Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
12 - 18 August 1999
Issue No. 442
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Books Monthly supplement Antara

Books for a burning month
Holiday reading and what the writers read

Translating Egypt
Hala Halim finds consummate translation skills and less compelling ethnography in Ahdaf Soueif's most recent counter-narrative

Extract from The Map of love
By Ahdaf Soueif

Metropolitan musings
A new French translation of a Gamal El-Ghitani novel appeared last month. David Tresilian, in Paris, interviews the translator and meanders through the novel Francophone readers

I know what you read this summer
All writers and artists intereviewed by Hala Halim

An elusive graveyard
Ra'ihat Al-Burtuqal (The Smell of Orange), Mahmoud El-Wardani, Cairo: Maktabat Al-Osra (Family Library), GEBO, 1999. pp115

A century of fantasy
Awalim Borges Al-Khayaliya (Borges's Universe of Fantasy), translated and introduced by Khalil Kalfat, Cairo: Afaq Al-Tarjama (Translations) Series, Cultural Palaces Organisation, July 1999. pp140

Author and character
without disguise

Manamat 'Amm Ahmed Al-Sammak (The Dreams of 'Amm Ahmed the Fishmonger), Khairi Shalabi, Cairo: Al-Hilal, 1999. pp285

What the winter said
Youssef Rakha discusses Salah Abdel-Sabour's Layla wal-Majnoun, now part of the Kitab fi Garida Series, a joint project of Al-Ahram and UNESCO, translating an extract from the play

Thus spoke the Ustaz

To see other book supplements go to the ARCHIVES index. 


Illustrations courtesy of International Commitee of the Red Cross
"Folk drawings and tales", Cairo, 1996

Extract from The Map of love

By Ahdaf Soueif

10 March 1901

Dear Sir Charles,

I was delighted to receive your last, so generous in recounting recent events and the conversation of friends that it made me quite long to be in London again...

Yesterday... I attended a conversation (I say attended because my part in it was chiefly confined to that of listener) which would have been of interest to you, and in which, unlike me, you would have had a great deal to say. It took place at the foot of the Great Pyramid (which I have eulogised enough already in previous letters), where luncheon was laid out after the expedition by boat and donkey (I have not yet dared to ride a camel!). You can, I am sure, imagine the scene: the rugs spread out, the baskets opened, the food served, the servants employed in shooing away the various turcomans and children offering services, donkeys, camels, escorts to the top of the Pyramid or simply asking for money, and Emily seated on the corner of a rug. I had prevailed upon her to accompany me, saying she could not go back to England without at least seeing the Pyramid. I believe she took this as a sign that we were soon to leave and, wishing to remove any possible obstacle to our departure, came along and sat staring obstinately away from the Pyramid and towards the lush vegetation that precedes Cairo -- the closest thing to civilisation that she can hope for at this moment...

Our party was made up of Harry Boyle, the Oriental Secretary at the Agency; James Barrington, the Third Secretary; your friend Mr Rodd, the First Secretary, who is soon to leave Egypt; Mrs Butcher (acting also as my chaperone); Mr Douglas Sladen and Mr George Young, both of whom are writing books on Egypt; and Mr William Willcocks, who is responsible for the building of the great dam and reservoir at Assouan -- and myself. In the shadow of forty centuries, the talk turned naturally enough to Egypt, to the uninterrupted way of life of the Egyptian fellah and labourer, to Egypt's successive rulers and to our presence there now... Oh, how strong the temptation was to whip out my journal and take notes as they spoke! But that would not have done, and so I resorted to subterfuge and took out my sketching-pad and pencils -- for the scene was delightful and each person had such a different aspect -- and I was able also to jot down the odd note and I have written it all out for you as a little 'scene', which I hope, together with the drawings, will give you some pleasure.

Here is the scene by the Great Pyramid with the gentlemen lolling at their ease, Mrs Butcher sitting very upright on her cushion in a neat dress of grey with navy trimming and a well-restrained bonnet; Emily is in one corner looking away from the party, and I in another with my sketching-pad poised on my knee; the native hurly-burly waits -- at a distance of some years -- to erupt... Mr S (whom I confess I do not much like for he has a superior manner which extends to everything except certain old buildings) holds forth on the subject of the 'effendis' whom he terms 'verbose jackanapes' and dislikes intensely for -- as far as I can tell -- their attempts to emulate us. He derides their golf collars and two-tone boots, their 'undigested' championing of European ideas of liberty and democracy. He is suspicious of their French education.

Mr S. small and thin and sallow, and HB, large and ruddy, seem to agree on all things; each picks up where the other leaves off. HB holds that the people who matter in Egypt are the fellaheen and for them the British have brought nothing but good... he describes how the Lord [Cromer] abolished the corvé, the courbash and the bastinado and how the fellah can now stand up to the Pasha and say, 'You cannot whip me for I shall tell the English.' Mr Barrington looks doubtful at this, but he is very gentle and not given to contradicting people -- particularly people with strong opinions... It is he who insists on extracting a portion of food from the picnic and hands it to his manservant Sabir, who he has assured me is utterly devoted and loyal (and indeed they seem to have a regard for each other that I have not seen in other members of the Agency and their servants), to share among the waiting natives. HB concludes that the effendis are not real Egyptians and their opinions can therefore be safely neglected. Mr S, however, will go further: there is no such thing as an Egyptian, he avows: it is only the Copts who can lay claim to being descendants of the Ancients, and they are few and without influence. For all the Mohammedans, they are Arabs and are to be found in Egypt through relatively recent historical circumstance. Mrs Butcher remonstrates: the Ancient Egyptians, she believes, were of so definite, so vivid a character that traces of that character cannot be completely lost to the Egyptians of today... and Mr S cuts across her with 'Not lost, ma'am, degraded. Completely degraded.' That is a term which I have often heard used to describe the Egyptian character. It is supported by a disquisition (which Mr S now proceeds to set forth) on their subscribing to a system of Baksheesh, their propensity to falsehood, their ability to bend with the wind. Even the Khedive exhibits these traits -- and that is why Lord Cromer will not deal with him. Mr Rodd comes to the defence of His Highness, who, he pleads, being educated in Austria and ascending the Throne at eighteen, had princely notions beyond his station and found the heavy hand of the Lord hard to bear. And yet I wonder whether it is possible for a conquering ruler to truly see into the character of the people whom he rules... Mr Y, who is an Historian, expressed the view that the Egyptians do indeed have a National Character, but that they are not yet aware of it. He called on the movement of 'Urabi Pasha (which I have so often heard you discuss) as proof of that incipient character -- but that was somewhat too metaphysical for HB, who held forth quite fervently about the economic reforms Lord Cromer's administration has effected: the cotton yield, the sanitation, the trains running on time. But I was distracted by the thought that his clothes seemed to get more and more crumpled -- by their own agency, as it were, though he was engaged in nothing more strenuous than eating his lunch. Mrs Butcher -- neat as a new pin -- suggested that while material progress was, naturally, to be commended, our administration could be reproached for having ignored the spiritual life of the nation we govern. This was a signal for Mr Willcocks, who deplored how little was being done for education and said he did not believe we intended to leave Egypt when we had finished reforming her -- or we would be doing more to educate the people that they might be able to govern themselves. He spoke with a clear conscience since as an engineer he is engaged in a task that is of benefit to the country and intends to leave when it is done, but both HB and Mr S held that it would take generations before the Natives were fit to rule themselves as they had neither integrity nor moral fibre, being too long accustomed to foreign rule -- and if foreign rule was their lot, then British rule was surely to be preferred to that of the French or the Germans, who would surely have been here if we were not. On this last, I fancy you would agree. Mr Y... said mildly that we would have to go one day and that if we did not do so of our own accord, Egypt would do it for us. And Mr Barrington, lying back and placing his hat over his face and his arms under his head, said, 'George would have us think that we are a dream only: a figment of Egypt's imagination.'

Egypt, mother of civilisation, dreaming herself through the centuries. Dreaming us all, her children: those who stay and work for her and complain of her, and those who leave and yearn for her and blame her with bitterness for driving them away. And I, in my room, home after half my life has gone by, I read what Anna wrote to her father-in-law a hundred years ago, and I see the English party, lunching by the Pyramid, their Egyptian servants keeping their Egyptian petitioners at bay. I record what she has written, and I prepare my explanatory notes for Isabel, and I am torn... Each week brings fresh news of land expropriations, of great national industries and service companies sold off to foreign investors, of Iraqi children dying and Palestinian homes demolished, fresh news of gun battles in Upper Egypt, of the names of more urban intellectuals added to the Jama'at's hit lists, of defiant young men in cages holding open Qur'ans in their hands, of raids and torture and executions. And next door but one, Algeria daily throws up her terrible examples; and when people -- people like Isabel -- put the question, we say no, that can't happen here, and when they ask why, we can only say: because this is Egypt.

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