14 - 20 September 2000
Issue No. 499
|Published in Cairo by Al-Ahram established in 1875|
Egypt Region Interview International Economy Opinion Culture Travel Living Sports Profile People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters
A Diwan of contemporary life (355)
When deciding where to go to study or for the holidays in the early 1900s, Italy rarely topped the list of Egyptian travellers. France, with its francophone culture and bright city lights, was the fashionable destination. But through the eyes of a secondary school teacher, Italy began to unfold itself on the pages of Al-Ahram. The more that was written about the country the more appealing it came to be. Abul-Uyun had a perceptive eye -- the volcanoes, the people, how they bargained, how they bribed, the fountains of Rome -- all were captured in his writings to the newspaper Dr Yunan Labib Rizk *traces Abul-Uyun's path while on tour.
Going beyond the urban
In the summer of 1924 Abdel-Wahab Abul-Uyun, a teacher at the Fouad I Secondary School, visited Italy, Switzerland and France. His observations were serialised by Al-Ahram under the headline "Perceptions of a Tourist."
There was nothing out of the ordinary in this. Al-Ahram had previously featured the travel writings of other Egyptians, once at the end of 1920 when Chief Magistrate Mahmoud Rashad Bek contributed an account of his travels in France, and again in the summer of 1923 under the headline "A Week in Jerusalem," Abdel-Kamel Effendi El-Hakim's memoirs of his excursion to the Levant.
Abul-Uyun's account, however, is interesting and different in several respects. Although he had a certain notoriety as the brother of Sheikh Mahmoud Abul-Uyun, a prominent orator during the 1919 Revolution, he was firmly middle class. He shared this quality with Abdel-Kamel El-Hakim, but not only did his travels bring him further afield, they were clear indications of a desire to emulate the Egyptian upper class, for whom European holidays up to that point had been an exclusive preserve. He stayed in the best hotels, visited every important site and spent lira after lira, which at the time equalled a full Egyptian piastre, as though bent on spending his life's savings on a once in a lifetime opportunity.
On the other hand, unlike most Egyptian tourists in Europe for whom Italy was at most a transit point on their way to the fashionable cities and resorts of France, Italy was Abul-Uyun's primary destination. That was relatively unusual and significant.
One can understand why France held a special appeal for Egyptians. Intellectual life in Egypt was strongly influenced by francophone culture, as evidenced in the writings of Taha Hussein, the "Dean of Arabic Literature," and the famous Egyptian novelist and playwright Tawfiq El-Hakim, to mention only two of the hundreds of Egyptians who had studied for lengthy periods in France. For Egyptian notables and other members of the upper class, France also offered the kind of entertainment and recreation unavailable elsewhere in Europe.
Italy had a profound impact on Egyptian society and culture in a different way. Commercial links with Italy had always been strong. Throughout the Ottoman period, Egyptian ports received more commercial vessels from Italy than from any other country in Europe, including France. When Egypt opened its doors to European immigration in the age of the Khedive Ismail and later under the British occupation, the Italians became the second largest expatriate community in Egypt after the Greeks. Moreover, as the vast majority of Italian immigrants came from the poorest strata of their society they tended to intermingle more with the local inhabitants than any other European expatriate community. It is, therefore, not surprising that many Italian words made their way into the popular vernacular: ballo, meaning fracas, carro for cart, and rubabikia (from roba vecchia) meaning old clothes or household junk.
At the other end of the social scale, there were strong links between the Egyptian ruling family and Italy. The Khedive Ismail, ambitious to Europeanise the Egyptian capital, turned to Italian architects to design his new palaces, foremost among which was Abdin Palace to which he moved the seat of government. To celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 he hoped to commission Verdi to compose an opera. Although Verdi's Aida appeared a year later, the inauguration of the canal was celebrated with another Italian opera: Rigoletto. More significantly, when Ismail was deposed in 1879, he chose Italy as his place of exile. Indeed, in this regard Abul-Uyun relates that when he was in Florence he learned that the famous Khedive had taken up residence in a luxurious palace in that city. The Egyptian traveller relates, "I desperately wanted to visit the palace and, after making numerous inquiries, I discovered where it was located. At the door a servant told me that no visitors were allowed into the palace because it was inhabited. After further entreaties, however, the servant agreed to introduce me to the man in charge. When I told him that I was an Egyptian and explained to him my purpose, he was kind enough to allow me in. I ascended a majestic granite stairway that led into a spacious, luxurious reception room whose walls were bedecked with magnificent works of art."
The Egyptian secondary school teacher goes on to describe his tour of the many rooms of the palace and the palace gardens, and then explains that the palace "is now occupied by a philanthropic society that aids the poor and destitute." He continues, "Ismail Pasha had purchased it from a man who was also dedicated to philanthropic causes. It seems that the Khedive was determined to live in luxury and splendour even in his place of exile."
Moving beyond Abul-Uyun's time in history, we note that Italians have always held a prominent place in the Egyptian royal court, a phenomenon that continued until the 1952 Revolution. It is, therefore, not surprising that Italy always held a certain aura for the members of the Mohamed Ali dynasty. For King Fouad it was a favourite holiday destination and even more so for his son, Farouk, whose profligacy in Capri contributed to his scandalous reputation. In fact, like his grandfather the Khedive Ismail, Farouk also chose Italy as his place of exile, where he remained until his death in the lap of Italy's irresistible delights.
Like most tourists determined to make the most of their journeys, particularly those set on getting the best value for every piastre they spend, Abdel-Wahab Abul-Uyun had clearly done some advanced reading and arrived in Italy well laden with an array of preconceived ideas and high expectations. Nor was he to be disappointed, as we can observe in his reaction to one of Italy's natural wonders -- its defunct or semi-defunct volcanoes. In fact, he confesses that no amount of reading or geographical pictures could have prepared him for his encounter with that natural phenomenon. At Mt Etna he writes, "I stood before it like a worshipper, unable to divert my gaze, contemplating the power of the Almighty to cause an inferno to burst forth from the depth of the earth. The further I approached, the loftier and more majestic it appeared, with its column of smoke that arises from its core uninterruptedly. I imagined its grandeur as I moved away and a thick bank of clouds obscured it from my view."
He was even more awestruck by the Vesuvius, "whose emissions of smoke and fire continue ceaselessly day and night." He continues, "When you approach the rim of the volcano, you hear a rumbling echo that is so terrifying you want to flee. Then you hear a loud boom after which a thick cloud of smoke and fire bursts forth. This rumbling and explosion takes place every five minutes, for the volcano is constantly active." Nor did the Egyptian tourist omit mention of Pompeii, the ancient city demolished by one of Vesuvius' most cataclysmic eruptions. In spite of the city's notoriety, he was surprised to find abundant human habitation at the foot of the volcano and that "people feel safe in the shadow of its powerful wrath and tyranny."
Of course, it is always the people that are of the greatest interest when visiting a foreign country. Here, too, Abul-Uyun came with certain preconceptions, undoubtedly formed in part through his contact with Italians living in Egypt. In fact, on several occasions the writer is surprisingly delighted to find behaviour contrary to what he had anticipated. "I saw nothing untoward in their behaviour, contrary to what I have read and heard. They evinced none of the boorishness, harassment of tourists and fleecing in public transport which they are ascribed to and which they have been associated with."
Naples, the famous Italian port was far more crowded and noisier than he had expected. The noise disturbed him so much that he had to seek refuge in a café until it subsided. In the café he ordered a cup of coffee that he found extremely bitter, even though it contained plenty of sugar. "This is because they boil the coffee as one does tea. That is why it has no froth on top." He adds, "I could not find a delicious coffee anywhere in Europe except in Egyptian embassies where they prepare it in the proper Egyptian fashion."
Bribery was rampant in Naples. Abul-Uyun relates that as he was about to board the train to take him from Naples to Rome, a platform attendant told him that he had to weigh his two suitcases. "However, the porter took me aside and told me that he could get me on the train without having my baggage weighed on the condition that I give him 10 lira. I agreed, he did as he said he would and I gave him the stipulated amount."
Apparently, too, the Italians were also given to bargaining. The prices that were marked on goods meant nothing, he said. "If you are a foreigner you pay the stated price. A friend of mine, however, advised me that I had to bargain, and I found that I was always able to knock a third or a fourth off the price. No other country in Europe has this custom, which is inappropriate to an advanced European nation."
In many respects his advice to travellers differed from that offered by earlier travel writers writing for Al-Ahram. Mahmoud Rashad, for example, had told his readers that before going to France they had to book a hotel in advance and "specify the precise date of arrival." That clearly was not the situation in Italy at the time. Abul-Uyun discovered that all the Italian ports and train stations swarmed with hotel touts who would "rush up to arriving tourists, shouting out the names of their hotel." That was how he found the Riviera Hotel in Naples and all the other hotels he stayed in, in Italy.
The Vatican Square, one of Rome's famous features
The Riviera was "a beautiful hotel that overlooked a spacious boulevard, lined with trees and exquisite flowerbeds that extend down to the port." His hotel room in Florence was decorated with luxurious carpets. The beds were "exquisitely beautiful and clean," the sinks had "two taps, one for hot water and the other for cold," and the hotel's furniture in general was "most luxurious." The hotel also featured expansive corridors lined with potted plants, a reading room, yet another room for writing letters, "and other such facilities in which the tourist can take comfort and pleasure."
While he found the Italian train system disappointing, he was most impressed by the transportation system inside Italian cities. The electric tramways moved gracefully up and down the inclining streets. "They have very skillful drivers who are separated from passengers by an iron railing. In every carriage there is a bell that passengers are required to ring when they want to get off." In addition, taxis were very cheap and carriage drivers "never beat their horses with their whips out of compassion for the animal."
The Egyptian tourist was even more impressed by other features of urban design, not least of which was Rome's many fountains. In one of his articles he devotes extensive space to a description of the Trevi Fountain: "Water gushes out of 12 openings, creating a roar as loud as the water pouring over a barrage as it hits the stones and rocks below, before surging with great intensity into a vast basin around which seats have been constructed for spectators." He goes on to relate that a tour guide informed him that tourists who drink from the fountain without tossing a coin in it will be put under the water's spell and forced to return the following year. As Abul-Uyun was already enchanted by Rome he decided not to toss a coin into the fountain "in the hopes of being able to return."
Not all of Abul-Uyun's observations were restricted to touristic matters. Two years before his tour, in October 1922, the Fascists had seized power in Rome, creating in effect a state within a state. There were many aspects of the rule of the "black shirts" that Abul-Uyun found impressive. He noticed, for example, that in Naples the clampdown on pickpockets and criminals had proved very successful. "The criminals have been given the harshest penalties and most have been incarcerated. They are not shown the slightest mercy or pity, and the police are ever vigilant to catch them, bring them before the courts and punish them for the slightest offence."
In Rome, the clampdown was directed against prostitution the practitioners of which also suffered the harshest penalties. "They [prostitutes] are being rounded up in the streets and in houses. Brothels have been raided and placed under sequestration and their owners risk such severe punishment that they have fled from the grasp of the police and disappeared from view." So impressed was Abul-Uyun by this drive that he urged the Egyptian government to "emulate the Fascists in their pursuit of prostitutes who have begun to proliferate in the country like locusts, corrupting with impunity and without deterrent."
Abul-Uyun was awestruck by the grandeur and splendour of St Peters and here, too, he made some additional observations. He was disturbed in particular by the practice of kissing the feet of the statue of St Peter "because the toes of the right foot have eroded from so much kissing." Similarly, he was struck by customs practiced by worshippers in St John where it was required to climb the stairs on one's knees, kissing the ground at every step and where "visitors were not permitted to climb or descend the steps except in this manner." To Abul-Uyun these rituals were not based upon true religion, but he solved his predicament by gaining access to the church through a side door.
Also somewhat incidental to his immediate subject matter were his observations of fellow tourists, Americans in particular, whose habits both impressed and shocked him. American tourists so abounded they had "a tendency to fill any place I stayed in." More astounding yet was the fact that most of the tourists were young women "who rarely had male escorts and who depended upon themselves entirely throughout their journeys." But in this phenomenon Abul-Uyun exhibits more than a surreptitious delight. The young, female American tourists, he remarked, were "the adornment of the hotels and their corridors. They sing, dance, play music and engage in assorted games. They wear simple clothes and are extremely active and good humoured, rushing off to visit the antiquities and museums, recording everything they find unique and curious with a camera. One finds that every site one visits is filled with them." In a similar vein, in Florence, abounding with artists displaying their work for sale, he observed that out of all the nationalities, "the Americans spent lavishly on paintings and statues."
Also readily apparent in Abul-Uyun's account was homesickness for the country whose shores he had left on the other side of the Mediterranean. We have already detected this in his account of his visit to the palace the Khedive Ismail had taken as his residence in Florence and which the Egyptian tourist was determined to visit before he left the city. One imagines, too, that he was struck by similar pangs for home at St Peters where he pauses to describe the Egyptian obelisk, "graced by two fountains emitting a joyous spray of water." He goes on to relate, "I was told that this obelisk had fallen and cracked next to its base and that it was erected by the blessings of the Pope at night. The people of Rome look at it as though it had never come to harm and that it stands as testimony to the miraculous power of the Pope."
Abul-Uyun encountered another obelisk in the Piazza Del Popolo. This, too, was graced by two fountains in the form of lions. The obelisk stood on a large base upon which people would sit and observe the water flow from the mouths of the lions.
Finally, during his visit to St Paul's he informed his readers that it contained two grand columns carved from the finest yellow marble. These columns, he said, had been presented to the Pope by Mohamed Ali, "along with four smaller columns and a number of marble panels, all of the same type with which the mosque at the citadel was built."
It distressed Abul-Uyun to find certain qualities abroad that he felt were lacking in his own country. Having observed American tourists, for example, he regretted that Egyptians did not display a similar interest in "tourism in order to behold the monuments of other nations and to observe the customs and manners of their peoples." Hundreds of Egyptians travel to Europe every year, he continues, "but in spite of this their travels have no noteworthy impact on their country because they prefer rest and recreation in one place to touring the many countries and regions there are to see."
Also, when he passed by train through the Italian countryside and observed the picturesque villages nestled at the foot of mountains or on top of hillocks, with their good looking houses, paved streets and abundant greenery, it pained him to draw a comparison with Egyptian villages "with their narrow streets, filthy alleyways and primitive hygienic conditions."
On this note, Abul-Uyun concludes his account of his trip to Italy as he heads off towards his next destination, Switzerland. One senses, however, that Italy remained closest to his heart, if only because he had drank from the waters of the Trevi Fountain without having tossed in a coin.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.