Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
10 - 16 August 2000
Issue No. 494
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A Diwan of contemporary life (350)

The European drive for exploration in Africa was intertwined with the evolution of imperialism and colonialism. On the other hand, however, Egyptian geographical explorations were tied to Egyptian nationalist interests. In 1921 and 1923 the Egyptian explorer Ahmed Mohamed Hassanein was the first to chart the famous Libyan desert and discover the two lost oases, Kufra and Al-'Uwaynat. In this week's instalment of the Diwan Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* follows through the pages of Al-Ahram the feats and adventures of the famous "man of the desert"

Man of the desert

Mohamed HassaneinAhmed Mohamed Hassanein entered the annals of Egyptian history in several capacities. He was the second in command in the first Egyptian diplomatic legation to Washington in 1923. In 1940, he rose to head the Royal Cabinet in which position he served until his death in a mysterious automobile accident six years later. This eventful life, culminating in a tragic death cloaked in intrigue, naturally fires one's curiosity and inspires further exploration.

Ahmed Mohamed Hassanein was born in Bulaq in 1889. His father, Mohamed Hassanein had served as professor at Al-Azhar and his grandfather, Ahmed Pasha Mazhar Hassanein, was the last of the Egyptian naval commanders before the British occupation. After completing a year in the Royal Academy of Law, he went to the UK, where he completed his education in Oxford, returning to Egypt in 1914 just before the outbreak of World War I. He began his career as the private secretary to General Maxwell, Commanding Officer of Egyptian forces in World War I, and, when Maxwell left Egypt in 1916, he was transferred to the Ministry of Interior. According to confidential British documents, it was in his capacity as an official in this ministry that he accompanied the forces that suppressed the uprising in Upper Egypt during the 1919 Revolution.

In 1920, Hassanein was selected as captain of the Egyptian sporting team that took part in the Brussels Olympics, during which he was a medal winner in the fencing competitions. From this time onward in his career, he received the patronage of the reigning monarch, be it King Fouad I, or his son Farouk, a connection which led him to become one of the most influential figures in palace affairs, whether in his capacity as a court chamberlain, adjunct to Crown Prince Fouad during his stay in Great Britain in 1936, or as head of the Royal Cabinet four years later.

Clearly, a number of different influences converged to create the personality of Hassanein: his grandfather a military man, his father a religious official; government schooling in Bulaq, study abroad in Oxford. Perhaps this explains why he was such a mysterious individual, one who virtually became a legend after he undertook two exploratory treks into the Western Desert between 1921 and 1924. Such intrepid travelling was rare for Europeans at the time, let alone Egyptians, which is why Al-Ahram, along with other newspapers of the period, were drawn so magnetically to an individual who joined the league of geographical explorers.

The modern history of geographical exploration dates to great overseas discoveries of the 15th and 16th centuries, during which the size of the known world doubled from three continents to six. The movement precipitated an enormous upheaval in the scope and systems of trade and laid the material foundations for the great empires, beginning with Portugal and Spain, to be followed by the Netherlands, Great Britain and France. Spearheading this enterprise were large merchant maritime companies, operating under the royal patronage of the new monarchical orders that emerged out of the medieval feudal system.

The second stage of discovery was the child of the industrial revolution. Beginning in the 18th century, it reached its height in the following century. If the first stage of exploration concentrated on the coastlines of new continents, the second probed deep into the interiors. And, instead of the maritime companies, these explorations were funded and sponsored by the newly emerging industrial establishments in conjunction with the geographical societies that began to proliferate in European capitals.

During this period, too, Africa lured the greatest attention. Not only did the mysteries of the "Dark Continent," yet largely unknown to the West, fire the European imagination, but there were material motives as well -- the quest for gold, as well as other raw materials needed for the burgeoning European industries. The exploration drive into Africa began at the mouths of the great rivers. Rarely did explorers delve into the vast oceans of sand known as the Great Sahara. After all, the rewards of such conquests were few, while the perils were greater.

In this respect, therefore, Ahmed Mohamed Hassanein is unique. The only person to have ventured into those barren expanses before him was the German explorer, Rohlfs, who headed a scientific expedition into the desert in 1879. Rohlfs reached as far as Kufra Oasis in southeastern Libya, but was intercepted by suspicious nomads who "destroyed his engineering equipment and shredded his papers, while Rohlfs turned heel and fled back to Benghazi for fear that they would kill him."

It was not a unique spirit of adventure alone that inspired Hassanein to brave the risks of the desert travel that would earn him the title of "The man of the desert," as Al-Ahram dubbed him. Hassanein was deeply patriotic and strongly believed that his explorations were a form of duty he owed to his country. He wrote, "The Libyan Desert is a part of our country. It is incumbent upon us to ascertain our borders there so that we may better know our country. By traversing the desert I will have served some of the rights of our nation."

Ahmed Hassanein in Bedouin garb

Idris Al-Senussi
photos: A M Hassanein, The Lost Oases, New York and London: The Century Co, 1925
Al-Ahram was in full agreement. It commented, "Egypt must undertake that mission because the Libyan Desert is contiguous with Egypt's western border and the Nile Valley and because it is important to learn the nature and contours of the land located near Egypt's western border."

The Palace, too, was keen on the enterprise and gave Hassanein its full backing. According to Al-Ahram, King Fouad "ordered his government to give Hassanein Effendi a six-month leave and to furnish all possible assistance to the explorer, on the condition that upon his return he will submit all the scientific findings he collected during this journey to the Egyptian government."

In light of the foregoing, it is also possible to say that Hassanein is unique among the world's explorers in another respect. In an age in which exploration was the child of the imperialist drive, his adventures grew out of the Egyptian national movement.

Hassanein began his first journey in November 1921, setting off from Benghazi to Ajdabiya, and from there to Jalo and the Kufra Oasis. From there he turned northward towards Jaghbub, crossed to Siwa and headed north again to Marsa Matruh, and from there to Alexandria. He had covered over 1,600 miles.

Yet, for "The man of the desert" this trip seems to have been only a trial run. After returning, he confessed that he had made certain mistakes that he intended to avoid the second time around. Above all, he had agreed to allow a certain British woman, Mrs Rosita Forbes, to accompany him into the desert. Forbes pleaded with him to let her replace another British person who had been unable to join the expedition, and Hassanein, reputedly the consummate gentleman, agreed. Back in Cairo, he admitted that Forbes withstood the hardships of the journey "with great stamina and laudable fortitude." During the trip, "she dressed as a Muslim woman and posed as a female relative of mine, thus ensuring that the Bedouin could not address her or ask about her."

Also, before starting the journey, Hassanein met with the Libyan ruler Idris Al-Senussi, who was reluctant to allow Forbes to go on the expedition for fear that if anything untoward should happen to her it could sour relations between him and Great Britain. Hassanein, however, persuaded the Libyan leader that the presence of a European lady in the areas under his authority would "constitute a positive sign of his good governance and project throughout the world an excellent image of his country and its ways."

However, after taking the risks of having a woman accompany him in a potentially hostile climate and having to cajole Al-Senussi into giving his approval, Hassanein was sorely repaid. Upon her return to England, Mrs Forbes published her account of the expedition, presenting Hassanein as no more than her hired dragoman during the trip and herself as expedition leader. Her account, moreover, was widely disseminated in Great Britain, Europe and the US.

In Secrets of Politicians and Politics, the eminent Egyptian journalist Mohamed El-Tab'i recounts that the British lady attempted to seduce the Egyptian explorer, but to no avail, even though they were sleeping in the same tent. Hassanein, he explained, was instinctively a man of Al-Azhar virtues and had long forgotten the enticements of life at Oxford. El-Tab'i also quotes him as saying, "I was determined not to offend my Lord and His mercy, for we were in the midst of uncharted desert with the perils of death surrounding us on all sides."

A second regret of Hassanein was his choice of guide. The Egyptian explorer recalls, "He was a vain and boastful man. He would sneer derisively at the other members of the caravan. But when we lost our way that arrogant braggart was the first to tremble and despair. Moreover, he risked taking us on a route he was not familiar with, having last been on it twenty-five years previously, when he was six years old. Nevertheless, although we strayed slightly, we eventually arrived at our destination."

Hassanein's third problem was the constant friction between the Bedouin and the soldiers, who made up the two main contingents of his caravan. As leader of the expedition, Hassanein had to be a firm arbitrator, and he would generally side in favour of the Bedouin, "who are the best equipped for a journey of this nature."

Like Rohlfs before him, the Egyptian explorer also had to contend with the suspicions of the Bedouin tribes, but here he was clearly much more successful. He relates that in Jalo, the chieftains and merchants wanted to ascertain that he was really Egyptian, so they asked him about some merchants in Cairo. Fortunately, Hassanein could answer well, and he and his caravan were offered the customary Bedouin hospitality. At one point during the ensuing cordialities, one of the chieftains told Hassanein that he had three wives, one in Egypt, a second in Sudan and a third in Jalo, and that he alternated between them once every two years.

Hassanein's account of his travels was serialised in Al-Ahram, which feared that Egyptians had not accorded the attention it merited and was dismayed that the British had "covered up the truth" in order to give all the credit to Mrs Forbes and, by implication, Great Britain.

The desert explorer describes at length the terrain and weather conditions. One can imagine that among the most dangerous phenomena for travellers in a caravan are sandstorms, with the attendant peril of finding one has strayed far from the group. Hassanein's expedition encountered such storms frequently. He recalls, "When these turbulent winds arise they lift the sand in great clouds so dense that one cannot see the rest of the caravan. The Bedouin find it a good omen when they encounter these storms at the beginning of a journey."

He relates, too, that most of the nomadic peoples of the area were Senussis, a very noble and proud people who "refuse to submit to any authority but their own and who will not pay taxes for that is a token of submission." Nevertheless, they were not a fanatic people, but rather "they follow the Islamic rites and tenets of their order and they have a standing army with European style uniforms, along with the kufiya and 'iqal."

When the expedition reached the Kufra Oasis they were amazed to come across a vast salt lake, "bordered by short palm trees and aquamarine coloured bushes." The lake, not surprisingly, had no fish. To Hassanein's surprise and amusement, he discovered that the people of Kufra had never seen a fish before and imagined it to be a creature that propelled itself over the water on legs or a kind of bird, but waterborne rather than airborne.

It was not long before Hassanein began to make preparations for his second venture into the "Great Sahara," the expedition that would put paid to Forbes' pretensions. This time, they would travel on camel-back on a course leading them from Sallum southwestwards to Jaghbub, from where they would strike out westwards to Jalo, which lies a seven-day trek from Jaghbub, and then from Jalo to Kufra -- "a thirteen-day journey through barren desert in which there is only a single well, located eight days from Jalo." From Kufra, the expedition would begin its second phase, which would take them southward towards Ennedi, through an area no explorer had ever ventured into before. From this area, located in present-day northern Chad, the caravan would continue southward to Wadai and then turn eastward towards Darfur and Kordofan in Sudan, until they reached Al-Ubayyid, the capital of the latter Sudanese province. In Al-Ubayyid, the explorers would leave behind their camels and return to Cairo by train. "The journey will take six months and cover 3,500 kilometres on camel-back," announced Al-Ahram.

Hassanein began his second expedition on 4 January 1923, after having reached Sallum by ship from Alexandria and laid on the provisions for the journey. Laden with bags of rice, flour, sugar, tea, among other essentials, not to mention eight water tanks and 25 water skins, the caravan struck out towards Siwa, and from there to Jaghbub, Jalo and Kufra. In Kufra, Hassanein was received again by Idris Al-Senussi, who furnished him with advice and letters of introduction to the Senussi sheikhs he would encounter en route. He also bought a horse called Baraka, whose best feature was that it needed water only once every 48 hours.

The caravan began with a team of 15, but its numbers tended to rise occasionally during the journey, reaching at one point 30 people. Al-Ahram relates, "Whenever he passed through a village, he would drop off men who lived in that village and take on others heading towards the villages further south. When he reached Al-'Uwaynat, one of the few inhabited areas in those parts, the people were alarmed at first, but then relaxed as the men of the expedition mingled among them."

However, there is no better testimony to this journey than the account of Hassanein himself. He returned to Egypt on 18 July 1923, more than six months after he left. His return was celebrated in a grand reception held in his honour by "the princes and ministers of Egypt, senior officials, notables and prominent men of letters on Monday, 27 August in the San Stefano Hotel in Alexandria." Hassanein spoke at length to the gathering, and on hand to cover his address was Al-Ahram's representative in Alexandria. It was a unique occasion, because until this point Hassanein had not granted any newspaper interviews as he planned on writing a book on his expedition and he had felt that it was premature to disclose its contents.

"The man of the desert" opened his speech with pointers on the essentials with which one must equip oneself before undertaking a lengthy venture into the desert. Choosing good camels was tricky, because it easily could happen that one wakes up one morning to find that the fittest looking ones had died. "Indeed, this is precisely what occurred when I left Kufra. On the second evening after my departure the best of my camels died, while the scrawny camel that I feared would die in the course of a few days stayed with me 1,200 kilometres."

Another problem was how to carry large quantities of life-sustaining water. Water could be carried in large tanks or in water skins, he told his audience. "The first means is cumbersome because a single tank, whether full or empty, is all a camel can carry. Therefore, I only took with me eight tanks, while the remainder of the water I transported in skins, which, when empty, can all be carried on a single camel." Nevertheless, water skins had two drawbacks. Because they are more porous than tanks, the water they contain is more susceptible to evaporation under the intense heat. Also, they can burst when excessively jostled by the movement of the camels.

Finding a good guide was one of the main problems he encountered in his first expedition. Although Hassanein was not entirely pleased with the guide he selected for his second trip, at least he was not quite as insufferable as the first one. In all events, all guides seemed to share a single failing. Since they rely on their memory of certain landmarks, should one of these landmarks change or alter in appearance, it confuses them. Then, if they choose the wrong path, they protest, "I lost my head!"

Hassanein also furnished his audience with some anthropological insights into the nomadic peoples he encountered along the way. The Bedouin, he said, take without expressing gratitude and give without expecting an expression of gratitude in return. Their code with regard to property was to share with others and for others to share with you. It was an "instinctive socialism, of the sort that took modern civilisation hundreds of years of class struggle to realise."

The nomads, of all the peoples in the world, had the greatest ability to walk for long distances and to endure the most brutal hardships along the way. He adds, "If I may boast of one outstanding trait among my men, it is the courage they showed as we were leaving Kufra. They knew that their lives were at stake, as they put it, because seven years ago an entire caravan was slaughtered along the route we were about to take."

Following these preliminaries, Hassanein then turns to a description of some highlights of the journey. There was the Temple of Amon in Siwa, "which proves that the Egyptian Pharaohs had links in the desert and its oases," and, in Jaghbub, "a large sanctuary in commemoration of Sidi Ibn Al-Senussi the Elder, the founder of the Senussi religious order."

In Jaghbub, "a small oasis...visited only by worshippers and scholars," Hassanein met with his first major challenge. The men on his caravan refused to complete the journey to Jalo, forcing him to spend 34 days in the oasis until he was able to join another caravan heading towards Jalo. The trip to Jalo took eleven days. "The weather en route was extremely foul. Once a day, we would encounter the simum winds, the hot blinding sandstorms that would force us to stop, and whose howling gusts would prevent us from all activity."

On 5 March, Hassanein arrived in Jalo, "an oasis larger than the Birqa Oases, rich in palm groves and famous for its merchants." Two weeks later, he reached Kufra, where he spent another fortnight equipping himself for the second, and major phase of his expedition, his journey into the unknown southern Libyan Desert. The first leg of this journey took him "750 kilometres into an area no one had ever ventured into before and in which I came across two oases -- Arkenu and Al-'Uwaynat -- that had never been discovered before."

In comparison to that 750-kilometre stretch, the rest of the journey was, relatively speaking, smooth sailing. When the expedition finally reached Darfur, Hassanein requested provisions from the director of the Sudanese province. The most welcome items the official sent were tea and sugar, "which we accepted with fervour, having been deprived of this sustenance for the last month of our journey through the desert."

From Darfur, it was to Al-Ubayyid and then to Khartoum, where Hassanein boarded the train back to Cairo. Looking back on his 2,700 kilometre trek, he felt a justifiable sense of accomplishment. "Adding to the benefit of my scientific expedition," he told his audience in Alexandria, "was the fact that I had with me a theodolite, enabling me to pinpoint precisely the geographical location of every area I passed through. It will now be possible to draw a detailed map of the Libyan desert, in accordance with the principles of modern geography, a task that had been impossible until now."

Moreover, because there was no Mrs Forbes to steal the credit this time, "The man of the desert" received his rightfully deserved accolades. Al-Ahram placed him "in the ranks of those great men who have performed a true scientific service to the nation and offer a model of incentive and serious dedication to the young." The government honoured him with a large ceremony held at the Opera House on 19 November and attended by King Fouad himself. Furthermore, he was inundated with invitations from scientific societies in Europe and the US and solicited for articles and interviews by the most prominent European newspapers. Indeed, on 3 January 1924, the London Times featured a lengthy exposition entitled, "In uncharted desert -- he travelled 2,200 miles on camel back -- a journey filled with perils." In addition, during a trip to the US, Hassanein was offered $20,000 to make a lecture tour in American theatres, dressed as a Bedouin sheikh. If the offer appears typically American, it was also typical of Hassanein to refuse, for "his standing precludes earning money in such a manner."

In all events, Hassanein spent his time more profitably, at least for posterity. Relying on his notes and over 900 photographs, he compiled "In the Libyan Desert," released in 1925 and appearing in English as The Lost Oases. With this, "The Man of the Desert" entered history through yet another door.

Dr Yunan

* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

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