Lucie Duff Gordon’s Letters from Egypt (1st edition, 1865) reveal a woman in love with her adopted country, an Egypt that has changed in many ways since the 1860’s when she was writing to her husband Alick (Sir Alexander Duff Gordon) and her mother, Sarah Austin. In many others, it is the same, ancient land where injustice has reigned for centuries. The impact of Lucie’s letters, even after 146 years, is still profound. The first batch were reprinted three times in the first year of their publication (1865). Two more editions were published in 1875 and 1902, and a centenary edition in 1969. My (appropriately) well-worn ‘Virago Travellers’ copy is a 1986 reprint of the 1983 publication. The Letters‘ long-lasting, continuing popularity is justified, for despite my initial skepticism (having been put off by Frank’s biography and a fictional account of Lucie’s English lady’s maid Sally, Mistress of Nothing) because of her ‘upper class point of view’, I quite soon put aside my judgments of Lucie’s class and privilege as I drank in her absolute love of Egypt and its suffering people. The Egypt of Tuesday, November 11, 1862 (the date of the first letter in the 1983 edition) is one under the Pashas’ malign power. Egypt was a semi-autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire. The first ‘modern’ viceroy of Egypt was Muhammad Ali, followed by Said and then, Ali’s nephew Ismail (from 1863). British rule was yet to come; in fact, Lucie avers that many Egyptians (of several classes) were asking for British intervention, to help them out of their desperate plight.
Lucie’s picture of the brutal misery of the people, over taxed and forced into labor (the corvee--building the Suez Canal and other projects at the whim of the Pasha) is painful, even now, or especially now, in light of recent events and the peoples’ suffering under the Mubarak dictatorship. Then the French were hated as they were the financiers and builders of the canal. In her ‘new’ 1983 Introduction to the Letters, (the original introduction that of the famous English doyen of letters and family friend, George Meredith), Sarah Searight refers to the ‘unveiling of modern Egypt’ (to ‘the west’) as stemming from Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798; the accompanying French artist Dominique Vivant Denon provided extraordinary images; access to Egypt was largely unavailable till then due to the ‘prevailing anarchy’ of the Ottoman Empire.
I leave you to discover the fascinating details of Lucie’s journeys up and down the Nile, her stays in Luxor where she endeared the people to her by becoming their healer, her trials and tribulations, and her special devotion to her servant, Omar, the paramour of Sally (by whom she became pregnant), whose dismissal and disappearance is not remarked on; one supposes the daughter (Janet Ross) edited out any (?) references to the ‘scandal’.
Lucie’s Egyptian adventures all came about because she was forced to travel abroad to a warm country (in truth, a very hot one) to relieve the symptoms of TB, made worse by wet and cold British weather. It now seems an accident of sweet fate that she found herself and gained literary fame through her love of Egypt and its people. In today’s Egypt, she would may have had to evacuate, like my resident pal finally had to–but today she returns on the first flight back to Luxor, to the land she too has fallen in love with, that she has adopted and it, her. During the time of her brief exile we have seen events unfold, the powerful virus of revolution spread–The Freedom March across North Africa and into the Gulf states–and beyond, strangely reflected by the battle in Wisconsin USA to hold onto western democratic rights (“Our turn will come”, my husband says, ominously), to gather as a body to demand workers’ rights over capitalistic chicanery by big, brutal moneyed forces. We call these gatherings ‘unions’. The Misguided Right, funded by predatory corporations and bad governments, has attempted to turn the word ‘union’ into a bad word.
Words are such powerful tools; we have to constantly be on our guard to protect them, and those who dare to speak them. Free speech has been won at great cost by our ancestors; it is our duty to protect what they lived and in many cases, died for.
Each day, as The Freedom March has proceeded across North Africa and our TV and computer screens, I have been viscerally impacted. When they were battling for their rights in Tahrir Square in Cairo, I felt as if I were there with them, as a woman, beside the other women. In Libya, where I have never visited, it was at first harder to envision myself (unlike Tunisia and Egypt where I have spent time) and thus the despair, rage and pain I felt seemed at first not to be able to find a place to concretely ‘link to’. And then suddenly it happened: I was inside the houses with the women (there have been few images of women seen outside in the crowds, but some have been); I was one of them too, as they bravely opened their doors to let in and look after wounded strangers, the ‘pro-democracy protesters’, boys and men who could be their fathers, brothers, sons. And sometimes I went out with them, carefully. Many householders had (according to some reports) been gathering supplies, as they foresaw some of what was to come with the Egyptian uprising and revolution. They were somewhat prepared. Their sacrifice, both men and women, adults and children, is great. The fear is palpable; the determination even greater. They speak of a revolution that is about honour, the honour of the individual’s role in the state, of remaking the state with the blood and bodies and minds of the protesters. As their mangled bodies pile up in hospitals and morgues, are buried in hasty graves, some dug by Gaddafi forces to hide massacres, our common sense of Power to the People takes on a new note of urgency. And finally in the last few days and hours, ‘the international community’ through the United Nations has started to make its voice heard–our unified planetary human voice in fact as represented by the UN, an institution that many retrograde people (especially in the USA) have been trying to diminish and even destroy. Individual states have also raised their voices and imposed sanctions that hopefully will curtail the remains of the Gaddafi regime (and not the Libyan people at large). We can only hope that these diehards finally will see the writing on the wall and disperse, leaving Gaddafi and his ever declining circle of thugs isolated and ultimately available for the international justice for war crimes. That China and Russia (and Iran, as it was unanimous) also agreed to the UN statement is hypocritical but rather useful for future finger-pointing when their own peoples demand change.
The shared pain so many of us feel with regard to the uprisings and revolutions for democracy in Tunisia and Egypt (still very much ‘a work in process’ as we’ve seen in the last few days) and now Libya, as well as Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan and most recently Oman, is salutary. For many of us in the ‘democratic west’, our heroic ancestors won the rights of democracy long ago; we are watching the future heroic ancestors for those in North Africa and the Gulf States (and beyond). We don’t honour our ancestors sufficiently for the deeds of bringing us freedom from despotic rulers and regimes. By honouring the present democracy freedom fighters (and they all avow that aim for a civil society, one with democratic institutions) we help to rectify our remissness as it it brings the shock of recognition: it brings the world closer, and in particular it brings those of differing cultures and religions, especially Christians and Muslims, closer. Those on the far right (and far left although the latter doesn’t really exist any more in the west) who try to undermine democratic human rights, who for the sake of personal and corporate greed try to wrest those rights from ‘we the people’ (selling off public utilities and woodlands to the highest bidder for example) or want to have the advantage of crimepetitive capitalism (as my cousin Gary calls it) need to think again, look back in respect and renew their commitment to what makes life ‘in the west’ free–relatively speaking that is. There’s a level at which such a selfish citizen or entity is a little Ben Ali, Mubarak or Gaddafi: that member ‘of the public’ who wants the advantages that democratic taxation gives without paying for them or lazy types who want it all without putting in honest labour to deserve them; they end up being the same crazy selfish entity. The ‘democratic body politic’ will survive despite a certain number of aberrants, but when the boat tips with too many on board, we could drown in the open seas of crass materialism, gross, untrammeled uncontrolled capitalism and selfishness, so we’d best rethink nasty prejudices, all sides, as we watch the Freedom March across North Africa.
May the March proceed as the Ides of March approach….
Caesar, then Anthony after him will fall, when and who and what will replace them? Another tyrant like Augustus? Or a new body politic informed with wisdom born of the pain of revolution?