Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (475)
Strange but true
Throughout its history, Al-Ahram has covered international news better than most other Egyptian newspapers. This was especially true in the 1930s when the coverage of domestic political news, especially that of parties, was seen as risky. Coverage of foreign events thus increased with special emphasis laid on the lighter side of the news. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* focuses on one particular column whose peculiar bits of information were not unlike today's Believe it or Not
Al-Ahram, like other newspapers, has always allocated space to foreign news, particularly when events abroad touch upon Egypt. In fact, in the course of its development the newspaper devoted more space to such news than its contemporaries, most likely because it was reluctant to embroil itself in domestic controversies, involvement in which had brought the early demise of many other newspapers.
The foreign news section of the newspaper was one of its strongest. Drawing on foreign news agency reports and the most important articles in the Western press, it presented readers with an ongoing and variegated panorama of the world abroad. Perhaps the Lebanese affiliation within the newspaper's management, well-known for its multi-lingualism, accounts for this.
If priority was given to coverage of political events abroad, appearing frequently under the headline "news agency releases", Al- Ahram had always been keen to keep abreast of non-political developments. Coverage of this nature appeared at various times under such headings as "Wonders and oddities", "The post from Europe", "Miscellany", "Personal telegrams" and, finally, beginning in the early 1930s, "Scattered fragments".
Like many of its predecessors, "Scattered fragments" tended to vary considerably in length. Space accorded to it was contingent upon the availability of other types of news items needed to fill the paper or, in that tense period in particular, the reluctance of management to dwell on sensitive domestic issues. The first half of the 1930s in Egypt was dominated by the polarisation between the Sidqi government, supported by the king, and the nationalist movement embodied in the Wafd and Liberal Constitutionalist parties. Perhaps for similar reasons, the column was also erratic in the times it appeared, rarely appearing daily, sometimes absent for four day stretches, and at other times seeming to strive for a more regular presence once or twice a week.
On the other hand, it was very consistent in its desire to tantalise and amuse readers. While Al-Ahram readers were more sober and intellectually-minded than the audience of other newspapers, they still needed some diversion from the weighty news. Like human beings everywhere they, too, liked to be made to smile from time to time.
The first items among the foreign news agency releases to catch the attention of the editors of "Scattered fragments" were the "curiosities". One of these was an article on "female crimes and male crimes", the subject of a lecture delivered by a certain Dr Castorcis in the Faculty of Law in Paris. According to the lecturer, women committed less than two per cent of the crimes in southern Europe as opposed to 20 per cent of the crimes in France. Moreover, most of the crimes committed by women in southern Europe were crimes of passion, whereas those committed by their northern sisters generally involved disputes over property. Although Castorcis offered no explanation for the discrepancy, it is possible that part of the explanation was that capitalist society was more advanced in the north than in the south.
Al-Ahram dwelt at some length in "Fragments" on a curious phenomenon that took place in the Naval Academy in Annapolis, in the US. Under the headline "Ruined by his own genius", the article relates that school officials and engineers were mystified when they discovered that a lift would ascend and descend on its own accord and that the lights inside it would suddenly go out "at those moments when light was most needed". Eventually, technicians discovered the secret behind what appeared to be the prank of a supernatural force. "One of the academy's brightest students had surreptitiously extended wires from the lift to his room, from which he could control the lift without anyone seeing him. Because of this action, the senior officers of the academy decided that the talented young man was not fit to become an admiral and they ruled to expel him. The youth in question was the son of a senior officer in the US Army." Clearly academy officials failed to appreciate the genius of their student. He may well have been the father of "remote control" which would ultimately have so many applications, not the least in the field of high-tech warfare.
The British king customarily received millions of letters from around the empire on various holidays and religious occasions. One of these letters attracted the attention of Buckingham Palace officials, the story of which was related to Al-Ahram readers in "Scattered fragments". The author of the letter was a black man from San Salvador and a descendant of slaves. After years of toil and labour, he succeeded in saving enough money to purchase a plot of land that had belonged to the British crown. It cost 20 sterling. However, when he went to pay for it, he was told that the price had doubled because the Americans were interested in buying it. Rather than fall into despair, the man went to a public scribe to whom he dictated a letter to His Royal Majesty explaining his case. Soon, the director of the estate received instructions to sell the plot of land to the man at its original price. The man's dream had come true and as an expression of his gratitude he has sent the king a letter every year wishing him a merry Christmas and good fortune for the new year.
"Einstein in his bedclothes" was an amusing anecdote about the famous scientist whose eccentricities astounded the world. On an ocean liner taken from New York, "passengers were thrilled to discover that the great scientist was aboard and they impatiently awaited the opportunity to see him and hear him speak." Einstein did not disappoint them. One evening, the passengers packed the dining hall, men in formal attire and women dressed to the hilt with precious jewels glittering on their wrists and around their necks. As they looked around expectantly, "a man entered the hall in his pyjamas. It was Einstein, wending his way through the assembled guests as though he were strolling through his bedroom." Initially, the guests were stunned, but when he reached the centre of the room "they forgot all about his clothes, pressed forward to greet him and surrounded him as closely as a bracelet does a wrist. His evening in pyjamas turned out to be one of his greatest successes."
One of the "marvels" appearing in "Scattered fragments" was the father of 30 children. A resident of Oxford, in the UK, was perhaps the most prolific progenitor in the world, Al-Ahram announced. He married twice, fathering from his first wife 12 children and from his second 18. Of these 13 were boys. "Two boys were killed during the war and a third died as a child. Of the 27 children still alive, 10 have married and the other 17 still live at home with their parents and are in excellent health. The father is 65 and his second wife, 46, is expecting another child."
From "Scattered fragments" Egyptians learnt that eccentrics in the West were so numerous that they even formed clubs and arranged exhibitions catering to their quirks. There was the "Crazies Club" in London, all of whose members were former patients in mental asylums. Its rules stipulated, "Members and visitors will only be accepted on the basis of official documents certifying that they had been insane and were cured." On a more tragic note, there was the "Suicide Society" discovered by police in Austria. Members were schoolchildren who paid monthly dues with which they purchased arms. "One member, a 15-year-old, shot himself in the head and died instantly. Lying next to him was a second student who wanted to imitate him, but panicked and fainted. Policemen in the vicinity had heard the sound of gunfire, entered the premises and discovered the body of the boy and his companion who eventually came to and revealed to them the nature of their amazing secret club."
While not a secret society, an association of women from western England did insist on a certain exclusivity in the fairs they organised: men were not allowed. The society devoted itself to "all matters of concern to women". For example, it hosted cooking contests in which "the winner is that woman who can cook a meal for four people in less than an hour". It also sponsored for its members air excursions, driving contests and other activities. Men were only allowed in as spectators, and only if they were accompanied by one of the members. Moreover, "the women took the precaution of engaging policewomen to guard their fairs."
Under the headline, "The Cursed jewels", the Al-Ahram column delved into the realm of the supernatural -- and this time not in the form of a prank. The jewels in question belonged to the House of Bourbon before the French Revolution. Louis XVI had given them to Marie Antoinette who presented some of them to the king of Poland who in turn bequeathed them to a prince. All who possessed the jewels met with tragedy. Marie Antoinette was guillotined, the king of Poland was the last of his kind before its partition and the prince and his wife were run over by a car in Warsaw. At the time this item appeared, it had been learned that the cursed jewels had been stolen, leading the "Scattered fragments" editor to speculate that the thieves, if not apprehended by the police, would at least meet a fate similar to the jewels' previous ill-starred owners.
Many "Scattered fragments" could be classified under the headings "superhuman abilities" and "amazing facts". The Bulgarian with the sharpest memory in the world was the subject of one item. One day, a university professor decided to put the man's talent to a test. The professor recited a list of 100 words at random and asked the man to repeat them, which he did in precisely the same order "without the slightest hesitation or a single mistake". In the second part of the exam, the professor called out the letters of the alphabet at random, which the subject also repeated verbatim. Then, the man was given a piece of paper on which were written 70 different numbers. The man glanced at the paper a moment, handed it back to the professor and recited the numbers "as though they were still written before his eyes". The astounding memory proved no less efficient in repeating a list of 400 names.
Then there was the "fattest man in the world: Raymond, measuring 2.88 metres around the hips and 2.75 metres around his chest. His thighs were approximately a metre in circumference and his calves 86 centimetres thick. The colossal weighed 302 kilogrammes."
However, Al-Ahram was more interested in statistics that had greater significance. It was struck, for example, by an article in a British magazine that boasted that the English were the "cleanest people in the world". As proof of this assertion, it claimed that the British used more soap than any other nation, including the US. Even though the US had more bathrooms than Britain, "Americans consume less than half of the per capita consumption of soap in Britain, which is two pounds per year." Water consumption in Britain was also higher, at approximately three gallons a day.
The article went on to cite other statistics on British habits and lifestyles. They used approximately 72 pounds of salt a year, "although the bulk of this is not ingested but rather used in industry and storing". The British were also the most prolific builders. "No other country in the world has built as many homes in proportion to its populace as have the British in the past 10 years." The Department of Statistics estimated that Britain used four billion bricks per year, or 100 per person. While the British may have been cleaner than others, they were also the heaviest smokers, evidence for which was the rise in per capita match consumption, which reached seven match sticks a day.
Under the heading "London without sun", the Al-Ahram issue of 16 January 1931 wrote an interesting statistic: In London, in the entire month of December the sun was seen just 14 hours.
At a time when "the marriage crisis" was a subject of concern in Egyptian public opinion, "Scattered fragments" was obviously impressed by the following information on Germany. In spite of the global economic depression, marriages boomed in the first half of 1930, with an increase of approximately 5,000 weddings over what had taken place during the first half of the previous year. The news item added, "While the rate of marriage is higher in Germany than it was before the war, the birth rate has not experienced a similar increase."
Also, against the backdrop of economic crisis, statistics on the legendary wealth of Americans held great fascination. Based on tax return records, the US Treasury Department announced in 1930 that there were 311 millionaires in the US, up from 290 in 1927. In addition, there were more than 45,000 US citizens whose income exceeded $50,000.
More intriguing financial statistics were to be found in a speech delivered by a US bank owner, who said that the US lost $20 million per annum due to crime and that since the Great War it lost $5 billion. "However, in reality the amount is many times more if we add government expenditures on police, courts, prisons and the like."
The same edition carried an item on a different type of wealth. Under the headline, "The wealth of the Dead Sea", Major Brooke, an expert working for the British mandate authorities in Palestine, revealed that this famous body of water contained 200 million tons of potassium, 229,000 tons of magnesium and 980 tons of bromine. Brooke went on to comment, "The Dead Sea contains a quantity of potassium that, if extracted, could supply the world with an average of 100,000 tons per year for 2,000 years and a quantity of gold that would be worth approximately five billion pounds."
Among the most interesting statistics appearing in "Scattered fragments" pertained to "animal life spans". No mammal, it wrote, lived longer than the elephant, which was as long as 100 years or more. As for other large mammals, such as the whale and walrus, their average life spans were equivalent to that of human beings. Moving to birds, the author observed that some species, such as eagles and parrots, could live longer than 100 years. He goes on to relate, "In 1772, explorers near the Cape of Good Hope came across a falcon with a piece of paper around its neck bearing the name, Jacob, alongside the date, 1610. In other words, this falcon had lived more than 160 years."
Certain types of marine animals also enjoy considerable longevity. The article recounts that in 1497, some fishermen found a fish with the date 1230 inscribed underneath one of its fins. The statistics concluded at the other end of the scale, with insects and, notably, certain species of flies that live for only a day.
People's obsession with numbers has frequently caused occasion for some curious competitions. On 11 January 1930, "Scattered fragments" related that a wealthy lawyer in Toronto had bequeathed 12 million francs in his will to any woman who gave birth to the most number of children between 1926 and 1936. Although 1936 was still a way off, there appeared to be two likely candidates. One was a woman aged 37 who already had 20 children and the second, aged 42, who had 26 children; six of them were born after the lawyer died.
Also on the subject of birth, an item entitled "More than a million newborns in Italy in 1930", reported that 14,000 more Italians got married that year than in the previous year and that the number of births exceeded one million and was, therefore, up by 43,000 from 1929. At the same time, government statistics reported that the number of deaths had dropped to 550,000, down from 611,000 the previous year.
"Scattered fragments" featured some facts and figures on speed. One item concerned another of those curious contests that Western countries seemed to sponsor so regularly: a contest on making clothes entirely from scratch. The winner was a Canadian who, "at five in the morning sheered the wool of four sheep, washed it, dyed it, spun it and wove it. At 11.00am, he began to cut the cloth and tailor a jacket. When he finished, he dispatched it by plane, and the jacket was in the hands of its owner by seven o'clock that evening." The new owner happened to be the viceroy of Canada who "wore the jacket to the opening of an exhibition in recognition of that superior speed in work".
The entertaining column also devoted attention to scientific discoveries, one of which appeared under the headline, "The Largest meteor". According to scientists, this massive conglomeration of iron and nickel, which had fallen halfway between Lakes Nyasa and Tanganyika in the Great Rift Valley in Africa, weighed 80 tons and measured 14 feet in height. The largest meteor discovered before that was in Greenland. "Today it is located in the Natural History Museum in New York." It weighed 36 tons. However, the most startling piece of information in this report was that the discoverer of the Rift Valley meteor maintained that he had a right to possess the meteor and registered his claim to ownership in accordance with the laws of his country.
One scientist in Britain made an announcement that may have had an impact on the cosmetics industry. In 100 years from now, he said, blue-eyed blondes will become extremely rare because they are less inclined to marry than darker women. The researcher "found that out of every 100 blonde women, only 55 marry, as opposed to 75 per cent of all brunettes".
People everywhere have always had a fascination with the quirks of royalty, and "Scattered fragments" was keen to satisfy their curiosity. Under the headline, "Monarchs and their nervous tics", the column relates that the British king's left eyelid twitched whenever he spoke and that his son, the crown prince, frequently stroked the base of his chin with the back of his fingers. The article continues: "The king of Belgium tugs at his mustache, the king of Romania strokes the crown of his head with his hand, the wife of the crown prince of Sweden is unable to speak unless tugging at a curl of her hair above her left temple and the queen of Holland always wriggles her right foot."
If readers were titillated by such news, they would also have been amused by the ingenious idea proposed by a newspaper editor in Naples for getting rid of beggars and by the story of the man who used a toy gun to frighten off a burglar carrying a real gun. Certainly such anecdotes would have had Al-Ahram readers leafing through the pages of their morning paper to see if "Scattered fragments" appeared that day or not.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.