Colonial footprints in Egypt

Influence: Western leaders and armies have left an impression on the country.

February 17, 2002|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

Cairo, EGYPT - There was a time when the Americans and the British didn't give a hoot what the Egyptians thought of them. The British were a colonial power, essentially in charge of the country, although there was an Egyptian king. The Americans were hardly a presence until World War II's battles against the Germans brought their armies here.

Later, after the 1952 revolution that toppled the Egyptian monarch and led to the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser, America began to fill some of the vacuum in foreign interest. When that relationship went sour, Nasser turned to the Soviet Union and built an abiding monument to his fury at the Americans. He used some of the American money he had left in his coffers to build a 550-foot-tall tower on the bank of the Nile, facing the United States Embassy. People who know what Nasser had in mind call it the Finger Tower.

The monument is formally known as Cairo Tower. The tower is still there. It has a revolving restaurant and observation points that offer spectacular views of Cairo.

Passing by the tower last week brought to mind an entertaining but illustrative entry I had come across from the World War II diary of Hermione, the countess of Ranfurly. She was an English noblewoman who had come to the Middle East when her husband, Daniel Knox, earl of Ranfurly, was sent here to fight in the war. He was taken prisoner after the Battle of Tobruk. She stayed on in Egypt, working as a secretary for the secretive British Special Operations Executive and became one of the social lights of the city.

In December 1943, Gen. George Patton, the blustery American World War II commander, arrived in Cairo for a Christmas rest from the front. He was in some trouble for having slapped an enlisted man, and, as it turned out, his treatment of the Egyptians would be true to character.

Lady Ranfurly's diary tells what happened. "General Patton of the U.S. Army and his nice Aide, Colonel Codmann, have come to stay at General Jumbo's Mess. The General is tall, with a rugged face and manner. He wears battledress with boots and gaiters. It is said that recently when visiting a hospital in North Africa he hit an American soldier and called him a coward. None of us knows the rights and wrongs of this but the American press have made much of the supposed incident and it seems probable that the General has come here to let the story die down.

"Yesterday I was asked to take General Patton shopping as he wanted to buy presents for his family in America. On our return for lunch he asked me to find someone to show him the antiquities of Cairo, `I'll need an expert - someone who knows exactly what he is talking about,' he said."

She arranged for a highly regarded Egyptian professor to give Patton a tour of Cairo's phenomenal antiquities.

"The General arrived very late at Shepherds Hotel and after introductions the General asked the Professor what he was going to show him. `First we will visit the mosques' began the Professor - but he got no further.

" `Now, Professor,' roared the General. `NO, NO, NO. I don't want to see any of your Goddam mosques. I've seen enough of the darn things in Tunisia to last a lifetime. I guess we'd best go see the Sphinx.' There was an agonizing silence and then the Professor announced he knew nothing of the Sphinx. He was angry, but so was the General. `Well, Professor, then I guess you'd best go home,' he said."

The infuriated Egyptian demonstrated his indignation with a prolonged gastric wind, "turned on his heel and departed."

"I rang the Professor who was furious. I could hardly deliver our apologies and for all of 20 minutes he unleashed his opinion of what he thought of the inhabitants of the United States of America. Then he slammed down the telephone."

The professor is unnamed, but if he survived long enough after the war to witness the erection of Nasser's Finger Tower, I expect he might have found it a perfect place to respond to the Islamic call to prayer.

Lady Ranfurly was a product of a different, carefree and careless time.

She died a year ago this month at the age of 87. Her obituary in the London Daily Telegraph drew from a book she published in 1994 called To War With Whitaker. Whitaker was the family butler. She describes Lord Ranfurly's conversation with the butler the day his lordship was called to serve in the war, assuming his butler would accompany him.

"Whitaker sat there looking fat and rather red and he said: `To the war, my lord?' and Dan said `Yes.' And Whitaker said `Very well my lord,' as though Dan had asked for a cup of coffee." And off they went to war, the lord and his servant.

Vestiges of the colonial experience still exist in Cairo. One of them is the Gezira Club, once the exclusive domain of the British colonial inhabitants of the city. It took up a large piece of property, which must be the envy of Cairo's voracious real estate developers these days. In that time, Egyptians were not allowed to enter the plush club, where Englishmen played polo while their ladies sat in the shade. Now there are said to be as many as 26,000 members, most of them Egyptians, many of whom have made huge fortunes while most of the country wallows in poverty.

They are the new lords here, but at least they are Egyptian.

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