Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (557)
An ax and a pen
In 1935, Al-Ahram celebrated the establishment of an association aimed at developing the Egyptian countryside mainly by focussing on education. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk follows the aims and agenda of the society as they were announced on the pages of the newspaper
In the summer of 1935 Al-Ahram ventured into a domain that had until then been the preserve of a handful of foreign tourist agencies, the most famous at that time being Thomas Cook. For on 3 June the venerable newspaper, in a full page spread on page five, inaugurated its promotional campaign for "Al-Ahram tours to magical, beautiful and exotic lands". The newspaper was plugging a tour, one stage of which would include Budapest, "the capital of the Kingdom of Hungary and the Bride of the Danube."
The following day, the newspaper's new "tourist department" featured another advertisement -- for the Al-Ahram-sponsored tour of several Eastern European countries. Evidently, Egyptian holidaymakers -- or at least those who could afford it -- were striking out to new destinations abroad. Instead of the usual Western European resorts or the Levant, there seemed to be a growing interest in new vistas. And Al-Ahram was offering them the opportunity.
According to the advertisement, the tour was scheduled to depart from Alexandria at 4pm, on 10 July, on the SS Khedive Ismail. It would last precisely a month, returning to the port on 10 August. In a subsequent edition, the newspaper featured a map with a line tracing the excursion route. From Alexandria, sightseers would head first to Athens, then to Naples, Rome and Venice; then northeastwards to Vienna; then southeastwards along the Danube to Budapest, and from there to Bucharest and Istanbul. From the former Ottoman capital, they would then return to Greece and from there head to Beirut, Haifa and then back to Alexandria. Adjacent to the map were several pictures of the Romanian capital, and several editions later another set of pictures of Istanbul and the Bosporus.
Al-Ahram 's tourist venture sparked some criticism among those who believed that the newspaper should be promoting tourism to Egypt and not the reverse. Others were of the opinion that as long as Egyptians travelled abroad, they should act as emissaries for Egyptian culture. Of this opinion was one reader, Said Mohamed Osman who, beneath the headline "Al-Ahram tour and Egyptian patriotism" wrote: "In our trips abroad, why should we not display, to the best of our ability, aspects of our Egyptian national culture, if only by the distinctive red of our tarboush ? In so doing we will compel other peoples to respect this beautiful emblem as they have compelled us to respect their bowlers or berets. Then, Egyptians will be easily and immediately recognisable." Also in Osman's opinion the Al-Ahram tour was particularly suited for promoting respect for Egypt abroad, "because this tour is being organised by a major Egyptian daily newspaper dedicated to Egypt's sovereignty and national dignity, and because the tour will include many Egyptians who are eminently suited to the construction of that beautiful national image for our country in foreign Western nations".
Later, beneath the headline, "Information and clarifications", Al-Ahram announced that the cost of the Eastern European excursion would be LE35.97. This covered third-class ship travel from Alexandria to Naples, second-class overland rail passage, and first-class passage on the river boat down the Danube from Vienna to Budapest and Bucharest. On the ship there would be a separate cabin for women, "because third class cabins on that ship sleep four and it will be impossible, given this situation, to allocate rooms to families of less than four people." Nevertheless, in the hotels, families would be accorded separate rooms. As for parents who intended to bring their children, the newspaper alerted them to the fact that children aged 12 and a half and older would be charged full adult rates on transport and hotel accommodation.
The article then proceeded to a number of details. Participants would be responsible for their own transportation and its costs from their points of origin in Egypt to the ship in Alexandria. They would also be responsible for customs duties -- a piastre for every piece of luggage, the quarantine clearance fee upon departure, the transportation costs for optional side excursions, and the costs for beverages, cigarettes, laundry and bathing. The tour organisers advised participants to bring LE15 for personal expenses, assuring readers that this sum would be more than sufficient to cover their needs, but that they may also wish to purchase items or spend an evening at a theatre or cinema. The final piece of advice to passengers was not to overburden themselves with too much luggage given the many stop-overs. Baggage should not exceed 20 kilos per person, and "for the sake of precaution each passenger should bring with him one winter suit and one or two spring suits".
Al-Ahram dedicated the front page of its 11 July edition to the launching of the tour. Two large pictures displayed the passengers on board the SS Khedive Ismail. There were 121 passengers, "including men, women and minors", each of whom sported an Al-Ahram badge on their chests, "by virtue of which emblem they will be able to recognise and become acquainted with one another". The newspaper continued, "all were in the highest spirits, especially after having passed with such ease through the port zone, which taxes so many other travellers with its many obstacles and red tape. The weather was glorious and the sea sparkling and calm. The ship set sail at 4pm, bound for Naples." As was customary at that time departing passengers waved their handkerchiefs at friends and well-wishers still on land. Yet, despite their holiday joy, as the ship moved away from the shore, "passengers were overcome by the melancholy feeling that they were leaving their souls and hearts amongst their people on the shore of the nation and as they departed to the distant shores of unfamiliar peoples."
The writer of the foregoing was Al-Ahram 's special correspondent on board, who would be supplying readers with daily updates on the cruise.
Because the tour was so large, the people on board felt as though the entire ship was a floating piece of Egypt. As the correspondent put it, "Egypt seems to have moved with this boat. The beloved Egyptian flag casts its shade over us, Arabic is the language of conversation and all we lack in the mornings is to open the pages of our daily Al-Ahram."
If this helped alleviate any incipient homesickness, it did not relieve most of the passengers from the effects of the mischievous toying of the sea with their boat. Fortunately, the seasickness did not last long and passengers were soon in an appropriate frame of mind to appreciate the view of Crete. Although this Mediterranean island had at one point fallen under Egyptian rule, it was not so much this that drew the attention of the Al-Ahram correspondent as the fact that the island was the birthplace of the famous Greek statesman Vitrilos. "Originally a Turkish subject, this man fought and struggled until he finally succeeded in elevating the status of his nation and throwing off its Turkish yoke. Then he continued his struggle for the sake of his nation, at times succeeding and at others not."
From Crete the cruise proceeded through the straits of Corinth and from there to Naples. As this would take them around the toe of Italy, they were in for a lengthy spell on the open sea, which offered the perfect opportunity for passengers to get to know one another better. In fact, activities had been arranged specifically for this purpose. For example, the passengers would assemble in a large circle on deck and take turns addressing the group. The Al- Ahram correspondent was particularly impressed by the speech of "the refined and erudite Fatma Fahmi, inspector for the Ministry of Education", who said, "how I marvelled at those foreigners who came to our country from the most distant corners of the earth to see our monuments and antiquities. Yet, my admiration was tinged with a slight melancholy because we in Egypt did not have that great and beneficial tradition of tourism. The memory of that sentiment returned to me today, as I roamed the streets of Piraeus with the other members of this tour, and in my heart I thanked the organisers of this blessed step forward."
Eventually the ship passed through the Straits of Messina. The correspondent describes how awestruck the passengers were as they beheld the soaring cliffs on either side. "On one side there was the city of Messina and immediately across it was the port of Reggio, both cities nestled into the mountains behind them. Electric lamps twinkled on both sides of the passage for a distance of no less than 15 miles. The lights up in the folds of the mountains shone like clusters of sparkling grapes -- a splendid spectacle that moved us all."
The arrival of the ship in Naples marked the end of the sea journey. The landing proceeded normally, with the exception of a slight contretemps with one of the Italian customs inspectors. Apparently, he was on the lookout for Egyptian cigarettes, and whenever he came across a pack in his search of the passengers' luggage he would command the equivalent of an 11-piastre duty, which was far more than the actual value of the packs. Most of the cigarette smoking passengers chose simply to abandon their cigarettes, leaving the customs inspector with a valuable store which undoubtedly made him very popular among his friends and colleagues.
The tour did not remain long in that ill-reputed southern Italian port, for from there they boarded the train to Rome -- the city of awe and inspiration. A single glance at the city, wrote the Al- Ahram correspondent, "is sufficient to tell you that the secret of the greatness of Rome lies in the immortal monuments that are buried beneath its surface or still visible above ground. Dating back to more than 3,000 years, these vestiges testify to the tragedies, cruelties and adversities it suffered and to the glory, power and splendour it attained. Rome has tasted various forms of calamity and hardship at the hands of Nero and others, both before and after the birth of Christ. But, this same Rome has savoured victory and conquest and obtained what only a little glory and power can bring."
Rome was also the city of monuments of artistic genius. There, in St Paul's was Michelangelo's Moses. The Italian sculptor "spent a full eight years selecting the piece of marble for this sculpture, which he executed from a single piece with consummate skill and artistry. The perfection he achieved has confounded peoples' minds. From the features of the face, to the muscles of the body and the veins in the hands, every portion of the statue tells of the rare genius the artist brought to his work. It is said that when Michelangelo completed this work he was so taken aback by its verisimilitude that he tapped it with his hammer and said, 'Will you not speak?'"
Then, of course, there was the Sistine Chapel, "a vast chamber whose walls and ceilings are decorated with paintings by Michelangelo depicting stories from both the Old and the New testaments. Michelangelo dedicated his life to this project, totally cutting himself off from other people and continuing his work suspended on his back until he fell ill. However, he completed it, producing an epitome of art and creativity. Since 1780, the cardinals have met in this chapel whenever a pope dies."
The members of the Egyptian tour group were dumfounded upon seeing the many Egyptian antiquities scattered around the Italian capital. There were Egyptian obelisks in many of the main squares, such as the Vatican Square in front of St Peters and the square in front of the Pantheon. One of the members of the tour remarked that as happy as he was that these obelisks were there as a permanent and powerful reminder to the people of Rome and their visitors of the glory of the ancestors of the Egyptian people, that happiness was tinged with regret over the smuggling of beautiful and priceless Egyptian arts and antiquities abroad.
But, some of the Egyptian arts in Rome had been presented as gifts by Egyptian rulers. During the visit to the Mint, the members of the tour were informed that the eight granite columns there had been presented by King Fouad. Not that this was surprising, given that Fouad had spent much of his youth in Italy where he developed close relations with the royal family. The king had also donated the marble windows used in the renovation of St Peters.
The Italian portion of the Al-Ahram cruise could not end without a stop in Venice, where they spent two days. The Al-Ahram correspondent took the opportunity to remind readers that this was the only city in the world without cars, motorcycles or bicycles. "It is the only city whose streets are canals and in which transportation is by boat. In front of almost every house you see what they call a 'garage' for these boats or gondolas, consisting of a few mooring posts, most of which are gilded and have emblems of saints and angels fluttering on top of them."
The tour of the famous canal city naturally began at St Marks, headquarters of the presidency of the republic and the consultative council. "The guides furnished us with extensive explanations, after which we viewed the great church which contains artistic and historical monuments that can rarely be found elsewhere... St Marks Square is also famous for its many tame pigeons. When you walk through the square they flutter around you calmly, and they often may alight on your head or your hand if they find you friendly or detect a kernel of corn in your hand."
However, an incident occurred that somewhat soured the Al- Ahram correspondent's euphoria. While he was having a coffee in a seaside café, he absentmindedly tossed away the cigarette he had been smoking. Suddenly, three urchins rushed up to grab the butt. "Good Lord! That's just like in Egypt!" he exclaimed to himself. It was unfortunate that this would be the last image of Italy that the correspondent would take with him as, the following day, he and his fellow cruise members sped their way by train to Austria. That is how he described this small leg of the journey: "After some five hours of winding through rifts and valleys, over rivers and through tunnel after tunnel, we arrived at the Italian-Austrian border. Finally, the caterers distributed lunch to the passengers. The meal was served in cardboard boxes -- one per passenger -- and these contained a bowl filled with hot macaroni, a plate containing a slice of chicken, an envelop containing a slice of mortadella and a piece of delicious cheese, a bottle of wine, a clean glass, a fork, a paper napkin and a toothpick. The meal was excellent and the passengers were greatly satisfied."
What most impressed the correspondent in Vienna was the natural beauty surrounding the Austrian capital. The Wienerwald was "a dense, luxuriant forest extending some 40 kilometres in length and width and through which flows an automobile road as gracefully as rivulets flow through the paradisiacal gardens we read of in myths and legends. Everywhere you turn you are enveloped by a seemingly endless procession of towering trees until finally you reach a large open clearing upon which was built the city of Baden. Famous for its mineral springs, this famous spa city draws thousands of people from all parts of the world for medicinal treatment and convalescence."
The tour organisers had arranged a special treat that would enable spectators to behold the natural surroundings from a more advantageous vantage-point. But, the ride up a suspended cable car train, or telefirique, which had only recently been invented, alarmed most of the tour members. The correspondent relates that when they were about to embark on that precarious looking mode of transport up the mountain, a wave of hesitation and foreboding moved through the crowd. "Some attempted to show a brave face, but their mouths trembled, others feigned indifference, whereas yet others assumed a hearty joviality and commenced a playful banter that inspired confidence in the rest... Then, in a matter of minutes we found ourselves suspended between heaven and earth, hovering over a deep valley... What surprised me most was that the women evinced more courage and daring than the men."
It was now time to move on to the "magical" and "exotic" lands the tour organisers had advertised. As their boat coursed down the Danube, the Egyptian tourists felt as though they were entering a strange and primitive world, as was evidenced in the Al-Ahram correspondent's exclamations of surprise whenever they came across signs of civilisation as advanced as that they had just left behind in western Europe.
He had not expected, for example, to encounter a Russian emigré woman of such erudition and refined temperament. He was also struck by how easy it was for people to make one another's acquaintance on board the boat. But then, Westerners had a different perspective on life and society, "which explains why you can see them dancing with one another without awkwardness and discomfort". "Undoubtedly, education and proper upbringing have a hand in this," he adds.
In Budapest, the tour took in the new parliament building -- next to which the Egyptian parliament paled in elegance, in the correspondent's opinion -- and the royal palace where "we were conducted through every room and received instruction on the history of the various kings and emperors of Hungary." After these sights, they were taken to the Fishermen's Fortress, "which is a large fortification constructed on a beautiful location overlooking the Danube". Another highlight in the Hungarian capital were the mineral baths. The Hungarians had perfected the art of bath technology and comfort, having constructed luxurious pools equipped with machines that create artificial waves, "just like the waves of the sea".
Egyptians were greatly impressed by how assiduously the Hungarians preserved their history. Statues of their kings and national heroes could be seen in every main city square and street and the explanatory plaques "were most informative and inspired their readers to emulate this phenomenon". The correspondent continues, "the statues and their plaques inform the present of the greatness that was Hungary's past and as pertains to the future they will inculcate in forthcoming generations a love for their nation and a desire to re-capture its former glory."
From Hungary the tour proceeded down the Danube again to Romania. At this stage something of the Egyptians' former awe and amazement faded. Along the riverbanks, Romanian villagers could be seen bathing and washing their clothes or dishes. Also, "as I write these lines, I see before me a cart carrying a water barrel, just like those carts driven by the water carriers in Egypt. The only difference is that while our water carts are drawn by donkeys, and generally scrawny ones at that, these are drawn by a pair of hefty oxen."
The cruise members were equally disappointed by Bulgaria, where again they encountered little new and awe-inspiring. "Nevertheless, we found fruit more plentiful in this country than we had in the previous countries and the passengers rushed to purchase as much as they could even if it was still unripe."
Although Istanbul was not the last stop on the cruise, it was the city in which the Al-Ahram correspondent ended his account. Nor did he dwell for long on this former capital of the Ottoman Empire, undoubtedly because he was aware that most of his readers would be familiar with its history and culture, if not the physical features of the city itself. The same, of course, would have applied to the final leg of the journey to Beirut and Haifa. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the Al-Ahram tourists had enjoyed their cruise. Indeed, some of them even sang praises to its organisers in letters and poetry expressing their gratitude for a tour that was "more marvelous than a dream".