Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (510)
A boy scout's diaries
In 1932, a certain boy scout, Khamis Zahran, walked from Alexandria to Ras Al-Barr. Al-Ahram's sports page published the school boy's diaries which Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* reviews in this week's instalment of the diwan
Over about three weeks in September 1932 Al- Ahram's sports page carried a series of features by Khamis Zahran, a student of Abbasiya Secondary School in Alexandria. These were his diaries of a six- day school outing from Egypt's northern port city to the summer resort of Ras Al-Barr -- on foot.
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The Boy Scout movement in Egypt spread after a slow start in the 1930s. Here the first graduating class of the Helwan Camp with pioneers Azioz Bakir, Hassan Osman, hussein Hosni and Saad El-Wayli in 1953
Zahran's account of this "daring trek", as Al-Ahram described it, should be of interest to students, teachers and all concerned with the state of our educational system today as extracurricular activities of this sort have virtually become extinct.
Some preliminary observations are in order. "Scouting", as an extracurricular activity, originated with a British officer who served in the Boer war in South Africa and became a national hero. Robert Baden-Powell founded the Boy Scouts in 1908, an organisation that quickly caught on in the Anglo-Saxon world and spread to other parts of that vast Empire upon which the sun never set, of which Egypt was a part.
Credit for making such activities possible in Egyptian schools goes to Douglas Dunlop, British adviser to the Ministry of Education. Dunlop fought to have athletics included in the school curriculum, much to the consternation of many Egyptians who believed that school was not the place for such frivolities. If athletics encountered resistance, one imagines introducing scouting must have encountered an even tougher uphill battle. The very idea would have been alien to a predominantly rural mentality, likely to be adverse to the notion of meandering through nature, camping in the open and exploring the unknown. Still, someone succeeded in implanting the idea in the Abbasiya Secondary School.
One imagines that Khamis Zahran enjoyed writing about his excursion almost as much as the adventure itself. Though his writing reflects an attempt to adhere to the rhetorical strictures he was learning at school, it also displays considerable creativity and some wit. Curiously, he failed to mention who his fellow travellers were. Piqued by curiosity, Al-Ahram's sports editor put the question to him, suggesting that it would be selfish of Khamis to hold back such information. Eventually, Khamis responded. His school "group" consisted of no more than two, himself and a friend, but he refused to reveal the name of that friend for reasons pertaining to the "scouting code". He did not, however, enlighten his readers further on this particular "scouting code" or explain why that code had not prevented him from revealing his own identity. There is no reason, however, why such considerations should prevent us from enjoying his six-day journal:
Day 1 -- Tuesday , 5 July 1932: "We struck camp at Sidi Bishr at 3.00am. All our fellow human beings were sound asleep, with the exception of the guards, whose vigilant eyes patrolled the area looking for prey only to find us. As we crept from the camp in the darkness and heavy silence of the night we were overcome by two contradictory sensations: apprehension and the fear of failure, and determination and persistence. We ignored the former and took the latter as our motto.
"After considerable deliberation the orb of the sun peaked out from its hiding place just as we reached Ezbat Khurshid, which we took as a staging post, but only for a few minutes. We then went off for Kafr Al-Duwar, which we reached at 9.00am. There, we replenished our water supply, purchased some food and ate our modest meal in an abandoned plot of land that happened to have two wooden chairs on hand for us. We then surrendered to a nap.
"Having recouped our strength we left Kafr Al-Duwar bound for Abu Homos. The beauty around us and the levelness of the road rendered us oblivious to the ardour of the long stretch ahead of us. To our left lay the Mahmoudiya Canal, sailboats wending their way back and forth through its waters, the beautiful songs of its passengers drifting towards us. To our right stretched the fields, the breeze flirting with the crops which were swaying with great amusement. Do not ask about the stares we got from the passengers of passing vehicles, although it was only our scouting uniforms and gear that distinguished us from ordinary picnickers.
"At 3.30pm we reached Abu Homos where we rested and took some refreshment. After an hour, we resumed our hike in the direction of Damanhour. This was a strenuous phase of the journey for by then we were thoroughly overcome with exhaustion. To make matters worse, we had to walk two and a half hours in pitch darkness. From that distance, it seemed that those specks of light we distinguished could only come from a small village, but as we approached they grew more and more numerous until eventually we found ourselves in the city, sapped of strength with barely enough energy to set up camp in a sandy plot of ground near the cannon. I record, here, my gratitude to the army officer, Abdel- Aziz Abdel-Fattah for his kindness and for charging one of his sentinels to guard us through the night. We made a mattress of dried clover covered with a blanket, collapsed on top of it and surrendered to the world of dreams."
Day 2 -- Wednesday, 6 July: "Last night passed into oblivion; so weary were we from the 70km hike from Alexandria to Damanhour in a single day. The sun gradually spread its morning rays. It was by far the most eloquent way to tell us to resume our efforts. We shot up out of bed to have breakfast, exposing our mattress to that vigilant eye that had served us through the night. Once we had our post-breakfast rest we were raring to go, and, getting our "motorfeet" into gear, we sped out of Damanhour with a last glance behind us to consign the city to memory.
"After a while we reached Sanhour station where we rested a bit and drank some water. Some of the people from the village joined us in our hike, although only to Dessouq, not all the way to Ras Al-Barr. At 5.30pm, we arrived at Al-Rahmaniya- Dessouq Bridge, which brought us into Dessouq proper, and from the Buhayra into the Gharbiya governorate. The Delta now took us into its joyful embrace, manifesting the enthusiasm of its welcome in the mulid of Sidi Ibrahim Dessouqi, the anniversary celebrations of that city's patron saint, which were in full swing.
"We set up our tent in that vacant space in front of the district capital building. Some kind people suggested that we spend the night in the pavilion set up to shelter visiting pilgrims, but we refused, unwilling to entertain any alternative to our modest tent. Our campsite attracted a large gathering of the curious. We invited people to sit with us and explained the nature and aims of the Boy Scout movement. So responsive was our audience that I knew that the ground was fertile for planting the Scouts' lofty principles.
"When I had finished my explanation, we exchanged jokes and anecdotes, producing long rounds of uproarious laughter. Thus, we spent our evening in what approximated the climate of a Boy Scout camp until 11.00pm. It was time to turn in, but the zikr chanting had reached such a peak of ardour that we were able to snatch no more than a few winks of sleep during the short intervals."
Day 3 -- Thursday, 7 July: "The sun's golden rays appeared on the horizon. We had pulled up stakes and readied for departure, but at the last moment we were invited to breakfast with the Shazli order in their pavilion. We had a simple breakfast of mineen biscuits, bread, salt and tea, which we downed with an enviable appetite. Our hosts engaged us in conversation on diverse religious subjects and tales exemplifying the miracles worked by the prophets and holy men. We then prepared to leave amidst supplications for our success and left Dessouq at 8.00am, not without a pang of sorrow.
"Our path took us through the fields which shower us with their bounty. We were bedazzled by the spectacle of nature whose beauty no artist can hope to imitate and no writer, however eloquent his pen, can convey to the reader even so much as a miniature portrait of what he sees in this land of verdant luxuriance. I beheld the clear skies, the gurgling waters and the soothing breeze and in that infinite splendour I felt that the horizon was smiling at my approach and my spirits rose to greater heights of beatitude. And I said, barely realising what I uttered: 'Perish thee City, with your cares, hardship and abundant crime, with the plots that men weave to bring ruin to their fellow men and the venalities perpetrated by your sons, such as to tinge the brow of humanity with shame. Now, I walk where I please and as I please. There is no car to crush me, no electric tram to harvest my body. Adieu! Adieu! Without regret, I take my leave.' Kafr Al-Sheikh could not but take revenge.
"There was a small tent standing in the park in Kafr Al- Sheikh in front of which sat three: this writer, his companion and Mustafa Adli Effendi, the Tanta Secondary School scout who had rushed to greet us as soon as he heard of our arrival. How pleasant it was to talk with him. And no wonder, for conviviality is the code of scouts everywhere. Such was the kindness his father Sergeant Mohamed Adli displayed towards us that he should be regarded as the paragon of hospitality. We felt lonely when he and his companions struck off for Desouq to attend the last night of the mulid.
"Then Kafr Al-Sheikh decided to avenge itself. After we ate, we repaired to a cherished tent where we began to feel those stings that were as harsh as pin pricks. In this annoying manner the mosquitoes had chosen to flirt with us. We laid our defences. We fastened our tent as tightly as we could then scrambled under cover of the blanket leaving not a single part of our bodies exposed. Our defences were futile and we were forced to concede defeat. We left the tent, fleeing from that hell, and lay down on the grass praying for sleep. However, the enemy pursued us relentlessly. We abandoned our efforts and began to patrol the city like sentinels, desperate for a moment's rest. This was how we spent the worst night of our trip."
Day 4 -- Friday, 8 July: "We struck camp when light was barely sufficient to distinguish a black thread from a white. We broke out into the uproarious laughter that only the worst calamity can incite. Our necks had swollen to the size of the weight lifting champions Ibrahim Mustafa and El-Sayed Noseir, except ours were distinguished by the red splotches where our precious blood had oozed out. Such were the most obvious flags of victory the mosquitoes had planted on us.
"After breakfast, we bid farewell to Sergeant Adli and the deputy public prosecutor, who encouraged us to persist in our journey. We left Kafr Al-Sheikh bearing the memory of a horrible night. We looked back to see the spectre of that city's demonic mosquitoes approaching and picked up our pace to escape their evil. We were elated to be walking amidst the gardens of Eden traversed by rivers. This was the rightful fruit of patience. When the sun was at its zenith, we stopped for lunch beneath a bridge. Then, in the shade it provided we succumbed to a restful sleep.
"We woke at 3.30pm, weary and sluggish from lack of sleep. Nevertheless, we had not lost our resolve. It broke our hearts when we saw the young peasant children who gathered around to watch us. They clearly needed care and compassion, so far removed were they from that beautiful notion of 'health'. How distressing it was that these tender shoots should be prey to the ravages of diverse insects, destining them to grow up weak and frail. We drew them to us and patted them on their backs with the tenderness a father would show his son, or an elder brother his siblings. Then we set about swatting away those heartless, insidious insects although as soon as one fly took off another would take its place. But, we were not without resources. Using the water that we poured out of our canteens, we washed their faces as we gave them advice on hygiene and told them fairy tales to drive the point home. We can only urge His Excellency Shahin Pasha, director of public health, to devote his full attention to the graveyard of those living beings and rescue them from their abyss.
"We resumed our trek. We had planned to spend the night at Bilqas, but having got off to a late start we had to stop in Bila. At first we were unable to find a suitable place to camp. However, the local constable, Lieutenant Abdel-Razeq, gave us permission to spend the night in his room in the precinct station. After a dinner of farmers' bread, cottage cheese and watermelon, we repaired to those quarters to sleep. My companion slept on the couch and I took the desk as my bed, the telephone next to my head like an alarm about to go off. It was not long before sleep asserted its authority and we fell into a deep slumber."
Day 5 -- Saturday, 9 July: "The eye of heaven cast its golden rays on the world, lending it a burnished splendour. Feeling only the joy of a dawning day, we emerged from the police station and went over to the canal in front of it to clean our faces and wash away the grime on our hands and feet. Feeling curiously invigorated and more energetic, suddenly our breaths were snatched away and our hearts leaped to the vision of village women greeting one another, their veils pulled down over their faces making them even more enticing. No wonder the water jugs could feel safe, confident as they sat poised securely on the women's heads at a tilt suggestive of a cocky pride.
"We left Bila after having spent the best night so far and not dreaming of another like it. Soon the village disappeared from view, though not without leaving a tender memory in our hearts. We then opened our arms to the fields. For the first time in my life I saw that amazing irrigation machine called a tambour, with its large cylindrical drum that draws out water.
"We decided to rest a while in the Manshiyat Al-Badrawi train station. There, we were greeted by Bushra Gabriel and his brother Habib Nagla, the station inspector. They offered us seats and conversed with us on diverse subjects, in a manner that revealed both their erudition and their excellent upbringing. Soon their father joined us and we took tea. After replenishing our water supply and equipping ourselves with a map of the area, we left.
"Leaving the Manshiyat Al-Badrawi Station behind us, we struck off again through those expansive lands owned by the Badrawis. Along the way, we remarked upon those lofty electricity conducting towers that marked the course towards Sherbin and Al-Mansha.
"People in these parts had not the remotest idea about the scouting movement and had never before seen scouts in their particular uniforms. Some imagined that we were Indians working for the British staking out the deeper countryside. Others deduced from our appearance that a war was in the offing and that we were a detachment sent out to identify suitable camping grounds for soldiers. A third opinion had it that we were from the government's survey and statistics bureau. Such were the diverse and contradictory rumours that had us so intoxicated with laughter that we forgot how tired we were. The department of education did well to found a training camp for teachers working in the provinces -- a positive step towards the dissemination of our principles. If only scouts such as we were permitted to take part in these camps free of charge, since we are students and not yet civil servants.
"Finally, we reached Sherbin, after having traversed the breadth of the Delta from the Rashid branch of the Nile to the Damietta Branch. What a relief, too, to have left behind the horrible mosquitoes. Almost without realising it, we found that the heavy black curtain of night had descended and we wended our way to the police station. Although we received a warm welcome by policemen of every rank, there was one haughty soul whose supreme arrogance had his nose pinned to some point in heaven where he imagined that there was no other creature or god but he. This was the precinct chief, under whose command and every whim Sherbin was placed. May God look over you, Sherbin. The only condolence I can offer is that nothing remains the same. I only hope that some day that vainglorious soul learns that self-perfection begins with an awareness of one's shortcomings, that humility is the first step towards dignity.
"We camped behind the police station in front of the residence of police recruits whose children proved eager and willing aides. We sent them off to buy us some foul, pickled cucumbers and bread, which is all we had for dinner. Just as we finished our meal Helmi Mansour Mohsen, a student at Abbasiya Secondary, arrived in the company of Abdel-Samie Awad, Mohamed Abdel-Wahab El-Sherbini, Ahmed Ayyad and Taha Rashed, all students at Mansoura Secondary. They invited us to Mohsen's home, where we received hospitality generous beyond description.
"We returned to camp at approximately 11.00pm. Our tent resembled a water-soaked rag, so dense was the condensation on it. My companion refused to sleep inside it, so I spent the night in there alone, overcome by the sensation that I was sleeping in a bathtub -- another bad night."
Day 6 -- Sunday, 10 July: "We greeted this day with our customary sense of purpose, in spite of assorted pains and ailments due to that dreadful night we spent in Sherbin. We passed through this city as night was lifting its black veil, sticking to the railway line bound for Damietta. Had you been there, you would have seen me with the same load with which I began the journey: a rucksack containing tent, blanket, galabiya, towel, swimming costume, two sets of underclothes and assorted tools and equipment. Strapped over my shoulder were a canteen and a satchel containing maps, a compass, a first-aid kit and writing instruments; and suspended from my belt were a bowie knife, a hatchet and a cooking kit. In one hand I carried a small kerosene burner and in the other a walking stick. In short, I was carrying a load equivalent in weight to my own body, or slightly less. God knows how I was aching. Nevertheless, my mighty resolve insisted we persist and welcome challenges with open hearts, for otherwise our laws would have no meaning. Here we were presented with a real opportunity to apply the scout's articles of law scientifically and practically.
"As though annoyed at our contentment, nature decided to harass us. The sun, resentful of our success thus far, seemed determined to thwart our progress on the last leg of our journey in the heat of July. But we persisted, determined to reach our destination. Around us stifling houses expelled their inhabitants and people fled the blaze to the canals. The one thing I shall never forget from that ill fated day was that our most cherished commodity, water, had depleted. For agonising hours, our thirst kept us no more than a breath away from madness, as we walked across the arid land without a plant or tree in sight. Our pace grew sluggish, we could only discern the mileage posts with difficulty. Mercifully, we finally reached the Farscore train station where we replenished our water supply. We continued on our way, stopping for a brief rest in the Kafr Al- Batikh train station, after which it was on to Damietta. Although we were extremely exhausted, this did not diminish the jubilation we felt as we crossed Damietta bridge.
"Once in the city, we set up camp in front of the district government building. Once all was ready, I threw myself into the tent, but was unable to sleep because of the aches that coursed through my body. I spent the night watching the stars, with fever toying with my mind."
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.