us, just as much as for our British cousins, or indeed humanity in general. It may cast a sombre pall over things which many of us have long held dear, yet it makes for salutary reading.