Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
8 - 14 June 2000
Issue No. 485
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Anthony Sattin
 
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Anthony Sattin:

A glimpse of the eternal

Another country, not one's own

Profile by Fayza Hassan

I first encountered Anthony Sattin through Lifting the Veil, which a colleague had lent me for an article I was writing on Nile travellers in the 19th century. The hardback copy I took home looked rather cheap, although it included some rare photographs of Nile steamers and of Thomas Cook's first travel bureau. The book had no jacket; I could find no picture of the author, and no date of publication. The name of the publisher, a mysterious Dentin (no date of publication), discreetly etched in gold on the spine of the volume, had almost faded and was unknown to me. The book, my colleague told me, was out of print and must have been for some time, judging from the quizzical expression that my inquiry elicited from the seasoned librarians I visited. The author, I decided, had probably come to Egypt for a PhD project, in the early 1960s perhaps, when the trip itself was construed as a political statement in certain intellectual milieus. Having reaped the benefits of his effort, he must have gone on, settling into a snug teaching job at some obscure university and/or becoming one of those rather clueless and pompous Middle East experts so popular on CNN and BBC television.

Having thus dispatched Sattin the littérateur, I was able to concentrate on his writing. As I skimmed through the well-documented pages, I became aware of the quality of the information. Sattin had researched his subject thoroughly, presenting first-rate documentation. He was also extremely well read and much more at ease with the culture than one would expect from any ordinary PhD aspirant. I seemed to be finding not only pertinent answers to my questions, but a new and lively perspective on the way the British used to set out on their P&O steamers at the turn of the century in search of dépaysement. Here were the pioneers, recklessly tackling the arcane country and its alien customs, the rich and famous among them cruising the Nile in the comfort of well-appointed dahabiyas, while the others, the financially challenged, travelled on a shoestring budget, staying in flea-infested hotels they called quaint.

Both rich and poor, more often than not, got more than they had bargained for, according to Sattin: "Sex, baths, boys, steamy chambers filled with naked women -- these were powerful images and were bound to appeal to the imagination of some visitors in Cairo. One reaction, like Sofia Poole, was one of outrage... [y]et others found the whole thing very appealing indeed -- here was the bait which Thackeray assumed had trapped his friend J F Lewis. Women in captivity, the harem, an unlimited number of wives and, somehow linked to all this in the minds of so many foreigners, pimps and violence, extortion, the underworld of gambling, drinking, drug-taking, prostitution -- for some, Egypt appeared to have it all."

Anthony Sattin
Supported by a solid knowledge of the period's history, Sattin proceeded to brush, with consummate ease, the portrait of an ancient, dormant land, catapulted into a hasty modernisation drive cresting with the traumatic construction of the Suez Canal, to become the favourite playground of a nascent Western tourist industry.

"The veil separated Egyptians from foreigners," wrote Sattin. "A hundred years ago, both used to wear the veil, although for entirely different purposes. Muslim women adopted it as an aid to modesty... while western women visiting Egypt were also advised to wear a veil -- not as a matter of decency, but to protect themselves from the climate." They met, yet remained separate. What happened behind those veils was what Sattin had set out to discover.

Full of interesting snippets and brimming with a genuine fondness for the country and its people, Lifting the Veil soon became my favourite reference. Unable to part with the book after reading it a couple of times from cover to cover, I had a photocopy made before returning it and begged booksellers at Al-Azbakiya to try and locate a second-hand volume. Never did it occur to me that, although I never found the book, I would shortly be meeting the author himself.

"Anthony was not here in the 1960s," protested our cultural editor, Mursi Saad El-Din. Sattin, he claimed, was presently in Egypt. He pointed to the photo of a rather skinny youth on the back cover of The Pharaoh's Shadow, Sattin latest book, which the author had just given him. "He was a mere toddler back then!" he added, counting. Mursi had announced that he was meeting the author for lunch at the Estoril and I had immediately pricked up my ears. "Taken when he was in college, ages ago," I retorted, examining Roger Charity's handiwork, which showed a young man with sleepy eyes, long hair and a black shirt open at the neck. I was stubbornly hanging on to my own version of a former, albeit reformed, hippie Sattin. "I want to meet him," I told Mursi.

Two days later, I opened the door to a young-looking tourist sporting jeans, sneakers and a backpack. His smile, which he used extensively, conveyed a mixture of shyness, smugness and genuine amusement, the proportions varying according to the direction the conversation took. At first, I had a great deal of trouble reconciling my mind's image with this new, improved Sattin, who had not only authored the marvellous Lifting the Veil, but had just published an equally fascinating and expertly documented narrative on the alleged survival of Pharaonic influences in a number of Egyptian modern customs.

"You're very young," I told him, almost accusingly. "Not really," he said, easing his lanky body into a chair. "I'm 42." Within minutes, almost before we had begun sipping our coffee, I knew that he had met the love of his life in Cairo and that, in his mind, the woman and the place had become closely linked. I remembered the dedication of The Pharaoh's Shadow: "For Sylvie, memories of the beautiful place." He had acknowledged his "largest debt to Sylvie Franquet, who lured me back to the Nile, who opened my eyes and showed me everything." Later, revelling in the miracle of love, he had written: "I met Amr in May 1987. Late the following year, passing through Cairo, another chance meeting led to my falling in love, after which the most pressing reasons -- a book about to be published and my first novel needing to be prepared for the printer -- dragged me back to London. The subject and object of my passion was a Belgian girl, an Arabist who had been living in Cairo for some five years. As she wasn't about to leave, I had no choice but to get back there myself. By the beginning of 1989, we were living together on the top floor of a riverside apartment on an island in the Nile... With such a view, the city seemed open to us. Some days, we would pinpoint a landmark we could see from our terrace and then head off for it on foot, not knowing what we would find on the way."

Sattin is convinced that Fate alone led his steps towards the woman of his life. How else could one explain that he was introduced to her on one of the three nights he spent in Cairo on that particular trip? Having miraculously found his soul-mate, he began to reflect on the fugitive nature of life: "During the past few years I had understood the inevitability of things passing. I had fallen so deeply in love that I knew for sure one lifetime wasn't going to be enough. That feeling of the preciousness of time was heightened when a friend of mine was killed in a plane crash. What were the odds of that happening? So small that they weren't worth reckoning. I hadn't reckoned on them and yet it had happened. I already knew about transience but with love and death in my life, I wanted to believe that some sort of continuity, some sort of eternity was possible." One is reminded of Garp's despair when it dawns on him suddenly that, try as he may, he will always be powerless to completely protect those he loves.

Married now and the parents of two boys, Anthony and Sylvie live in London, but, he says, neither has lost their yearning for Egypt. She will soon be in Cairo for the launching of the new edition of her guide book; he plans to come back very soon. Their elder son goes to the French Lycée in London, because it offers a much stricter curriculum and because it is good for children to learn many languages early in life. The younger son will probably follow the same path. "Are you grooming them to pick up the travelling bug?" I ask. Sattin shrugs. "Who knows what they will want to do? For the time being, since Sylvie speaks French, we thought that it would be a good idea to have the boys master the language. They might enjoy reading Proust in its original version one day."

Sattin has always wanted to travel, "and always knew that I would." He attributes this curiosity about the world outside his native London to his very proper public school upbringing, including the mandatory years as a boarder, which his parents insisted on. "I come from a family of migrants," he comments in The Pharaoh's Shadow. "My mother is an American and my father's family came from Poland and Russia. My father's father lived to be seventy-seven, yet in all the years he spent in London he never learned to read or write English. I was brought up in a stationary environment -- we moved houses only four times in the years I lived with my parents -- and apart from the annual drive down to the Mediterranean, we stayed put. Yet my roots are shallow and travelling is part of my life." Sattin's father is an antique dealer, but the son did not feel at ease among the accumulation of material possessions. At no point did he contemplate following in his father's footsteps; nor did his brothers, whose careers have taken them to different parts of the globe. He likes to travel light and only when he perceives an object as the symbol of something more significant does it captivate him:

One morning, in Deir Al-Madina, he stumbled upon a cave where he picked up a piece of loosely woven linen, the sort used for mummy wrappings: "Holding the scrap of linen in my hand, feeling it, turning it, seeing it begin to crumble, it made perfect sense that I should be fascinated by a people whose 'strength' in the words of the prophet Isaiah 'is to sit still'. In the shadows cast by the Pharaohs and their subjects, in the habits and customs, the beliefs and superstitions that had survived, in the continuity in the lives of Egyptians I met, I recognised something that was missing from mine. A glimpse of the eternal."

Unlike the hundreds of self-styled writers whose first literary trials are often hastily hailed as (short-lived) masterpieces, Sattin is a professional writer whose academic record is impeccable and whose full-time job is composing, editing and reviewing books (the latter for the Sunday Times). Although he has only published one novel so far, Shooting the Breeze, it is in this genre that he would prefer to achieve recognition, "but travel books are fun to do too," he says. At the beginning of his career, he had wanted to visit the Middle East and Africa; since travel books were the fashion, he shopped around for an editor who would finance at least part of his voyages. He was told that no one would take a chance on so vast an endeavour. "Why not choose one single country?" he was advised. He listened, and was soon sailing up and down the Nile with Egyptian acquaintances and poring over travellers' accounts at the British Council Library in Agouza.

It is there that he accidentally discovered -- Fate again? -- unpublished letters spanning a period of five months, which Florence Nightingale wrote from Egypt to her family in England. They had been privately compiled and edited by Florence's elder sister, Parthenope, to whom some of the correspondence was addressed. Florence's name was famous in England and Sattin realised that he had stumbled on a scoop. It did not take him long to launch himself in the task of selecting and editing the material, first published in Great Britain in 1987 by Barie & Jenkins Ltd., under the title Letters from Egypt, A Journey on the Nile, 1849-1850.

How does he see the future? There is a new novel to finish, and then, maybe, more travel. Of one thing he is certain, however: his love affair with Egypt is only just beginning.

Photos: Khaled El-Fiqi

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