|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
20 - 26 December 2001
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A Diwan of contemporary life (421)
Long-distance swimming once competed with football as Egypt's most popular sport. One of the biggest names the country had in the water was Ishaq Helmi who, in 1928, crossed the English Channel, then the true test of endurance swimming. Helmi was the first Oriental to accomplish the feat, putting him on the front pages of local and British newspapers. Egyptians realised that Helmi's victory would earn him and their nation the respect of the British and indeed the world. King Fouad was especially pleased, not least because of the achievement's promotional value. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* looks at this Channel champion
Egypt's first 'crocodile'Few of today's generations of football fans realise that there was a time when other sports generated greater interest than soccer. One such sport was long-distance swimming, which generally was taken to refer to the crossing of the English Channel. Although this supreme endurance test has long since lost its popularity, having been excluded from the Olympics, the successes of Egyptian swimmers in crossing from Dover to Calais have given the sport a lasting place in the Egyptian collective memory.
Of the "conquerors of the Channel" and the "crocodiles of the Nile," as the sports pages dubbed the Egyptian long- distance swimming champions, Abdel-Latif Abu Heif stands out. However, it was Ishaq Bek Helmi who was, as Al-Ahram put it, "the first Oriental swimmer to cross the Channel."
The first person to swim the 41-kilometre, or 21-mile, distance between Dover and Calais was Matthew Webb in 1875. It took him 21 hours and 45 minutes. It was not until 51 years later that Olympic champion Gertrude Ederie became the first female to make the crossing. So popular had this marathon become by then that the following year the Channel Swimming Association was founded, and a year later the first Egyptian "crocodile" accepted the challenge and won. Evidently, these Nile denizens needed some time to adapt to the seas of northern climes.
Perhaps an even lesser-known fact is that Egypt's first English Channel crosser had the rank of bek, a title conferred upon him by virtue of the fact that his father was Abdel-Qader Helmi Pasha. This famous Egyptian general is noted for the part he played in the campaign to quash the Mahdist uprising in Sudan in 1882. But the Orabi Revolution and the subsequent British occupation of Egypt prevented him from completing his mission, as the newly-installed British authorities summoned him back to Cairo. Some historians believe that Helmi's recall signalled that London had already decided at this early time to evacuate Egyptian forces from Sudan in order to avoid further depletion of the Egyptian treasury.
The ebbing fortunes of the Egyptian troops in Sudan under the British command contrasts sharply with the successes that had been achieved under the command of General Helmi, lending substance to accounts that the Mahdist insurrectionists invoked supplications against him following every prayer.
Although Ishaq's father died in 1908, 20 years before the champion swimmer crossed the Channel, the memory of his father must have been a great inspiration to embark on this feat. Perhaps he wanted to prove his daring and endurance in the field of sports, much as his father demonstrated courage and valour in the field of battle. The newspapers described him as "descended from an old and prominent family" and certainly, the young Ishaq would have been eager to live up to and enhance his family's name. That he belonged to the class of notables, or landed gentry, also meant that he had the time and the money to be able to devote himself to his goal. He was free to train for hours a day in Egypt's sporting clubs and off its coasts and he spent weeks, indeed months, in Britain, practicing in the Channel. Because he was wealthy, he could also afford the necessary expenses for travel and accommodation; there was not as yet a national long-distance swimming federation that would defray the costs of Egyptian aspirants to the channel crossing.
But there were also patriotic reasons why Helmi sought to swim the channel. "King Fouad I has frequently expressed his wish to see an Egyptian succeed in crossing that famous maritime thoroughfare," as a contemporary source wrote. Later, an article in Al-Muqtataf magazine of November 1928 wrote, "He [Ishaq Helmi] made several unsuccessful attempts to cross the Channel, but he was stubborn and never gave up. He was determined to defeat this intractable foe and set a record for Egyptian heroism that would go down in history."
` Helmi, inset, and crossing the English Channel. He was later congratulated by King Fouad, top , and Al-Ahram Chief Editor Barakat, bottom, dedicated a front-page editorial on the event
Al-Muqtataf goes on to report that Helmi had left for France at the beginning of that year, "and began to prepare himself through rigorous training and rescuing drowning swimmers who, like him, were also training to cross the Channel. Among these were the German swimmer Schaff and a German couple whose boat overturned off the French coast where Helmi was training. Helmi had superhuman persistence and single-track determination to cross the formidable sea. He began training for this task on 9 July 1928 and kept at it until 31 August, when he began the venture."
From Al-Muqtataf we turn to Al-Ahram, which gave the event full play. "The first Oriental swimmer crosses the Channel -- The Egyptian swimmer Ishaq Helmi Bek claims victory," blazoned the newspaper on Sunday 2 September above a two-column spread on the front page. Alongside the article was a photograph of the champion, standing next to "one of the female swimmers who was training with him for the Channel crossing." The purpose of the juxtaposition, the caption explained, was "to see how tall he was compared to her."
The report itself was not long. Written by Al-Ahram's special correspondent in London on 31 August, it read:
"After struggling against the cold waters of the Channel all night, Helmi Bek finally made it to the British coast at Folkestone. He arrived at exactly 2.09pm today, after having spent 23 hours and 51 minutes in the water since leaving Gris-Nez on the French coast yesterday."
On the British side of the Channel, "a large crowd gathered to welcome him, his massive physique the source of great concern. He appeared drained of energy as he walked along the beach and although his familiar charming smile lit his face, he sat down for a few moments as his trainer gave him a drink. Then he went to the bathhouse where he regained his energy after a sauna and a massage. Helmi told Al-Ahram how happy he was at his success and said that he had undertaken this endeavour to please his king, who had long cherished the dream of seeing an Egyptian succeed in crossing that body of water."
The Egyptian champion also proved very resourceful, as can be seen in his strategy for making the crossing. "He took a completely different route from any other Channel-crosser has taken before, passing first by Verneredge, where the water is calmer. From there, the current carried him until he was five miles off coastal Hythe. When high tide came, he began to swim with all his might towards Folkestone, cleaving the water with his chest for the final stretch. At 8.15 on Friday morning, he was three and a half miles from Dover. But an hour later he was five miles from the shore because the tide had pushed him back and a strong wind had begun to blow."
Naturally, the acclaim Helmi received in the British press was a source of great pride and delight for Egyptian newspapers which relayed every report and commentary to their readers. Al-Ahram writes: "Today's press lauded Ishaq Helmi for his Channel swimming victory. The Times extolled his astounding courage and fortitude and other newspapers the length of time he spent in the water, which was exceeded only by Sullivan who remained in the water 25 hours during the crossing."
The Daily News featured a glowing portrait of the Egyptian swimmer whom it described as "a handsome young man with a pleasant smile, tall and with a colossal build. But he seems as shy as a schoolboy which wins him many friends."
Commenting on the reports, Al-Ahram's correspondent in London observed, "The Egyptian people realise that Helmi Bek's victory will earn him the respect of the British, who are known for their love of sports, and will enhance their reputation and status among the nations of the world. There is nothing new in this, as sports are a powerful form of publicity."
At first it seemed that the Egyptian "crocodile" was not going to receive the official recognition of the Channel Swimming Association for "performing his task in accordance with the regulations." Firstly, he had refused to take the oath the association required of him before making the crossing. As he explained to the Daily Sketch, he could not observe this rule because it conflicted with his creed as a Muslim. The Daily Sketch reporter told Helmi that British law contained provisions that would enable him to circumvent this problem, adding, "Taking the oath is a purely procedural matter because the Egyptian swimmer had enough eyewitnesses with him to testify to his success and remove any doubts which could become cause for dispute."
Other procedures had to be followed in order to ascertain whether the crossing was done correctly. Under the headline, "Channel Swimming Association confirms Ishaq Helmi's victory," on 23 September, Al-Ahram remarks that it took more than three weeks for Helmi to secure the association's acknowledgment of his achievement. Indeed, it may have taken longer had he not threatened to leave the British capital before the judges made their decision. The following report from the Al-Ahram correspondent in London confirms the tension that lay beneath the surface: "In view of Ishaq Helmi's resolve to return immediately to Egypt, the Channel Swimming Association held an emergency meeting last night which resulted in its declaration that his crossing met the regulations. Ishaq received a letter from the association this morning notifying him of its decision and informing him that the official certificate will be sent to him as soon as the director of the association returns to London to sign it."
Naturally, Al-Ahram was relieved, especially in view of the fact that the judges had previously rejected others, including two Czechs. The judges had a strict code, and subjected swimmers to a barrage of extremely technical questions on correct swimming techniques. Should the contestants and their witnesses fail to come up to scratch on these tests, they risk being condemned for "athletic fraud."
As was the custom with Egyptian sporting champions, Helmi said he was indebted for his success to King Fouad who was quick to pick up on this cue to advance his own popularity. It was not only the Egyptian press that proclaimed the king's great dedication to the advancement of sports; so, too, did some foreign newspapers. In The African World, we read:
"King Fouad is not one to fail to give things their proper due. He is one of the few Egyptians who realise that such publicity does more for Egypt than boring political speeches and futile resolutions. He is always ready to encourage any young Egyptian who demonstrates athletic talent and an intrepid spirit."
Fouad was not unaware of the promotional potential of sporting events and instructed Egypt's diplomatic representatives in Britain and France to take part in all the ceremonies held to pay tribute to Helmi. The Egyptian Club in London hosted a reception in honour of Helmi which also proved an occasion to proclaim the "royal favour" bestowed upon the swimming champion. During the ceremony, the Egyptian representatives in the British capital delivered to Helmi "the finely-worded telegram kindly sent by King Fouad, conveying the congratulations of His Majesty." In Calais, the mayor of the French port city held a ceremony in honour of the Egyptian "crocodile." On hand was a member of the Egyptian diplomatic mission in Paris who delivered a speech in honour of Helmi, stressing the moral significance of the model he set.
Meanwhile, back on the other side of the Channel, the members of the Victoria Bayer Pavilion Society in Folkestone feted the first Channel crosser to choose their city as his destination, presenting him with a victory cup for putting the city on the Channel swimming map. Unfortunately, the event was overshadowed by tragedy. Apparently, an Egyptian student studying in Paris was inspired to emulate Helmi, but without the necessary training. As a result, Abdel-Moneim Othman Effendi drowned "from asphyxiation due to prolonged exposure to the sea."
Naturally, the Egyptian press was thrilled with Helmi's victory as can be seen in the extensive coverage the sports pages accorded the event. Al-Ahram's Johayna certainly reflected the jubilation of the Egyptian people and he expressed it in classical Arabic eloquence that was rare among sports writers at the time. Under the headline, "Ishaq Helmi swims the Channel," on 4 September 1928, the newspaper's sports commentator enthuses, "A progeny of the Pharaohs has swum the Channel, just as you [Matthew Webb] had done on 24 August 1875. May his story bear witness that many sons of European and American civilisations made that crossing after you and that, now, a native of Africa has emulated you as well."
Egyptians must have been doubly delighted by Helmi's victory since they had all but given up hope on him. As Johayna writes, "Because he had failed in all his previous attempts, people thought that his last attempt would end in yet another failure." Perhaps encouraging such pessimism was the statement Helmi himself had given the press the previous year, following one of his failed attempts. After explaining the difficulties of crossing the Channel, he said that "he was determined and would not give up trying until he succeeded." That this crossing took a relatively long time, he stressed, by no means diminished its significance and that, in all events, he was quicker than the American swimmer Sullivan.
More importantly, Egypt and the east in general were deeply indebted to Helmi for making his country "a partner with the West."
The occasion was bigger than the sports pages. On 7 September Al-Ahram Editor-in-Chief Dawoud Barakat dedicated a front-page editorial to the subject. Ishaq Helmi "has brightened Egypt's face, erasing the frown brought on by political gloom. He brought her such relief that the furrows on her forehead have disappeared, her smile glows and her heart is filled with joy." Egypt was now on the road to improvement because of "her young men," her "strong and valiant heroes" who stood on par with the youth of Europe in their ability to excel in athletic games which are a test of both the mind and the body, Barakat said. In addition to his physical strength, he possessed "the power of imagination, memory, alacrity and agility of mind, perspicacity, sound judgement, patience and perseverance."
Helmi's achievement was not without significance for the national movement. Barakat described it as a revolution against the past, when outsiders ruled the country and when "an Egyptian, no matter how talented, clever, energetic and dedicated, could never find one to tell him, 'you've done well.'" Helmi was the model of the Egyptian youth of today who were following in the footsteps of their predecessors who made "independence and liberty their supreme goal, the prize that will bring them the ultimate benefit." He concluded with an assessment of Egypt's "profits" from Helmi's success. "It has introduced Egypt into the European family; proclaimed its strength, ingenuity and fortitude to the world; and heightened the awareness of Egypt's young of the blessings of independence and freedom."
Despite the fanfare that greeted Helmi's successful Channel crossing, it appears that his reception upon his return to Egypt fell short of many people's expectations. This we learn from the letter sent to Al-Ahram's sports critic by a colleague, Hassan Afifi. Afifi was saddened by an idiosyncrasy which was particularly Egyptian: "the incessant squabbling and bickering among individuals and groups in our society, down to the members of a single family. The habits that children are exposed to shock youth and the habits youth are exposed to shock the old." This angry, if unjust, introduction was meant to console Ishaq Helmi for the poor homecoming he received. Afifi was personally shocked by this remiss, which moved him to express to Helmi, on behalf of all sports critics, his profound gratitude. "We are not going to tell you casual words that carry little sincerity, such as 'congratulations, my son,' or 'how glad we are,' etc." In the face of such hollow sentiments, Helmi would have every right to regret all the hopes he had cherished throughout his struggle to succeed. He would be perfectly justified in saying, "Shame on those people. Am I not an Egyptian? I wish I hadn't gone to all that trouble."
Commenting on this strongly-worded letter, Johayna wrote that the reason Helmi had not been accorded a hero's welcome was because he returned to Egypt a month after the event, which was sufficient time for Egyptians to forget his unique accomplishment. He added that this was a poor excuse. It was also the opinion of the Al-Ahram sports critic that football had come to monopolise the attention of the press, whereas "our efforts should be distributed equally among all athletic games." Johayna's hope was never realised even after the sports pages in the Egyptian press multiplied.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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