Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
30 Dec. 1999 - 5 Jan. 2000
Issue No. 462
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues
20th century Special issue  [INDEX]

A betrayal of history

As this century comes to a close, Fayza Hassan pores over travelogues, diaries, memoirs and journals, unravelling the threads that have led so many tourists and travellers, diplomats and anthropologists to Egypt in the past hundred years


Foreign travellers and traders came to Egypt for centuries, their journals and accounts enticing other adventurers to follow in their footsteps. For those in search of fame and fortune, however, the country was considered too unpredictable and less promising than India; it is not before the 19th century, therefore, and especially after the establishment of the overland route in the 1850s, that tourists began to flock to Egypt. The success of the Sudan campaign, bringing more security and prosperity to the country, attracted yet more visitors. An assortment of chronicles provides a rare understanding of their reactions as they became acquainted with sights and lifestyles alien to their culture.

At the dawn of the 20th century, Egypt's reputation for exoticism had waned considerably. The British had occupied the country, after all; and Khedive Ismail's attempts to turn Cairo into a Paris on the Nile had replaced its Thousand and one Nights glamour with a more cosmopolitan veneer. French was spoken by the aristocracy; the Grands Magasins provided their clientele with the latest Paris fashions; well-established restaurants advertised "continental" food, and it was often said that one ate far better at a Greek taverna in Egypt than in Greece. Men's tailors were Italian or Armenian, ladies' couturières French, barmen and salesgirls well-groomed and multi-lingual. Cabarets no longer offered belly dancers and local talents as their main features, but prided themselves on the international quality of their attractions. Meanwhile, the Egyptian elite, consisting mainly of resident expatriates, the Turkish aristocracy and a few Westernised Egyptians patronised exclusive balls at the grand hotels and chic casinos, where they displayed their proficiency at performing the latest dance steps to the strains of vigorously promoted South American bands.

A large number of foreigners who came to Egypt in search of illicit thrills found them in Cairo's European quarter, which then chief of police Sir Thomas Russel Pasha had dubbed the Red-Blind district. Many of the more refined, unauthorised, but tolerated brothels were situated in Wagh Al-Birka, north of the famous Al-Azbakiya Gardens and were run and worked by European women whose business was protected by the Capitulations. The brothel district, situated roughly between Al-Azbakiya and Central Station, was for a while as much part of the "Cairo tour" as the Egyptian Museum and the Giza Pyramids.

Clubs

Apart from the Gezira Sporting Club, which occupied several feddans on the island of Zamalek, catering to foreign diplomats, British officers and their families, the centre of town was dotted with men's clubs of an eminently British character. The Egyptian equivalent of these bastions of colonial arrogance were the Tewfikiya Tennis Club and the Mohamed Ali, until selected members of the influential Egyptian gentry, practically forced the doors of the Gezira right after the end of World War II.

The Turf Club at 12 Al-Maghrabi Street, was reserved to high-ranking foreign government officials who ruled over the ministries. Lord Edward Cecil, posted to Cairo at the turn of the century (where he served for 18 years), was among its most noted habitués. On his way to one social function or the other, he would regularly spend a few minutes "at the club", often regaling a carefully selected audience with vivid descriptions of his work day, later duly consigning his bons mots to his diary: "We have a mania in this country for committees, and we have them of all sorts and kinds... The members are usually of different nationalities, and business is conducted either in the tongue each one knows best, or in what we call French. Our French is a most remarkable language, except perhaps pidgin English... It should be spoken with a strong accent of your own to show your independence, and is a literal, or as literal as one can manage, translation into French of the words of your own language in the order they usually occur. If you don't know the French for any word, you can either say it in your own tongue rather loud (to help the benighted foreigner to understand), or you can use any French word of a somewhat similar sound, if not meaning; or again, you can simply gallicise the word itself by giving it what is here believed to be a French pronunciation, thus enriching that restricted language with a new word."

Nile travel

Deep in the heart of Cairo, however, French in any form was seldom spoken. Camels and small overburdened donkeys jostled for space with the first motor vehicles, and the alleys were plied as persistently by the garagoz (puppet show) and the 'erqsous (liquorice juice) seller for the greatest enjoyment of the swarms of children who followed them everywhere; the bazaars reeked as they always had of musk, spices, urine, fried ta'miya, rotting vegetables, grilled lamb and rose-petal preserves. This Cairo was the city foreigners came to see; this was the city visitors could not possibly find at home. Like it, the journey up the Nile to Luxor and Aswan guaranteed the essential dépaysement, and throughout the century, it remained as bewitching and as popular with travellers as ever it had been.

Cromer who?

During a tour of Upper Egypt, Lord Cromer, the British agent and effectual ruler of Egypt, was accompanied by John Mason Cook, son of the famous Thomas Cook. "When they reached Luxor," recounts Eric Sattin (quoting a story which had appeared at the time in the Daily Mail) "the two Englishmen paid a visit to an old sheikh who lived at the edge of the town. The old man had obviously been rather protected from his country's recent history for he had no idea that the British Army was in occupation and had been for several years. This amazed Lord Cromer, widely known as 'the Lord', who asked the sheikh, 'Haven't you ever heard of me?' The sheikh, it appeared, had not. So then Cromer asked him a second question and pointing at his escort asked, 'Have you ever heard of Mr Cook?' 'Oh yes,' the sheikh replied. 'Cook Pasha --everybody knows Cook Pasha.' Which explains why in 1889 already, Vanity Fair was able to assert that 'The chief personage in Cairo is Mr Cook'."

King Cook

On the dawn of the 21st century, writer and journalist Robert D Kaplan remarked on one of his visits to Egypt that "[i]n an age of mass tourism, adventure becomes increasingly an inner matter, where reading can transport you to places that others only a few feet away will never see."

When Cook came to Egypt with his first batch of tourists at the time of the opening of the Suez Canal, Amelia Edwards, heading the group of habitués known as the aristocracy of the Nile, who used to spend the winter on the river in privately rented dahabiyas, looked quite disapprovingly upon his enterprise. Not only was he disturbing their peace with his rowdy passengers, he was promoting what they considered a cheap and vulgar way of travelling.

Not everyone agreed, however: English traveller and writer Douglas Sladen, who took one of Cook's Egyptian excursions in 1908, wrote that he "had never enjoyed anything more than [his] voyage up the Nile in Cook's tourist steamer." This new type of vessel, despised by the purists, was Sladen's hotel for three weeks, and room and board cost him only LE50. A more exclusive and expensive proposition would have been to take one of Cook's six steam dahabiyas, much smaller than the steamer and costing LE100 per person for a month, while a cheaper option involved catching from Cairo one of Cook's express steamers, which ran twice a week at the height of the season and on which a first-class return ticket to Aswan for a 19-day tour, including four nights in the Luxor Hotel and three at the Grand in Aswan, only cost LE25.

At the turn of the century, Cook predicted that Aswan would become one of the most important winter resorts of the world. Actually, the Grand Hotel was already proving inadequate during the busy months: "We have therefore arranged for the erection of a large new establishment to be called the Cataract Hotel," he announced in the Excursionist magazine on 2 September 1899. The hotel was built on a promontory a little outside town, just opposite the southern tip of Elephantine Island. "An English architect residing in Aswan designed a three-storey building with two symmetrical wings, an uncomplicated structure painted in red-brown, with window openings and the establishment name highlighted in white." Inside, the hotel was fitted to the highest standards: "filtered water on tap, electricity throughout and an English housekeeper who rushed across the polished wooden floors... There was also an English doctor on call and a clergyman came to hold regular Anglican services," wrote Sattin.

A new hotel and more steamers to accommodate the multitudes, however, did not improve the quality of the visitors. Sladen, for one, did not think much of his companions and complained that "the idle and the unintelligent lounge about all day long when they are not making excursions (which they like for the donkey rides), reading novels, or dozing, or playing bridge. Their day begins with afternoon tea, at which you have half Huntley and Palmer's productions [Cook believed in serving his clients food from home, for psychological comfort] instead of bread and butter. Special friends make-up tea parties, and the beautiful Arab servants, in white robes, and bright red tarbooshes, sashes and slippers, glide about, filling up their tea-cups as fast as they are emptied and bringing fresh varieties of Huntley and Palmer to compel people to over-eat themselves. This goes playfully on until somebody discovers that sunset is beginning."


Popular café in Cairo by Walter Tyndale, 1912; below, water sellers

Lunching with Osiris

Meals played an important part in the enjoyment of a tour of Egypt. This is what William Jarvie, a British dentist living in New York (whose letters from the Middle East to his wife and daughter were collected and printed for family members, with a copy sent to Thomas Cook), had to say about his visit to the temple of Abydos in 1904: "After visiting the second temple we went back to Abydos and in the Hypostyle Hall found our dragoman had arranged a most sumptuous repast, which he had brought from the Sesostris [the steamer, moored eight and a half miles away]. He had one of our tablecloths spread upon a table, around which were our chairs. The first course was sardines, olives, bread and butter; second, eggs; third, cold tongue and ham; fourth chicken and salad; fifth pudding; sixth oranges, bananas, dates and figs; seventh coffee. With this were various condiments, such as Cross and Blackwell's mustard pickles, chutney, etc., wine for Mrs. Thayer and myself, Poland water and Vichy Celeste for James and Maggie. A fine spread, was it not?"

Such lack of sensitivity did not suit many a lonely traveller bewitched by the mysterious magic of an antique land. French writer Pierre Loti was among those: "But what is the noise in this sanctuary?", he wrote on a excursion to the temple of Osiris in 1910. "It seems to be full of people. There, sure enough, beyond the second row of columns, is quite a little crowd talking loudly in English. I fancy that I can hear the clinking of glasses and the tapping of knives and forks.

"Oh! poor, poor temple, to what strange uses you are come... This excess of grotesqueness in profanation is more insulting surely than to be sacked by barbarians! Behold the table set for some thirty guests, and the guests themselves --of both sexes --merry and lighthearted, belong to that special type of humanity which patronises Thomas Cook & Son (Egypt Ltd.). They wear cork helmets, and the classic green spectacles; drink whiskey and soda, and eat voraciously sandwiches and other viands out of greasy paper, which now litter the floor. And the women! Heaven! What scarecrows they are! And this kind of thing, so the black-robed guards inform us, is repeated every day so long as the season lasts. A luncheon in the temple of Osiris is part of the programme of pleasure trips. Each day at noon a new band arrives, on heedless and unfortunate donkeys. Let us escape before the sight shall have become graven on our memory... The ugliness associated with the name of Cook was once explained to me in this wise, and the explanation at first sight seemed satisfactory: 'The United Kingdom, justifiably jealous of the beauty of its daughters, submits them to a jury when they reach the age of puberty; and those that are classed as too ugly to reproduce their kind are accorded an unlimited account at Thomas Cook & Sons and thus vowed to a course of perpetual travel which leaves them no time to think of certain trifles incidental to life.' The explanation as I say, seduced me for the time being. But a more attentive examination of the bands that infest the valley of the Nile enables me to aver that all these good English ladies are of an age notoriously canonical: and the catastrophe of procreation, therefore, supposing that such an accident could ever have happened to them, must date back to a time long anterior to their enrolment."

Mohamed the Great

Mohamed, the doyen of Cook's dragomen, was in charge of the excursions. His reputation had reached England and it was clear that his presence was an essential feature of a successful tour. "He was a dragoman in the great tradition," wrote Sattin, "well-informed and witty, with an extensive repertoire of anecdotes about the past, about dans le temps when people travelled in a different style." Mohamed also had "an extensive and elaborate wardrobe on board, had impeccable manners and real authority over souvenir hawkers and donkey-boys."

Rest and recreation

G W Steevens, a journalist and war correspondent, who boated on Cook's tourist steamer Ramses the Great with Mohamed, noted that "the keynote of the Nile life is peace; it is an existence placid, regular, reposeful. There is just enough variety to keep your mind awake, and just enough sameness to keep it off the stretch. There is just enough excursioning ashore to persuade you that you are not lazy, and just enough lazing aboard to assure you that you are enjoying the rest... A vision of half barbarous life passes before your eyes all day, and you survey it in the intervals of French cooking..."

Regardless of Mohamed's skills, and the home comforts offered by Cook, the steamers spoiled the Nile, according to the old guard, and were "as incongruous a craft as a gondola turned into a steam launch, and utterly opposed to the traditions of Nile travel," in the words of Eustace Reynolds-Ball, on a visit at the time when Cook's vessels had the free run of the Nile. The distinguished gentleman took solace, however, when he read in his guide book, Cairo of To-day, that "this incongruous and insistent note of modernity is fleeting enough." One wonders if Reynolds-Ball eventually came to the conclusion that the author had failed to read the signs correctly as, a few years later, the 1929 edition of Baedeker's Egypt and the Sudan: Handbook for Travellers highly recommended not only the Nile steamers, which by then literally crowded the river, but also complete tours through the country by railway for travellers in a hurry, suggesting that stop-overs in towns which had less than adequate tourist facilities were suitable only for "somewhat experienced travellers". The world was speeding up. It took only hours rather than days to reach Luxor in the Egyptian White Train, sleeping in the Wagon-Lits compartment. As for Cook's second generation of steamers, which began plying the Nile in 1921, when services were resumed after the first World War, they were now equipped with 80 or more berths. Cook had expanded his horizons, launching a special Cape Town-to-Cairo tour by train and boat. For those who were even more pressed for time, "Imperial Airways had just started their Anglo-Indian service with stop-overs in Alexandria and Cairo. Soon after, it was possible to fly to Luxor and Khartoum. The age of packaged tourism had begun, and its ringmaster had been careful to set the tone for things to come: Cook's Handbook for 1906 advised his distinguished clientèle that they were travelling through a country whose people were hardly deserving of consideration. As he put it then: 'One of the greatest enjoyment of the modern Egyptian is to do nothing, especially if he has sufficient means to provide himself with coffee, and with some narcotic in the form of tobacco, opium, hashish'..."


Left: views of Cairo; right: Al-Muizz Lidin Allah Street

Baedeker's reign

As Egypt was preparing to receive yet more visitors, the dichotomy of "us" (the tourists) against "them" (the natives) continued to develop. Travellers, now organised more formally under the aegis of Cook and his ilk, often felt entitled to act as they pleased, while their hosts, resentful of the lack of regard and wounded in their national pride, consoled themselves with prospects of financial gain. Baedeker included useful guidelines for "intercourse with Orientals" in his Egypt 1929 edition: "The average Oriental regards the European traveller as a Croesus, therefore as fair game, and therefore feels justified in pressing upon him with a perpetual demand for bakshish, which simply means a gift. The number of beggars is enormous, but bakshish should never be given either to adults or children, except for services rendered or to the aged and crippled; and the government appeals to the tourist by public placards not to encourage the habit of begging. A beggar may be generally silenced by the words 'Al Allah or Allah yihannin 'aleik (God have mercy on thee) or Allah ya'tik (may God give thee). The best reply for more importunate cases is mafish (I have nothing for you) or mafish bakshish (there is no gift) which will generally have the effect of dispersing the assailants.

"It is of course inevitable that cabmen, guides, donkey-boys and the like, should expect a gratuity in addition to the stipulated fee for their services, and the traveller should therefore take care to be amply supplied with small change at all times, and especially with pieces of half a piastre. Payment should never be made until the service stipulated for has been rendered, after which an absolute deaf ear should be turned to the protestations and entreaties which almost invariably follow... if the attacks that ensue are not silenced by an air of calm indifference the traveller may use the word ruh or imshi (be off) or uskt (be quiet) in a quiet but decided and imperative tone. At the same time it must be admitted that the increasing number of visitors to Egypt tends to raise the prices during the height of the season, so that a larger bakshish than is mentioned in the handbook may be sometimes necessary.

"While much caution and firmness are desirable in dealing with the people, it need hardly be added that the traveller should avoid being too exacting or suspicious."

They came to stay

If travellers were often patronising, insensitive or indifferent, they had the advantage of being transient. On the other hand, the resident expatriates who invaded Egypt in 1882 and stayed on were not endowed with the same saving grace and their judgmental attitude did little to endear them to the average Egyptian. Consider Major Claude Scudamore Jarvis, who, having joined the Egyptian Government Service in 1918, became governor of the Sinai Peninsula from 1923 to 1936; in the lonely hours he had to spend in this out-of-the-way post, he amused himself by writing travel books. The following is a sample of his prose, from Oriental Spotlight, published in 1937, soon after his death: "Alexandria is a city on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt that all Government officials find necessary to visit on inspection during the summer heat when Cairo is becoming unpleasantly close and stuffy. Every self-respecting Department in the service maintains some sort of excuse for inspection --a workshop, stores, or even a resthouse, and these are assiduously inspected by everybody during the summer months and left entirely on their own device for the rest of the year. The bathing in Alexandria is supposed to be excellent, but of late years the sea has become heavily impregnated with Jokey Club-scented brilliantine, and there is a definite film of hair oil, sunburn lotion and face powder on the surface of the waves that extends to the three-mile limit and slightly beyond."

Nungovitch and Aida

Not all foreigners displayed similar repugnance, however. George Nungovitch thanked his good stars for having led him toward this land of opportunity. He had started his amazing career as a porter at Cairo Station, accumulating enough capital as canteen caterer for the British troops during the Sudan campaign to buy the lease of the Hotel d'Angleterre. He then acquired the lease of Prince Djemil Tussun's palace, transforming the royal residence into the Savoy Hotel. Shortly after, he took over the Mena House. He founded the Nungovitch Hotel Company and succeeded in keeping his various establishments fully booked at all times.

Egypt was by now a favourite winter resort, offering entertainment of the highest quality. The Cairo Opera House saisons were in full swing from October to May, and Aida, which Verdi had failed to produce in time for the opening of the Suez Canal, had become one of the highlights of the season. "Great trouble was taken to see that the settings should be as authentic as possible. Real statues were brought from the Museum of Antiquities. Jewels, ornaments and costumes were copied from originals. One set was a miniature of Karnak's Hall of Columns," wrote Nina Nelson in her book on the Mena House.

Not content to produce Verdi's Egyptian masterpiece in its intended place of birth, the Cairo Opera House, it was decided to give Aida an even more dramatic setting --at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Giza. "There was to be a day and night performance. Prince Fouad gave his patronage and it was to be given with, and for the benefit of, the Nungovitch Hotel Company. All Mena Village seemed to be taking part because scores of mounted extras were needed," noted Nelson. The Opera Company was Italian. Auguste Wild, the manager of the Mena House (and formerly manager of the famous Baur au Lac in Zurich) described the performance: "The atmosphere of antiquity that envelops the Pyramids afforded a magical setting for the stage, of which the Great Pyramid formed the gigantic background. Nothing had been added to divert attention from the grandeur of the surroundings. A tended dais for the Pharaoh's throne at one side and a huge statue of Isis at the other were the only stage accessories; scenery of the ordinary kind would have been out of place and superfluous. The figures of the singers appeared remote and shadowy in the immensity of the mise en scene; but the acoustics were surprisingly good; the voices of the singers were heard with great distinctness, while the sense of space and distance merged reality in the enchantment of a dream. The most stirring sight came when the Bedouin and their camels, and hundreds of picturesque Arab horsemen, swarmed over the hills behind which they had lain hidden and galloped on the scene, where choruses of soldiers, priests and priestesses, fan-bearers and innumerable other attendants upon the Pharaoh and the Princess were assembled. The sun-god Ra, passing towards the west, cast his warm glow upon them all. The second part of the performance took place in the light of the full moon, when the wild advance of the camel men, brandishing flaming torches, made a weird effect. The strains of the Grand March were never heard to finer advantage than among those five-thousand-year-old monuments to Egypt's former greatness." The performance was depicted in great detail in the New York Herald under the headline "Aida performed at the foot of the Great Pyramid attracts huge crowds from all over Egypt."

Dancing the war away


Above: Tanta, entrance of Sidi Ahmed El-Badawi Mosque (Palm Press); below: the old Shepheard's Hotel which burned down in 1952 (Lenhert and Landrock)

1913-1914 was an excellent tourist season, and the Nungovitch hotels were completely booked up. "Cairene society was so busy having a good time that when war came," recounted Nelson, "no one could believe it. Martial law was declared in Egypt --but with a velvet glove. The hotels were still full but the clientèle had changed. Tweed suits were replaced by khaki. The Savoy was used for army headquarters. Mena House was told to hold itself ready for an influx of Australians. An English contractor, Alfred Warner, was awarded a contract to erect a camp for the Australians just behind the hotel." As with the tourists, visits to the Pyramids and Sphinx attracted the troops. Major Jarvis wrote in the Back Garden of Allah: "There must be upwards of half a million negatives in existence portraying various military parties mounted on the same old picturesque camels... depicting some adventurous member of the family, who has done the great desert trek from Mena House Hotel to the Sphinx and back again."

In 1922, with the war over, a momentous event was to attract tourists by the millions to Egypt: namely, the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamon. Collector Henry Stanhope, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, had arrived in Luxor in 1903, seeking the excitement of archeological discoveries. It was the year that Davis and Howard Carter opened Queen Hatshepsut's tomb. Digging into Egypt's past yielded little treasure for Carnarvon, however, and he finally sought the advice of the Antiquities Services. Maspero recommended that he hire Howard Carter as his assistant. For seven winters, the English aristocrat and his helper searched the Valley of the Kings to no avail. On 28 October 1922, however, Howard was able to send a telegram to his patron who was still in England for the summer, announcing: "At last have made wonderful discovery in valley; a magnificent tomb with seals intact; recovered same for your arrival; congratulations." The rest is history.

The invisible host

Meanwhile, the war seemed to have signalled the end of an era. The Egyptians were becoming more vocal in demanding the complete withdrawal of the British occupation forces. The revolution of 1919 and the passive resistance which the leader of the Wafd, Saad Zaghlul, led against British rule in 1921 brought an end to the protectorate and the country was granted semi-independence. For better effect, it was given its own king. The 1936 Treaty transformed the British High Commissioner into a mere ambassador and the British troops were removed from the capital. Was it the dawn of a new age or more of the same in a slightly different guise? While the Egyptian population hoped and despaired alternatively, agonising or rebelling over Zaghlul's arrest and exile, the unsolicited presence of British troops in the Canal Zone, or the feud pitting the Wafd against the palace, visitors dismissed the thwarted aspirations of the people as "a spot of trouble" created by a few disruptive elements, and exchanged the usual platitudes about the indigenous deficiencies of the "Arabs".

"Few foreigners bothered to look for the real Egyptian behind the stereotyped image of fat pashas and lazy workers, sharp dealers, poor soldiers, down-trodden peasants," wrote Sattin. Spending some time at the Cataract Hotel in Aswan during the winter of 1937, Agatha Christie included the following passage in Death on the Nile:

"They came out from the shade of the gardens on to the dusty stretch of road bordered by the river. Five watchful bead-sellers, two vendors of postcards, three sellers of plaster scarabs, a couple of donkey-boys and some detached but hopeful infantile riff-raff closed in upon them.

'You want beads, sir? Very good sir. Very cheap...'
'Lady, you want scarab? Look --great queen --very lucky...'
'You look sir --real lapis. Very good, very cheap...'
'You want to ride donkey, sir? This very good donkey. This donkey Whiskey and Soda, Sir...'
'You want to go granite quarries, sir? This very good donkey. Other donkey very bad, sir, that donkey fall down...'
"Hercule Poirot made vague gestures to rid himself of this human cluster of flies. Rosalie stalked through them like a sleep-walker.
'It is best to pretend to be deaf and blind,' she remarked.
"The infantile riff-raff ran alongside murmuring plaintively: 'Bakshish? Bakshish? Hip hip hurrah --very good, very nice...'"

One would tend to believe that Agatha Christie took Baedeker along on her trip and, what is more, found plenty of time to read it thoroughly while lounging on the celebrated terrace.

Whose War?


Midan Al-Manshiya in Alexandria at the turn of the century (Lenhert and Landrock)
The second round of hostilities, which took place 20 years later, energised the influx of foreigners with a vengeance. Less interested than ever in the native inhabitants' plight, they used and abused the country's resources, expressing indignation at the lack of enthusiasm sometimes displayed by Egyptian nationalists for a conflict in which they had no stake.

Cairo and Alexandria (when they were not being bombarded) became the temporary home and in some cases the playground of a mottled, displaced population. Toppled royalties, families escaping from war-torn Europe, spies masquerading as writers and writers masquerading as spies mingled with the British forces and members of the European aristocracy on the run in the well-stocked bars of the Shepheard's, the Continental and the Mena House as well as in a growing number of famous watering holes which were sprouting overnight to cater to the troops' need for distraction. Cabarets were full, and passing visitors, especially British officers and those associating with them, never lacked entertainment. Keeping class distinctions unaltered in war as in peace, the army of occupation made sure that ordinary soldiers did not fare as well in high places, where they were only admitted in full uniform --and not always then. It is said however that Mrs Lampson, wife of the British ambassador to Egypt, took great pleasure in regularly serving tea to the troops herself at the Gezira Sporting Club.

The royals are coming

The refugees from the Balkans had begun pouring in by the spring of 1941. There were hundreds of displaced families who settled as best they could, but a luckier bunch, at least for a while, were the numerous crowned Balkan heads who arrived in Egypt on the first leg of their exodus. Sir Miles Lampson had his hands full, trying to accommodate the fallen royals as decently as was possible under the circumstances, while at the same time attempting to placate the Egyptians, who most of the time were kept in the dark as to who was coming and who was going. He complained in his diary that "...it is becoming more and more embarrassing, the way London regards Egypt as a general dumping ground for political refugees, etc."

The first noted arrival was that of Joyce Britten-Jones, King George of Greece's long time mistress, on her way to join him in Greece. Anthony Eden sent a message to Lampson, asking him to look after her and to treat her visit to Cairo as "very hush-hush". Artemis Cooper recounted how the "secret" landing actually took place: "As it happened [Mrs Britten-Jones] arrived in a blaze of glory. Peter Coates, representing General Wavel, had been sent to Heliopolis airport to meet General de Gaulle. All the Free French dignitaries of Cairo had gathered on the runway: the door of the plane opened, the band struck up the Marseillaise --and out stepped Mrs. Britten-Jones. She had shared the General's flight on the last lap of her long journey from London to Cairo and he had courteously let her preceed him out of the plane."

Soon after, wrote Cooper, the first royal party coming by sea travelled to Cairo. "It consisted of the ex-Regent of Yugoslavia, Prince Paul, with his wife Princess Olga and their three children. King Peter of Yugoslavia, King Paul's nephew, passed through Alexandria on his way to Palestine a week later. George of Greece who had escaped from Athens was evacuated in mid-May from Crete to Cairo with his private entourage which included Prime Minister Emmanuel Tsouderos, various members of the royal family, the king's younger brother Crown Prince Paul and his wife Princess Frederica, their two children, the king's sister Princess Katherine and Mrs. Britten-Jones, described this time as 'lady-in-waiting to Princess Frederica'." In early June, after the departure of Princess Katherine, King George and Mrs Britten-Jones moved into the Mena House. A shocked Lampson consigned his opinion on the move in his diary: "I must say, I thought this slightly infradig on his part. In the days of Charles II there was no doubt a recognised protocol for royal mistresses, but nowadays I have a strong feeling that kings should keep this side more submerged."

Fellaha; street barber; the post office (Atab Al-Khadra Square)

The British Council travels

Several members of the British Council in Athens also headed for Cairo. They included the novelists Robert Lidell, Olivia Manning and her husband Reggie Smith as well as two Greek poets, George Seferis and Elie Papadimitriou. The refugees had been told to bring food but had found none to buy in Athens and they did not eat for the three days that it took them to reach Alexandria by boat. Years later, Olivia Manning wrote an article in which she recounted her first day in Alexandria: "...we saw British soldiers on the quay and someone shouted down 'Got anything to eat?'... the soldiers were surprised at such a simple request. They went behind the cases of ammunition and came back with a bunch of bananas. They made a game of throwing the bananas in ones and twos but we jumped and scrambled in earnest. I caught one, a small one green outside, pink inside, and smelling of honey. I have never tasted another like it." According to Cooper, "[a]fter the formalities they were given a proper meal of bacon, eggs and tea, which brought tears in their eyes." On arrival in Cairo, "Olivia and Reggie Smith moved into a refugee hotel, though it was more like a doss house. There were separate dormitories for men and women and a single cold shower shared by both. The Smiths comforted themselves with the thought that it must be very cheap; but when they asked for the bill, the doss house proved more expensive than Shepheard's."

The Cairo Conference

One of the most important events of the period was the convening of the Cairo Conference on 23 November 1943. (The first Cairo Conference, which took place in 1921, did not create as much curiosity by far.) "When Stalin agreed to a conference in Tehran of the Big Three, Churchill suggested to Roosevelt a preliminary meeting in Cairo; but the American president did not want to go to Tehran arm in arm with the British prime minister; and so, while agreeing to the idea, Roosevelt also invited the Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek," wrote Cooper.

Harold Macmillan was at the time British minister resident in North Africa. His war diaries provide a first hand account of the conference. "We drove from the airfield to the Casey villa (as it is called --it is really Mr Chester Beatty's and has been lent by him to Oliver Lyttleton and Dick Casey successively)... Casey's villa is for the time being No 10 Downing Street. We were greeted by the now familiar faces of the entourage... After leaving Casey I drove into Cairo, where I am staying. My host is one [E F W] Besly, the legal counselor of the Embassy... At 10pm I went to the British Embassy for a talk with Alec Cadogan [Sir Alexander Cadogan was permanent under-secretary of state at the Foreign Office] on current French affairs --more especially on the Levant crisis.

"Thursday 25 November 1943: Drove into the conference area in the morning. This consists of the Mena House hotel (just on the verge of the desert --close to the Pyramids), the Casey villa, the American Minister's villa (called the Kirk villa) and a number of other small and large villas in neighbourhood... the whole area is surrounded by barbed wire fences, guards, guns, tanks, etc. Owing to the leakage in the Daily Mail and elsewhere, the security arrangements are fantastic. It is impossible to move anywhere near the 'great' [Roosevelt, Churchill, Generalissimo Chang Kai-Shek] without passing two or three barriers and showing innumerable 'passes'. The military conferences, etc., take place at the hotel --the secretariat and the officers... are lodged there. I have been allotted a small room (as an office). It is very well done --complete military telephone system --typists and secretaries available --etc., etc.

"At 12 noon there was a 'photograph'. This was at the Kirk [Alexander C Kirk was US minister to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, 1941-43] villa (where the president is lodged) and took place in the garden. Fortunately the weather is splendid. It is dry and warm --apparently it hardly ever rains at all here --but the heat is not great --rather like a really fine summer at home --seventy to seventy five in the shade. After the filthy weather we have been having at Algiers, this dry, warm weather is delightful. I feel much better than for a long time... [W]hile we were standing about in the garden of the villa waiting it was really like a sort of mad garden party in a newsreel produced of Alice in Wonderland. There were of course the chiefs of staff --General Marshal, Admiral King, General Brooke, Air Marshal Portal, Admiral A B Cunnigham --with Field Marshal Dill, General Somervell (US) and so on thrown in. Then the commanders, Eisenhower, Admiral John Cunnigham, Tedder, General Wilson (G O C, Middle East; Alexander was away being ill). Then suddenly in walk Lord Louis Mountbatten [Supreme Allied Commander, South-East Asia], General Stilwell [Joseph W Stilwell, chief of staff of Chang Kai-Shek] and General Carton de Wiart --all from the Indian theatre of war."

Among the civilians who featured in the photograph of the 'great' were Anthony Eden, Lord Killearn [Sir Miles Lampson, British ambassador to Egypt] among others, including Macmillan himself. On the second day of the conference, Macmillan was invited to dinner by Mr and Mrs. Besly at the Mohamed Ali Club, where he had "an excellent dinner". He added: "This is the best club in Cairo and the most select with the most recherché food and wine. The Pashas use it, and play baccarat, poker, etc., here, in the best eighteenth-century style, staking each other the enormous sums which (now that Egypt is free!) they can wring from the poor."

Another dinner at the Turf Club and Macmillan was off to Benghazi, apparently without joining in the traditional tour of the Pyramids. Perhaps he had heard that after the 1921 Cairo Conference, Winston Churchill had tumbled off a rather vivacious dromedary, affording writer, archaeologist and savant Gertrude Bell a rare opportunity to observing him in a less than dignified position, and wanted to avoid a similar misadventure himself.

Above: Fuad El-Awwal University now CAiro University; right: Emadeddin Street (Lenhert and Landrock

Writers-in-residence and others

No one captured what foreigners believed to be the 'atmosphere' of war-time Cairo better than the famed stage designer and photographer Cecil Beaton, who arrived in 1942. He worked for the Ministry of Information and from his travels came a book, Near East (1943). The following passage should be counted among the masterpieces of the orientalist's perception of his 'exotic' surroundings.

"It was arranged I should wear RAF uniform with 'official photographer' on one shoulder instead of a rank. I should stay one week in Cairo before my first job in the desert.

"So now I should explore Cairo, 'the magnificent slum', 'the fly-blown mecca of artifice and noise', 'the melting pot of pre-war decadence' --that much abused city in such strange contrast to the desert from which the troops come for their day on leave.

"At first sight the city seems French in spirit --somewhat like Nice, or the suburbs of many large French towns. The undetermined architecture reminded me of the pretentious villas in stage scenery of the 'eighties.

"A dust storm was blowing in from the desert onto the Louis Philippe buildings, which looked as if they were originally built of compressed dust; the dust blew in gusts into the Opera House, put together in a fortnight by Ismail for a visit of the Empress Eugénie at the opening of the Suez Canal.

"It blew in swirling eddies on the pavements, onto the slices of water melon, the Art Moderne 1900 interiors and the French Louis style salons, over-crowded with bric-à-brac. The young Arab, barefooted in his cotton galabyiah, carrying a mountain of faded red roses, looked worried as he stepped off the curb while a taxi dashed by, for he feared the khamsin would blow for four days. The camels were unperturbed as they walked with the slow dignity of Pont Street dowagers, whom they so closely resemble.

"The general noise was made up of hurdy-gurdies, bicycle bells, news-vendors, trams. Bag-pipes, loud-speakers, and the braying of donkeys.

"The troops on leave thronged the streets in their thousands. The hawkers pestered them, and plucked at their arms in an attempt to sell coloured spectacles, fly-whisks and hopelessly out-of-date American magazines. The bars, cafés, cabarets, and cinemas were crowded. A few canteens and rest centres were advertised, and shops purveyed scarabs and watches which were 'sand, water and shock proof.'

"The famous Shepheard's Hotel was a seething mass of young officers --gay and debonair in tropical uniforms --a sight one would see nowhere else. They were mostly sun-burned, their fair hair bleached --the new arrivals distinguishable by their rosy knees that look like white heart cherries.

"So this was Shepheard's --a crowded but infinitely respectable hotel, with dark oriental halls, ebony women, with richly carved rotundities, holing aloft frosted lights, pearl-inlaid furniture, palms, drab hangings, marble corridors, brass bedstead and Arab servants... Another day in one of the local carriages, gharries, we toured the Arab town, the largest Moslem city in the world. The gharry, with a mound of clover for the horse's next meal dumped on the board by the driver's foot, is looked down upon as being inelegant by the dragoman, doormen, and the miscellaneous group of snobs always clustered around the entrance steps of the large hotels. But in spite of this the gharry makes the most delightful means of leisurely locomotion and of surveying the changing scenes. From such a vantage point, even the humblest among us feels like royalty. We drove to the Moski through the narrow overhung lanes, with the pretty wiry balconies of the harems almost meeting above the jostling crowd. The tarbush and coloured turbans of the various sects, dynasties and families formed a bobbing sea below us as we sat aloft, processing along lanes lined with brilliantly coloured sweetmeats, or butchers' shops or alleyways with gold necklaces arrayed in glittering splendour against a black background. The whole thoroughfare given over to engraven brasswork rolled past us, followed by another of pearl inlay work. The most romantic is the spice quarter, with its fragrance of the Arabian Nights. In bulging, buff-coloured sacks, the cedar wood, rose, mint, sandalwood and innumerable varieties of curry powder are equally seductive in scent and beauty.

"It was alarming to see the young men swinging a large heavy, shell-shaped weapon, with which they pounded the nutmeg in stone jars. They save themselves from madness by singing in unison a loud and monotonous dirge, the rhythm of which carries them along through the physical agony of effort. Heaving to and fro, they looked like Blake engravings of tormented souls writhing in Purgatory. Once they give up this work their muscles contract, and they are unfit for further effort."

Lawrence Durell, author of the famous Alexandria Quartet, who spent part of the war in Egypt, seemed too self-centred to look around; he found Cairo "hateful and depressing". He expressed an even poorer opinion of the charms of Alexandria, where he spent some time in 1944 and which he later "used and abused", in the words of one of his critics, in his Trilogy:

"Meanwhile the ubiquitous dust and blackness; the faces of the Arabs with their weakness and cupidity.

"The thin exhausted lusts of the Alexandrians running out like sawdust out of dummies; the shrill ululations of the black women, the rending of hair and clothes in mourning --a skilled operation ­outside the whitewashed hospital. The tarbush, the dark suit, the rings, the French accent; the scrofula, the pox, the riches, the food. Even from your Italian brothel I cannot think how to write or speak to you from this flesh-pot, sink-pot, melting pot of dullness."

Five years later, writer Jean Cocteau was enthralled by the same scenery: "I was immeasurably charmed by this road, for here the scene has not changed since Bible days. It even gives an antique air to a bicycle. Here there are villages made of baked mud and here also are men who are coloured mauve, pink or beige; there are noblemen with profiles which look as if they were carved in terra-cotta, and here and there is a fine group consisting of a man mounted on his donkey with which he forms a single whole, sculptured out of the pallor of stone. An earthly mimetism mingles sky, ground trees, animals and aborigines, rendering them barely visible... As we approach Alexandria the air becomes lighter. Lungs can breathe in more oxygen. We go alongside the jetty with its yellow buildings facing the sea, frothing and dancing and shading into a greenish tinge as it reaches the turquoise horizon, making us forever think of Cleopatra. Cairo is a city of streets. Alexandria is a city of houses..."

Black Saturday

Suddenly the war was over and Egypt became caught up in more serious business than playing host to a few thousand foreigners. Egyptians wanted the British out of their country and were now saying so in no uncertain terms. Once more, they were not taken seriously. Visitors, resident or otherwise, refused to believe that they were called upon to comply with the demands of a people whose existence they had barely had to notice so far. The Cairo fires lit on Black Saturday were the signal that they had been reading the writing on the wall incorrectly.

Edward Said, raised in Egypt, does not exactly fit the definition of a foreigner, although here as elsewhere, he felt "out of place". He was away at college when Cairo went up in smoke and read about the details three days later in the Boston Globe. "'The Standard Stationery, owned by an American citizen, William A Said [Edward's father], was totally gutted by the mob as it moved down Malika Farida Street, destroying the British Turf Club, a noted British Cairo institution'," the paper reported.

"Other familiar places mentioned," adds Said, "were Papazian's music shop, where I had bought music books and records, Kodak, Salon Vert, Gattegno. All of them up-market, obviously foreign, right at the heart of the modern, colonial city. The mob was stopped by a valiant police captain (who for his pains was later fired) at the head of a handful of his men, just at the beginning of Qasr Al-Nil bridge, which led across the Nile to Zamalek, our residence. And there but for that captain... I couldn't possibly take in everything that had happened, although my mother's letter about ten days later filled in some of the blanks. The important thing is that both our places of business (B branch was destroyed too) had been reduced to rubble; a month later, they sent me pictures of the damage..."

Most of the landmarks which had fascinated tourists for almost a century were gone: the famous Shepheard's Hotel and sundry establishments (also under the management of the Egyptian Hotels Company), the Victoria Club opposite the Mohamed Ali, the Opera House, the cinemas, bars, cabarets, Grands Magasins and chic little boutiques were systematically gutted and looted. Not everyone had the courage, like William Said, "to roll up [their] sleeves and begin again" and though the Opera House was reconstructed (to go up in flames for the last time in 1971), Shepheard's disappeared forever from the landscape of Azbakiya Square.

Exit Farouk


Abul-Ela bridge (Palm Press)
No one knows for sure how it all started, but many blamed King Farouk who, in a sinister variation on the Nero theme, let his city go up in flames in the hope of discrediting the too-popular Wafd Party. Ultimately, it did not matter if he was guilty or not, because his days were numbered. Egypt was poised on the brink of its "bloodless revolution". On 23 July 1952, the Free Officers took over. The years that followed saw many changes, among them the definitive departure of the British troops from the Canal Zone, followed by the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, which succeeded in driving out the last foreigners settled in Egypt. This heralded the appearance of a new type of visitor: experts replaced tourists as the country attempted to build its military and industrial might.

The "new Egyptian"

Desmond Stewart was among the new generation of travellers who came to see how the Revolution was faring. He visited a poultry farm in Al-Marg soon after the implementation of the land reform programme. "It is not far from Cairo, on the road which goes east toward Ismailia. The country is gently georgic, with lush green fields, and high eucalyptuses and casuarinas giving shade. There are carts and buffaloes and ducks. It is not a mechanised countryside, and with good reason, for the problem is over-population, and under-employment. We reach the country house of ex-Princess Nehmet Mukhtar, who was a sister of King Fuad, a daughter of the prodigal Ismail. It is now the regional headquarters of the land reform... In front of the brown one-storey sprawling house is a mutilated faceless statue of Ancient Egypt: it is old, nothing else. As in all the Nile Valley, the place is teeming with life. Peasants are everywhere, and because there is always the possibility that someone may be produced who will be too much an advertisement for the 'New Egypt' --some stalwart youth who looks as if he divides his time between study and weightlifting --I ask, pointing to a wizened man in a white cap walking along the road, 'can I talk to him?'

Given permission, Stewart proceeded with his research. "'Before land reform, how much did you earn?' As I ask the question, I feel despair: except by living among these people, how can one know their saga?" Another of the peasants he talks to tells Stewart: "'Before [the land reform] I could not hire even half an acre. Now I have three. I worked as a labourer. By the day. Seven piastres a day and often less. If I was sick? Oh, Sir then they did not know me, nor did their agent pay me. Did I see the Princess [Ne'mat Mukhtar]? Never. We were as mud to her. She did not even wish to see us from her windows... Now they do not beat me, now they do not insult me, now they do not make me feel a dog, they no longer starve us. I am a man and a man of respect, an owner of earth. I have dignity and I have self respect'."

Nasser's Pyramid

During the 18 years of Nasser's rule, the emphasis was on building for the people and for the future. Mohamed Ali had shown little respect for Egypt's ancient heritage, using stones wrenched from Pharaonic temples and Fatimid palaces to build his factories. A century later, Nasser was to emulate him. The cement plants spouting deadly fumes on the road to the once charming winter resort of Helwan are a reminder of this sometimes misguided drive towards industrialisation. In the same spirit, and as disastrous for the inhabitants of the area: when the High Dam was conceived, the Nubian people were displaced and one of the world's most renowned archaeological sites was damaged forever.

Robert D Kaplan, a contributing editor of the Atlantic Monthly and author of several travel books, came to Egypt in the second half of the 1990s. Interested in the organisation of hydraulic societies, he visited the High Dam during his trip up the Nile.

"'It is like a pyramid! Before your eyes is eighteen times the volume of rocks used in the Great Pyramid of Cheops!' Ali Abdel-Razag [sic], the director of the Aswan Dam High Authority, a short, dark-complexioned man with a gray mustache, rose up on his toes as he pointed out the great sweep of rock and compressed sand that has turned the Nile Valley from Southern Egypt to the Mediterranean --a distance of almost six hundred miles --into one big irrigation ditch. 'The compressed dune sand beneath the rock-filled outer core is like a spring,' explained Razag, 'which would allow the entire dam to shift in the event of an earthquake.' Razag pointed to the gardens, with neatly clipped trees shaped like doughnuts, that beautify the road along the top of the dam. The gardens, he told me, have another purpose: Moisture from the garden soil seeps down into the dam's clay core, so that the clay doesn't dry and crack in the intense desert heat.

"But this man-made mountain, 111 metres high and two miles long, is small compared to what lies beneath it. Russian technicians injected a mix of cement, bentonite, and aluminum silicate at thirty times atmospheric pressure to create an underground 'grout curtain': a hidden wall 140 metres deep that prevents subterranean filtration of Nile water from one side of the High Dam to the other.

"I rode an elevator to the top of a seventy-metre-high poured-concrete lotus flower built to honour 'Soviet-Egyptian friendship'. Each of the five lotus prongs looked more like a sword than a flower stem. The relief carvings were a Pharaonic version of socialist realism, the ultimate totalitarian aesthetic, I thought... The engineering marvel... had been built by Russians. Egyptian Arabs from Cairo managed its upkeep, with technical assistance from the Americans. But [the High Dam Authority] office in Aswan was closer in both distance and tempo to the Sudan than to Northern Egypt. Within these leprous walls there was not one computer. Instead of laser-printed type, I saw only worn ledger books filled with laborious cursive writing. The only modern machine in the building was the photocopier in the director's office. It was covered with dust."

The High Dam, nevertheless, is the symbol and the pride of modern Egypt, Nasser's own Pyramid and concrete proof that he did not bow to imperialist might. It is also believed, notwithstanding the controversy that raged among Egyptian hydraulic engineers at the time of its building, that it was instrumental in catapulting Egypt into the present.

The dam bars the Nile in a straight line. Behind it lies Lake Nasser, which controls the flow of the river, abolishes droughts, allows for four harvests a year and can hold several floods of the Nile in reserve. "This gigantic structure has tamed the sacred river, broken its sometimes tyrannical reign and transformed men's lives by increasing the production of crops already under irrigation. It has brought under cultivation more than a million acres of fields and gardens which would not have existed without it," write Henri Gougaud and Colette Gouvion. "Its power has been put at the service of the living: its hydro-electric station has made it possible to triple the consumption of energy, to develop stagnant industries and to create new factories... Thirty-five thousand men worked day and night to build this giant; the price to be paid was the flooding of the land of Nubia..."


Left: the old Qasr El-Nil Bridge; Cairo Station (Lenhert and Landrock). Right: Carter after the opening of Tutankhamun tomb (from Lifting the Veil by Anthony Sattin)

Abu Simbel's new home

"Under Lake Nasser lie secret traces of ancient buildings that no archaeologist will ever explore. Egypt could not sacrifice the lives of men to the memories of stone. There remained the still visible masterpieces: they were unforgettable, and so it was decided to save them from the waters.

"In 1959, UNESCO embarked on a campaign, roused the sympathy of forty-eight governments, collected funds from everywhere and mobilised all the Egyptologists in the world. Ten or so temples were moved and rebuilt where the lake could not reach them... Once the miracle was achieved, tourists flock[ed] to Abu Simbel, which they had never heard about until its existence was threatened. So that these stones should not perish, forty-eight countries --whom the fate of the living Nubians had never disturbed --provided funds and worked together with passionate enthusiasm. The dam was responsible for this astounding miracle."

The anthropologists and the others

Anwar El-Sadat reversed many of his predecessor's policies and welcomed foreigners. Things had changed, however, and the old insouciance could not be revived. The esprit du Nil was gone forever. The Arab-Israeli conflict cast its ominous shadow over the tourists. They were restricted in many ways: required now to appear in more modest attire, to abstain from drinking or at least indulge in a controlled environment, to obtain the proper permits for picture taking and to deal with a proliferating collection of Kafkaesque bureaucratic measures which considerably cramped their style.

But they too had changed. Not all were content with a guided tour of the Pyramids, the traditional photograph on a bedecked camel and a quick spin à la Thomas Cook to Luxor and Aswan. Few knew or cared about the once seedy reputation of Al-Azbakiya. Rather, they had become intellectually intrigued by the city and its people. Egypt began to attract a new breed of historians, photographers, social scientists and anthropologists, more anxious to understand the culture of the present than to gawk at the remains of an ancient civilisation. They were not here to loiter on the terraces of grand hotels, hoping for a glimpse of the rich and famous, but prided themselves on befriending squatters in the City of the Dead and having dinner with families living ten to a room in Bassatin. They favoured mawalid over the Opera and were thrilled to listen to Arabic music with their Egyptian friends at the Citadel. Successful doctoral theses and learned accounts were begotten after a stint in the realm of the poor. These tourists-turned-travellers did not come to dream of the past or to augment their collection of artifacts; they wanted to dig deep into the substance of poverty. They admired Hassan Fathi, who had began his career intending to build for the poor and had ended up building for the very rich. Their ancestors had come to see the monuments; they made the journey to observe those who lived in their shadow.

Politically correct youngsters left the comfort of their affluent countries to examine the economically challenged with scholarly interest. They neither criticised nor presumed to offer answers; and, on the rare occasions when they ventured an opinion, they made sure that it was well within the boundaries of one or the other schools of thought in vogue at the moment.

A student of humane sciences

Indian anthropologist and writer Amitav Gosh came to Egypt on a scholarship in 1980 and installed himself "in a village called Lataifa, a couple of hours journey to the south-east of Alexandria." There he lived with one of the village families and befriended young peasants of his age. He went to mawalid with them and roamed the countryside when he was not taking notes, happily imbibing Egypt's rural life. One day he engaged in a metaphysical discussion with the village imam, who berated him for the Indian custom of burning the dead. "A small crowd had gathered around us now, drawn by the Imam's voice, and under the pressure of their collective gaze, I found myself becoming increasingly tongue tied.

"'Yes, they do burn their dead in Europe,' I managed to say, my voice rising despite my efforts to control it. 'Yes, they have special electric furnaces meant just for that.'

"The Imam turned away and laughed scornfully. 'He's lying,' he said to the crowd. 'they don't burn their dead in the West. They're advanced, they're educated, they have science, they have guns and tanks and bombs.'

"Suddenly something seemed to boil over in my head, dilemmas and arguments I could no longer contain within myself.

"'We have them too,' I shouted back at him. 'In my country we have all those things too; we have guns and tanks and bombs. And they're better than anything you've got in Egypt --we're a long way ahead of you... Why in my country we've even had a nuclear explosion. You won't be able to match that even in a hundred years.'

"It was about then, I think, that Khamees appeared at my side and led me away, or else we would have probably stood there a good while longer, the Imam and I: delegates from two superseded civilisations, vying with each other to establish a first claim to the technology of modern violence... in the end, for millions and millions of people on the landmasses around us, the West meant only this --science and tanks and guns and bombs.

"I was crushed, as I walked away; it seemed to me that the Imam and I had participated in our own final defeat, in the dissolution of centuries of dialogue that had linked us: we had demonstrated the irreversible triumph of the language that has usurped all the others in which people once discussed their differences. We had acknowledged that it was no longer possible to speak as... any one of the thousands of travellers who had crossed the Indian Ocean in the Middle Ages might have done: of things that were right, or good, or willed by God; it would have been merely absurd for either of us to use those words, for they belonged to a dismantled rung on the ascending ladder of Development. Instead, to make ourselves understood, we had both resorted, I a student of the 'humane' sciences, and he, an old-fashioned village Imam, to the very terms that world leaders and statesmen use at great, global conferences, the universal, irresistible metaphysic of modern meaning; he had said to me in effect: 'You ought not to do what you do, because otherwise you will not have guns and tanks and bombs.' It was the only language we had been able to discover in common.

"...I felt myself a conspirator in the betrayal of the history that had led me [here]; a witness to the extermination of a world of accommodations that I had believed to be still alive, and, in some tiny measure, still retrievable."

A modern traveller

Arriving in Alexandria by sea in 1985, and expecting a "crumbling version" of a setting once worthy of the Queen of Sheba, ecologist and traveller Charlie Pye-Smith describes his first sight of the city of "Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, Euclid, Ptolemy, Caesar, Marc Anthony, Athanasius, Napoleon, Mohamed Ali" in The Other Nile: "The horizon bristled like a sea urchin, thin metal chimneys gleaming brightly and pouring out wisps of nicotine-coloured smoke. A pilot boat came out to guide us through the bottleneck of cargo boats --some carrying wood from Russia, others weapons from America, more still wheat off the top of the EEC grain mountain --and soon we could make out oil refineries with their rows of squat cylindrical tanks, petrochemical works with their contorted mass of chimneys and pipes, and great warehouses with precarious gantries clinging to rusting sides. I once read that you could smell the north African coast before you could see it if a northerly breeze carried the scent of pine sap to the sea. For pine sap, read sulfur dioxide and burning tar... Finally we came out from between two Russian boats... to sight the gleaming silver dome of the mosque of Abul-Abbas El-Mursi surrounded by docks and cranes and dilapidated housing. It twinkled like a jewel in a scrapheap. The Queen of Sheba would have looked very out of place... Once across the threshold [of the Western Harbour] you step into a world of seediness, noise, dirt, milling crowds, wailing music, amplified mullahs, stumbling donkeys, clinking trams, terrible traffic. Everywhere rich smells: of sewers, spices, perfumes, people and animals."

In Cairo, Pye-Smith went through the Egyptian Museum at a trot; he was more interested by the City of the Dead, which harboured the living, the poor who milled around the mosques of Cairo and the fate of the beggars. More than the Pyramid of Sakkara, he liked to visit Café Riche on Talaat Harb Street: its "claim to fame had more to do with politics than its cuisine. It was said that it was here while having a drink that Naguib, Nasser, Sadat and a handful of other officers planned the coup d'état which overthrew King Farouk. A large canopy casts its shadow across the tables on the pavement and we would sit sipping beer with shabby-suited businessmen and students.

"We also became frequenters of the two Brazilian Coffee Houses in the centre of town. These cannot be too highly recommended. The coffee was superb and the till girls delightful. A cantankerous shoe-shiner passed his time doing business in either one café or the other. A refusal to have one's shoes cleaned was taken as a personal insult, although trying to keep your shoes clean in Cairo is futile --no sooner are they done than dirt gathers on them like scum on a millpond."

The City of the Dead

"In short, where can the poor find shelter in a city whose resources have been stretched to breaking point?" asked Douglas Kennedy in his book Beyond the Pyramids. "The answer for a small segment of Cairo's homeless, has been the City of the Dead. There is a tradition in Egypt that, if you can afford it, you should bury your dead in a sarcophagus and surround it with a small shelter in which you can pay your dear departed frequent visits. And, in keeping with this tradition, many of Cairo's cemeteries are simply row after row of mausoleums --a semi-detached suburb for the deceased. So, somebody got the bright idea to use the mausoleums as squats for families in need of a dwelling place, and soon the City of the Dead became a fully established community, with its own shops and schools springing up besides the crypts.

"As Brian and I toured the necropolis, passing cafés where men played backgammon, staring at butcher's shops where sides of beef were suspended over a sarcophagus, I found myself caught in that predictable dilemma which most westerners face when confronted with the extremities of the Third World. Should one, like a good Guardian reader, suffer an attack of Islington socialist guilt over a glass of Muscadet later in the evening, express outrage at a system that allows such deprivation to exist? Or should one accept the City of the Dead for what it is: a last ditch solution to a housing crisis in a country which essentially does not have the economic muscle to meet all its citizens' needs? Brian seemed to be of the second opinion. Judging by his mild-mannered narrative of the sights of the necropolis, I gathered he saw this living cemetery as just another facet of Cairo life. Perhaps his years in Egypt had taught him not to impose his own western values on the country; to avoid immediately assuming that, because social and political conditions within the state didn't correspond with those of a more economically advanced nation they should be rejected outright. After all, wasn't the City of the Dead basically a more drastic version of Liverpool's Toxteth or Dublin's Ballymun?"

Oh! for the good old days

Not everyone was as sympathetic or as concerned, however. In an effort to recapture l'esprit du Nil, Nobel Laureate William Golding was attempting a boat trip up the river almost at the same time as one young traveller was sampling the various brands of coffee and courting the till-girls at the Brazilian coffee shops in Cairo and while another was puzzling over the various degrees of poverty that made up the city. Golding, an anachronism on the Nile in the 1980s, belonged to the tradition of Cook's 19th-century aristocratic clientele in search of luxurious dépaysement seasoned with a dash of local colour. Callously indifferent to the social and economic conditions of the country he was visiting, his prose belied the praise showered on the river trip by his predecessors. He was only intent on noticing the offensiveness. "Here we were, three days out of Cairo and we had seen nothing! All I had to take away with me was this close look at a river no wider than the Thames no matter how long it was!

"Who was going to be interested in quarries and brickyards? Even the long line of pyramids that marches south from Giza all the way to the Pyramid of Meidoun at the exit from the Fayoum had been hidden by the high bank, the ugly Cairene suburbs as we crept south against the current in our ill-equipped boat. We must get on. Angrily I stumped round the deck, making as much noise as possible. Even so, for a while nothing happened. Then Reis Shasli emerged, not from our boat but from the tram alongside where doubtless he had found one of his many Nile acquaintances. I began to make furious gestures to hurry him up and get him into the wheel house. He in his turn made deprecatory then soothing gestures and went in the dignity of all his robes to ease himself over the stern of the tram. When you got to go you got to go. A lifetime's conditioning made me turn my back."

Pyramid magic

Not long before Robert D Kaplan's visit to the High Dam, there had been an attack on tourists, and on that clear February afternoon, "with the temperature hovering around a perfect seventy, as snow and ice layered the northeast coast of the United States," there were very few foreigners, he noted, around the Giza Pyramids, "in the middle of what should have been Egypt's high tourist season. When there should have been dozens of buses filling the clusters of parking lots, I saw two half-filled buses and one minivan. A large herd of camels, there to convey tourists around the ancient monuments, had no riders.

"Because of attacks against foreign visitors by Islamic terrorists, the Egyptian economy was losing more than a billion dollars yearly in tourist revenues. Was such terrorism ephemeral, an aberration like the Red Brigade terrorists in Italy in the 1970s who, once they were snuffed out simply disappeared? Or did the attacks suggest something deeper?"

Whatever the answer to Kaplan's question, the attraction of the Pyramids seems as strong as ever. Recently, the well known TV host Oprah Winfrey asked an American housewife on her show: what was the "best money she had ever spent"? The guest gave her a big smile and an enthusiastic answer: "The $4,000 I drew on my credit card to take a short trip to Egypt. I got to ride on a camel and I saw the Egyptian Pyramids."


Sources:

Lord Edward Cecil: The Leisure of an Egyptian Official, Parkway Publishing, 1996

Artemis Cooper: Cairo in the War 1939-1945, Hamish Hamilton Ltd, 1992

William Golding: An Egyptian Journal, Faber and Faber, 1985

Amitav Gosh: In an Antique Land, Granta Books, 1992

Henri Gougaud and Colete Gouvion: Egypt Observed, Bracken Books, 1986

Robert D Kaplan: The Ends of the Earth, A Journey to the Frontiers of Anarchy, Vintage Departures, 1996

Douglas Kennedy: Beyond the Pyramids, Travels in Egypt, Abacus, 1995

Harrold Macmillan: War Diaries, The Mediterranean 1943-1945, St. Martin Press, 1984

Deborah Manley: The Nile, A Traveller's Anthology, Cassel, 1996

Nina Nelson: The Mena House, Egyptian General Company for Tourism and Hotels, 1979

Charlie Pye-Smith: The Other Nile, Penguin Books, 1986

Edward W Said: Out of Place, Granta Books, 1999

Eric Sattin: Lifting the Veil, Dentin (n.d.)

Desmond Stewart: Young Egypt, Allan Wingate, 1958

H V F Winstone: Gertrude Bell, Constable & co Ltd, 1978


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