Passing through

Ahdaf Soueif

  • An Egyptian Journal by William Golding
    Faber, 207 pp, £12.95, July 1985, ISBN 0 571 13593 5

About ten years ago, on a previous visit to Egypt, William Golding arrived at ‘a simple truth: that Egypt is a complex country of more-or-less Arab culture and it is outrageous for the uninformed visitor to confine himself to dead Egyptians while the strange life of the valley and the desert goes on all round him.’ This time, therefore, it was going to be different: the Goldings would hire a boat on which they would live, ‘proceeding up and down the Nile, stopping off at such places of interest as Oxyrhynchus and Abydos; and mingling lightheartedly with live Egyptians instead of dead ones’.

The boat, the Nile, the places of interest, but most of all the Egyptians fail to fulfil these idyllic expectations. The boat is old and keeps kaputing, the Nile is often ‘exactly like the Thames’ or is a ‘muddy ditch’ and ‘disease-ridden’ into the bargain, the places of interest are OK as far as such things go but are better looked at in books. Worst of all are the Egyptians: they stare (be it benignly) at the traveller, they build their houses at wrong angles and heap up rubble in village streets, they play Arab music and they pepper their talk with proverbs. Far from mingling lightheartedly with them, Mr Golding appears to spend most of his trip trying to avoid catching their eye. He is at his most imaginative and sympathetic when contemplating phenomena or events conspicuous for their emptiness of natives – live ones, that is – and the pervading feeling is that Egypt is too good for the Egyptians. A true Egypt would be depopulated: an Egypt of historical, geological and botanical interest, where the kingfishers and mock Ibis hunt their patches of the river and donkeys gambol happily on the shore, their backs for ever unburdened.

Here I must come clean and admit that one of the Egyptians frustrating Mr Golding on his trip up and down the Nile is very close to me: Ala Swafe, the Goldings’ ‘minder’, is my brother, though he chooses to transliterate his name differently. I myself had, I confess, a hand in setting the whole disastrous thing up when Faber, having first tried to arrange the trip through a travel agent, decided they were getting nowhere and asked if I could help. The author of Free Fall had been one of the heroes of my 16th year. I now read his essay on Egypt in A Moving Target and liked it. Two weeks before it was announced that Golding had won the Nobel Prize Faber arranged for me to meet him and Mrs Golding at their home in Wiltshire. I took to them both and agreed to help. Faber nervously brought up the ‘question of, uh, recompense’, but I, foolish Egyptian, waved it aside: it was a gift.

I spoke to my brother, about whom a couple of words are now necessary. Ala is an electronics engineer who had been working for two years with a multinational oil service company. He had just resigned because he had hated the life and the ideology of the industry. He wanted to live in Egypt among Egyptians and he wanted to do something which ‘mattered’. So he was in the process of setting up a small, radical publishing house. He had, of course, read Lord of the Flies, and now its author was interested in Egypt. Interested, moreover, in the ‘right’ kind of way: in the 42 million live Egyptians etc. Ala was willing to take six weeks to escort Golding and show him the country and the people. We agreed that although the deal was a commercial one it was still a ‘good thing’ and therefore he would only charge Faber the standard courier daily fee plus expenses. Everything else (which was plenty) would be freely given.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in