Tuesday, April 1, 2008

History in the Making

I would have loved to tell you that I came across these articles, in the tradition of the great scholars of the old days, as I shuffled through the dusty Time archives here in New York. It would have made a much better story than "I stumbled across a link to Time Magazine's digital archive of every article they published from 1923 to today." Not as dramatic. But, its true.
Basically those are extended pieces on Mohamed Naguib in 1952 just after the revolution (blessed movement?, military coup? you pick), and King Farouk in 1951 just before it. They were both featured on the respective covers. I think these are fascinating pieces. The ability to basically go back in time and take a look at what people in a country that (at this time) had almost no interest or preconception about Egypt or Egyptians is just refreshing. Also, the fact that the Time is a weekly magazine makes its articles (especially at these days when news cycles were measured in months) somehow immune to spin and revisionist looks at history. Basically, men el a'7er ya3ni, this is what people thought about the events, and the people at the time.
So, what did they think?
Well, when it comes to the corruption of the royal family and the conditions of average Egyptians before the revolution, Nasser and Co. weren't as disingenuous as I thought they were (not to the same extent at least). Here is how the magazine describes what could have been called "The Two Egypts":

The ancient land of the Pharaohs last week lay drowsily under the parching sun, the Nile Delta a green lifeline beset by the hot brown desert. The river, swollen with the muddy waters from the Sudan and the Ethiopian mountains, as always carried life and hope; as they had for centuries, pregnant peasant women ate mud from its fertile banks, believing that it would make their unborn children strong. Yet even the Nile could not accomplish that miracle. In Egypt, two out of four children die before they are five years old, and the survivors are almost certain to be diseased. In fields which they do not own, 14 million fellahin (70% of Egypt's population) labor over crops whose fruit they will not eat, for wages (average 10¢ a day) which barely keep them alive.

They live in mud huts, sleep on reed mats, dress in rags, eat the bread of the poor (there are two types of bread in Egypt, the good white bread from Egypt's abundant wheat being available only to the rich).

Egypt's ruling class, as stupid, selfish and corrupt as any in the wor,ld, is unconcerned. This summer, as in every summer, the rich fled screeching, scorching Cairo and were relaxing in cool Alexandria or, like their King, on the Riviera. When they return to Cairo later in the fall, their womenfolk diamond-studded and sheathed in Parisian gowns, they will take up life in a small world of their own, which moves between exclusive clubs, theaters and palaces. They own most of Egypt's land, pay ludicrously small taxes.

(Somethings never change, especially the bread bit!)

Somethings were actually much more surprising (or at least unconventional), like for instance Naguib's willing to "settle differences with Israel" (Sigh- they were called "differences"!!)

...Dean Acheson let it be known that the price of U.S. arms aid to Egypt would be 1) Egypt's settling its differences with Israel, and 2) Egypt's joining the Middle Eastern Defense Organization proposed by the British. Naguib might possibly favor both proposals, in private...

The articles are both very highly recommended readings. If only to read such terms as "The Reds", "The desert rats", and "The Gyppos" mentioned in all journalistic seriousness, or to figure out why the Time nicknamed Farouk, the locomotive.

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