Al-Ahram Weekly Online
16 - 22 May 2002
Issue No.586
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A Diwan of contemporary life (442)

Dr YunanThe sky was the limit as far as Egyptians were concerned in the late 1920s when Egypt belatedly entered the aviation age. Airplanes had captured the imagination in a country which, while behind in the field, was blessed with pleasant natural elements conducive to air travel. Against the background of this enthusiasm, an Al-Ahram reporter, Mahmoud Abul-Fath, gave readers an unprecedented bird's-eye view of what it was like to travel by air from Cairo to Paris. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* reviews the often perilous odyssey

Reporting from above

Mae Ziyada

Mahmoud Abul-Fath

The 1920s saw a widespread fascination with flying, borne of the remarkable advancements in aviation during World War I when aircraft design was modified for the purpose of reconnaissance, fighting and dropping bombs, and when large numbers of officers had to be trained to pilot the machines.

What must have most sparked the popular imagination were the feats of daring that became watersheds in the history of aviation. In 1920, two British pilots flew from Cairo to the Cape at the southern tip of the continent. In 1923, Lieutenant Oakley Kelly and Lieutenant John A Macready made the first non-stop transcontinental flight from New York to California. Three years later, another British pilot flew from London to Sydney, Australia, and in May 1927 Charles Lindbergh made the first non-stop crossing of the Atlantic.

As the aviation craze spread it was only natural that Egypt would become infected and it was little wonder that Al-Ahram avidly followed the latest developments. On 26 September 1929, for example, Al-Ahram devoted a large spread, complete with photographs, to British efforts to build an airship that would outstrip the German-made Zeppelin. At 709 feet in length, 156 feet in diameter, weighing 156 tons and powered by six Rolls Royce engines supplying a total of 4,200 horsepower, the British-made dirigible would be the largest and fastest airship in the world. The airship was also fitted out in style. Equipped to accommodate 100 passengers and a 35-member crew, "all accommodations for comfort have been built into its hull, including spacious reception and dining rooms, a smoking room and bedrooms with one to four beds."

An Al-Ahram correspondent was on hand for the launching of this enormous balloon's test flight, on the morning of 26 October at Cardington airfield. He writes, "As the water ballasts were released, the dirigible steadily rose higher and higher into the air. When it reached the required height, the engines kicked into motion and the airship surged forward, cleaving its way majestically through the open air. It was a magnificent sight to behold. Then it turned southwards and 45 minutes into its flight its commander relayed the following message over the wireless: 'All is well and the ship is proceeding excellently.'"

After describing the dirigible's route, Al-Ahram's special correspondent in London pauses to describe the reaction of those on the ground as the aircraft flew above the British capital: "It is lunch time but the streets are packed with people and traffic has ground to a halt. Everyone has their eyes trained towards the sky, not only from the street but also from windows, balconies and rooftops, as they delight in the spectacle of the dirigible maneuvering over the capital city." He continues, "After it toured for approximately 30 minutes over London, the airship rose in the air, turned around and headed back to Cardington."

The history of the dirigibles dates back to World War I when they were used for reconnaissance and bombing. But interest in this mode of aviation was short-lived, and soon the focus returned to airplanes, upon which many had pinned great hopes.

That the marvelous flying machine had captured the imagination of people in Egypt is evidenced by the Al-Ahram editorial of 14 September 1929, written by Mae Ziyada. The famous commentator and poetess recalls the astonishment of scientists when a French pilot made the first flight over the English Channel 20 years earlier, in 1908. Since then, she continues, the world had made enormous strides in the field of aviation. That Egypt had failed to keep pace with these advances was "humiliating to our national pride." Kaiser Wilhelm had said, "Germany's future is on the sea." Such is the progress of science since that time, she wrote, that today "mankind's hopes and aspirations have boarded the skies."

Ziyada's sentiments were not without ground. On the same page a short news item announced, "The fastest speed attained by man." In an airplane competition a British pilot, Waghorn, reached a record speed of 328 miles per hour, the newspaper reported alongside a photo of the pilot and co-pilot. Only a few days later, an inside headline read, "The largest airplane in the world." Under the headline the newspaper reported that a German aviation engineer had designed an enormous aircraft "which takes 159 passengers in addition to a crew of 10. It is 117 feet long, 29 feet high, with a 151-foot wingspan, and it is powered by twelve 525 horsepower engines, providing a total thrust of 6,200 horsepower." The mammoth plane was three storeys high -- one for passengers, a second for the pilots and mechanics and a third for baggage. The article continues: "It has a smoking room, a bathroom, a kitchen and beds. Its inventor claims that his plane is also the safest in the world, for it is capable of remaining aloft easily even if four of its engines fail, while mechanics can repair any fault in the engines while the plane is in the air."

It was not long before the world of modern air travel welcomed Egypt aboard. In the autumn of 1929, European airplane manufacturers began to approach Egyptian diplomatic representatives abroad with their latest inventions. In addition, one aviation firm submitted a proposal to the Egyptian consulate in Paris to organise the aviation industry in Egypt.

Egypt was eager to join that world. In Al-Ahram of 8 December 1929, Hassan Anis Pasha launched an appeal to found an aviation club, "the mission of which will be to disseminate this modern technology in which nations of varying degrees of progress have made tangible progress apart from Egypt which still lags far behind other nations in this domain."

As though in response to Anis's appeal, a man signing himself "An Egyptian pilot" sent to Al-Ahram an article entitled "Egypt's suitability for this technology." Egypt, he maintained, had none of those impediments that hinder aviation in other countries, such as fog, "which obstructs a pilot's visibility," heavy rainfall, "which can only be circumvented by climbing above the clouds," and, thirdly, frequent storms. Egypt, by contrast, had the perfect aviation climate. "There is no fog to speak of, except in November and December along the northern coast and the Suez Canal zone, and even then it is light and intermittent and is quickly dispelled by the rays of Egypt's bright sun. The number of rainy days can be counted on the fingers of one hand and even then the rain rarely exceeds a light drizzle. As for storms, the only type Egypt is familiar with is the khamasin, whose winds never exceed 30 miles per hour and which have no effect above an altitude of 2,000 feet."

Mahmoud Abul-Fath

Soon afterwards, Anis announced the creation of the Aviation Club, presenting through the pages of Al-Ahram a description of its aims and activities: encouraging Egyptian youth to become pilots, aerial navigators and aviation engineers; organising airplane races and competitions; sponsoring short excursions piloted by qualified members; encouraging air travel; promoting the concept of domestic aviation; studying all matters pertaining to aviation; and establishing long and fruitful relations with foreign aviation clubs.

Against the background of this enthusiasm, Al-Ahram ventured on yet another of its press precedents. It sent one of its reporters on a long-distance flight from Cairo to Paris, via Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Spain.

The reporter selected was Mahmoud Abul-Fath, one of the few Egyptians among Al-Ahram's predominantly Levantine staff. Born in Zaqaziq in 1885, Mahmoud's father, Sheikh Hassan Abul-Fath, was a professor of Islamic law. Abul-Fath junior was also set on a legal career, however, after enrolling in law school he found himself drawn to a career in journalism. His first steady job in journalism was as a reporter for Wadi Al-Nil, in which capacity he earned a monthly salary of LE1.50, although he was soon promoted to staff writer. In 1920, he moved to Al-Afkar and two years later to Al-Ahram, where he remained for the next eight years. He then worked for various Wafd Party newspapers before founding, in 1936, Al-Misri, which had the largest circulation of any Egyptian newspaper until the 1952 Revolution.

Clearly an individual of considerable drive and talent, it is not surprising that during his stay with Al-Ahram Abul-Fath's name became associated in readers' minds with some of the most challenging tasks, frequently calling for interviews with leading Egyptian statesmen and famous international figures. A mission of a different sort presented itself in March 1928, when Al-Ahram selected him to cover -- on board -- the voyage of the famous Graf Zeppelin from Berlin to the Far East.

Abul-Fath was, therefore, the natural candidate for the more arduous and dangerous mission aboard an ordinary aircraft. He wired in day-by-day reports from the moment the flight began on 16 October 1929, although he concluded his coverage with two lengthy articles containing far too much detail to be dispatched via telegram.

Abul-Fath's diary-like reports appeared under the headline, "By air: to Tripoli, Algeria, Tunisia and Marrakesh (Morocco)." From the outset, we understand that he is not alone on board the small aircraft; his co-passenger was another journalist, Larry Roe of the Chicago Tribune. The pilot, we gather from his name, was French.

Egyptians are familiar with their neighbours to the east, the Arab Mashraq consisting of Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Trans-Jordan and Iraq, he wrote. However, "we only know a scant amount about Tripoli (Libya), Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco -- the countries of the Maghreb -- in spite of the many bonds that link us."

From his description of the plane itself, Abul-Fath had every reason to feel jittery. "It is a feeble craft, easily buffeted by the winds and threatened by other perils. It has a single 105-horsepower engine. Should an emergency force us to land in the middle of the desert, emergency aid would be out of reach and we would be far from any city." But Abul-Fath was aware of the risks involved in a long journey in a plane typical of that time. Before his departure, he had gone around to several insurance firms to take out a life insurance policy. All refused. However, he was clearly an intrepid individual, reconciled to the fact that "the life of a journalist is but a series of risks, and it is his duty to be where risk is."

On that morning of 16 October, the plane bearing Abul-Fath took off from Abu Qir airfield to the east of Alexandria. The first leg of the journey took him to Sallum, where the plane arrived an hour behind schedule because the head-on winds had reduced the maximum speed of the airplane from 160 miles to only 100 miles per hour. After a few hours to refuel and check the plane's condition, they took off towards Benghazi. "Winds toy with plane," was the caption Abul-Fath chose for this entry in his account, in which he relates how the "raging, stormy winds" obstructed the plane's progress. "I realised then and there what it is like to be a feather cast about by the wind," he wrote, adding, "We were travelling at 100 miles per hour but we were not making much progress. At the beginning we were flying at an altitude of 2,000 feet, but we gradually ascended to 5,000 feet in order to avoid the air pockets."

There was worse to come. Under the heading, "A hair-raising trip," he writes that between Tobruk and Benghazi he encountered the most terrifying experience in his life. "The gales became furious demons that tossed us every which way. However, our little silver plane continued to defy the elements and fight forward until finally it brought us to Benghazi safe and sound. Had the pilot been any less skilful we would have run aground without doubt."

Shortly after leaving Benghazi, there was engine trouble and the pilot was forced to land "in a strip of desolate, barren desert. We were forced to spend two full agonising days in this frightful place, until God sent some Italian pilots to save us from dying."

A telegram was insufficient to convey the perils of that experience. When he and his companions reached the nearest village after their rescue, Abul-Fath filed a lengthy report detailing his impressions. Under the headline, "In the belly of the wadi," he recalls that at one point they saw a bird fly up from the midst of the wilderness. "We thought that to be a sign that there was water, so we headed to the spot and, indeed, found a small depression with water in it. Literally dying of thirst, we threw ourselves onto our hands and knees and began to lap up the water as though we were animals. It was the most delicious water we had ever tasted in our lives."

After they had quenched their thirst, Abul-Fath and Roe returned to the plane, exhausted and hungry. "My friend Roe had purchased half a chicken and a loaf of bread in Benghazi. I bought nothing because I had my mind set on a full meal when we reached Surt or Tripoli. It was a meagre piece of chicken, barely enough to satisfy a young boy, and the loaf of bread which he had could not have weighed more than 200 grammes. We also had with us a small tin of Swedish toast, similar to those biscuits eaten by people who fear they will gain weight, but nourishing all the same. We split the half chicken and the small loaf of bread, and that was all I had to eat for a full 24 hours."

At first they intended to sleep outdoors, but they were so pestered by insects that they had to seek refuge inside the plane, "where we spent the rest of the night unable to move in such tight quarters. It was a long and arduous night." The following morning, he continues in a subsequent episode, they trudged for an hour-and-a-half on a terrain covered with dry shrubs "with long, spiky thorns that pierced through our trousers and stung our legs. Frequently, we would bend over to extract the thorns that had implanted themselves in our clothes and legs, but the effort was of little use because for every thorn we pulled out another, indeed many others, pierced us in their stead."

Under the headline, "Resigned to die," the intrepid reporter describes what he thought would be the last hours of his life. "I closed my eyes and began to pray to God for mercy and forgiveness. I stumbled to the ground. Pieces of paper flew out of my pocket, among them bills, some of quite large-figure denominations. But I was sapped of all strength, too weak to run after them. What good is money under such circumstances? Can it prevent death?"

Suddenly, during these harrowing moments, they heard the drone of a distant airplane. They hurriedly gathered up some shrubbery to make a fire. Then, after wavering between hope and despair, they spotted the airplane circling above them, looking for a place to land. As soon as it touched down, "seven Italians jumped out and told us they had been searching for us. They had first-aid and medicine, food and water. They filled our tank with gasoline, levelled a path on the ground for our plane to take off and, once we took off, flew behind us until we reached Surt."

Soon afterwards they reached Tripoli, where Abul-Fath took advantage of a brief rest to doff his hat as an aviation reporter and don the hat of an investigative reporter. He met with both Italian officials and national leaders in Tripoli "from whom I gleaned valuable information on the current situation."

Evidently, the trip from Tripoli to Tunis was happily uneventful, for Abul-Fath's account of that leg is brief. The most they encountered was some strong winds that forced them to make an unscheduled stop in Gabes, although they were soon able to depart again for Tunis, "which we reached after a comfortable flight during which no furious gales obstructed us."

Unfortunately, the journey would not be so smooth during the next phase. Abul-Fath writes that shortly after leaving Tunis they encountered a range of "towering mountains," where suddenly the plane entered a thick bank of clouds "and we were plunged into a darkness that obscured all visibility." The pilot acted quickly, bringing the plane up to an altitude of 7,000 feet. Under the headline, "Out of the jaws of death," Abul-Fath goes on to recount that, using the navigation charts that were with them, they decided to go around the mountains "so as not to fall to our death," adding, "we preferred the strain of the longer distance to plummeting to a hideous demise." After some fraught hours the plane touched down in Sfax.

The remainder of the journey westward, over Algeria and Morocco was relatively safe sailing. However, it was when after they took off from Rabat, heading inland to Fez, that the engine suddenly stalled. "Had the pilot panicked, the result would have been inevitable death, particularly as we were flying at an altitude of 1,000 feet. However, with consummate dexterity, he turned the plane around and eased us down with astounding sureness and gentleness until we alighted in a field no more than 40 kilometres from Rabat."

It was a 15-kilometre hike from their landing spot to Taflat, where the Moroccan Royal Air Force base was located. Although help was somewhat late in coming, the mechanics were able to fix the engine, enabling the adventurers to resume their journey.

Before crossing over into Europe proper, the small craft stopped briefly in Tangier, a Spanish possession that was under international control. Abul-Fath had nothing but scorn for the government of that city, which he discovered to be "the filthiest and most poorly administrated city I have seen in all of North Africa."

The following day they flew over the Straits of Gibraltar and landed in Malaga. Evidently, they had to be careful with the route they chose, and this time not because of weather conditions. They had received a warning from British authorities in Gibraltar that there were "certain areas foreign aircraft are forbidden to fly over."

On 10 November, Abul-Fath provided his readers with a final account of the distance he had travelled. The small one-engine craft had flown a total of 8,700 kilometres from Abu Qir in Alexandria to Barcelona in a total flying time of 57 hours. As was the case with the previous episodes in his account, the details were given such headings as "The silver bird covers 500 kilometres in less than three hours," "Forty minutes before the spectre of death," and "Gusts toy with plane." The most curious, however, was "The skies pelt us with stones."

The incident occurred on their way to Barcelona. There were two routes they could have chosen and they chose the shortest. "After several minutes in the air we found ourselves in the midst of a mountain range surrounding us from all directions. Suddenly, the skies unleashed a torrent of rain which, with the cold, turned into hail that pounded our plane and struck our faces. It was as though the skies were stoning us!"

Before signing off, Abul-Fath pays tribute to the warm hospitality he and his companions received along the way. He also relays the tribute the North African press paid to him and Al-Ahram for being the first Oriental newspaper to cover, first-hand, an expedition by air.

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

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