An egyptian journal, p.1
An Egyptian Journal, p.1William Golding
An Egyptian Journal
About the Author
Essays by William Golding
By The Same Author
ἁλίων Τρίτωνες ὑδάτων
καὶ Νειλῶται γλυκυδρόμοι
τα γελῶντα πλεοντες ὑδάτη,
τὴν συγκρισιν ἐίπατε, φιλοι,
πελαγους Νείλου τε γονίμου
P.Oxy.III.1903, no. 425, p. 72
(For translation see here)
The genesis of this book has been peculiar and its aim in doubt. For the last sixty years I must have read every popular book that anyone ever wrote about Egypt. In common with my generation I found a deep and so to say natural attachment to things not so much just Egyptian as Ancient Egyptian. Perhaps for us all, the supposed immobility of ancient Egypt stood over against the change which is the experience of daily life. This was not quite a yearning for a lost paradise but it was certainly a yearning for something or other. Perhaps we could divide the children of that generation into those who read Conan Doyle for choice and those who read Rider Haggard. The concept is attractive. You can, by falsifying the nature of both men somewhat, put them at opposite ends of a spectrum. On the one hand, we have the creator of that egotistical male, Sherlock Holmes, and on the other hand we have the creator of She Who Must Be Obeyed. Here we have set up as an ultimate the logic of deduction, there we have Mystics Who Know and do not Need To Reason. And so on. It would not do, of course, for Conan Doyle was the one who ended up looking at photographs of little girls in Art Nouveau costumes and believing they were fairies. We may be simplistic but life isn’t. Nevertheless there was in the two men a tendency towards one rather than the other of two worlds.
Haggard, of course, was hooked on the mystery of Darkest Afric. Of this mystery Egyptian history was no more than an extension. His novels The Moon of Israel, The World’s Desire and Cleopatra either imported or recognized what was implied in our view of ancient Egypt – the mystery of magic, the presence of gods, the power of a priesthood, the attraction of ancientry, the glamour of kingship. Then into this partly realized connection between us and them was stirred a catalyst, the excitement, the hullabaloo, the world interest of Tutankhamun’s tomb.
Now though I read Conan Doyle when he came my way, I did not buy him and I did not borrow him even from the library. But on Haggard I would spend my all, walk miles for one of his books, read and reread without end. I still think he has scenes of an overwhelming power. C. G. Jung, in the days when not just a diminishing group of addicts but everyone took him seriously seemed to give Haggard a validation. He cited She Who Must Be Obeyed as the archetype of the Anima.
But to us as children and adolescents what was Egypt to be? The young Farouk was to be seen on a stamp, unlikely looking heir of the pharaohs. There was the administration of Egypt by Great Britain, such a benefit to the place. There were the papyri. There were the biblical connections. There were in every museum some of the anthropomorphic, the mummiform coffins that stared at us with all the awesomeness of death, magic, terror, mystery. Yet the official source of all our views of ancient Egypt came by way of archeologists who were just beginning to use science and adopt a wholly rational approach to it – science and rationalism in the service of magic and mystery! It was a great confusion.
My childhood’s stance, then, was romantic though terrified, even a bit religious though pagan. Mummies, the mere thought of mummies, put ice on my skin, but at the same time I could more readily believe in Ra, Isis and Osiris than in the Trinity. To me the contradictions of Egyptian beliefs were not implausible; or rather, since they were religious beliefs, contradictions were just what I had come to expect.
Yet all the time, as far as the adult world was concerned my preoccupations were with the rationally explored and logically treated discoveries of scientific archeology! This was a tension of which I was only partly aware and which died a natural death as I grew older and was more caught up in life and love around me than in an imaginative dialogue with death and magic.
And yet – !
It would be going too far to say that I felt myself to be an ancient Egyptian. But I felt a connection, an unusual sympathy. It became, absurdly enough, a feeling of responsibility as if I owed the country something though I had never been there. There is even the possibility that this book is an unsuccessful attempt to pay that debt.
So there remained a link with ancient Egypt in me until past my middle years. It was only then – and about ten years before the publication of this book – that my wife and I made our first visit to Egypt. Why so late? At any time in the previous twenty years we could have gone. But there had turned out to be so many interesting things to do, so many other countries to visit, such boats to sail, such money, such reputation to be chased….
Nevertheless, at last go we did and I found that the Egypt of the mind simply did not exist. I had to rearrange everything. Egypt was more – much more! Even the archeologists were not what I had supposed. For instead of being the rational creatures I had anticipated they were as crazily imaginative and as well disposed to the Mystery as any child could have wished sixty years earlier. When, for example, the question arose of a dear lady who believed herself to have been a priestess of a particular temple, they did not dismiss her as a crackpot but agreed that she had something.
Then – well, a year ago – I was approached and asked to write a book on Egypt. The prospect of another visit to Egypt but this time with a Minder who spoke the language (what our Victorian forebears would have called a ‘courier’) was attractive. But I had no particular view, had no axe to grind, had read widely but not deeply. I pointed out to the publishers that the book could not be authoritative. To my surprise they were aware of this. It was to be, I found, a book about me as much as about Egypt. It would contain photographs, mostly photographs of the country but some of me.
This seemed to be the perfect assignment. We discussed methods. I had an idea which seemed plausible. The last time my wife and I had been in Egypt the greatest difficulty and danger we had faced was to get rooms in hotels. I was, or had been, a sailor. I sailed in my youth, spent the war years in the navy, some of them in command, spent more years after the war teaching sea cadets to sail. After that I sailed my own boat on the north coast of Europe and topped the lot off as unpaid hand in my son’s canal boat. Then why not hire a boat, a yacht on which we could live, proceeding up and down the Nile, stopping off at such places of interest as Oxyrhynchus and Abydos; and mingling light-heartedly with live Egyptians instead of dead ones. For during our previous visit I had come to 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. The tourist (and I was not quite that) who has limited time and money may w
I flew out to Egypt for forty-eight hours to find a boat. In this I was not so much helped as carried by the young Egyptian gentleman, Mr Alaa Swafe, who was to be our Minder. There were very few boats available. The concept of private persons travelling on the Nile in a hired boat and not as one of a tour was, if not new, at least unusual. We searched the waterfront at Cairo with growing despair. I quote from my journal.
The boats were awful. There weren’t many of them. Perhaps Alex would have been a better place but I had some delusion that Cairo would have river boats. I suppose some vague picture of possible luxury was floating about at the back of my mind. ‘The barge she sat in’ and all that. But the boats were either plastic skimming dishes or rotting old houseboats where the decaying curtains were pulled apart by their own weight and carpets under foot squelched with water from the bilge. The hire price averages £250 (E) a day.
I had a gloomy lunch with our bilingual Minder. ‘There’s one boat left,’ he said at last. ‘It’s up river a mile or two at Ma‘adi. I don’t even know if she’s for hire.’
Of course that was the one we hired finally. She belonged to Dr Hamdi and we came to an arrangement. The boat (named Hani after Dr Hamdi’s son) looked a bit more solid than the skimming dishes [see plate]. She wasn’t over-engined as they tended to be. There was a central space containing the galley and a console of controls. There were two cabins with four berths in each. There was a fo’c’sle for two. There were also two toilets, or ‘heads’ in naval parlance. If my account were to be relentlessly factual those heads would loom as large and important as any Egyptian ruin that ever was. But at first sight they seemed all right. After all, I thought, if anything nasty happens – it always does in boats – we could get out and walk or take a train.
I flew back to England a few hours after I had left it. I was immediately caught up in a whirlwind of controversies, interviews, parties and publications which I need not go into here. But Egypt and the boat and the book became more and more uneasily part of a twingeing background. As the days slid away and the fact that we were actually going came nearer and nearer I was overcome with a feeling of sheer folly. I was seventy-two. I did not need the money. I had awful memories of dirt and helplessness. Yet here I was engaged to fill an as yet empty book. Determinedly then I set to and planned what I would do. I should expand the experience of Egypt beyond the valley – visit the Red Sea coast – try to get there through the desert, the Desert, the DESERT! It was a breath-stopping concept. I rummaged among my books.
… Where the soldier of a hundred years ago was buttoned up tightly in thick uniform, the modern resident of Egypt seeking comfort wears thin white cotton or silk clothing, consisting of shirt, trousers and jacket, white canvas boots with thick soles and a light but inch-thick pith sun-helmet, possibly with a further protection against the sun in the form of a spine-pad inside the jacket. The only vulnerable spot is then the eye….
Well, I knew better than that, at least. Also we had thoughtfully decided to go in February when on the one hand we should benefit from the mild Egyptian winter and on the other miss at least some of the fierce English one. We should come back when the flowers were in bud and the cuckoo cucking.
Then I fell sick and the date of departure moved on me through a maze of more interviews, sittings, doctors, parties meant to honour but sources of desperate strain. During increasingly wakeful nights I began to plan ahead, feverishly. Preface? I would have no preface, thus saving time, money and exertion. I would have no index because – well, because it wasn’t going to be that kind of book so out with the index! After that, the bibliography might as well go too and for what I consider a plausible reason. This was literally journalism and journalists protect their sources. Farewell then Gilson, Major Charles, and Balls, Mr W. Lawrence, adieu Maspero, Professor Gaston Camille, and Gautier, M. Theophile – I wrote a list of subjects and I decided precisely how I would treat each. Really, I was planning to write the book without needing to go to Egypt at all. Confused, more and more convinced that I should find too little to write about, I saw myself creating most moving soliloquies in the desert, particularly in the more neglected sites. Bending down, I would detect, sticking out of sand the corner of a roll of papyrus – or pretend I had detected.
The day of departure came inexorably. We took far too much clothing in three large suitcases. We took too few books. I was obsessed with the horrors of Cairo Airport. I could not find Plutarch’s account of the story of Isis and Osiris and this seemed a disaster. For I felt I should not be able to verify certain quotations. When fit and well I don’t verify quotations. However good and beautiful a phrase or sentence may be in its original place, the unverified version has an additional beauty which it derives through tumbling about for a generation or two in the mind. Moreover an unverified quotation is always apter to the new context than the original stuff would be by reason of a nice derangement of epitaphs which is the operation of the unconscious, holy be its name! Yet now I feared to make a mistake and must therefore have been really sick. Then again, there were the sixty photographs with which the book was to be littered and thickened. I had never been in the position of writing a book which would be illustrated with photographs and did not know what I was supposed to do about it. Would someone photograph what I had written? Should I write about what had been photographed? Should we ever meet? Ought we not do the thing together? Would it not be better – a seductive thought, this one – to leave all the writing until the photographer had finished? Would it not be better if I confessed to the frivolity attendant on the advance of old age?
We landed and passed through the ‘horrors’ of Cairo Airport in five minutes flat. We were wafted. Our Minder met us and drove us straight to the Sheraton in Giza.
All the same, when he left us, the complex of minor irritants that Egypt provides you with even in the most luxurious surroundings presented itself again. The traffic was thicker than before and even more hysterical. Even with the double-glazing of our room we suffered once more that whining, parping, screeching, howling disharmony which is the background to life in Cairo. Neither of us could come by sleep. Perhaps we tried too hard. The traffic, oh the traffic! It was like a fever. There is a period, and only one, lasting about an hour in the early morning when the noises cease as if something has been turned off. With common and unspoken consent we got out of our beds, opened the French windows on to our balcony and stood looking down at the Nile where it glimmered among the high-rise buildings. The corniche that lay beside it and beneath us was empty. Then a solitary little red car came along the corniche and it was parping fretfully.
‘He’s lonely,’ said Ann. ‘He can’t stand the silence.’ The car passed below us still parping in the direction of the pyramids. Faintly from over on the island of Zamalik a voice began to cry. It was a muezzin. Soon his voice was joined by others.
‘Remember?’ Once we stayed in a hotel on Zamalik. The concourse or rather convocation of muezzins had not annoyed me but brought on a fit of piety. I had got out of bed and tried to write down my impressions. Now I carefully closed the French windows on them.
‘We shan’t be bothered with muezzins where we’re going. I’ve decided we’ll tie up by the bank in deep country. We’ll see towns during the day and press on during the evenings. Of course, when we have tied up alongside we may very well be able to stroll about in waterfront villages before we turn in….’
I suppose we got a bit of sleep before next day. We spent most of the morning turning three suitcases into two. After that, we went to have a quick preliminary look at the boat which Ann had not yet seen. She lay alongside a pontoon that was reached by a catwalk. We did not stay long since there were a number of apparently shy persons who stood up when we came near and then sat down again. Nor did we go on board but stood on the pontoon a
Somehow it seemed improper to go on board, as if we were not yet entitled. More than that, I found myself becoming more and more incredulous of the fact that we were actually going to put ourselves, at our age, into a boat again and allow some strange people whose language we did not speak to convoy us. We came away and the strangeness of the circumstances seemed emphasized by a most extraordinary tree. It was average size for a tree but the flowers were enormous. It was only after close examination and a few double takes that we realized we were looking at our first banana tree in bloom. The farce of the situation seemed emblematic. I dare say if you look you can find a banana tree in bloom at Kew. Then we went back to the hotel and prepared for our evening party by spending the afternoon in bed.
At Dr Hamdi’s sumptuous flat we were shown photographs of reclamation work and we were video’d. We met various police who were active in various Middle Eastern countries. We met some teachers, school and university. It was at this party that our Minder and Dr Hamdi discovered that they were not too remotely related. Dr Hamdi made it clear (in order I suppose to relieve me of any feeling of responsibility) that our Minder Alaa Swafe, was in charge of the boat. This put me in the position of being a passenger, a position in a small boat to which I was not accustomed. Still, there was no denying that without Arabic I should not have been able to take charge of the boat in a proper manner. In any case I had to accept the position whether I wanted to or no.
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