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 rest of the story is in the book. Even though I must say I do not recognise the brother I’ve known for 28 years in the Journal’s minder. I don’t recognise his syntax or his attitudes, but above all I don’t recognise the man whose ‘Egyptian limbs’ Mr Golding believes must have ‘quaked with an apprehension as old as the Pharaohs’ upon being ushered into the presence of the secretary-general of a provincial governate. Mr Golding himself, naturally, is above taking titles (and Egypt abounds in titles) seriously, yet he assumes that everybody around him believes in them to the point of ‘quaking’ in their presence. Assumes this upon no basis whatsoever. Except, of course, that he has a stereotype Egyptian in mind, one of whose traits is abject servility to authority. Another is the possession of an extended family.

In the Journal’s description of the day of sailing we have the Goldings mysteriously ‘taken with their suitcases to the boat’, where people start to turn up. Among these people are ‘the females of Ala’s apparently extended family’. Well, maybe Ala does have an extended family. But if he has, Mr Golding certainly hasn’t seen it. There were two females in this instance: myself and Soheir, Ala’s fiancée. The reason we were both there was that it had taken both our cars to get Goldings and suitcases from the Giza Sheraton to the Ma’adi Yacht Club. Far from turning up to gape at them, we had put aside concerns of our own to get them to their boat through the Cairo rush-hour traffic.

At one point in the Journal Mr Golding says: ‘the trouble with a storyteller is he can’t even grieve without watching himself grieving. Why expect truth from such a creature?’ But this is not a story-book. It’s a journal, a travel book, and the trouble with travel books is that their subjects/victims don’t normally get to read them, much less to give their version of what things were like.

There is, of course, a tradition of travel-writing that wishes to find itself at odds with its subject; to highlight the subject’s weirdness by insisting that the only normal behaviour is that of the author and – incidentally – his readers. But that is not the task that Mr Golding overtly sets himself. He sets out to ‘get to know’, to understand. From the beginning he is touchingly aware of the difficulties of his situation. He quotes an earlier author: ‘English go their way ... with their habit of looking “through” persons who do not interest them, and of waiting for friendship rather than going to seek it ... the British are the most foreign of all the foreigners in Egypt ... prevented ... by their temperament from assimilating themselves to the life of the country ...’ And finds himself in agreement:

It was true. I could feel a lifelong experience of being a particular sort of Englishman building up in me like a wall. It was more impervious than a wall of language. It was assumption and custom. And I was the one who had hoped that my book would not be about temples but about people.

And, naturally, one feels sympathy, admiration, even compassion for the elderly English gentleman, the distinguished author, the ex-naval officer and teacher, marooned, as it were, on the Hani with a crew who do the work as it comes up rather than in definable shifts and a ‘reis’ who advises him to ‘weave his sails of patience’. Marooned also in what he feels to be a false position: as well as being an experienced sailor, Mr Golding is a teacher, at one time by profession and perpetually by temperament. The Hani is not being sailed as he would have sailed her and, even as he watches, things go wrong. He is unable to assume the position of either captain or teacher because he speaks no Arabic: ‘This put me in the position of being a passenger,’ he complains. ‘A position in a small boat to which I was not accustomed.’ And if one were to be uncharitable, one might ascribe a lot of the chauvinistic sourness which informs this book to simple pique.

Both chauvinist and sour it surely is. Consider the tone of the following: Reis Shasli’s ‘face was black as the Nubian’s. It was well enough featured but mud-coloured from heredity and exposure.’ And on the same page: ‘Ma’adi is a nondescript suburb of Cairo.’ ‘Nondescript’ here must mean that Mr Golding is not willing to take the trouble to describe it, since anyone who has been to Cairo knows that in a dusty and over-built city, Ma’adi is a small paradise of trees, lawns and villas.

And yet chauvinism and sourness alone do not quite account for the complacency with which he delivers his off-the-cuff pronouncements. Upon seeing shrubs growing in painted kerosene tubs on the deck of a cargo boat, Golding remarks that ‘Egyptians don’t often go in for private gardens.’ How does he know? By casually glancing round the Sheraton area in Cairo? But Cairo, we are obliged to say again, is over-built, over-populated. The very few people who live in houses do have private gardens as, for example, in Ma’adi. The rest of us manage as best we can: we ‘go in for’ plants on balconies, stairs, living-rooms and kitchens. The meanest hut, the type that sits alongside a railway track, usually has some sort of trellis with ivy and bougainvillaea.

I may seem to be making a big fuss about a small point, but this sort of idle condescension ambles through the book: when one of the crew suffers a (recurring) kidney attack, Mr Golding kindly suggests that he should be put ‘on a train for Cairo, where we would get as proper treatment as was possible in Egypt’. Not quite up to the standards of Mr Golding’s local cottage hospital perhaps, but it would have to do. When he witnesses the spectacle of a young man returning to his village loaded with Western-type goodies after a stint working in an Arab oil country, Mr Golding comments on the ‘historical process which is remaking not just Egypt but the whole Arab world in one way or another, possibly for the better. It could not surely be for the worse.’ These throwaway summations sit uneasily next to the studied carelessness with which Golding, seeing a face wordlessly opening and shutting its mouth on a TV screen, ‘thinks’ it is Mubarak. The observant eye of the travelling journalist has somehow failed to notice the posters and portraits of the President plastered on every wall, so that, coming across him on TV he cannot quite – oh yes, it’s probably Mubarak!

Apart from all this, there is an inconsistency of attitude on the part of Mr Golding which is the fatal flaw at the heart of his expedition. Early on in the trip, the travellers come across an island: Fisher’s Island. Inquiring about its history they are informed that an Englishman, Mr Fisher, was given the island as a gift by its Egyptian owner whom he had insulted by refusing to eat with him. Mr Golding ponders this and decides that while ‘the Egyptian was a dislikable fool, Fisher was just dislikable.’

One need have neither sympathy nor respect for the Egyptian who gave away his island in return for an insult to see that throughout this trip Mr Golding has played the part of Fisher: he has accepted – even solicited – gifts which he does not value or even acknowledge. This is not, by the way, a reference to the numerous clumsy objets of bamboo or clay that people keep embarrassingly pressing into his unwilling hands.

One of the variety of Egyptians that Mr Golding wants – or thinks he wants – to meet is the peasant. Not formally, but in as ‘natural’ a way as possible. This, of course, is not easy to arrange. But towards the end of the trip, when the Goldings are back in Cairo and a trip to the Delta is being planned, Ala learns that one of his friends is having a domestic problem and is intending to visit his family in their village. The friend agrees to let Ala and Golding accompany him. How does Mr Golding view this? He considers that ‘Ala has killed two birds with one stone. I needed to have a glimpse of the Delta and the Doctor needed to see his family’ – he, in effect, sees himself as giving ‘the Doctor’ a lift home. He does not see that the man has done him the supreme courtesy of allowing him into his parents’ home to witness the family at a moment of crisis. And why? Out of friendship for Ala and out of respect for Golding the writer, because the friend is himself a man of letters, a teacher, a writer and critic. But of course that’s in Arabic and doesn’t count. Anyway, Mr Golding has nothing to be grateful for since he got nothing out of the visit. He sums it up: ‘The patriarch and his piles, a grandfather wounded in his self-esteem by his grand daughter! The mother more bitter than anxious, the father no more concerned than the others, the educated son, smoothing things down and persuading everyone to do nothing.’ He has missed the entire point of the domestic crisis surrounding a threatening police visit to the family because their daughter has taken part in a student demonstration in Cairo. And he fails to do justice to his host’s mother: ‘tiny in black, with wrinkled yellow face’, who ‘shared her kitchen with a goat’ and managed to say, after almost two thousand years of oppression: ‘We shouldn’t make too much fuss about it. It’s really rather honourable to take part in a protest.’

Blindness to what is right there before his eyes leads Golding to ignore what must have been his best opportunity to ‘meet the Egyptians’. He had on the boat a crew containing as representative a cross-section of Egyptian society as he could ever have hoped for: Rushdi – cook, musician, comedian, teacher of invented hieroglyphics and improviser of verses, a student of commerce waiting to be called up by the Army; Said – the old Nubian who had served with the British and hated them but was won over by a joke and ended up saying, ‘English troubles all long past’; Reis Shasli – the old Minyan with two wives and a conjugal feud on his hands; Faroz – the young man of the star-sprinkled track-suit and the resplendent robes; Ahmad – the engineer about whom we learn nothing at all and whose name is consistently mis-spelt ‘Akhmet’, possibly because it feels more Pharaonic that way; and Ala.

Mr Golding is busy keeping his distance from rather than getting close to his subject. He confesses that ‘the fact was – and I here put it down in black and white – I was shy.’ This is quite engaging. It is followed by a discussion of whether an exact equivalent of the word ‘shy’ is to be found in other European languages. A discussion from which Mr Golding concludes that shyness is a peculiarly English trait. It never occurs to him to ask – or even to wonder – whether Arabic contains a word for shyness? (It does.) And whether people might therefore have understood his predicament.

Towards the end of the Journal Mr Golding ruefully accepts that ‘whatever I wrote would not be about Egypt, it would be about me, or if you like, us middle-class English from a peaceful bit of England, wandering more or less at will through infinite complexity.’ This is honest. And had Mr Golding been true to himself and stayed with Pharaohs, the geological formations, the wild life and the marvels of sailing, we would certainly have got a much more informed and informative book.

It is only fair to say that having received Ala’s detailed comments on the MS, Mr Golding removed some of the more blatantly offensive material. But what remained was bad enough for my brother to withdraw his photographs from Faber. He could not, honourably, ask for his name to be deleted, even though he is now vulnerable to attack from the more severe of our compatriots for having opened doors and smoothed paths which have only led to our being made the subject of yet another wrong-headed and patronising account by a Western passer-through.