Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (479)
In 1930 Mohamed Sidqi was the first Egyptian pilot to fly from Berlin to Cairo. Through the pages of Al-Ahram, Professor Yunan Labib Rizk*
uncovers the popular excitement at Sidqi's arrival and the unfortunate
disappointment he was to face
So read the opening verses of a lengthy poem by the "Prince of Poets", Ahmed Shawqi, appearing on Al-Ahram's front-page on 31 January 1930. The occasion: the festivities in honour of Mohamed Sidqi, the first Egyptian pilot to fly from Berlin to Cairo. The pilot's success in steering his small, two-engine craft across that considerable distance was a cause for national celebration.
In early November of the previous year, the Egyptian Embassy in Berlin wired home to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that an Egyptian who had acquired his flying certificate in Germany intended to fly from Berlin to Cairo. The telegraph asked for the necessary permit to enter Egyptian air space and land.
In Cairo, the request was turned over to the Ministry of Transport, where it triggered a dispute between the British aviation adviser to the ministry, Major Long, and the Egyptian under-secretary of that ministry. The British adviser felt that the flight would imperil the pilot's life whereas the Egyptian official, who favoured granting permission, felt that such fears were exaggerated.
Al-Ahram echoed the opinion of the Egyptian. Indeed, it was none other than the famous social commentator and poet, Mayy Ziyadah, who took up the defence of the Egyptian pilot's ambitions on the pages of the newspaper. "Other peoples' pilots are represented in the air. How long must the skies await Egyptian eagles?" the headline of her article asked. She could not understand why the Egyptian government was being so slow to approve Sidqi's request when it had readily "opened the skies of the country" to airplanes piloted by foreigners. The first of these, she reminded readers, was the French pilot Florian, who had landed in Cairo over a decade and a half before, in 1913.
Ultimately the Foreign Ministry caved in before the persistence of Sidqi and his supporters. It announced that permission would be granted, but only on the condition that he had a sufficient period of training. He would have to "take hundreds of flights under different conditions and in countries other than Germany, so that he can be able to calculate and adjust his course in various climates and weather conditions". Sidqi did as required after which Long had no choice but to grant his approval.
Al-Ahram featured a brief profile of Sidqi since he had become a focus of national attention. After obtaining his baccalaureate in Egypt, Sidqi went to Germany to complete his studies, obtaining a diploma in commerce and economics from the University of Berlin. He then returned to Egypt where he began work with the Bank of Egypt. While sitting behind a desk, his mind's eye must have remained skyward; for a year and a half later he left to Germany again to learn how to fly. He returned home briefly in 1926 at the invitation of the Egyptian Ministry of Transport to join a pilot training programme. However, following his medical examination he changed his mind and went back to Germany to complete his training there.
The profile omitted a few details. Sidqi belonged to one of Egypt's aristocratic families. His father had been a senior officer in the Egyptian army and his mother was the sister to the well-known writer Labib El-Batanuni. Undoubtedly, such social status explained why he could so easily leave behind a humdrum job at the bank and set off for Germany to study aviation. The newspaper also failed to mention that he was married to a German woman and had two children.
The forthcoming flight of the "auspicious bird", as Al-Ahram dubbed him, set various bodies in motion. In Cairo, a committee was formed in the Higher Commerce Club, of which Sidqi was a member, to organise a donation drive on behalf of the Egyptian pilot. The committee also announced that tickets to attend the reception ceremony in honour of the returning pilot at Heliopolis Airport would be made available to senior officials, notables and prominent merchants. In addition, "each person who donates one pound or more will have the right to an entrance ticket", the committee announced.
In Alexandria, a similar committee was chaired by Prince Omar Touson to receive the pilot who was expected to land first in the port city. Al-Ahram recounts, "A proposal was put forth before this committee to buy the pilot an airplane with the collected donations. The committee welcomed the proposal and declared that it would act on it if it found that the public was willing to participate and began to print the necessary subscription coupons."
These preparations underway, the Egyptian public turned to their newspapers to follow the progress of Sidqi's flight, which was covered by the Higher Commerce Club and various news agencies in the form of wire releases from each stop along the way.
Although Sidqi originally set his take-off from the German capital on 10 December 1930, he was delayed four days due to weather conditions. On 14 December, therefore, Al-Ahram's special correspondent was on hand at Tempelhof Airport, west of Berlin, at 9.30am to cover the beginning of the landmark journey. The airstrip was a bustle of activity; maintenance crews were giving a final inspection of the engines of the German airplane -- a model Klemm D equipped with Salmson HP engines. Egyptian minister plenipotentiary to Berlin, Hassan Nashaat, was speaking with the pilot. Journalists and other spectators gathered around in eager anticipation. At 11.15, after a last minute weather report announced a ten-kilometre visibility, "Pilot Sidqi bid farewell to his wife and children, boarded his plane and took off in the direction of Dresden and Prague." The correspondent added that the pilot told him that "he planned to fly at a leisurely pace and, therefore, he was unable to say exactly when he would be passing through Vienna, Venice and Ancona."
Two hours after his departure from Berlin, Sidqi arrived in Dresden where he had to spend the night because of fog. Curiously, there was no further news of the flight until 9 January when it was announced that Sidqi had reached Brindisi on the heel of Italy. Al-Ahram went on to report that Sidqi had been forced to travel by rail from the Austrian capital to Udine in northern Italy because the Alps were too high and heavy fog impeded visibility. Now from Brindisi, Sidqi would head to Athens.
Apparently there was a change of plans, for four days later Al-Ahram reported that Sidqi had landed in Malta and was preparing to fly on to Tripoli. However, shortly after taking-off from Valletta Airport he was forced to turn back due to engine trouble and bad weather conditions.
The next dispatch was filed by the newspaper's special correspondent in Alexandria on 24 January. The Egyptian pilot had left Tripoli and would soon arrive in Alexandria, "if he does not have to land in Cyrenaica first". The following day, Al-Ahram allocated considerable space to the impending arrival: "The pilot telegraphed that he had left Sallum at 10.50am and that he expects to arrive in Abu Qir at two o'clock this afternoon." Preparations for the reception in Alexandria moved into high gear. The chief of police dispatched a police contingent to Abu Qir where crowds had begun to assemble to greet the Egyptian pilot in his German-made plane. Unfortunately, at 2.30 a telephone message from Marsah Matruh informed Alexandrian authorities that Sidqi had been compelled to make a quick landing there in order to fix a simple malfunction in one of the motors and that he would be arriving at 4pm. The correspondent continues, "Four o'clock passed without a sign of the plane. Finally, as the hour approached 5pm, a plane was sighted to the southeast. The spectators applauded because they knew that must be the awaited plane."
At 5.10, Sidqi's plane approached the airstrip at Abu Qir. "He circled three times and then began his descent in a manner that demonstrated his mastery of the art of flying, and then touched down safely. The crowds applauded eagerly as the reception committee approached to greet the pilot and congratulate him on his safe arrival. The first to shake his hand was his uncle El-Batanuni Bek, who introduced him to the governor of Alexandria and to the other officials present. Port officials performed their various tasks, although the head of quarantines told Sidqi Pasha that he would be exempted from the customary fees as he was the first Egyptian pilot to fly to Egypt."
The precedent so fired the enthusiasm of the Al-Ahram management that it dedicated an editorial to it. Beneath a large photograph of the young pilot came the caption: "The first Egyptian pilot in the Egyptian capital: The wishes of the people come to pass." The editorial began "Welcome Sidqi, the first Egyptian pilot to traverse Europe homeward bound to Egypt! Welcome to the first soldier to break through the door to that citadel, which had long been barred to our nation, and to raise the flag of Egypt, which will now flutter in the air along side the flags of those other rising nations that are acquiring the manifestations of progress. Welcome to the young man who circled the skies of Berlin, Vienna, Prague, Italy and North Africa and to whom the eyes of all those peoples turned as though he proclaimed, 'I am son of my mother Egypt -- Egypt, the mother of the world!'"
Fikri Abaza could not pass up the opportunity to vent his wit. Beneath the headline -- "He's arrived!" -- the famous humorist recounts, "Jean Paul, haughty and acerbic as ever, stuck his pipe in his jaws, wrapped one leg over the other, blew a thick cloud of smoke in my face and said, 'Sidqi will make it!' From that day forward I flung the tears of grief from my eyes and I smouldered in anguish, until the day that people in the square cried out in a voice that caused every nerve to quake, 'Sidqi's arrived!' He made it! He refuted the colonialists' claims, exposed the false advice of the sceptics and naysayers, and raised the humble head of the Egyptian people."
The following day in Cairo exhilaration was high as people awaited the arrival of their "auspicious bird". Al-Ahram's correspondent recounts, "As I headed towards Heliopolis Airport I was overcome with the feeling that the glorious feat Sidqi was undertaking will shed a share of its honour and good fortune upon us all." It appears that many felt likewise. "People had begun to make their way to the airport since the early afternoon. Crowds packed even these spacious streets. Hundreds of cars, crowd-filled trams and lorries, thousands on foot were all on their way to salute Egypt's bold and heroic son, Mohamed Sidqi."
According to the correspondent's estimate, the occasion brought together some 25,000 spectators, among whom were three ministers: Minister of Justice Naguib El-Gharabli, Minister of War Hassan Hasib and Minister of Transport Fahmi El-Nuqrashi. It was not long before some higher brass made their appearance: Prime Minister Mustafa El-Nahhas whose arrival was greeted by a storm of cheers and applause and senior aide to King Fouad, Sadeq Yehia, "delegated by His Majesty to greet the pilot".
The plane was late because Sidqi decided to take a small detour via Tanta. The people of that city had submitted requests to the reception committee to be accorded the honour of receiving the returning pilot. It was not until 3.15 that the drone of the airplane was first heard in the distance behind the two marquees that had been erected for the occasion in Cairo. The reporter relates, "Everyone leapt out of their seats as they looked skyward in anticipation of the incoming plane. Enthusiasm was high as the applause grew louder. Many were carrying small coloured balloons, hundreds of which were released into the air as the plane approached. The plane reached the airport flying at an altitude of 300 metres, circled it three times as is the custom and then headed for the column of smoke. There, the pilot cut the engines and made his decent with consummate skill and grace."
There then ensued several scenes of considerable import. Addressing the throngs at Heliopolis airport, the German ambassador extended the congratulations of his government and of the German community in Egypt to the Egyptian pilot. He added that the German-made plane Sidqi had flown was "not only a messenger of friendship between the German and Egyptian nations and peoples but also represented a link between German technology and science and the drive and initiative that characterise modern Egypt. Significant for his absence in these festivities was the British high commissioner. British authorities would not have delighted in the arrival of Sidqi aboard a German plane and, perhaps, signalling his displeasure, the high commissioner sent his oriental secretary in his stead.
The description of a second scene appeared beneath the headline, "The day of resurrection". Amidst cheers and jubilation, Egyptian Olympic champion Mukhtar Hussein lifted Sidqi on his shoulders as thousands pressed around and "surged like a mighty wave in his wake wherever he went, while members of the reception committee raced to their cars and vied with each other to keep pace with Sidqi Pasha". The correspondent continues, "However, how can we possibly describe the resurrection when it occurs? Where do we find the words to convey that portrait of people who forgot everything in that moment they beheld before them a daring compatriot who had forged open a path formerly barred to them?"
The Egyptian press was not alone to remark on this unique scene. In the words of the Daily Telegraph, it was an "astounding phenomenon: The effect of Sidqi's journey upon the Egyptian people almost equalled the impact Lindbergh made upon the Americans and Europeans after performing his solo flight across the Atlantic."
The following weeks brought a string of banquets and ceremonies commemorating Sidqi's feat with the pilot hosting two of these spectacles. He flew for an hour and a half over Cairo as a salute to the Egyptian people. The effect of his gesture was somewhat diminished, however, because the Civil Aviation Authority insisted he fly at an altitude of 1,000 metres, reducing the vision of his airplane to a speck in the air and the roar of his engines to a distant hum. Two days later, he offered a similar salute to the people of Alexandria. The Al-Ahram correspondent from that city relates, "A large group of students managed to drive out to Abu Qir in time to see the spectacle and after he landed they cheered him and escorted him back into the city."
The jubilation in Alexandria that day was somewhat dampened by news from Europe that another Egyptian pilot, Ahmed Hassanein, had attempted to emulate Sidqi but failed. Hassanein had recently embarked on a flight from Britain to Egypt, but when landing in Pisa "his plane crashed into the ground and is now too damaged to complete the flight." The report continues, "Not only has misfortune impeded the realisation of Hassanein's dream, but the pilot himself was wounded, although we praise God that his injuries incline closer to healing than to danger."
In Cairo, after being received by Prime Minister Mustafa El- Nahhas and Safiyya Zaghlul, the widow of the famous nationalist leader, Sidqi was feted by the Higher Commerce Club. Of all the celebrations in his honour so far, this was the grandest. In addition to the poem written for the occasion by Ahmed Shawqi, Talaat Harb, co-founder of the Bank of Egypt, delivered a lengthy speech. The famous economist later founded Egypt Air, and it is highly possible that it was in Sidqi's successful flight that the idea of a national airline germinated.
As though to reaffirm the unity of the country, Sidqi boarded his plane and headed southwards to Upper Egypt, where he was greeted with an enthusiasm no less jubilant than he had received in the north. From Minya Al-Ahram reports: "The people of Minya -- men, women and children of all classes -- rushed to the site prepared for the landing of the Princess Fayza, as Sidqi has called his plane. There they waited until the plane was sighted arriving from the south. The plane circled in the air for a lengthy period in salutation to the people of this southern city. Then it landed gracefully amidst loud applause, cheers and such expressions of joy that are beyond the capacities of the pen to describe."
From Assiut: "The sporting club east of the reservoir brimmed with spectators including senior officials, counsellors, judges, lawyers, notables and merchants. Foremost among those present was the chief of the provincial directorate. A special marquee erected for women was similarly filled with spectators. At precisely 5.30, the plane was sighted on the horizon and the audience erupted into loud and effusive applause and cheering."
Sidqi's arrival was received with equal fervour in Luxor, where he decided to rest a while and visit that city's famed antiquities. The celebrations ended here, and as the saying has it, no sooner had the euphoria died down than sobriety set in. In this case, sobriety was ushered in by the sudden news, announced by Al-Ahram on 28 June 1930, that Sidqi had just taken off from Heliopolis airport on his way to Abu Qir. "Later today he will set sail for Brindisi, with his airplane aboard the ship, and from there he will fly to Berlin. The purpose of this trip, he said, was to take part in a flying competition between Paris and London."
Al-Ahram, along with the Egyptian public, had a nagging suspicion that something was wrong. After some enquiries, Al- Ahram appeared on 4 July with the headline "Why has Sidqi left Egypt for Germany?"
The newspaper was unequivocal in attributing blame. In the four month period since Sidqi's return, the Ministry of Transport deliberated over a possible position that would take advantage of the pilot's talents and expertise and induce him to remain in the country. What it came up with was the position of Aviation Inspector, at the paltry salary of LE20. If that was the salary to be accorded to Egypt's first aviation inspector, the newspaper asked, "What will be the salary of an ordinary pilot when the day comes that we have pilots?" Would Sidqi's salary even cover the costs of the operation and maintenance of his plane, let alone living expenses for himself and his family? Finally, it asked what a person of Sidqi's qualifications would earn in Germany.
In answer to the last question, the newspaper learned that if Sidqi were to find a job as an acrobatic flyer, touring various cities in Germany and offering performances on the weekends he would earn from 400 to 600 Deutsch marks an hour, or between LE20 and LE30 at the current exchange rates. Lower down on the pay scale, pilots who displayed advertisements in the air earned DM100 an hour and pilots of short excursion flights earned DM60 an hour. Thus, if Sidqi worked two days a week for only two hours a day as an excursion pilot he would earn LE24 for that job alone. "Let us then assume he can only find up to four hours a month for displaying advertisements. This would earn him an additional LE20. Assuming that he can find no other employment, he would still be earning at least LE134 per month. Deducting the costs of gas, oil, airport fees and hangar space would still leave him with LE114."
The newspaper thus had no doubt as to the true reason for Sidqi's decision to return to Germany. Nevertheless, despite the humiliating job offer from the Ministry of Transport, the Egyptian pilot still kept his native land close to his heart, as was illustrated by a subsequent report in Al-Ahram. On 28 August the following year, he undertook another flight from Berlin to Cairo, scoring a record time of 65 hours. "He traversed some 3,000 kilometres in this brief span of time, during which his rare intrepidity and superior courage enabled him to scorn all obstacles on his way to victory and success." More importantly, however, Sidqi's accomplishments paved the way for Kamal Elwi, Mohamed Rushdi, Youssef Atiya, Ahmed Hassanein, Ahmed Salem, Munir Samika and others who were to form the first generation of Egyptian pilots.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.