Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 September 2012
Issue No. 1113
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Once upon a time


OF ALL 20TH century Egyptian politicians, Ahmed Hassanein Pasha (1889-1946) stands out for his wide range of talents and accomplishments. Skilled fencer, Olympic contestant, pilot, explorer and writer, Hassanein walked with kings, consorted with scientists and gained recognition at home and abroad.

Born to an Azharite scholar, with close links to the royal family, Hassanein was sent to study in Oxford, where he distinguished himself in fencing. It may have just been a hobby but it catapulted him into national fame. As one of Egypt's top athletes, he participated in the Olympic Games three successive times -- 1912, 1920 and 1924. (The Olympic Games of 1916 were cancelled because of World War I).

Hassanein's adventurous streak surfaced when he made plans to explore the Libyan desert. In 1920, he teamed up with English explorer and writer Rosita Forbes in a perilous journey to the stronghold of the Senousies in the oases of Kufra, an area that had not been fully explored as yet.

In later travels, Hassanein discovered, or rediscovered, the "lost oases" of Gabal Al-Owinat and Gabal Arkenu in the Western Desert.

As an athlete, Hassanein failed to win any Olympic medals, but for his travelling passion, he was amply rewarded. The British Royal Geographic Society awarded him its prestigious Gold Medal, an honour not previously granted to any Egyptian or other Arab.

The story of Hassanein's geographical exploits is told in his 1923 book, The Libyan Desert. In this book, he notes that he was not the first explorer to reach Kufra. Another German, Gerhard Rohlf, conducted a similar trip in 1879. Unfortunately, he lost most of the papers containing his description of the trip.

Hassanein was better prepared than Rohlf, for he had two previous encounters with Idris Al-Senousi, Kufra's chief. He met Al-Senousi twice, in 1915 and 1917, once socially and the other time to discuss matters of border security.

It was during his stay in Kufra that he first heard the folklore stories about the "lost oases" which he later on managed to locate.

Once he set out to explore the desert route between the Mediterranean and the Sudan, Hassanein made sure that he had the best mapping technology of his time.

"When I came back from the first trip, I decided to go on a second trip, heading south through this unknown desert to the Wadi Al-Sudan. I was determined to conduct this second trip because in the first one all we had in terms of scientific equipment was a barometer and a compass. So I couldn't make a precise map of our journey, nor pin down the locations of the wells and the oases with the same precision taken by Rohlf," he said.

In 1922, King Fouad I authorised funding for Hassanein's biggest adventure, the trip through the Western Desert to the Sudan. By that time, Hassanein was becoming a role model for a new generation of ambitious young Egyptians. Daredevil, athletic, well-connected and headline-grabbing, Hassanein was a legend in the making.

For the man who was later on to become the tutor and chamberlain of Egypt's next ruler, King Farouk, the sky was the limit. Hassanein flew high -- and crashed twice. Piloting his own plane, alone, he crashed, once in Italy and one France. He then managed to fly all the way from Europe to Egypt, a first for an amateur pilot.

Hassanein walked with kings, consorted with writers, and during the early part of Farouk's role, was the power behind the throne.

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