Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 July 2000
Issue No. 490
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BOOKS: a monthly supplement of Al-Ahram Weekly

The betrayal of the antelope

Reviewed by Fayza Hassan

A Late Beginner
A Late Beginner, Priscilla Napier, reprinted Norwich: Michael Russell (Publishing) Ltd, 1999. pp261
A Late Beginner was first published in 1966, but it appears that few people in Egypt read it at the time. Recalling her early childhood, mostly spent in Egypt during the first World War, Priscilla Napier (then Hayter) provides invaluable insight into the lifestyle of a British official in the Egyptian government -- as seen through the eyes of his three-year-old daughter.

Those who grew up during the years of British occupation will find themselves on familiar ground, with the added advantage of a rare peek into the intimate lives of those who believed it their mission to rule the country.

Here are the little English children in muslin dresses and funny short trousers, strutting importantly around the Gezira Sporting Club, preceded by their stern starched nannies whose duty was to protect them from germs and contact with the natives. They are displayed by the narrator in all their arrogance and described with the insight and disarming simplicity of a child's mind. What did it mean to be part of the Empire in those days, the proud offspring of brave Christians soldiers who marched relentlessly onward and gave their lives to guide the heathens? What were the relations of these demi-gods to the countries of which they decided they were the masters? These are the questions that Napier addresses and, although her memoirs are burdened with several chapters about holidays in England and the dangers of sea travel in wartime, she provides fascinating answers to the students of the period, not only as to the way life appeared to them then, but as to how they came to think of it later.

Clearly, in the eyes of British civilians who had not been called for active service, a posting in Egypt was far less prestigious than an appointment to India or even to the Sudan. Sir William Hayter -- Priscilla's father -- a legal and financial adviser to the Egyptian government in the days of the Protectorate, may have resented the pettiness of his assignment less than his daughter did at the time, however. Comparing notes with her "Indian" cousins, she had little to boast about when they all met in various holiday spots in the summer. Life was rather calm on the rural island of Zamalek; the Ganges, unlike the Nile, offered many exciting opportunities to see corpses floating past at dawn, and walks with Nanny and the baby carriage held little excitement other than a chance meeting with other British children who lived in the neighbouring villas. School was an informal albeit elitist affair, conducted by one teacher, Miss Quibell, in one of the private homes, lasting two hours a day and leaving plenty of time on the hands of a three-year-old. This she spent watching as William Willcocks planted his grandchildren's gardens, mulling over household discussions of outside events, such as the riff-raff's unrest, which periodically affected the quarter of Em-Baba [sic], or experiencing the unpleasant disturbance the war brought to one's cozy routine: "But even on Egypt, even over fortunate families like ourselves whose fathers, in their late forties, were too old for military service, the war cast its gloom... Far too often my mother would disappear to work in a canteen or the hospital; there were Red Cross classes... My father seemed to have far too much evening work; it encroached on the sacred hour before bed... No longer did my parents come into the night nursery to show themselves off before dining with the Sultan in the Abdin Palace, she beautiful in a long sweeping dress of corn-coloured satin that set off her dark hair and eyes, he splendid in white tie and khedival orders that were irreverently known as Nile boils."

To make up for the nuisance, there were visits to the antelope, however, which was kept in the commander-in-chief's camp, halfway down Ibn Zanki Street, then a field of bersim surrounded by snake grass. The C-in-C, recounts Napier, was known to her as Edmund Allenby, a kindly, burly gentleman whose Christmas parties were supreme; when his soldiers were leaving on a mission to invade Palestine, they offered Priscilla and her sister Alethea the antelope, to keep as their own, to love and cherish in the way the liquid-eyed beauty had become accustomed to. Priscilla's parents were adamant, however. The soldiers would have to dispose of their mascot as best they could without the Napiers' help. The antelope, the little girl's new obsession, was to be abandoned to an uncertain destiny, as a new inmate of the zoo, they advised; clearly, they did not care what happened to it. "The Zoo at Giza was in a paradisal garden once devised by a millionaire pasha for a much loved wife [sic]. Spacious and shaded by enormous trees, its paths were mosaiced in bright curlicue patterns of black and red and yellow pebbles... Little Egyptian boys gibed at [the panther], threw peanut shells in through the bars of the cages, made sudden loud teasing sounds. There were moments when I hated the Egyptians and this was one. When they tore frogs and nestling birds in pieces at wayside railway stations, in order to induce European passengers to give them money to stop doing it; when out of nothing but love of exercising pride and power, they incessantly belaboured overladen donkeys who were going the right way anyhow as fast as they could manage; or when, as now, they taunted caged lions; I felt for them a deep belly-loathing, increased by the known futility of intervention. Nor did I reflect that the Egyptians had been more or less so treated themselves, over the centuries, by the Turks and others, and indeed by their own countrymen, and were not in general more cruel than other people." It was in these surroundings that Priscilla's parents had condemned the antelope to spend the rest of its living days and, resigned, the child soon gave up the fight and concentrated on more exciting things such as the conjuror at Allenby's Christmas party.

Normally, when neither antelopes nor caged lions were involved, Napier could not remember actively hating Egyptians: "Generally it was difficult not to like them and sympathise with them, so poor, engaging, voluble, and obtuse; haunted by rank misgivings and sustained by garish hopes unlikely of fulfilment." In fact she preferred them to other nationalities she encountered at the Gezira Club's swings, which provided her with a glimpse of what it was like not to be English and where gang warfare raged; "there were spoiled rich Syrians with pasty faces and sloe eyes against whom it would be a duty and a delight to pit one's wits. There were sudden swooping raids on the giant-stride, and the Greeks, who were cleverer than anyone else but torn by internecine strife, intrigued darkly behind the oleanders."

Revelling in the splendour of the establishments brought to the natives by Rule Britannia, she is prompt to hint subtly at their slight imperfections, resulting from their implantation in alien surroundings: "War or no war, the racing at Gezira went on as usual, and was perhaps the most English thing of all. There it all was, perfectly reproduced on an island in the Nile -- the grandstand, the judges' box, the paddock, the red-faced starter, the white painted wooden rails around the course, the coloured silks of the jockeys, the restless rich international faces, pallid or swart; the shouting, the beautiful bored women, the regimental band under the tree playing selections from The Gondoliers. The only trifling discrepancy was a cobra underneath the pari-mutuel. Never quite pinned down, it occasionally evidenced itself by inflicting lethal injuries upon successful punters."

Even more revealing is a conversation which took place between her mother and father in the summer of 1917 as the family travelled by train to a summer resort in the Delta run by Mr Tite and Mr Wright.

"'I sometimes think...' my mother said, 'that we could somehow do more for the poorest people, helping them, and the illiteracy?'

"'If they'd adopt Roman letters for everyday use of Arabic,' my father said, 'illiteracy would be no problem. After all, we gave up Roman numerals several centuries ago because they were so cumbersome, and took to Arabic ones. They could swap their letters without loss of face. To read and write in Arabic letters requires a fairly high degree of intelligence, certainly more than the majority have. It would be interesting to know what the literacy figures in any country using Arabic characters now are."

Leading a secure, comfortable life in a country that rarely showed an hostile face to strangers, Napier can happily declare: "Living in this country at this time... I am unable to believe that colonialism is at all times and in all places an evil thing. It is possible to fool an eight- or nine-year-old child about a great many things, but not about overt expressions of love or hate, and what the Egyptian countrymen overtly expressed at this time was love and friendship. Many of them were old enough to remember the miseries perpetuated by the rule of their own countrymen under the nominal suzerainty of Turkey, and they very much preferred ours[...] The older fellahin could remember the kourbash and the corv\ée, forced labour called upon at the sound of a whistle, and twenty lashes on the soles of the feet for whoever arrived last, and they appreciated justice, mercy and order and the men who administered it wherever they hailed from."

One can only reflect that Napier must never have heard of Dinshway. But with her father, she wished Egypt well: "'If only,' my father said, [...] they could have a real ruler of their own. Someone of world stature, bred on the banks of the Nile. It's too long since there's been one. Cleopatra was a Greek, descended from one of Alexander the Great's generals, Saladin was a Kurd, Mohamed Ali was an Albanian Turk.'" Her father, she wrote, loved Egypt, its people and their customs and was loved back by the ordinary men and women who appreciated his conviviality; unlike Nanny, who never trusted "those natives," as she called them in her conversations with other English nannies, he opened her eyes to the beauty of the country and the hopes in its people's hearts. Having posited that she came to love Egypt dearly, she has no qualms in singing an ode to colonisation and its perpetrators: "We walked now hand in hand, discussing the independence of Egypt. It was to be a country solvent, secure and free; with the fellahin earning a living wage for their unending labour, with no more bullying of the poor, with everyone equal before the law, no more selfish exploitation in the midst of misery. It was a dream to which he had cheerfully dedicated his life, more, in a characteristically English way, by accident than design [...] He had a giving nature, and he thought we had plenty to give to the Egyptians. Without self-righteousness, and without even much self-consciousness, he was a missionary for good government, regarding it as the beginning of the relief of misery. He and many like him were in some ways as selfless in their task as a missionary could be. It is true that they enjoyed the good things of Egypt, the winter climate and the cheerful willing servants and the lush perennial gardens and the splendours of the antiquities, but they also employed their excellent brains, not in self-enrichment, not in safety, not in comfort; but enduring long separations from home and family, a summer climate often lethal, strange diseases, strange foods and the certainty of straitened means at the end of it all, retirement on a small pension and probably ill-health. They had also the virtual certainty that everything they had done would be roundly abused at the receiving end." And so it was, but not for the reasons Napier has been able to fathom.

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