Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 December 2008
Issue No. 925
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mursi Saad El-Din

Plain talk

By Mursi Saad El-Din

One group of visitors to Egypt of special interest are a mixed packet, as it were: writers, politicians, university professors and school teachers. They came to Egypt immediately before or during the World War II. What gives them this special interest is that I have known them all personally and have participated in their literary activities. They include the names of well known writers such as, Durrell, Fraser, Newby, Waller, Olivia Manning among others.

But before dealing with them, I would like to present a character that has left an indelible marks on Egypt and the Arab world. She was a mixture of writer, traveller, politician and diplomat. Freya Stark is remembered for her war efforts. She formed a movement, if one can call it so, called the Brothers and Sisters of Freedom. The main aim of that movement was to create political sympathy for the Allies. The movement had branches in almost all Arab countries.

Freya Stark travelled intensively in the Arab World, she was another Lady Hester Stanhope, but with a cause. She wrote a number of books, mostly about the Arab world, but the book that stands out is entitled East is West, in opposition to Rudyard Kipling's famous phrast "East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet." With Freya Stark the twain have met.

In her book, Stark describes, in a highly literary style, her experience in a number of Arab countries, but I shall concentrate on Egypt, to which she devotes five chapters of East is West. Reaction in Cairo to Stark's movement of Brothers and Sisters of Freedom was mixed, some looked upon it as some kind of intelligence work, while others really believed in it.

Those who believed in the aims of this movement were mostly intellectuals who were opposed to Nazism. But whatever opinion people might have nurtured about the Sisterhood and Brotherhood, they all had the greatest admiration for Freya's tenacity, charm and enterprise. She had a way of talking to young people that brought her close to them.

Freya Stark believed that the young middle class professional are the main agent of change. her analysis of the new emerging Egyptian society deserves mention. She believed that there were young men stepping out who, though they may look westwards for inspiration, have their feet firmly planted on the peasant soil from which they came. It is the task of the future, she believed, to reach some kind of amalgamation and not separation. This was the task of the young Egyptians belonging to the middle class, she said. "It would be well if the relationship, built upon an identity and not on conflict were better understood by both the Pashas and the British. The professional young man is a new arrival and it has taken both the Englishman and the Pashas some time to understand that he is here at all," Stark wrote.

She added "I like the young effendis of Egypt, and I met them at a time when the British cause and that of democracy in general appeared to be at the very nadir of their fortune." Their wish was simple, she says, "they believed in the principles of democracy and were anxious to help defeat the Axis." At such a time, she writes "it [was] the forces of tradition, the gradual evolution from one generation to the next that help the young traveller pushing in his untried boat from shore; they give him, as it were, a coastline with anchorages ever in sight. But the youth of the Middle East, brought up in a Western way, has no such coastline: he steers into open sea; and the passion of devotion with which he looks back to the days of guidance, to teachers in school or college, can best be realised when the loneliness of his further journey is borne in mind. We find this hard to understand; for British traditions are deep, flex and strong and their help carry most Englishmen from youth to age."

Stark then dedicates a whole chapter to students in Al-Azhar. She gives a wonderful description of Al-Azhar, the stronghold of tradition: "The Azhar is no longer a purely medieval institution, as it once was, she says. It now allows a young Egyptian to take modern exams, and yet it still remains the citadel of old-fashioned thought, and in its cool wide courts where the stones are rubbed and polished by many hundred years, under the pillars of the portico, the white turbaned learned still talk to their pupils, gathered in groups around them on the ground," Stark wrote after she was invited to meet the teachers of Al-Azhar to discuss and answer their questions.

Her chapter on "Prime Ministers" is a masterpiece of political understanding. She writes about the three prime ministers who ruled the country from 1940 -- Aly Maher, Hassan Sabry and Mustafa El-Nahhas. She starts the chapter with a general statement that "Egypt shares with the United States the advantages and disadvantages of not possessing a governing class." In this chapter, she gives detailed and in-depth description of the three politicians whom she knew well.

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